Gandhabba: Meaning of the word

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    • #37615

      In my studies of the source meaning of certain Pali words, the word gandhabba seems to be the most perplexing. I certainly understand the place that the concept holds in the Buddha Dhamma, particularly in regard to the association with rebirth, kamma and that manomaya kaya and gandhabba are synonymous. However, this word seems to be difficult to research. I came across the following in an article (see ref #1 below):

      In the context of ancient Indian literature, it is not surprising that some would ascribe a supernatural agency to the origin of consciousness in the womb, and we have evidence of this within the Pali canon. The Mahātaṇhāsaṅkhaya-sutta (MN #38, PTS MN vol. 1, p. 256 et seq.) provides a list of three factors that are pre-requisite for a woman’s fertility and conception of offspring (ibid. p. 265-6) —and one of them is the attendance or assistance of a type of demi-god. The Pali word is gandhabba, and this is a sort of “heavenly musician” that could be described as the masculine counterpart to a nymph: a sensuous and somewhat insouciant sort of sprite, often depicted as part of the entourage of the more powerful gods. There is no direct equivalent in the Greco-Roman pantheon; a gandhabba is not quite a satyr, nor quite a cupid.

      The significance of this passage is controversial. A recent work kindly sent to me by the author, Richard Gombrich (2009, p. 73), simply stated that he has no explanation for it —i.e., because it is incompatible with the rest of our knowledge of the cycle of birth and rebirth in Buddhist cosmology and ethics.

      What is the basis for the specific reference to the word gandhabba as: “The mental body or “manōmaya kāya” is also called gandhabba kāya or simply gandhabba (see ref #2 below).”

      Please note: My inquiry is less about researching the Pali word gandhabba, and more about gaining a clear understanding of why this word is used (interpreted) the way that it is.

      Why is manomaya kaya synonymous with gandhabba? The implied interpretation of gandhabba with manomaya kaya is not clear. In the posting “Gandhabba Is the Essential “Seed” for the Physical Human Body” (see ref #3), the gandhabba is implied to be something like a fundamental element or tiny energy, eg: “A human-being is born at the cuti-paṭisandhi moment first with just the “mental body.” That is the manomaya kāya or a gandhabba. Once that gandhabba “descends” to a womb, the physical body starts growing. What is the scientific basis for this interpretation in the Buddha Dhamma? I DO understand that the full meaning of many of the concepts taught by the Buddha can only be gleaned by understanding the parts that comprise the whole, and this may be an impossible question, but I thought it was worth a try.

      From what I have been able to ascertain, the only meaning of the word gandhabba in the various Pali dictionaries is that gandhabba is a kind of heavenly musician. I can grasp the concept that perhaps the gandhabba is likened to a single music note or wavelike as a tone. But, I am sure that this concept is only in my imagination. Also, understanding that you have a strong physics background, I can understand your application of gandhabba as a sort of “unit” of energy as it descends into the womb consequently followed by growth of a body.

      Thank you in advance for your time addressing this topic.

      [P.S. What is your assessment of Richard Gombrich’s knowledge of the Pali language as he is purportedly a noted world Pali expert?]


      1. Unpopular facts about one of Buddhist philosophy’s most popular doctrines
      2. Manomaya Kaya (Gandhabba) and the Physical Body #1:
      3. Gandhabba (Manomaya Kāya)- Introduction #1:
    • #37618

      I am not familiar with the author, Eisel Mazard, that you are quoting. There are many confusing articles written by people who just get the meanings of Pali words from dictionaries (written by those who have no real understanding of Buddha Dhamma.)

      His following statement is wrong: “The Pali word is gandhabba, and this is a sort of “heavenly musician” that could be described as the masculine counterpart to a nymph: a sensuous and somewhat insouciant sort of sprite, often depicted as part of the entourage of the more powerful gods.”
      – In addition to the “human gandhabba,” there is also a category of “gandhabba Devas.” Another sutta mentions a “gandhabba Deva,” who is a musician. That has given rise to this notion of gandhabba as a “heavenly musician.” I hope you can see the confusion! This is just one example of confusion created by bad translations.

      Many suttas refer to human gandhabba. That author is just not aware of them. See, “75 results for gandhabba

      When a human existence (bhava) is grasped, a manomaya kaya (with a hadaya vatthu and five pasada rupa) is created by kammic energy.
      – Then, that manomaya kaya waits for a suitable womb.
      – During that “waiting period,” that manomaya kaya can “absorb” scents from flowers, etc., as food and become a bit “denser.” Thus the name gandhabba (“gandha” + “abba” where “gandha” means “aroma/odor” and “abba” means “to take in”) See #2 of “Hidden World of the Gandhabba: Netherworld (Paralōka)

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