Sacred-Texts Buddhism Index Previous Next

{p. 137}




   THIS Dialogue comes very appropriately immediately after the Ambattha. That dealt with the general question of pride of birth, or social position. This deals with the special question of what is the essential quality which makes a man a Brahman. The conclusion is, no doubt, substantially the same. But there is a difference, and the difference is instructive.

   In trying to gain over Ambattha to his (the Buddha's) view of the essential distinction--rather than birth or social position--between man and man, Gotama includes the whole list as set out above in the thirteen divisions of the Sâmañña-phala{1}. In trying to gain over Sonadanda to his (the Buddha's) view of what is the essential quality that makes a man a Brahman, he gives the same details, but puts the Ghânas (the states of Ecstasy) not under Conduct, but under Paññâ (Intelligence).

   The reason seems to be simply that the verse, on which the exposition in the Ambattha turns, mentions only Wisdom and Conduct (containing no word for Intelligence), and that it is not thought accurate to put the states of Ecstasy (which are Indian, not specially Buddhist) under Wisdom. It is true that the Buddhist position is that 'goodness is a function of intelligence, as beauty is of health' (to quote the words of Matthew Bassendine). But under Intelligence they always distinguish two phases--the enquiring, and necessarily therefore doubting, activity, of the mind; and the final stage of emancipation and peace when the laws of the universe are clearly seen, and firmly grasped, and cheerfully acquiesced in.

{1. See the summary above, pp. 57-59, in the Introduction to the Sâmañña-phala.}

{p. 138}

It is this latter phase which they call Wisdom (Viggâ){1}--the contrary of the Aviggâ, which is ignorance of the action of Karma, of the Four Noble Truths, and of the doctrine of the Âsavas or Intoxications. The man who knows these; who, finally and permanently out of the jungle and in the open, quite beyond the stage of 'wasting his wonder on the fabulous soul,' has attained to, and remains in this state of Nirvâna in Arahatship, is not only, in Buddhist terminology, called a Brahman, but is, in fact, declared to be the only true Brahman.

   It is amazing that Sonadanda, as learned as he is wealthy, does not see that this, the logical outcome of the Buddha's argument, and carefully led up to in the final paragraph of the exposition{2}, is really incompatible with the supremacy of the Brahmans in the ordinary sense of that word. He is baffled by the skill with which he is gradually led on, by the usual Socratic method adopted in so many of the Dialogues, to accept one self-evident truth after another. There is indeed nothing, till we come to that last paragraph, which any intelligent Brahman could not, with safety, and with due regard to his own doctrine, fully accept. In other words, the doctrine of Brahman supremacy was intellectually indefensible. It was really quite inconsistent with the ethical standard of the times, which the Brahmans, in common with the rest of the people, fully accepted.

   Our Sutta is by no means the only one in which the same, or a similar, argument leads up to the same, or a similar, conclusion. It will aid us in understanding the real gist of our Sutta to mention one or two of these.

   In the Tikanna and Gânussoni Suttas of the Anguttara{3} the question put by the Buddha is: 'What sort of person do you Brahmans acknowledge to be a Tevigga Brahman (a Brahman with threefold lore)?'

   The answer of each of the Brahmans is, in the words of our Sutta, § 4: 'A Brahman well born on both sides, of pure descent, through the father and through the mother, back through seven generations, with no slur put upon him, and no reproach, in respect of birth--a repeater (of the sacred words) knowing the mystic verses by heart, one who has mastered the Three Vedas, with the indices, the ritual, the phonology, and the exegesis (as a fourth), and with the

{1. The English equivalents do not exactly cover the corresponding Pâli terms, which are not, in the texts, used always with scrupulous distinctiveness.

2. § 23 of the text, and of the translation below.

3. Vol. i, pp. 163-168.}

{p. 139}

legends as a fifth--a man learned in the (etymologies of the) words and in the grammar, versed in Lokâyata (Nature-Lore){1} and in the theory of the signs on the body of a great man.'

   Whereupon the Buddha rejoins that in the teaching of the Arahats the 'threefold lore' is different; and on being asked what it is, answers in the words of sections 93, 95, and 97 of the Sâmañña-phala Sutta, which are quoted as the last three paragraphs of his exposition in our Sutta, that is to say,

   a. The knowledge of one's own previous births.

   b. The knowledge of other people's previous births.

   c. The knowledge of the Four Truths, and of the Four Intoxications (Âsavas), leading on to the emancipation of Arahatship.

   The only difference is that at the end of each section, and after the words setting forth the emancipation, the following sentence is added:

   'This first (or second, or third) lore hath he required. Ignorance is dispelled within him, and wisdom has been born. The darkness has been dissipated, the light has appeared. (And all this) inasmuch as he has continued in earnestness, in zeal, in mastery of himself.'

   And at the end of the whole the following verses are also added:

   'Him do they honour whose heart,--unswerving in goodness, and wise,
   Given to earnest thought,--rests in his own control,
   Pacified, stedfast. And him resolute, able in method,
   Threefold in knowledge, dispelling the darkness, the conqueror of Death, who
   Lived for the weal of gods and of men delivered from folly,
   Him of the threefold lore, mindful and self-possessed,
   Him do they honour, the Buddha, our Gotama, wearing now,
   Conqueror, too, of Birth, the last of his mortal frames!

   ''Tis he who is a Brâhmana indeed
   Who knows the births that he has lived before;
   And sees (with Heavenly Eye) the states of bliss,
   And states of woe, that other men pass through;
   Has reached the end of all rebirths, become
   A sage, perfect in insight, Arahat,
   In these three modes of knowledge threefold wise.

{1. See below in the Introduction to the next Sutta.}

{p. 140}

   Him do I call a Brahman, threefold wise,
   And not the man who mutters o'er again
      The mystic verse so often muttered through before.'

   How important a place this doctrine occupied in early Buddhism is made evident by the fact that this latter stanza, with variations at the close, is so constantly repeated. We find it in the 99th Sutta of the Iti-vuttaka (p. 100) and in the 91st Sutta of the Magghima (the Brahmâyu Sutta). And it is quoted also, not only in this Sutta in the Anguttara, and in another Sutta in the Samyutta (I, 167), but also in the collection of verses from the Pitakas called the Dhammapada (verse 423); and also in the other collection of such verses (probably belonging to some other school of Buddhists), now preserved in the oldest MS. yet discovered in India, the so-called Kharoshthi MS., portions of which have simultaneously found their way, last year, to both St. Petersburg and Paris.

   The whole section of the Dhammapada, which contains this quotation, consists of no less than forty verses, each of which, from one point of view or another, emphasise this point of the identification, by the Buddhists, of the Arahat with the Brahman. Twenty-seven of them are taken from the Vâsettha Sutta of the Sutta Nipâta, in which the question raised is precisely the same as that raised in our Sutta, and in which the reply, though different in details, amounts to much the same as the reply given here.

   Two conclusions force themselves upon us. It is, in the first place, a striking proof of the high social esteem in which the Brahmans, as such, and quite irrespective of character, were held by the masses of the people. We have hitherto only had the views which the Brahmans held about themselves. And very absurd they seem to readers whose own vivid sense of superiority rests on a self-complacency quite as inexpugnable as that of the Brahmans. Here we have evidence from an independent source,--evidence all the stronger because it is found in Suttas in which the exclusive claims of the Brahmans by birth are vigorously contested. When the Buddhists, in selecting a title of honour for those they valued so highly, for the best of men, for the Arahats, selected the name of Brahman, it is clear that that word, in the opinion of the early Buddhists, conveyed to the minds of the people an exalted meaning, a connotation of real veneration and respect. And it is not likely that this would have been the case unless the Brahmans had, at least as

{p. 141}

a general rule, deserved it--and on other grounds than the mere prerogative of birth.

   In the second place, if the contention of the Buddhists had been universally accepted--if the word Brahman had come to mean, not only a man of a certain descent, but exclusively a man of a certain character and insight--then the present caste system of India could never have grown up. But it was obviously impossible that the contention should succeed.

   The method, adopted by all reformers, of pouring new wine into old bottles, putting new meanings into ancient words, can only succeed under conditions, that, in this case, were non-existent. And it is always open to the danger that, with the old and hallowed word, the old superstition associated with it will also survive. It was a method largely adopted by the Buddhists; and in numerous other cases, to which I have elsewhere called attention, adopted with success. The subsequent language of India is full of phrases and words which bear, not the meaning which they previously bore, but the new and higher meaning put into them by Buddhists. But in this case the two ideas were too widely apart, too contradictory. A physical meaning cannot be replaced by an ethical one. The actual facts of life, which they could not alter,--Could not, indeed, attempt to alter,--were a constant influence, against their view, too strong to be overcome. Brahmans by birth, many of them, perhaps most of them, engaged in various worldly trades and occupations, and therefore Brahmans only by birth, were so constant and so important a factor in the daily and hourly life of the people, that the idea of birth could not be dissociated from the word. The Buddhists failed. And they not only failed, their very choice of the word as a title of honour, must (through the wide influence they exercised for so many centuries throughout and beyond the valley of the Ganges) have actually afforded a fresh strength to the veneration which the word inspired. The very means they adopted to lend weight to their doctrine of emancipation became a weapon to be turned against themselves.

   It is unlikely that this really mattered much. The point was only one detail in a broad scheme which was doomed from the outset to failure--that is if failure to attain immediate and lasting acceptance can rightly be called the failure of a theory of life.

   A theory which placed the ideal in Self-conquest, regarded final salvation as obtainable in this world, and in this world

{p. 142}

only, and only by self-conquest--a view of life that ignored the 'soul' and brought the very gods themselves under the domain of law--a religious movement which aimed its keenest shafts against all those forms of belief in the supernatural and mysterious, appealing most strongly alike to the hopes and to the fears of the people--a philosophy that confined itself to going back, step by step, from effect to cause, and poured scorn on speculations as to the ultimate origin and end of all things--might gain, by the powerful personality of its founder and the enthusiasm and zeal of his early followers, a certain measure of temporary success. But it fought against too many vested interests at once, it raised up too many enemies, it tried in 'pouring new wine into the old bottles' to retain too much of the ancient phraseology, for lasting victory--at least at that time, and in an advancing country then assimilating to itself surrounding peoples at a lower grade of culture. The end was inevitable. And it was actually brought about, not by persecution, but by the gradual weakening of the theory itself, the gradual creeping back, under new forms and new names, of the more popular beliefs.

   The very event which seemed, in the eyes of the world, to be the most striking proof of the success of the new movement, the conversion and strenuous support of Asoka, the most powerful ruler India had had--indeed the first real overlord over practically the whole of India--only hastened the decline. The adhesion of large numbers of nominal converts, more especially from the newly incorporated and less advanced provinces, produced weakness, rather than strength, in the movement for reform. The day of compromise had come. Every relaxation of the old thoroughgoing position was widely supported by converts only half converted. And the margin of difference between the Buddhists and their opponents gradually faded almost entirely away. The soul theory, step by step, gained again the upper hand. The caste system was gradually built up into a completely organised system. The social supremacy of the Brahmans by birth became accepted as an incontrovertible fact. And the in flood of popular superstition which overwhelmed the Buddhist movement, overwhelmed also the whole pantheon of the Vedic gods. Buddhism and Brahmanism alike passed practically away, and modern Hinduism arose on the ruins of both.

   The struggle is now being renewed under conditions perhaps, on the whole, more favourable. The tone of worldliness and love of material comfort, the eager restlessness

{p. 143}

of modern social, and economic competition, the degradation of learning to a mere means of getting on and making money, are no doubt all unfavourable to any movement for the social and religious elevation of a people. But history shows, notably in the case of the Reformation in Europe, how powerfully the contact of two diverse views of life tends to widen the thoughts of men. Both India and Europe in the twentieth century may be fairly expected to afford fresh examples of the same influence. And in India the powerful aid of the new methods of science and of historical criticism will lend their invaluable aid to the party endeavouring, now once again, to place the ideal, not in birth, but in character and wisdom.

Return to top   Next: IV. The Sonadanda Sutta