The term “twice-born” may be first attested in the Therigatha

A common term for Brahmins is “twice-born” (dvija or dvijāti), referring to the physical and spiritual births.

As so often, it is easy to assume that aspects of Brahmanical culture have ancient roots, but as shown by the distinguished Indological scholar Patrick Olivelle, sometimes they are not as ancient as we think.

Olivelle pointed out that the term is absent from early Brahmanical literature. This is an important finding, and yet another reminder of the importance of not reading later ideas into earlier texts.

2012e Patañjali and Dharmaśāstra.pdf (1.4 MB)

Olivelle says (p. 127):

The Dharmasūtra of Gautama is the earliest extant text to use the term dvijāti, using it four times; he does not use dvija.

The Gautama is regarded as one of the earliest of the Dharmaśāstras. Like practically all Indic texts, its date is uncertain and contested. Olivelle situates it in “late 2nd to early 1st century BCE”, which is later than some other scholars. In any case, it is roughly contemporary with the later portions of the Pali canon.

Olivelle goes on to say (p. 127):

It is significant that there is no cognate term in Pali with reference to Brahmins, and in Buddhist hybrid Edgerton gives only one example, Dvijātirāja as the name of a Buddha in a former life. Clearly, this concept was confined to later Brahmanical theology and did not have an impact on the Buddhist vocabulary.

However, he missed a reference in the Therīgāthā (thig15.1:31.4):

Annena ca pānena ca,
With food and drink
Tappaya samaṇe dvijātī ca
satisfy ascetics and the twice-born.

The context makes it clear that “twice-born” is an idiom for a Brahmin.

Which came first, the Therīgāthā or the Gautama? Well, it’s impossible to say with certainty. But if we accept Olivelle’s dating of the Gautama, we can ask which source is likely to have been earlier.

That requires us to consider the dating of the Therīgāthā. But the Therīgāthā is a composite text, and contains poems of different ages. Most of the poems are attributed to bhikkhunis who lived at the time of the Buddha, and IMO there is no strong reason to doubt that this is the case. However, there are some poems that were clearly composed later, and this line is in one of those later poems, namely the verses of Isidāsī. This is an extended narrative that relates details of past lives and their kammic cause-and-effect, which is the kind of narrative that is rarely if ever found in early texts, but became popular in following centuries.

In the introduction to his translation, KR Norman discusses dating and closes the Therīgāthā at “the end of the third century BCE” (xxxi)—significantly earlier than Olivelle’s dating of the Gautama. He notes of the Isidāsī poem that it mentions Pāṭaliputta, which would normally mean that it is composed after the death of the Buddha. However, he says, that line is said by the commentary to have been added by the redactors at the Council, so it tells us nothing of the date of the content.

If we take the commentator at face value, then the text must have been composed before the “Council”. The commentary does not specify which Council, but it can only refer to one of the first three councils, as references to a “Fourth Council” are restricted to post-commentarial texts. This places the text with Ashoka at the latest.

Now, Isidāsī appears in one other text, Dīpavaṁsa 18.10, in a list of prominent bhikkhunis.

Mahāpajāpatī nāmā gotamī iti vissutā
Khemā uppalavaṇṇā ca ubho tā aggasāvikā
Paṭācārā dhammadinnā sobhitā isidāsikā

The first five of these bhikkhunis were contemporaries of the Buddha. Then comes Sobhitā—who is not known elsewhere—then Isidāsī. This suggests that a generation or so lay between the Buddha and Isidāsī, putting her around the time of the Second Council.

There is another connection, which is very tenuous but interesting nonetheless. In the Cīvarakkhandhaka (kd8:24.5.1), we find mention of the monks Isidāsa and Isibhaṭa, who were brothers. This suggests a family naming pattern, as we see commonly in Pali. No sources, so far as I know, say Isidasi was their sister, but it is a possibility. Now, the only reason I mention such a tenuous link is that their story goes on to link them with the following:

On that occasion there were a number of senior monks—Venerable Nilavāsī, Venerable Sāṇavāsī, Venerable Gotaka, Venerable Bhagu, and Venerable Phaḷikasantāna—staying at Pāṭaliputta in the Kukkuṭa Monastery.

This is the only mention of Sāṇavāsī outside of the Second Council (and Petavatthu 27) in the canon, and places these monks firmly around the time of the Second Council, and Isidāsī too if she is their sister. Thin indeed, but we work with what we have.

In terms of doctrine and style, compared to most of the Pali suttas the idea of specific kammic results for specific deeds shows a somewhat late tendency, as does the extended narrative form. However, the text is direct, vivid, and energetic in style, far from the cloying piety of the Apadānas or the imaginative dearth of the Cariyapiṭaka. Again I would say a date around the Second Council or the following period seems reasonable.

Metrically, the verses are mostly gaṇacchandas, which Warder associates with the Mauryan period; it went out of style quickly, making a much later date unlikely.

Taken together this gives a reasonably strong case for dating the Isidāsī verses in the Mauryan period, let us say within a century or so of the Second Council, or in the 3rd century BCE.

This puts it a century or two before the Gautama, according to Olivelle’s dates. Given the uncertainty of all such dates, at the very least we can say it appears around the same time and probably earlier.

Compared with the Gautama:

  • It shares the same form dvijāti
  • It differs in that it clearly indicates brahmins only, not other castes
  • It’s a popular text, indicating that the term was in everyday use, and must have existed as a technical term for some time previously. It’s not like the author of the Isidāsī verses was scouring the latest Brahmanical treatises for innovations to add to their poem to make them look hip.

Obviously the Gautama draws from earlier traditions, and it seems likely that dvijāti was current for some centuries before being recorded there.

I emailed Prof Olivelle about this and he was kind enough to reply. He said that in his view the Isidāsī verses must have been composed after the Brahmanical invention of the term dvijāti in probably in late 2nd century BCE.

However as we have seen, there is good reason to date the verses somewhat earlier. Even if Olivelle’s suggestion is correct, however, it still means that the term appears at roughly the same time in the Buddhist and Brahmanical contexts.

More significant than the exact dates, and more certain too, is the fact that it appears in a non-technical context in Pali. This gives us a broader picture of the development of such technical vocabulary, and invites the question: was this invented by a Brahmanical law-maker to explain a technicality of legal proceedings, or was it a poetic or idiomatic term that was current in society and later adopted and given technical meaning by the author of the Gautama? Olivelle concludes the former, but the evidence of the Therīgāthā suggests the latter.


Perhaps Prof. Olivelle failed to look at the Ṛgveda-khilāni that mention dvija & dvijāti a few times, evidently meaning twice-born as used in later literature i.e. people from the Brahmin, Kṣatriya and Vaiśya families (or sometimes just Brahmins) - and which are likely to be older than both the Therigāthā and the Dharmasūtras of Gautama. See section 2.6 (pg 28) of Prof. Witzel’s paper - :

RvKh_4,2.6a: śānty.artham.tad.dvijātīnām.ṛṣibhiḥ.samupaśritāḥ./
RvKh_4,2.6b: ṛgvede.tvam.samutpanna.arātīyato.nidahāti.vedaḥ./

RvKh_4,2.8a: ye.agni.varṇām.śubhām.saumyām.kīrtayiṣāḥ./
RvKh_4,2.8b: tām.tārayati.durgāṇi.nava.iva.sindhum.duritāty.agniḥ./

KhKh_7.7a: sāgram.varṣa.śatam.jīva.piba.khā
KhKh_7.7b: duhkhitāṃś.ca.dvijāṃś.caiva.prajāśu.pālaya./

From: Rgveda - Khila

Awesome, thanks! And thanks for the link to Witzel, it gives a useful background. I’ll email Patrick with this info.

Non sudra families would have their upanayana ceremony. But nowadays, only Brahmins have their Upanayana ceremony. P.S : My mother is from a Brahmin family.

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