09 January 2015

Gandharva and the Buddhist Afterlife. Part II

In part one of this two-part essay we explored parts of the Brahmanical literature—i.e. the Vedas, Epics and Purāṇas—looking for precedents that might explain the dual nature of the gandharva in Buddhist literature. What we found, with some difficulty, was that precedents do exist in the Epic and Purāṇic texts, but that these only relate to the gandharva qua minor god, especially as celestial musician, and not to any role in conception. Despite the enthusiasm of modern commentators for imagining connections, it seems that the gandharva's role in conception is a Buddhist innovation with no roots in the existing mythology of India. Thus we will have to look closely at the textual tradition to see if we can say why such an innovation was necessary and why it took the form it did. 

Note that in Pali the word is spelled gandhabba (Sanskrit
rva regularly becomes assimilated to Pali bba). I'll use the Pali when specifically referring to Pali texts, but the Sanskrit for other purposes.

Gandharva in the Suttas and Sūtras

Gandhabba is fairly frequently mentioned in the Pali Canon. Almost always in the sense of a celestial musician and only seldom with respect to rebirth. The Dictionary of Pali Proper Names sums up the former sense:
"A class of semi-divine beings who inhabit the Cātummahārājika [Four Great Kings] realm and are the lowest among the devas (DN ii.212). They are generally classed together with the Asuras and the Nāgas (E.g., AN iv.200, 204, 207). Beings are born among them as a result of having practised the lowest form of sīla (DN ii.212, 271).
It is a disgrace for a monk to be born in the Gandhabba-world (DN ii.221, 251, 273f.). The Gandhabbas are regarded as the heavenly musicians, and Pañcasikha, Suriyavaccasā and her father Timbarū are among their number (DN ii.264)." [Online]
Pañcasikha ('five crests') is sometimes linked to the Mahāyāna bodhisattva Mañjuśṛī. The reference to him in the Sakkapañha Sutta (DN ii.263) is to pañcasikhaṃ gandhabba-devaputtaṃ; where deva-putta is literally 'son of the devas'. Indeed the Gandhabba Saṃyutta (SN 10) describes devas of the gandhabba group (gandhabbakāyikā devā); compare the use of kāyika (belonging to a kāya or group; compare with manomayakāya), where in Brahmanical texts deavs and gandharvas are always distinct. Gandhabbas may also live in fragrant parts of trees, i.e. roots, heartwood, softwood, bark, shoots, leaves, flowers, fruits, sap, and gandhagandhe or fragrant smells (SN 10.1). A virtuous person can be born amongst them simply by wishing it and by giving fragrant gifts (SN 10.2). In the Mahāsamaya Sutta (DN 20 PTS: D ii 257) one of the four great kings (caturmahārājā), Dhataraṭṭha (Skt Dhṛtarāṣṭra), king of the East, is lord of the gandhabbas (gandhabbānaṃ adhipati); similarly in the DN 32 Āṭānāṭā Sutta (DN iii.196-8). Gandharvas are associated with the sky. In the Aṅguttara Nikāya gandharvas are referred to as 'sky-goers' vihaṅgamo (AN ii.38); another name for a bird is vihaṅgo (viha 'sky' + ga < √gam 'go').

Thus for the most part the gandhabbas are simply minor gods, not unlike nāgas or yakṣas, somewhat reminiscent of the Epic gandharva. However in the Mahātaṇhāsaṅkhaya Sutta (MN 38; i.255-6) we have this very important, much discussed, passage:
Tiṇṇaṃ kho pana, bhikkhave, sannipātā gabbhassāvakkanti hoti... Yato ca kho, bhikkhave, mātāpitaro ca sannipatitā honti, mātā ca utunī hoti, gandhabbo ca paccupaṭṭhito hoti
Bhikkhus, when three come together there is entry of the embryo (gabbha)... and they are: the mother and father come together; the mother is in season; and a gandhabba is present.
The Madhyāgama version of this text is titled 嗏帝經 (= Sāti SūtraMĀ 201), Sāti being the main protagonist in the text, and this āgama being the product of a Sarvāstivāda sect.
Note: the CBETA Taishō edition of the Chinese Tripiṭaka has [口*荼] 帝經 instead. The formula [口*荼] is for a Chinese character that has not been included in the Unicode standard yet (see right); nor is it found in modern standard dictionaries. This is a regular problem for digitising ancient Chinese texts that include archaic characters. In this case the archaic character appears to be an ancient typo, since the Taishō footnotes here say that the Song, Yuan, and Ming editions have 嗏 instead and this seems to be correct. The character 嗏 was/is not in general use, but was designed at the time to represent the Sanskrit sound . My thanks to Sujato and Rod Bucknell of Sutta Central for help with this problem. 
The Chinese text says:
(T 1.26 769.b23-4)
Furthermore, three items combine to enter a woman's womb. Father and mother must come together in one place; the mother is fully able and ready to bear [a child]; a gandharva has already arrived.
What we notice here is that the role of the gandharva is not stated. All it says is that a gandharva must be present: Pāḷi paccupaṭṭhito, Ch 已至. The Pāḷi verb paṭi-upa√sthā can also mean 'attend, wait on', but here (and elsewhere) it takes the form of a passive past participle with an auxiliary copular 'to be' in the present indicative. Clearly the translators of MĀ, in choosing 至, understood this in terms of presence as well. And the character 已 indicating a completed action, which suggests they read the past participle as having a present perfect sense: has arrived; has waited upon.

A gandharva is in attendance or present, but the suttas do not say for what purpose. There is nothing here, for example, to suggest that this is not a celestial musician hovering around making sweet music, or euphemistically putting the juice in the soma (referring to RV 9.113.3 mentioned in Part I). Simply being present is not a very active or involved role. The only reason we take the role to be a more active one—a being in waiting—is that this is the traditional reading. For example in Buddhaghosa's commentary he glosses gandhabba as tatrūpagasatto 'a being (satta) arriving there'. And "Paccupaṭṭhito hoti" as:
na mātāpitūnaṃ sannipātaṃ olokayamāno samīpe ṭhito paccupaṭṭhito nāma hoti. Kammayantayantito pana eko satto tasmiṃ okāse nibbattanako hotīti ayam ettha adhippāyo.  (Papañcasūdani ii.310)
It doesn't mean 'stood by as the mother and father come together'; but, what was intended was, that a being is about to be reborn, set in motion by the mechanisms of kamma.
However, the role of the gandharva is never mentioned in canonical texts. 

As Anālayo (2008) notes, the Ekottarāgama partial counterpart to this sutta (EĀ 21.3) "does not employ the term gandhabba, but instead speaks of the external consciousness." Here the Chinese term is 外識, where 識 stands for vijñāna. There is no match for 外識 in the Digital Dictionary of Buddhism, so we just have to take it on face value: it is the vijñāna that is outside 外, which we presume means 'not yet joined the embryo'. (Setting aside from now the physiology of embryonic development). This suggests that someone must die at just the right moment, when the parents have sex and the mother is ovulating for conception to take place. Though why Buddhists would use the term gandharva for this is not clear either in Buddhist texts or in the secondary literature. The EĀ is probably a late product of a Mahāsāṃghika Sect, which seemingly did not believe in an antarābhava

The same Pāli passage from MN 38 is repeated in the Assalāyana Sutta (MN 93; ii.157). Here, seven Brahmin seers go to visit the Buddha and are challenged on their view that Brahmins are the highest social class. It is their view that three things are required for conception, one of them being a gandhabba. Their problem is that they don't know the social class of the gandhabba, and so in the Buddha's argument there is no continuity with their ancestors, and they cannot even be sure of their own lineage. This association of the view with Brahmins may be significant and I will return to this point.

This single passage, repeated at MN 38 and 93, seems to be the basis for the idea that the gandharva is a kind of spirit or soul which links a dead person with a newly conceived person. The Theravāda Abhidhamma view is that such a vehicle is unnecessary, or in fact forbidden, and yet the commentaries accept the idea of a being (satta) waiting to be reborn (MNA i.481f ); while at other times the suttas insist that a being is only ever a convenient fiction for a collection of khandhas (cf. the Vajira Sutta). Anālayo is at pains to explain that the Buddha's use of the term does not imply "substantialist notions" (97). On the contrary, I think that there is a substantialist notion in the interpretation of the "presence" of the gandharva. The way that some modern Buddhist writers interpret gandharva certainly seems to imply a substantial (i.e. real) being. The gandharva conceived of as a being-in-waiting appears to be a contradiction of basic Buddhist metaphysics, and is certainly a contradiction in terms of Abhidhamma.

MN 38 and 93 are often read in conjunction with another passage from DN 15 (ii.63:).
‘Viññāṇapaccayā nāmarūpa’nti iti kho panetaṃ vuttaṃ... Viññāṇañca hi, ānanda, mātukucchismiṃ na okkamissatha, api nu kho nāmarūpaṃ mātukucchismiṃ samuccissathā ti? No hetaṃ, bhante.
I have said that viññāṇa is the condition for nāmarūpa... for if, Ānanda, there was no descent of viññāṇa into the mother's belly, could nāmarūpa be produced in there? Indeed not, Sir.
It seems to be from this that we get the equation: gandhabba = viññāṇa. And note that EĀ 21.3 seems to bridge the two by replacing gandharva with vijñāna in the essential passage. Commenting on this apparent identification of gandharva and vijñāna, Bodhi says:
"Thus, we might identify the gandhabba here as the stream of consciousness, conceived more animistically as coming over from a previous existence and bringing along its total accumulation of kammic tendencies and personality traits." (2001: 1233-4, n.411). 
We might see it this way, but Bodhi does not say why we would. He is apparently thinking of the Sampasādanīya Sutta (DN 28) which refers to viññāṇasota 'a stream of viññāṇa', presumably a stream of moments of viññāṇa. In this sutta the meditator, by examining the body in minute detail attains four visions: 1. the body is made up of parts; 2. they fit together to make a body; 3. there is a stream of viññāṇa established in this world and the next (Purisassa ca viññāṇasotaṃ pajānāti, ubhayato abbocchinnaṃ idha loke patiṭṭhitañca paraloke patiṭṭhitañca); and 4. there is a stream of viññāṇa that is not established in either world (Purisassa ca viññāṇasotaṃ pajānāti, ubhayato abbocchinnaṃ idha loke appatiṭṭhitañca paraloke appatiṭṭhitañca). Walsh takes the latter to refer to arahants. Despite the reference to a stream of viññāna it's not entirely clear what this means in practice.

We've noted that elsewhere Bodhi seems amenable to an antarābhava, but it seems here that he is also sensitive to the inherent problem of this amenability. The demand of orthodoxy is that too much continuity implies a transmigrating soul (aka substantialist notions); too little continuity and kamma cannot work (kamma must accumulate). We've already explored how the Theravāda worldview provided an overall solution to these kinds of problems through the 24 paccayas (See Action at a Temporal Distance in the Theravāda) which Bodhi is no doubt well versed in. It seems many modern Theravādins are caught in this dilemma.

Ironically the Mahātaṇhāsaṅkhaya Sutta says specifically that thinking of viññāṇa as providing the continuity between lives is foolish. The Bhikkhu Sāti has the pernicious view (pāpika diṭṭhigata):
tadevidaṃ viññāṇaṃ sandhāvati saṃsarati, anaññan ti
It is just this viññāṇa and nothing else which runs through, and goes around [saṃsāra].
He further describes this viññāṇa as:
Yvāyaṃ, bhante, vado vedeyyo tatra tatra kalyāṇapāpakānaṃ kammānaṃ vipākaṃ paṭisaṃvedetī ti
It is that, sir, which speaks and feels, that which experiences the good and bad consequences of actions.
The Buddha describes Sāti as an idiot (moghapurisa) and explains that viññāṇa arises and ceases in dependence on conditions, an idea repeated in many places in the Tripiṭaka. Despite the claims of writers such as Harvey (1995) and Johansson (1979) to see it in the Pali, there is no continuity to be had through viññāṇa. The equation of gandhabba and viññāṇa is simply a mistake, albeit a traditional mistake perpetuated for millennia. Viññāṇa can only exist, to the extent a temporary mental event can be said to exist at all, in a moment of cognition. It must stop when the condition for it stops, i.e. when attention moves on as it does from moment to moment. (cf What is Consciousness?)

According to the standard Theravāda Abhidhamma model of rebirth there is no need for a gandhabba. At the moment of death the last moment of mental activity (cuticitta), gives rise to the first moment of mental activity (paṭisandhicitta) in another being and these two have the same sense object (ārammana). There is no interval between the two, one moment of citta gives rise to the next in an unbroken sequence. No vehicle of viññāṇa is required other than the old and new nāmarūpa respectively. There is no way to fit gandharva into this process of mental activity (cittavīthi). An electronic search of the Abhidhamma reveals no occurrence of the word gandhabba. The Abhidhammakāras dropped the idea of the gandharva. In fact we can go further and say that a gandharva as a being-in-waiting would wreck the Theravāda worldview through internal contradiction. At most what is required is someone about to die. In the moment of dying they spawn another moment of viññāṇa in an embryo somewhere else with no time interval (despite the spatial interval).  Of course many other sects developed views of rebirth that included a temporal interval, and this required an interim entity, which came to be associated with a gandharva.

The other problem with this is metaphysical. DN ii.63 suggests that viññāṇa is the condition for the nāmarūpa (conforming with the 12 nidānas). If we read viññāṇa as "consciousness" (though I'm not sure we should) then the metaphysics of this is to say that conciousness gives rise to body and not the other way around. But from elsewhere, especially discussions of antarābhava, we know that viññāṇa can only exist where there is already rūpa (it requires intact and functioning senses or ahīna-indriyā). At best viññāṇa and nāmarūpa arise in mutual dependence on each other as in the model in the Mahānidāna Sutta (DN 15). The conditionality model comes close to incoherence here.

The best we can do is argue that one word, viññāṇa, is being used in two completely unrelated ways (and neither with much reference to etymology). This is not impossible and there are other words of ambivalent meaning in Buddhism. On one hand we have the viññāṇa that arises from the interaction of sense object and sense faculty which is marked by impermanence, dissatisfaction and insubstantiality. On the other hand we have viññāṇa as that which gives rise to nāmarūpa in the chain of paṭiccasamuppāda but is apparently not dependent on sense object and sense faculty, begging the question of what it can possibly refer to in the Buddhist worldview.

In the three-lifetimes model of the twelve-nidānas, viññāna in the previous existence gives rise to nāmarūpa in the next. However the temporality of this is difficult to square. Viññāṇa is a momentary dhamma that arises and passes away more or less in the moment. The formula of paṭiccasamuppāda requires the presence of the condition for the effect (imasmiṃ sati, idam hoti), and that the effect ceases when the condition ceases (imassa nirodhā idaṃ nirujjhati). This would require that the previous being be still alive when the next being is conceived, but this simultaneity is disallowed by the necessity of them being sequential: the two beings cannot overlap or we would have the situation where a being effectively exists in two places, two bodies at once. And no, this is not permitted by quantum physics which only applies to sub-atomic particles.

There is also a spatial component to this problem. If the viññāṇa of the previous being is to be a condition for the next being then it must be present to act as a condition. Being present is problematic if the two beings are separated by any space at all. This was one of the arguments for antarābhava evinced by Vasubandhu: travelling through space takes an appreciable time. How can two events separated in space be present to each other? Something must happen in the time it takes for the cuti-citta to act as a condition somewhere else in space and give rise to a paṭisandhi-citta. The metaphysics of this proposition is quite complex and must be tackled at another time, but the objection is certainly a powerful one. 

For moderns who understand conception in terms of a sperm fertilising an egg and setting off cell-division that eventually results in the development of a brain capable of sustaining consciousness, none of this makes any sense. The first elements of the brain are in place by 3 weeks gestation, but it doesn't begin to function as a brain for another week. Not until the 8th week are all the major sub-organs of the brain in place. Mental functioning comes into existence slowly over a period of months in the womb, and takes several years of post-natal development to fulfil its potential. For example newborns have no Theory of Mind and thus an incomplete sense of self. This faculty develops only around age four years and should it fail to develop the results can be devastating to the individual and their ability to relate to others. The phenomenology of consciousness tells us that consciousness cannot be an all or nothing affair. No vital spark that transfers between lives has ever been detected, nor given what we know about human development would we even expect such a thing. Buddhist vitalism sometimes seems split between a vital spark of life and a vital spark of consciousness. Whether one can be the other is moot.

Beyond the Canon

As noted previously, it is in the《阿毘達磨大毘婆沙論》or Mahāvibhāṣā, a Sarvāstivāda Abhidharma commentary (T 27, no. 1545), that we see the first equation of  antarābhava, manomaya, gandharva and saṃbhavaiṣin (the last meaning 'being-in-waiting'). Unlike the Theravādins, the Sarvāstivādins embrace gandharva as the form of being in the antarābava.

This idea is taken up by Vasubandhu in his Abhidharmakośa and his auto-commentary, the ADK Bhāṣya. He asks: "What is the gandharva if not an intermediate state?" (antarābhavaṃ hitvā ko 'nyo gandharvaḥ ADKB 121, commentary on Kośa 3.12c). Anālayo (96) notes this passage as a reference to the three conditions in the Bhāṣya. Vasubandhu is citing a Sanskrit version of the Assalāyama Sutta (above). He notes that those who do not believe in an antarābhava (his "opponents") have a different version of this text in which gandharva is replaced by "a break-up of skandhas [i.e. someone dying] is present" (skandhabhedaś ca pratyupasthito bhavati instead of gandhabbo ca paccupaṭṭhito hoti). But he doubts the opponents could explain it. In his explanation, Vasubandhu says that the gandharva has five skandhas (which is consistent with the Pali description of a manomayakāya as rūpin).

References to gandharva in this sense are rare in Mahāyāna sūtras. Mostly the gandharvas are builders of celestial mansions (compare this with the Lalitavistara Sūtra where the devas offer a mind-made mansion to the Bodhisattva - See Manomayakāya: Mahāyāna Sources). There is some suggestion that these 'celestial mansions' might refer to certain cloud formations, but I've no unequivocal evidence of this. We recall that 'like a city of gandharvas' is a standard way of referring to something fantastic or illusory. 

Asaṅga mentions gandharva in his Yogācarabhūmi I 20.9-13 (cited by Wayman 1974: 238 n. 30)
gandharva ity ucyate gandena gamanād gandhena puṣṭaś ca |
It's called 'gandharva' because it moves by means of odours (gandha) and is satisfied by odours.
What can we conclude from this brief survey of non-Pali Buddhist sources on the gandharva? The tradition of equating the gandharva to the antarābhava seems to be a śāstric or commentarial tradition, rather than a sūtra tradition, that is to say it relies on commentarial exegesis of texts that are ambiguous. Once we accept the idea of an antarābhava, explanations are demanded and Buddhists drew on their existing mythology and terminology to fill the gap. But as the non-antarābhava traditions show, the ideas are not explicit or inherent in the existing traditions, but are shoe-horned into place post hoc.


Contra Anālayo, there's no doubt that some Buddhists, including some Theravādins, took gandharva to be something like a Vitalist 'spark of life', or worse a kind of consciousness that inhabits a new body - they viewed it as substantial (within a substance dualist ontology). This is, for example, Peter Harvey's view (1995). The difficulties presented by rebirth in the absence of a connecting entity sometimes seem to have overwhelmed Buddhist thinkers and caused them to lean towards eternalism, even when any interval between death and rebirth was denied. There is too much continuity in the idea of a being-in-waiting hanging around after death and it simply sounds like a soul, even if we refer to it as a "stream of consciousness", which ancient Buddhists did not. 

It's not at all clear from the preserved Early Buddhist texts alone what was intended by gandharva in the rebirth process. The presence (paccupaṭṭhita) of a gandharva is required for conception without ever specifying what that presence contributes. In retrospect it might well have meant that a fertility god must be present to bestow fertility on the union. Buddhists seem to have been aware of the role of semen in fertility, and to have understood that women were sometimes more and sometimes less able to conceive, and that a certain amount of randomness prevailed. Taken in isolation we might guess that they thought of the gandharva as a fertility god, in the same way that they attributed rain to the rain-gods (deve vassante). Such small gods seem to have been a fact of life to early Buddhists. However, extant Buddhist exegetical texts seem to universally take gandharva in this context to be some kind of being-in-waiting, with minor differences according to sect. We'll never know if the original intent was different from the conventional interpretation, because time has obscured almost all evidence. But the fact that different sects have different versions of this text which reflect their attitudes to antarābhava must make us suspect that some late editing has gone on. And we have no reason to trust one sect over another.

We noted above that in the Pali Assalāyana Sutta the idea of a gandharva having a role in conception is in fact attributed to Brahmins. In this text the main point is that social class as conceived by the Brahmins is not valid as they explain it, since they cannot explain the social class of the gandharva. Is it possible, then, that the gandharva as being-in-waiting is a Brahmanical idea? If so then perhaps the authors of the text saw the challenge to caste identity as more important than the challenge to a being-in-waiting? Then, later, later Buddhists misunderstood the context and took the absence of argument against gandharva as an affirmation (something modern scholars also do). Gombrich (2009) has showed that this process occurs in a number of other cases (see also my essay The Buddha and the Lost Metaphor). Anālayo also thinks this kind of conclusion is likely (98). However, we find nothing in the Brahmanical literature to support the idea that the term gandharva was Brahmanical. In fact the Brahmanical term for the connecting entity by the time Buddhism came along was almost always ātman, a term which has been widely studied and commented upon. I have not seen ātman and gandharva equated. As far as we can tell the Brahmins had no need of a gandharva in their view of conception and rebirth.

The question of why the Buddhists adopted this idea remains. The ancient Theravādins managed to avoid much of the metaphysical mess by being scriptural literalists: no antarābhava in the suttas means there is no antarābhava and therefore no need for a type of antarā-satta or interim being. They developed a version of karma which required instantaneous rebirth to maintain the flow of mental activity (viññāṇasota). Some modern Theravādins, including some bhikkhus, are trapped in the contradiction of affirming an interval between death and rebirth which flatly contradicts their underlying metaphysics. And contra everything said so far, most Theravādins still seem to accept on the basis of the texts cited above, that a gandharva is necessary for rebirth to take place, giving it an active rather than passive role.

By contrast, those Buddhist schools which accepted the idea of an antarābhava were left with trying to explain it. And in doing so they roped in a variety of other concepts like manomaya kāya and gandharva. A critical look at the issue shows that they never solved the problems created by the antarābhava. Every additional feature of the afterlife requires explanation and thus metaphysical speculation proliferates and never settles anything.

And this is the problem with all afterlife beliefs. They are all just speculative. Every time a new supernatural event or entity is added to the narrative to explain some existing gap, another gap opens up. When one explains the world using supernatural speculation, this explanatory gap is inevitable. At some point the religieux inevitably shrugs and says something like "well, you just have to take it on faith".

Inevitably Buddhists invoke meditative experience as the authority for their beliefs. I want to deal with the problem of generalising from unusual private experiences to a public supernatural reality in another essay, but the phrasing hints at the problem.

Buddhists are apt to invoke twenty odd centuries of pre-scientific profession of belief as an argument for rebirth. But this is no argument at all. Long held supernatural beliefs have often been shown to be wrong. For centuries people believed that fevers were caused by bad air (this is the literal meaning of malaria). But we now know that malaria is caused by a parasite carried by certain types of mosquito. To assert that bad air caused a fever would be ignorant at best. On the other hand many people still believe that cold damp air can cause the common cold or "a chill" as it's sometimes called. So perhaps we have some way to go.


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