Researching Dr. Ambedkar / Damodar Kosambis' re-construction of Going Forth via Snp 4.15

Hello Friends,

I am studying Buddhist hagiographies with a particular interest a-typical hagiographies – you might say heterodoxical ones. How we tell the story matters – it impacts our moral imagination and practice, and this is something I am exploring, esp. in the context of “socially engaged Buddhism.” Wondering if you can help.

I am currently researching Dr. Ambedkar’s particular re-construction of Siddhartha’s Going Forth as a form of political exile, or even satyagraha, as he objects to impending war between the Sakyans and the Koliyas, over an issue of shared resources (water). It’s actually quite complex in terms of the political dynamics of the Sakyans being under the tutelage of the King of Kosala, etc.

In other sources from the 1940s, Dr. Ambekar has told the story of the Siddhartha’s Going Forth in the more traditional way, following the Four Sights, etc, and along the lines of spiritual/existential angst. By the 1950s however, he makes a different narrative choice, of which it turns out he was not the originator.

The dramatic depiction of a conflict arising within the council of his clan, setting the scene for the political exile of Siddhartha as a pacifist and conscious objector, traces back to a very popular play in Marathi by Dharmananda Damodar Kosambi, called Bodhisatta, published in the 1949s.

Damodar Kosambi was a well known scholar of Pali and Sanskrit in his time. In his intro to the play he says this section of his play (and the unconventional rendition of the story) come from SnP 4.15. However, looking into that Sutta, which indeed touches upon the theme, there is nothing about the governance of the Sakyan kingdom, or issues of political strife that lead to Siddhartha leaving home.

Is there anyone here who has studied Damodar Kosambi’s work?

Are there other places in the EBT that point to the war between the Sakyans and the Koliyas? (even if not connected to the Buddha-to-be’s going forth?)

In other words, how far fetched is this, and what is the historical basis for the depiction?

I also noticed that the Japanese humanist manga artist, Osamu Tezuka, in his version of the story, also eludes to problems at the border, issues of strife between clans and resources not being shared. I suspect that all this is not coming out of thin air, even if there are fictional liberties being taken.

To be clear, I am not particularly interested in a critique of Dr. Ambekdar’s unconventional take on Buddhism. I am well aware of how people have found fault in his work. I am more interested in how he did what he did. He was a very thoughtful, deliberate and learned man. I am tracing his sources and his thinking, as it relates to this re-imagining of renunciation (and subsequent ‘different’ or even non-articulation of the 4NT). I am discovering he was not alone, Kosambi preceded him in this respect. I am also discovering that Damodar Kosambi was really a remarkable human being and scholar that hardly anyone has written about, it would seem? Unless I am wrong.

I am aware of Fiske and Emmrich’s exegetical work on Dr. Ambedkar’s seminal text, The Buddha and his Dhamma, but they do not seem to have been aware that Ambedkar drew from Kosambi. The question I have is - what did Kosambi draw from? And/or what further information might Dr. Ambedkar might have had on the socio-political context of Early Buddhism that could have substantiated his narrative? As you likely know, he died before being able to complete footnotes, which were added later by editors.

Any insights or tips are welcome!


It’s a few decades since I last read anything by him, but as I recall, Ambedkar’s main English language sources for the Buddha’s life were the translation of the Mahāvastu by J.J.Jones, of the Nidānakathā by T.W. Rhys Davids, of the Jātakas by E.B. Cowell and his team, and of the Dhammapada Atthakathā by Eugene Burlingame. All of these are later texts.

There’s no mention of the River Rohini affair in the EBTs. On the other hand, the narrative of it is common to the later texts of several different schools. This may mean either that one school made up the story and others borrowed it or that it does in fact have some historical basis.


“By the time of Siddharta’s birth, the Shakya republic had become a vassal state of the larger Kingdom of Kosala.[39][40]”—Wikipedia


Thank you @Dhammanando, I very much appreciate your response! :pray:

The plot thickens… and please forgive my ignorance if it is showing in my questions and confusion.

In a recent critical and annotated edition, and in recent scholarship, sources being mentioned are:

  • the Lalitavistara Sūtra,
  • the Buddhacarita, by Aśvaghoṣa
  • the writings of Damodar Kosambi, Paul Carus, Lakshmi Narasu and Edward Thomas.

(for the particular events of interest to me, ie Going Forth, it is quite clear that he drew from Damodar Kosambi as there are entire verses transcribed from him).

The annotators also point out some details on other parts of the text (eg. use of the term “li”) that indicate that Ambedkar was likely also using Chinese sources, but they were not able to identify them.

I will for sure look more closely at the sources you mention.

I had read (somewhere??) that indeed during the historical period of the Buddha there was a rise of monarchies and a decline of proto-republics, involving increased warfare, and resulting in fact in the near wipe of his clan towards to the end of his life, which he was not able to prevent (or choose not to?). Seems like a tragic backdrop.

I can see that this story of conflict over the waters of the Rohini is present in early commentaries and in the Jatakas (are these not considered EBT and the later part of the Pali Canon?). What is clear however, in these narratives, is that the conflict (if it is the same conflict) arises after the Buddha (Bodhisattva??) has gone forth and is well into his teacher career. Unless it is a prior Buddha? This is different than the Kosambi/Amedkar account which has this conflict happening before renunciation, when he is still living as a lay person, and in fact it becomes integral to Siddharatha’s home leaving.

Clearly, it must have been this Jataka that Damodar Kosambi drew upon, as indeed it references the Attandanda Sutta, which he says he drew from in his introduction:

At that time the Blessed One was dwelling at Savatthi, and at dawn of day while contemplating the world he beheld them setting out to the fight, and on seeing them he wondered whether if he were to go there the quarrel would cease, and he made up his mind and thought, “I will go there and, to quell this feud, I will relate three Birth Stories, and after that the quarreling will cease. Then after telling two Birth Stories, to illustrate the blessings of union, I will teach them the Attadanda Sutta and after hearing my sermon the people of the two cities will each of them bring into my presence two hundred and fifty youths, and I shall admit them to holy orders and there will be a, huge gathering.”

  1. Kunala Jātaka SuttaCentral
    There is also this reference: 74. Rukkhadhamma Jātaka SuttaCentral

I also found trace of this connection between the story and the sutta here, in the Mahabuddhavamsa.

So at this point, I am both more illumined and more confused ;-)…

  • Are the Jatakas not part of the Pali Canon? Sorry, 101 question for sure…

  • The Jataka 536 mentions the Attadanda Sutta. Is it understood that they were written later and include commentary on the Suttas?

  • How can the Buddha already be a Buddha in the Jatakas, as it would seem in my reading, as I thought these texts were about prior lives? Unless this is a prior Buddha?

  • Is it not ironic that in “reality” the historical Buddha was in fact not able to prevent conflict, and that indeed his clan suffered greatly during his lifetime? Not sure what sutta references the wipe out of Sakyans towards the end of his life, if indeed my memory is accurate…

Yes @paul1 thank you for that reference to the vassalage of the Shakya republic. I need to read up more on the socio-political context of the time…

In gratitude for any further insights.



It’s a really interesting question. The short narrative at Snp 4.15 is very striking, and I refer to it often. i didn’t know it was a cornerstone of Ambedkar’s approach, too.

I’ll respond in more detail later, but just a quick note on this:

I’d guess these were likely the accounts of the Chinese pilgrims such as Xuan Zang, who measure the distances of their journeys in li. The accounts have been translated to English.


Actually my own ignorance in this field is probably far greater, for I was posting on the basis of things half-remembered from decades ago when I used to attend an Ambedkarite temple in England. Your own research, by contrast, is clearly very recent.

This episode, too, is recounted only in later texts.

In the Theravāda tradition the Jātaka verses are treated as canonical and the Jātaka stories as commentarial. Modern scholars partly concur, inasmuch as they regard the verses as predating the stories in their present form. Neither, however, are viewed by them as EBTs.

In the Jātaka commentary each story of the Buddha’s former lives as a bodhisatta is prefaced by a narrative relating how and why the Buddha came to tell the story in question. Usually these opening narratives are very short, but in a few cases they go on for many pages and contain quite a few plots and sub-plots of their own before the Buddha gets around to telling the past-life story. The Kunala is an example of one such.


Firstly, thanks for bringing up this topic, its one of the main points of contention among Indian Ambedkarite Buddhists who take the book ‘Buddha and His Dhamma’ as a perfect Gospel, free from Brahmanical influences (which they take to be the doctrines of karma, rebirth and deva realms).
AFAIK, Ambedkar was not satisfied with the traditional story of the Bodhisatta’s going forth as a result of the famous Four Sights, and was instead looking for a more grounded, historically and logically plausible explaination. The traditional account of him encountering illness, old age and death for the first time at the age of 29 and then sneaking out at night actually seems too far fetched, and isn’t supported by the EBTs too:
“Some time later, while still black-haired, blessed with youth, in the prime of life—though my mother and father wished otherwise, weeping with tearful faces—I shaved off my hair and beard, dressed in ocher robes, and went forth from the lay life to homelessness.”

  • MN 36

So, no midnight sneaking out while everyone was sleeping, more like an official Going Forth/Pabbaja in the midst of his family. So Ambedkar’s (or Kosambi’s ) version seems to have at least some historical basis.
A similar thread where this account was discussed :

“Straight ahead, your majesty,
by the foothills of the Himalayas,
is a country consummate
in energy & wealth,
inhabited by Kosalans:
Solar by clan,
Sakyans by birth.
From that lineage I have gone forth…”

  • Pabbajā sutta (Snp 3.1)

“King Pasenadi of Kosala knows that the ascetic Gotama has gone forth from the neighboring clan of the Sakyans. And the Sakyans are his vassals. The Sakyans show deference to King Pasenadi by bowing down, rising up, greeting him with joined palms, and observing proper etiquette for him…”

  • Aggañña sutta (DN 27)

Ven. Analayo points out comprehensively that although the Buddha-to-be’s meeting with the divine messengers was not the specific event it became compressed to be for didactic purpose, nevertheless they were in the long run the motivation for renunciation:

"The use of such pictorial presentation is in fact referred to in a discourse in the Sayutta-nikāya. 23 The commentary explains that this refers to a canvas with various paintings taken around by wandering Brahmins to illustrate the teachings they delivered on karma and its fruits.24 Thus it seems not too far-fetched to imagine that the development of the traditional account of the bodhisattva’s encounters could indeed have been inspired by some pictorial representation.
Be that as it may, a less legendary account of the bodhisattva’s insight into the basic predicaments of human existence can be found in a discourse in the Anguttara-nikāya and its Chinese parallel in the Madhyama-āgama.25 These two discourses record the bodhisattva’s reflection that worldlings react with disgust and aversion when they see someone else subject to old age, disease and death, even though they are themselves subject to the same predicaments. The bodhisattva, however, reacted differently, since on realizing that he was himself subject to old age, disease and death, all pride in being endowed with youth, health and life vanished for him. "—Analayo

“Even though I was endowed with such fortune, such total refinement, the thought occurred to me: ‘When an untaught, run-of-the-mill person, himself subject to aging, not beyond aging, sees another who is aged, he is horrified, humiliated, & disgusted, oblivious to himself that he too is subject to aging, not beyond aging. If I — who am subject to aging, not beyond aging — were to be horrified, humiliated, & disgusted on seeing another person who is aged, that would not be fitting for me.’ As I noticed this, the [typical] young person’s intoxication with youth entirely dropped away.”—AN 3.38


Thank you Bhante @sujato for your kind response. Indeed that passage in Snp 4.15 is powerful, one of my "go to"s as a practitioner.

Looking more closely at Dr. Ambedkar’s work and concerns, and the larger context of decolonization of India, the traumatizing partition, confronting the caste system and sectarian violence,campaigns of non-cooperation, as well as the influence of Dewey… all this is showing me that indeed the questions of “force” and “violence” in resolving disputes between peoples was central to Dr. Ambedkar. So I am not surprised that he borrowed from Kosambi in re-imagining of Going Forth… One of the underlaying narratives is the need to recognize the relatedness and “fraternity” of the “other” – that we cannot wage war against human kin… how to build a real sense of maitri among all peoples was a big part of his vision, beyond matters of equality and liberty…And he put that in the Indian Constitution, as well as in The Buddha and His Dhamma… I find this fascinating, personally!


This is so incredibly helpful!

Yes, I has a sense this was a later “reconstruction” but based on elements that indeed the Buddha has said. Having this specific analysis by Analayo really helps, thank you so very much!

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Oh wow! I did not realize there was a difference between the verses and stories – and that neither are considered EBT… This is so helpful. I guess the larger question is… they are not EBT, and they are part of the Buddhist tradition (much like everything that came afterwards) - what value do we accord them I presume is up to debate. I do find that so much of how we tell the stories of the Buddha comes from the Jatakas, I regret that I have not yet had the opportunity to study them more carefully and to understand how/when/why they came about.

In the Jātaka commentary each story of the Buddha’s former lives as a bodhisatta is prefaced by a narrative relating how and why the Buddha came to tell the story in question. Usually these opening narratives are very short, but in a few cases they go on for many pages and contain quite a few plots and sub-plots of their own before the Buddha gets around to telling the past-life story. The Kunala is an example of one such.

Thank you!! My head was spinning a bit, this makes sense now. Thank you for unlocking the mystery…



Thank you for pointing me to these canonical references, super helpful! As well as to this thread that I will dig into. Much appreciation.

It does not makes sense to me to extricate the early tradition from “Brahmanical influences”, all the more that if one is responding to something, or elaborating counter-cultural teachings – then that which one is countering is in fact integrated into the process. Hope that makes sense?

I think my question was more from a religious studies (vs. dharmic) perspective re: what Dr. Ambekdar’s knowledge of the historical context of the Buddha might have been in his time, all the more that he was making efforts to historicize the existence of the Shudras and “Untouchables” - so he obviously had an interest in history and a historical lens. I just finished a class on what we call “Hinduism” and it struck me that anyone studying Buddhism would gain in their appreciation and understanding by studying the religious traditions that preceded Buddhism and that Buddhism came out of. Not totally the same, but it’s a bit like studying Judaism and Christianity. So much is lost is truncating the later from the former.

In gratitude,