Three times is a pattern: excavating the mythology of the Mahāpadānasutta

the khattiya Buddhas

Who was Sikhī? He was the second of the seven Buddhas. His name means “crest”, and is used for, among other things, the tongues of fire or the glory of a peacock. His father is Aruṇa and his mother Pabhāvatī: King Dawn and Queen Radiant. Sikhī, then, is the streaming rays of the sunrise.

Once is an occurrence; twice is a coincidence; three times is a pattern.

What of Vessabhū? The third of the seven Buddhas, his name is equivalent to Sanskrit Viśvabhṛt, and means “bearer or nourisher or upholder of all". His father is Suppatita and his mother Vassavatī: King Goodfall and Queen Rainy. Vessabhū, then is the fertile earth, brought to life by the abundant blessings of the rain.

Once is an occurrence; twice is a coincidence; three times is a pattern.

What then of Vipassī, the first of the seven? His father was Bandhuma, his mother Bandhumatī, which was also the name of their city. It seems lazy: why do they all have the same name? Why is there no differentiation?

What if the second and third Buddhas were the first two data points on another pattern? The third is the myth of plants and agriculture; the second points to an earlier time, the arising of the sun itself. If this were a creation myth, then before the sun, before “let there be light”, there would be an undifferentiated mass of primordial being.

This would be Brahmā, the ancestor and progenitor of all who live. But Brahmā is just a name, of which he/she/they/it have no shortage. One name commonly used for Brahmā in the suttas is bandhu, “the relative”. All beings are descended from him, so we might as well call Vipassī’s father King Ancestor, his mother Queen Ancestress, and their abode the City of the Ancestors.

Once is an occurrence; twice is a coincidence; three times is a pattern.

In the first three of the primordial Buddhas, we have a set of echoes of a creation myth. The origin is a primordial essence from which everything descends; then there is the appearance of the dawn bringing the light; then the rains bless the earth with abundant life.

Now, these three Buddhas are all said to be khattiyas, and are all of the same clan, the Koṇḍaññas. As I pointed out recently, this originated as the clan name of the city of Kuṇḍina the capital Vidarbha. Located in the Deccan, this is about in the middle of India.

As to the places these Buddhas are said to have lived, I have not been able to find any details for Vessabhū’s Anoma or Vipassī’s Bandhumati. Sikhī’s Arunavati, however, shares a name with the Arunawati river in Maharashtra, not far from the Kondañña’s ancient home in Kuṇḍina. Weak evidence to be sure, but as far as it goes it supports locating these Buddhas in the center of India (the “south” from the Buddha’s point of view).

Up until this point there have been no brahmins. The first three Buddhas lived in times when the khattiyas ruled uncontested, as natives of India.

the brahmin Buddhas

What then of the three more recent past Buddhas? They were all brahmins, which has a double significance.

First, it suggests that these details record a historical echo of the fact that Vedic culture did not always exist in India. It was introduced no more than a millennium before the Buddha, in the far north-west, and gradually percolated through the subcontinent. Our stories are not set in such a recognizable historical time, but they contain an echo of it. Myths are neither a journalistic record of events, nor an entirely invented fabrication.

Secondly, it suggests a time when nations had grown and the affairs of state required a learned and specialized class of ritualists and advisers. Although we call these men kings and their wives queens, when seen outside the magnifying glory of mythic vision, the ancient rulers would have been local chieftains. Over time, kingdoms grew and so did their courts.

We have moved out of the time of deep myth, and into the time of the priests. Thus the fathers of the three brahmanical Buddhas are all named after a ritual. In fact, they are all considered “offered”: Aggidatta “offered to Agni, god of fire”, Yajnadatta “offered in sacrifice”, Brahmadatta “offered to Brahma”. Apart from the fact that fire worship was, indeed, perhaps the oldest form of worship of the proto-Indo Europeans, I’m not sure that there is a sequence here. But regardless, three times is still a pattern.

The names of the queens are harder to pin down: Visākhā, Uttarā, and Dhanavatī.

Let’s start with the first brahmin queen, Visākhā. This is the name of a constellation (nakkhatta), which was used as a proper name for those born under its sign. In Indian astrology, a nakkhatta is properly a “lunar mansion”, essentially a slice of the night sky (1/27 or 1/28) in which a particular star or set of stars is prominent. In the Atharvaveda system—which is probably the closest in time to the Buddha—Visākhā is the 16th lunar asterism, roughly equivalent to the western sign of Libra. (Libra is the scales, while Visākhā means “split branch”).

Jumping to the third brahmin queen, Dhanavatī means “wealthy”. But it is also an alternate name for the 23rd constellation, dhaniṣṭhā (or śraviṣṭā, the constellation Delphinus).

The name of the second queen, Uttarā (“higher”), is common and therefore hard to identify. Nonetheless, several constellations are divided into “former” (pubba) and “latter” (uttara). Since it lies between dhaniṣṭhā and visākhā, perhaps this is the 21st constellation, Uttara Āṣāḍhā (Sagittarius/Capricorn).

The constellations signify a more evolved state of the heavens. Now we have not just the sun of Sikhī, but the stars as well, with their complicated stories and meanings. Astrology is mentioned quite often in the suttas, but rarely do we find any details. In fact, these three names might be the only evidence of something like the Atharvaveda system in the EBTs. This will probably turn out wrong, though, and I look forward to discovering other cases!

Since we have well established that these names are organized in threes, I think we are more than justified in concluding that the brahmin fathers are named for formal ritual offerings, while the queens were named for astrological signs. I am not sure of the significance of this: was it an actual custom? Or does the astrology relate to the performance of these particular rituals? I don’t know enough to say.

As to location, Kassapa is from Benares. Kakusandha’s Khemavatī is identified with Gotihawa; Koṇāgamana’s Sobhavatī is identified with Nigalihawa; both of these are near Kapilavatthu in Nepal, but their identification is sullied by the dubious status of the source Ashokan edict.

Nonetheless, weak though it is, it appears that these three brahmin Buddhas are located in the north.

the mathematics of myth

Moving our focus back a little, the overall shape of these seven Buddhas is starting to come into focus.

The seven Buddhas are a transformation of the legendary “seven sages” of the Vedas; our Buddha is referred to as the “seventh sage” (isisattama).

The number “seven” in myths stems primarily from the seven days of the week, or the five visible planets, with the sun and moon; it signifies the endless cycles of creation and destruction, the wheeling of the cosmos. The seven Buddhas encode details of mythic significance, episodes not of a timeless past but of an evolution.

Here the seven are divided in a very particular way: 1 + 3 + 3. Our Buddha is distinct, since he pertains to historical time, and all the numbers and details he has reflect this more down to earth reality. Then there are the two sets of three, one of khattiyas, one of brahmins; in accordance with Buddhist myths elsewhere, khattiyas come first.

Let us consider time, which is logarithmic.

multiply by 3 divide by 2
our eon (1st) 4 Buddhas
31 eons ago 2 Buddhas
91 eons ago 1 Buddha

As you go into the past, the numbers of time are multiplied by a factor of three, while the number of Buddha is divided by a factor of two. This is why it only goes back to 91: the next number in the sequence would be 271 eons and half a Buddha. Logarithmic scales, by the way, are typical of Indian measurement of time.

The two Buddhas of the solar and fertility myths live in an ancient primordial time, but one that is still closer to us than it is to the undifferentiated essence of the true beginning. The four Buddhas of our eon lived practically yesterday.

a samsara of 91 eons

I’m going to leave this here, but there is much left to be excavated. There are many details whose meaning and sense are not apparent to me, so read DN 14 for yourself and see what you can find.

Doctrinally, this all has one very interesting and challenging implication. Noting that there are several other places in the EBTs where the Buddha says he recollected 91 eons, and that the seven Buddhas are also mentioned on several occasions, could we conclude that this represents the earliest cosmology of the Pali canon? One in which there is no endless cycles of countless eons, but a distinct progress of evolution, measured from 91 eons ago, before which is unknowable undifferentiation?

Personally I wouldn’t go that far. It is normal in mythology for there to be multiple semi-incompatible visions or stories; there are two different origin stories in the first book of Genesis, for example. If my speculation turns out to have any basis and there really are two different cosmologies in the suttas, perhaps it is no more than the collision of borrowed and transformed ideas, different narratives serving different purposes.


It kind of reminds me of a yajna - first the invocation of the primordial (Om) then an invocation to Surya and Water. Then the sacrificial fire is lit and Agni is invoked, offerings are made to the Yajna, to Brahma and to the gods of the Nakshatras… its almost like a parody (???) using the theme of the yajna which would be instantly recognizable to someone familiar with the cultural context. :thinking:

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Both DN 14 and its corresponding DA 1 present in common a Maha-Brahma who three times invited the seven Buddhas to teach their Dhamma to the world. I like this story very much. It is a very meaningful Brahma-invitation division, showing in the past and present the special value of Buddhas and their Dhamma, greater than the Brahma world.

This story may have some association with Brahma Samyutta of SN/SA.

Buddhists may thus show respect and grateful to Maha-Brahma (i.e. in SN 6.1: Brahmā Sahāmpati), a supporter of the Buddha and of his Dhamma.

Right, yes.

Myths, and especially Buddhist myths, are often parodic. The thing with this, though, is it doesn’t give away any authorial intent, it’s just a list of details, so any interpretation must stick close to that. Having said which, pretty much every time the Buddhist texts adapt Brahmanical mythmaking like this, there is an element of humor and satire. So it’s certainly not a reach.

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To come to this conclusion, we would have to discard the standard definition of an eon, namely:

an indefinite and very long period of time. - Oxford languages

Suppose you have two eons right next to each other… what would make it two eons rather than one eon? After all, an eon is an indefinite / long period of time. To say that there are two of them would be redundant.

For the idea of multiple eons to make sense, the boundary between eons must be distinct. For the boundary to be distinct, it must be characterised by something other than an indefinite / long period of time. In other words, the boundary must be a definite / short period of time.

The standard understanding of Buddhist cosmology allows for a cyclic universe that alternates between definite / short periods of time and indefinite / long periods of time. The former period happens at the beginning of an eon where living beings freely move within and can perceive both time and space. The characteristic of this period is that differences can be perceived and thus change can be measured. The latter period happens as that time stretches on and everything breaks down to the point that differences can no longer be perceived and change can’t be measured.

In practical terms, the reason that an eon can’t be measured is because any means for doing so is unavailable. E.g. you can’t say it is approximately X years, because at some point there will be no stars or planets by which to keep count.

Any period within which differences can no longer perceived would, at its extreme, lend itself to states of undifferentiated awareness where living beings can no longer make distinctions between themselves and others. This would be indistinguishable from a period of unknowable undifferentiation.

Thus, for the term eon to make any sense at all in a context of multiple eons, the universe must be cyclic, starting from unknowable undifferentiated awareness and ending with unknowable undifferentiated awareness each time.

There is no scenario in which you could start from undifferentiated awareness and evolve through multiple eons to get to the present age. This is because, in the absence of a state of undifferentiated awareness punctuating the continuity of the universe:

  • You could not talk sensibly talk about multiple eons. Rather you could only talk about a single eon that had a definite beginning.

  • It could be argued that you could not talk about even a single eon, since there is no state in which differences don’t exist post the beginning, and thus there is always a way in which time could be measured.