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DN27 Aggañña Sutta: On Knowledge of Beginnings

[80] 1. THUS HAVE I HEARD.810 Once the Lord was staying at Savatthi, at the mansion of Migara’s mother811 in the East Park. And at that time Vasettha and Bhāradvāja812 were living among the monks, hoping to become monks themselves. And in the evening, the Lord rose from his secluded meditation and came out of the mansion, and started walking up and down in its shade.
 
2. Vasettha noticed this, and he said to Bhāradvāja: ‘Friend Bharadvaja, the Lord has come out and is walking up and down. Let us approach him. We might be fortunate enough to hear a talk on Dhamma from the Lord himself.’ ‘Yes, indeed’, said Bharadvaja, so they went up to the Lord, saluted him, and fell into step with him.
 
3. Then the Lord said to Vasettha: [81] ‘Vāseṭṭha,813 you two are Brahmins born and bred, and you have gone forth from the household life into homelessness from Brahmin families. Do not the Brahmins revile and abuse you?’ ‘Indeed, Lord, the Brahmins do revile and abuse us. They don’t hold back with their usual flood of reproaches.’ ‘Well, Vasettha, what kind of reproaches do they fling at you?’ ‘Lord, what the Brahmins say is this: “The Brahmin caste814 is the highest caste, other castes are base; the Brahmin caste is fair, other castes are dark; Brahmins are purified, non-Brahmins are not, the Brahmins are the true children of Brahmā,815 born from his mouth, born of Brahma, created by Brahma, heirs of Brahma. And you, you have deserted the highest class and gone over to the base class of shaveling petty ascetics, servants, dark fellows born of Brahmā’s foot!816 It’s not right, it’s not proper for you to mix with such people!” That is the way the Brahmins abuse us, Lord.’
 
4. ‘Then, Vasettha, the Brahmins have forgotten their ancient tradition when they say that. Because we can see Brahmin women, the wives of Brahmins, who menstruate and become pregnant, [82] have babies and give suck. And yet these womb-born Brahmins talk about being born from Brahma’s mouth ... These Brahmins misrepresent Brahma, tell lies and earn much demerit.
 
5. ‘There are, Vasettha, these four castes: the Khattiyas, the Brahmins, the merchants and the artisans.817 And sometimes a Khattiya takes life, takes what is not given, commits sexual misconduct, tells lies, indulges in slander, harsh speech or idle chatter, is grasping, malicious, or of wrong views. Thus such things as are immoral and considered so, blameworthy and considered so, to be avoided and considered so, ways unbefitting an Ariyan and considered so, black with black result818 and blamed by the wise, are sometimes to be found among the Khattiyas, and the same applies to Brahmins, merchants and artisans.
 
6. ‘Sometimes, too, a Khattiya refrains from taking life,... is not grasping, malicious, or of wrong views. Thus such things as are moral and considered so, blameless and considered so, to be followed and considered so, ways befitting an Ariyan and considered so, bright with bright results and praised by the wise, are sometimes to be found among the Khattiyas, and [83] likewise among Brahmins, merchants and artisans.
 
7. ‘Now since both dark and bright qualities, which are blamed and praised by the wise, are scattered indiscriminately among the four castes, the wise do not recognise the claim about the Brahmin caste being the highest. Why is that? Because, Vasettha, anyone from the four castes who becomes a monk, an Arahant who has destroyed the corruptions, who has lived the life, done what had to be done, laid down the burden,819 reached the highest goal, destroyed the fetter of becoming, and become emancipated through super-knowledge — he is proclaimed supreme by virtue of Dhamma and not of non-Dhamma.
 
Dhamma’s the best thing for people

In this life and the next as well.
 
 
8. ‘This illustration will make clear to you how Dhamma is best in this world and in the next. King Pasenadi of Kosala knows: “The ascetic Gotama has gone forth from the neighbouring clan of the Sakyans.” Now the Sakyans are vassals of the King of Kosala. They offer him humble service and salute him, rise and do him homage and pay him fitting service. And, just as the Sakyans offer the King humble service..., [84] so likewise does the King offer humble service to the Tathāgata, 820thinking: “If the ascetic Gotama is well-born, I am ill-born; if the ascetic Gotama is strong, I am weak; if the ascetic Gotama is pleasant to look at, I am ill-favoured; if the ascetic Gotama is influential, I am of little influence.” Now it is because of honouring the Dhamma, making much of the Dhamma, esteeming the Dhamma, doing reverent homage to the Dhamma that King Pasenadi does humble service to the Tathagata and pays him fitting service:
Dhamma’s the best thing for people

In this life and the next as well.
 
 
 
9. ‘Vasettha, all of you, though of different birth, name, clan and family, who have gone forth from the household life into homelessness, if you are asked who you are, should reply: “We are ascetics, followers of the Sakyan.”821 He whose faith in the Tathagata is settled, rooted, established, solid, unshakeable by any ascetic or Brahmin, any deva or mara or Brahma or anyone in the world, can truly say: “I am a true son of Blessed Lord, born of his mouth, born of Dhamma, created by Dhamma, an heir of Dhamma.” Why is that? Because, Vasettha, this designates the Tathagata: “The Body of Dhamma”,822 that is, “The Body of Brahma”,823 or “Become Dhamma”, that is, “Become Brahma”.824
 
10. ‘There comes a time, Vasettha, when, sooner or later after a long period, this world contracts.825 At a time of contraction, beings are mostly born in the Abhassara Brahma world. And there they dwell, mind-made, feeding on delight, self-luminous, moving through the air, glorious — and they stay like that for a very long time. But sooner or later, after a very long period, this world begins to expand again. At a time of expansion, the beings from the Abhassara Brahma world, [85] having passed away from there, are mostly reborn in this world. Here they dwell, mind-made, feeding on delight, self-luminous, moving through the air, glorious826 — and they stay like that for a very long time.
 
11. ‘At that period, Vāseṭṭha, there was just one mass of water, and all was darkness, blinding darkness. Neither moon nor sun appeared, no constellations or stars appeared, night and day were not distinguished, nor months and fortnights, no years or seasons, and no male and female, beings being reckoned just as beings.827 And sooner or later, after a very long period of time, savoury earth828 spread itself over the waters where those beings were. It looked just like the skin that forms itself over hot milk as it cools. It was endowed with colour, smell and taste. It was the colour of fine ghee or butter, and it was very sweet, like pure wild honey.
 
12. ‘Then some being of a greedy nature said: “I say, what can this be?” and tasted the savoury earth on its finger. In so doing, it became taken with the flavour, and craving arose in it.829 Then other beings, taking their cue from that one, also tasted the stuff with their fingers. They too were taken with the flavour, and craving arose in them. So they set to with their hands, breaking off pieces of the stuff in order to eat it. And [86] the result of this was that their self-luminance disappeared. And as a result of the disappearance of their self-luminance, the moon and the sun appeared, night and day were distinguished, months and fortnights appeared, and the year and its seasons. To that extent the world re-evolved.
 
13. ‘And those beings continued for a very long time feasting on this savoury earth, feeding on it and being nourished by it. And as they did so, their bodies became coarser,830 and a difference in looks developed among them. Some beings became good-looking, others ugly. And the good-looking ones despised the others, saying: “We are better-looking than they are.” And because they became arrogant and conceited about their looks, the savoury earth disappeared. At this they came together and lamented, crying: “Oh that flavour! Oh that flavour!” And so nowadays when people say: “Oh that flavour!” when they get something nice, they are repeating an ancient saying without realising it.
 
14. ‘And then, when the savoury earth had disappeared, [87] a fungus831 cropped up, in the manner of a mushroom. It was of a good colour, smell, and taste. It was the colour of fine ghee or butter, and it was very sweet, like pure wild honey. And those beings set to and ate the fungus. And this lasted for a very long time. And as they continued to feed on the fungus, so their bodies became coarser still, and the difference in their looks increased still more. And the good-looking ones despised the others ... And because they became arrogant and conceited about their looks, the sweet fungus disappeared. Next, creepers appeared, shooting up like bamboo..., and they too were very sweet, like pure wild honey.
 
15. ‘And those beings set to and fed on those creepers. And as they did so, their bodies became even coarser, and the difference in their looks increased still more... [88] And they became still more arrogant, and so the creepers disappeared too. At this they came together and lamented, crying: “Alas, our creeper’s gone! What have we lost!” And so now today when people, on being asked why they are upset, say: “Oh, what have we lost!” they are repeating an ancient saying without realising it.
 
16. ‘And then, after the creepers had disappeared, rice appeared in open spaces,832 free from powder and from husks, fragrant and clean-grained.833 And what they had taken in the evening for supper had grown again and was ripe in the morning, and what they had taken in the morning for breakfast was ripe again by evening, with no sign of reaping. And these beings set to and fed on this rice, and this lasted for a very long time. And as they did so, their bodies became coarser still, and the difference in their looks became even greater. And the females developed female sex-organs,834 and the males developed male organs. And the women became excessively preoccupied with men, and the men with women. Owing to this excessive preoccupation with each other, passion was aroused, and their bodies burnt with lust. And later, because of this burning, they indulged in sexual activity.835 But those who saw them indulging threw dust, ashes or [89] cow-dung at them, crying: “Die, you filthy beast! How can one being do such things to another!” Just as today, in some districts, when a daughter-in-law is led out, some people throw dirt at her, some ashes, and some cow-dung, without realising that they are repeating an ancient observance. What was considered bad form in those days is now considered good form.836
 
17. ‘And those beings who in those days indulged in sex were not allowed into a village or town for one or two months. Accordingly those who indulged for an excessively long period in such immoral practices began to build themselves dwellings so as to indulge under cover.837
 
‘Now it occurred to one of those beings who was inclined to laziness: “Well now, why should I be bothered to gather rice in the evening for supper and in the morning for breakfast? Why shouldn’t I gather it all at once for both meals?” And he did so. Then another one came to him and said: “Come on, let’s go rice-gathering.” “No need, my friend, I’ve gathered enough for both meals.” Then the other, following his example, gathered enough rice for two days at a time, saying: “That should be about enough.” Then another being came and said [90] to that second one: “Come on, let’s go rice-gathering.” “No need, my friend, I’ve gathered enough for two days.” (The same for 4, then 8, days). However, when those beings made a store of rice and lived on that, husk-powder and husk began to envelop the grain, and where it was reaped it did not grow again, and the cut place showed, and the rice grew in separate clusters.
 
18. ‘And then those beings came together lamenting: “Wicked ways have become rife among us: at first we were mind-made, feeding on delight... (all events repeated down to the latest development, each fresh change being said to be due to ‘wicked and unwholesome ways’)... [91] [92] and the rice grows in separate clusters. So now let us divide up the rice into fields with boundaries.” So they did so.
 
19. ‘Then, Vāseṭṭha, one greedy-natured being, while watching over his own plot, took another plot that was not given to him, and enjoyed the fruits of it. So they seized hold of him and said: “You’ve done a wicked thing, taking another’s plot like that! Don’t ever do such a thing again!” “I won’t”, he said, but he did the same thing a second and a third time. Again he was seized and rebuked, and some hit him with their fists, some with stones, and some with sticks. And in this way, Vasettha, taking what was not given, and censuring, and lying, and punishment, took their origin.
 
20. ‘Then those beings came together and lamented the arising of these evil things among them: taking what was not given, censuring, lying and punishment. And they thought: “Suppose we were to appoint a certain being who would show anger where anger was due, censure those who deserved it, and banish those who deserved banishment! And in return, we would grant him a share of the rice.” [93] So they went to the one among them who was the handsomest, the best-looking, the most pleasant and capable, and asked him to do this for them in return for a share of the rice, and he agreed.
 
21. “‘The People’s Choice” is the meaning of Mahā-Sammata, 838 which is the first regular title839 to be introduced. “Lord Of The Fields” is the meaning of Khattiya,840 the second such title. And “He Gladdens Others With Dhamma” is the meaning of Raja,841 the third title to be introduced. This, then, Vāseṭṭha, is the origin of the class of Khattiyas, in accordance with the ancient titles that were introduced for them. They originated among these very same beings, like ourselves, no different, and in accordance with Dhamma, not otherwise.
 
Dhamma’s the best thing for people

In this life and the next as well.
 
 
22. ‘Then some of these beings thought: “Evil things have appeared among beings, such as taking what is not given, censuring, lying, punishment and banishment. We ought to put aside evil and unwholesome things.” And they did [94] so. “They Put Aside842 Evil And Uwholesome Things” is the meaning of Brahmin,843 which is the first regular title to be introduced for such people. They made leaf-huts in forest places and meditated in them. With the smoking fire gone out, with pestle cast aside, gathering alms for their evening and morning meals, they went away to a village, town or royal city to seek their food, and then they returned to their leaf-huts to meditate. People saw this and noted how they meditated. “They Meditate”844 is the meaning of Jhayaka,845 which is the second regular title to be introduced.
 
23. ‘However, some of those beings, not being able to meditate in leaf-huts, settled around towns and villages and compiled books.846 People saw them doing this and not meditating. “Now These Do Not Meditate”847 is the meaning of Ajjhāyaka, 848 which is the third regular title to be introduced. At that time it was regarded as a low designation, but now it is the higher. This, then, Vāseṭṭha, is the origin of the class of Brahmins in accordance with the ancient titles that were introduced for them. [95] Their origin was from among these very same beings, like themselves, no different, and in accordance with Dhamma, not otherwise.
 
Dhamma’s the best thing for people

In this life and the next as well.
 
 
24. ‘And then, Vāseṭṭha, some of those beings, having paired off,849 adopted various trades, and this “Various”850 is the meaning of Vessa, which came to be the regular title for such people. This, then, is the origin of the class of Vessas, in accordance with the ancient titles that were introduced for them. Their origin was from among these very same beings...
 
25. ‘And then, Vāseṭṭha, those beings that remained went in for hunting. “They Are Base Who Live By The Chase”, and that is the meaning of Sudda,851 which came to be the regular title for such people. This, then, is the origin of the class of Suddas852 in accordance with the ancient titles that were introduced for them. Their origin was from among these very same beings...
 
26. ‘And then, Vāseṭṭha, it came about that some Khattiya, dissatisfied with his own Dhamma,853 went forth from the household life into homelessness, thinking: “I will become an ascetic.” And a Brahmin did likewise, a Vessa did [96] likewise, and so did a Sudda. And from these four classes the class of ascetics came into existence. Their origin was from among these very same beings, like themselves, no different, and in accordance with Dhamma, not otherwise.
 
Dhamma’s the best thing for people

In this life and the next as well.
 
 
27. ‘And, Vāseṭṭha, a Khattiya who has led a bad life in body, speech and thought, and who has wrong view will, in consequence of such wrong views and deeds, at the breaking-up of the body after death, be reborn in a state of loss, an ill fate, the downfall, the hell-state. So too will a Brahmin, a Vessa or a Sudda.
 
28. ‘Likewise, a Khattiya who has led a good life in body, speech and thought, and who has right view will, in consequence of such right view and deeds, at the breaking-up of the body after death, be reborn in a good destiny, in a heaven-state. So too will a Brahmin, a Vessa or a Sudda.
 
29. ‘And a Khattiya who has performed deeds of both kinds in body, speech and thought, and whose view is mixed will, in consequence of such mixed views and deeds, at the breaking-up of the body after death, experience both pleasure and pain. So too will a Brahmin, [97] a Vessa or a Sudda.
 
30. ‘And a Khattiya who is restrained in body, speech and thought, and who has developed the seven requisites of enlightenment, 854 will attain to Parinibbana855 in this very life. So too will a Brahmin, a Vessa or a Sudda.
 
31. ‘And, Vasettha, whoever of these four castes, as a monk, becomes an Arahant who has destroyed the corruptions, done what had to be done, laid down the burden, attained to the highest goal, completely destroyed the fetter of becoming, and become liberated by the highest insight, he is declared to be chief among them in accordance with Dhamma, and not otherwise.
 
Dhamma’s the best thing for people

In this life and the next as well.
 
 
32. ‘Vasettha, it was Brahma Sanankumara who spoke this verse:
“The Khattiya’s best among those who value clan;
 
He with knowledge and conduct is best of gods and men.”
 
 
 
This verse was rightly sung, not wrongly, rightly spoken, not wrongly, connected with profit, not unconnected. I too say, Vasettha:
[98] “The Khattiya’s best among those who value clan;
 
He with knowledge and conduct is best of gods and men.”’
 
 
 
Thus the Lord spoke, and Vasettha and Bharadvaja were derighted and rejoiced at his words.


810 This is a parallel fable to the previous Sutta, giving a slightly different account of ‘origins’, and including a devastating attack on the pretensions of the Brahmins. It has close links with Sutta 3, and RD refers to it in some detail in the introduction to that Sutta. He calls it a kind of Buddhist book of Genesis, which is fair enough if one pays attention to the differences. Here there is no creator god, and though we start (at verse 10) with something like the same state ‘in the beginning’, this is of course no absolute beginning but one of the eternally recurring ‘fresh starts’ in saṁsāra.
 
811 She was called Visākhā, and her ‘mansion’ was a comparatively splendid structure, though still small to the modem way of thinking.
 
812 See also DN 13.3.
 
813 Or Vāseṭṭhā (vocative plural) with some manuscripts, as a way of addressing the two.
 
814 Cf. DN 3.1.14, and also MN 84 and 93.
 
815 They are of course priests of Brahmā.
 
816 DN 3.1.14.
 
817 The Buddhists always place the Khattiyas first. This was their original position, and still applied in the area of the Buddha’s ministry.
 
818 Cf. DN 33.11. (29), also MN 57.
 
819 Ohita-bhāro.
 
820 Cf. DN 2.35 for the respect accorded to ascetics in general.
 
821 Sakyaputta: ‘Son of the Sakyans’.
 
822 Dhamma-kāya: a term which, as Dharmakāya, was destined to play a great role in Mahayana Buddhism.
 
823 Brahmā here means ‘the highest’ but is used because the Buddha is speaking to Brahmins.
 
824 The Tathagata, by his gaining of enlightenment by his own efforts, has become ‘the highest’.
 
825 Cf. DN 1.2.2.
 
826 Though born on earth they are still devas, not human beings.
 
827 As devas from the Brahma World they are sexless.
 
828 Rasa-paṭhavī. Note that all the various forms of food mentioned are vegetarian.
 
829 In terms of a ‘Buddhist book of Genesis’ this would correspond to the eating of the fruit — but not of knowledge.
 
830 Since these beings, however glorious, are unenlightened, they fall victim to craving (taṇhā) and thereby progressively lose their ethereal qualities.
 
831 Bhūmi-pappaṭaka: the exact meaning is unknown. RD has ‘outgrowths’.
 
832 In land free from the jungle (DA).
 
833 This phrase may be a fragment of verse.
 
834 As noted above, these beings were previously sexless. DA says ‘those who were women in a previous life.’
 
835 Hitherto they had been ‘spontaneously born’, a process assumed to continue (see n.849).
 
836 RD has gone wrong here, rendering this: ‘That which was considered immoral...’ The reference is not to the sexual activity, but to the throwing of dirt, etc. I have therefore transferred this sentence back from verse 17.
 
837 The dwellings were constructed not for concealment (as implied by RD) so much as for shelter.
 
838 Name of the first king of the solar race and ancestor, among others, of the Sakyan rulers (and hence of Gotama).
 
839 Akkhara: later meaning letter (of the syllabary): see n.30.
 
840 Associated with khetta ‘field’, an etymology which may not be altogether incorrect.
 
841 Rājā: cognate with Latin rex, rēgis ‘king’, is here linked with the root of rāga ‘desire, lust’.
 
842 Bāhenti.
 
843 A wholly fanciful etymology, but one which throws a light on what was considered to be the ideal of a Brahmin.
 
844 Jhāyanti: from the same root as jhāna, a pre-Buddhist type of meditation.
 
845 ‘Meditator’.
 
846 Ganthe: to assume written books would be anachronistic. DA says compiling the Vedas and teaching them.
 
847 Na dan’ ime jhāyanti.
 
848 Ajjhāyaka: ‘repeater’ is for adhy-āyaka, but could also be taken as a-jhāyaka ‘non-meditator’.
 
849 ‘Adopting the sexual practice’ (methuna-dhamma), thus implying that the others were celibate.
 
850 Vissa: ‘various’, hence, allegedly, vessa ‘merchant’.
 
851 A play on ludda ‘hunting’, khudda ‘mean fellow’, sudda ‘low grade (RD’s renderings). RD remarks: ‘Our modem nobles would lift their eyebrows at so amazing a mixture of epithets’. Today many would agree with the sentiment expressed.
 
852 ‘Artisans’.
 
853 I have retained the word ‘Dhamma’ here (RD, as usual, has Norm’), though it is obviously not the Buddha’s Dhamma — that is what he goes forth to seek!
 
854 See DN 22.16 and notes there.
 
855 Parinibbāna is the attainment of final Nibbāna, as in DN 16.
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