24 February 2012

Accountability and Ethics

THE SUBJECT OF ACCOUNTABILITY has come up quite a lot lately. I've come to see gods that oversee our behaviour and karma as part of the same complex of ideas stemming from changes that civilisation brought to human culture. I outlined this view earlier when discussing the plausibility and salience of rebirth, and here I'll expand on it.

My thought is that we evolved to live in small bands of several families all working closely together to ensure our survival. These bands were probably part of larger groupings, but on the whole most of the time was spent in relatively small groups of say 30-50. In contemporary hunter gatherer societies there is typically a division of labour with women gathering food and men hunting. Women stay together as a group while working which takes up a good part of their day. Men tend to hunt alone or in small groups, but spend a lot of time together as well. In a group of 30-50 which is highly dependent on each of its members, there is not much in the way of privacy. We would all know what everyone is doing, and especially we would know if they were following group etiquette and rules. Going against the norm, and keeping it secret, often causes an internal tension that would have observable consequences. If you know someone well and over a long period of time, you know when something is wrong. Infractions are dealt with socially - with shame being an important factor in maintaining cohesion. And cohesion is not just arbitrary it is what helps the group survive in what is probably quite a hostile environment.

We share these patterns with our social primate cousins - especially the apes. Chimpanzee society has many of the same features for instance, and I think provides us some insights into our own distant past. They work together foraging as a group, and rely on each member to contribute and not to deceive. And individuals do on occasions deceive the group over food and sex. We don't just share a common genetic ancestry, I think we probably share a common social ancestry. In any case I think one can learn a lot about basic human drives and behaviours from Jane Goodall's observations on the Chimps of Gombe stream in her book In the Shadow of Man.

Civilisation changed this pattern, and made us different from any of our ancestors or cousins. Civilisation gave us the means to live together in much greater numbers. We were no longer dependent on passing game, or the random distribution of food crops. We domesticated our food - both animal and plant. This allowed for an expansion of group sizes beyond the magic Dunbar number of 150 - the number of relationships we can keep close track of. In a large village we do not know what everyone is up to because we do not observe it for ourselves. We do still keep track using informal information sharing (aka gossip, but this word has far too many negative connotations). It is not less important that everyone consents to live in the same way and follows the same rules, but it is much harder to know. And within any group there are always those who can profit by deception. Civilisation brings with the it a new problem of how to limit the dishonesty of susceptible individuals when personal observation is not sufficient to detect breaches.

Many societies developed a kind of cosmic police force and judiciary. In Indo-Iranian myth for instance it was the function of Mitra/Mithra. The people who propagated the myths of Mitra and preserved it through many centuries believed that the universe itself was ordered and that this macro-cosmic order was reflected in the microcosm of human society and human relationships. By sacrificing to Mitra the Indo-Iranians and their descendants were trying to ensure that Mitra had enough sustenance to do his job. And one of his jobs was to oversee the contracts and bonds that held society together. In fact his name probably originally meant 'contract' (from PIE *√mei 'to tie' + the instrumental suffix -tra: 'the one who ties', or 'that which ties'). I suspect that if you search the myths of all people's you will find this judicial function being carried out. It is possible that the role of enforcing the laws will be separate, but I think they are often combined.

The next step in the development of this idea was its further abstraction. In societies which followed the lead of Zoroaster and adopted monotheistic gods (such as the Abrahamic religions) the functions of overseer and enforcer were combined with other roles into a single "swiss-army-knife" or über god. In the Old testament god these two functions are much more prominent than in the new. In India a curious abstraction took place. Rather than combine all the functions of regulating society into a swiss-army-knife god that could do everything, they went another route altogether. In India the role of overseer became entirely abstract; it simply was part of the fabric of the universe that your actions would have inescapable consequences which were suitable to the action: we usually refer to this role as karma (though of course karma just means 'work or action'). Note that though the mechanism is different the function is identical. This suggests that the problem it was intended to solve was the same.

The development of this idea then stagnated for many centuries amongst our ancestors - and indeed has not changed at all in some sections of the Western world. One minor development was the contracting out of the overseer role to priests. The priest stands between the people and their god. There is no doubt that some people are more apt than others to have the kinds of experiences that can be interpreted as 'divine'. Most of us are rather untalented in the business of visions and mystical attainments, even with the boost of psychedelics. Perhaps it was inevitable that some people who had easier access to such states would act as intermediaries, and be valued as such by their fellows in this role. Somewhere along the way the job ceased to be awarded on the basis of merit and typically became the preserve of a clan - the vast majority of whom had to fake their contact with god which they did by aping their more inspired elders. In Judaism it was the Cohen clan, in North-West India the Brāhmaṇas. With the advent of a celibate clergy other arrangements were made to keep control of this social function in the form of large institutions such as The Church or The Saṅgha. Religion so captured by hereditary groups or hegemonic institutions quickly descends into formalism and empty rituals, and this is more or less the situation with most religions most of the time.

So for most of the Christian era in Europe the church has been a sham. However it did continue to provide oversight of the people. It did this through confession particularly. This is an observation made by Michel Foucault (e.g. in Madness and Civilization). Although God was invoked, it was in fact the clergy who had taken over his role as overseer. Since the role needed doing this was not necessarily a bad thing, but the fact is that it was mostly done under false pretences. Much the same kind of thing happened in India. In both places genuine visionaries would crop up from time to time, though in Europe we would generally torture them and then burn them alive; and in Indian they would set them up as local deities. Now at the same time kings were also still seen as divinely appointed rulers (several kings had wars with popes over this issue). Kings began to make and enforce laws too.

It was not until the Enlightenment that things began to really change however. The European Enlightenment shifted the focus from religion and superstition to the possibilities of reason. The idea of being ruled by reason was pretty attractive after several centuries of dark age - hence the term Enlightenment, and hence also Mr and Mrs Rhys Davids's deliberate identification of the Buddha with the European Enlightenment via the translation of bodhi as Enlightenment (complete with upper-case E). Michel Foucault notes that one consequence was that the oversight of those who simply could not follow any rules (the mad) moved from the church, to the burgeoning medical profession. But in the meantime the mad were locked away in asylums, which were originally lazar houses, because in a society which was beginning to see reason as defining humanity, losing your reason became a crime.

As Europe developed and spread outwards in an orgy of imperialism and colonisation it exported these values around the world. Only Asia proved able to resist, but only temporarily. The power to make laws, to oversee them, and to punish wrong doers moved decisively away from religious and towards secular administrations. This was one of the principles of the French and American Revolutions, though it was no so clear cut in England, so that the United Kingdom does not separate church and state - my Sovereign is also the head of the Church of England. The power to keep tabs on people was abrogated to the government on the one hand, and to the medical profession on the other. But in many places the medical profession became a subsidiary of the government, or at least was governed by government rules and regulations. Confessions continued to be a crucial part of the way the secular judiciary operated. And in some places the name of the judicial god was sometimes still invoked (the power vested in me by almighty God...). Medical priests used our confessions to regulate our bodies and sexuality, and assumed vast authority over us. Government took on a much greater role in attempting to regulate the morals of society. The UK's present Prime Minister for instance understands without question that part of his role is to set and enforce moral guidelines for the people of Britain (See this assessment in the China Post 22 Aug 2011). The medical profession meanwhile has totally taken over the regulating the lives of the mad, and madness is now a disease of the mind, a chemical imbalance, or a genetic defect.

Presently we seem to be in another transition. Surveillance of individuals by government agencies has never been more comprehensive. Our every movement is monitored by video cameras (the UK has more per population than any country in the world!). In fascist states surveillance intruded more deeply and with more devastating effect than peacetime democracies. We cannot cross a national border (most of which are entirely arbitrary) without our finger prints being taken and our movements entered into computers. Yes, some of this is for our own protection because people from countries which our governments (extending their godlike powers to the nations around us) have routinely oppressed and exploited for the last two centuries are now attacking us in very personal ways, exploding bombs on trains and buses for example. But still, we are being watched, have no fear. Elsewhere in the world Muslims, given the chance to vote, are voting for religious governments of the type that have a track record of imposing restrictive laws on their people.

All of this began as a way to ensure the cohesion and therefore survival of small bands of people eking a living out of the environment as best they could. In Buddhist ethics we are enjoined to surveil ourselves, to vigilantly watch our own minds, and not to act on any unskilful impulse. We're not asked to keep track of others, though we might help a friend out of compassion. This is quite an unusual idea in a society with 2000 years of being taught that someone else does the watching for us. We're not really used to taking responsibility for this role. We become our own judiciary. We pre-emptively confess our transgressions not in a context of fear and punishment, but to friends and mentors who wish us well, and help us to make amends (if necessary) and get back on track. This way we attain to the state of avippaṭisāro 'not feeling remorseful' (i.e. having a clear conscience) which feeds into the natural progress of the Spiral Path (e.g. AN 10.1-5).


Note 13-5-12

 Does Thinking About God Improve Our Self-Control? Wired Science.
Yes. It does. 
"The scientists think that faith-based thoughts may increase “self-monitoring” by evoking the idea of an all-knowing, omnipresent God. Previous research, which showed that priming people to think of a vengeful, angry God reduces the likelihood of dishonesty, supports this view. If God is always watching, we better not misbehave—he knows..."

17 February 2012

Dionysus and Apollo

IN THE BIRTH OF TRAGEDY Nietzsche wrote that in aesthetics there are two great tendencies which correspond to the two Greek art gods: Dionysus and Apollo. These two tendencies run together in parallel, but are antagonistic and in conflict. He argues that it is out of this conflict that art is born. The thesis in Nietzsche's little book is taken up at greater length by Camille Paglia in her tome Sexual Personae which is a very engaging book. However I want to use an observation made by Frank Zappa as my way into the subject.

For Zappa, art is anything that an artist puts a frame around. If John Cage records the sound of himself drinking carrot juice and calls it his composition then "his gurgling qualifies as his composition because he put a frame around it and said so. "Take it or leave it, I now will this to be music." [The Real Frank Zappa Book, p. 140. Emphasis in the original].

I think this insight about the frame is a very important. Creativity is not only about spontaneity. The Romantic movement has convinced us that art emerges from the free expression the soul of the (usually tortured) artist. But it leaves out the frame. Art may well emerge from spontaneity, but without the frame it is meaningless. The frame imposes a kind of order from which meaning derives. Without the Apollonian frame, the Dionysian chaos is destructive not constructive. It is a very interesting feature of art that the most gifted artists often impose severe restrictions on themselves. This goes beyond the choice of a medium for instance, which itself imposes constraints. For example oil painting is a difficult skill to master, as is musical composition. The great artist typically spends many years developing their talent to the point of mastery. According to Dan Pink mastery of a skill is one of the three primary motivating factors in human endeavour (the others being autonomy and making a contribution to something greater than oneself).

But great artists often go beyond the requirements of a medium and impose extra constraints on themselves. One of the most infamous is the idea of 12 tone music. In this approach to composition the composer must use each of the 12 notes in the chromatic scale in the same order throughout the piece, and cannot reuse a note until all of the other 11 notes have been used. The results, as one might imagine, are often execrable. However some of the music that results from this highly artificial restraint are intriguing and interesting, if not always emotionally engaging. Another example might be the graffiti artist who choose a forbidden surface to frame their work. Graffiti spray-painted on a store-bought canvas and conventionally framed would be pointless. The medium, in the sense of self-imposed artistic constraints, is the message.

Art seems to emerge from the antagonism between Dionysian and Apollonian tendencies in the artist. Sometimes we need to allow more of one or the other. For those who feel constrained by social conditioning or their immediate circumstances a little more of Dionysus can help. Dionysus dominates the art of the early 20th century for instance. Rules were broken, barriers thrown down, boundaries crossed, and frames painted over. But note that there is a chiaroscuro effect here - the frame is still creating the contrast against which the antinomian tendencies stand out. One cannot push the envelope if there is no envelope! One cannot paint over the frame, is there is no frame. Remove the frame and the act loses it's significance.

These kinds of observations can go beyond the world of aesthetics. In times when Apollonian social structures that emphasise rules and conformity are strong, there will be a tendency towards social chaos. The strict Victorian mores of 19th century England also gave rise to the Romantic poets who were often dissolute, hedonistic and broke social rules. The same kind of thing happened in the USA after the rigidity of the 1940s and 50s. Dionysian hippy culture revelled in being free of rules. Though the flip side of the socially progressive hippy movement was politically conservative governments for much of the time. However the conservative governments of the 1980s gutted the state, crushed the unions, and sold public assets to private enterprise and in their own way reduced the order in society. One cannot have Dionysus without Apollo and vice versa.

Politically we are in times of increasing regulation of the individual as a result of the chaos and resulting fear caused by terrorism and economic uncertainty. Once I might have travelled quite freely to the United States, now I would have to have my finger prints taken and my iris scanned if I go there. And as a middle-aged, white, male, New Zealander I do not fit the profile of any known terrorist, nor do I have any criminal record in any country. But because of the general chaos I'm treated as de facto a criminal. Anyone who follows the blog BoingBoing will know that the US police and Homeland Security have been chipping away at US citizen's constitutional rights for freedom of expression especially in the last two years. Peaceful protesters are now routinely arrested or attacked with pepper spray by heavily armed riot police and terrorism squads, or under legislation enacted to deal with terrorism. Collectively we respond to chaos by seeking to impose more order. And actually in the USA this trend was mirrored during Vietnam war protests.

In terms of the history of ideas we can see that the European Enlightenment was an Apollonian movement in that is emphasised universal order and natural laws (though these ideas emerge from Christian thinking in the preceding centuries). The reaction to it in the form of Romanticism emphasised individualism and spontaneity. In some ways we can see history as swings of a pendulum between these two poles. Each has its pros and cons. Perhaps the sexual mores of 1950s Britain and USA were too restrictive and unfair, especially to women. During the 1960s we witnessed the breakdown of those mores. The upside is that sex is less of a taboo, and that women are treated more equally. The downside is that several sexually transmitted diseases (including chlamydia, HIV and anti-biotic resistant gonorrhoea) have reached epidemic proportions. We've also seen a massive growth in the pornography industry - which seems to exploit both the performers and the consumers, and leads to skewed sexual responses (see The Science of Pleasure).

The closer we get to our own time the more difficult it is to accurately see the forces of history at work. Once art might have given us some perspective, but it seems to me that contemporary art lacks any kind of consensus. If anything the overall impression is one of chaos as each person becomes their own art movement, but almost every artist simply recycles the past. I've lost track of the times recently when some quite ordinary pop/rock outfit (as banal as, say, The Stone Roses) has been described as "changing music for ever". Not only are there no apparent rules - though note that popular culture churns out generic entertainment in conformity with consumer expectations - but there are no objective criteria either.

Economically the push has been towards more freedom for markets, which has quite predictably given us the chaos of the global financial crisis. Trying to impose order on profligate European government spending is creating social chaos. In the USA only the federal system keeps states such as California from being insolvent. Politically the UK seems to be caught in a stampede to occupy the centre ground, but this has meant the abandonment of principles and ideologies and rule by popularism which is producing incoherent policies and economic stagnation, with rising inflation and unemployment, and a slide back into recession. The US seems similarly caught between conservative and progressive urges and stagnating as a result.

For what it is worth I think we are generally too much under the sway of Romanticism and the Dionysian tendency. Our societies lack coherence and unity, we lack a clear sense of shared values. Part of the problem with Romanticism is that it resists analysis and reason, and promotes individualist hedonism. It does not allow us to reach an understanding of our situation and act accordingly. We are left with our impulses and seeking out intense emotional stimulation in a state of confusion. We don't even have to seek it now, it is piped into our homes, and into our ears constantly! In Freudian terms we are in a time of the irrational id. The free market is not backed by intelligence or reason, only by the impulses of the participants, and on the whole the greed of producers and capitalists seems to be the dominant force. The rich get richer and the poor get poorer, and the middle are working longer and harder for about the same.

This is not to say that some people are not thinking about our situation and speaking out. Merely that the world is not listening. George Bush, who seemed like an incompetent idiot from where I was sitting, was none-the-less a popular president perhaps because he played to American sentimentality and presented himself as an heroic individual in the Romantic mode, rather than a Platonic (or Apollonian) wise king. Barack Obama is unpopular because he is taking the opposite route. Wisdom counts for nothing in our society at present.

With the world's financial systems in melt-down, population burgeoning out of control, and ecosystems collapsing, and incoherent artistic traditions what we need is a new (and lengthy) Apollonian era, a new puritanism. By which I do not mean the external imposition of rules from fear of chaos, but a more spontaneous internal ordering. The kind of order that emerges from widely shared values. The kind of order that is an emergent property of complex systems; a self ordering. United we stand, divided we fall. And we are very much divided at present. It occurs to me that my thinking here might well be influenced by Isaac Asimov's classic Foundation series which contains the same kinds of themes.

There is no doubt that every society needs artists, agitators, and devils advocates of all kinds. But the Romantic vision of us all being artists only creates havoc and chaos. Most of us don't thrive without clear boundaries, and most of us feel better if we live in groups with clear values. We want a society which has a benevolent and tolerant attitude to eccentricity and difference, but not one in which all sense of order is lost to relativism. I'm sure that this is why, when finally given the freedom to vote after years of oppressive regimes, the people of Egypt voted for Islamist parties with agendas of imposing law and order based on shared Islamic values. I think Westerners, still largely in the grip of Romanticism, find this desire for order difficult to understand. We have this strange notion that freedom is freedom to do whatever we like whatever the cost or consequences, and without reference to anyone else. And we resent anyone that places limits on us. Indeed a feature of comments on this blog has been violent reactions to any suggestion of a prescriptive statement on my part (though since I started writing at greater length and more complexity this is less of a problem).

Part of the problem in the west is that we have affluenza - the social disease in which people define themselves and their worth in terms of money, possessions, physical and social appearances, and celebrity. We want the life that we see people living on TV. These values have replaced our traditional, more human centred, values, and lead the majority into lives of virtual meaninglessness. These are certainly not the kind of values on which to build a healthy community. The moral collapse of societies into a condition of affluenza must surely be connected to the collapse of religion as a guide to morality - leaving us confused about what morality is. Anyone who has listened to an public commentator on morality will know that intellectuals are extremely confused about morality and tend base their moral judgements purely on subjective criteria. Here again we see the baleful influence of Romanticism which says that just as we are all artists, we are all naturally moral. But we aren't, and we aren't.

One of the great confusions of our time is that politicians see themselves as moral leaders, and try to convince us that moral oversight is an important role of government. Politicians have sought to supplant religious leaders as experts on how we should live and conduct ourselves. And at the same time we consistently see politicians rated as the least trustworthy people in our societies - that is to say that we consider our self-appointed moral leaders and amongst the least moral of all members of our society. Such a paradox can only harm our society.

I see my desire for a more Apollonian society as entirely consistent with Buddhism. We need to once again see restraint as a virtue, and greed as a vice. Unmoderated desires are destructive. We also need to emphasise the importance of social connections, morality, and positive emotions. We need to see our lives in the context of our family and peers, our society and increasingly in the global context. But above all we need to pay attention to what is going on right now in our sensorium, and how we are responding to what is going on.


10 February 2012

Possible History for the Buddhist Idea of Karma

IN THIS ESSAY I am going to present a speculative theory about where the Buddhist idea of karma comes from. It is backed up by some circumstantial evidence, and fits into a larger argument, but on its own might seem a little flimsy. More background can be found in my essay Possible Iranian Origins of Śākyas and Aspects of Buddhism (a draft can be found on academia.edu). As I say in the conclusion of that essay: "Ideas have histories". Buddhists like to maintain the story that both the Buddha and his ideas were entirely historically unique, but I think this is unlikely.

I also think current attempts to put the Buddha's ideas in context are quite limited. The only well attested tradition of the time is the late Vedic tradition, and almost inevitably scholars try to relate Buddhism to Brahmanism. This leads to an overemphasis on this aspect of Buddhism. Here I present an outline of a possible history for the Buddhist version of karma which aims to look beyond the Buddha's Vedic contemporaries. However it is worth looking briefly at his Vedic predecessors first.

In the early and middle period Vedic literature (ca. 1500-800 BCE) the word karma had ritual rather than ethical significance. In the late Vedic literature, dating from probably 2-3 centuries before the Buddha, we begin to find references to one's afterlife destination being dependent on one's actions (karma) in life. BU 4.4.5 explicitly states:
yathākārī yathācārī tathā bhavati| sādhukārī sādhur bhavati| pāpakārī pāpo bhavati| puṇyaḥ puṇyena karmaṇā pāpaḥ pāpena||
However he acts or behaves, he becomes that. Acting right (sādhu) he is right, acting harmfully (pāpa) he is harmful. He is good (puṇya) by doing good actions, and evil by doing evil actions.[1]
These terms—sādhu/puṇya and pāpa—still seem to be related to correct participation in Vedic ritual life rather than ethics. However even at this level the very fact of a right way to behave and wrong way results in different afterlife destinations.

A development within the BU is that a man's actions based on desire (kāma) causes him to cycle between this world and the next world (BU 4.4.6). In the next world the results of actions are exhausted, and it is only in this world that actions are performed. However a man freed from desire has a different fate: brahmaiva sanbrahmāpyeti 'he is only brahman, he goes to brahman'. [2] CU 8.1-2 also appears to list a number of alternative post-mortem destinations based on desires. Giving up desire is part of a renunciate lifestyle in this context, so again this is not quite ethics.

Also both Bṛhadāraṇyaka Upaniṣad and Chāndogya Upaniṣad propose different post-mortem destinations for those who know about the five fires (pañcāgni-vidyā), those who only practice the ordinary Brahmanical rituals, and those who do neither (BU 6.2, CU 5.2-10). Richard Gombrich (2009) has suggested that certain Pāli texts, particularly the Tevijja Sutta, make allusions to the five fires. He says that this can be interpreted as the Buddha having knowledge of the Upaniṣads. I'm not sure about this any longer, but that is a topic for another essay.

So here are three distinct versions of how behaviour in life affects one's afterlife: right actions (sādhukārin), renunciation of desire (kāma), and special knowledge (vidyā). There are some similarities with Buddhist karma and rebirth here, but only in the sense that all cyclic rebirth eschatologies will seem similar. We should not be surprised to find that Brahmanism has influenced Buddhism. Though it is interesting to note that Michael Witzel has shown that BU and CU were probably composed in different parts of North India, and Signe Cohen highlights the different contexts: BU to some extent represents a challenge to orthodoxy vested in the Ṛgveda, whereas CU is more conservative. However to me (and Richard Gombrich) the CU version of the pañcāgni-vidyā looks like an elaboration of BU.

Another possible source for Buddhist views is Jainism, and Richard Gombrich (2009), citing work by Will Johnson, has explored this connection. The Jain version of karma is in fact closer to the Buddhist version than the Brahmanical is, however it does not distinguish between good and bad actions, but says that all action is harmful. This may suggest that Jainism influenced Buddhism, though Jainism per se is only likely to have been a generation of two earlier. However we need to be cautious about opinions on ancient Jainism. The Jains, according to their own traditions, which are confirmed by modern scholarship, lost the texts that might parallel the Pāli suttas. Our idea about early Jainism are a reconstruction, partly based on the Pāli suttas which contain glimpses of the Jains. Early Jainism, then, is far more doubtful that early Buddhism, and we should know by now that early Buddhism is quite uncertain. Even if we accept the reconstructed versions this only tells us about the situation contemporary with the Buddha, or perhaps a generation earlier.

I want to suggest that both Jainism and Buddhism have roots that go considerably deeper and the emergence of both, and other groups like the Ājivakas, represents the end of a process rather than the beginning of one. Aspects of the Buddhist teachings on morality and karma resemble Zoroastrian concepts. According to leading scholar on the Zoroastrians, the late Mary Boyce, the Zoroastrians defined themselves this way:
“We are those who welcome the good thoughts, good words, and good acts which, here and elsewhere, are and have been realized. We are not those who denigrate good (things).” (Boyce 2004)
Note that they are good in thought, word, and action, and this is very similar to the Buddhist conception of ethics pertaining to actions of body, speech and mind. This connection seems to have been first noticed by Caroline Rhys Davids in the 1920s. [3] Likewise in Zoroastrianism after you die you are judged on your actions. Mary Boyce puts it this way:
"the soul’s fate depends solely on the sum of the individual’s thoughts, words, and acts, the good being weighed against the bad, so that no observances should avail it in any way." (Boyce 1994)
The idea of weighing the heart/soul of the deceased occurs in the Egyptian Book of the Dead, and this seems to have been an influence on the development of Zoroastrianism. Soul weighing is a little different to Buddhist doctrine, but consider what is actually achieved by the two processes: one's afterlife destination is determined by adherence to the law in Egypt, and by to the Dharma in India. Just as for the Brahmins the afterlife becomes divided. Gananath Obeyesekere observes that this seems to happen quite universally. Once right and wrong ways of living have been enunciated:
"There can no longer be a single place for those who have done good and those who have done bad. The otherworld [i.e. the afterlife] must minimally split into two, a world of retribution ('hell') and a world of reward ('heaven')." (Obeyesekere 2002: 79).
The connection may be even stronger than it first appears. Consider the Devadūta Sutta (MN 130, M iii.178) which explains how after death a being who has behaved badly might be reborn in hell (niraya); there they will be seized by the guardians of hell (nirayapālā), dragged before King Yāma and cross-examined about their evil conduct of body, speech and mind. Unable to account for themselves, they are then condemned to horrific tortures which are graphically described. It is emphasised that:
na ca tāva kālaṅkaroti yāva na taṃ pāpakammaṃ byantīhoti.
as long as that evil action is not destroyed, he does not die.
And until he dies he cannot be reborn in another realm. Read in light of a possible connection to Zoroastrianism, this text seems to take on a new significance. There is no Indian precedent for such an idea. Some scholars have pointed to possible precursors to the idea of Hell in the Vedic tradition, but even in the Late Vedic texts the idea is barely formed, and nothing like the elaborations we find in the Pāli texts. In fact the Buddhist idea of being reborn in a place of extreme torture as a way of extirpating evil karma appears as if from nowhere. However like the world of the Vedic fathers it is not a place where karma consequences can be created. Hell, like Heaven is a place of passivity rather than activity.

How could Zoroastrian ideas get all the way to North-East India, without having an impact on the intervening culture, i.e. the orthodox Kuru-Pañcāla Brahmins? I believe that Harvard Indologist Michael Witzel (1997, 2002, 2010) has the answer to this. As I wrote earlier this year the idea that the Śākyas were in fact Scythians (Skt. Śaka), that is steppe dwelling nomads, is usually given short shrift because despite the similarities in the names, the Scythians arrived in India much later ca. 150 BCE. But Witzel has showed, and these similarities with Zoroastrianism themselves form part of the evidence, that the Śākyas probably were related to the Śakas. The Śākyas are not mentioned in the Vedas, or in the Brāhmaṇa and Āraṇyaka literature, which suggests that they arrived in India (via Iran) after about 1000 BCE when the Ṛgveda reached its final form, and before the lifetime of the Buddha (ca. 500 BCE). See Witzel (1997).

Climate change evidence suggests 850 BCE as a pivotal date because it marks the beginning of an abrupt arid period in Western India, and a great westward expansion of the Scythians of the Asian Steppes (van Geel et. al. 2004a, 2004b). The Śākyas were just one of many non-Vedic tribes, who spoke Indo-Aryan dialects, who made the journey east. Alongside them were the Malla, Vajji, Licchavi, Naya, Kālāma, Buli, Moriya, and Vesali. They slotted in around the previous inhabitants from tribes such as Kosala, Kāśi and Videha who migrated somewhat earlier due to the rise of the Kuru tribe in the Northwest (ca. 1200-1000 BCE) and dominated the region. It's quite likely the early migrants interacted with, and ultimately displaced an Austro-Asiatic speaking culture, from which we get the animistic cults (e.g. yakṣas). The Kosala-Videha region was, broadly speaking, Indo-Aryan culturally and linguistically by the Buddha's day. Brahmanism with its Vedic language texts was largely a product of the Kuru-Pañcāla tribes, but Brahmins had begun to have an influence in the region by the 5th century BCE.

So my suggestion is that we see Buddhist (and Jain) karma as part of the culmination of a process of assimilation of Iranian and/or Zoroastrian ideas by the Kosala-Videha tribes in the Central Ganges Plain region, introduced by the Śākyas. The process probably started soon after 850 BCE when climate change affected the environment and set in process a series of migrations across Eurasia and the sub-continent. The emergence of Buddhism and Jainism marks a mature phase of this culture that was soon to be taken over and co-opted by the militaristic Magadhans and their eventual successors the Mauryans. In particular karma may well emerge from the application of the Zoroastrian ideas about morality and the afterlife, to a widespread belief in cyclic rebirth. I suppose cyclic rebirth to be an Indian regional belief since it is almost unknown amongst Indo-European speakers outside India. The simple cycle between this world and the next, becomes differentiated first into good and bad destinations because of ideas of right & wrong; and later into a more possibilities depending on how one lived. Hell is a novel idea in India. Buddhist texts, just like the Upaniṣads, consider escaping from the rounds of rebirth to be the point of religious practices. If this idea were already developing in the Kosala-Videha region when the Upaniṣads were being written then we could see the emergence in Vedic texts as a parallel development.


  1. The Vedic texts, including the Upaniṣads discuss this process in masculine terms, and it is uncertain as to whether women were included.
  2. Following Olivelle. A literal reading would be "only brahman goes to brahman" - which seems to rely on the notion that "I am brahman" (ahaṃ brahmāsmi). Also note that it is doubtful whether women where included in this scheme, so I have not corrected the gender specific language of the texts.
  3. The earliest mention of the idea I have found is in Rhys Davids (1926) where it is cited as though it is a well established fact. Rhys Davids mentions the idea in several subsequent publications as well. Sangharakshita mentions the body, speech and mind connection in The Ten Pillars (1984), p.34. Thanks to Ratnaprabha for drawing my attention to this in a comment on Persian Influences on Buddhism (20 June 2008). Sangharakshita says that the connection occured to him while reading the Zoroastrian Gathas (personal communication 19.1.2012).
  • Boyce, Mary. 1994. 'Death. 1.' Encyclopædia Iranica. Online version.
  • Boyce, Mary. 2004. ‘Humata Hūxta Huvaršta.’ Encyclopædia Iranica. Online version.
  • Gombrich, Richard. 2009. What the Buddha Thought. London, Equinox.
  • Obeyesekere, Gananath. 2002. Imagining Karma: Ethical Transformation in Amerindian, Buddhist, and Greek Rebirth. University of California Press.
  • Rhys Davids, C. A. F. 1926. ‘Man as Willer.’ Bulletin of the School of Oriental and African Studies. 4: 29-44. doi: 10.1017/S0041977X00102551
  • van Geel, B. et. al. 2004a. ‘Climate change and the expansion of the Scythian culture after 850 BC: a hypothesis.’ Journal of Archaeological Science. 31 (12) December: 1735-1742. Online pdf. doi:10.1016/j.jas.2004.05.00
  • van Geel, B., Shinde, V. and Yasuda, Y., 2004b. 'Solar forcing of climate change and a monsoon-related cultural shift in western India around 800 cal. yrs. BC.' Chapter 17 in: Y. Yasuda and V. Shinde (eds) Monsoon and Civilization. Roli Books, New Delhi, p. 275-279.
  • Witzel, Michael. 1997. ‘The Development of the Vedic Canon and its Schools: The Social and Political Milieu.’ (Materials on Vedic Śākhās, 8) in Inside the Texts, Beyond the Texts. New Approaches to the Study of the Vedas. (Harvard Oriental Series. Opera Minora, vol. 2.) Cambridge 1997, 257-345. Online.
  • Witzel, Michael. 2002. INDOLOGY@liverpool.ac.uk, Nov. 5 and 7, 2002
  • Witzel, Michael. 2010. Indo-Eurasian_research. [Online forum.]

Note (7.7.13) I recently found this in a paper by Michael Witzel.
"Fortunately, the passage contains another clue, the frequently met with concepts of "thought-speech-action" (manas- vāc -karman), a collocation that is found not only in the Veda but also in the closely related Old Iranian texts (manah- vacas - šiiaoθna, Y 34.1-2).

- How To Enter The Vedic Mind? Strategies In Translating A Brāhma (1996) by Michael Witzel
This surely resembles body, speech and mind

03 February 2012


I WAS SITTING AROUND earlier today thinking about evil, as you do, and it occurred to me that I had never looked up pāpa in the dictionary. When I did I found quite an interesting story. Pāpa is the same in Pāli and Sanskrit and is almost always translated as 'evil'. Interestingly pāpa and evil were once closer in meaning than they are now. However let us start from the beginning with some etymology.

The Proto-Indo-European root of pāpa is: pē(i)-, - or - 'to hurt, scold, shame'. Words from this root come into English via two routes: via Germanic *fijand- 'hating, hostile' (with the regular change from /p/ to /f/ known as Grimm's Law), and Old English fēond 'enemy', we get English fiend; via the Latin patī 'to suffer, to endure' come words like passion, passive, and patient. (AHD). A Greek form is pēma 'misery, calamity' though I don't think we have any English cognates of this.

Looking more closely at the Latin derivatives, passion is a suffering that one is forced to endure passively. This is why it is applied to the martyrdom of saints (though martyr itself means 'witness'). Their horrible fates over took them against their will, and they simply had to endure them. A 'patient' is someone who endures suffering, and 'patiently' (the adjective) suggests 'waiting, forbearance and passivity'. A doctor's 'patient' is (or was) also the passive recipient of medical treatment. The meaning of passion as 'strong emotion' came into English via Old French in about the 14th century. Passion as 'sexual desire' is attested from the 1580s, and 'enthusiasm' from the 1630s. The word seems to have lost it's passive sense, but not entirely. Passion now is something active, and often positive, but is not something we have direct control over. We are all encouraged to be passionate about life, our work, art, or sport, etc. But on the other hand we don't really seem to chose what we are passionate about. Since the Romantic period suppressing our passion has been seen as a bad thing.

The word evil is probably from PIE *wep- (AHD) or *wap- (OEtD), and therefore unrelated to pāpa, but some of the main etymological dictionaries do not include this root. "Evil was the word the Anglo-Saxons used where we would use words like "bad, cruel, unskilful, defective (adj.)"; or "harm, crime, misfortune, disease." (OEtD). This is not so far from the original sense of pāpa. It is not until the 18th century that evil takes on a more abstractly moral tone, and a more active wickedness.

The Sanskrit and Pāli word pāpa is defined by the dictionary as 'bad, wicked, vicious, evil' (MW). The word 'sinful' is often included in dictionary definitions but I don't think this is helpful. The underlying concept is an action which is 'hurtful, blame-worthy and something to be ashamed of.' As such, as I've suggested with respect to Buddhist morality it refers to how we relate to other people. Sin is a theological concept, which is mainly about how we relate to an overseer god.

What's interesting is that there doesn't seem to be an abstract concept of evil in Sanskrit or Pāli. One could not even ask the question: "what is evil"? One has to ask, or at least imply, the question: "what kind of action is evil?" And the answer is that an evil action is one that causes harm to other people. This chimes with the view that I expressed in my essay Morality in Relationship. Good and evil are primarily modes of how we treat other people.

Buddhists, and most Indians, believe that we live in a world in which suffering is predominant, but which includes the possibility of escaping from that suffering through deliberate actions that affect our post-mortem fate. This world is one with the possibility of permanent escape from the recycling. Of the other worlds some are good, but some are pāpikā gatī 'harmful destinations'. Here again though frequently translated as "evil destination" (by Thanissaro for instance) what the phrase really means is 'a place of suffering', a place in which we will come to harm. The destination is not abstractly evil, but practically harmful. In the case of the so called 'hells' some rather Gothic descriptions of the torments that await one there have been enunciated, just in case hypothetical suffering is not motivating enough.

Incidentally hell is another possible import from Iran and Zoroaster. There are some vague references in Ṛgveda to something like hell, but a fully fledged hell as a rebirth destination for evil-doers only emerges in India in Buddhist literature. Meanwhile Zoroastrianism had a well developed idea of hell as a post-mortem destination, apparently based on the Egyptian ideas of being judged in relation to the law. These ideas are found in the Egyptian Book of the Dead.

The Lord of Saṃsāra is sometimes referred to as Māra i.e. Murderer. Death is considered to be a great suffering by most cultures, and most people delay it if they can. Māra is 'the one who kills'. His name derives from the causative form of the verb 'to die' (√mṛ) so literally means 'causing to die'. I've already written about how death affects us (The Abyss of Death), and how the the consolations for death are often in the form of afterlife beliefs. In saṃsāra according to Indian tradition, we die again and again (punar mṛtyu), and Māra presides over our repeated death. This emphasis on death is present in the Bṛhdāranyaka Upaniṣad (e.g. BU 1.2.7), but interestingly the Buddhists decided to conceptualise the idea as repeated birth. It is harder to see as birth as undesirable: after all, we all want more life, more chances, more time; whereas no one wants to die even once. I suspect that in the West we would be better off referring to re-death to avoid the possibility of a positive spin.

Māra is sometimes referred to English as 'Māra the evil one' which translates Pāli māro pāpimā; where pāpimā is the nominative of pāpa-mant, literally 'possessing pāpa'. Despite the standard translations it might be more accurate to render pāpimant as 'hurtful' (c.f. MW s.v. pāpman). Inevitably people compare Māra with the Christian Satan, but the mythological functions are quite different.

Māra's main intervention is to cause people to doubt the possibility of escape. He wants people to believe they can make the best of saṃsāra, and attempts to keep beings in his realm where they continue to suffer. I suppose wherever there is a story about the afterlife, and precisely because it is a story rather than a demonstrable fact, those who hear the story will come to have doubts. It is quite an interesting facet of this branch of theology that doubt is an aspect of evil personified. For some reason doubt itself is seen as harmful. One can imagine a benign aspect to this, but it does seem to play out in unfortunate ways. I've seen some quietly manipulative attempts to make people believe that rebirth is the truth and that being a Buddhist depends on not having any doubt on this matter. Religieux often do seem to feel threatened when one doubts their belief system - though responses from Buddhists are often more passive than theistic religions.

Evil in Buddhism, then, is not an abstract concept - there is no equivalent to the notion of 'pure evil'. Evil is synonymous with doing harm or being harmed. We're all capable of inflicting harm, even if it is unintended. The goal is to be someone who minimises the harm we cause.

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