Antarābhava Discussion in Kathāvatthu – Not Relevant to Gandhabba

December 16, 2020; revised December 17, 2020; July 16, 2022

 Antarābhava Was Discussed at the Third Buddhist Council

1. The concept of an antarābhava was discussed and rejected at the Third Buddhist Council. It is documented in the Kathāvatthu section of the Abhidhamma Piṭaka.

  • Many current Thervadins say that the concept of an antarābhava is associated with gandhabba. They say that since antarābhava was rejected at that Council, the concept of a gandhabba was rejected.
  • However, gandhabba was not even mentioned in that discussion at the Third Buddhist Council. I will fully translate and discuss the relevant sections of Kathāvatthu in this post to put this issue to rest.
Antarābhava Discussion in Kathāvatthu

2. Many “heretical views” were discussed and emphatically rejected by a group of Arahants at the Third Buddhist Council held in India at the time of Emperor Asoka. Ven. Moggaliputta Tissa recorded those discussions in the Kathāvatthu section of the Abhidhamma Piṭaka.

  • The relevant section is “Antarābhavakathā,” and an incomplete English translation is “Of an Intermediate State.”
  • For those who understand the Sinhala Language, a complete Sinhala translation is in the Buddha Jayanthi Tipiṭaka. See pp. 340-355 of “48.OTAP_KathaVatthu_Prakarana_2-Sinhala.”
  • Here, we will translate some key verses, first providing the Pāli text and then a translation (with details as necessary.) Hopefully, anyone will understand what was rejected and not rejected (or even discussed.)
Is Antarābhava Within the Three Major Existences?

3. At the beginning of the Pāli text, we can see that the wrong view about an “antarābhava” or an “intermediate state” was the following.

  • Theravadins ask: “Atthi antarābhavoti? or “Is there an intermediate state?”
  • The other side (heretics) says “Āmantā” or “Yes.”
  • Theravadins ask: “Kāmabhavoti?” or “Is it in the kāma bhava?” and the answer is “Na hevaṃ vattabbe” or “That is not so.”
  • Similarly, the heretics say that this “intermediate state” in not in the rūpa bhava or the arūpa bhava.

However, all existences in this world MUST BE within one of those three major existences: kāma bhava, rūpa bhava, or arūpa bhava. Then each of those sub-divides into minor categories. For example, human bhava and animal bhava are in the kāma bhava. 

  • But the heretics say that the “intermediate state” is not in any of the existences.
Is Antarābhava In Between the Three Major Existences?

4. Theravadins ask: “Kāmabhavassa ca rūpabhavassa ca antare atthi antarābhavoti?” or “Does this intermediate state exist in between kāma bhava and rupa bhava”?

  • Heretics: No.
  • Then the Theravadins declare, “Hañci kāmabhavassa ca rūpabhavassa ca antare natthi antarābhavo, no ca vata re vattabbe—“atthi antarābhavo” ti” OR “If you affirm that there is no intermediate state between kāma bhava and rupa bhava, then you cannot maintain your proposition.”
  • In the same way, the heretics admit that there is no intermediate state between rupa bhava and arupa bhava, and the Theravadins point out that the heretics’ position is untenable.
Antarābhava In Terms of Yoni,  Gati, viññāṇaṭṭhiti, sattāvāsa

5. All living beings in this world belong to those three major types of bhava. Buddha explained all possible existences in this world in many other ways.

  • All living beings can be categorized according to four types of yoni (modes of birth), gati (according to five major types of samsaric habits), seven types of viññāṇaṭṭhiti (stations of consciousness), and  nine types of abodes (sattāvāsa.)
  • The first two categories are discussed in the “Mahāsīhanāda Sutta (MN 12).” The seven types of viññāṇaṭṭhiti discussed in the “Sattaviññāṇaṭṭhi Sutta (AN 7.44)” and the nine types of sattāvāsa in the “Sattāvāsa Sutta (AN 9.24).”
  • So, Theravadins ask: “Pañcamī sā yoni, chaṭṭhamī sā gati, aṭṭhamī sā viññāṇaṭṭhiti, dasamo so sattāvāsoti?” OR “Are there five types of yoni or six types of gati or eight types of viññāṇaṭṭhiti or ten types of sattāvāsa?”
  • Heretics admit that this antarābhava cannot be found under any of those categories.
Does Antarābhava Fall Under Other Possible Categories?

6. There are many other ways of categorization discussed in that section, “Antarābhavakathā.” However, the English translation there at Sutta Central is not complete.

  • For those who understand the Sinhala Language, a complete Sinhala translation is in the Buddha Jayanthi Tipiṭaka per #2 above.
  • The point is that antarābhava cannot be found under ANY possible category that a living being can be put into.
  • This post would be very long if I translated the whole section. However, let us look at one more important category.
Does a Being in Antarābhava Have Pancakkhandha (Five Aggregates)?

7. Theravadins ask: “kāmabhave/rūpabhave/arūpabhave atthi rūpaṃ vedanā saññā saṅkhārā viññāṇanti?” OR “Do the five aggregates exist in kāma bhava, rūpa bhava and in arūpa bhava?”

  • Heretics: “Āmantā” OR “Yes.” As they agreed, the five aggregates are associated with a living being in ANY bhava.
  • Theravadins ask: “Antarābhave atthi rūpaṃ vedanā saññā saṅkhārā viññāṇanti? OR “Do the five aggregates exist in antarābhava?”
  • Heretics: “Na hevaṃ vattabbe..” OR “That cannot be said.”
  • Here, the heretics admit that a being in antarābhava cannot be described in terms of the five aggregates!
No Basis for the Claim of an Antarābhava

8. Therefore, it was shown without any doubt that the concept of an antarābhava does not fit into the Buddha Dhamma.

  • However, there was absolutely no connection made to the concept of gandhabba.
  • Anyone can read the Pāli text in “Antarābhavakathā” and see that the word gandhabba is not even mentioned.
Antarābhava Concept of Those Heretics Is Not The Same as Gandhabba

9. If the term gandhabba did not even come up in the discussion on antarābhava at the Third Buddhist Council, why do SOME present-day Theravadins say that the concept of gandhabba was rejected at that Council? The simple answer is that they may not have even read the text in the “Antarābhavakathā” section of the Tipiṭaka!

  • I have heard many bhikkhus just repeat what they heard from someone else, that the gandhabba state is a Mahāyāna concept, and it refers to an “intermediate state” or “antarābhava.” They don’t even try to verify that by looking up the Tipiṭaka.
  • They may misunderstand that a human “bhava” starts with a human’s birth (as a baby from a mother’s womb) and that it ends when that physical body dies.
  • That is an extreme wrong view!
  • Let us consider the following evidence against that false belief.
Do “Human BhavaLast Only 100 Years and “Fly bhavaLast Only Several Days?

10. We know that a “dense body” of a human lasts for about 100 years, and a housefly lives only for several days. But that time is only a small fraction of the lifetime of the corresponding gandhabbaWhether a human or a housefly, it will be in that existence or bhava (as a human or a fly) for many thousands of years.

11. When the dense physical body of a human dies, that is not necessarily the end of the “human bhava.” Unless the kammic energy of that human gandhabba is exhausted, gandhabba will stay alive. It will be pulled into another suitable womb at a later time. In between adjacent “births with human bodies,” human existence continues in the gandhabba state.

  • That gandhabba state is NOT an “antarābhava.” It is IN “human bhava.” A human gandhabba is human and has five aggregates. A subtle rupa (invisible to us) is associated with that gandhabba with a hadaya vatthu (seat of the mind) and five pasāda rupa. It can think. It cannot touch, smell, or taste but can see and hear. See “Ghost 1990 Movie – Good Depiction of Gandhabba Concept.”

Similarly, when a fly dies, it will stay in that existence as a “fly gandhabba” and get into an egg to form another fly. That process will occur uncountable times for a fly before that “fly existence” ends!

  • When a fly dies, it will stay as a “fly gandhabba” until it is pulled into an egg to start making another “dense fly body.”
Human (or Animal) Bhava (Existence) Can Last Thousands of Years

12. The four types of yoni (modes of births) mentioned in #5 above are the following: Aṇḍajā (egg born), jalābujā (womb born), saṃsedajā (typically translated as “moisture born” but has a better explanation), and opapātikā (instantaneous birth).

  • However, when a transition from one bhava to another (say, from human bhava to an animal bhava) takes place, only an opapātikā birth occurs where a NEW mental body (manomaya kāya) is generated by kammic energy. 
  • In many realms — including all 20 Brahma realms — that opapātika birth spans the whole bhava. They are born one time with a subtle (invisible to us) “mental body” (with a trace of matter), and that is all they have.
  • However, in the human and animal realms, that “mental body” will get into a womb or an egg (in animals), leading to the birth of a physical body. Those are conventionally called births (jāti) within those two bhava. That “mental body” in the human or animal realms is given a special name of gandhabba.
  • Those womb-based and egg-based births are two types of “births” mentioned above: aṇḍajā and jalābujā, respectively. In some instances, the chemical composition needed to make the “seed” (for example, an animal’s egg) forms in natural processes, and that is the fourth type, i.e., saṃsedajā birth.

13. As mentioned above, Brahmas and Devas do not go through the gandhabba state. They are born instantaneously (opapātika birth) and live for very long times (their whole life in that state.) Brahmas‘ subtle “bodies” are similar to humans’ or animals’ mental bodies (gandhabba state). See “Body Types in 31 Realms – Importance of Manomaya Kaya.”

  • It is mainly in the human and animal realms that a subtle manomaya kāya is born instantaneously, followed by the arising of dense physical bodies with one of the other three possibilities.
  • We have discussed the birth of a human baby in “Buddhist Explanations of Conception, Abortion, and Contraception.” Many such “births with physical bodies” can take place within a single human bhava.
  • Now let us briefly discuss a few associated issues/conventions/terminology.
Sometimes Gandhabba State Referred to as Paṭisandhi Viññāṇa

14. The “descend” of that paṭisandhi viññāṇa to a womb is discussed in several suttas, including “Assalāyana Sutta (MN 93)” where the term “gandhabba” is specifically used: “Jānāma mayaṃ, bho—yathā gabbhassa avakkanti hoti. Idha mātāpitaro ca sannipatitā honti, mātā ca utunī hoti, gandhabbo ca paccupaṭṭhito hoti; evaṃ tiṇṇaṃ sannipātā gabbhassa avakkanti hotī’ti.”

Translated: “We do know that, sir. An embryo is conceived when these three things come together—copulation of the mother and father, the mother is in the fertile part of her menstrual cycle, and the presence of a gandhabba.” This is explained in detail in “Buddhist Explanations of Conception, Abortion, and Contraception.”

Other Use of the Name “Gandhabba

15. There is a class of Devas called “gandhabba“; see “Suddhika Sutta (SN 31.1)” and the following many suttas in SN 31 (Gandhabba Vagga.) There are numerous types of Devas (in lower Deva realms) who intake (abba) odors of various plants and flowers (gandha), and thus that name. “Mahāsamaya Sutta (DN 20)” identifies Dhataraṭṭha, King of the East is identified as “Chief of the Gandhabba Devas.”

  • There is also a group of petas with the name “gandhabba.” They inhale “foul odors.”
  • To add to that, human gandhabbas are sometimes referred to as “tirokuḍḍa” or “tirokuṭṭa” because they can go through walls.  See “Tirokuṭṭa Sutta (Kp7).”
  • Understanding the Tipiṭaka requires checking for inter-consistencies and understanding underlying concepts and terminology usage.
  • The word “right” can mean two different things: “turn right” and “you are right.” Similarly, the word “gandhabba” must be understood in a particular situation.
Print Friendly, PDF & Email