The Sagāthāvagga is so called because all the suttas in this book contain verses, at least one, usually more. The Vagga is divided into eleven saṃyuttas containing a total of 271 suttas. Most of these saṃyuttas are subdivided into several vaggas, usually of ten suttas each. In four saṃyuttas (3, 4, 6, 11), the last vagga contains only five suttas, half the standard number, and these are therefore called “pentads” (pañcaka). Four saṃyuttas are not divided into separate vaggas (5, 8, 9, 10), and thus may be considered as made up of a single vagga. I have numbered the suttas consecutively within each saṃyutta starting from 1, with the number within the vagga given in parenthesis. The recent PTS edition of the Sagāthāvagga (Ee2) numbers the suttas consecutively through the entire collection, from 1 to 271.
The number of verses varies from edition to edition, depending on differences in readings and on alternative ways of grouping pādas or lines into stanzas; for a sequence of twelve pādas might be divided into either two stanzas of six lines each or three stanzas of four lines each. Ee2 is the only one that numbers the verses, and this edition has 945; of these I have not included three (vv. 70, 138, 815), for reasons explained in the notes (nn. 53, 96, 573). Many of the verses occur several times within the Saṃyutta Nikāya, usually within the Sagāthāvagga, occasionally elsewhere, as can be seen from Concordance 1 (A). The verses also have extensive parallels elsewhere in the Pāli Canon. A large number are shared by such texts as the Thera- and Therīgāthās, the Suttanipāta, the Dhammapada, and the Jātakas, as well as by the other Nikāyas. They are also quoted in paracanonical texts such as the Milindapañha, the Peṭakopadesa, and the Nettippakaraṇa. A significant number have parallels in the vast corpus of non-Pāli Indian Buddhist literature, such as the Patna and Gāndhārī Dharmapadas, the Udānavarga, the Mahāvastu, and even the much later Yogācārabhūmi. All these “external” parallels are shown in Concordance 1 (B). Doubtlessly some of the verses were not original to the suttas in our collection but belonged to the vast, free floating mass of Buddhist didactic verse which the compilers of the texts pinned down to specific contexts by providing them with narrative settings such as those found in the Sagāthāvagga.
Of the eleven saṃyuttas in this Vagga, eight revolve around encounters between the Buddha (or his disciples) and beings from other planes of existence. Since we will repeatedly run across beings from nonhuman planes in the other Vaggas too, a short summary of the Buddhist picture of the sentient universe will help us to identify them and to understand their place in early Buddhist cosmology. (See Table 3, which gives a visual representation of this cosmology.)
The Thirty-One Planes of Existence according to Traditional Theravāda Cosmology
(see CMA 5:3–7)
The Formless Realm (4 planes)
(31) Base of neither-perception-nor-nonperception
(30) Base of nothingness
(29) Base of infinity of consciousness
(28) Base of infinity of space
The Form Realm (16 planes)
Fourth jhāna plane: Five Pure Abodes
(27) Akaniṭṭha realm
(26) Clear-sighted realm
(25) Beautiful realm
(24) Serene realm
(23) Durable realm
Ordinary fourth jhāna plane
(22) Nonpercipient beings
(21) Devas of great fruit
Third jhāna plane
(20) Devas of steady aura
(19) Devas of measureless aura
(18) Devas of minor aura
Second jhāna plane
(17) Devas of streaming radiance
(16) Devas of measureless radiance
(15) Devas of minor radiance
First jhāna plane
(14) Mahābrahmā realm
(13) Brahmā’s ministers
(12) Brahmā’s assembly
The Sense-Sphere Realm (11 planes)
Seven good destinations
Six sense-sphere heavenly realms
(11) Paranimmitavasavattī devas
(10) Nimmānaratī devas
(9) Tusita devas
(8) Yāma devas
(7) Tāvatiṃsa devas
(6) Four Great Kings
(5) Human realm
Four bad destinations
(4) Host of asuras
(3) Domain of ghosts
(2) Animal realm
(1) Hell realms
The early Buddhist texts envisage a universe with three principal tiers subdivided into numerous planes. The lowest tier is the sense-sphere realm (kāmadhātu), so called because the driving force within this realm is sensual desire. The sense-sphere realm (in the oldest cosmology) contains ten planes: the hells (niraya), planes of extreme torment; the animal realm (tiracchānayoni); the domain of petas or ghosts (pettivisaya), shade-like spirits subject to various kinds of misery; the human realm (manussaloka); and six sense-sphere heavens (sagga) inhabited by the devas, celestial beings who enjoy far greater happiness, beauty, power, and glory than we know in the human realm. Later tradition adds the asuravisaya, the domain of titans or antigods, to the bad destinations, though in the Nikāyas they are depicted as occupying a region adjacent to the Tāvatiṃsa heaven, from which they often launch invasions against the devas.
Above the sense-sphere realm is the form realm (rūpadhātu), where gross material form has vanished and only the subtler kinds of form remain. The realm is divided into four main tiers with several planes in each. The inhabitants of these planes are also devas, though to distinguish them from the gods of the sensuous heavens they are usually called brahmās. The life spans in the various brahmā planes increase exponentially, being far longer than those in the sensuous heavens, and sensual desire has largely abated. The prevalent mode of experience here is meditative rather than sensory, as these planes are the ontological counterparts of the four jhānas or meditative absorptions. They include the five “Pure Abodes” (suddhāvāsa), spheres of rebirth accessible only to nonreturners.
Beyond the form realm lies an even more exalted sphere of existence called the formless realm (arūpadhātu). The beings in this realm consist solely of mind, without a material basis, as physical form is here entirely absent. The four planes that make up this realm, successively more subtle, are the ontological counterparts of the four āruppas or formless meditative attainments, after which they are named: the base of the infinity of space, the base of the infinity of consciousness, the base of nothingness, and the base of neither-perception-nor-nonperception.
The suttas often compress this elaborate cosmology into a simpler scheme of five destinations (pañcagati): the hells, the animal realm, the domain of ghosts, the human realm, and the deva world. The last includes all the many deva planes of the three realms. The first three are called the plane of misery (apāyabhūmi), the nether world (vinipāta), or the bad destinations (duggati); the human realm and the deva planes are collectively called the good destinations (sugati). Rebirth into the plane of misery is the fruit of unwholesome kamma, rebirth into the good destinations the fruit of wholesome kamma. Beyond all realms and planes of existence is the unconditioned, Nibbāna, the final goal of the Buddha’s teaching.
Devatā is an abstract noun based on deva, but in the Nikāyas it is invariably used to denote particular celestial beings, just as the English word “deity,” originally an abstract noun meaning the divine nature, is normally used to denote the supreme God of theistic religions or an individual god or goddess of polytheistic faiths. Though the word is feminine, the gender comes from the abstract suffix -tā and does not necessarily mean the devatās are female. The texts rarely indicate their sex, though it seems they can be of either sex and perhaps sometimes beyond sexual differentiation.
For Buddhism the devas are not immortal gods exercising a creative role in the cosmic process. They are simply elevated beings, blissful and luminous, who had previously dwelt in the human world but had been reborn in the celestial planes as the fruit of their meritorious deeds. With rare exceptions they are just as much in bondage to delusion and desire as human beings, and they equally stand in need of guidance from the Enlightened One. The Buddha is the “teacher of devas and humans” (satthā devamanussānaṃ), and though squarely established in the human world he towers above the most exalted deities by reason of his supreme wisdom and perfect purity.
The devas usually come to visit the Buddha in the deep stillness of the night, while the rest of the world lies immersed in sleep. The Devatāsaṃyutta gives us a record of their conversations. Sometimes the devas come to recite verses in praise of the Master, sometimes to ask questions, sometimes to request instruction, sometimes to win approval of their views, sometimes even to challenge or taunt him. On approaching they almost always bow down to him in homage, for the Buddha is their spiritual and moral superior. Not to bow down to him, as some devas do (see 1:35), is provocative, a deliberate withholding of due respect.
Each of the four Nikāyas opens with a sutta of deep significance. Though the first sutta of SN is very short, it is rich in implications. In this case a devatā comes to the Buddha to ask how he “crossed the flood,” that is, how he attained deliverance, and in his reply the Buddha points to the “middle way” as the key to his attainment. This answer conveys the essential spirit of the Dhamma, which avoids all extremes in views, attitudes, and conduct. The commentary draws out the ramifications of the Buddha’s statement with a list of seven extremes, philosophical and practical, transcended by the middle way.
The following suttas in this saṃyutta cover a wide spectrum of subjects without any particular logic in their sequence. They range from the simple to the profound, from the commonplace to the sublime, from the humorous to the stern. The exchanges discuss such ethical practices as giving, service to others, and noninjury; the difficulties of renunciation and the life of meditation; the call for earnest effort; the sorrows of human existence and the need for deliverance. There are also suttas on the bliss and equanimity of the arahant, and a few which touch on his transcendental stature. In most suttas the prose portion serves no other function than to establish a framework for the conversation, which eventually falls away leaving only an exchange of verses with the speakers’ identities understood. But we occasionally find brief stories, such as that of the female devatā who tried to seduce the bhikkhu Samiddhi (1:20), or of the “faultfinding devas” who accused the Buddha of hypocrisy (1:35), or of the visit paid to the Buddha by a group of devas when his foot was injured by a stone splinter (1:38).
Usually the personal identity of the devatā is not revealed. An exception is the pair of suttas where the two Kokanadā sisters, daughters of the weather god Pajjunna, visit the Buddha and praise him and his Dhamma (1:39–40). Sometimes verses spoken by an anonymous deity recur elsewhere with the identity specified; for example, v. 22 reappears as v. 461, ascribed to Māra the Evil One; vv. 156–59 reappear as vv. 312–15, ascribed to Anāthapiṇḍika, the celestial reincarnation of the great philanthropist. It is also rare for the suttas to assign the devas to particular realms, but there are exceptions, such as those on the “extolling of the good” host of devas (satullapakāyikā devā; 1:31–34, etc.) and the one on the devas of the Pure Abodes (suddhāvāsakāyikā devā; 1:37). The commentary, cited in the notes, often provides more background information.
When the devatā does not ask a question but voices an opinion, a contrast is usually established between the viewpoint of the deity, generally valid from within his or her limited horizons, and the viewpoint of the Buddha, who sees things far beyond the ken of the devas (see, e.g., vv. 3–6). Sometimes a group of devas express their opinions, which the Buddha surpasses with his own more profound contribution (vv. 78–84, 95–101). In several suttas the verses are not spoken in the context of a conversation but express the personal views of the deva, which the Buddha tacitly endorses (vv. 136–40), and two verses are simple paeans of praise to the Blessed One (vv. 147, 148). Beginning with v. 183, the suttas assume a standard format, with the devas posing a series of riddles which the Buddha answers to their satisfaction. A memorable example of this is the riddle about the type of killing that the Buddha approves of, to which the answer is the killing of anger (vv. 223–24). In one sutta we find a gentle touch of humour: a devatā has asked the Buddha a series of questions, apparently mundane in intent, but before the Blessed One can reply another devatā breaks in and gives his own answers, which remain at the mundane level. Then the Buddha replies, lifting the dialogue to the transcendent plane (vv. 229–31). Because of its varied content and the piquancy of its verses, within the Theravāda tradition, at least in Sri Lanka, the Devatāsaṃyutta is extremely popular as a source of texts to be drawn upon for sermons.
The devaputtas, or “sons of the devas,” are young devas newly arisen in their respective heavenly planes; devaduhitās, “daughters of the devas,” are also mentioned in the commentary but none appear in this saṃyutta. The commentary says these beings are reborn spontaneously in the laps of the devas. While the devatās in the preceding saṃyutta remain mostly anonymous, the young devas are always identified by name, and it is surprising to find that several of them—or at least their verses—have already appeared in the Devatāsaṃyutta (see 2:3, 4, 16, 19, 20, 21, 24, 27). This suggests that the dividing line between the two classes of deities is not a hard and fast one, just as the dividing line between an adult and an adolescent is not hard and fast. A relatively large proportion of the verses in this chapter focus on the monastic training, substantially more than in the Devatāsaṃyutta. The texts themselves do not drop any hints as to why this should be so; at least there are none that are readily visible.
Several suttas raise points of special interest from a doctrinal perspective. We meet, for example, the young deva Dāmali who thought that the arahant must still “strive without weariness,” until the Buddha told him that the arahant had completed his task and need not strive further (2:5). The commentary says this sutta is almost unique in that the Buddha here does not speak in praise of effort. Again, we meet Tāyana, whose verses on exertion are applauded by the Blessed One and, the next morning, are commended by him to the monks (2:8). The two suttas on the capture of the moon god Candimā and the sun god Suriya include verses that must have functioned as charms for terminating lunar and solar eclipses (2:9, 10); in Sri Lanka they are included in the Maha Pirit Pota, “The Great Book of Protection,” made up of suttas and other chants recited for spiritual and physical protection. We also meet Subrahmā, whose single verse is one of the pithiest expressions in world literature of the anguish at the heart of the human condition (2:17). The story of Rohitassa, who tried to reach the end of the world by travelling, elicits from the Buddha a momentous reply about where the world and its end are ultimately to be found (2:26). In this saṃyutta we also meet two young devas named Veṇhu and Siva (at 2:12 and 2:21), who may be early prototypes of the Indian gods Viṣṇu and Śiva (the Sanskrit forms of their names); our text, however, apparently dates from a period before they became the chief deities of theistic devotional Hinduism. The last sutta in the chapter (2:30) introduces us to a group of young devas who were formerly disciples of the Buddha’s rivals on the Indian scene, Pūraṇa Kassapa, Makkhali Gosāla, and Nigaṇṭha Nātaputta, teachers whose views had been unequivocally rejected by the Buddha. It is thus perplexing that their disciples should have been reborn in heaven, especially when the first two teachers propagated such doctrines as moral anarchism and fatalism. But the conclusion reached in the sutta is that such teachers were as far from the stature of true holy men as the jackal is from the lion.
This chapter introduces us to King Pasenadi of Kosala. According to the Buddhist texts, Pasenadi was deeply devoted to the Buddha and often sought his counsel, though there is no record of him reaching any stage of awakening (and thus medieval Sri Lankan tradition holds that he was a bodhisatta, who does not attain enlightenment so that he might continue fulfilling the perfect virtues that culminate in Buddhahood). Pasenadi had been led to the Buddha by his wife, Queen Mallikā, whose devotion to the Master he had previously resented. The story of how Mallikā convinced him of the Buddha’s wisdom is related in MN No. 87; MN No. 89 gives us a moving account of the king’s last meeting with the Master when they were both in their eightieth year. The first sutta of the Kosalasaṃyutta apparently records Pasenadi’s first meeting with the Blessed One, after his confidence had been aroused by Mallikā’s ruse. Here the Buddha is described as young, and when the king questions the claim that such a youthful ascetic can be perfectly enlightened, the Buddha replies with a series of verses that dispels the king’s doubts and inspires him to go for refuge.
Unlike the first two saṃyuttas, the present one employs substantial prose backgrounds to the verses, and often the stanzas merely restate metrically the moral of the Buddha’s discourse. Though the topics discussed are not especially profound, they are almost all relevant to the busy lay person faced with the difficult challenge of living a moral life in the world. Especially noteworthy is the stress they lay on the need to adhere unflinchingly to the path of rectitude amidst the world’s temptations. Several suttas (3:4, 5) show how easy it is to fall away from righteous standards, especially in an age like the Buddha’s when, as in our own time, stiff competition for wealth, position, and power was driving hallowed ethical values out of circulation. The remedy against temptation is diligence (appamāda), and when the Buddha extols diligence to the king the word does not mean, as it does in a monastic context, constant devotion to meditation, but persistence in the performance of meritorious deeds. For a man like Pasenadi, a happy rebirth rather than Nibbāna is the immediate goal.
The king’s conversation with Mallikā, in which they both admit they cherish themselves more than anyone else (3:8), elicits from the Buddha a verse which gives an ethical slant to a metaphysical thesis found in the Bṛhadāraṇyaka Upaniśad, also occurring in a conversation between husband and wife, that of all things the self is the most precious. This raises the interesting question whether the close correspondence between the two is sheer coincidence (not impossible) or the result of a deliberate reworking by the Buddha of the old Upaniśad. On another occasion we see the king display lack of acumen in his assessment of ascetics (3:11)—perhaps a hint that his commitment to the Dhamma was not unwavering—and the Buddha’s response offers astute counsel on how to judge a person’s character.
In this saṃyutta we even find, from the Master’s golden lips, enlightened advice for losing weight (3:12), while two other suttas provide an historical perspective on the conflict between Kosala and Magadha, with reflections on war and peace (3:14–15). Of timely interest is the Buddha’s verse explaining to the king that a woman can turn out better than a man (3:16). Elsewhere the Buddha rejects the idea, propagated by the brahmins, that birth is an important criterion of spiritual worth, stressing instead that the true marks of spiritual nobility are ethical purity and wisdom (3:24).
A theme that recurs throughout this saṃyutta is the inevitability of death and the inexorable operation of the law of kamma, which ensures that good and bad actions meet with due recompense. Beings pass from bright states to dark ones and from dark states to bright ones depending on their actions (3:21). All that we take with us when we die are our good and bad deeds, and thus we should be sure to accumulate merits, for in the next world these are “the support for living beings” (3:4, 20, 22). Among several texts on the inevitability of death, the most memorable is the last sutta in the chapter (3:25), with its startling parable of the mountains advancing from all quarters, crushing everything in their way.
Māra is the Evil One of Buddhism, the Tempter and Lord of Sensuality bent on distracting aspirants from the path to liberation and keeping them trapped in the cycle of repeated birth and death. Sometimes the texts use the word “Māra” in a metaphorical sense, as representing the inward psychological causes of bondage such as craving and lust (22:63–65) and the external things to which we become bound, particularly the five aggregates themselves (23:11–12). But it is evident that the thought world of the suttas does not conceive Māra only as a personification of humankind’s moral frailty, but sees him as a real evil deity out to frustrate the efforts of those intent on winning the ultimate goal. The proof of this lies in his pursuit of the Buddha and the arahants after their enlightenment, which would not be credible if he were conceived of merely as a psychological projection.
The Mārasaṃyutta opens in the vicinity of the Bodhi Tree soon after the Buddha has attained the supreme enlightenment. Here Māra challenges the Blessed One’s claim to have reached the goal. He taunts him for abandoning the path of self-mortification (4:1), tries to frighten him by assuming horrific shapes (4:2), and seeks to break his equanimity by displaying beautiful and hideous forms (4:3). For the Buddha to triumph in these contests he need only call Māra’s bluff, to announce that he knows the adversary before him is none other than the Evil One. Then Māra must disappear, frustrated and mournful.
Māra also appears as the cynic who denies that mortals can attain perfect purity (4:4, 15). On several occasions he tries to confound the monks while they are listening to the Buddha speak, but each time the Buddha calls his number (4:16, 17, 19). On another occasion Māra tries to tempt the Master with the lure of worldly power, but the Buddha staunchly rejects this (4:20). Especially impressive is the Godhika Sutta (4:23), where the bhikkhu Godhika, afflicted with an illness that obstructs his meditative progress, plans to take his own life. Māra presents himself before the Buddha, pleading with him to discourage his disciple from such folly, but the Master extols devotion to the goal even at the cost of life. At the end of the sutta Māra is searching vainly for the rebirth-consciousness of Godhika, unaware that the monk had attained Nibbāna and expired “with consciousness unestablished.”
The last two suttas in this saṃyutta take us back to the site of the enlightenment. Here we see first Māra and then Māra’s three daughters—Taṇhā, Aratī, and Ragā (Craving, Discontent, and Lusting)—trying to find a point of vulnerability in the newly enlightened Buddha, but their efforts are in vain and they must depart disappointed (4:24, 25).
The Bhikkhunīsaṃyutta is a compilation of ten short suttas in mixed prose and verse, undivided into vaggas. The protagonists are all bhikkhunīs, Buddhist nuns. Though several of its thirty-seven verses have parallels in the Therīgāthā (mentioned in the notes and Concordance 1 (B)), a substantial number are unique to this collection, while often the variations in roughly parallel versions are themselves of intrinsic interest. At least one nun in the Bhikkhunīsaṃyutta, Vajirā, does not appear at all in the Therīgāthā, while the case of another nun, Selā, is problematic. A comparison between the two collections also brings to light some noteworthy differences in the ascription of authorship. Since SN and the Therīgāthā were evidently transmitted by different lines of reciters, it was only too easy for verses to break off from their original narrative setting and merge with a different background story connecting them to a different author.
All the ten suttas are constructed according to the same pattern, a direct confrontation between Māra and an individual nun. This structure probably accounts for the placement of the Bhikkhunīsaṃyutta immediately after the Mārasaṃyutta. Each sutta of this collection begins with a nun going off by herself to pass the day in solitary meditation. Then Māra approaches her with a challenge—a provocative question or a taunt—intending to make her fall away from concentration. What Māra has failed to realize is that each of these nuns is an arahant who has seen so deeply into the truth of the Dhamma that she is utterly inaccessible to his wiles. Far from being flustered by Māra’s challenge, the nun promptly guesses her adversary’s identity and meets his challenge with a sharp retort.
In a dialogue that brings together the Lord of Sensuality with a solitary nun one might expect each of Māra’s overtures to be aimed at sexual seduction. This, however, is so only in several suttas. The actual themes of the discourses vary widely and expose us to a broad range of perspectives on the attitudes and insights of the renunciant life. The contrast between the allurement and misery of sensual pleasures is the theme of 5:1, 4, and 5. In all three cases the nuns sharply rebuke Māra with verses that reveal their utter indifference to his solicitations.
Māra’s dialogue with Somā (5:2) voices the ancient Indian prejudice that women are endowed with “mere two-fingered wisdom” and thus cannot attain Nibbāna. Somā’s rejoinder is a forceful reminder that enlightenment does not depend on gender but on the mind’s capacity for concentration and wisdom, qualities accessible to any human being who earnestly seeks to penetrate the truth. In 5:3, Māra approaches Kisāgotamī, the heroine of the well-known parable of the mustard seed, trying to arouse her maternal instincts to beget another son. His challenge thus touches on sensuality only indirectly, his primary appeal being aimed at the feminine desire for children.
The last two suttas are philosophical masterpieces, compressing into a few tight stanzas insights of enormous depth and wide implications. When Māra challenges Selā with a question on the origins of personal existence, she replies with a masterly poem that condenses the whole teaching of dependent origination into three four-line stanzas adorned with an illuminating simile (5:9). He poses a similar problem to Vajirā, who answers with a stunning exposition of the teaching of nonself, illustrating the composite nature of personal identity with the famous simile of the chariot (5:10).
Though set against a mythological background in an ancient world whose customs and norms seem so remote from our own, these poems of the ancient nuns still speak to us today through their sheer simplicity and uncompromising honesty. They need no ornamentation or artifice to convey their message, for they are sufficient in themselves to startle us with the clarity of unadorned truth.
Brahmā was the supreme deity of early Brahmanism, conceived as the creator of the universe and venerated by the brahmins with sacrifices and rituals. Occasionally this conception of Brahmā persists in the Buddhist canon, though as a target of criticism and satire rather than as an article of faith. In such contexts the word “brahmā” is used as a proper name, often augmented to Mahābrahmā, “Brahmā the Great.” The Buddha reinterpreted the idea of brahmā and transformed the single, all-powerful deity of the brahmins into a class of exalted gods dwelling in the form realm (rūpadhātu) far above the sense-sphere heavens. Their abode is referred to as “the brahmā world,” of which there are many, of varying dimensions and degrees of hegemony. Within their realm the brahmās dwell in companies, and Mahābrahmā (or sometimes a brahmā of a more personal name) is seen as the ruler of that company, complete with ministers and assembly. Like all sentient beings, the brahmās are impermanent, still tied to the round of rebirth, though sometimes they forget this and imagine themselves immortal.
The path to rebirth in the brahmā world is mastery over the jhānas, each of which is ontologically attuned to a particular level of the form realm (see Table 3). Sometimes the Buddha mentions the four “divine abodes” (brahmavihāra) as the means to rebirth in the brahmā world. These are the “immeasurable” meditations on lovingkindness, compassion, altruistic joy, and equanimity (mettā, karuṇā, muditā, upekkhā).
The Nikāyas offer an ambivalent evaluation of the brahmās, as can be seen from the present saṃyutta. On the one hand, certain brahmās are depicted as valiant protectors of the Buddha’s dispensation and devoted followers of the Master. But precisely because of their longevity and elevated stature in the cosmic hierarchy, the brahmās are prone to delusion and conceit; indeed, they sometimes imagine they are all-powerful creators and rulers of the universe. Perhaps this dual evaluation reflects the Buddha’s ambivalent attitude towards the brahmins: admiration for the ancient spiritual ideals of the brahmin life (as preserved in the expressions brahmacariya and brahmavihāra) coupled with rejection of the pretensions of the contemporary brahmins to superiority based on birth and lineage.
The most eminent of the brahmās devoted to the Buddha is Brahmā Sahampati, who appears several times in SN. Soon after the enlightenment he descends from his divine abode and reappears before the Blessed One to beseech him to teach the Dhamma to the world (6:1). He applauds the Buddha’s reverence for the Dhamma (6:2), extols an arahant bhikkhu on alms round (6:3), reproaches the evil Devadatta (6:12), and shows up again at the Buddha’s parinibbāna, where he recites a verse of eulogy (6:15). He will also appear in other saṃyuttas (at 11:17; 22:80; 47:18, 43; and 48:57).
Brahmās of the deluded type are epitomized by Brahmā Baka, who imagined himself eternal and had to be divested of this illusion by the Master (6:4). On another occasion, an unnamed brahmā imagined he was superior to the arahants, and the Buddha and four great disciples visited his realm to make him alter his views (6:5). We also witness a contest between a negligent brahmā, stiff with pride, and two colleagues of his, devotees of the Buddha, who sweep away his illusions (6:6). The penultimate sutta shows a disciple of the past Buddha Sikhī awing a whole assembly of proud brahmās with his display of psychic powers (6:14). This saṃyutta also relates the sad story of the monk Kokālika, a cohort of Devadatta, who tried to defame the chief disciples Sāriputta and Moggallāna and had to reap the kammic result as a rebirth in hell (6:9–10). The last sutta in this collection, included here only because of Brahmā Sahampati’s single verse, is a parallel of the death scene in the long Mahāparinibbāna Sutta of the Dīgha Nikāya.
This saṃyutta, recording the Buddha’s conversations with brahmins, contains two vaggas, each with a different unifying theme. In the first all the brahmins who come to the Buddha, often angry (7:1–4) or disdainful (7:7–9), are so deeply stirred by his words that they ask for ordination into the Saṅgha and “not long afterwards” attain arahantship. These suttas display the Buddha as the incarnation of patience and peace, capable of working, in those who would attack him, the miracle of transformation simply by his unshakable equanimity and impeccable wisdom. In this vagga we also see how the Buddha assessed the brahmin claim to superior status based on birth. He here interprets the word “brahmin” by way of its original meaning, as a holy man, and on this basis redefines the true brahmin as the arahant. The three Vedas which the brahmins revered and diligently studied are replaced by the three vijjās or true knowledges possessed by the arahant: knowledge of past births, of the laws of kammic retribution, and of the destruction of the taints (7:8). The last sutta adds a touch of humour, still recognizable today, by depicting the contrast between the oppressive cares of the household life and the untrammelled freedom of the life of renunciation (7:10).
In the second vagga the brahmins come to challenge the Buddha in still different ways, and again the Buddha rises to the occasion with his inexhaustible wit and wisdom. In this vagga, however, though the Buddha inspires in his antagonists a newly won faith, the brahmin converts do not become monks but declare themselves lay followers “who have gone for refuge for life.”
The bhikkhu Vaṅgīsa was declared by the Buddha the foremost disciple of those gifted with inspirational speech (paṭibhānavantānaṃ, at AN I 24,21). This title accrued to him on account of his skill in composing spontaneous verse. His verses make up the longest chapter in the Theragāthā, whose seventy-one verses (Th 1209–79) closely correspond with those in the present saṃyutta but lack the prose frameworks. Another poem by Vaṅgīsa, found at Sn II, 12, is not included in the present compilation but does have a counterpart in the Theragāthā.
The verses of Vaṅgīsa are not mere metrical aphorisms (as are so many verses in this collection) but skilfully wrought poetic compositions that can well claim an honoured place in early Indian poetry. They also reveal, with unabashed honesty, the trials and temptations which their author faced in his career as a monk. Having an aesthetic bent of character and a natural appreciation of sensuous beauty, Vaṅgīsa must have gone through a difficult struggle in his early days as a monk adjusting to the strict discipline required of a bhikkhu, with its training in sense restraint and vigilant control of the mind. The early suttas in this chapter (8:1–4) speak of his battle against sensual lust, his susceptibility to the charms of the opposite sex, and his firm determination not to succumb but to continue bravely along the path laid down by his Master. They also tell of his proclivity to pride, no doubt based on his natural talent as a poet, and of his endeavour to subdue this flaw of character. Later in his monastic career, apparently after he gained a greater degree of self-mastery, he often extolled the Buddha in verse, and on one occasion the Blessed One requested him to compose extemporaneous verses (8:8). In other poems he praises the great disciples Sāriputta, Moggallāna, and Koṇḍañña (8:6, 9, 10). The last poem in the saṃyutta, partly autobiographical, concludes with a declaration that the author has become an arahant equipped with the three true knowledges and other spiritual powers (8:12).
This saṃyutta consists of fourteen suttas most of which are constructed according to a stereotyped pattern. A bhikkhu is living alone in a woodland thicket, where he should be meditating ardently, but human weakness gets the better of him and causes him to swerve from his religious duties. Then a devatā dwelling in the thicket takes compassion on him and chides him in verse, seeking to reawaken his sense of urgency. Apparently these devatās are not celestial beings, like those we meet in the Devatāsaṃyutta, but dryads or fairies, and they seem to be feminine. On a few occasions the devatā errs in her assessment of the bhikkhu’s behaviour. Thus in 9:2 the devatā comes to reproach the bhikkhu for taking a nap, unaware he has already attained arahantship, and in 9:8 for associating too closely with a woman, again unaware the bhikkhu is an arahant (according to the commentary). In 9:6, a devatā from the Tāvatiṃsa heaven tries to persuade the Venerable Anuruddha to aspire for rebirth in her realm, but he declares that he has ended the process of rebirth and will never take another existence. The last sutta in the chapter (9:14) also occurs in the Jātakas, interestingly with the Bodhisatta in the role played here by the bhikkhu.
The yakkhas are fierce spirits inhabiting remote areas such as forests, hills, and abandoned caves. They are depicted as of hideous mien and wrathful temperament, but when given offerings and shown respect they become benign and may protect people rather than harm them. Many of the shrines that dotted the North Indian countryside were built to honour the yakkhas and secure their favours. Though living in misery they have the potential for awakening and can attain the paths and fruits of the spiritual life.
The suttas in this chapter cover a wide range of topics. What unites them is not so much the content of the verses but their propagational function in showing the Buddha as the invincible sage who, by his skilful means, can tame and transform even the most violent and fearsome ogres, such as Sūciloma (10:3) and Āḷavaka (10:12). The saṃyutta also includes two charming tales of female yakkhas, famished spirits haunting the outskirts of Jeta’s Grove, who are so deeply moved by the Buddha’s sermons and the chanting of the monks that they turn over a new leaf and become pious lay devotees (10:6, 7). In this saṃyutta too we find the story of Anāthapiṇḍika’s first meeting with the Buddha, which was abetted by friendly advice from a benevolent yakkha (10:8). In three suttas the yakkhas speak verses in praise of bhikkhunīs (10:9–11).
In the early Buddhist pantheon, Sakka is the ruler of the devas in the Tāvatiṃsa heaven and also a follower of the Buddha. A long conversation between him and the Buddha, culminating in his attainment of stream-entry, is told in the Sakkapañha Sutta (DN No. 20). This saṃyutta does not report the Buddha’s own encounters with Sakka, but gives (in the Buddha’s words) accounts of Sakka’s deeds and conversations. The suttas are thus presented as fables, but fables which always embody a moral message. The saṃyutta also includes the famous Dhajagga Sutta (11:3), in which the Buddha commends to the monks recollection of the Three Jewels—the Buddha, the Dhamma, and the Saṅgha—as an antidote to fear.
In Buddhist legend the Tāvatiṃsa devas are perpetually being attacked by the asuras, the titans, beings of great physical prowess and violent ambition who seek to conquer them and take control of their domain. The Sakkasaṃyutta repeatedly pits Sakka in struggle against the leaders of the asuras, Vepacitti and Verocana. The two sides can be read as symbolizing alternative political philosophies. The asura leaders favour rule by force and retaliation against enemies; they rationalize aggression and extol the ethic of “might makes right.” Sakka, in contrast, stands for rule by righteousness, patience towards aggressors, and the compassionate treatment of wrongdoers (11:4, 5, 8). Sakka and the devas honour sages and holy men, the asuras scorn them, and thus the sages help the devas but curse the asuras (11:9, 10).
In this saṃyutta Sakka appears as the ideal lay devotee. He earned his place as ruler of the devas, while he was still a human being, by fulfilling seven vows which embody the standards of the virtuous householder (11:11). His understanding of the Buddha’s excellence is inferior to Brahmā Sahampati’s (11:17), but in three suttas he eloquently proclaims the reasons for his devotion to the Buddha, the Saṅgha, and even devout householders (11:18–20). In the last three suttas, the Buddha holds up Sakka’s patience and forgiveness as a model for the bhikkhus (11:23–25).
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