DN 26 Cakkavattisīhanāda is a rich sutta with many extraordinary features. But by far the most momentous feature of the text is the introduction of the Buddha Metteyya. While it is, of course, assumed as a basic principle of Buddhology that Buddhas appear from time to time in the past and future, here we have a concrete story, with names and details.
The name Metteyya is usually associated with mettā, and regarded as the Buddha of love. Sweet as this is, it is mistaken. The word metteyya in Pali means ‘maternal piety’, i.e. treating one’s mother with due respect. It is used repeatedly in this sense in the discourse before being mentioned as the name of the Buddha. Filial piety is one of the virtues that enables the flourishing of humanity that culminates with the appearance of the Buddha. More than that: it is part of the very last set of qualities, the culminating virtues that enable the perfect society.
Now, paying due respect to mothers is a beautiful virtue, which is associated purely with kindness and love. And human sacrifice, of course. What? You’ve never died for your mother? What kind of piety is that?
In Thailand, young men will, as a rite of passage, ordain for a short time as a monk. As has been well documented, the ordination ritual mimics in important ways a funeral rite: the one who ordains dies and is reborn in their new life. This is of course a profound part of the spiritual journey. But if you ask temporary monks why they ordain, they’ll usually tell you: to make merit for my mother.
Such are the echoes and vestiges of sacrifice that are preserved in modern customs. I’m from a Christian background, so I’m used to eating the actual flesh of a dead god, nailed to a post, as my central religious ritual.
There’s nothing hugely mysterious about all this. Life and death are two sides of the same coin. Mythology and ancient rituals are not about passing an ethical or philosophical judgment about such matters, but about embodying and participating in them. It is about recognizing that birth and death go hand in hand; the the act of giving life is nothing unless life is taken also.
You’re probably thinking, what has this to do with the Buddha Metteyya? Surely it’s a reach to get from a name to human sacrifice. You’re right, it’s probably nothing, I’m sure. Still, it won’t hurt to have a little look, will it?
I won’t go over the whole myth in detail. Most of it is pretty much what you might expect in an idealized depiction of society built according to Buddhist values. But as a student of myth, you get used to poking around in the dark corners, pulling on obscure threads until they unravel. And you get sensitive to the appearance of the irrational, poking up awkwardly in a rational, ethical narrative.
Before Metteyya is mentioned, a king arises, named Saṅkha. As a wheel-turning monarch, his career echoes that of so many others. But there is one passage that is strikingly unusual. The only unique and characteristic feature of this king is that he rebuilds the yūpa of the former king Panāda. Now, in the translations by Rhys Davids and Walshe, yūpa is mistranslated following the commentary as “palace”.
But that is not what it means: it means “sacrificial post”. It was a decorated pillar to which the sacrificial victims were led and tied. I have discussed this in a previous post, and here is an image of a yūpa:
Note the presence of the horse. This is, in fact, a depiction of the Horse Sacrifice, and you will note the image of the Queen on the reverse side, in her role as mother of the realm. During the ritual, she has intercourse—real or simulated—with the dead horse. That’s not the weird part. The weird part is that this happens entirely in public, while she is maintaining a ritualized bawdy exchange with the priests of the sacrifice, describing the act in detail.
Okay, so Saṅkha resurrects the sacrificial post of King Panāda. Why he does this is not mentioned. Panāda is mentioned as a king of the past in Thag 2.22, so his post was really old. But what is noteworthy is that it is literally a resurrection of ancient rites of kingship. Even though the horse sacrifice is not mentioned in the sutta, the description of the wheel-turning monarch is clearly modeled after the Brahmanical model of kingship, the highest ritual of which was the horse sacrifice.
I mentioned that the commentary says the yūpa is actually a palace. While this is a mistake—the description in the verses at Thag 2.22 are clearly a sacrificial post—it is an instructive one. One of the key features of myth is that it is told and retold until the tellers no longer understand the meaning. Lacking context, and fearful of the irrational, they invent new backgrounds and events, giving a rationalizing and ethicizing context to a story of much darker and more fetid roots.
Nevertheless, though the exegetes try to present the text as a purely rational one, illustrating a “moral”, they cannot prevent the irrational, which clings to the story, irrupting when least expected.
The verses of King Panāda occur not just in the Theragāthā, but also in the Jātakas, at Ja 264, where again the English mistranslates yūpa as “palace”. But the rabbit hole goes deeper, for that Jātaka mostly tells of events in the Buddha’s day, referring the reader to Ja 489 Suruci for the story of the past. That is quite a long story, so I won’t detail it here. But it is a fertility myth about a queen who cannot give birth. Eventually she conceives with divine intervention; her son is literally the son of God. This is the boy who will grow up to become King Panāda.
The problem with Panāda is that he is no fun. The great ceremony for his consecration goes on for so long, the people complain. But it cannot finish until the prince smiles. The King and Queen pull out all the stops, employing all manner of entertainers to make him smile, all to no avail. The whole passage is extraordinary, but I will just mention one detail here. Here is the passage, lightly modified from the old translation.
Then came two senior jugglers, Bhandu-kanna and Pandu-kanna, and say they, “We will make the prince laugh.” Bhandu-kanna made a great mango tree, which he called Unparalleled, grow before the palace door: then he threw up a ball of rope, and made it catch on a branch of the tree, and then up he climbed into the Mango Tree. Now the mango tree Unparalleled they say is [the Divine King] Vessavana’s mango . And the slaves of Vessavana grabbed him and chopped him limb from limb, and threw down the bits. The other jugglers joined the pieces together, and poured water upon them. The man donned upper and under garments of flowers, and rose up and began dancing again. Even the sight of this did not make the prince laugh.
I don’t know if seeing a man dismembered before your eyes would make you laugh, but hey, maybe they had a different sense of humor back then. The crucial role of humor here is fascinating. It represents, once more, the irrational, the surrender to lower impulses. When, later on, the prince finally is amused, he manages only a slight smile, while everyone else, bereft of mindfulness, is literally rolling around the floor in hysterics.
But here we have all the elements, barely disguised, of the classical Frazerian tree-sacrifice cycle. The tree is explicitly divine. The mango is a classic Indian symbol of fertility, and is associated elsewhere in the Jatakas with the same mythic cycle. The fool is the figure of the irrational, the reduced and comic victim of the sacrifice. He is a watered-down substitute for the king or the god who is the true victim of the sacrifice. But the sacrifice is not carried through, as he is resurrected after his death on the tree; thus the myth is already at several levels of remove from its grisly origins.
King Vessavana is a yakkha, that is, a native deity worshiped in ancient India. You know who else is a yakkha? Panāda. He’s mentioned in DN 20 and DN 32. Not much detail is given, but in both cases he is loosely associated with Vessavaṇa. In any case, from a mythic perspective Panāda the mythic king and Panāda the deity are the same entity. In the old days, or in some places not so old, kings and gods were pretty much the same thing. In all probability, there was an ancient cult of human sacrifice for this deity, who may or may not have originated as a historical king, and what we have here are a few broken relics, sticking jaggedly out of the ground like fossils in the desert.
Thus the ascension ritual of King Panāda relies on the ancient method of ensuring power via human sacrifice. The mango tree is just a symbolic variant of the sacrificial post; or rather, the post, as an artificial construct, is a substitute for the older use of a tree on which to hang or tie the human or animal victim.
This is the post that is resurrected by King Saṅkha. After completing this, he gives it away, goes forth under Metteyya Buddha and becomes awakened.
And that, my friends, is why mythology is so incredibly cool.