In our latter days, we have become so inured to centuries of theological abstraction that it is hard work to rediscover how concrete the ancients often depicted the gods. It is very widespread to find a relation between the gods and the “heavens’, i.e. the sun and moon, stars, comets, and other celestial phenomena. This correlation is a crucial aspect of Indian cosmology. As a rule, then, it is a good idea to render such ideas in the most concrete sense possible, without imposing an metaphysical abstraction to divinity, unless, of course, the context requires it.
In MN 49 we have an exchange between the Buddha and Brahmā. This discourse is one of the most theologically and philosophically daring in the whole canon, and raises all kinds of interesting issues. However, I will restrict myself to clarifying one small exchange.
When Brahmā tries to intimidate the Buddha, he responds by claiming to know just how far Brahmā’s power extends. Now, the language he uses is precise, and its implications have not well been captured.
api ca te ahaṃ, brahme, gatiñca pajānāmi, jutiñca pajānāmi
And in addition, Brahmā, I understand your range and your light.
The word juti has been rendered as “sway” (Bodhi) or “splendour” (Horner, Thanissaro). The PTS dictionary recommends a different reading (cuti) to avoid the term altogether.
But the meaning of the term is clarified in the verses below. There are two distinct criteria for judging a Brahmā’s power: the distance their domain encompasses (gati), and the spread of their light (juti). This corresponds, in the case of a minor Brahmā, to a thousand solar systems, i.e. a “galaxy”. Since this is clearly based on the idea of literal light, it’s best to keep the metaphor clear.
The verse that follows is difficult, and it is a bit of a job to figure it out. The syntax and vocabulary is unusual, as is common in verse, and while the general sense is clear enough, the exact nuance is elusive.
One problem is that the exact same passage is found as prose (AN 3.80, AN 10.29). Given that the syntax is odd, it’s likely the passage originated as verse, and is perhaps quoted as a saying. Compare with how we might quote or use a saying of Shakespeare in conversation, perhaps not even realizing it.
Here’s the Pali:
Yāvatā candimasūriyā pariharanti
disā bhanti virocanā
I find the second line here problematic. Disā must be accusative plural, and bhanti is a poetic term meaning “they shine”. Virocanā has evidently been interpreted as an adjective qualifying disā, but it bothers me. It’s an unusual term in Pali, and rarely occurs outside this context. However, in Sanskrit, while it may be an adjective, it is also recognized as a substantive, “the shining one(s)”, i.e. the sun and moon. Reading in this way makes for a more obvious reading: it becomes the subject of bhanti.
Now, Ven Ānandajoti informs me that the term candimasūriyā in the first line of the verse is, in fact hypermetrical. This strongly suggests that it was a later addition to the verse. However, if we remove it, we have no subject. Except hang on: we just solved that problem! The subject is virocanā. Presumably, as this is an unusual, poetic term, candimasūriyā was added to clarify the subject in prose. Perhaps it was later added by mistake to the verse.
In any case, we may translate:
As far as the sun and moon revolve
the shining ones light up the quarters
This revised reading affects another verse, a stock verse found in a number of passages (AN 3.70, AN 8.42, AN 8.43, AN 8.45):
Cando ca suriyo ca ubho sudassanā,
Obhāsayaṃ anupariyanti yāvatā
Tamonudā te pana antalikkhagā
Nabhe pabhāsanti disā virocanā
Note the parallel terminology: yāvatā, pabāsanti (= bhanti), disā, virocanā, with the changed word order for the last terms. Also, anupariyanti is used for pariharanti. It seems we should also take virocanā as a substantive here, and translate:
The sun and the moon are both fair to see,
radiating as far as they revolve.
Those shining ones in the sky light up the quarters,
dispelling the darkness as they traverse the heavens.
To return to the cosmological theme, note that here the same two aspects are emphasized: travelling across the sky, and the radiance of their light. It seems that these two qualities of the heavenly bodies especially impressed the ancient Indians. The gods were like jet-setters who had slipped the surly bonds of earth.
See, too, the famous story of Rohitassa (AN 4.45, AN 4.46, SN 2.26), AKA the first astronaut, whose accomplishment was to travel on an amazing voyage across the galaxies. His story, in fact, should be regarded as the progenitor to all space operas. It’s not just that he traveled across the stars, but that he learned the essential lesson of all such journeys: your real truth lies within. There is a direct line from Rohitassa to the moment Luke Skywalker sets aside the targeting computer in Star Wars.
Just as we might be impressed by a ship that can do the Kessel run in 12 parsecs, the ancients found the magnificence of the heavenly bodies, and the gods associated with them, not just in their light, but also in their travels.