With the fourth Sutta, we see a return to a brahmanical context, but this time in a more conventional way. The Kasibhāradvājasutta ([snp1.4]), which is found also in the Saṁyutta ([sn7.1]) with a shorter narrative portion, tells us of a brahmin who works as a farmer. To celebrate the sowing season, he distributes food for anyone who comes.
The events unfold in the Southern Hills, an outlying district rarely visited by the Buddha and his Sangha ([pli-tv-kd1:53.1.3]; see the discussion on the quotations of the Parāyanavagga). This gives some context for the farmer’s unsettled reaction to the sight of the Buddha, as if it were the first time he had seen such an ascetic. And it suggests that the text served as a conversion narrative for this region.
It’s worth noting that the name Bhāradvāja is used in the Suttas as a conventional appellation for a (usually snooty) brahmin, and it is regularly prepended with a nickname which is simply the thing discussed in the Sutta. Here kasi means simply “farming”. Below we shall meet the Bhāradvāja aggika, which means “fire-worshipper”. These are more like descriptive epithets than personal names.
Hymns for farming are found as far back as the old Vedic tradition, many centuries before the Upaniṣads. The Vedic hymns focus on the celebration of abundance and prosperity in life, and that includes agriculture. Early Vedic hymns include invocations to the “Lord of the Field” to bless the ploughing and the crops (Rig Veda 4.57.4). These invocations did not remain merely as dead letters, for they are cited in much later ritual texts, which say that a brahmin should recite them when touching the plough (Saṅkhāyana Grihya Sūtra 4.13). Such verses, and others (eg. Rig Veda 10.101.3), invoke the different parts of the ploughing—goad, plough, seed, furrow—in a way not dissimilar to the Kasibhāradvājasutta. Atharvaveda 6.142.3 says that the “givers” of the grain shall be inexhaustible, perhaps suggesting a food distribution practice.
To pour seed on the ground is an act of faith: the belief that, gods willing, the seed will grow and supply food the next year. By distributing food—the fruits of last year’s sowing—the brahmin is mirroring the act of sowing itself, and thus amplifying its fruitfulness. That this is not an entirely selfless act becomes apparent when he sees the Buddha, and tells him he can only eat if he farms. His distrust of ascetics hails from the more worldly traditions of the Vedas, rather than the mystical path of renunciate sages like Yājñavalkya.
Drawing on similar rhetorical tactics that he used in the Dhaniyasutta, the Buddha ascribes a spiritual meaning to each of the items of the farmer. This kind of point-by-point spiritual metaphor is a characteristic of the Upaniṣads, especially in those portions that ascribe a hidden meaning to each aspect of the ritual and the rites. That this is central to the Upaniṣadic project is shown by the fact that the Bṛhadāraṇyaka Upaniṣad opens with such a set of correspondences (sandhi).
The head of the sacrificial horse is the dawn; its eye is the sun; its vital breath is the wind …
And so it goes. It was in this way that the Upaniṣadic philosophers were able to break new ground, extending and deepening their philosophy, while still maintaining that they were continuing the same tradition. Hence the leitmotif of the Upaniṣads: ya evam veda “one who knows this …”. Each act, each detail, has a higher meaning, which a true brahmin understands. The Buddha is using exactly the same technique to convince the brahmin that there is a higher meaning behind his traditional duties.
In a curious twist, the brahmin offers his milk-rice to the Buddha “whose farming has the deathless as its fruit”. The Buddha rejects his offering—a very rare circumstance, as mendicants are normally required to accept any offering with gratitude and humility. The poem says this food has been “enchanted by a spell”, and indeed, when it is discarded it sizzles and fumes in the water.
The implications of this episode are complex. Dietary laws were, and are, fundamental to the notion of caste in India. The brahmins—in theory—took only the purest food and did not share a plate with others. Āpastamba’s Dharmasastra says that the student “not leave any food uneaten. If he is unable to do so, he should bury the leftovers in the ground, [or] throw them in the water”. This was in direct contrast with the practice of ascetics such as the Buddha, who accepted food from anyone without discrimination.
The brahmin has performed a ritual by chanting. That this is literally an “enchantment” rather than simply “chanting over” is shown by the fact that the food has acquired a mysterious magical property. The brahmin caste represents the divinity Brahmā on earth, from whom all power and creative force derive. In their belief system, they are a manifestation of divine energy, and through their chanting they channel that energy into the material realm. Thus the milk-rice is infused with a potency, which, like all power, is dangerous in the wrong hands.
The Buddha can consume it, since his power supersedes that of Brahmā. Yet he chooses not to. The text is silent as to why. But we can speculate that the magical act of consuming such potent food would, in the eyes of the brahmins, mark the Buddha as an acolyte of Brahmā himself, else how could he survive it? By rejecting the ritually potent food, the Buddha is affirming his independence from the Brahmanical system. He has no need for their enchantments. For him, food is simply a material means of sustenance.