Sāvitti /Sāvitrī

From: Did the Buddha have a Sense of Humour?

Sundarika-Bhāradvāja meets the Buddha, who as an ascetic is a likely recipient of the offering, however he is cautious and enquires what caste the Buddha is, or more specifically: “is he a brahmin?” The Buddha answers that caste is irrelevant to a renunciant, but Sundarika-Bhāradvāja insists that it isn’t, and that Brahmins always enquire about caste. The Buddha is not playing that game however, and he says:

Brāhmaṇo hi ce tvaṃ brūsi, mañca brūsi abrāhmaṇaṃ;
Taṃ taṃ sāvittiṃ pucchāmi, tipadaṃ catuvīsatakkharaṃ.

If you call yourself a Brahmin, and say that I am not a Brahmin;
I ask about that Sāvitrī (mantra, of) three lines and twenty-four syllables?

I use the Anglicized ‘Brahmin’ for brāhamaṃa because there are also texts called brāhmaṇa and because it is more familiar. The Sāvitrī (Pāli Sāvitti) mantra is also called Gāyatrī because it is in the gāyatrī metre which has three lines and twenty-four syllables. It comes from the Ṛgveda, and in Sanskrit goes:

Tat savitur vareṭyam bhargo devasya dhīmahi dhiyo yo naḥ pracodayāt (2)
Which Saddhatissa translates as:

May we attain that excellent glory of Sāvitrī the god, that he may stimulate our thoughts. (3)

The Sāvitrī mantra is pronounced at dawn and dusk in daily Brahminical rituals - and this is as true today as it was in the Buddha’s day when it was a centuries old practice!

Fausböll comments in the introduction to his translation that “The commentator understands by Sâvatti the Buddhistic [going for refuge] formula, which like the Sâvitti, contains twenty-four syllables”. (4) This seems an unlikely interpretation. For a start the refuge formula is definitely prose and not verse, (5) but the Buddha is talking here to someone who has not gone for refuge to the Three Jewels. The Buddhist refuge formula may have had little or no meaning to him. He was a Brahmin, practising Brahminical rituals, and the reference to the Sāvatrī mantra would be completely in context, whereas the going for refuge formula would not. By mentioning the number of lines and syllables the Buddha may well be emphasising that though he is not a hereditary Brahmin he knows a lot about the practices of the Brahmins.
I just found that the Buddha was quoting Brihadâranyaka Upanishad:


  1. That Gâyatrî (as described before with its three feet) rests on that fourth foot, the bright one, high above the sky. And that again rests on the True (satyam)…
    Thus does that Gâyatrî rest with respect to the self (as life). That Gâyatrî protects (tatre) the vital breaths (gayas); the gayas are the prâ n as (vital breaths), and it protects them. And because it protects (tatre) the vital breaths (gayas), therefore it is called Gâyatrî. And that Savit ri verse which the teacher teaches 2, that is it (the life, the prâ n a, and indirectly the Gâyatrî); and whomsoever he teaches, he protects his vital breaths.

197:2 The teacher teaches his pupil, who is brought to him when eight years old, the Sâvitrî verse, making him repeat each word, and each half verse, till he knows the whole, and by teaching him that Sâvitrî, he is supposed to teach him really the prâ n a, the life, as the self of the world.

  1. Some teach that Sâvitrî as an Anush t ubh 3 verse, saying that speech is Anush t ubh, and that we teach that speech. Let no one do this, but let him teach the Gâyatrî as Sâvitrî 1. And even if one who knows this receives what seems to be much as his reward (as a teacher), yet this is not equal to one foot of the Gâyatrî.

197:3 The verse would be, Ri g-veda V, 82, 1:

Tat savitur v ri n îmahe vaya m devasya bho g anam
S resh th am sarvadhâtama m turam bhagasya dhîmahi.

198:1 Because Gâyatrî represents life, and the pupil receives life when be learns the Gâyatrî.

The Buddha was asking Sundarika-Bhāradvāja about Sâvitrî, because by his time, some brahmins taught Sâvitrî in a wrong way as mentioned in the Brihadâranyaka Upanishad.


The above story reminds me of a story about Jesus:
The Holy Bible, Authorized King James Version (1611), “The Gospel According to John”, chapter 8, verses 3–7
³And the scribes and Pharisees brought unto him a woman taken in adultery; and when they had set her in the midst,
⁴They say unto him, Master, this woman was taken in adultery, in the very act.
⁵Now Moses in the law commanded us, that such should be stoned: but what sayest thou?
⁶This they said, tempting him, that they might have to accuse him. But Jesus stooped down, and with his finger wrote on the ground, as though he heard them not.
⁷So when they continued asking him, he lifted up himself, and said unto them, He that is without sin among you, let him first cast a stone at her.

I agree with Jayarava here. Fausböll seems to be suggesting a strange unintuitive parallelism:

बु द्धं  श र णं ग च्छा मि
त त्स वि तु र्व रे  णि यं

सं घं श र णं  ग  च्छा मि
भ र्गो दे व स्य धी  म  हि

ध  र्मं श र  णं ग च्छा मि
धि यो यो नः प्र छो द यात्

bu ddhaṁ śa ra  ṇaṁ ga cchā mi
ta tsa   vi tu  rva re ṇ[i] yaṃ

saṁ ghaṁ  śa ra ṇaṁ ga  cchā mi 
bha rgo   de va sya dhī ma   hi

dha rmaṁ śa ra  ṇaṁ ga  cchā mi
dhi yo   yo naḥ pra cho da   yāt

There’s really nothing in common other than three lines of eight.

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There is more context to this, and the ‘humor argument’ of the Buddha, I don’t know, is very Gombrich-specific and I could never follow it really. Satire and mocking - yes, but humor where both sides can laugh about it? no.

Anyhow, here in this context there is no humor involved. At a certain time around the Buddha or slightly later it became customary for the three highest varnas/castes to do the upanayana initiation with a brahmin teacher. During this initiation ritual the new students get taught the savitri mantra in their specific meter.

Brahmins learn it in the Gayatri meter (three lines and twenty-four syllables).
Ksatriyas learn it in the Tṛṣṭubh meter (with four lines and forty-four syllables).
See as sources the Gṛhyasūtras (ŚāGS 2.5, PāGS 2.3).

Since the Buddha challenges the Brahmin to ask him about the ‘Brahmin meter’ it means that the text wants to demonstrate that the Buddha has access to the secret knowledge of Brahmins.

See for more details the discussions in
Smith, B. K. (1986). Ritual, knowledge, and being: initiation and Veda study in ancient India. Numen, 33(1), 65-89.
Iwasaki, S. (1965). A Characteristic Feature of the Sutra Carana. Journal of Indian and Buddhist Studies, 13(2), 813-806.


Nice is info you have found. I don’t know what is it. But we tend to want to move Buddha away from the religion in that time. Reading many Verses of the Elders. You can see who ever wrote them was really into the same. A lot of Brahmin
Culture . But what’s the problem? Why people can’t accept. Because that will mean he believes in a creator? I don’t think so. They didn’t care as we do about such things in the spiritual path. Especially Buddha. But in Agamas gives a different perspective of Buddha. I would say in his time. They didn’t have the answers to that. They had no interest in that.

Again, if all the pleasure and pain that beings experience is caused and created by a supreme god, then in the past the Nigaṇṭhas [must] have been created by an evil supreme god. Why? Because that would be why the Nigaṇṭhas now experience extreme pain. This is the fifth [ground] on which the Nigaṇṭhas can be reproached.

Again, if all the pleasure and pain that beings experience is caused and created by a supreme god, then the Tathāgata [must have been created by] a good supreme god in the past; and because of that, the Tathāgata now experiences a noble happiness free of taints. Quiescent and calm, he has attained happiness and awakening. This is the fifth praise gained by the Tathāgata.

  1. The Discourse to the Nigaṇṭhas

Majjhima Agama

I like your findings. It must be like you said. But it’s hard for people to accept nowadays. Just remember it doesn’t mean all ascetics like Buddha was equal in thought as the Brahmin priests. There is the Ascetics and Brahmins. Buddha was on the Ascetics side. Concentrated on just the spiritual life. Using Brahmins terms because they was ascetics among Brahmins culture. They mingle with them. There was no problem. They lived actually more peaceful with each other then we think. Like happens again in Buddhist History after Christ. Hinduism mingling with Buddhism. That when Mahayana was created complete. And then it happened again Mahāyāna mingling with Hinayana. I think it’s actually Indian culture. You see it today also. Some family has many beliefs in all the gods. But some has one only.

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Fausböll is not suggesting anything: he is reporting what the commentary says. Which yes, is implausible.

Might I add, this is one reason why I dislike notes and comments that present what the commentary says, with a neutral stance as to whether it is correct or useful. Even if the modern translator or interpreter merely intends to convey information about what the commentary says, it is subconsciously read as an endorsement. It is really hard, probably impossible, for readers to really keep these distinctions in mind.

I first realized this when I lived as a monk for a while in Malaysia. There, since there was a mix of traditions from China, Myanmar, and Sri Lanka, as well as the Thai tradition with which I was familiar, I encountered many different practices. For example, is it allowable to offer food by offering the whole table at once? Not in the Thai tradition, but it was normal in Malaysia, even among very strict monks. I realized that I didn’t really know, that I wasn’t clear about what is Vinaya, what is commentary, what is modern practice. And this is even though the source works I had relied on were clear about these things, and I had been a careful scholar, studying original sources and checking findings, as well as discussing them with others.

A better practice would be:

  1. Translate the commentary as commentary.
  2. Ignore the commentary unless it is useful.
  3. If it is a view that is well-known and important but wrong, explain why it is wrong. But that is an essay, not a footnote.

Agreed, it seems like a weird framing.

Huh, that’s really interesting.

And this is very specific stuff, no way a non-expert would know it.


Yes, the Buddha was questioning the meter:

If you say you brahmin are, but call me none,
then of you I ask the chant of Sāvitrī,
consisting of three lines
in four and twenty syllables.

Yes, the Buddha brought up this question in a very formal way.
However to me the whole thing is a little bit humorous, just like what the Jesus said to those people above, using their own laws against them.

This is really great, Bhante. I was in Malaysia as a training program manager in the Asia-Pacific Institute for Broadcasting Development (AIBD), KL, in 2008-2009.

That was the place I turned from a Christian to a Buddhist. I was in the Kechara House, and I travelled and worshipped all the Buddhism-Hinduism related gods in Malaysia and Thailand. I was blessed by a Brahmin who was later asking me for money in a temple, and I saw people with tributes on their heads running through flaming stones in another temple.
Well, several people lost consciousness in that event, maybe because the gods were unhappy. Anyway, Bhante, I agree with what you said, the mind is more important than the tradition.


Something directly related to the topic! Worth reading :smile:
On the Buddha’s Use of Some Brahmanical Motifs in Pali Texts.pdf (263.2 KB)