Stories within stories

In DN 3 Ambaṭṭhasutta, we find one of the most interesting mythic narratives of the whole Pali canon. I won’t go into details here, but just want to point out the deep nesting of the storytelling.

level 1

The sutta as it comes down to us is told by the redactors (and the whole history of that). They’re telling a story about a dialogue with the Buddha.

level 2

The Buddha is telling a story to Ambaṭṭha about the origins of their respective lienages.

level 3

But the story the Buddha tells is not his. He claims to be retelling from the Brahmanical traditions, a claim that Ambaṭṭha agrees with.

In the Brahmanical story, the “hero”, the sage Black Boy, threatens the crown prince by aiming an arrow at him. His real aim is to win the princess.

level 4

Here’s where it gets interesting. If we accept the historical picture painted by Frazer* (and in this respect I do), then such threats are typically a narrative explanation for an actual ritual. Thus the next level is the ritual that underlies the story.

* Obviously there is much to be said on this point. But one of the criticisms of Frazer is that he took relatively modern practices and assumed they stemmed from a high antiquity, whereas in many cases this has since been shown to be not true. The practices were sometimes just modern inventions. In the case of the Pali texts, however, it is true.

level 5

Frazer also pointed out that this kind of ritual as a threat was often, if not normally, a remnant of an older ritual where the threat was physically carried out. Succession to the throne required ritual regicide. Thus the story encodes in itself the memory of an older time when the prince was actually shot.

In some cases there is an interim stage discernible, where the sacrifice is not completely symbolic (as say the Catholic Mass), nor is it actual killing of a human. The object of the sacrifice may be injured or have some actual harm done to them. They might be exiled for a period, or, as this story might suggest, shot with an arrow in the leg. At the very least, the characters in the story take the threat quite seriously, so there are genuine stakes for them.

level 6

If a ritual involves causing harm in some way, in earlier times it probably required the actual killing.

level 7

It is ultimately not the prince who is killed, but the King. How widely ritual regicide was practiced is unclear, but it did occur. It descended from the idea of a contest of strength (which here remains as the archery contest). As a king or chief grew old, young males would challenge them and eventually one would win. Sometimes the old king would be banished, but deposed rulers have a way of sticking around and making trouble for those who replace them. So the idea is that in some cultures the king would be ritually deposed at a certain time of life. Note that the Buddhist ideal of kingship provides an effective “out”: the king resigns and spends his days in effective exile in secluded meditation.

Not only is the sacrifice watered down from an actual killing to a purely symbolic ritual, but the king himself is out of range, and his son serves as substitute. There are many variations to this. Consider the story of Abraham, where a ram is substituted for a child. There are many such stories in the Jatakas; see for example the stories of the yakkhas Alavaka or Hariti. And as time goes on, we find the substitute of a substitute (again, as in the Catholic Mass: God sends his son, then they eat the bread which “is” his body).

Check out Frazer’s astonishing account of such a substitute sacrifice in Tibet.

As time goes on, the events disappear little by little, clouded in fog, wrapped in uncertainty, looming as indistinct shapes on the horizon of humanity. To a modern eye, these stories appear strange and inexplicable, jutting oddly out of the rational psychology of the suttas. But from the perspective of mythology they are familiar and readily decoded.


I agree whole-heartedly with the reader who underlined and questioned that “quaint” at the end. :rofl: Some top-shelf understatement, that one! Wow…


Bhante is this that famous book that you would often refer to when you talk about myth/sacred stories?

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It is, yes. Well worth a read!

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