The Aggañña Sutta, Vedic Cosmogonies, and Paṭiccasamuppāda

This is a relatively informal essay. It will not be well cited to my satisfaction. This is, in part, because I will certainly be including a much more elaborate version of the ideas presented here in the book I am writing. I also wanted to share these ideas with people and open up a dialogue rather than present a wall of text set-in-stone before conversation. All feedback, discussion, etc. is appreciated!

I would like to shout-out Bhante @sujato and Ayya @Suvira for some of their amazing posts, in this forum and elsewhere, regarding this sutta. I will be interacting with some of their ideas here. I will also be interacting with many of the ideas presented by Prof. Joanna Jurewicz, who must be one of the most intelligent and ground-breaking Vedic scholars of our time, in her works Fire and Cognition in the Ṛgveda and, much more so, Fire, Death, and Philsoophy: A History of Ancient Indian Thinking. The latter is a monumental masterpiece and sequel to the former, and it deals specifically with the pre-Buddhist philosophical systems as they developed from the more abstract portions of the Ṛgveda through the Atharvaveda and into the Brāhmaṇas and early Upaniṣads. She uses her expertise in cognitive linguistics to elaborate on and explain the extremely complex conceptual blends composed of metaphor, metonymy, and building directly on the prior Vedic philosophy.

In this post, I aim to demonstrate that: (1) the Aggañña Sutta should be primarily understood as a Buddhist-friendly Vedic cosmogony drawing on the same ideas, techniques, and explanations as the Vedic authors did, and (2) the Aggañña Sutta, paired with the Mahātaṇhāsaṅkhaya Sutta, further proves the idea originally proposed by Prof. Jurewicz that paṭiccasamuppāda is a re-formulation of Vedic cognitive models as expressed in their cosmogonies, and that the connections between these can by no means be coincidence.

First, I think it is important to enter the ideal headspace for interacting with Vedic creation myths/cosmogonies. As Bhante Sujato has often said, myths are stories that “never were, but always are.” Vedic cosmogonies are not mere stories about the creation of the world; they are understood as all-pervading realities that apply to all aspects of life: ritual, personal cognition, cosmological, soteriological, etc. They are not merely metaphors for X natural process. If anything, the natural processes which they relate to and draw upon are extensions of the stories themselves. In cognitive linguistic terminology, Vedic cosmogonies create complex conceptual blends with imagery, metaphor, metonymy, and established cultural concepts known to their audience. They often use concrete terminology to explain abstract philosophical notions, and this serves several purposes. One of the primary purposes is to aid the listener in visualizing, relating to, and comprehending the story. This is important, because true knowledge (veda) of these stories is equivalent to knowledge of all aspects of the world. Knowledge gives meaning to Vedic ritual and the lives of the Brahmins, and it explains how their lives fit into the larger cosmos and vice-versa. With this in mind, I turn to the suttas in question.

The Aggañña Sutta (henceforth AS) describes the origins of the universe from the (relative) beginnings through to the development of humanity in our current state of affairs, and finally to liberation from it (rather briefly). It parallels the same Vedic motifs, images, and philosophical ideas expressed via them in very nuanced ways. Richard Gombrich has pointed to some similarities between the creation narrative in the Aggañña Sutta and a cosmogony in the Bṛhádāraṇyaka Upaniṣad (BU) at BU 1.2. He has made some great philological connections, however, I think some of this has been an understatement. A deeper analysis of the cosmogonies (especially BU 1.2) and its embedded philosophical meaning allows us to see just how similar this cosmogony is to the AS. That said, we do have to keep in mind that we should not expect any exact parallel: not even the Vedic cosmogonies in the same work, of which there are dozens in the BU and larger Śatapatha Brāhmaṇa (ŚB) in which it is embedded, are identical. This is not the goal of Vedic cosmogonies. Rather than presenting superficially identical narratives, they elaborate deep, underlying concepts and images that often stretch back as far the Ṛgveda, emphasizing particular aspects of the underground river of philosophy they draw from and de-emphasizing other concepts that are less relevant to their particular purpose. Unsurprisingly, the AS does this same thing: it is applying the same underlying Vedic ideas to a particular context—in this case, the development of humanity and the caste system via craving, greed, etc. BU 1.2 is putting philosophical ideas from the ŚB together in more abstract terms, and relating them to its soteriology and in terms of the Ásvamedha (horse sacrifice) for reasons I will discuss.

Briefly, Ven. @Suvira has suggested that perhaps a section in the Chāndogya Upaniṣad (ChU)—ChU 5.10.3—is more relevant. This section concerns the Pitṛyāna (path of ancestors), which explicitly concerns rebirth and ethics. However, these ideas are already present in the BU 1.2 narrative; they simply require a deeper knowledge of the meaning and context of the text to see them hiding in plain sight. The BU is also embedded in the ŚB and historically connected to the Eastern Vedic schools around Kosala and the Vedic sage Yājñavalkya from pre-Buddhist Kosala-Videha. As Lauren Bausch has discussed in her thesis, this school specifically is very relevant to our understanding of Buddhism and its relationship to Brahmanism. For these reasons, I do not think the ChU need be brought into the analysis of the AS, although for the reasons in the previous paragraph, it is certainly a more explicit expression of underlying ideas in the BU 1.2 cosmogony; knowledge of ChU 5.10.3 will only enhance one’s understanding and visualization of the material, and is in no way contradictory (in fact, the ChU often quotes from and re-frames earlier stories in the BU).

I will begin with an analysis of the AS from the point of view of Vedic thought. Although this will be discussed later on, it may be helpful to keep in the mind the rough idea proposed by Prof. Jurewicz regarding the connection between paṭiccasamuppāda and Vedic cosmogony: the Buddha has put the same models in more abstract philosophical language, stripped them of their metaphysical justification (the Absolute, ātmán, etc.), and thus demonstrated the meaningless cycle of craving, birth, death, and transformation with no escape but to simply put it to a stop.

The narrative begins, as many commentators have already noted, with an ending. In terms of Vedic thought, however, there are very significant ideas here. The Ābhassara deities, as understood in Buddhist cosmology at least, are thought of as unified in form and diverse in thought/mind. In the Vedic cosmogonies of the ŚB, Prajāpati (the Creator) is of one form (the form of a person or beast, most often) and unified/undistinguished from other identities. Like the deities here, creation is also often said to take place within his mind (and this goes back as far as the RV). Thus, the idea of personified yet formless mind-made deities undifferentiated at the beginning of time is automatically evocative of Vedic creation. Notice too that these deities are said to ‘move through the sky,’ yet the world is not yet created. This is particularly evocate of Vedic philosophy in two ways: (contradictory) movement, and verticality. In the Vedas, movement symbolizes freedom, a characteristic of reality/the Creator and of creation itself. Moreover, verticality (being in the sky, etc.) is a symbol of divinity and prestige.
At this point in the narrative, there is not even water, earth, a differentiation from up-and-down, etc., and yet the luminous mind-made deities can move and are in an elevated position. This internally contradictory symbol of freedom, glory, and play is extremely evocative of Vedic ideas of the pre-creative state. It will continue to be elaborated and evoked further on.

The corresponding beginning of the BU 1.2 cosmogony is as follows:

‘Death’ is Prajāpati / pre-creative reality, who is also identified and associated with The Absolute, That One, or Agni in the Nāsadīyasūkta. The mention of hunger is significant in this passage for several reasons in terms of the Vedic dialogue, however, it is significant to the AS as well: the luminous beings, in the following section, are hovering above the water without any manifestation of solid food or objects of cognition: they are simply one undifferentiated grouping of identity-less beings above un-cognizable, dark, undifferentiated water. Creation in the Brāhmaṇas (especially the relevant portions, as will be assumed here when I use this language) is concerned with the alternating manifestations of reality as the killer and the killed, or the eater and the eaten, or the subject and the object in cognitive terms. Reality alternates between two internally contradictory aspects: Agni (or the fiery-aspect) and Soma (the liquid aspect). Fire must be fed things to burn, and so it needs to eat, otherwise it would die. In this way, fire must kill to live. However, in the Veda, reality is monistic (as we see already in this section of the BU): it is both the eater and the food eaten. Thus, reality must manifest itself as food in order to kill itself to continue living—it must be constantly killed and resurrected to manifest its immortality. I will not elaborate too much into this as it is far too complex, but this is important background information. That in mind, ‘Death’ is both that which kills and that which dies. Undifferentiated Death is the pre-creative reality. And Death, too, is hunger—expressing the forthcoming manifestation of reality as food and eater.

A [pre-]creative mass of signless water is extremely common in Vedic cosmogony (and world mythology as well). The text specifies that the water is dark, symbolizing a lack of cognition / the ability to be cognized. Notice the conceptual distinction between the water and the deities, who are said to be luminous—highlighting cognition (‘seeing is cognizing’ in the Veda). Vedic cosmogonies can be generally mapped onto the outline of the Ṛgvedic Nāsadīyasūkta, as Prof. Jurewicz has consistently demonstrated. This state of a mass of undifferentiated identity (all beings were simply ‘beings’, dark mass of water, no astral bodies, etc.) which still contains the potential and future hints at creation (luminous beings, water, the mention of the absence of the astral bodies) is representative of stages in the NS

  1. The Absolute’s inchoate division into aspects unmanifested and manifested
    (táma āsīt támasā gūḷhám ágre, ‘darkness was hidden by darkness in the
  2. The appearance of the first expressible form of the manifested aspect (apraketáṁ
    saliláṁ sárvam ā idám, ‘everything was flood without any sign’)

Note too that the sun/astral bodies and their movement represent time, which is also expressed simply by ‘the year’ in the Veda. That is, if there is the sun, then there is time, and thus there is death (the Sun is the fiery Eater/Killer, just as time kills and consumes us and fire consumes fuel). At this stage in the BU 1.2, water is also created, and there is still no manifestation of the sun or year:

There are several layers to this passage that underlie it despite not being superficially apparent. The most significant of these is the reason water springs from reality. As in the above section, the manifestations of reality and creation are alternating between fiery and liquid aspects. One of the metaphors for this is how one sweats when one gets hot: heat → water (this same concept is found in the Sun → Rain, for instance). In most of the ŚB cosmogonies, Prajāpati (here called Death) begins and continues creation by “toiling and practicing austerities,” or by “laboring and heating himself up.” When he does this, he produces sweat, which produces water. The production of heat → creation is an extremely important Vedic concept, and it is relevant to the BU 1.2 and AS narratives as well (as we will see in the following passage). In fact, let’s take a look at a near identical passage from the ŚB (pulled from Prof. Jurewicz’s adapted translations in her book Fire, Death, and Philosophy):

Notice how this same concept is assumed in BU 1.2 without specific mention; the text is extremely embedded in the prior Vedic texts which it is building on. Also, the fact that in BU 1.2, Death ‘makes up its mind’ and then recites speech is significant: the mind is the subject, and speech is the object in Vedic thought. One common way of conceiving cognition is the sexual act between the mind and speech. Moreover, as said before, the ‘mind’ is commonly identified with the beginning of creation which takes place in reality’s mind (further highlighting the cognitive aspect of creation). Thus, when in BU 1.2, Death mentally decides to recite speech and therefore produces water, he is doing the same act of manifesting the object / liquid aspect of reality (speech—also conceived in terms of water in the Veda) via the fiery, subjective aspect (the mind; heat). Prof. Jurewicz remarks the following:

In the last sentence of the passage, the cause (heat) and the effect (water) are metonymically compressed (ā́po vā́ arkás). At the same time, the internally contradictory character of reality is expressed. It is conceived in terms of the opposing concepts of light/fire and water similarly for Agni in the ṚV.
(Fire, Death, and Philosophy; pg. 408)

Notice how the difference between light and water is the same in the AS: there are luminous beings above dark water.

We can see how the same ŚB cosmogony relates to the BU 1.2 and AS ones in the next passage, as well:

And BU 1.2:

Regarding the BU passage, Prof. Jurewicz comments the following:

This stage of creation is conceived in terms of the production of cream by churning. This is the next input space of the conceptual network. Now, sweat, in this blend, is conceived in terms of milk. Churning is an activity which consists of heating which leads to the consolidation of milk into cream.

Sweat/liquid conceived in terms of milk is already quite attested in the Veda, and the relationship between this and Soma (as the liquid aspect of reality that is the object of cognition) is also quite established. This furthers the idea of the dark water being cognitive and of it being produced by heat/sweat. This heat continues and it churns the water into a creamy milk with foam/milk skin on it. The passage from the AS reads as follows:

Curdling appears from heat. However, no agent is mentioned in the AS—something we will discuss further on, and which should be rather obvious as to why. The BU passage also deems the liquid aspect ‘rása’ here too, here translated as ‘solid nectar’ and forming a linguistic parallel between the passages. There is also the mention of this substance as being like ‘ghee’ or ‘butter,’ which are associated with the BU 1.2 passage in the same way, and which in Vedic thought are significant for their golden, liquid aspects. They represent bright, colorful liquid-y things which relates to them as the object of cognition and Soma, and their refined purification via heat—another major Vedic motif—is also a cognitive metaphor. At this point, we have made the food (just as in the BU 1.2 passage where Death was Hunger and wanted food) for the subjective cognizers/eaters (the luminous beings) to eventually eat.

Now, some commentators have pointed to the similarities between the AS and embryonic development. Procreation, the development of a child, etc. are very relevant Vedic motifs in cosmogonies as well, and as such they are no stranger to stories like the AS. In fact, the BU 1.2 passage is all about connecting things to the growing up of a child when it connects this all to the Ásvamedha—giving precedent to the domain of Procreation / development. Moreover, the Nāsadīyasūkta contains a stage of creation which is identical to the famous ‘golden egg’ image also very popular in Vedic cosmogonies. And, no surprise, it perfectly corresponds to this stage in the AS:

  1. The final constitution of the manifested aspect (tuchyénābhv ápihitaṁ yád ásīt
    tápasas tán mahinájāyataíkam, ‘That which was about to be/that which was
    empty was surrounded by the void. That was born thanks to the power of heat
    – One.’)
    [5. The appearance of desire for the manifested aspect (kámas tád ágre sám
    avartatádhi mánaso rétaḥ prathamáṁ yád ásīt, ‘desire firstly came upon that
    which was the first semen of thought/mind’)]
    (Fire and Cognition in the Ṛgveda; pg. 58.)

I have included the following step 5 to show that the AS anticipates the same development. However, what is relevant here is stage 4. The primary image which the authors of the Nāsadīyasūkta and other related Vedic cosmogonies give to aid the listener in understanding/visualizing this step is a mother bird heating up and nesting her eggs, or a mother carrying a child in her stomach and keeping it warm/nurturing it before being born. The child/animal in the egg is not yet created, but it is “about to be” in exists in a certain sense. This also clearly relates to the earlier image of water which precedes the stage in the RV and here in the AS.

In this way, we are not to reduce the narrative to a metaphor or parallel of one process (such as embryology). Rather, we are meant to create a beautiful blend of all kinds of domains that mix together like milk and water to give us a visual idea of creation that can be applied to all scales of life—literal birth and all kinds of other processes, such as cosmology, cognition, etc. This is certainly a very important domain in the AS for visualizing and breathing life into it.

As a side note, I would like to say that there are many more interesting parallels with the same narrative at ŚB and onward. There is too much to go into there though, and so I will simply leave it here for anyone interested.

The next passage in the AS is as follows:

We can connect this to the passage in the BU:

Just as was previously anticipated, the sexual union between mind and speech is equated to the union between eater and food, all of which symbolizes cognition between subject and object. The Upaniṣads often use both eating and sexual images to describe this. To reiterate, the mind is the subject, which is also connected to the head and to the devas in the Veda. This clearly corresponds, as aforementioned, to the subjects of the AS—the luminous beings/deities. The speech is the water as in the previous passage, and so union between them is union between the curdled milk and the eater—Death/Hunger. In the AS, the luminous beings unite with the food as well and eat it.
Notice how both sections give verbal thoughts to the subjects. Death thinks that he wants to realize cognition via union of subject and object, thereby rolling forth the wheel of manifested reality (which will be elaborated later on). The deities think the same thing—that they would like to try the food that has been produced. There is a subtle difference, still: the deities are not the monistic reality which is both the eater and the eaten, and they act in much more curious innocence, in a sense. They are not in complete control of creation.

Now, with the consuming of the food, the year is created. There is now time, and thus there is gruesome mortality. The sun rises and sets; the days and years pass by; the astral bodies are set in motion; the world is created (but not yet in full with all the sorts of beings and whatnot). Notice how the BU 1.2 passage continues the same idea evoked of the carrying of a child/nestling in an egg and then being born, which corresponds to the AS. Interestingly, they often alternate explicit expression of the ideas despite developing them simultaneously (something quite common in Vedic cosmogonies).
Again, speech is the object which is to be eaten by death/hunger—the now manifested aspect of the subjective eater/killer in reality. Note how this relates to the year and sun, and thus we are seeing the dawn of general rebirth of beings over-and-over in the narrative. The same is true of the AS sutta. At this point, now that time has manifested and the beings have craving, they begin their devolution into coarser bodies with hard-work, death, and material rebirths.

I would like to begin by getting the etymology out of the way. Many commentators have already noted that the AS contains very Vedic-style etymologies, and this could not be more true. We have already seen some examples of these in some of the above passages. However, there are even more identical ones found in the BU. One such example is the following, also a creation narrative:

(Patrick Olivelle’s translation)

That out of the way, there are several points of interest here. At this point, we see the division of names and forms. Previously, there was simply speech and general formlessness. Now, we see the appearance of distinct words, of distinct names, of identities, of distinct appearances/forms, etc. (in both passages). In terms of the forthcoming paṭiccasamuppāda discussion, we can note that the progression thus far has been: lack of cognition/pre-creation (avijjā), saṅkhāra (manifestation of desire to act/create the second-self and realize cognitive acts), viññāṇa (the cognizing of things between subject and object), and now nāmarūpa (the division into various names and forms). I will leave this at that for now, but thought I’d point it out in advance so as to have it in mind.

Now, the BU 1.2 passage shows something of interest as well. It is at this point that rebirth via the pitṛyāna is expressed. A superficial reading would not reveal this, but as Prof. Jurewicz has already spilled much ink over (as has Lauren Bausch on this issue, from a different angle and in regards to different texts), this is precisely what the passage is pointing to. I have already pointed out that in the ŚB (and the BU, as we have seen), the immortal nature of Reality is expressed in its manifest aspect via constant birth and death: it consumes itself, or kills itself, demonstrating both its creative/birth-giving power and its destructive/killing power—both of which rely on one another (in the manifest aspect) to survive. The Sun, or the year, is the Killing power as I have also already mentioned. Here, ‘aditi’ (infinity) refers, in part, to the cycle of these two contradictory aspects of reality. One who knows thus will be able to understand that death is actually just a manifestation of reality’s freedom and it is ultimately all One reality in an immortal cycle manifesting its power. In this way, one understands a huge meaning of their rituals, and they will be able to travel up to the Sun (equated with the immortality from Somic exultation in the RV), where they will later be converted into Rain (Sun : Rain; Heat : Sweat; Agni : Soma) and be reborn in their family/with their ancestors (the mechanics of this are elaborated, for instance, in ChU 5.10.3). They will also not have a premature death and will escape fear of death. They still fall within the cycle of rebirth, but this cycle is not seen as something necessarily negative: by fully understanding it as a manifestation of one reality, they escape all turmoil it may cause and become a part of it.

In the same way, we see in the AS the development of beings who are now subject to differentiated identities, more solid corporality, and (presumably) rebirth in a more concrete sense than expressed before in the sutta. They are continuing their ‘devolution’ into this due to unethical behavior. Ethical behavior and knowledge, on the other hand, lead to good rebirth (just as in the Pitṛyāna, despite being conceived of in a slightly different way). We can note also the clear allusion to being the eater and eating food in terms of ontology, cognition, and rebirth. Reality wants to experience itself (expressed by reality eating itself), and thus it must turn itself into more food and then consume itself in order to cognize and experience its identity with itself in both manifest aspects. In the same way, the beings are doing to continue eating more food in diversified forms to experience the various foods in their names and forms, and as such their cognitive acts will lead to more divergence of identity/name and form in the subjects.

At this point, the narratives generally diverge, as the AS goes into the development of humanity, ownership, sex, etc. On the otherhand, the BU goes into the Ásvamedha (horse sacrifice) and its relationship to the narrative. However, there are some more interesting parallels that we can draw, and I think that these divergent aspects of the stories are actually much more related than may have been previously thought.

After the various food narratives happen in the DN 27 which repeated the cognitive acts of eating various tasty foods and further dividing up into nāmarūpa, we get to the division of sexes into male and female, and sexual intercourse. This of course matches up with the same narrative in the BU: reality eats itself as food, which is the same as reality copulating with itself in sexual acts (→ cognition), then giving rise to more aspects of reality over and over. These are also parallels. Arriving at the division of sexes, DN 27 reads:

There are a couple of significant details here. First is the association between experiencing heat/burning and sexual activity, identical to the BU. Then there is the fact that the texts comments that things devolved into immorality, eventually stealing, etc. In a sense, this further represents their descent into death: they start having more children who grow up and die, the parents die, and now beings are killing one another. The heat burning with lust that results in sex ends up driving the beings deeper into suffering. Compare to the parallel section of the BU at this point in the narrative:

After the preceding passage where Death reproduces and gives birth to all different beings, it now tries to continue, but dies. Notice how the text says that his vīrya—which is vigour and deeply connected to manly virility/masculine notions of giving birth, etc.—leaves him. By being greedy and having sexual intercourse/heating up on account of it, he (partially) dies. The text mentions that he is not fully dead, for his mind still remains. Therefore he has driven himself into deeper death, and this will need to be reconciled/corrected; however, he is not fully dead. This is precisely what happens in the AS. The beings realize the deadly situation that they have gotten themselves into, and thus they decide to start taking action to divide the fields and eventually (for some) to practice meditation. It specifically mentions the brahmins of old going off to meditate and practice austerities—the same ones that Death/Prajāpati practices—and to do versions of rituals, which are re-enactments of the creative power of Prajāpati contained within men in Vedic thought.

Eventually, however, the following happens:

The AS does not say anything afterwards in terms of sacrifice, but Snp 2.7—the Brāhmaṇadhammika Sutta—picks up where the story leaves off and is clearly part of the same general narrative/idea. Thus, I would argue that this is implicit in the text and is relevant to DN 27. The relevant section is below:

So it seems that the solution the brahmins come up with is the horse sacrifice (among other sacrifices). Let’s see what the solution to Prajāpati’s (Reality/Death’s) problem is in BU 1.2:

The solution to Death’s problem—who has, ironically, died—is the horse sacrifice. What this points to is the ritual activity of humans which repeats the creative activity of Prajāpati and Reality and which, with knowledge, gives meaning to the lives of brahmins who participate in Reality (beyond mere symbolism). The dead body of Death/Reality is the food/eaten aspect. Reality dies which it is all mere food, as there is no longer a cognitive subject to consume it. Thus, reality, as already mentioned, must manifest two contradictory aspects of itself in order to manifest its immortality: the killer and the killed. The horse is the representative of the food which is eaten by the subject eater. In a sacrifice, Agni / fire is conceived of as eating the oblations, or as the mouth of the gods. In order to feed the gods—or, in this case, Prajāpati/Reality—one feeds them via their mouth which is the sacrificial fire. Reality is both the fire and the horse in an immortal cycle. The unmanifest aspect—which is just Death in both of these senses, and also none of them—does not partake of this; it only does so in its manifest aspect, which is conceived of as a form of its freedom and play (it is free even to kill itself and manifest itself in contradictory ways).

The horse being the food is also represented by the fact that fire cooks food. Cooking/cleansing by heat→transformation is the same principle representative of cognition that we saw with the beginning stages of creation: reality heated itself up to create foamy milk and purified golden butter/ghee. The cooking of the horse is symbolic of its transformation into something fit for sacrifice/sustaining reality. However, there are two aspects to the horse sacrifice: the roaming around of the horse for one year, and then the sacrifice of the horse. Note that the BU section mentions the bloating of the horse, and the passing of a year. All of this is a conceptual blend referring to the growth of a child/procreation, as we already saw in BU 1.2/AS. The horse, in a years time, grows up and moves (another symbol of freedom already mentioned). This, the text says, also makes the horse fit to be sacrificed. In the Vedas, the Sun is equated with a horse, too. The movement of the sun for one year is referring also to the moving of the horse during its one year of freedom, and to its growing up, or to childhood in general. The horse being the food, and also being like the sun which is the eater, is indicative of the same contradictory, monistic nature of reality, and of the freedom involved: it is a dynamic process of growing, eating, baking, cooking, etc. all within itself. The horse sacrifice is merely the human re-enactment of this fundamental behavior to reality that applies also to the lives of humans. We are born and the sun (i.e. time) slowly bakes us by transforming us to be ready to die, where we then travel up to the sun (in Vedic thought/the Pitṛyāna) to become one with the Eater, and eventually rain back down as water (the food) and live again.

This all points to rebirth, the development of a child/growing up, ritual sacrifice, the nature of reality, etc., and is obviously extremely relevant to Buddhism/Buddhist doctrine. In a sense, just as DN 27 leaves off around this point with all of the castes (and Snp 2.7 specifices that it is at this point that the horse sacrifice begins), it is at the end of DN 27 that the full cycle of rebirth, reality, the caste system, etc. is all put into place and swung in motion for us all to enact it out. However, DN 27 does end on a positive note: it mentions an escape from rebirth via liberating knowledge. BU 1.2 does the same.

Unlike the former passage, this refers to the devayāna (as is obviously alluded to in its mentioning that one becomes ‘one of these devas’). However, in the BU (and many Upaniṣads), the devayāna actually refers to liberating cognition and unity with the Unmanifest aspect of reality—Death (in its non-dual, non-manifest sense which manifests itself according to the above). Knowledge of this cycle of birth and death and the underlying unmanifest reality that is behind it running the show—via supernatural cognition and austerities—leads to an ontological transformation in the practitioner, and a complete transcendence of birth and death.

In this way, both BU 1.2 and DN 27 (Aggañña Sutta) develop the same general ideas with the same images and metaphorical domains, and they end in the same thing: liberation from birth and death. They describe how reality/beings got themselves in the current situation of repeated birth and death, and then the way out of it via knowledge of it.

Moreover, both stories—as most myths do, and especially Vedic cosmogonies—do not simply describe some distant past. Rather, they describe precisely how reality works now, how human beings participate in it actively, how they continue the manifestation of creation of it, and how they can transcend it. These are lessons in ones own personal cognition, the creation of the ‘external world,’ give meaning to one’s life and teach lessons on how to act, etc. In fat, the AS and BU sections are nearly identical in many ways (and even moreso with Vedic cosmogony in general). We see how the composer of the AS—say, the Buddha—was doing precisely what Vedic composers did: they drew on the same established concepts, images, and metaphors and applied them to a particular situation to express how they are relevant in that area. In this way, the AS is much closer to Brahmanical activity than Buddhist activity. That said, there is one crucial difference: The Aggañña Sutta removes the metaphysical absolute that justifies the entire process and makes it pelasurable. There is no ultimate, monistic Absolute or Reality. There are simply the beings in saṁsāra in an endless cycle. This cycle, shared with the BU, becomes meaningless when it is completely unmotivated by a free creative Absolute which manifests itself according to its own will.

Paṭiccasamuppāda, of course, is precisely this. It describes in abstract terms—rather than mythical stories, cosmogonies, or long narratives—the exact same process as the BU or AS, and it similarly removes the monistic Absolute as justification. If we want to summarize the narrative in the Aggañña Sutta, we could do so very well with the nidānas of paṭiccasamuppāda:

  • Avijjā : Dark waters with curdling food, and undifferentiated beings. They do not know what is to come of it, and cognition is much less individuated or possible.
  • Saṅkhārā : The interest and impulse in the food arises, and the beings develop the desire to cognize/unite themselves with it via eating. The same thing corresponds to reality wanting to build/construct (saṁ√kṛ) its ātman.
  • Viññāṇa : The beings realize subject-object cognition with the food by eating it (here, taste-consciousness more precisely). The water’s darkness is also dispelled, because the nectar is described like ghee or butter, which is understood as golden. Thus, they can see and cognize more clearly now, and the earth is beginning to manifest for further cognition.
  • Nāmarūpa : The beings now begin to differentiate themselves into different identities. There is a variety of forms and names/words. Different foods manifest with their own names and forms, and the beings continue to cognize these foods to produce further nāmarūpa. This parallels the narratives in the ŚB, BU, etc. where union with things (conceived in terms of sexual activity or eating) leads to the diversification of reality in terms of all the manifest things/creatures.
  • Saḷāyatana : The beings mature and grow up, just as a child’s faculties mature, and they experience things via their different senses/domains of experience. (The word āyatana has interesting connections to Vedic thought, though they are less relevant for these purposes here).
  • Phassa : In the same narratives, reality/the creator/the ātman enters into the world of nāmarūpa in order to experience / cognize itself (as more nāmarūpa). The beings must assume nāmarūpa to continue experiencing the nāmarūpa of the food by having contact with it. In this way, nāmarūpa evolves into contact with itself more and more.
  • Vedanā : The taste of the food is very enticing and pleasant. There are also beautiful and ugly forms, and the beings find some more attractive / pleasant than others, which are unpleasant.
  • Taṇhā : The beings enjoy the food and ‘craving is born.’ They crave for more food, and eventually they crave for one another as they develop sex and have sex with one another. The word is specifically related to ‘thirst’ and thus to consumption/digestion, and likewise is connected to the desire for sexual reproduction in many Upaniṣads.
  • Upādāna : The beings now cling to their possessions and bodies. They steal from one another and commit various immoral acts. They must continue consuming things—like a fire—in order to live (just as reality must manifest itself as food to eat itself lest it die, as Death eventually does, which it then must solve via sacrifice and allowing itself to be reborn and then die cyclically like the horse sacrifice).
  • Bhava / Jāti / Jarāmaraṇa : The entire cycle of saṁsāra is set into existence with beings stuck in the cycle, i.e. bhava, leading to their repeated birth (jāti) and death (jarāmaraṇa).

Prof. Joanna Jurewicz has already established the clear connections between paṭiccasamuppāda and Vedic cosmogony generally, and this has been widely accepted and acknowleged. However, never did she make the comparison to the exact same thing happening in the Aggañña Sutta, where the Buddha takes the same cosmogonies and removes their Absolute force (just as in paṭiccasamuppāda) then describes how they meaningless drive one into repeated birth and death (as the Vedas themselves also describe). I think that the AS is proof that the Buddha did just this and that paṭiccasamuppāda is a manifestation of the exact same thing. It is noteworthy too that the Aggañña Sutta is drawing on the Vedic motifs that are particularly associated with cognition, rebirth, suffering, fire, the ātman, etc., just as Joanna Jurewicz noted in the parallels to paṭiccasamuppāda. We also see, as Lauren Bausch has speculated, that these are cosmogonies from the Eastern Vedic area, from the Śatapatha Brāhmaṇa and its embedded Bṛhadāraṇyaka Upaniṣad—as we would expect from the Buddha, who grew up and taught in this exact same region.

I think we can further connect this to the Mahātaṇhāsaṅkhaya Sutta (MN 38) which gives a very vivid description of paṭiccasamuppāda in terms of a child who grows up, experiences pleasant contact with things, and entangles themself into suffering and saṁsāra. The fact that the Buddha there describes breast feeding is a parallel that has already been noticed with the AS in its mention of a milky liquid / cream. Likewise, I have already discussed several ways in which procreation and the development of a newborn child are extremely relevant to Vedic cosmogony. This recurs throughout the BU 1.2 section several times and in several places. There is much more I could say about this, but I would like to note one thing: the very notion of Reality being divided into an eater/eaten is compared with imagery of a newborn child in the ŚB and BU. That is, the mother gives birth to a child who is hungry and must eat, and who screams and makes noises (just as reality is hungry and emits speech from itself). The baby, if left unfed, will die—just like reality—and so the parents must find food for it (which is an image found in several cosmogonies).

There are other interesting parallels with MN 38, such as the Buddha comparing it to fire. This is precisely how cognition/consciousness is understood in the Veda (as should be, in some ways, much clearer now after this discussion). The Buddha there also spins off the idea of fire but turns it into a realistic metaphor that strips fire of metaphysical fire. There are other comparisons to fire, such as rebirth being a fire travelling from one tree to the next.

I would also like to say that there are other passages in the ŚB that correspond / relate to paṭiccasamuppāda, specifically those having to do with the Agnicayana—a ritual in which the brahmin inhabits the mental space of Prajāpati and embodies his creative power, constructing an alter which is his immortal ātmán and attaining to a state equivalent to Somic exultation which will protect him from harm and secure him rebirth in the Sun (i.e. the pitṛyāna). The cosmogony and exegesis on this ritual in the Śatapatha Brāhmaṇa has a lot of similarities to paṭiccasamuppāda already discussed by Prof. Jurewicz in her paper ‘Playing with Fire,’ and in several papers by Linda Blanchard, although her conclusions from the data she presents are not always the best, IMO; she seems to think it is justification that paṭiccasamuppāda is not about literal rebirth. Nevertheless, the data is still quite compelling and important for our understanding. This cosmogony is of course in the same general domain as those of the ŚB and BU presented here, and they elaborate on the same ideas according to their application. All of this to say, just like the Upaniṣads tend to do, the Buddha put Vedic ideas that he borrowed into much more abstract philosophical language that condenses several models together and expresses them in a clear way, with much less metaphor and imagery to cover them up. It is not equivalent to a single cosmogony, but rather draws on the ideas present in several exegetical cosmogonies related to cognition, the ātman, and birth/death.

I hope that these parallels help further our collective understanding of the Aggañña Sutta, paṭiccasamuppāda, and the Vedic thought which the Buddha drew from in his teaching. If I’ve missed anything or made any mistakes, please let me know! There’s a lot to be said here, but I think this will do for now.


Genesis 1

The Beginning

1 In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth. 2 Now the earth was formless and empty, darkness was over the surface of the deep, and the Spirit of God was hovering over the waters.

3 And God said, “Let there be light,” and there was light. 4 God saw that the light was good, and he separated the light from the darkness. 5 God named the light “day,” and the darkness he named “night.” And there was evening, and there was morning—the first day.

6 And God said, “Let there be a vault between the waters to separate water from water.” 7 So God made the vault and separated the water under the vault from the water above it. And it was so. 8 God named the vault “sky.” And there was evening, and there was morning—the second day.

SN 12.20 says paṭiccasamuppāda is an aspect of fixed law (dhammaniyama) that exists even when there are no Buddhas in the world to reveal it.

Whether Realized Ones arise or not, this law of nature persists, this regularity of natural principles, this invariance of natural principles, specific conditionality. A Realized One understands this and comprehends it, then he explains, teaches, asserts, establishes, clarifies, analyzes, and reveals it.

AN 3.61 says paṭiccasamuppāda is the 2nd Noble Truth.

And what is the noble truth of the origin of suffering? Ignorance is a condition for… old age and death, sorrow, lamentation, pain, sadness, and distress to come to be. That is how this entire mass of suffering originates. This is called the noble truth of the origin of suffering.

It follows it seems unlikely paṭiccasamuppāda can be derived from mythology. However, to the contrary, it seems mythology can certainly be derived from a partial/deluded glimpse of what is true & real.

DN 27 says:

But the single mass of water at that time was utterly dark. The moon and sun were not found, nor were stars and constellations, day and night, months and fortnights, years and seasons, or male and female. Beings were simply known as ‘beings’. After a very long period had passed, solid nectar curdled in the water. It appeared just like the curd on top of hot milk-rice as it cools. It was beautiful, fragrant, and delicious, like ghee or butter. And it was as sweet as pure manuka honey. Now, one of those beings was reckless. Thinking, ‘Oh my, what might this be?’ they tasted the solid nectar with their finger. They enjoyed it, and craving was born in them. And other beings, following that being’s example, tasted solid nectar with their fingers. They too enjoyed it, and craving was born in them.

But so long as they ate that ripe untilled rice, their bodies became more solid and they diverged in appearance. And female characteristics appeared on women, while male characteristics appeared on men. Women spent too much time gazing at men, and men at women. They became lustful, and their bodies burned with fever. Due to this fever they had sex with each other.

Mahātaṇhāsaṅkhaya Sutta about paṭiccasamuppāda says:

Mendicants, when three things come together an embryo is conceived. In a case where the mother and father come together, but the mother is not in the fertile phase of her menstrual cycle, and the virile spirit is not potent, the embryo is not conceived. In a case where the mother and father come together, the mother is in the fertile phase of her menstrual cycle, but the virile spirit is not potent, the embryo is not conceived. But when these three things come together—the mother and father come together, the mother is in the fertile phase of her menstrual cycle, and the virile spirit is potent—an embryo is conceived.

The mother nurtures the embryo in her womb for nine or ten months at great risk to her heavy burden. When nine or ten months have passed, the mother gives birth at great risk to her heavy burden. When the infant is born she nourishes it with her own blood. For mother’s milk is regarded as blood in the training of the Noble One.

That boy grows up and his faculties mature. He accordingly plays childish games such as toy plows, tipcat, somersaults, pinwheels, toy measures, toy carts, and toy bows.

That boy grows up and his faculties mature further. He accordingly amuses himself, supplied and provided with the five kinds of sensual stimulation. Sights known by the eye that are likable, desirable, agreeable, pleasant, sensual, and arousing.

Sounds known by the ear …

Smells known by the nose …

Tastes known by the tongue …

Touches known by the body that are likable, desirable, agreeable, pleasant, sensual, and arousing.

When they see a sight with their eyes, if it’s pleasant they desire it, but if it’s unpleasant they dislike it. They live with mindfulness of the body unestablished and their heart restricted. And they don’t truly understand the freedom of heart and freedom by wisdom where those arisen bad, unskillful qualities cease without anything left over.

Being so full of favoring and opposing, when they experience any kind of feeling—pleasant, unpleasant, or neutral—they approve, welcome, and keep clinging to it. This gives rise to relishing. Relishing feelings is grasping. Their grasping is a condition for continued existence. Continued existence is a condition for rebirth. Rebirth is a condition for old age and death, sorrow, lamentation, pain, sadness, and distress to come to be. That is how this entire mass of suffering originates.

When they hear a sound with their ears …

When they smell an odor with their nose …

When they taste a flavor with their tongue …

When they feel a touch with their body …

When they know a thought with their mind, if it’s pleasant they desire it, but if it’s unpleasant they dislike it. They live with mindfulness of the body unestablished and their heart restricted. And they don’t truly understand the freedom of heart and freedom by wisdom where those arisen bad, unskillful qualities cease without anything left over.

Being so full of favoring and opposing, when they experience any kind of feeling—pleasant, unpleasant, or neutral—they approve, welcome, and keep clinging to it. This gives rise to relishing. Relishing feelings is grasping. Their grasping is a condition for continued existence. Continued existence is a condition for rebirth. Rebirth is a condition for old age and death, sorrow, lamentation, pain, sadness, and distress to come to be. That is how this entire mass of suffering originates.

MN 38

Since DN 27 seems to refer to the existence of beings prior to the appearance of craving & sexual intercourse, it seems the Aggañña Sutta and the Mahātaṇhāsaṅkhaya Sutta may contradict each other.

About ‘beings’, the paṭiccasamuppāda & the Mahātaṇhāsaṅkhaya Sutta seem to explain ‘beings’ are born from craving; rather than what is said in the Aggañña Sutta; that ‘beings’ existed prior to the arising of craving. To reiterate this, the Mahātaṇhāsaṅkhaya Sutta says:

Mendicants, there are these four fuels. They maintain sentient beings that have been born and help those that are about to be born. What four? Solid food, whether coarse or fine; contact is the second, mental intention the third, and consciousness the fourth.

What is the source, origin, birthplace, and inception of these four fuels? Craving.

MN 38

SN 12.2 also says about the inception of “beings”:

Craving is a condition for grasping. Grasping is a condition for continued existence. Continued existence is a condition for rebirth.

And what is rebirth? The rebirth, inception, conception, reincarnation, manifestation of the aggregates, and acquisition of the sense fields of the various sentient beings in the various orders of sentient beings. This is called rebirth.

SN 12.2 (Sujato translation)

It seems clear “beings” require “craving” as a condition per SN 12.2; rather than “craving” requires “beings” for a condition per DN 27.

SN 12.10 says:

‘Origination, origination.’ Such was the vision, knowledge, wisdom, realization, and light that arose in me regarding teachings not learned before from another.

SN 56.11 says:

‘This is the noble truth of the origin of suffering.’ Such was the vision, knowledge, wisdom, realization, and light that arose in me regarding teachings not learned before from another. ‘

It seems SN 12.10 & SN 56.11 do not support the theories of secular scholars such as Joanna Jurewicz and Richard Gombrich. :dizzy:

Don’t say it is contradict, before having direct knowledge. Logical can only take you so far. :grin:

Craving of 5 senses may lead to having solid/coarse body (aka human).

Direct knowledge of Aggañña. That’s amazing! :pray:t2: Hair-raising!! :open_mouth:

How does the above reconcile with the below? Thanks :thinking:

It’s not because of deeds born of greed, hate, and delusion that gods, humans, or those in any other good places are found.

Na, bhikkhave, lobhajena kammena dosajena kammena mohajena kammena devā paññāyanti

AN 6.39

Btw, try to connect AN 7.66 and DN 27, one will get a picture about the world. Buddha indeed explain about the mundane world :grin:

Use DN 27 to reverse the paticca samuppada, you will see how DO and N8FP work.

Btw, The world will expand and contract automatically. No one (no god, no being etc) govern it.

Good luck.

Does not sound like direct knowledge.

A contraction of the world, that will inevitably re-expand, does not sound like a reverse of paticca samuppada… but sounds like a continuation of samsara…

Thank you for the tag and interest. These days I am pre-occupied with a life of meditative seclusion and administrivia in the urban wilderness of Western Sydney while I spend my 30s awaiting the inevitable onset of menopause and my subsequent death. The brightest thing around here is the plastic marigolds I salvaged from the rubbish skip. I rarely think about things like the upanishads these days. In the beginning, was there existence or non-existence? I don’t know. I assume there must have also been shopping trolleys in the cosmic river back then, too.

Please go on thinking about such matters without me.