Eternalism in the Brahmajala Sutta

The Brahmajala Sutta is the first sutta collected in the Digha Nikaya, thought by many to be among the oldest collections of the Pali Canon. T.W. Rhys Davids, the founder of the Pali Text Society (PTS) and the editor of the PTS Pali text and English translation of the Digha Nikaya [1] says of this sutta in his introduction to the PTS English translation[2], “The Suttanta sets out in sixty-two divisions[3] various speculations or theories in which the theorizers, going out always from various forms of the ancient view of a ‘soul’ – a sort of subtle manikin inside the body but separate from it, and continuing, after it leaves the body, as a separate entity – attempt to reconstruct the past, or to arrange the future. All such speculation is condemned. And necessarily so, since the Buddhist philosophy is put together without this ancient idea of ‘soul.’” In this note the writer will especially examine the apparent attitude of Gotama to the concept of the soul (atta) and attempt to describe in detail the section of the Brahmajala Sutta on the subject of Eternalism, the idea that the soul and the world are eternal.

The action which the sutta relates takes place on the road between Rajagaha[4] [5] and Nalanda, in what is now the State of Bihar in Northern India. Rajagaha lay within the flood plain south of the Ganges River. Rajagaha was at the time the capital city of the ancient kingdom of Magadha. It was to Rajagaha that Gotama first went after leaving his home in Kapilavastu in Sakya. When Gotama first arrived there, the king of Magadha was Bimbisara, who reigned for 52 years before his death at the hands of his own son, Ajatasattu. Bimbisara made a gift of a substantial property to Gotama in Rajagaha for his followers; the Bamboo Grove, or Venuvan Park. This grove and the ancient tank that provided it with water can be seen today in what is now the small Indian town of Rajgir (Raj Griha – king’s palace). Also located in Rajgir is the gathering place of Vulture Peak, the site of many of the teachings related in the well-known sutras in the Chinese Mahayana tradition, including the Diamond and Heart Sutras.

The Brahmajala Sutta relates that as the Blessed One (Bhagava) was traveling, at the same time, the mendicant, Suppiya, was also traveling along the same road with his disciple Brahmadatta and speaking in dispraise of the Buddha. Rhys Davids relates in a note that “Suppiya was a follower of the celebrated teacher Sangaya, whose views are set out and controverted in the next Sutta (The Samanna-phala Sutta).” Sangaya was a famous sceptic, or “Eel-wriggler.” The text describing the views of the fourth kind of Eel-wriggler in the Brahmajala Suttas is identical to the quotation attributed to Sangaya in the Sammana-phala Sutta. In the Brahmajala Sutta he is described as having no opinion on any topic, including both those topics upon which Gotama expresses no opinion, like whether a Tathagata continues to exist after death, or upon those which Gotama definitely does express an opinion, like whether there is a fruit of good or bad action. The student, Brahmadatta, in contradiction to his teacher, is said to have praised the Buddha, Dhamma, and Sangha. It follows that Gotama, his followers, Suppiya, and Brahmadatta all put up for the night at the same royal residence (rajagarake) in a park with a mango sapling (Ambalatthika). While there Gotama chances to hear his followers talking about the arguments between Suppiya and Brahmadatta. He sits down and tells them what they should do when outsiders should speak against Buddha, Dhamma, or Sangha. They should not bear malice, suffer heart-burning, or feel ill will. They should unravel what is said and point it out as wrong. Likewise, if outsiders speak in praise, they should not be filled with pleasure or gladness. They should only acknowledge what is right. No praise, no blame.

The sutta then goes on to include long sections on the Silas, or moralities. The short paragraphs on conduct (Cula-silam) are followed by the middle paragraphs on conduct (Majjhima-silam) and finally the long paragraphs on conduct (Maha-silam.) Only after these preliminaries, is the way prepared for a discussion of the sixty two ways in which recluses and Brahmins “reconstruct the past, and arrange the future.” Gotama presents a discussion of the views of:

1) Four kinds of Eternalists
2) Four kinds of Semi-eternalists
3) Four kinds of Extensionalists
4) Four kinds of Eel-wrigglers
5) Two kinds of Fortuitous-originists
6) Those who in sixteen ways hold the doctrine of a conscious existence after death
7) Those who in eight ways hold the doctrine of an unconscious existence after death
8) Those who in eight ways hold the doctrine that the soul after death is neither conscious nor unconscious
9) Those who in seven ways are Annihilationist
10) Those who hold the doctrine of happiness in this life, in 5 ways

The sum of these is 18 views about the past and 44 views about the future, or 62 in total. In this note the writer wants to start with the views of the first group, the Eternalists, for it is in Gotama’s attitude to this group that he most starkly contrasts with views commonly held in his world and today associated with the Brahmanical schools. The entire PTS translation, including Rhys Davids’ notes, is available on the internet at

The Eternalism passage in the Brahamajala Sutta begins by saying that there are some recluses and Brahmins (samana-brahmana) who proclaim that the soul and the world are eternal (sassatum attanam ca lokan). How does such a one do it? He first does so by recalling the details of his past lives. And based on this he concludes that the world and his soul are eternal and that there is nothing new and that even though creatures transmigrate, they are yet for ever and ever the same. The second and third cases vary only in the length of time over which they remember their past lives. The fourth case is where an Eternalist is “addicted to logic and reasoning” and proclaims the eternity of the soul and the world in the same way. Following this, Gotama replies with his own view of this matter, and this response is the same for the rest of the cases discussed in the sutta. He says that while he (he calls himself the Tathagata here) knows that these speculations will “have such and such a result, such and such an effect on the future condition of those who trust in them,” he knows “other things far beyond.” Rhys Davids notes that Buddhaghosa says that what Gotama knows is the Sila and Samadhi. Gotama goes on to say that knowing these things he has “realized the way of escape from them, has understood, as they really are, the rising up and passing away of sensations, their sweet taste, their danger, how they cannot be relied upon; and not grasping after any, he, the Tathagata, is quite set free.” He concludes “These, brethren (bhikkhave), are those things, profound, difficult to realize, hard to understand, tranquilising, sweet, not to be grasped by mere logic, subtle, comprehensible only by the wise, which the Tathagata, having himself realized and seen face to face, hath set forth; and it is concerning these that they who would rightly praise the Tathagata in accordance with the truth, should speak.”

And in the same way Gotama goes on in the sutta to discuss the rest of the 62 views. So is this difficult to understand? The views of the Eternalist are recognizable as key views of the Upanishad doctrine and Vedanta, specifically the sub-school of Vedanta known as Advaita (“not two”), a monist system of thought which refers to the identity and ultimate eternity of the self (Atman) and the world (Brahman). Here Gotama says that he “goes beyond” the view that the world and the soul are eternal. These views are seen as an obstacle on the way to realization of the ultimate end of the Arahant, the ultimate freedom of nibbana.

Let’s look at the 62 views in detail:

1-4: The Eternalists who on four grounds proclaim that both the soul and the world are eternal
5-8: The Semi-Eternalists who are in four ways Eternalists with regard to some things and Non-Eternalists in regard to others
9-12: The Extentionalists who in four ways set forth the infinity or finiteness of the world
13-16: The Eel-wrigglers who in four ways when a question is put to them resort to equivocation
17-18: The Fortuitous-originationists who maintain in two ways that the soul and the world arise without a cause
19-34: Those who maintain in sixteen ways the doctrine that the soul after death is conscious
35-42: Those who maintain in eight ways the doctrine that the soul after death is unconscious after death
43-50: Those who maintain in eight ways the doctrine that the soul after death is neither conscious nor unconscious
51-57: The annihilationists who maintain in seven ways the annihilation of a living being
58-62: Those who maintain in five ways that the soul attains Nirvana in the visible world

Of these 62 views, all but 8 of them (cases 9-16) are about the self or soul. It is useful to note that the Pali word used in all of these 54 cases is attan, not jivo. I think the point of listing all of these various views about attan was to cover the waterfront, to leave no view untouched. Many of these specifically mention the assumption of an eternal soul, as we shall see.

Let’s start with the Eternalists’ views. In our discussion we have already established that the Eternalists’ four views according to which the world and the soul (attā in the nominative singular) are eternal leaves the possibility that Gotama thought that the self/soul was eternal. Please indulge me to present this in a truth table. In the table let “a” stand for the view “the self/soul is eternal” and let “b” stand for the view that “the world is eternal.” The conjunction of these views is a&b, where “&” stands for conjunction (and). Gotama denies the conjunction. Let’s represent this by –(a&b) where “-“ stands for negation. The truth table looks like this:


In the truth table, “T” stands for true, and “F” stands for false. As we have already discussed, the Eternalists’ view (the four views may be considered as one) is represented by the column a&b in the table and the denial of this view under –(a&b). We see that the Eternalists view is only true if both the soul and the world are eternal. By the argument in the Anatta Lakkana Sutta, it can be concluded that Gotama thought that the world was impermanent, therefore he thought that b was false. In both of the two cases where b is false in the truth table, Gotama’s denial of the Eternalists’ view is upheld (true). The self/soul could be either eternal or not. Let’s go on to the other views.

The fourth type of Semi-Eternalist, for example, case 8 of the 62, maintains the rejected view that “this which is permanent, stedfast, or consciousness is a self which is permanent, stedfast, eternal, and knows no change, and it will remain for ever and ever.” The Pali here is “yañ ca kho idm vuccati cittan ti vā mano ti vā viññānan ti vā ayam attā nicco dhuvo sassato aviparināma-dhammo sasati-samam tat’ eva thassatī ti. (D.i.2.13 – DN I, 21)” I have used the Rhys-Davids (Gogerly) translation above. The Walshe translation is “But what is called thought, or mind or consciousness, that is a self that is permanent, stable, eternal, not subject to change, the same for ever and ever.” The view that is being denied here is the view that consciousness is an eternal attā. Since viññāna is the fifth of the five khandhas, the proclamation here that it is not eternal is just a restatement of what is stated in the Anatta Lakkhana Sutta, that the five khandhas are anattā (not attā). I note in the PTS Dictionary of 1925 that it is said of viññāna that it is also used as “the apperceptional or energizing principle, so to speak the soul or life (substratum, animator, life potency) of the sensory side of individuality.” But let’s pass this by. There is no mind/body problem in Buddhist philosophy, because consciousness is viewed as embodied. The question that still puzzles, of course, is that if the five khandhas are anattā, what IS attā?

The 32 cases of belief about the self/soul (attā) after death (cases 19 – 50) are pertinent. The PTS Dictionary references these cases when it says “Buddhism repudiated all such theories (of an eternal soul), thus differing from other religions. Sixteen such theories about the soul D I.31.” In the first group are the 16 varieties of the views that the attā (Gogerly’s translation has “soul” for what the PTS text here reads “attānam” in the accusative case) after death is not subject to decay and conscious and:

1) Has form
2) Is formless
3) Has and has not form
4) Neither has nor has not form
5) Is finite
6) Is infinite
7) Is both
8) Is neither
9) Has one mode of consciousness
10) Has various modes of consciousness
11) Has limited consciousness
12) Has infinite consciousness
13) Is altogether happy
14) Is altogether unhappy
15) Is both
16) Is neither

All sixteen views are rejected. This is similar to the rejections in the Vacchagota and Potthapada Suttas; but here the word used for self/ soul is attan, rather than jivo. I will henceforward use “soul” for attan, since this is the word used in the Rhys Davids (Gogerly) translation that I prefer. The eight forms of the doctrine that the soul (not subject to decay) is unconscious after death (cases 35-42 above) are similarly disposed of. Likewise the eight forms of the doctrine that the soul is neither conscious nor unconscious (case 43-50). Note that the 32 versions of these views all apply to “the soul not subject to decay”. I take this as equivalent to the view that the soul is eternal. Let’s apply the same logical analysis to this that we discussed for the denials of the Eternalists’ view that the world and the soul are eternal. Let a stand for the statement “the soul is eternal (not subject to decay)” and b stand for “the soul is conscious”. Let’s put this into a truth table:

Eternal and Conscious

What this shows is that denial of the first group of 16 views that the soul is both eternal and conscious is possible (T) in any of three ways. The only way that it is not possible (true) to deny the view is if the soul is both conscious and eternal. But by the anattā doctrine, we know that Gotama thought that b was false. So this leaves us with the conclusion that a could be either true or false and –(a&b) could still come out true. This is the same result as for the Eternalists.

So much for the first 16 views; how about the next 8 views that the soul is eternal and not conscious? This is a&-b in our symbology and its denial is -(a&-b). The truth table for this follows:

Eternal and Not ConsciousUnder what conditions does the denial of the proposition that the soul is eternal and not conscious come out true? We see from the truth table that denial of the notion that the soul is eternal (a) but not conscious (-b) could be true if soul is not eternal (a is false) but would be false under the assumption that the soul was eternal. So here we have a case where Gotama is denying that the soul is eternal. If he believes that his denial of a&-b is true and that b is false, then this denial only comes out true under the assumption that a is false. So it turns out that it is not the first 16 of the views in question which clinches the case that Gotama rejected an eternal soul, as indicated in the PTS Dictionary, but the second group of 8 cases.

The last 8 cases look like this:

Eternal and NeitherHere we see that Gotama’s denial of the view that the soul was eternal and neither conscious nor unconscious can only come out true if a is false and b is true or if a is false and b is false. We know from the Anatta Lakkhana that Gotama thought that b was false, so the last case is the one that we can assume that Gotama accepted. This can only be the case if a is false, if the soul is not eternal.

So what does this show? The concept of a truth table was not around in Gotama’s day. We assume that the state of Indian logic at the time permitted the tetralemma: true, false, both true and false (denial of Aristotle’s Law of (NonContradiction – LNC) or neither true nor false (denial of Aristotle’s Law of the Excluded Middle – LEM). Why should we assume that the truth table analysis should hold when we know that Gotama didn’t follow Aristotle’s logic? But our analysis here just used the logical concepts of conjunction and negation, which I assume Gotama was very capable of using correctly (as we understand them). So even though the idea of using a truth table to explicate Gotama’s reasoning may be novel, I think it is fruitful. And what I think it shows is that Gotama did not believe in an eternal soul. We could, of course, have come round to this conclusion at the start by assuming that when Gotama said that he was going beyond the Eternalists’ view that the soul and the world was eternal, he believed that both that the soul was not eternal and that the world was not eternal. But the truth table analysis shows that another possibility is that he though the soul was eternal and the world not. In our truth table analysis this also comes out true for the denial of the Eternalists’ view. I think what is shown by applying the truth table analysis to the other views, however, is that Gotama believed that attan was not eternal.

The views of the annihilationists and the five types of doctrines that say that the soul attains to Nirvana in this life are also rejected in the remaining of the 62 rejected views in the Brahmajala. These include achievement of Nirvana through the pleasures of sense and through the four Jhanas. Do we need to go into these? I think not, since the forgoing seems to have provided us with the evidence that we were looking for.

All of these views, 54 about attan, are rejected. Why? At the end of the Brahmajala Gotama sums up. These views are subject to dependent origination, and hence tied to the contingent stream of life. And what does Gotama teach? Let go of these views that trap you in the net of speculation about the past and the future. There is a touching passage
at the end of the Brahmajala. Gotama, anticipating his final words in the Paranibbana Sutta, says “The outward form, bhikkhave, of the Tathagata stands before you, but that which binds it to rebirth is cut in twain. So long as his body shall last, so long do the gods and men behold him. On the dissolution of the body, beyond the end of his life, neither gods nor men shall see him.” So who or what is the “him” of whom Gotama speaks and which gods and men will no longer see? Is this an eternal soul? I think this analysis shows that this is not what Gotama thought. The self of whom he spoke is a self which exists
at the limit of contingency, an embodied self that is likewise an integrating subject experiencing the five khandhas. Not the stream, but neither an eternal entity beyond the limit of the stream. We have trouble expressing this precisely because it is beyond the stream; we cannot express it within the stream.

Graham Priest, a contemporary logician, calls this an inclosure schema. An inclosure schema is characterized by three elements: 1) existence, 2) transcendence, and 3) closure. In his book, Beyond the Limits of Thought, he shows how these inclosure schemae arise as
paradoxes at the limits of expression, cognition, iteration. These arise as contradictions, a&-a, at the limit. He thinks these contradictions are real. These are paradoxes because they seem to deny Aristotle’s LNC, but that was not an issue for Gotama, because his
tetralemma view of logic didn’t require the LNC. I see Gotama’s attā as such a limit contradiction: attā is dependent, but not; overseeing the stream, but not of the stream. I think this is the middle way of which Gotama spoke. And I find it a profound discovery, more profound (and perhaps harder to understand) than the Upanishadic view of
eternal attā and loko to which he was counter-posing his views.

Richard Gombrich, in his book, How Buddhism Began [6], puts forward what he considers to be the central teachings of the old Upanishads, to which he feels the teachings of the Buddha came as a response:

1) Man is reborn according to the quality of his works
2) The only escape from rebirth is by gnosis of a hidden truth, Brahman
3) The microcosm (self or atman) mirrors the macrocosm (the universe)
4) Atman is unchanging
5) Ontology is merged with epistemology

Gombrich says “The Buddha thus accepted the Upanishad dichotomy between the changing, unsatisfactory world of phenomena and it’s logically deduced opposite. However after accepting the dichotomy, he denied that the latter half of it existed – as a thing. . . . The Upanishads reduced both to a single essence in either sphere, drew a parallel equation 1 = 1. The Buddha, denying an essence in either sphere, drew a parallel equation 0=0.”

In the Brahmajala Sutta, Gotama refuses to accept (goes beyond) the doctrine that the atman and the world are unchanging, and therefore eternal. He does this, not because he proposed some other ontology, but because he saw this exercise in ontology to be of no practical use in the goal of attaining Arahantship. Rhys Davids, in his introduction to the PTS English translation to the Brahmajala Sutta [7] explains his view as to why the doctrine of the soul is ignored. In closing I quote his words at length, because I could not do better: “The Buddhist scheme endeavours, in other words, to include all the truth which previous thinkers had grafted on to the old savage theories of a semi-eternal, subtle, permanent entity inside the body, while rejecting those theories themselves; it endeavours to retain all the philosophic truth with previous thinkers had grafted on to the theosophies – the corollaries of the soul theories – while rejecting those theosophies themselves. The reasons given for this position are threefold: firstly, that such speculators about ultimate things, either in the past or the future, have insufficient evidence, are only one side of the shield [8]; secondly, that such speculations do not lead to emancipation, to Arahatship; and thirdly, that such theories are really derived from evanescent phenomena – they belong, in other words, to the realm of the hastily formed, empirical opinion (dittthi), not to that of the higher wisdom (panna).”

It would seem that any view that Gotama recommends a monist vision of atta which is eternal in the manner of Plotinus or Advaita, for example, would need to explain why in this sutta he leaves this view explicitly behind, along with the rest of the speculative views for which there is no question about his lack of interest.


[1] Dialogues of the Buddha (2002, first published 1899) Pali Text Society, Oxford, in three volumes. The title page of Part I of the PTS edition of Dialogues of the Buddha says “Translated from the Pali by T.W. Rhys Davids” but the first note to the Brahmajala Sutta indicates that this sutta was translated by Rev. Daniel Gogerly, Wesleyan missionary in Ceylon

[2] Loc. Cit., Part 1, p. xxv.

[3] Rhys Davids adds the note: “Summed up below, pp 52, 53; and set out more fully in the list in the ‘American Lectures,’ pp 31-33.

[4] The PTS spells this ‘Ragagaha’ in its English translation, although the Pali text in the PTS version reads ‘Rajagaham.’

[5] Pali Text Society (2007) The Digha-Nikaya, Vol. I, edited by T.W.Rhys Davids, first published 1890.

[6] Richard F. Gombrich (1996) How Buddhism Began, The Conditioned Genesis of the Early Teachings, School of Oriental and African Studies, published in India by Munishiram Manoharlal, second edition, 2002.

[7] Loc. Cit., Part 1, p. xxv.

[8] Rhys Davids here inserts a note describing a story included in the Udana of the king who had all the blind men in the city brought together and who each felt a different part of an elephant with wildly different reports about what the object in which they were in contact actually was. The moral of the story is issued as follows: “In such points Brahmans and recluses stick wrangling on them, they violently discuss – Poor folk! They see but one side of the shield.”

About Randal Samstag

Randal has an undergraduate degree in political philosophy, but has a graduate degree in engineering and has earned his bread for 30 years working on municipal and community water supply and wastewater collection and treatment systems in the US, Caribbean, Latin America, and Asia.
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