Creation Stories: The Cosmogony Account from the Abhidharmakośa

By David Reigle on November 17, 2013 at 11:49 pm

The Abhidharma-kośa has long been the standard sourcebook on early Buddhism in use among Mahāyāna Buddhists, and is studied by them up to the present. It presents the entire Buddhist worldview, skillfully condensed by Vasubandhu into 600 terse verses, which are explained by him in his own detailed commentary (bhāṣya) on them. It is an encyclopedic work, reflecting the wide knowledge of educated Buddhists in the fourth to fifth centuries C.E. prevalent in Kashmir, the famous center where these Buddhist teachings were preserved and cultivated and taught. For this reason, it proved to be exceptionally challenging to translate into a Western language. Although this text was known to Western scholars since the mid-1800s, its translation was not attempted until the second and third decades of the 1900s. The fact that the Sanskrit original of the Abhidharmakośa and its own commentary (bhāṣya) by Vasubandhu was then lost made this task doubly difficult. These texts could at that time be studied only in their Chinese and Tibetan translations, with the help of a Sanskrit sub-commentary by Yaśomitra that had been found in Nepal. Not until later was the Sanskrit original discovered in Tibet by Rahula Sankrityayana.

The difficult task of translating the Abhidharmakośa and the bhāṣya thereon was accomplished by Louis de la Vallée Poussin, whose annotated French translation was published in six volumes, 1923-1931. He devoted the latter half of his life to it, after in the first half of his life mastering all four Buddhist canonical languages: Sanskrit, Pali, Chinese, and Tibetan. His translation, then necessarily made from the Chinese and Tibetan translations, has not so far been superseded. This is because of his detailed annotations, drawing on a wide range of Buddhist texts in all four canonical languages. His French translation was translated into English in four volumes by Leo M. Pruden, 1988-1990, and translated again into English in four volumes by Lodrö Sangpo, 2012, with many additional annotations. Yet, since the discovery of the Sanskrit original in the mid-1930s, everyone knew that a new translation made directly from it will be required. The Sanskrit Abhidharmakośa was published in 1946, edited by V. V. Gokhale, while the Sanskrit bhāṣya thereon was published in 1967, edited by P. Pradhan (both posted here in the Sanskrit texts section). We do not yet have a translation of the Sanskrit original. We have instead two English translations of a French translation of Chinese and Tibetan translations of the Sanskrit original. Errors in these are inevitable, as will be seen in the passages given below, which I translate from the Sanskrit original.

Chapter 3 of the Abhidharmakośa is titled loka-nirdeśa, “exposition of the world.” This chapter includes a description of the sattva-loka, the “world of living beings,” followed by a description of the bhājana-loka, the “receptacle world.” The receptacle world is the vessel or container or receptacle for the living beings, the house as distinguished from its occupants. So after the kinds of living beings are described, the world in which they live is described. This is the receptacle world. What this chapter describes, however, is not limited to our visible world. It is an entire world-system, a loka-dhātu, more fully a “triple-thousand-great-thousand” (tri-sāhasra-mahā-sāhasra) world-system (loka-dhātu). Below the human realm are eight hell realms, and above the human realm are twenty-seven heaven realms, where dwell twenty-seven classes of gods (deva). That these beings are invisible to us is taken for granted; it is not stated. Likewise, besides our continent, Jambū-dvīpa, there are three other continents in the cardinal directions, a central mountain named Meru or Sumeru, seven surrounding rings of mountains, seven intervening oceans, etc. From the fact that most of the inhabitants of our world-system are invisible to us, it would logically follow that most of the receptacle world would also be invisible to us. But this, too, is not stated; and the continents and mountains and oceans have usually been understood as features of our visible world. The discrepancies between what is described and what physically exists have caused many modern Buddhists to reject the Abhidharma teachings on cosmology.

The description of the receptacle world, the bhājana-loka, starts with verse 45 of chapter 3. It is here that we find what little cosmogony is given. Vasubandhu’s description given in his commentary begins at the bottom (adhas) of the receptacle world with the vāyu-maṇḍala, the “circle of wind,” saying that this is situated in or supported on space (ākāśa-pratiṣṭha), and came into manifestation (abhinirvṛtta) as a result of the karma or actions of living beings (sattva).

ākāśa-pratiṣṭham adhastād vāyu-maṇḍalam abhinirvṛttaṃ sarva-sattvānāṃ karmādhipatyena | (Skt., p. 158, lines 1-2; Tib., vol. 79, p. 355, lines 6-7)1

“Below, supported in or on space, the circle of wind came into manifestation through the power of the actions (karma) of all living beings.”

The karma that had been latent during the period of twenty intermediate eons (antara-kalpa), when the cosmos was out of manifestation, now brings about the manifestation of the circle of wind. Despite the name “wind” (vāyu), this circle or disk (maṇḍala) is described as being “solid” (dṛḍha). We are given no details as to how the circle of wind or vāyu-maṇḍala arises, which forms the base and basis of the receptacle world. The first half of the next verse, 46ab, brings in the circle of water. Vasubandhu in his commentary explains what happens.

tasmin vāyu-maṇḍale sattvānāṃ karmabhir meghāḥ saṃbhūyākṣa-mātrābhir dhārābhir abhivarṣanti | tat bhavaty apāṃ maṇḍalam | . . . tāś ca punar āpaḥ sattvānāṃ karma-prabhāva-saṃbhūtair vāyubhir āvarttyamānā upariṣṭāt kāñcanī-bhavanti pakva-kṣīra-śarī-bhāva-yogena | (Skt., p. 158, lines 6-11 or 6-12; Tib., vol. 79, p. 355, lines 11-19)2

“Clouds, having arisen through the actions (karma) of living beings, rain on this circle of wind in streams the size of a pole. This becomes the circle of water. . . . Then these waters, being set into circular motion by the winds arisen through the power of the actions (karma) of living beings, become gold on top, like the forming of a skin on cooked milk.”

Two things here require comment. First, what is the strange-sounding rain in streams the size of a pole? We don’t know for sure, and possibly neither did the commentators. This is perhaps rain so heavy that it comes down in continuous streams rather than in drops. Earlier in this chapter, commenting on verse 3, Vasubandhu quotes a sūtra that says: īṣādhāre deve varṣati nāsti vīcir vā antarikā vā antarikṣād vāri-dhārāṇāṃ prapatantīnām,3 “When the god Īṣādhāra rains there is no break or gap in the streams of water falling from the sky.” Now in English we say, “it is raining,” without ever specifying what “it” is that is raining. In Sanskrit they often say, “the gods rain,” or a particular god rains, as we have here. The sub-commentator Yaśomitra explains that Īṣādhāra means: īṣā-pramāṇa-varṣā-dhāraḥ,4 whose “streams of rain are the measure of a pole.” Elsewhere another relevant sūtra is quoted, as noted by Poussin, this one in the Śikṣā-samuccaya by Śāntideva. I give the Sanskrit, from chapter 14, followed by my translation:

vivartamāne khalu punar loke samantād dvātriṃśat-paṭalā abhra-ghanāḥ saṃtiṣṭhante | saṃsthāya sarvāvantaḥ tri-sāhasra-mahā-sāhasraṃ loka-dhātuṃ chādayanti | yataḥ pañcāntara-kalpān īṣādhāro devo varṣati | (Skt., Bendall ed., p. 247, lines 5-7, Vaidya ed., p. 132, lines 16-18; Tib., collated Tengyur, vol. 64, p. 1335, line 19, to p. 1336, line 3)5

“Then, when the world is coming into manifestation, thirty-two masses of thick clouds gather from all sides. Having gathered, they cover the entire triple-thousand-great-thousand world-system. From them, the god Īṣādhāra rains for five intermediate eons.”

After that three other gods also rain for five intermediate eons each. Altogether the rains occur for twenty intermediate eons, constituting the larger eon of formation.

The other thing here requiring comment is the last phrase, where these waters become gold on top, “like the forming of a skin on cooked milk.”6 There is a small error in the French translation here, that only got worse in the two English translations. Poussin has, “comme le lait cuit devient de al crème,” literally, “like cooked milk becomes cream.” The small error is the word “crème,” meaning “cream.” While the Sanskrit word śara can mean “cream,” this is not the meaning intended here. Cooked milk does not become cream, but a skin or film or scum does form on it. Pruden, perhaps seeing this problem and trying to address it, introduced a second error in his 1988 English translation: “as churned milk becomes cream.” However, the French word “cuit” means “cooked,” not “churned.” Then, Sangpo in his 2012 English translation apparently followed Pruden in this, giving: “in the way that churned milk becomes cream.” The original Sanskrit word pakva means “cooked,” as does the Tibetan translation bskol ba. The analogy given here is not to cream, which rises to the top without the milk being cooked (or churned, which produces butter, not cream). The analogy is to the forming of a crust on the surface of the water like the forming of a skin or film or scum on milk that is cooked. The parallel text in the Saṅghabhedavastu makes this even clearer, by adding that the cooked milk “has become cool” (śītī-bhūta) when this occurs.

tena khalu samayeneyaṃ mahāpṛthivī ekodakā bhavaty ekārṇavā | yaḥ khalu [ekodakāyā] mahāpṛthivyā ekārṇavāyā upari vāyunā saraḥ saṅgacchati saṃmūrchati santanoti tadyathā payasaḥ pakvasya śītībhūtasya upari vāyunā saraḥ saṅgacchati saṃmūrchati santanoti | evam ekodakāyā mahāpṛthivyā ekārṇavāyā upari vāyunā saraḥ saṅgacchati saṃmūrchati santanoti | (Skt., Gnoli ed., p. 7, lines 18-23; Tib., collated Kangyur, vol. 3, p. 620, lines 9-15)7

“At that time this great earth was only water, a single ocean. On top of the great earth that was only water, a single ocean, by means of wind (or air) a skin forms, congeals, and spreads across, just like, on top of cooked milk that has become cool, by means of wind (or air) a skin forms, congeals, and spreads across. In this way, on top of the great earth that was only water, a single ocean, by means of wind (or air) a skin forms, congeals, and spreads across.”

After several verses giving descriptions of the mountains and continents and seas and hells and their measures, we come to the next snippet that is apparently on cosmogony (bhāṣya on verse 59cd). For we read in both English translations of “the winds which create (nirmā) the moon, the sun and the stars” (matching the French, “des vents qui créent (nirmā) . . . la lune, le soleil et les étoiles”). When we read the Sanskrit, however, this is not what we find. Poussin notes here that the two Chinese translations, by Paramārtha and by Hiuan-tsang (Hsüan-tsang, Xuanzang), differ; perhaps meaning that he here followed the Tibetan translation. Unfortunately, the Tibetan translation that he used, the Peking edition or the Narthang edition, has a serious misprint here that misled him. The Peking and Narthang editions have ’phrul ba here, rather than the correct ’phul ba as in the Der-ge and Co-ne editions. With his wide linguistic knowledge acquired by comparing many Sanskrit texts with their Tibetan translations, acquired without the benefit of the Tibetan-Sanskrit dictionaries that we now have, he knew that the Tibetan ’phrul ba often translates the Sanskrit nirmā, meaning “create” (i.e., the prefix nir plus the root , making words such as nirmāṇa and nirmita). But, as he could not know, this is only a typographical error.

That the correct Tibetan word here is ’phul ba would now be a simple matter to verify by comparison with the original Sanskrit text that was discovered, except that the sole known manuscript has a corruption at this very place. The learned editor, P. Pradhan, corrects the unintelligible vocāraḥ of the manuscript to vordhvacāraḥ, which means, “or the going upward.” However, this does not match the normally literal Tibetan translation, ’phul bar byed pa (nor does it match the erroneous reading, ’phrul bar byed pa). So we do not know what the original Sanskrit term is. Nor is it found in the Sanskrit sub-commentary by Yaśomitra, or in the fragmentary Sanskrit Abhidharmadīpa, which is missing most of this chapter. It took the more clearly worded version in the Tibetan translation of the important but neglected commentary by Saṅghabhadra to verify this.8 In this version, ’phul ba is the main verb, rather than a verbal in a dependent clause like in Vasubandhu’s commentary; and in all four editions this text has ’phul (not ’phrul).9

The Tibetan-English Dictionary by Sarat Chandra Das gives as the second meaning for ’phul ba, “to press, to drive, to push.” But we must verify that this meaning is found in canonical Tibetan. The Tibetan-Sanskrit Dictionary by J. S. Negi (vol. 8, 2002, p. 3653) shows that ’phul ba translates the Sanskrit nutta in the famous Sanskrit lexicon, the Amarakośa. The word nutta, a past passive participle from the verb-root nud, is defined in Liṅgayasūrin’s commentary thereon as nudyate, preryate, i.e., “is pushed or driven, is impelled.” Thus, ’phul ba in this canonical text does mean “to drive,” and is the correct word here rather than ’phrul ba, “to create.” Thanks especially to the Tibetan translation of the commentary by Saṅghabhadra, we are now in a position to accurately translate this Sanskrit passage (3.59cd), despite the corrupt word(s) at the end of it.

athemau candrārkau kasmin pratiṣṭhitau | vāyau | vāyavo ’ntarīkṣe sarva-sattva-sādhāraṇa-karmādhipatya-nirvṛttā āvartavat sumeruṃ parivartante | candrārka-tārāṇāṃ vordhva-cāraḥ ? (ms. vocāraḥ) | (Skt., p. 165, lines 10-11 or 12-14; Tib., vol. 79, p. 365, lines 10-14)

“Now, on what are these two, the moon and the sun, supported? On the wind. The winds in space, originated through the power of the general karma of all living beings, revolve around Sumeru like a whirlpool, driving the moon, the sun, and the stars.”

So this passage does not say that the winds create the moon, the sun, and the stars, but rather that the winds drive them in their circular orbits. We may here recall Book of Dzyan, stanza 5, śloka 1: “The Primordial Seven, the first seven Breaths of the Dragon of Wisdom, produce in their turn from their holy circumgyrating Breaths the Fiery Whirlwind.” The verb used with winds is parivartante, which I have translated as “revolve around,” but it could just as well be translated as “circumgyrate.”

The sun and the moon, or at least their underlying crystal disks, are in fact said a few lines later to be created or brought into manifestation by the karma of living beings. We see again and again in these cosmogonic passages that karma is the creator of the cosmos, not God as in many other creation stories.10 In the Yogācārabhūmi (Skt., p. 43, lines 2-3) the sun disk is said to be made of fire-crystal, sūrya-maṇḍalaṃ tejaḥ-sphaṭika-mayam, and the moon disk is said to be made of water-crystal, candra-maṇḍalaṃ udaka-sphaṭika-mayam. Here in the Abhidharmakośabhāṣya (3.60b), a fiery (taijasam) crystal disk (sphaṭika-maṇḍalam) is said to be below the celestial palace (vimāna) of the sun, and a watery (āpyam) crystal disk is said to be below the celestial palace of the moon.

sūrya-vimānasyādhastāt bahiḥ sphaṭika-maṇḍalaṃ taijasam abhinirvṛttaṃ tāpanaṃ prakāśanaṃ ca | candra-vimānasyādhastād āpyaṃ śītalaṃ bhāsvaraṃ ca | prāṇināṃ karmabhir | (Skt., p. 165, lines 18-19 or 20-22; Tib., vol. 79, p. 365, line 20, to p. 366, line 2)

“Outside, below the celestial palace of the sun, through the actions (karma) of living beings a fiery crystal disk came into manifestation, heating and illumining. Below the celestial palace of the moon, a watery [crystal disk came into manifestation], cold and radiant.”

We notice in this passage an unusual and curious phrase that is also found in the Dzyan commentary and catechism, “cold and radiant” (śītalaṃ bhāsvaraṃ ca). It seems contradictory for something to be both cold and radiant at the same time, since radiance is normally associated with heat. The “Occult Catechism” uses this phrase in reference to the “Breath which is eternal,” as follows (The Secret Doctrine, vol. 1, p. 12): “It expands and contracts [exhalation and inhalation]. When it expands the mother diffuses and scatters; when it contracts, the mother draws back and ingathers. This produces the periods of Evolution and Dissolution, Manvantara and Pralaya. The Germ is invisible and fiery; the Root [the plane of the circle] is cool; but during Evolution and Manvantara her garment is cold and radiant.” Then, the “Commentary” on Book of Dzyan, stanza 6, śloka 4, says (S.D., vol. 1, p. 144): “The Breath of the Father-Mother issues cold and radiant and gets hot and corrupt, to cool once more, and be purified in the eternal bosom of inner Space.”

The most connected account of cosmogony found in the Abhidharmakośa-bhāṣya, although still very brief, occurs when the kinds of eons (kalpa) are described. The eon of the coming into manifestation (vivarta-kalpa) of the cosmos is described in verse 90cd and the commentary (bhāṣya) thereon. In the early Buddhist cosmogony accounts, which are well restated here, the genesis of the cosmos begins with the primordial wind.

3.90cd: vivarta-kalpaḥ prāg-vāyor yāvan naraka-saṃbhavaḥ ||

prathamād vāyoḥ prabhṛti yāvan narakeṣu sattva-sambhavaḥ eṣa kālo vivarta-kalpa ity ucyate | tathā saṃvṛtte hi loka ākāśa-mātrāvaśeṣaś ciraṃ kālaṃ tiṣṭhati yāvat punar api sattvānāṃ karmādhipatyena bhājanānāṃ pūrva-nimitta-bhūtā ākāśe manda-mandā vāyavaḥ syandante | tadā yad ayaṃ loko viṃśatim antara-kalpān saṃvṛtto ’sthāt tan niryātaṃ vaktavyam | yad viṃśatim antara-kalpān vivarttiṣyate tad upayātaṃ vaktavyam | tatas te vāyavo vardhamānā yathoktaṃ vāyu-maṇḍalaṃ jāyate | tataḥ śanair yathokta-krama-vidhānaṃ sarvaṃ jāyate ap-maṇḍalaṃ kāñcanamayī mahā-pṛthivī dvīpāḥ sumerv-ādayaś ca | prathamaṃ tu brāhma-vimānam utpadyate | tato yāvat yāmīyaṃ tato vāyu-maṇḍalādīni | iyatā’yaṃ loko vivṛtto bhavati yad uta bhājana-vivartanyā | (Skt., p. 179; Tib., vol. 79, p. 385, line 20, to p. 386, line 13)

“The eon of coming into manifestation extends from the primordial wind to birth in the hells.”

“This time beginning from the first wind up to the birth of living beings in the hells is called the eon of coming into manifestation. So, [as already described,] when the world has gone out of manifestation, what remains is only space (ākāśa). [This situation] lasts for a long time; until once again, through the power of the actions (karma) of living beings, very light winds that are the preceding heralds of the receptacle [worlds] arise in space. At that time, this world has remained out of manifestation for twenty intermediate eons, which [period] is to be described as finished. [It] will come into manifestation for twenty intermediate eons, which [period] is to be described as started. Then, those winds increasing, the circle of wind arises as stated. Then gradually, in the sequence and manner as stated, all arises, the circle of water, the great earth made of gold, the continents, and Sumeru, etc. But first the celestial palace of Brahmā is generated, then down to that of the Yāma [gods], then the circle of wind, etc. This world becomes manifested to this extent, namely, the manifestation of the receptacle [world].”

Such is the classical Buddhist cosmogony.



1. I quote from the Sanskrit edition by P. Pradhan, Abhidharmakośabhāṣyam of Vasubandhu, giving page and line numbers from the 1967 first edition (posted here under “Sanskrit Texts”) followed by line numbers from the 1975 second edition when different. It is also necessary to compare the Tibetan translation, which provides, in effect, a word by word gloss. For this I use the collated Tengyur (bstan ’gyur) published in China, which gives the text as found in the Der-ge edition and variant readings from the Peking, Narthang, and Co-ne editions. Our texts are found in vol. 79, 2001. Sometimes, like here, I have corrected the placement of the daṇḍa in the Sanskrit according to the Tibetan translation. My fairly literal translation of the Sanskrit, made in comparison with the Tibetan, then follows.

2. For the phrase, akṣa-mātrābhir dhārābhir abhivarṣanti, the Tibetan translation is, char gyi rgyun gnya’ shing tsam ’bab pa (Tib., vol. 79, p. 355, line 12; the Peking and Narthang editions have the insignificant variant reading bab for ’bab). The Tibetan term gnya’ shing tsam usually translates the Sanskrit name īṣādhāra.

3. For this sentence, īṣādhāre deve varṣati nāsti vīcir vā antarikā vā antarikṣād vāri-dhārāṇāṃ prapatantīnām, the Tibetan translation is, char gyi rgyun gnya’ shing tsam ’bab pa na bar snang las chu’i rgyun ’bab pa rnams kyi mtshams sam bar med (Skt., p. 113, lines 23-24 or 25-27; Tib., vol. 79, p. 274, lines 1-2; also repeated in Yogācārabhūmi, Skt., p. 44, lines 10-11).

Akira Hirakawa in his very valuable word-index to the Abhidharmakośabhāṣya (posted here in the “Sanskrit texts” section) in this case erroneously (or at least incompletely) gives char gyi rgyun for the cloud or god īṣādhāra. As the Tibetan translations of the passages quoted here show, this should be gnya’ shing tsam. However, with deva, the whole phrase is translated as char gyi rgyun gnya’ shing tsam. In this case, deva is not translated as lha, like it usually is in Tibetan. The whole phrase is somewhat paraphrased, making it hard to know exactly what translates what. But in Yaśomitra’s gloss (see note 4 below), īṣādhāra is clearly just gnya’ shing tsam.

4. For this definition, īṣādhāra iti īṣā-pramāṇa-varṣā-dhāraḥ, the Tibetan translation is, gnya’ shing tsam zhes bya ba ni char gyi rgyun gnya’ shing gi tshad tsam ni gnya’ shing tsam mo (Skt., Wogihara ed., vol. 1, p. 259, Dwarikadas ed., vol. 2, p. 388; Tib., collated Tengyur, vol. 80, p. 583, lines 2-3, variant reading in Peking and Narthang editions: gyis, in char gyi rgyun).

5. For the last sentence, yataḥ pañcāntara-kalpān īṣādhāro devo varṣati, the Tibetan translation is, de las bskal pa bar ma lnga’i bar du gshol mda’ tsam gyi char gyi rgyun ’bab po (Tib., collated Tengyur, vol. 64, p. 1336, lines 2-3, variant reading in the Peking and Narthang editions: tsam gyis char for tsam gyi char). Here we have gshol mda’ tsam rather than gnya’ shing tsam for īṣādhāra, although the meaning is the same. Note that there is also a mountain named īṣādhāra, which is translated into Tibetan as gshol mda’ ’dzin, “bearing a pole” (such as the pole of a plough). The spellings of the Sanskrit name īṣādhāra, whether of the god as a raincloud or of the mountain, vary. The first part may be found as either īṣā or īśā, although this probably is due primarily to the meaningless interchanging of the sibilants that is common in Sanskrit Buddhist texts. The standard spelling of this word is īṣā. It means a “pole” or “shaft,” as in the pole of a carriage or a plough. In the Loka-prajñapti we find this as shing rta’i srog shing, the axle of a carriage (collated Tengyur, vol. 78, p. 769, lines 15-16). The second part may be found as either dhāra or dhara. Here the meaning differs. While dhāra can mean the same as dhara, namely, “holding, bearing,” it also means “streaming, flowing,” and as a noun can refer to a downpour of rain. Its feminine form dhārā means a “stream” of something such as water. By contrast, dhara keeps more to its basic meaning, “holding, bearing,” and as a noun can mean a “mountain.” Its feminine form dharā means the “earth.” So according to the meaning, the god as a raincloud should be spelled īṣādhāra, while the mountain should be spelled īṣādhara.

The Śikṣā-samuccaya was long ago translated into English by Cecil Bendall and W. H. D. Rouse, with the additional help of Louis de la Vallée Poussin, before we had the resources that are now available. This 1922 translation was carefully done, and is very helpful to refer to for the general meaning. For precise meanings, however, it cannot be relied on, as shown by the advances of current scholarship in knowledge of Buddhist terms and ideas. A few lines after the passage that I have newly translated above, for example, this older translation refers to “when this world arises” (p. 229). The text goes on to speak of the appearance of seven suns. This occurs prior to the dissolution of the cosmos, and the phrase “when the world arises” must be translated as “when the world is destroyed.” The verb here is saṃvartate (Skt. ed., p. 247, line 10), which is opposite of vivarta. This Buddhist usage caused problems for others as well. Franklin Edgerton notes in his 1953 Buddhist Hybrid Sanskrit Dictionary under vivarta (p. 499) that the Pali-English Dictionary published by the Pali Text Society (1921-1925) precisely inverts the meanings of the corresponding Pali vivaṭṭa and saṃvaṭṭa. J. J. Jones had made a similar observation in his translation of the Mahāvastu, vol. 1, 1949, p. 43 fn. 3.

In the passage that I translated above, the word sarvāvantaḥ is clearly taken in the Tibetan translation with tri-sāhasra-mahā-sāhasraṃ loka-dhātuṃ, not with the banks of clouds as its declension would indicate. The meaning also would require taking it with the world system (loka-dhātuṃ). So I have translated it accordingly. Here we also have another example of a word whose meaning in Buddhist Sanskrit was not known to the translators Bendall and Rouse. They take it in the standard Sanskrit meaning, translating it as “containing everything” (and construing it with the “palls of cloud”), while in Buddhist Sanskrit it means “entire.”

6. For this phrase, pakva-kṣīra-śarī-bhāva-yogena, the Tibetan translation is, ’o ma bskol ba spris ma chags pa’i tshul du (Skt. reading kṣīra, as in Yaśomitra’s vyākhyā, rather than kṣīrī, as in the sole extant manuscript of the bhāṣya; Tib., vol. 79, p. 355, line 19).

7. For a link to the relevant portion of the Sanskrit edition of the Saṅghabhedavastu, see the post, “Creation Stories: The Cosmogony Account from the Yogācārabhūmi.” The whole text is posted here under “Sanskrit Texts,” then “Sanskrit Buddhist Texts.” Among the eight collated editions of the Kangyur, seven have grangs pa for śītī-bhūta, while the Zhol or Lhasa edition corrected this to grang ba, “cool, cold,” to avoid confusion with grangs, “number, enumeration.” The parallel text in the Pali Aggañña-sutta also has a word for “cooling” here, nibbāyamānassa. Likewise in the Tibetan translation of the Loka-prajñapti there is a word for “cooling” here, bsgrangs pa (collated Tengyur, vol. 78, p. 769, line 21).

8. While checking for something else I happened to notice that the opening few pages of Saṅghabhadra’s commentary, also called a bhāṣya, matched Vasubandhu’s bhāṣya almost verbatim. Wondering about this, I then saw that the author’s name, ’Dus bzang, is the Tibetan translation of Saṅghabhadra. Saṅghabhadra is thought in Tibetan tradition to have been Vasubandhu’s teacher, who liked his Abhidharmakośa because it gave the teachings of the Vaibhāṣika (Sarvāstivāda) school so well, but disliked portions of his commentary (bhāṣya) thereon in which Vasubandhu criticized some of the teachings of the Vaibhāṣika school. So Saṅghabhadra wrote two extensive critiques of the Abhidharmakośabhāṣya. These are now extant only in Chinese translation. I then checked Collett Cox’s introduction to her translation of a portion of one of these, the Nyāyānusāra (Disputed Dharmas: Early Buddhist Theories on Existence, Tokyo, 1995), to see if there is any tradition of him writing what we have here: a shorter version of the Abhidharmakośabhāṣya, wherein presumably the offensive passages were removed by him.

She says about this commentary, which is only extant in its Tibetan translation (p. 59): “Though initially assumed to be Saṅghabhadra’s shorter work, this Tibetan commentary would appear to be simply a brief summary of Vasubandhu’s Abhidharmakośakārikā and Bhāṣya.” A note thereon (note 31, p. 62) sources this to a personal communication from Alex Wayman, a scholar of Tibetan (Collett Cox is a scholar of Chinese). The late Alex Wayman was not a scholar of Abhidharma, and it would seem that he did little more than glance at this Tibetan text. I next checked the 1998 book, Sarvāstivāda Buddhist Scholasticism. The relevant portion of this book is by Collett Cox, and simply repeats (p. 243 fn. 308) what she wrote in her 1995 book. There is nothing more about this text here.

After that I checked the Encyclopedia of Indian Philosophies, vol. 9: Buddhist Philosophy from 350 to 600 A.D. Here we do not find this book under Saṅghabhadra’s name, but rather under Vinītabhadra (p. 370, see also p. 281). This is a Sanskrit re-translation of the Tibetan ’Dul bzang, almost certainly a typographical error for ’Dus bzang, that is found in the Peking and Narthang editions of the Tengyur. The correct ’Dus bzang is found in the Der-ge and Co-ne editions (see the collated Tengyur, vol. 79, p. 1366, where ’Dus bzang is given in the colophon of this text, and the relevant note on p. 1405 gives the variant reading ’Dul bzang from the Peking and Narthang editions). This Encyclopedia was published in 2003, while the Tohoku Complete Catalogue of the Tibetan Buddhist Canons, cataloging the Der-ge (sde dge) edition and so giving the correct ’Dus bzang (no. 4091, p. 622), was published in 1934. The authorship of this text really should have been corrected in this Encyclopedia.

This Encyclopedia’s brief entry gives us little more than what Wayman gave us. After saying that “The original Sanskrit is lost; what survives is the Tibetan translation,” and giving the reference to the Peking edition, it tell us only: “This is a simple rehash of Vasubandhu’s Abhidharmakośabhāṣya, which shortens Vasubandhu’s Sautrāntika objections to the Vaibhāṣika system, and, aside from the invocatory verses, adds absolutely nothing new.” It is not necessarily the case that readers are seeking something new. The need for a shorter presentation of Abhidharma than is given in Vasubandhu’s bhāṣya has long been felt. Readers get bogged down in the various positions presented there, which often lead to establishing the Sautrāntika position against the Vaibhāṣika position. This commentary is approximately half the size of Vasubandhu’s bhāṣya (434 pp. versus 794 pp. in the collated Tengyur), yet it retains all the material that the Abhidharmakośa was originally written to present; namely, the Abhidharma system as understood by the Sarvāstivāda Vaibhāṣikas of Kashmir.

We finally get some real information about this commentary in Marek Major’s 1991 book, Vasubandhu’s Abhidharmakośa and the Commentaries Preserved in the Tanjur, pp. 29-38, and this book was even referred to in a footnote to the Encyclopedia entry. It is unfortunate that what Marek Major found has not yet been assimilated by Buddhist scholars, and that this important commentary has remained neglected. There is no real reason to doubt that what we have here is by Saṅghabhadra, a contemporary of Vasubandhu (probably not his teacher as the Tibetan tradition holds, since the older Chinese tradition does not say this). Even if, as Marek Major hypothesizes, Saṅghabhadra’s text was abridged by the Tibetan translator (or perhaps by some earlier Indian writer), this does not take away its value. It closely follows Vasubandhu’s text, leaving out only what many think is non-essential. In the particular case at hand, it seems that while preserving what was in Vasubandhu’s bhāṣya, this commentary only slightly reworded it in order to make it clearer.

9. Saṅghabhadra’s commentary has: gang nyi ma dang zla ba ’di gnyis ci la gnas she na | rlung la ste sems can thams cad las kyi dbang gis ’byung ba’i rlung gling bzhi [var. bzhin du, Pek. Nar.] ri rab yongs su ’khor zhing nyi ma dang zla ba dang skar ma rnams ’phul lo | (collated Tengyur, vol. 79, p. 1067, lines 7-9). Vasubandhu’s commentary has: yang nyi ma dang zla ba ’di dag ci la brten zhe na | rlung la ste | sems can thams cad kyi thun mong gi las kyi dbang gis bar snang la nyi ma dang | zla ba dang | skar ma rnams ’phul [var. ’phrul, Pek. Nar.] bar byed pa’i rlung dag grub ste | ri rab la rlung gi ’khor lo bzhin du ’khor ro | (vol. 79, p. 365, lines 10-14). As may be seen, Saṅghabhadra made ’phul the primary verb and ’khor the verb of the dependent clause, while Vasubandhu made ’phul the verb of the dependent clause, and ’khor the primary verb.

10. Buddhism, of course, does not accept the existence of a creator God, but on the contrary denies the existence of such a being. Like in Jainism and in the original Nyāya school of logic in Hinduism, the law of karma reigns supreme. There can be no God who is able to override or interfere with it. The universe is without beginning, and any new cosmos would be the result of the collective karma of the living beings of the previous cosmos. On the absence of God in the original Nyāya school in Hinduism, see my article, “God’s Arrival in India” (at

Category: Creation Stories | 2 comments

  • Dewald Bester says:

    David mentions ‘seven suns’ in the posting. I am not sure if he has discussed this further elsewhere.
    We find a reference to ‘seven suns’, in reference to pralaya in the Esoteric Commentaries – SDI pg. 290.
    “(xxv) The Seven Beings in the Sun are the Seven Holy Ones, Self-born from the inherent power in the matrix of Mother substance. It is they who send the Seven Principled Forces, called rays, which at the beginning of Pralaya will centre into seven new Suns for the next Manvantara.”
    Reading “The Essence of the Ocean of Attainments: The Creation Stage of the Guhyasamaja Tantra according to Panchen Losang Chokyi Gyaltsen” trans. Yael Bentor and Penpa Dorjee. 2019. Wisdom Publications, I came across another reference to seven suns in relation to the end of a world system (pralaya). In a footnote the translators reference the Abhidharmakosa, and an article by Kajiyama, “Buddhist Cosmology as Presented in the Yogacarabhumi”, which article is on this website also. The paragraph in the “Ocean of Attainments” is:
    “Then, since sentient beings inhabiting the world are emptied, the gods do not cause rain to fall. As a result, the present sun becomes extremely hot, drying up the plants, trees, and forests. Then a second, extremely hot sun rises and the streams, ponds, and small lakes dry up. Then a third extremely hot sun rises and all the rivers except the four great rivers dry up. Then a fourth extremely hot sun rises, drying up the four rivers and Lake Anavatapta. Then a fifth sun rises, drying up the great ocean as well. Then a sixth sun rises, and from Mt. Meru smoke dawns as well. Then a seventh sun rises, turning the four continents together with Mt. Meru into a single flame. Because this flame burns upward, the celestial palaces from Free from Conflict up to the First Concentration are incinerated. Everything turns into a single void with a nature like that of space” (pg.98).
    The similarities are the seven suns and link to pralaya, world ending. The Theosophical Commentary seems more abstract and fundamental. I think, in Theosophical logic, we might see that as meaning earlier, rather than later. The fundamental difference to my mind is that Buddhists are elaborating on their emptiness teachings, whereas, I dont find the same emphasis on any such theme in Theosophy doctrine.

  • harvey says:


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