The Snake: Uragasutta, Snp1.1

The Suttanipāta opens with the Uragasutta ([snp1.1]), which draws out the metaphor of a snake shedding its skin. It was a popular poem, judging by the existence of parallels found in the Gāndhārī Dharmapada, Patna Dhammapada, and Udānavarga. A comparative study by Ven Ānandajoti concluded that, while the text is old, verses 6 and 10–13 in the Pali were likely added later, for they are not found in the parallels.

Most of us will encounter the snake metaphor from the safety of our comfortable and snake-free homes. Even in Australia—and I’m sorry to disappoint—it isn’t really the case that deadly snakes lurk around every corner. Having said which, I’m writing this from my father’s home in the hills up from Coffs Harbour. There once was a huge carpet python sleeping beneath the bed I’m using. Bloated with the ducklings in its belly, it was even bigger than the one in the workshop. But carpet pythons are mostly harmless, unlike the black snake that slithered across the TV while people were watching it. But it’s the brown snakes that you really have to look out for. And the tiger snakes, and the cunningly-named death adder. But I promise, not everywhere in Australia is like this! Anyway, we have anti-venom and few people die of snakebite in Australia. In India, on the other hand, snakes are still a deadly menace, killing around 58,000 people each year.

So while we might relate to a snake sentimentally, appreciating its cool elegance, for the mendicants living in the forests 2,500 years ago, a snakebite meant death. Indeed, the Pali texts record many monks dying this way (eg. [an4.67]). When the Uragasutta compares a mendicant with a snake, it is associating them with a dangerous and mysterious power over life and death. Elsewhere, the Suttas warn us to beware of five things when they are young: a prince, a snake, a fire, and a mendicant ([sn3.1]). Each of these may look harmless when small, but can be deadly when grown.

A snake often appears in a negative aspect: a taker of life, a loathsome spitter of poison, a shape-shifting master of deception. But the impression that the snake makes on the human mind is nothing if not complicated. We are afraid and fascinated in equal measure. One of the snake’s many astonishing properties is its ability to shed its skin. And in this we can see a manifestation of its deathly power not for destruction but for transformation.

The first verse offers a succinct summary of the entire Buddhist path, employing the snake metaphor in both dark and bright aspects.

When anger surges, they drive it out,
as with medicine a snake’s spreading venom.
Such a mendicant sheds this world and the next,
as a snake its old worn-out skin.

The first couplet reflects where we are: riven with anger. If anger is a poison, then there is on the one hand a threat to life; but on the other, there is a possibility of a cure. Now, the treatments available at that time—which involved using disgusting substances like ash or dung as an emetic ([pli-tv-kd6:14.6.1])—were risky at best. But survival was not impossible, because the venom was still “spreading”: it is an active, ongoing process, not something that is fated or destined. If anger is likewise “spreading”, it too can be arrested.

Thus far the teaching aligns with what we might expect from a psychologist, or indeed, from common sense. But now the verse inverts the snake metaphor. The death threatened in the opening manifests as something rather more mysterious: the shedding of skin, abandoning “this world and the next”. The Pali here is orapāraṁ, more literally, “the near shore and the far”. Often these terms refer to the mundane world of suffering and the transcendence realization of Nibbana, but here they must refer to “this world” in which one is born, and “another world” to which one goes after death, so I have translated accordingly. Verses commonly employ non-standard terms, whether for poetic expressiveness, or simply to fit the metre.

Whereas most psychology aims to alleviate extremes of distress and promote a healthy and balanced happiness, and most religion offers a promise of bliss in a future life, the Buddha promised something quite different: freedom.

Taking the metaphor on face value and without regard for context, one might infer that the Sutta is teaching that the true essence of a person lives inside their “skin”—i.e. the ephemeral physical body—and that when they shed their “skin” they will reveal this true essence. Such a reading would support the theory, which has become popular in modern times, that the Buddha’s teaching was essentially the same as that of the Upaniṣads.

However, if the Buddha wanted to teach the survival of an abiding essence, he could surely have done a better job of it. Long before he appeared, the snake metaphor had already been employed to express this idea. Consider the following verse from Bṛhadāraṇyaka Upaniṣad 4.4.7:

This corpse lies as lifeless as the slough of a snake shed in an anthill. But this incorporeal, immortal life-breath is sheer divinity, sheer incandescence.

Like the Uragasutta, this employs a snake shedding its skin as a metaphor for spiritual transcendence. But the passage goes on to speak of an essential force that is divine, radiant, and immortal. This is the concept of the transcendent Self that is so prominent in the Upaniṣads and so conspicuously absent from the Uragasutta, and which the Buddha rejected on so many occasions.

That said, the shared metaphor does raise a question. Is it simply a result of various sages independently observing a common feature of nature and applying it as a spiritual metaphor? Or is the Buddhist text consciously responding to the earlier usage of the metaphor, and possibly even to this specific Upaniṣadic passage? This question invite us to take a closer look at the context.

The Upaniṣadic quote is a comment on a verse that speaks of releasing all the heart’s desires. The entire chapter is concerned with the passage of the “Self” from this world to the next world, and how this is propelled by a person’s deeds (karma). Indeed, it is in this chapter that we find perhaps the earliest clear statement of the doctrine of karma as moral deeds (Bṛhadāraṇyaka Upaniṣad 4.4.5). This idea is so central to Buddhism that it is tempting to believe it was a commonly accepted notion at the time. But it is not found in the earlier Vedic texts, and here it is introduced in an esoteric dialogue. And even here it is not presented as a doctrine universally accepted, for others are said to hold a different belief: the self is purely desire and attains that for which it wishes. In this alternate theory, it is the force of will that matters, not the moral quality of actions.

This means there are at least two details in this passage that echo ideas found in the Suttas: the snake shedding its skin, and the doctrine of karma. Now, it often happens that when you notice one detail shared between the Suttas and a passage of the Upaniṣads, you’ll soon find another. And it turns out that in this case there are not just two, but many ideas, phrases, and metaphors running parallel. Here are a few of them:

  • the ancient way that is rediscovered (BrhUp 4.4.8; cp. [sn12.65:7.1]);
  • the aged body like a cart (BrhUp 4.3.35; cp. [dn16:2.25.11]);
  • the ability to see the effects of merit and demerit (BrhUp 4.3.15 ff., BrhUp 4.3.34; cp. [dn2:95.2]);
  • comparing heavenly realms through multiplication (BrhUp 4.3.33; cp. [an8.43]);
  • the functions of seeing, hearing, thinking, etc. (BrhUp 4.3.23 ff.; cp. [snp4.12:10.1]);
  • the image of freedom as detachment of a mango from its stalk (BrhUp 4.3.36; cp. [dn1:3.73.4]);
  • the phrasing of identification with the Self as “I am this” (BrhUp 4.4.12: ayamasmīti; cp. [sn35.248:3.1]: ayamahamasmīti);
  • the idea that the ignorant suffer (BrhUp 4.4.14; cp. [an4.171:5.2]);
  • the observation that thinking is fatiguing compared to awareness (BrhUp 4.4.21; cp. [mn19:8.8]);
  • giving up desire for children, renouncing the home and the worldy “quest” (eṣana), and wandering as a mendicant in search of truth (BrhUp 4.4.22,; cp. [snp1.3:1.3]);
  • the identification of the state transcending rebirth
    • as that which is unborn, unaging, undying, and fearless (BrhUp 4.4.25; cp. [ud8.3:3.1], [sn6.13:3.4]);
    • as that that which neither increases nor decreases (BrhUp 4.4.23; cp. [an8.19:15.2]);
    • as that which is the negation of everything (BrhUp 4.3.22; cp. [an11.9:7.3]);
    • as the divinity that is the cosmos (BrhUp 4.4.13: tasya lokaḥ, sa u loka eva; cp. [sn22.81:10.7]: so attā so loko).

The next chapter has even more, but I’ll stop there. Independently, each point may be simply a coincidence, but taken as a whole they paint a compelling picture. There’s hardly a verse that doesn’t remind of the Suttas in some way. And the similarity is not just in specifics, for the Uragasutta’s emphasis on paradoxical phrasing and mysterious transcendence sounds a lot like an Upaniṣad. Clearly this passage is closely connected with the Suttas, and it seems to me unlikely that it is a mere thematic affinity or coincidence.

The closeness is not just in content but in historical context as well. These chapters were spoken by the sage Yājñavalkya to King Janaka of Videha, perhaps a century or two before the Buddha. It is a curious thing that the Buddha, in his only recorded visit to Videha, spoke with and ultimately converted Brahmāyu, perhaps the oldest living brahmanical sage ([mn92]). Surely this text has a missionary purpose, to convert the most respected brahmin in this ancient home of some of the most famous brahmanical dialogues. It’s even possible that Brahmāyu was a direct student of Yājñavalkya. Regardless, there are many instances where the Buddha’s teaching clearly echoes and responds to that of Yājñavalkya, and we will encounter this again in the Suttanipāta, especially the final chapter.

Similarity, however, does not mean identity. If the Buddha was drawing on and echoing ideas from these dialogues, he did not do so uncritically; the differences are just as important as the similarities.

Yājñavalkya expresses his view with clarity and elegance: the Self is the person made of consciousness, the immortal light in the heart among the vital energies (BrhUp 4.3.7). There is no mistaking what he meant. The folk who have tried to extract a similar view from the Suttas are reduced to seeking out in dusty allusions and twisted metaphors the same thing that Yājñavalkya had already stated directly.

Given this context, might it be that the Snake Sutta was composed as a deliberate rejoinder to Yājñavalkya? It’s possible, but it’s hard to say definitively. This is often the case in the Suttas. The Upaniṣadic view is there, but not explicitly, so it is easy to overlook. Only when seeing the overall pattern does it become clear.

But I would make another proposal. The Suttanipāta as a whole ends with the Pārāyanavagga, a series of conversations with brahmins that closely evoke the Upaniṣads. I think the Snake Sutta was added at the beginning of the Suttanipāta to frame the entire collection as an implicit rejection of the Upaniṣadic doctrine. Right from the beginning, we hear an unequivocal rejection of any positive assertion of a Self, the core of Yājñavalkya’s teaching.

The Buddha adopts that which is of value in Yājñavalkya’s analysis: namely, that desire, hate, and ignorance create suffering and bind us to a cycle of rebirth. But when speaking of shedding the skin, he says nothing of a new or revealed state of the Self. It is the shedding itself that is the point. They find “no substance” in any existence, going beyond “any state of existence” because they know that it is all “not what it seems”. His response to the Upaniṣads is subtle and nuanced; what he does not say is as significant as what he does say.

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Yup. I just picked up a 2021 MA dissertation evaluating the Western scholarly literature to date on the relation between early Buddhist sutta and the vedic … er… oikumene, could I say. It’s 330 pgs long, so I will have to get back to you with my findings, but … there is a big word hanging softly over this dissertation … religious apology. The author is pretty clear, he considers

namely that early Buddhism was neither a reformed Brahmanism nor a movement which developed as an opposition to Brahmanism. Instead, original Buddhism should be regarded as an innovative spiritual movement which in certain aspects was closely related to Brahmanism and the śramaṇa teachings of that time.

The first supposition the author mentions was thrown out fairly early in the 20th century. We do not want to go back there. The second … I don’t know. I lean heavily on Murti who has said that he finds a definite air of hostility toward atmavada in the suttas. The third, well, the author is leaning on a scholar who has emerged into popularity recently whom I do not like, and do not find reliable. So I will just have to be patient and be generous with academic courtesy … and take it from there.

Unfortunately, dating matters. Here’s what the author has said about the vedic sources he plans to use, given that he accepts the Western dating of Buddha’s parinibbana to be around 400 BCE.

As pre-Buddha we consider the oldest Vedic literature: the Ṛgveda (ṚV), the Atharvaveda, and the other Saṃhitās. As most probably pre-Buddha we also consider the Aitareya Brāhmaṇa (AB), Kauṣītaki Brāhmaṇa (KB), Taittirīya Brāhmaṇa (TB), Jaiminīya Brāhmaṇa (JB), and Śatapatha Brāhmaṇa (ŚB). Further some Upaniṣads: Bṛhadāraṇyaka (BU), Chāndogya (CU), and the Jaiminīya Upaniṣad Brāhmaṇa (JUB) have more relevance for our investigations, while the other probably pre-Buddha Upaniṣads (Taittirīya TU, Aitareya AU, and Kauṣītaki KU) only rarely have significance for our comparative study (see for a chronology of the Upaniṣads Olivelle 1998, 12). … Vedic literature that was composed 400-50 BCE, i.e. the time in which the Pāli suttas were still being formed, could have still influenced the sutta material even after the Buddha’s lifetime. In this category we include the Śrautasūtras, the older Gṛhyasūtras, and the four principal Dharmasūtras.

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