On the gandhabba and male anxiety

MN 38:26.2, the Great Discourse on the Ending of Craving, famously say that a gandhabba must be present for conception to take place. It’s such a curious detail it has prompted much study and discussion, including several essays by myself.

I first developed these ideas in this post, with a supplementary quote following. Yet there seems something unsatisfactory about it all, so I am having another go. This essay mostly builds on the previous ideas, but I can now establish a much more complete and coherent picture.

The Buddhist tradition is content to offer a rationalizing explanation: it is the being about to be born, driven by its kamma. Okay, fine, but why gandhabba? It’s such an odd choice!

The major problem is that this idea appears in MN 38, which is a doctrinal discourse dealing with dependent origination. So from the context it seems like a serious doctrinal statement. However it is virtually certain that it originally appeared, rather, in MN 93:18.61, where it is much more at home in a discussion between Brahmanical sages on the question of caste, and has been casually airlifted into MN 38. This must have happened quite early because it is found in parallels, but all Buddhist traditions explain it similarly as being simply the individual to be reborn according to their kamma, ascribing no special meaning to the term. Whether it was spoken in this way by the Buddha, or was simply adopted as a convenient explanation of conception from MN 93, it has no particular doctrinal significance in Buddhist context.

The relevant context in MN 93 is that a strange “dark hermit” challenges some sages on the question of caste, forcing them to admit that they do not know who the mother or father might have had sex with, even back multiple generations, nor do they know the caste of the gandhabba.

The classic study of the subject is O.H. De A. Wijesekera’s 1945 “Vedic Gandharva and Pali Gandhabba” included in his Buddhist and Vedic Studies, where he amasses a vast array of references in Brahmanical literature from the Vedas onwards. This is required reading, but there is a cost to his encyclopedic approach. We learn of the Gandhabba as a massive, complex, fractal mytheme. But myths are not complexes of ideas. They are the foundations of ritual performances that accomplish a purpose. That purpose might be coming of age, or the departing of the dead, or the advent of a season. Or it might be the conception of a child. To understand the mytheme, we need to focus on how the idea of marriage and conception—for the two are very closely linked—are understood mythologically.

The locus classicus is Rig Veda 10.85, which gives the fundamental Vedic wedding ceremony. The bride is Suryā, the sun in her feminine aspect, and her bridegroom is the moon, Soma. Now, this inverts the more common gendering of these, and in Vedic mythology as elsewhere we commonly find the Sun is male and the Moon female. But not here, and this is an important detail. The sun here appears as the bride in her magnificence, with her beauty and adornments shining. The moon is male for one very specific reason, which we will find out later.

The verses that concern us are RV 10.85.21 and 22. From Jamison and Brereton’s translation:

“Rise up from here, for this woman has a husband.” I call on Viśvāvasu with reverence, with hymns.
“Seek some other girl sitting in (the house of) her father, adorned (for marriage) [/smeared (with menstrual blood)]. That is your share by nature. Know this.”

“Rise up from here, Viśvāvasu.” With reverence we invoke you.
“Seek some other burgeoning maiden. Send the wife to join with her husband.”

In this invocation before the wedding, a certain Viśvāvasu is invoked to “rise up” from the bride (also at Atharva Veda 14.2.33–6, Bṛhadāraṇyaka Upaniṣad 6.4.19). So who is he, and what is this all about?

Viśvāvasu is known quite widely in Vedic scriptures as a king of the Gandharvas, like Timbaru or Dhataraṭṭha. He features in a range of stories, but the most relevant is that, among his many other dalliances, he fathered with the nymph Menakā a daughter, who was immediately abandoned in a forest before being adopted by a local hermit and named Pramadvarā. So Viśvāvasu was a king, a libertine, and a deadbeat dad. The rites that ask him to leave the wife sweeten the deal by urging him to find some other maiden to inhabit, confirming that he is still a sleazebag.

The root idea of the gandharva, I believe, is the same as the Greek centaur, a man on a horse, randy and rapacious. In DN 21 we see the story of how Pañcasikha, another famed gandharva, becomes more mature as he falls in love and wants to commit in marriage with Suriyavaccasā, “Sunshine”, who obviously is the feminine sun here in line with the Vedic tradition. This establishes the character arc of the gandharva, from the horny teen playboy to the mature committed husband. Viśvāvasu obviously is not there yet.

Fine, but why is he asked to “rise up” from the bride? This point establishes a nexus of tension with the Pali, for there the gandhabba is said to be “present, at the ready”, rather than having to leave. At first I wondered whether this was a mere confusion, for the verb forms are similar (paccupaṭṭhito in Pali, uttiṣṭhāto in BU 6.4.19). But a closer look revealed something more subtle and quite a bit stranger.

We have already seen that the husband is identified with Soma, the moon. Soma is the milky liquid extracted on the altar of stone in the primary Vedic rite, and it is the whiteness of the liquid that suggests the lunar connection. It contains the essence of vitality and energizing life. In concrete form it was a drug.

Elsewhere, the gandharva is said to guard (Rig Veda 9.83.4) or steal (Śatapatha Brāhmaṇa 3.2.4) or actually be (Rig Veda 9.86.36) the Soma. As such, and in his role as the virile male, he is is the “father, begettor, kinsman”, by whose knowledge one becomes the “father’s father” (Arthavaveda 2.1.2–3).

Stay with me, for we are about to embark on a journey down the very pathways of the dead. These are detailed in Chāndogya Upaniṣad 5.10. The highest path, that of the gods, belongs to the wilderness contemplatives, who realize the truth and ascend to the Brahma realm. Less exalted is the path of the fathers, and less still the paths of those reborn as lesser animals and the like. But it is the path of the fathers, which leads to human rebirth, that concerns us here. From CU 5.10.3–7, with some changes in translation:

Those who live in the village and perform acts of public service, charity, and so on, attain the world of smoke. From there they go to the world of the night; from night they go to the world of the dark fortnight; and from the dark fortnight they go to the world of the six months when the sun moves to the south. This means that they never attain the world of the year.

From the six months of the southern solstice, they go to the world of the fathers, and from there they go to the sky. Then from the sky they go to the moon. This is King Soma. This is the food of the gods. The gods enjoy eating this food.

Living in the world of the moon until the fruits of his work are exhausted, he then goes back to this world along the path he came. First going to the sky, he then goes to air. Having become air, he next becomes smoke. Having become smoke, he then becomes mist.

Having become mist, it changes into clouds. Then from clouds, it becomes rain and falls to the earth. Finally it grows as paddy, barley, plants, trees, sesame, beans, and so forth. The change from this state is very difficult. Those who eat these things emit semen (retaḥ siñcati) just like themselves.

Among them, those who did good work in this world [in their past life] attain a good birth accordingly. They are born as a brāhmin, a kṣatriya, or a vaiśya. But those who did bad work in this world [in their past life] attain a bad birth accordingly, being born as a dog, a pig, or as a casteless person.

It’s crucial to take seriously the quasi-material process involved here. Rebirth is not a matter of just a disembodied spirit. It is organic and ecological, and links the individual to the cycles of nature as they transform from one state to another. As to how these transformations relate to the concept of the eternal ātman, I will leave that to Vedic philosophers.

The person on the path of the fathers sojourns in the moon, explicitly identified as the masculine King Soma (somo rājā), before being ultimately emitted as semen. We thus have an implicit identification between Soma and semen. This connection is developed in Bṛhadāraṇyaka Upaniṣad 6.4, which we have cited above, and which is the primary Upanishadic source on matters of sex and procreation. Note that Mādhavānanda’s translation on Wisdom Library, which is normally a great source, omits many of the details due to prudery, but Radhakrishnan had no such qualms, so check his translation on the Internet Archive.

Verse 3 compares a woman’s genitals with the altar on which the soma is pressed, extracting a milky liquid of potent energy. The connection between Soma and semen is thus made fully explicit. And we have already seen that gandharva as the “father” may be further identified as Soma, so gandharava the father = Soma = semen.

Semen is said to be “a man’s essence” (rasaḥ … puruṣasya retaḥ, Bṛhadāraṇyaka Upaniṣad 6.4.1). And this would explain the descriptions elsewhere of the gandharva as lying within the waters (Rig Veda 9.86.36, 10.10.4) or within the womb (Rig Veda 10.177.2).

And finally we see the reason why the gandharva king Viśvāvasu was asked to “rise up” from the bride before intercourse with the husband. He lies within her as the seed of her former lovers, the “essence” of whom remains.

Implicit in all this is the unspoken assumption that the new child is formed from the semen. The ovum was unknown. The mother’s role, rather, was that of the earth, whose womb is moistened by menstrual blood just as the earth is moistened by rain. The earth is the receptacle and nurturer of the seed, but the seed itself is quite distinct. Thus the child, whether son or daughter, grows from the “man’s essence”.

A man’s anxiety about female sexuality lies just below the surface. MN 93 makes it clear that one can never really know who the mother has slept with. Bṛhadāraṇyaka Upaniṣad 6.4.12 provides a handy set of curses for his wife’s lovers. Also bear in mind that such lovers need not necessarily be human. The Pali Abhidhamma text Kathāvatthu (Kv 2.1) establishes that malicious deities might convey semen in a dream.

This is where it starts to get weird and creepy. Atharva Veda 8.6 details in unbelievably horrifying ways how demons of all stripes, including gandharvas, “creep between her thighs”. They are “slippery fiends” who eat raw flesh, biters and gropers dressed in hides, licking their lips, hairy ones who feed on babes unborn. Without the proper rites, they will devour the embryo or cause any manner of deformity.


  • Wait what? You’re saying that a woman might be raped by a demon in a dream, who leaves his seed to fester in her womb, mutating into a “hairy one” who eats her babies?
  • Why yes, yes I am saying that.
  • :scream::scream::scream::scream::scream::scream::scream::scream::scream::scream::scream::scream::scream::scream::scream::scream::scream::scream::scream::scream::scream::scream::scream::scream:
  • That seems like a healthy response.

This further explains why the gandharva is said to possess women (eg. Bṛhadāraṇyaka Upaniṣad 1.7.1, 3.3.1), sometimes driving them to madness. Wijesekera points out that sometimes men are also so possessed, but I think this is a secondary development, and the primary source of possession is the “man’s essence” inside a woman.

Biologically this is, of course, not how anything works. But it has its own internal logic, driven by the overarching anxiety in men to establish paternity. It is a man’s essence that creates a child, determining the all-important question of caste. But a man never really knows if his wife has had sex with another man. This creates an ongoing and fundamental anxiety, which this whole edifice of myth, doctrine, and ritual is erected to contain and control. The very fact of how complex, baroque, irrational, and downright weird the whole thing is attests to the potency of the irrational forces that drive it.

In MN 93 it is clear that the brahmins are not really convinced. Despite the fact that their own scriptures and doctrines deal with this issue in detail, they know rationally that they cannot know the caste of a child, and can never really establish paternity. This is of course a typical Buddhist approach, using rational inquiry to displace the superstitious smugness of the brahmins.

In any case, this makes it clear why the Sutta says the gandhabba must be present, while the Veda says Viśvāvasu must depart. Viśvāvasu is the king of gandharvas, and thus stands for them as a class or as their commander. When he leaves, he by implication takes with him all the gandharvas that might be lurking. Then the correct gandhabba—the “essence” of the husband—must be present for conception to succeed.

Finally, let me make one humble observation. In this mytheme we see the fundamental underpinnings of what today we call “toxic masculinity”. The gandharva, as a horny deadbeat guitar player, is the ideal to which modern incels aspire. If he cannot grow, he becomes what the Artharva Veda 8.6 calls the “fiend of evil name”, “Sniffer and Feeler”, dancing at night with the bray of asses and the smell of goats. Today the “evil name” is Andrew Tate or Donald Trump or Harvey Weinstein; or indeed, Chogyam Trungpa or Sogyal Rinpoche or any number of other “slippery fiends” who “pierce a woman’s loins with pain”.

This is not something new, or something that has been left unaddressed by cultures in the past. Anxiety about potency and paternity is a fundamental component, perhaps the single most important distinguishing feature, of the male psyche, and forms the foundation of misogyny. Patriarchal institutions like marriage traditionally aimed to subjugate women, yes, but they also tried to temper the worst of men. In freeing women from patriarchal suppression, it is crucial to find ways to address this deeply irrational male anxiety.


MN 64 says various dependent arisings, such as identity-view or ill-will towards a mental conception of beings, cannot occur in the new born infant. MN 38 supports this when it says:

That boy grows up and his faculties mature. He accordingly plays childish games such as toy plows, tipcat, somersaults, pinwheels, toy measures, toy carts, and toy bows.

That boy grows up and his faculties mature further. He accordingly amuses himself, supplied and provided with the five kinds of sensual stimulation. Sights known by the eye that are likable, desirable, agreeable, pleasant, sensual, and arousing.

Sounds known by the ear …

Smells known by the nose …

Tastes known by the tongue …

Touches known by the body that are likable, desirable, agreeable, pleasant, sensual, and arousing.

When they see a sight with their eyes, if it’s pleasant they desire it, but if it’s unpleasant they dislike it. They live with mindfulness of the body unestablished and their heart restricted. And they don’t truly understand the freedom of heart and freedom by wisdom where those arisen bad, unskillful qualities cease without anything left over.

Being so full of favoring and opposing, when they experience any kind of feeling—pleasant, unpleasant, or neutral—they approve, welcome, and keep clinging to it. This gives rise to relishing. Relishing feelings is grasping. Their grasping is a condition for existence. Existence is a condition for birth. Birth is a condition for old age and death, sorrow, lamentation, pain, sadness, and distress to come to be. That is how this entire mass of suffering originates.

MN 38

MN 38 looks like it is saying dependent origination does not occur to the gandhabba, embryo or infant but only starts to occur when the child’s mental faculties have matured sufficiently for it to engage in self-view grasping. It looks like the gandhabba is not related to dependent origination.

I think the first link was meant to be this one:

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I don’t believe a Centaur is a man on a horse, but rather a being that is half horse half man.

It seems strange to translate a P/S word with a very specific creature of ancient Greek mythology, with all the background and baggage the name imparts.

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Great essay! But

I agree with this. The concept of gandharva being related to the concept of a centaur does not, of course, mean that they are equivalent. A lot of modern scholars I’ve read also dismiss the earlier idea that the two terms are etymologically identical. So there’s some similarity, some vague mythological connections, but I don’t see the Vedic corpus portraying gandhabbas as centaurs, nor centaurs exactly as gandhabbas. The equivalence seems to bring about more confusion and conflation than it does draw out the similarities, because the similarities are underlying themes and motifs most people are unaware of.

Apologies if this is mistaken, just my impression ATM.



Thank you, Bhante, for a very interesting and detailed essay on a thorny issue. Putting this in an historical context affects suppositions and conclusions, if one can set aside biases.

Sure, but it originated from men on horseback, it’s a mythic representation of their astonishing power.

Every word has baggage, including Pali words like gandhabba, which to any Buddhist means an inoffensive fairy-like creature, having been divested completely of its dangerous and hyper-masculine traits.

Also, pretty much no mythological creature really has “specific” traits. As soon as you dig into mythology you find a bewildering mess of confusions and contradictions. So if you see what you think is a familiar creature in an unexpected way, hopefully it stimulates you to ask what is going on—which is exactly what has happened!

I understand, but I disagree with them.

Translation rarely aspires to equivalence.

Again, that’s precisely the point. It’s honestly gratifying, because you’re reacting to my translations in exactly the way I intended, taking a deeper inquiry rather than skipping over the surface of assumed meaning.


In case anyone would like to hear some further discussion on how this arose historically / evolutionarily, I really enjoyed this interview on the subject with Dr (not actress!) Alice Evans.


A compelling reading, thanks!

Oh! Suddenly a lot of Christian imagery makes more sense too!

Well, and the problem of rape which much of this horrific imagery also resonates with.

It’s difficult to investigate / prosecute (potentially powerful) men for rape. Much easier to just shrug and blame “demons.” A misogynist pattern we still see today, of course. “Brett? A rapist? Of course not! He’s no demon. And her? Oh, she’s just being hysterical. Who knows what’s gotten into her.”


Thanks, fixed!

I guess it’s the same idea there as well?

Oh indeed, yes. I’ll change the wording.

And the lines could be very blurry. If you look at a classic case of this, Jabālā in the Chāndogya, she tells her son she does not know who the father is as she was “busy serving many”. The operative word is paricāriṇī, which normally means a maid or attendant. Maybe she was a sex worker and used a euphemism with her son, but maybe she was in fact a maid, and sexual services were part of the job. Obviously this raises serious questions of consent.

(In this case, her son admits this to his brahmin teacher, who applauds his honesty and says only a true brahmin could speak thus.)

Yes, exactly. I think the whole demon thing opens up a lot of that kind of narrative about woman’s hysteria, but also about her sexual desire and promiscuity. Probably more research would throw up examples of this sort.


Paternity tests can be done these days.

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I notice this closeby. Many a man go to quite some extremes to keep their treasured potency, no matter what the costs. I will not go into details here, but it did open my eyes a bit about what is going on.

Thank you very much Bhante


It just occurred to me … in fact this method isn’t that bad after all. At least it saves women from having to undergo so-called “virginity tests”—which prove nothing but cause a lot of harm!

Long live the Vedic rites! :tada:


And BTW, find the essay now in German translation.

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Indeed. We look at the past is precisely the wrong way. We compare it to the present; but the people in the past only knew their past. And they saw their present through that lens. So what seems regressive to us may well have been a welcome improvement to them.

We tend to see the past as being worse for women, and in many ways it was. But it was not uniformly so.

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