05 November 2010

Pāli Texts as Historical Sources

monks from central AsiaTRYING TO USE THE PĀLI CANON as an historical source presents many challenges. An important thread that I'd like to mention, but not go into this time, is the existence and understanding of physical - archaeological and epigraphical - evidence. Greg Schopen in particular has pointed to the discrepancies in the stories told by physical and textual evidence; and the incompleteness of any historical account which ignores the physical evidence (which at last count includes about 95% of Buddhist historiography). That said I want to look at a particular problem related to early Buddhist texts.

I have been researching the way that Brahmins are characterised in the suttas because I think recent discoveries make it worth looking at them again. It is interesting for instance to find that no Brahmin ever mentions ātman, nor equates ātman and brahman; and no belief in ātman is ever credited to a Brahmin; though lots of them seem to follow a cult of Brahmā. This is surprising given the received teaching that the Buddha taught anatta as a direct response to Brahmanical religious ideas. Here I want to show that the way that Brahmins are presented in the canon is more complex than Buddhists usually allow.

Esukārā Sutta (MN 96, M ii.180)
Tatridaṃ, bho gotama, brāhmaṇā brāhmaṇassa sandhanaṃ paññapenti bhikkhācariyaṃ; bhikkhācariyañca pana brāhmaṇo sandhanaṃ atimaññamāno akiccakārī hoti gopova adinnaṃ ādiyamāno'ti

Here, Mr Gotama, the Brahmins declare that the wealth (sandha) of the Brahmin, is wandering for alms (bhikkhācariyaṃ); and a Brahmin who neglects wandering for alms, is not doing their duty: they are [like] a guard taking the not given.
Subha Sutta (MN 99, M ii.197)
brāhmaṇā, bho gotama, evamāhaṃsu: gahaṭṭho ārādhako hoti ñāyaṃ dhammaṃ kusalaṃ, na pabbajito ārādhako hoti ñāyaṃ dhammaṃ kusalan'ti.

Brahmins speak thus Mr Gotama: "the householder is accomplished in the correct manner, the dhamma which is wholesome. The gone-forth (pabbajito) is not accomplished in the correct manner, in the dhamma which is wholesome".
These two passages characterise Brahmins in diametrically opposed terms. The context for both of these statements is a conversation between a Brahmin and the Buddha on the appropriateness of traditional Brahmin values: brahmaṇa here is not being used as a metaphor for the ideal Buddhist. Both discussions occur in Anāthapiṇḍika's park. Esukārī is concerned with class and status, while Subha is concerned with the best lifestyle for a Brahmin. Esukārī uses a term which I had not encountered before: bhikkhācariya. Clearly this is related to the familiar term bhikkhu. Bhikkhā means 'to beg, or to make one's living by begging'; and cariya literally means 'walking', or figuratively 'behaving or to make one's way'. This is the lifestyle the original Buddhist monks adopted before settling into monasteries. But, according to Subha, it is precisely the wrong way to be a good Brahmin.

Subha expands his description of a good Brahmin with a list of five qualities (dhamme): truth, asceticism, celibacy, study, and generosity (sacca, tapa, brahmacariya, ajjhena, cāga). The Buddha's subsequent critique of him is one that is used frequently, which is that no Brahmin living or dead has ever known for themselves the truth of their pronouncements. They are just words; the blind leading the blind. This approach is epitomised by the Tevijja Sutta (DN 13). I wonder how many Buddhists look at this text and have secret doubts about the path they extol, but have never personally witnessed? How can I authentically stand up declare nibbāṇa as the goal, when I have no experience of it?

There are a number of ways to look at this text-historical problem. Firstly we must consider the possibility that the Pāli texts contain no useful historical information, that they are just stories made up once Buddhism became established (which may not have been until much later than we usually think). In this view contradictions are meaningless or at best represent confusion on the part of the authors. This approach gets us nowhere. We know that not long after the time period the texts purport to be from there is definite physical evidence of a thriving Buddhist community. There is a history of Buddhism, and clearly Buddhist culture evolved over time. Being unprepared to simply give up, I think we must reject this position and proceed, though with caution.

We might take the less extreme position that the Pāli canon only tells us about the prejudices of the early Buddhists. This we must take more seriously. Clearly there is no attempt to be fair in portraying rival religious practitioners in Buddhist texts. There is quite a lot of invective against people who are ito bahiddhā 'outside the teaching'; just as other the texts of other religions seldom mention Buddhists in a positive light, and parody our beliefs. But amongst the early texts are insults directed at Buddhists by others. Unflattering descriptions of Buddhists are quite unlikely to have been made up ex-nihilo by Buddhists, and likely reflect actual criticisms, actual dialogues. But how far does the Buddhist distortion of what they write about extend? Are lay villagers or kings, for instance, portrayed equally poorly by Buddhist monks?

With these last questions in mind I think we can take one more step and say that the texts, while largely filled with Buddhist rhetoric, do give us glimpses of history. There is a big problem in deciding what time period the texts represent. Until we get more evidence this is an insurmountable problem. I do not agree with those who only accept the physical evidence, which suggests that the Canon may date from the 4th century AD, because I do accept that the texts themselves can tell us things. Surely for instance King Asoka would have been mentioned if he pre-dated the texts; though some use the same argument to say that if the Pāli canon existed that Asoka would surely have mentioned it. My view is that the Pāli texts were probably composed and developed over several centuries starting during the Buddha's lifetime which was in the 5th or 4th century BCE. They were probably collated at some later, as yet undetermined date, mostly like in stages so that the nikāyas represent originally distinct collections. The existence of three and four different versions of some stories, distributed through the nikāyas, with major and minor differences, suggests to me a number of parallel lineages which persisted separately for some time before being collected together.

There is no need to give a straw man such complexity, so it seems to me plausible that Brahmins did indeed experience the kinds of conflict I have highlighted above. On the one hand there was a conventional, conservative streak to Brahmin society which saw duty and family as central; while on the other there were those who saw leaving home as necessary. On the whole the Buddha clearly considered the latter a better option - he was in the jargon of our time 'anti-family' [1]. However in this discussion with Subha he makes it clear that the lifestyle is less important than the practice of the Dhamma - echoing Sangharakshita's oft quoted (and oft misunderstood) aphorism:

Commitment is primary; lifestyle is secondary.

Commitment is more important than lifestyle, but lifestyle is not unimportant. In any case this conflict between conservative and progressive forces amongst Brahmins may come as no surprise. We have evidence from Vedic sources of these changes. Some scholars have spoken of the internalisation or interiorisation of the sacrifice, that is the move to perform the sacrifice in imagination or as a meditation. Some of these ideas are expressed in the so-called āranyka or forest texts. These texts post-date the Vedas by some centuries, but predate Buddhism by a similar time span. Some parts of the Brahmin community embraced this change, while others resisted. Although there seems to be some ambiguity, it is likely that the jaṭila or 'matted hair' practitioners were Brahmins. I haven't yet found a Canonical text which makes this explicit, though in one the jaṭila is the follower of a Brahmin. The name often occurs in lists: ājivikā nigaṇṭha jaṭilā paribbājakā (c.f PED s.v. jaṭila; e.g. S i.77; see: How to Spot an Arahant) so we know they were not Jain, or Ājivika. The word jaṭila doesn't seem to appear in the Ṛgveda or the Atharvaveda, but does occur in the Mahābhārata.

Signe Cohen has suggested that the Bṛhadāranyaka Upaniṣad (BĀU) reflects a conflict between sages associated with the Yajurveda, in particular Yajñavalkya, and sages from other lineages particularly those associated with the Ṛgveda, from the point of view of YV sages.[2] Johannes Bronkhorst has argued that BĀU (along with other early Upaniṣads) shows Brahmins in the process of adopting ideas which originate amongst the samaṇa communities of North-Eastern India, the area he calls Greater Magadha. [3] Note that though we have some evidence of familiarity with Vedic ideas in Buddhist texts, that the important figure of Yajñavalkya is entirely absent. This evidence from non-Buddhist sources reinforces the view that the Pāli texts do record an historical conflict, though perhaps from some distance.

Brahmins themselves make up a large number of converts - both Esukārī and Subha make a formal conversion, though this could be a rhetorical device (one that was to become increasingly popular in Buddhist texts). We would expect some familiarity with Brahmanical culture and religion from a community with a substantial Brahmin membership. The fact that only more peripheral themes of the Upaniṣads and not the central themes are found in the Pāli texts is all the more difficult to understand in this light. Perhaps it suggests that converts came from the conservative rather than the progressive faction?

My view is that with many caveats, we can look at history through the lens of the Pāli texts, and that to some extent they tell us about the time of the Buddha, or at least that time and some centuries afterwards. In a short essay there is not time to deal adequately with the caveats, but I have at least made mention of the main ones. My conclusion is no doubt influenced by being Buddhist, and therefore being drawn to see the Buddha as an historical figure, rather than a legend. Though of course many legendary figures are based on real people. However it is important to note that any historical conclusions are by nature provisional and tentative. As a Buddhist I consciously (and happily) act as though the Buddha lived and taught; as a scholar I am required to be more cautious and doubtful. There is a definite tension.

For a more in-depth look at historical issues in texts this article is very illuminating:
Walters, Jonathan S. "Suttas as history: four approaches to the sermon on the noble quest (ariyapariyesana-sutta)." History of Religions 38(3) Feb 1999: p.247-284.

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  1. Jesus was also quite anti-family. He is reported as saying, for example: "For I have come to set a man against his father, and a daughter against her mother, and a daughter-in-law against her mother-in-law" (Matt. 10:35); and "If any one comes to me and does not hate his own father and mother and wife and children and brothers and sisters, yes, and even his own life, he cannot be my disciple." (Luke 14:26)
  2. Cohen, Signe. Text and Authority in The Older Upaniṣads. Leiden: Brill, 2008.
  3. Bronkhorst, Johannes. 2007. Greater Magadha : studies in the culture of early India. Leiden : Brill.

image: wikimedia.
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