Who wins the love battle?

In the left corner we have reigning champion Brahmā, the Lord God Most High, after whom the very idea of the brahmavihāras is named. In the left corner, a radical new upstart, the Buddha, ready to lay a serious kindness smackdown on God Himself.

But there’s a twist: in MN 55, Jīvaka says that he knows that God must be full of love, for he sees how the Buddha is full of love. It’s a draw! And a touching moment of interreligious harmony.

But hang on: does that really make sense? The Buddha is the witness for the fact that Brahma has love?

Let’s see the Pali. Jivaka says to the Buddha:

Sutaṃ metaṃ, bhante: ‘brahmā mettāvihārī’ti. Taṃ me idaṃ, bhante, bhagavā sakkhidiṭṭho; bhagavā hi, bhante, mettāvihārī”ti

Ven Bodhi’s translation, which is more or less in line with those of Horner and Chalmers, says:

I have heard this, venerable sir, ‘Brahmā abides in loving-kindness.’ Venerable sir, the Blessed One is my visible witness to that; for the Blessed One abides in loving kindness.

In fact the syntax of this is not entirely clear, as noted by Ven Ñāṇatusita in unpublished notes on this passage, although I don’t follow his suggestion there. (He reads me as dative, whereas I think it should be instrumental; see yena in the passage cited next.)

Surely, however, this passages answers to passages such as DN 13:

“Kiṃ pana, vāseṭṭha, atthi koci tevijjānaṃ brāhmaṇānaṃ ekabrāhmaṇopi, yena brahmā sakkhidiṭṭho”ti? “No hidaṃ, bho gotama”.
“But Vāseṭṭha, is there even a single one of the tevijja brahmins who has seen Brahmā with his own eyes?” “No, Master Gotama.”

Here is one of the key differences between the Buddha’s teaching and the brahmins’: it relies on direct experience, not the authority of tradition. Even if there is some insight underlying the brahmanical tradition, the brahmins alive today have no experience of it.

This is what Jīvaka is referring to when he says he has “heard” that Brahmā has love: it is a belief passed down in the oral scriptures.

The point of the passage, it seems to me, is that Jivaka has merely heard that Brahma has love, but he now sees with his own eyes that the Buddha truly has love. It is an example of the epistemological challenge of experience vs. tradition.

In this reading we take hi in an emphatic sense, rather than as inferential. Accounting for the opening phrase taṃ me idaṃ is more difficult. I suggest that this is a fairly rare example of the so-called “accusative of relation”, used in a similar sense to the more common locative tatra …. So we could render it something like “concerning that”, “in regards to that matter”, etc. But such idioms tend to be heavy handed, and we can achieve a similar effect more economically with “now”.

Sutaṃ metaṃ, bhante: ‘brahmā mettāvihārī’ti. Taṃ me idaṃ, bhante, bhagavā sakkhidiṭṭho; bhagavā hi, bhante, mettāvihārī”ti
Sir, I have heard that Brahmā abides in love. Now, I’ve seen the Buddha with my own eyes, and it is the Buddha who truly abides in love.

So it seems we have a winner, after all. Rather than equating the love of the Buddha and Brahmā, the point of the passage is that a real, living, demonstration of love in action is much better than an abstract ideal of love that lives only in the scriptures.