The Therevada Sāriputta reversal

I noticed that the parallels for MN43 and SN12.67 all swap Mahākoṭṭhita and Sāriputta. So in MN43 it is Sāriputta who answers Mahākoṭṭhita’s questions but in MA211 it is the other way round, similarly for SN12.67 with SA288 and SF155. So I have begun digging, and so far have found that;
MN24 has Sariputta interrogate Puṇṇa son of Mantāṇī but both MA9 and EA39.10 have him interrogating Moggallāna, and
SN12.25 has Sariputta being questioned by Bhūmija but SA343 has Punna being questioned by “monks” and SF171 has “monks” questioning Bhumika.

Is anyone aware of this phenomenon and other examples of it?

I will of course keep looking, but it occurs to me after my experience cataloguing the khandhas that I should ask on here if others have already done this work :slight_smile:

1 Like

Why do you suppose the roles were swapped? Is there a change in the position on the issue?

I mean, one of the first tasks of a historical-critical examination of the Tipitaka would obviously be to take a closer look at the historical Ananda, Sariputto etc, because they feature so prominently in the canon and are also said to have been present at the councils where it was formed. Could they have overstated their roles in the original Sangha? Could they even have been proponents of rivaling fractions, both claiming exclusive intimacy with the Buddha’s teachings? If so, that might explain some of the discrepancies in the Suttas. Just a hunch.

Interesting question!

AFAIK, the suttas were originally memorized by monks in ‘thumbnail’ form and certain rules were followed to ‘expand’ those thumbnails during recitation. If memory serves me right, there are also defined thumb rules to be followed if a monk has forgotten some aspect of a sutta during recitation… viz, rules for making it up. Thus, if a monk has forgotten where a sutta occurred, it is to be placed in Vaishali… etc. It was only when the suttas came to be committed in written form that their text became static.

It strikes me that the changes in character name mentioned by you might perhaps be due to these rules within the oral tradition? That is, somewhere in the transmission the actual name was forgotten and ‘Sariputta’ was inserted as a ‘stand-in’?

The person who could shed some light on this might be - Ven @sujato ?


Sarīputtā could not possibly have been around at the time of the council, he attained parinibbana long before that. Two prominent figures that immediately come to mind as far as the first council goes are Maha Kassapā and Ananda, who barely managed to get in. I doubt he did more than recite verbatim, suttas that were deemed important, and get the chronology of events right.


SA replaces Mahākoṭṭhita with Mahakasyapa in the parallels to SN22.122 , SN22.123 , SN22.127 , SN12.128.

In SN22.133 , for the first time in the Theravada suttas that I can find, Sarīputtā is the questioner and Mahākoṭṭhita the one answering, however, in SA258 the pattern remains the same with Mahakasyapa questioning Sarīputtā.

SN28.10 is interesting, it is the only sutta in the Sarīputtāvagga that has a parallel.

Bhikkhu Analayo also points out frequent name changes of speaking characters between Pali and Chinese texts in his book Daughters of the Buddha.

I’m sorry that I can’t make any specific quotes at the moment since I borrowed the book from my local library. Going from my memory, some of the substitutions were between Bhikkhuni names that sounded similar to each other. In some cases a speaker or conversation became transposed into the sutta either before or after the one it originally came from. In at least one case evidence points to a later corruption in the Pali text rather than an error in translation.


Thanks for the refrence @Nicole ! Much appreciated.

In MN 32, Mahāgosiṅga Sutta, where several of the Buddha’s great disciples gather one night in Gosiṅga’s grove, and each in turn describes what sort of mendicant would “light up the grove” (gosiṅgasālavanaṁ sobheyya): each description being understood to reflect respectively the special qualities or abilities associated with the monk who offered it.

Mahā Moggallāna and Sāriputta each give descriptions which suspiciously seem to be far better suited to the other, with Mahā Moggallāna, far more briefly than the other monks, praising what amount to abhidhammikas and Sāriputta giving a quite long speech on one with meditative abilities which recalls the Vattha Sutta where he speaks on the seven bojjhaṅgas. The three Chinese parallels (here, here, and here) all differ from the Pāli insofar as Mahā Moggallāna’s description is replaced with one pertaining to meditative abilities and iddhipādas and such. Sāriputta‘s, however, remains largely the same.

It’s perhaps not exactly what you’re referring to, but it’s one which always stayed with me. I see lots of examples in the discourses which, to my eye, show (the early Theravādin community at least) disesteeming Mahā Moggallāna relative to Sāriputta.


Yes! This is exactly the pheno.ena that i am curious about, thanks you!!

1 Like

This is interesting. Are the āgama counterparts otherwise identical, or are they different in other ways?

We are looking at a collection of religious stories, transmitted orally in small, disparate groups, for at least 150 years, in which elements of the framing, such as the location or the protagonists, are far less important than the doctrinal content. The orality of the stories is evident, for example, in such features as modularity: stock words and phrases repeated across numerous texts with only minor changes in detail.

Then those stories were fixed in writing in at least two different places: Gāndhārī in the Peshawar Valley (Northwest Pakistan/Eastern Afghanistan) and Pāli in Sri Lanka. Composition of Pāli suttas probably stopped before Asoka (or if later at least outside of his orbit in Sri Lanka), while composition of Buddhist sutras continued in mainland India for centuries. Pāli texts were canonised. It’s not clear that Gāndhārī texts were, since no such canon was ever transmitted to China (the Chinese had to invent their own canon which attained its final shape only around the 9th century CE).

In which case, this is just the kind of thing that we might expect to observe.

One similar example I can think of is the āgama counterparts of the Kaccānagotta Sutta (SN 12.15), which are all set in different places. The āgama versions have one or two sentences in a different order to the Pāli, and one line that occurs in Pāli is missing, but they are otherwise the same text. Again, this is predicted by the idea of a long period of oral transmission and preservation in disconnected milieus.


My impression is that apart from the reversal they are otherwise the same, but my initial research has been focused on identifying speakers not close examination of what is said, so when i am done I will go back and review this question more carefully.

My current speculative theory, which is a habit of mine when investigating, and not in any way meant to be taken as more than that, is that in the case of the Mahākoṭṭhita material at least, we might have a situation where Mahākoṭṭhita or his lineage are responsible for some aspects of the undeclared points material, for eg applying them to DO, and the Therevada have reversed the roles as part of a process of elevating Sariputta as a figure. This would then be a kind of legitimization device for the Therevada, putting Mahākoṭṭhita’s innovative applicaiton of the undeclared to the DO into the mouth of the “great Sariputta” This is very speculative as I say, but the indicators for me are the elevation by the Therevada of “monks” to “Sariputta” in some of the other examples given, indicating elevation, and the fairly narrow thematic focus of the Mahākoṭṭhita material in the specific area of the undeclared points.

Just on the mythological character of these texts @Jayarava ,and even more speculatively, Sariputta may for the Theravada become the “noble son” of the scholastic period material, i.e a sort of idealized senior monk, used as the personification of monastic authority. The buddha, sariputta and mogolanna then become a sort of personified trinity; the noble son (Sariputta) on the great path (Moggallana) to awakening (Buddha). (as i say, speculative.)

anyway, I can’t seem to find the example I first noticed this phenomena in, its in SN, and has sariputta reciting the 10DO, then the interlocuter recites the 12DO in agreement, I think I recall the SA parallel reversing the speakers but can’t find it now.


1 Like

I think this is plausible. I have increasingly observed an intense anxiety over “authenticity” amongst Buddhists. This is accompanied by strenuous efforts to assert legitimacy for one or other form of Buddhist doxology and to delegitimise others To the point where “orthodox” ceases to have any real meaning since there is no universally agreed common ground.

Such efforts very often include creating fake lineages, for example both Chan/Zen and Nyingma Buddhists have been caught doing this.