Unimportant remarks on an important discourse: the traditions of the brahmins

The Brāhmaṇadhammika (Snp 2.7) is a powerful and distinctive narrative that tells of the decline of the brahmins and the origin of the sacrifice. It shares something in common with the sprwaling mythic narratives of the Digha, but is much more focussed.

The Buddha is asked by some senior brahmins whether their contemporaries maintain the traditions of old, and the Buddha says no. This is in line with his position elsewhere, where he tends to treat the current brahmins as lesser sons of greater fathers. Sometimes, on the other hand, he dismisses the traditions altogether, arguing that even the composers of the Vedas knew nothing.

The description of the brahmins of old is similar to that found in, say, the Aggañña Sutta. For example, it’s emphasized how they did not store food but relied on alms. This allows the Buddha to position his own followers as “more brahmin than the brahmins”.

According to the story, they used to practice the brahmacariya for 48 years. This is evidently a reference to an early idea about the stages of life that was later codified. The notion appears elsewhere, where the term komarabrahmacariya appears (an5.192:5.4), evidently having the sense of “celibacy since youth” i.e. “virginity”. Komara is added in brackets here, a very unusual intrusion in the text. It’s probably inserted from the commentary by parallel with the prose. Nevertheless, it seems the sense is justified.

This text is that it adopts the point of view of the brahmins and their values in a way that’s understandable given the context, but nonetheless can seem jarring. The Buddha, listing what he appears to be endorsing as the good practices of old, refers to the brahmins not marrying outside of caste, or avoiding sex during the “infertile period”. (I have discussed this in more detail here.) This tendency becomes especially strong at the end when the Buddha is said to describe them as having “fallen away from the doctrine of caste” (Jātivādaṁ nirākatvā). I don’t know, it makes me a little uncomfortable.

Moving on, there are a few mistakes in earlier translations. Seeing as someone recently asked about Ven Thanissaro’s translations, I’ll include them here to see what turns up.

In verse 16 we find Kiccākiccesu, translated by Norman as “what was to be done and what was not to be done”, by Bodhi as “what was to be done and not done”, and by Thanissaro as “what should & shouldn’t be done”. But this is an idiomatic phrase of a kind not uncommon in Pali. Phalāphala means “all kinds of fruit”, bhavābhava means “all kinds of rebirths”. Kiccākicca likewise means “all kinds of business”, as is clear from cases such as Thag 16.10:20.2. Here’s Pārāpariya’s rather memorable description of the monks of his days.

Bhesajjesu yathā vejjā,
In medicine they are like doctors,
kiccākicce yathā gihī
in business like householders,
Gaṇikāva vibhūsāyaṁ,
in makeup like prostitutes,
issare khattiyā yathā.
in sovereignty like lords.

At Snp 2.7:18.4 there’s an interesting line used to describe the houses of the wealthy:

Vibhatte bhāgaso mite
Neatly laid out in measured rows.

Elsewhere the same phrase is used to describe the gates of hell. (an3.36:16.2). Evidently the Buddha was no great fan of the suburbs.

At Snp 2.7:20.1 it says that the brahmins fooled the kings with new scriptures. The Pali verb is gantheti (“have tied”), which in later use literally means to “write a book” (i.e. a grantha). The usage here in this sense is unusual, and I think it’s earlier than any other case. The commentary is highly polemical and says they deliberately composed new scriptures.

But I’m not 100% sure that the text justifies this. I wonder whether it could mean “selecting” passages, i.e. “making a compilation”. We know that this is a very common if not normal practice.

It’s a lot easier to select some amenable passages to support your case than it is to create a whole new scripture. It’s hard work! You have to compose the lines, organize it, make it appear authentic, and co-ordinate all this among a group of like-minded co-conspirators.

Reading it as “compiling” rather than composing is both more historically plausible and gentler on the brahmins.

The root that makes sacrifice possible is the king’s excessive wealth. The underlying psychology is that inequality breeds jealousy and corruption. The king is encouraged to “burn off” his wealth in a display of conspicuous consumption.

This is, in fact, a legitimate anthropological theory of the origin of sacrifice (or at least one of them). In Melanesia, for example, the villages would have a “big man” who over time would gather greater shares of the village wealth, primarily pigs. At a certain point it would become unmanageable; what do you do with so many pigs? So they’d hold a great feast to which neighboring big men would be invited. It’d be an occasion to assert dominance and expand circles of influence.

The specifics of the sacrifice vary from place to place, but there must always be one thing that they share: someone has too much stuff and something has to give.

The text says that the brahmins had the king sacrifice “many hundreds of thousands” of cattle. No doubt this is an exaggeration, but it’s not as unbelievable as it may sound. Sacrifices on this scale have been performed in modern times.

We educated moderns may see talk of animal sacrifice as a peculiar, alien, or primitive rite, but it is still an ongoing reality in much of the world. The Buddha’s movement to stamp it out is still in progress.

I confess, I get a little teary at the climax of this sutta, the thought of the poor gentle cows being slaughtered for no reason. :cry:

The Buddha depicts the brahmanical deities as being outraged by this, roaring out adhamma! “It’s against the Dhamma!”. Norman has “(this is ) injustice!”, Bodhi “How unrighteous!”, Thanissaro “An injustice!”. None of these, I feel, capture the force of the original. I have:

At that the gods and the ancestors,
with Indra, the titans and monsters,
roared out: ‘This is a crime against nature!’
as the sword fell on the cows.


Would you mind saying a few words about “monsters”? :japanese_ogre:



Well rakhhasa what can I say? prominent in mythology, not so common in the suttas. They’re mentioned elsewhere as a kind of sea monster. But as with yakkhas, asuras, and nagas, they were probably local deities that ended up being “demonized”, literally. Maybe there’s a better term for them here?


I guess I’m confused about why flesh-eating monsters would be upset about a big sacrifice. Why are they listed alongside gods and ancestors?

Perhaps this verse is from a time before they were vilified, in which case a more positive/neutral term like “demigod” might be called for? :pray:


Bhante, this would imply that the Buddha admired the asceticism and self-restraint of the Brahmins but wasn’t impressed by their philosophical stance. And if Paticca Samuppada is a polemic against the Vedic idea of cosmogony, this would further confirm that what according to the Brahmins was seen as agreeable (creation) was actually suffering in disguise, hence the Buddha’s dismissal of their doctrine!

This seems to be in line with the narrative of Aggañña sutta, where those who couldn’t endure austerities settled down in villages to compile and recite texts:

But some of those beings were unable to keep up with their meditation in the leaf huts in the wilderness. They came down to the neighborhood of a village or town where they dwelt compiling texts.

Now they don’t meditate’ is the meaning of ‘reciter’, the third term to be specifically invented for them. What was reckoned as lesser at that time, these days is reckoned as better.

Looks like a pattern. The brahmins who couldn’t meditate and instead compiled texts came to be looked down on. So they had to fool the aristocrats by compiling texts which justified their indispensable role in society. Maybe they didn’t create entirely new scriptures but codified their philosophy into the systematic treatises we know today.
This is hypothetical but it would also imply that the meditation-tradition arose earlier than the vedic scriptures.


Me too!

“Demigod” is a bit too specific, it’s half human half god. Which is a problem in general with translating these terms. Perhaps “titans and spirits” would be best.

Yes, good point. Although it doesn’t quite cover every detail, eg. here he notes that they “reject the doctrine of caste”. But generally speaking I think what you say is true.

Indeed, they seem to be very congruent texts, telling the same story from a slightly different perspective.

Which is interesting and counter to the normal historical view. The historical problem with all these stories is that they don’t account for the shifting population of India and the relatively late arrival of brahmanism, which was probably no more than a couple of centuries before the Buddha in his region. Meditation or proto-meditative practices might have arisen among the inhabitants before the brahmins got there, but that’s not what the stories say.


Could the original doctrine of caste be something the Buddha admired? Such as it being based on karma (shades of Snp1.7) or perhaps he simply admired the way the original Brahmins maintained their seclusion, keeping their interactions with other social groups to a minimum …

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Is it believeable that the Brahmins lived celibate for 48 years and then married at like 50 but only women who were in menopause? No. This is hiatorical revisionism by whoever invented this sutta. Just a strawman against Brahmanism. Thus I say.

I agree it sounds unlikely, but I haven’t researched the point myself, so I couldn’t say much more. It’d be interesting to compare it with the brahmanical accounts before drawing conclusions.

What would you read for Brahmanical accounts? The only thing I’m aware of is “The Sacred Laws of the Aryas” in Sacred Books of the East volumes 2 and 14. I haven’t read much of it but in volume 2, Gautama’s version of the laws chapter 3 is interesting (but not really related to this topic) as the rules for bhikshus are so similar to Buddhist ones except the rule about not spending 2 nights by the same village outside the rainy season which doesn’t seem to be being followed in the suttas. But I think having read some of this I understand the interplay between Buddhists and Brahmins better, and why in both Buddhist and Jain suttas monks claim to the Brahmins to be masters of triple knowledge and aome of the sacrificial terminology and such. Also the whole theory of merit based on giving food which was explained at length in Âpastamba’s version of the laws, i.e. the students of the vedas go on an alms round and bring the food to their guru the master of the vedas who eats some, saves some to sacrifice to the gods via the fire, and apportions the rest to his students; and its explained that the guru takes the place of the gods to the student as essentially the fire takes the place of the gods to the gurus, and thag women are expected to give alms to the students of the vedas or it is believed they cause their husband and sons to lose merit…all of which explains how these concepts got into Buddhism, i.e. the Buddhist monks taling the place of the master of the vedas and the students of the vedas by redefining the meaning of the triple knowledge.

Well hey I found a reference to keeping the student vows for 48 years at least, but its apparently implying that its those who study for really long and still fail to master the vedas.

"1. Some declare, that a student shall bathe after (having acquired) the knowledge of the Veda, (however long or short the time of his studentship may have been). 1

  1. (He may) also (bathe) after having kept the student’s vow for forty-eight, (thirty-six or twenty-four) years, (though he may not have mastered the Veda)."

Okay, so that’s interesting, right? So it seems that it is a genuine brahmanical practice. I’m not that familar with the text you’re quoting, but for the most part the Law books stem from much later than the Buddha. Which would mean that this is a longstanding practice. Or at least, a rule. To what extent it was actually observed is another matter.

Normally we find in the suttas that the representation of brahmanical and Jaina views and practices is pretty accurate, given of course that our knowledge of those practices from that time are limited. That doesn’t mean to say that we shouldn’t suspect bias, but on the whole it’s not as much as you might expect.


Thank you Bhante for this essay. I hope your translation of this sutta will be online soon!

I pasted MA156 (the Chinese parallel of this sutta) in DeepL and it seems to correspond more or less as far as I can tell, but although I cannot read Chinese it doesn’t seem like these last four lines are part of it? For which I am glad. :sweat_smile:


I still think it’s a better alternative. The “half-gods” don’t have to be half-human, often they are taken as just lesser deities.

This was not the norm, but we know from Alexander’s entourage that they met old brahmacaryas who could live that ascetic lifestyle basically their whole life. These accounts are long after the Buddha however, and so could be the references in the suttas which mention 12, 24, 36, 48 years of brahmin asceticism.