Continuing discussion of a number of issues raised by MN 49 Brahmanimantanika from here:
We have now come to the famous line:
anantaṃ sabbato pabhaṃ
Like the previous verse on the sun and moon, this straddles the line between verse and prose. While in Ven Bodhi’s translation it is set as verse, the Pali text contains no close -ti that would confirm it was meant as verse. It’s not unlikely that it, too, was a verse fragment loosely used in a prose sentence. This rhetorical strategy, it should be noted, is especially appropriate in dialogue with Brahmā, as he was the inventor, nay emanator, of the verses of the Vedas, and indeed of the very idea of verse.
Note that this line echoes the two aspects of celestial bodies: their range (“infinite”) and radiance (“all round”). The word for radiance, pabhā, is essentially the same as that used earlier for the sun and moon; in fact, that is the primary use of that term in the suttas.
Various authors have noted that the manuscripts are ambiguous as to the speaker of these lines. The PTS edition, followed by I.B. Horner, attributes the line to Brahmā, which Ven Bodhi says is “surely mistaken” (Middle Length Discourses, note 512). The issue is discussed more fully by Ven Anālayo in Comparative Study p. 297, however he draws no firm conclusions.
In fact I think the weight of textual evidence indicates that the line was, after all, spoken by Brahmā.
- The thing that indicates that the line is spoken by the Buddha is a close quote -ti that occurs at the end of the previous sentence, indicating that Brahmā has finished talking. However, this only occurs in the Burmese manuscripts (as cited by the PTS edition, and also in our MS edition), while the Sri Lankan and Thai manuscripts lack it. The Burmese manuscripts tend to be more prone to accommodating the commentarial interpretation in the text, and that may be the case here.
- The Chinese parallel at MA 78, while not having the exact phrase, attributes a similar claim to Brahmā. (See Analayo’s discussion.)
- If the passage beginning with viññāṇaṁ anidassanaṁ was spoken by the Buddha, it should be indicated by close -ti. However, none of the manuscripts have this. Surely the agreement of the manuscripts here should be given more weight than the slight support for the -ti earlier.
- Finally, and most decisively in my view, the passage lacks a vocative. In dialogue, vocatives are used very regularly and consistently, and it is practically unthinkable that the Buddha would go an entire passage without one. While the occurrence of close -ti as quotation marker is somewhat variable in the manuscripts, a vocative is a much bigger thing to lose. This is only understandable if the passage is spoken by Brahmā, as he has already used the vocative.
Taken all together, this makes quite a strong case that the PTS edition is correct in this, and the verse should be attributed to Brahmā, not the Buddha.
One argument that might be used against this is that the passage claims that such consciousness goes beyond everything, including Brahmā. Surely Brahmā would not be praising something that goes beyond Brahmā?
There are two possible explanations for this. The boring one is that the passage has been mechanically replicated, and the incongruity was not noticed. Such things are rare, but not unprecedented.
The more interesting solution is that Brahmā may have been hinting at the higher, cosmological Self here. That is, the true experience of reality, Brahmā, or whatever, goes beyond the mere personal form in which Brahmā happens to have been incarnate at this time. This would align Baka the Brahmā closely with the Upanishadic teachings of Yajñavālkya, who is the closest touchstone for such advanced Brahmanical philosophies in the Suttas. Yajñavālkya is famous for his doctrine of neti! neti!—“Not that! Not that!” This is the direct precursor of the Buddhist doctrine of not-self, where he rejected and dropped identification with everything, including the limited and temporal manifestations of brahmanical truths, insisting that the only reality worth attention was the “unseen seer, the unheard hearer, the unthought thinker, the unknown knower”, i.e. “that sheer mass of consciousness”. In a manner strikingly reminiscent of Yajñavālkya’s dialogues, Baka is being pushed by the Buddha to reveal higher and higher mysteries.
The other occurrence of this line is, of course, in the coda to DN 11 Kevaṭṭa, another sutta that is a dialogue with Brahmā. In the wealth of philosophical discussion of this point, few have pointed out the rather striking literary form, a form which takes a rather different cast if we assume the line was actually spoken by Brahmā.
The sutta consists of an elaborate story of a monk who wants to know where the four elements end, and uses his psychic powers to ascend to the heavens and ask the gods about this. This is, to put it mildly, an unusual tactic. The gods send him to Brahmā. As I noted in a previous essay, the four elements in such passages often represent the jhanas, which is why Brahmā, who was reborn by the power of jhana, knows about them—but doesn’t know where they end. Anyway, Brahmā ends up sending the monk back to the Buddha. Rather than answering directly, the Buddha—for unclear reasons—tells him the question should be rephrased, and gives questions and answers in verse. The whole procedure is highly unusual.
The question is, in fact, three questions, each of two lines, and each beginning with kattha. This is striking, as it results in an unusual verse of six lines.
The answer is then given, introduced with a phrase unique in the suttas (Tatra veyyākaraṇaṃ bhavati). The answer consists of the lines above, followed by the question repeated in full, with each question word (“where?”) replaced by its demonstrative counterpart (“there”).
Finally we have another two lines, where the Buddha states that this all ceases with the cessation of consciousness. Clearly, here the Buddha is merely restating the core Buddhist doctrine, something ignored by those who invoke this verse in support of their eternalist views.
But the interesting thing is that the verse section, which cannot be divided into the usual sets of four lines, should be divided thus: 2, 6, 2. In other words, the middle six lines merely echo the question, while the first two and last two are added.
From the form of the verses it is unclear whether the question is really one question in three phrases, or three separate questions. Given that the three sets of lines appear together in both question and answer, let’s assume they ask one question. But if this is so, why are there two answers, one before, and one after the question, especially since the two answers directly contradict each other? I don’t know any other text that works like this. Rhetorically, it could make sense to answer the question either before or after restating it, but not both. Surely it is saner to assume that there is just one answer. But which one?
Have a look at the Pali text, removing the prose. I am going to highlight one feature of the verses, the pronomial adverbs. Look at how they are distributed in the pairs of lines.
Kattha āpo ca pathavī,
tejo vāyo na gādhati;
Kattha dīghañca rassañca,
aṇuṃ thūlaṃ subhāsubhaṃ;
Kattha nāmañca rūpañca,
Ettha āpo ca pathavī,
tejo vāyo na gādhati.
Ettha dīghañca rassañca,
aṇuṃ thūlaṃ subhāsubhaṃ;
Ettha nāmañca rūpañca,
Compare with the closely related verse at SN 1.27:
“Kuto sarā nivattanti,
kattha vaṭṭaṃ na vattati;
Kattha nāmañca rūpañca,
“Yattha āpo ca pathavī,
tejo vāyo na gādhati;
Ato sarā nivattanti,
ettha vaṭṭaṃ na vattati;
Ettha nāmañca rūpañca,
In this passage, each line or pair of lines in the answer uses an adverb that links it back to the question. And notice that the same pattern occurs in DN 11—except for the viññāṇaṃ anidassanaṃ phrase. It is the only phrase that has no direct linguistic link with the question. On these grounds, it is possible that this is an alien intrusion into the verses.
Thus the viññāṇaṃ anidassanaṃ lines, in DN 11 as in MN 49, appear to be a quote or reference to a well-known saying, in the context of a dialogue with Brahmā, perhaps drawing from the Upanishadic tradition, and probably originally attributed to Brahmā.
As to what is behind their appearance in DN 11, this is still unclear. They do appear in the Chinese parallel to these lines, so if they are a late addition, it was still before these two textual lineages split. My best guess is that the whole passage is an attempt to answer the Upanishadic doctrine, but was rather clumsily edited together.
In any case, the Buddha makes his real position clear in the last lines, re-affirming—for the thousandth time—the cessation of consciousness.
As one final note on this, the word anidassana is often translated as “non-manifestive”. However, elsewhere in the EBTs nidassana is invariably used in the sense of “invisible”. Given that radiance is a major theme of this sutta, and that the Buddha just below gets into a literal invisibility contest with Brahmā, it seems ill-advised to simply ditch the plain meaning of the word. Lacking a compelling argument for a more abstract word, I think it is best to keep it concrete and let readers figure out what it means.