The Ideal Brahman
Theosophical Quarterly, July, 1929
It has been suggested that the principal purpose of the Buddha, in all that he did and taught, was the founding of an Order which should train disciples, not for abstract or general ends, but for the definite goal of Chelaship. It may be added that every detail of his words and acts gains new light from the recognition of this primary aim.
It has also been said that the Buddha made a great and deeply considered effort to influence the Brahmans of his day, for several different yet harmonious reasons. First, in consonance with the principal purpose noted above, he clearly recognized that the Brahmans as a class offered exceptionally promising material for Chelaship. They were endowed with spiritual gifts of great value; they had a long spiritual heredity; many of them were blest with ardent aspiration and a burning desire for spiritual attainment, as the result of that spiritual heredity. To repeat a phrase that has been used before: the Brahmans as a class represented an immense spiritual investment; the Buddha ardently desired to aid this great investment to bear fruit, and to bear fruit abundantly.
This is the brighter side of the picture, and it is still, to a certain degree, a true account of the Brahmans. But there was also the darker side. The Buddha, seeing and knowing the universe face to face, clearly perceived certain long-standing dangers in the position of the Brahmans of his day; the danger of spiritual and temporal ambition; the danger that the Brahmans as a class, instead of giving spiritual and intellectual life to their land, might become a tyrannous despotism, entrenching themselves, not only through superior intellectual vigour, but by all the arts of superstition and priestcraft; so that, in spite of the genuinely spiritual minority among them, they might, as a class, become a burden and a menace to India, a source of darkness rather than light.
Seeing these menacing possibilities, the Buddha made a strong effort, sustained through a long series of years, to call the Brahmans back to the high ideals which were in their spiritual heredity, and which had been reinforced when the King Initiates of the Rajput race had accepted Brahmans as their disciples, as recorded in the great Upanishads; a strong and sustained effort at the same time to draw them back from the dangerous path, which, as a class, they were already entering. Unhappily, it must be added that, on the whole, this splendid and generous effort failed. Many spiritually gifted Brahmans were drawn to the Buddha, and therefore to the Lodge, by the splendour of his character and his teaching, as Brahmans have been drawn to the Lodge through the intervening centuries. But the Brahmans as a class went headlong forward on the dangerous path which the Buddha so clearly saw opening before them. They drove his teachings and his Order from India, and they have in fact become the most astute and oppressive priestcraft in the world.
So much in introduction to one of the Suttas, which shows, first, the way in which the Buddha made his potent effort to draw the Brahmans back again to their ancient ideals of a spiritual life; then, the high qualities, gifts and endowments of certain Brahmans, which so fully justified this effort; and, finally, the forces of reaction and obscurantism which were working in opposition to the Buddha’s effort, and which, so far as the whole Brahman caste is concerned, finally gained complete mastery over spiritual aspiration.
The Sutta, like so many of the Suttas, tells a story, and tells it well. And the story is suffused with that fine ironical humour which is characteristic of so many of these records of the Buddha’s teachings. The dramatic elements in the tale are brought out with finesse and skill, and with a delicate appreciation of their ironical colouring.
The Sutta follows a conventional form, and contains many repetitions, and much that is found in other Suttas. Rightly to estimate these qualities of iteration and convention, we should keep in mind that while we think of a volume of Suttas as a book to be read, the Suttas were originally stories to be told, and to be told to separate audiences, each of which might hear one story and only one. Therefore it was imperative that this story should be told in such a way that it would easily be remembered; hence the repetitions of parts of other Suttas, and the iterations within the Sutta itself. Further, each Sutta, each story designed thus to be told, must carry the pure essence of the Buddha’s teachings, so that it might supply spiritual sustenance to those who might hear no second Sutta. Indeed it is an explicit condition of the collection of Twelve Suttas on which we are drawing, that each one of them should contain the Buddha’s teaching and should contain it in identical terms; therefore, while the stories differ, and their differences are exceedingly informative, telling us a great deal regarding the Buddha, his methods and his message, yet the essence of all the stories is the same; each one would serve for the instruction of a disciple, and would set his feet firmly on the path of life.
The Sutta with which we are at present concerned bears the name of the Brahman Sonadanda, that is “Golden-staff” or “Golden Sceptre”, a name which is in itself an outline of his character. But we are given much more than an outline; the personality of Sonadanda is so fully depicted that we see both his strength and his weakness as a representative Brahman; the strength which justified the Buddha’s effort, and the weakness which, growing and increasing in the Brahmans as a caste, was fated to defeat the Buddha’s effort, and to bring that effort to frustration.
The Master, we are told, was journeying through the Anga country, accompanied by five hundred disciples, and had settled for a time at Champa, on the bank of Gaggara lake, a body of artificial water which had been excavated through the piety of Queen Gaggara as a halting place for Pilgrims. By the lake there was a grove of the heavily scented Champaka trees, from whose white flowers, like glove-fingers, is extracted the perfume known by the Malay name, Ylang Ylang. Beneath these trees the pilgrims rested.
Now it happened that the Brahman, Sonadanda, of the Golden-staff, dwelt not far from Queen Gaggara’s lake; indeed, King Seniya Bimbisara, the ruler of Magadha, had made a grant to the Brahman, Sonadanda, of much fertile land, arable land, pasture and woodland, with many villages. So, quite unobtrusively and without comment, the narrator touches on the first danger which overshadowed the Brahmans; their willingness to lay up treasure upon earth, rather than treasure in heaven, and their persuasive way with kings and princes, who had it in their power to make rich gifts of land.
The coming of the Buddha was at once noised abroad. The Brahmans and the householders of Champa began to speak to each other concerning the coming of the Buddha to Gaggara lake, saying that he was reputed to be an Arhat, fully awakened and illuminated, richly endowed with holiness and wisdom, blessed, unequalled as a guide to the sons of men willing to be taught, an instructor of gods and men, a Master, a Buddha; that he of himself had seen and known the universe face to face, the bright worlds above, the dark worlds below, the world of men with its ascetics and Brahmans; and that he was ready to impart his wisdom to others, making known to them the truth, lovely in its beginning, lovely in its development, lovely in its perfection, making known the higher life. Finally, they told each other that it was an excellent thing to go to see such a Master.
So they began to gather together in groups and bands, making ready to set forth to where the Buddha was, at Gaggara lake.
The stir and noise of their going came to the ears of Sonadanda, as he rested on the upper terrace of his house, and, when he asked its meaning, the steward of his household told him that all the Brahmans were on their way to visit the ascetic Gotama, for so the Buddha was called by those who were not his disciples. The narrator of the story said that the number of the Brahmans at Champa, who were thus so strongly drawn toward the Buddha, whether by genuine aspiration or by curiosity, was about five hundred.
When the steward described their errand to Sonadanda, he at once made up his mind that he also would visit the Buddha, and sent word to the Brahmans asking them to wait, as he also intended to visit the ascetic Gotama in their company.
Then comes exactly the same discussion as in the story of the Brahman Kutadanta; the Brahmans try to persuade Sonadanda that it is not consonant with his dignity to pay the first visit to the ascetic, Gotama, the more so, that the ascetic Gotama is a much younger man. But Sonadanda holds firmly to his purpose, declaring that the ascetic, Gotama, is his equal in all points of family and personal distinction, while as a Buddha, fully enlightened, he is unquestionably superior. So, both through his desire to see the Buddha, and through the element of humility which made him willing and eager to admit his own inferiority, the nobler elements in Sonadanda’s character are suggested by the narrator; just as his distinguished position, both spiritual and worldly, is suggested by the insistence of the Brahmans that the ascetic Gotama should pay the first visit to Sonadanda, even while they themselves, though by no means without pride in their dignity as Brahmans, were ready to pay the first visit to the ascetic Gotama.
After the narrator has thus impressed upon his hearers both the eminent dignity of the Brahman Sonadanda, and the finer qualities of aspiration and humility in his character, be proceeds to reveal certain weaknesses in Sonadanda, characteristic of the Brahmans as a class, and he does this with the artless artfulness which runs through all these stories.
Sonadanda indeed carried his point, and set forth in the company of the admiring Brahmans, stoutly asserting that the greatness of the ascetic Gotama was such that, if he were two hundred miles away, he, Sonadanda, would set forth to visit him with pilgrim’s scrip and staff.
Yet, while so affirming, and drawing near to Gaggara lake, where the Buddha was encamped with his disciples, Sonadanda was full of doubts and hesitations, whose motive was sheer vanity.
He wished to seek wisdom from the Buddha, to ask him questions; but his vanity instantly suggested to him how unpleasant it would be, should the ascetic Gotama say, “You should not have asked your question in that way; you should have asked it in this way!” Sonadanda immediately conjured up a picture of his Brahman admirers, and perhaps also the disciples of the ascetic Gotama, mocking him and saying that he, Sonadanda the Brahman, did not even know how to ask a question properly. Then again, supposing that the ascetic Gotama were to ask a question, and Sonadanda should try to answer it, the ascetic Gotama might say, “The question should not be answered in that way, in this way should it be explained!” And once again the lively vanity of Sonadanda called up a picture of his Brahman friends rejoicing in his discomfiture. The Buddhist narrator skilfully and dramatically shows that the Brahman Sonadanda, even while on his way to seek wisdom from one whom he held to be a great Master, was in reality more concerned about himself than about the Master. It is a fine piece of portraiture, and it applies to others beside the ancient and venerable Brahman Sonadanda.
So overwrought by these imaginings of vanity was Sonadanda, that he even thought of turning back to his comfortable home without visiting the Buddha. He decided that this course would be inexpedient, but his decision was prompted not by aspiration, but once more by vanity. For he pictured his companions as saying, “Sonadanda the Brahman is a fool, obstinate, proud; he is afraid to meet the ascetic Gotama; after going so far, he turns back!” And Sonadanda added in his mind, that, if they spoke thus openly of him, his fame would suffer, and, if his fame suffered, his earnings would decrease. On the whole, the heart of the Brahman Sonadanda is sufficiently revealed.
So he went forward with his companions to the grove of Champaka trees by the lake, where the Buddha was surrounded by his disciples. He greeted the Master courteously and sat down beside him, but his thoughts continued to revolve around himself: “If only the ascetic Gotama would ask me something about my own subject, the science of the Three Vedas! then I should be able to win his admiration by my answer!”
The narrator says that the Buddha clearly saw this thought in Sonadanda’s mind and, with courteous kindness, proceeded to comply with Sonadanda’s wish. So he said to Sonadanda:
“O Brahman, what are the qualities which, in the view of the Brahmans, a man should possess in order to be a Brahman, so that he might truthfully say ‘Iam a Brahman’?”
Sonadanda was immensely relieved: “Exactly what I desired has happened”, he congratulated himself; “the ascetic Gotama has asked me a question in my own subject! I hope my answer will win his admiration!”
So he drew himself up, and. looking around on the gathering of Brahmans and disciples, spoke thus to the Buddha:
“In the view of the Brahmans, Gotama, in order to be a Brahman, so that he may truthfully say, ‘I am a Brahman’, a man should possess five endowments. And what are these five endowments?
“First, Sire, a Brahman should be well born on the mother’s side and on the father’s side, of stainless descent through seven generations.
“Second, he should know by heart, and be able rightly to intone the Mantras of the three Vedas; he should be a Master of Vedic studies and the traditions also; he should be able to recognize the bodily marks of a great man.
“Third, he should be handsome, fair, good to look upon.
“Fourth, he should be perfected in virtue.
“Fifth, he should be wise and learned, able to perform the Vedic sacrifice of the holy fire.”
As a basis of criticism, it would be well to compare this list of qualities with the qualifications for Chelaship, as set forth, for example, in the Crest Jewel of Wisdom.
The Buddha had, without doubt, a similar standard in mind, but he expressed his criticism by indirection, leading Sonadanda on by what the Latin poet calls the expedient of the diminishing heap.
So he said to Sonadanda: “But of these five qualifications, O Brahman, would it be possible to omit one, and yet describe such a man truthfully as a Brahman?”
“Yes, Gotama”, Sonadanda answered; “fairness of face could be omitted. If such a man possessed the other four, namely, birth, Vedic studies, virtue and wisdom, he could truthfully be called a Brahman.”
“But of these four, would it be possible to omit one, and yet truthfully to call the man a Brahman?”
“Yes, Gotama, Vedic studies might be omitted. If such a man possessed the other three, namely, birth, virtue and wisdom, he could truthfully be called a Brahman.”
“But of these three would it be possible to omit one, and truthfully to call the man a Brahman!”
“Yes, Gotama, birth could be omitted. If such man possessed virtue and wisdom, he could truthfully be called a Brahman.”
It is evident that the good Sonadanda, led on by the Buddha’s skilful questioning, and preoccupied by the desire to give an answer that would win the Buddha’s admiration, was going much farther than orthodox Brahmans would be willing to follow him.
They might be willing to waive good looks and even Vedic studies, since a Brahman boy might not yet have begun his studies, while not all Brahmans attained to eminent knowledge of the Vedic texts. But for a caste which was already entrenching itself in hereditary privilege, and claiming to be sacrosanct by birth alone, to exclude birth as a qualification for Brahmanhood was not admissible. Therefore we are prepared for the immediate, vigorous protest which the Buddhist recorder tells us, was raised by Sonadanda’s Brahman companions:
“Say not so, noble Sonadanda, say not so! He is belittling our colour, our Mantras and our birth! Sonadanda is going over to the teaching of the ascetic Gotama!”
The recorder represents the Buddha as coming down somewhat heavily upon the protesting Brahmans, bidding them keep silent unless they thought that the distinguished Sonadanda was too ignorant and inept to speak for himself. But the recorder further represents Sonadanda as bravely taking up the cudgels in his own defence, and, incidentally, pressing forward the discussion in the direction of the conclusion which the Buddha desired to reach.
Sonadanda’s nephew had accompanied him, a comely youth, Angaka, by name. Pointing to him, Sonadanda said:
“Do the worthy Brahmans see our nephew Angaka?”
Sonadanda, receiving an affirmative answer, went on to characterize Angaka in a way that was somewhat too flattering to the young man’s vanity, and by implication, to the vanity of Angaka’s worthy uncle. Angaka, he said, was the living embodiment of the admirable qualities which had been described as characterizing the perfect Brahman. He was of spotless lineage, handsome, well versed in Vedic studies, virtuous and wise.
“But”, Sonadanda went on to say, “if Angaka should be guilty of taking life, of theft, of unchastity, lying and drunkenness, what would his birth, his comeliness, his Vedic Mantras profit him?”
It is worth noting that Sonadanda has so completely come over to the Buddha’s position, that he is here citing the five moral laws of the Buddha’s Order as the standard of righteousness; and he goes on to say that, if one be perfected in virtue and wisdom, he may truthfully be called a Brahman. This is really the expression of the Buddha’s ideal, and of his purpose: to call the Brahmans back to the true standard of Brahmanhood, the ancient spiritual standard, according to which a true Brahman was a knower of Brahma, a knower of the Eternal. Sonadanda here becomes the spokesman of the Buddha. He, who prided himself on his Brahman heredity, and his Vedic knowledge, is represented as setting these things aside, and basing genuine Brahmanhood on the possession of holiness and wisdom. This is exactly the ideal which the Buddha was striving to awaken in the hearts of the Brahmans.
The recorder then represents the Buddha as putting to Sonadanda another question, the answer of which further reveals a complete acceptance of the Buddha’s view:
“But, O Brahman, of these two things, virtue and wisdom, is it possible to omit one, and then to say that he who possesses the other may be truthfully called a Brahman?”
“Not so, Gotama”, Sonadanda answered; “for wisdom is perfected by righteousness, and righteousness is perfected by wisdom. Where there is righteousness, there is wisdom; and where there is wisdom, there is righteousness also. As one hand washes the other, so wisdom and righteousness perfect each other. Therefore wisdom and righteousness are declared to be the best things in the world.”
The Buddha replies, “This is indeed so, O Brahman. I also say the same. But what is righteousness? And what is wisdom?”
Sonadanda replies that he knows only in a general way, and asks the Buddha to make the matter clear in detail.
This is the opening for what has already been spoken of, the full presentation of the Buddha’s teaching, which must form a part of each one of this collection of Suttas.
This presentation is vitally important, because it shows that the primary purpose of the Buddha’s whole teaching was, not the foundation of a popular religion, but the formation of an Order, which should prepare and train disciples, Chelas.
To Sonadanda, the Buddha answers that true wisdom and righteousness, the wisdom and righteousness with which he is concerned, are bound up with the appearance in the world of an Arhat, one who has conquered the truth, who is fully awakened, who has attained to blessedness, unsurpassed as a guide to the sons of men who are willing to be led, a teacher of divine beings and men, a Master, a Buddha.
By the teaching of this Master, a householder, or the son of a householder, or a man of any class is drawn to enter the path of discipleship, to give up the world and its attractions, and to surrender himself wholly to the guidance and teaching of the Master.
But this complete self-giving to a Master, with devoted love and aspiration, is the very essence of Chelaship, and what the Buddha goes on to say in his reply, clearly shows that he is concerned, not with the tenets of a popular religion, but precisely with Chelaship. For he speaks next of the practical element of Chelaship, namely, of purification. The man who has completely surrendered himself to a Master, being admitted to that Master’s Order, lives self-ruled, delighting in righteousness, and seeing danger in the least offense. He follows complete purity, in conduct and in livelihood, guarding well the door of the senses. He lays aside all weapons of offense and defense, and is filled with compassion and kindness toward everything that has life.
He submits himself to systematic discipline, under the guidance of his Master, as regards both his conduct and his meditation; the training, that is, of will and intelligence alike. The attainment of mastery over the senses is set forth in detail, a training in virtue of which each one of the senses ceases to be a means of alluring and ensnaring his mind, and becomes what it ought to be, a doorway of intelligence.
In going forth or in returning, the disciple keeps clearly before the eye of his mind, the immediate objective of each act, its spiritual significance, whether or not it is favourable to the high aim which is set before him, and the inner essence hidden within the outward appearance of the act. Thus, in looking forward, in looking about, in extending his arm or drawing it back, in eating or drinking, in standing or sitting, in sleeping or waking, he keeps himself fully aware of all that it really means. Thus is the disciple recollected and self-ruled. He seeks no more than food and raiment; having these, he is content. Whithersoever he goes, he takes these with him, as a winged bird, whithersoever it may fly, carries its wings.
“Putting away all the desires of worldliness, he dwells with heart and mind purified of lusts and longings. Putting away the corruption of the wish to injure, he dwells with heart free from anger and malice. Putting away all slothfulness of heart and mind, he dwells illumined, recollected, self-mastered. Putting away confusion of mind and perturbation, he dwells serene, free from all vexation of spirit. Putting away perplexity and doubt, he dwells in certainty of intelligence.”
In each point, therefore, there are the ideals, not of the conventional adherent of religion, the conventionally religious man, though it would be well if every adherent of religion fully followed them out; these are the working ideals, the items of discipline, of the disciple, of the Chela.
The Buddha then goes on with keenly practical eloquence to say that the disciple who thus establishes himself through wise discipline is as one who, having been plunged in debt, works his way up to solvency and a competence; as one who, having been beset by sickness and disease, completely regains his health and strength; as one who, having been a slave, subjected to the will of another, attains the happiness of freedom; as one who, after long wandering in the desert, comes safely to his home,—so the disciple, established in discipline, is full of serenity and joy.
The Buddha then describes the attainment, by this well-trained disciple, of the successive stages of Dhyana, of illumination and power, which are the successive degrees of Chelaship.
It is significant that, for these stages of discipleship, the Buddha uses illustrative symbols, with which we are all familiar in another context, though they are there rarely interpreted in terms of discipleship. In the first stage, the disciple is “washed and made clean.” In the second stage, there is within him “a well of water, springing up to everlasting life.” In the third stage his heart and soul have the serene beauty of “the lilies of the field.” In the fourth stage, he is “clothed in white raiment”, for he is worthy.
Then is expounded the more concrete side of discipleship. The disciple “applies his heart and mind to the formation, within this body, of another body, having form, of the substance of mind, possessed of all the organs of perception and of action.” He draws it forth, in the words of Katha Upanishad, which the Buddha quotes, as the reed is drawn forth from its sheath; or as the serpent, sloughing off his old skin, comes forth renewed; as a sword is drawn from its scabbard.
Thus renewed and reborn, the disciple enters the path of Iddhi: “being one, he becomes many; he becomes visible or invisible, he passes through a mountain as though passing through the air; he walks on water, as on solid ground; he travels through the sky like a bird on the wing; he reaches up to the realm of Brahma; with heart serene, purified, illumined, he hears with heavenly ear, surpassing the hearing of mortals, sounds both human and celestial, far or near; with heart serene, purified, illumined, he discerns the hearts of other men, beholding their thoughts as one beholds his face in a mirror; with heart serene, purified, illumined, he attains to knowledge of his former births, and understands clearly the rebirths of others; his vision is as lucent as that of one who, standing beside a limpid mountain pool, discerns the shells and pebbles on the bottom, the fish passing through the water.”
It should hardly be necessary to insist that the whole substance of this, the most characteristic and oftenest repeated discourse of the Buddha, embodied in every one of these Suttas, is concerned, not with conventional and formal religion, nor with canons of general morality, but with something far more definite and concrete, namely, with discipleship, with Chelaship, with the spiritual pathway to the attainment of the Adept, the Master.
We return now to Sonadanda, the Brahman, to whom, in answer to his question concerning the true character of wisdom and righteousness, this eloquent teaching is addressed. How did this appeal, embodying the ancient Wisdom of the Upanishads, affect the worthy Sonadanda?
The answer is of immense historical significance, in that it symbolizes the result of the Buddha’s effort to reform, purify and spiritualize the whole body of the Brahmans; it is an answer at once tragic and full of the keenest irony, revealing the seeming success and, at the same time, the practical failure of the Buddha’s magnificent appeal, and the underlying cause of that failure. Sonadanda expressed himself as delighted, won over, fully persuaded; in the words of the sacramental formula, he went for refuge to the Buddha, the law of righteousness, the Order; he claimed the Buddha as his spiritual guide, from that day forth to his life’s end. And, in token of his conversion, he invited the Buddha and his disciples to visit him and partake of his hospitality. It is in the speech of Sonadanda accompanying this invitation and banquet, that the full irony of the story comes out. Taking a low seat beside the Buddha, Sonadanda said:
“If, Gotama, after I have entered the company, I should rise from my seat and bow down before the noble Gotama, the company would think ill of me. Now, when the company finds fault with a man, his reputation is clouded; when his reputation is clouded, his income falls off. Therefore, if I stretch forth my joined palms in salutation, let the noble Gotama accept this as though I had risen from my seat. So, also, if when I am in my chariot, I were to leave the chariot, to salute the worthy Gotama, those who were present would think ill of me. Therefore, if, when I am in my chariot, I lower my goad in salutation, let the noble Gotama accept this as though I had dismounted. For, if men thought ill of me, my reputation would be clouded; if my reputation were clouded, my income would fall off. . . .”