Question on MN 100 and the 'Existence' of the gods

Continuing the discussion from Does God(s) Exist and Does it Matter?:

These are two explanations for the passage found in MN 100 which reports a conversation between the Buddha and the brahmin Saṅgārava. The interaction, in Pāḷi, is as follows:

I’m trying to understand this. @sujato seems to have changed the older rendering of ‘atthi’ from ‘absolutely exist’ (‘Do the gods absolutely exist?’) to ‘survive’ which has been used in several places. As of now, this rendering makes little sense to me in comparison with the other explanations that I’ve heard. I find the end of the conversation rather confusing, but also elucidating. It demands a certain reading to contend with: The Buddha says that he did not simply say “yes, the gods atthi” because this is widely accepted in the world. In other words, he wanted to present a more nuanced answer to the statement itself. The nuance that the Buddha adds is that he has understood the gods in terms of causes, or, ‘in terms of causality.’

So what we get is: Someone asks the Buddha if the gods atthi. The Buddha says that he has understood about the gods in terms of causality. Saṅgārava, then confused, asks that if this is so, “isn’t it a hollow lie?” I am not sure what “it” refers to and what is a “hollow lie” or why. I suppose he may be asking if the Buddha then means that “atthi devā” is a hollow lie, but this is confusing considering the Buddha says that he should have just deduced that the gods do atthi based on what he said.

The whole thing is just a garble of confusion! Even Saṅgārava is confused here, let alone us trying to understand his confusion. Would Ven. @sujato or another Pāḷi expert be willing to break down the reasoning behind the translation and the meaning of this passage here? Part of me wonders if it is meant that the Buddha has understood the gods conditionally in terms of how they are reborn and the laws of kamma and whatnot, or if it means that he has understood that they exist on the basis of inference via conditionality/dependent origination (though this contradicts the divine eye somewhat), or if it means that he has understood their impermanence, etc. etc. There seem to be many interpretations of this, on top of the fact that it is not clear to me what “atthi” means here: Is it simply about whether or not the gods “can be found” (i.e. exist conventionally), or if they exist in and of themselves, or if they are eternal, or what. Agh! :laughing:



Bodhi says; “The sequence of ideas in this passage is difficult to follow and it is likely that the text is corrupt.” (note 921 of The Middle Length Discourses)

I think this is about right.

The passage to me is suggestive of something along the lines of;

Saṅgārava says something like, “since you are enlightened, tell me, do the gods really exist?”
The Buddha says something like, “exists/doesn’t exist is a false paradigm, the gods, like human beings, arise and cease conditionally.”
Saṅgārava says something like, “doesn’t this mean that the gods are bullshit?”
Buddha says something like, “not at all, in fact this conditionality amounts to precisely the phenomena that is designated by common folk as “existing”, that is, while I explain them in an uncommon way, I really do see and visit them with my enlightened and clairvoyant mind and can confirm that they are up there”
Saṅgārava, “why didn’t you say that in the first place?”
Buddha, “anyone could have said that in the first place, that’s what everyone says in the first place, why ask the Buddha if you just want to hear the commonplace?”
Saṅgārava, "your so right love.

All that said, I would be extremely wary of making any bold assertions about a piece of text that even Bodhi admits is probably corrupt.

Oh, and as per usual, I have never seen an atthi that needed an “in an absolute sense” attached to it, or a “survives” as it’s gloss, “exist” by itself seems to work pretty much every time.



Hey :wave: Thanks. Yeah, this is how I see it potentially being as well. I’m not sure if he was thinking of the tetralemma specifically, but that’s an interesting point and it very well could be so. I suppose it is somewhat implicit in “I understand gods in terms of arising/ceasing conditionally.”

While I recognize that this is a possibility, I honestly think this is just what happens when a conversation is put into this type of text and chanted orally. All of the context is completely lost. It would be absolutely unreasonable for the reciters to memorize an entire back-and-forth which they probably heard reported second hand anyway, so I imagine that they had to just codify the general summary of the ideas like we do when we summarize what someone said, but even more formally. “In terms of causes” might be shorthand for a more elaborate discussion of causality or what he meant here, for example. All that to say—I think it may be less corruption than it is just the nature of putting a dynamic dialogue into a formulaic, memorized summary.



I’m sure you could be right, however there isnt much to the sutta apart from this exchange, the rest being a dairly standard reproduction of one of the bodhisattva narratives, my guess is that the import of many of these suttas was to do with broadcasting the succesful conversions of important aristocrats and brahmins, and Saṅgārava was such a brahmin. As to the content of that discussion and conversion, well, I guess we know it was about athideva, and not muchore than that, sans other sources.

AN3.60 has a Saṅgārava who also seems very interested in psychic powers, but the sutta doesn’t give us much more than that.


1 Like

There is a similar passage in MN90 which might help?? :smiley:

But sir, does Brahmā survive?”
Kiṁ pana, bhante, atthi brahmā”ti?

“But what exactly are you asking?”
“Kiṁ pana tvaṁ, mahārāja, evaṁ vadesi:
‘kiṁ pana, bhante, atthi brahmā’”ti?

“Whether that Brahmā comes back to this state of existence or not.”
“Yadi vā so, bhante, brahmā āgantā itthattaṁ, yadi vā anāgantā itthattan”ti?

“Any Brahmā who is subject to affliction comes back to this state of existence, but those free of affliction do not come back.”
“Yo so, mahārāja, brahmā sabyābajjho so brahmā āgantā itthattaṁ, yo so brahmā abyābajjho so brahmā anāgantā itthattan”ti.


Yeah, this was part of the confusion TBH. It even has the same question with devā generally. It seems whenever the Buddha was asked this question it got complicated somehow :laughing:

It seems that in the MN 90 passage, the king may be asking the Buddha essentially what Gabriel said quoted above in OP: Do the gods self-exist, or do they exist conditionally and are reborn like other people. In other words, ‘absolutely exist’ here could be what is meant. He rephrases this by asking if the gods are reborn or not, and the Buddha responds by describing the causes that would cause this to be the case: if they have afflictions yes, if no, no. So here we see cross over again: there is a distinction between some causal aspect of the gods’ existence and their existence in another sense.

Maybe the Buddha had already experienced the question in MN 90 and others like it. So when someone asked him the same question at MN 100, he automatically responda with “I understand about the gods in terms of causes.” This is all fine and good; the problem then becomes that he says that anyone would come to the conclusion that the gods do ‘atthi’ from what he said. So on the one hand he’s avoiding the word ‘atthi,’ but on the other he just gives in and says it. This would mean that at this part of MN 100 it cannot mean ‘self-exist’ or ‘absolutely exist.’

The other way of reading it in light of MN 90 is if ‘atthi’ does mean ‘survive’ or ‘will exist’ after death in the sense that ‘atthikavāda’ refers to rebirth and non-annihilation, etc. He does not immediately say ‘yes’ because it is conditional: some do and some don’t depending on their afflictions. In other words, he would automatically assume ‘atthi’ to mean what the king clarified in MN 90: “whether or not the gods [are reborn].” He then clarifies that someone would realize that yes, they are reborn — he was just making clear the nuance here. This all hinges on a different reading of ‘atthi.’

It all boils down to that at the end, it seems: what does atthi mean here?, and how does it relate to the meaning at MN 90? I also think it boils down to what people thought of the gods.

On Bhikkhu Bodhi’s notes to MN 90 he says: “K.R. Norman, in an interesting paper, has proposed a radical re-editing of this portion of the sutta, which would entail important differences in translation, but as his proposals are not supported by any editions I hesitate to follow him. See Norman, Collected Papers, 2:162-71.” Anyone know about this? Looks like he has a paper called Devas and Adhidevas in Buddhism [JPTS] and another ‘The Buddha’s View on Devas.’

EDIT: I’ve found more info from Piya Tan. We have a summary from Norman on MN 100:

[t]he circumstances in which the brāhmaa Saṅgārava asks the Buddha about the existence of devas are not clear in the PTS edition of the sutta, for the details are omitted there and readers are merely referred back to a parallel passage in another sutta. In fact the question is asked immediately after the Buddha’s statement that devatās had approached him and shown him great concern about his weak condition during his pre-enlightenment ascetic stage. The purpose of Saṅgārava’s question can only be to ascertain the Buddha’s view on the eternal reality of devas, since the story he had told about the devatās necessarily implies that he admitted some sort of existence for them.
(Norman, “The Buddha’s view of devas,” 1977:331)

After some philological discussion you can read in the article, Norman comes to this conclusion:

I suggest therefore, that the text of the sutta should be corrected by changing atthi devā to atthi adhidevā in the three sentences (B), (C) and (E). It will be seen that the passage is then no longer puzzling. The Buddha is asked, “Do devas exist?” He replies, “I know for a fact that adhi- devas exist.” Saṅgārava’s anger is understandable. Is the answer not off the point? The Buddha replies, “If anyone is asked if devas exist, and replies that super-devas exist, then anyone with sense can deduce that devas must exist (for super-devas are superior to them). Saṅgārava then asks why the Buddha did not say in the first place that devas exist. The Buddha answers that (it was unnecessary because) it is firmly accepted in the world that devas exist. Saṅgārava is satisfied with this reply.


Analayo, in his comparative study of the Majjhima Nikāya, however, finds that the Madhyama Āgama as preserved in the Chinese translations does not support Norman’s reconstructions of the Kaaka-t,thala and the Saṅgārava Suttas.

Apparently, in the Sanskrit parallel the question on gods comes first before the Buddha describes his process of awakening and realizing things for himself. Analayo argues that this is the most sensible arrangement.

Gonna look into it some. Here’s Piya Tan’s paper: link here

I think that the point that these people must be asking about the eternality of the gods is the most relevant, and I think it must be so. Sangārava was a learned brahmin who performed sacrifice, and King Pasanedi also sponsored sacrifices and was a student of the Buddha/srāmanas as well. As MN 100 says, the existence of gods was widely accepted; it was a small minority seemingly who denied it and it seems obvious that the Buddha believed there to be gods and that these two men did as well. This is perhaps why the Buddha asks what King Pasanedi means at MN 90, to which he responds that he’s asking about their rebirth or not—not their plain existence. MN 100 is less certain, but if we understand atthi not as meaning an absolute eternal ontology but merely temporal continuation (the same context as those in which views of ‘atthi’ mean views of rebirth and post-mortem survival in the suttas), then this may be the reading. Still, a conventional ‘there are gods’ feels more natural for the interaction at MN 100. :confused:



Thank you @kaccayanagotta for hunting all this down! I am still at a bit of a loss to be honest, Norman doesnt shed very much light, even with a, fir him, quite speculative emendation.

The main problem I have with the “eternally” interpretation is that the Buddha is usually pretty firm on the Gods not being eternal, and the canon is full of statments to the effect that they “pass away from there” and are reborn in such amd such a state, and that one would have a hard time finding a heavenly abode in which the buddha had not dwelt as a god in a past life etc.

The upshot being that im not sure it makes sense to interpret even MN90 as being about Brhamas being Brahmas “eternally”.

I still basically come down on the side that both passages seem abrupt, muddled and unclear, what for example is going on with the buck passing in MN90 about who raised the issue in the first place?

Confusion reigns.


Well that’s what I think is being asked by King Pasanedi in MN 90 at first. The Buddha asks for clarification, and he clarifies that he is asking if the gods are reborn or not. So I think King Pasanedi’s ‘atthi devā’ refers to this. This could be what the Buddha was anticipating at MN 100, but I do think that the meaning of atthi seems different.

Indeed! Agreed. I was hoping @sujato could help explain his understanding of it. It seems he has not done with the other mentioned translators did in rendering the Buddha as saying he is sure about the gods, but rather that he understands them in terms of causes.


1 Like

My take is rather that the king asks if the god is reborn here or not, and the Buddha says that those who have ties to this world come back to it, while those without such ties do not (presumably eventually being reborn in an even higher realm, or achieving extinguishment.)



Yes I think this is what it could mean. I took it more generally because it seems like ‘atthi’ cannot mean such a specific thing, but the king’s intention which he clarified may have meant ‘this state of existence.’


1 Like