Yesterday I discussed the passage in DN 16 where Ānanda asks the Buddha about women. There I focused on interpretation, while here I look more closely at some textual details that bear on the authenticity of this passage.
As noted by Maurice Walshe, the passage appears to have been inserted arbitrarily. It is absent from the Sanskrit text. Although this portion of the Sanskrit is a reconstruction, such a significant passage could not have been overlooked. The Sanskrit continues with Ānanda’s question on the worship of the Buddha’s remains:
kathaṃ vayaṃ bhadanta parinirvṛte bhagavati bhagavataḥ śarīrapūjāyām autsukyam āpadyemahi
Sir, when the Buddha has become fully extinguished what should we do about honoring his remains?
With some differences in wording, this is similar to the Pali. That fact that it is shared suggests it is earlier than the question about women. (In fact I believe there are many reasons to think the Sanskrit version of this particular sutta is earlier than the Pali.) There are many other parallels to this, chiefly in Chinese, and if someone can take the time to check these that would be great! But for now let’s focus on the Pali.
What I noticed is that the Pali has a curious use of verbs. I couldn’t figure out quite what they implied in the question on women. But the striking thing is that exactly the same unusual verb pattern is found in the question on the Buddha’s remains, where it makes perfect sense. Ānanda begins with:
Kathaṃ mayaṃ, bhante, tathāgatassa sarīre paṭipajjāma
“Sir, how do we practice when it comes to the Realized One’s remains?”
The verb is first person plural; Ānanda is asking on behalf of the Sangha, what they should do as a group. The Buddha replies similarly, telling them (tumhe, i.e. the mendicants) to concentrate on their practice. The lay community will look after the funeral rituals. So far, so straightforward. But then Ānanda asks a second question, one that is only slightly different from before:
Kathaṃ pana, bhante, tathāgatassa sarīre paṭipajjitabban
“But sir, what is to be practiced when it comes to the Realized One’s remains?”
Here the active second plural verb has been replaced with the future passive participle, here rendered perhaps too literally with “to be practiced”. (This nuance is not captured in Anandajoti’s normally very precise translation.) Now, in many language contexts such a shift might not be all that significant. But the suttas are relentlessly consistent when it comes to such details of phrasing, and this shift is clearly intentional. And it is evidently felt in the conversation, as the Buddha does not rebuke Ānanda by telling him to stop asking the same question. Rather, he describes the funeral procedure, which is presumably to be done by the lay people. Thus the shift from first person plural to the impersonal passive voice clearly indicates that the subject was understood to be the lay people.
The Sanskrit text doesn’t include such a nuance; rather it makes it more explicit. Ānanda’s second question:
kathaṃ bhadanta brāhmaṇagṛhapataya etad āpādayiṣyanti
But sir, what should the brahmins and householders do?
Again, this is reconstructed, but the mention of brahmins and householders must have been in the (Tibetan, I think) source. It feels more idiomatic; the suttas don’t normally leave such shifts to be implied so subtly.
The passage gives a somewhat elaborate and interesting description of the funeral arrangements, which are more developed in the Pali. However in both sources we find one of the rare early references to a stupa; this sutta, in fact, is the prime source text for stupa worship in Buddhism.
Pali: Cātumahāpathe tathāgatassa thūpo kātabbo
A stupa should be built for the Realized One at the crossroads
Sanskrit: caturmahāpathe śarīrastūpaḥ pratiṣṭhāpyate
A stupa for the remains should be set up at the crossroads.
The mention of a stupa is one of many textual indications that the passage is a late one. It goes without saying that the Mahaparinibbana Sutta is a composite text, composed over a considerable period of time. The passages on stupas are not among the earliest of those sections, and it seems the section on women is later still.
But to return to the question on women, we find exactly the same verb structure there. Ānanda’s questions:
“Kathaṃ mayaṃ, bhante, mātugāme paṭipajjāmā”ti?
“Sir, how do we practice when it comes to women?”
“ Not seeing, Ānanda.”
“Dassane, bhagavā, sati kathaṃ paṭipajjitabban”ti?
“But when seen, what is to be practiced?”
The shift from active second plural to future passive participle happens in exactly the same way. But in the question on funerals, it served a clear, if subtle, purpose: to shift the subject from the Sangha to the lay people. Here it’s just confusing. Surely it can’t indicate the same kind of shift, so why is it there? If such variations were common we might let it pass, but they’re not. And the problem is amplified by the abruptness of the text, as well as its absence from the Sanskrit.
Taking this into account, we have a clear case to argue that, not only was this passage a late insertion, but it was later than the passage on the funeral rites, and clumsily modeled after it.
For those of you who have followed the work of myself and Ven Brahmali on authenticity, you will know that one of our main arguments is that the authenticity of a passage cannot be determined with any probability by any one criterion. But when multiple independent criteria all point in the same direction, and the historical hypothesis is the simplest, we are on reliable grounds. In this case we have the following:
- Narrative: the question is arbitrarily inserted, interrupting the flow of the text.
- Style: The wording is unusually terse and elliptical.
- Parallels: It is absent from the Sanskrit. (We need to check the other versions!)
- Syntax: The verbal structure appears to have been copied from the immediately following passage on funeral rites, which itself is not old.
- Doctrine: The text as stated advocates an extreme position, which the commentary felt the need to explain in terms of more moderate and well known teachings elsewhere in the suttas.
All these issues are well explained by the hypothesis that the text was a late insertion. More specifically, they agree with my theory that such passages, advocating a significantly harsher attitude to women, were the result of a “rigorist” movement within the Sangha around the time of the Second Council.