A pāsāda is a certain kind of building, but its exact nature has never been properly investigated. This may seem like an unpromising topic for a short essay, but it is remarkable how little things can sometimes have quite significant ramifications.
Pāsāda is normally translated as “palace”, sometimes as “mansion”. Apart from the phonetic similarity between pāsāda and “palace”, which does not seems to have any linguistic significance, this is based, it seems, mostly on commentarial explanations. Even a fairly cursory look at the canonical texts, however, shows us that there is not much basis for these renderings.
Let’s take a brief look at a couple of commentarial descriptions. At AN 3.39 the Buddha-to-be is said to have had three pāsādas before he left the household life, one for each of the Indian seasons. According to the commentary these were respectively nine, seven, and five storeys tall. A famous pāsāda was the one given by Visākha to the Sangha at Sāvatthī. According to the commentary this was seven storeys tall. Tall stories, all of them!
These commentarial descriptions are hard to take seriously. There are no obvious mentions in the four Nikāyas of multi-storey buildings, except for occasional references to a single upper storey or a loft, such as in certain kuṭis. Moreover, the archaeological evidence from the period suggests that the towns were modest in size, even the big ones, like Sāvatthī. Academic estimates for the size of the largest cities is typically a few thousand inhabitants, or perhaps a few tens of thousands. It seems unlikely that these would have had enough material resources and wealth to build very large or tall structures. Even more important is the fact that all buildings were built of perishable materials – this is why there are no material remains from the period, except embankments and city walls and that sort of thing. Once again, it seems unlikely they would have built very large buildings, especially very tall ones, out of wood. Everything in the archaeological record from the Ganges plain for the relevant period points to small-scale buildings.
So if the commentarial notions are fanciful, what were these pāsādas? A suitable point of departure is to note that pāsādas were allowed by the Buddha for monastics. Now one of the main principles of the vinaya is that monastics should not live in luxury. On this basis alone we can conclude that pāsādas were not generally luxurious. This immediately eliminates “palace” and “mansion” as suitable translations.
Another thing that stands out about pāsādas is that they are always ascended to and descended from. This means that they must have been relatively tall buildings. An interesting point is that the suttas do not seem to mention any other way of accessing these buildings – apart from ascent/descent – which must mean that they were not directly accessible from ground level. They must have been built on some sort of high foundation. A passage from SN 3.21 is particularly instructive:
Suppose, great king, a man would climb from the ground on to a palanquin, or from a palanquin on to horseback, or from horseback to an elephant mount, or from an elephant mount to a pāsāda …
According to a number of passages pāsādas had external staircases (sopānakaḷevara, MN85) or ladders (nisseṇi, DN9 and DN13), including the pāsāda given to the Sangha by Visākha (MN107), and they seem always to have been entered with the help of these. Similes in DN9 and DN13 speak of making the ladder before building a hypothetical pāsāda. These similes seem to imply that all pāsādas were accessed by climbing. In addition, the use of the word “ladder” shows that pāsādas often were quite humble buildings.
The need for climbing to get access also seems to be why – in one of the case stories to pārājika two – Ven. Pilindavaccha was able to make use of a pāsāda to hide some children from kidnappers. If pāsādas were high off the ground and the access ladder was removed, then the children were presumably safe. We also find the fairly common compound uparipāsāda, “up the pāsāda”, which fits this description. No other names for types of buildings are compounded with upari in this way.
The final clue to the meaning of pāsāda is that they seem to have had a space underneath. In the passage from AN 3.39 mentioned above, where the Buddha speaks of his life before going forth, it is said that he stayed in the rainy-season pāsāda for the full four months of the rains, without heṭṭhāpāsādaṃ orohati. Orohati means “descends” and heṭṭhā means “below”. Heṭṭhā is used in other compounds such as heṭṭhāmañcaṃ which unambiguously means “below the bed (mañca)”. It follows that heṭṭhāpāsādaṃ orohati can only really mean “descends to below the pāsāda,” which must mean that pāsādas had open spaces under them. My conclusion, then, is that pāsāda is likely to refer to a stilt house.
Now a stilt house is a fairly humble building compared to a palace. But it seems likely to me that in an ancient Indian setting they would have had considerable advantages, and thus were probably regarded as high-end housing. In a climate where heavy rain and flooding were common, stilt houses would be particularly sought after. It is also possible, as the story with Ven. Pilindavaccha shows, that these houses were considered relatively safe from burglars and the like.
We still need to consider a couple of passages in the suttas were pāsāda clearly does refer to a “palace”, such as Sakka’s palace in MN37 and Mahāsudassana’s palaces in DN17. In both of these cases the pāsādas were very grand structures, and even the word “palace” may not do full justice to their magnificence. At the same time, neither of these contexts refers to historical India, and they are perhaps best regarded as mythological. A possible explanation for the use of pāsāda in these cases is that they didn’t have any other suitable word. Pāsādas were perhaps the best houses of that time, and thus the term came to be used to describe any kind of nice house, even grand visions of the imagination.
Does any of this really matter? It gives us a more realistic picture of the life of the Buddha-to-be, a picture that is more consistent with known facts, such as archaeological findings. It is so hard to escape the grip of post-canonical exaggerations and the tendency to unreasonably glorify the Buddha. Such glorification tends to remove us from the historical Buddha and to make him into a character of fiction. Once the Buddha becomes fictitious and unrealistically portrayed, it becomes much more difficult to relate to him as a human being, and his example to us becomes much diminished. To be able to draw the maximum benefit from the Buddha’s teachings, it is important, I think, that we get as realistic a picture of him as possible. “Stilt house”, rather than “palace”, is a small but not insignificant contribution to this end.