Antarābhava and Gandhabba

July 29, 2016; revised January 23, 2020

Title pronunciation:

What Is Antarābhava?

1. There are many misinterpretations about the term “Antarābhava.” Just two to three hundred years after the Parinibbana of the Buddha, Mahayaṃists started saying that there is an Antarābhava because they thought gandhabba belonged to an Antarābhava.

  • At the Third Buddhist Council, Moggaliputta Tissa Thero proved that there is no Antarābhava in a debate with the Mahayaṃists. That correct interpretation is in the  Kathavatthu of the Tipiṭaka.

2. Antarābhava (“antara” + “bhava“, where antara is “in-between”) means in between bhava or existences. For example, when a living being in the human bhava exhausts its kammic energy for that human existence, it grasps a new existence (bhava) at the cuti-patisandhi moment. Suppose the next existence or bhava is existence as a deer, for this example.

  • The transition from human existence to an existence as a deer happens in a billionth of a second from the cuti citta (dying moment in the human bhava) to the patisandhi citta (first thought-moment in existence as a deer).
  • Therefore, indeed there is no Antarābhava. The time-lapse from the cuti citta to the patisandhi citta is negligibly small; see, “Cuti-Patisandhi – An Abhidhamma Description.” That was the point made by Moggaliputta Tissa Thero at the Third Buddhist Council: there is no “Antarābhava” between the “human bhava” and the “deer bhava” in the above example.
  • gandhabba is in the same “human bhava” until the kammic energy for the human bhava runs out (which could be many hundreds of years, compared to about 100 years of a lifetime for a human). In between successive human births within that human bhava, it is the gandhabba that lives in “para lōka“; see,Hidden World of the Gandhabba: Netherworld (Para Loka).”
Bhava and Jāti Are Two Different Things

3. The critical point is that bhava and jāti are two different things. That is why in Paṭicca Samuppāda, there is a step, “bhava paccayā jāti.” There can be many “jāti” or births as a human within a single human bhava; see, “Bhava and Jāti – States of Existence and Births Therein.”

  • Living beings in human and animal realms are not born with fully-formed physical bodies. In all other 29 realms, beings are born with fully-formed bodies, which are called ōpapātika or instantaneous births. Thus a deva or Brahma is born with fully-formed bodies.
  • That means a deva or Brahma will have the same body during that bhava, even though that body will change. For them, there are only ONE jāti within that bhava.
Humans (and Animals) Have Many Jāti Within That Bhava

4. In our example above, a human could have kammic energy supporting that human existence (bhava) for even thousands of years. However, a physical human body can last only for about 100 years.

Āyukkhaya Marana and Kammakkhaya Marana

5. That is why the death of the physical body does not necessarily mean that there is a cuti citta at that dying moment of a human, i.e., one is NOT released from the human bhava. One will lose the human bhava only if it is a “kammakkhaya marana” or death where the kammic energy is exhausted (“marana” in Pail or Sinhala is for death).

  • But most human deaths are “āyukkhaya marana“, i.e., the end of life for the physical body (here “āyu” means lifetime). More kammic energy for the human bhava left. There is no cuti citta at that time. In that case, there is no change in the gandhabba at the moment of death of the physical body.
  • That gandhabba would come out of the dead body and wait for another womb.

6. Thus if it is a “āyukkhaya marana,” the gandhabba comes out of that dead body and waits for another womb. It is improbable that there will be a matching womb appearing precisely at the death of a human physical body. In most cases, the gandhabba has to wait months and more likely years before a matching womb becomes available (gati of the gandhabba have to match those of the parents).

  • Most deaths due to accidents are not due to “kammakkhaya marana,” i.e., just the physical body dies. The human in question will be reborn with a new human body. That is why many rebirths accounts describe death in a previous life due to an accident, murder, etc.
  • Of course, one could die with āyukkhaya marana even at old age.
Mahayaṃa Concept of Antarābhava

7. The reason that the Mahayaṃists say that there is an Antarābhava is that they believe that the gandhabba is not human and is an “in-between state.”

  • The irony is that many current Theravadins even refuse to believe the EXISTENCE of a gandhabba, simply because they do not want to be seen as taking the side of the Mahayaṃists. Those Theravadins believe that when a human dies — and is going to be reborn human — the second human fetus starts INSTANTANEOUSLY in a womb. In other words, the previous human dies at the cuti moment, and a billionth of a second later appears as a new baby in a human womb (patisandhi).
  • However, that approach leads to many inconsistencies: (i) That kind of timing is an impossibility. (ii) The step “bhava paccayā jāti” in Paṭicca Samuppāda does not make sense: Is that new human birth a new bhava?.  (iii) Patisandhi or grasping a new bhava happens within a thought moment, while birth of a human body occurs via a series of steps described in #8 below. (iv) As discussed in #9 – #11 below, rebirth accounts are also not compatible with rebirth occurring in the womb.  (v) There is more evidence from the Tipiṭaka, as discussed in #12, #13 below.
A Physical Human Body Versus Manōmaya Kāya (Gandhabba)

8. According to the Tipiṭaka, a full-pledged human appears via a series of steps: jāti, sanjāthi, okkanthi, abhinibbanthi, khandhānan pātilabho, āyatanan pātilabho. See, “Manomaya Kaya (Gandhabba) and the Physical Body“.

  • Here, jāti is the patisandhi moment, when the kammaja kāya for the new bhava appears in a thought-moment. Moments later, that kammja kāya is augmented by the cittaja kāya and a utuja kāya, and, a manōmaya kāya (gandhabba) results. That is the sanjāti moment. This gandhabba comes out of the dead body in the previous life (bhava).
  • When that gandhabba goes into a suitable womb, that is the okkanthi moment. In many suttā, that is described as “viññāṇa of a boy or a girl descending into a womb.” Note that by the time descending into a womb, the sex is already determined. It is a human gandhabba that comes into a womb.
  • There is no place in the Tipiṭaka that says patisandhi happens in a womb. Rather it says, “…gandhabba okkanthi hoti“. 

9. Many rebirth account features are consistent with that correct interpretation where the manōmaya kāya (gandhabba) inherits many successive (but time separated) physical bodies.

  • In rebirth stories, there is always a “time gap” between successive human births (jāti). They are separated by several years or at least a few years. In between those successive lives, that lifestream survives as a gandhabba. The Buddha told Vacchagotta that the gandhabba survives that intervening time by using tanha as āhāra. Some gandhabbā can “inhale” aroma from plants, too.
  • We all know that human existence is extremely difficult to get; see, “How the Buddha Described the Chance of Rebirth in the Human Realm.” If each human birth is a “brand new human existence or bhava,” that would be inconsistent since human existence is a rare event.
Human Births Within the Human Bhava

10. Then another question may arise, “Why do people look different in successive rebirths?”. That is because the physical body in each human life (within the same human bhava) arise with contributions from the parents for that life.

  • Even though the gandhabba brings in his/her gati (habits), āsava (cravings), kilesa (mental impurities), etc. from the previous life, the physical body for the new life has significant contributions from the parents. The DNA of the physical bodies of two successive lives will be very different due to this reason. For details, see, “Buddhist Explanations of Conception, Abortion, and Contraception“.
Gandhabba‘s Gati Will Change With Time

11. Furthermore, even the mental body of the gandhabba WILL change in the next life. Thus gati (habits), āsava (cravings), kilesa (mental impurities), etc. will also change as one grows up in a new environment under a different set of influences.

  • For example, one could have lived a moral life in the previous birth, but may be born into a family of drug addicts due to a bad kamma vipāka. In that case, the new life could drastically change to an immoral life.
  • However, in most cases, the successive lives are not that drastically different, unless one makes drastic changes during life. If one could attain the Sōtapanna stage, then one will not be born into an immoral family. If one reaches the Anāgāmi stage of Nibbāna, one will never be born a human, and will be born in the Brahma realm.
  • On the other hand, even if one is born in a moral family but under the influence of bad friends becomes a drug addict and commits crimes, one is likely to be born into an immoral family in the next birth. If one commits a ānantariya pāpa kammā (say by killing a parent), then one will be born in the apāyā at death, even if there is more kammic energy left in the human bhava.
More Evidence From Tipiṭaka

12. Now, let us discuss more evidence from the Tipiṭaka. During the night of his Enlightenment, the Buddha (or more accurately the ascetic Siddhartha) first attained the “pubbe nivāsānussati ñāna,” before attaining the “cutupapāda ñāna” and finally the “āsavakkhaya ñāna.” It is the āsavakkhaya ñāna that led to the Buddhahood; see, “The Way to Nibbāna – Removal of Āsavā.”

  • The first two pieces of knowledge (ñāna; pronounced “gnana”;
    ) can be attained even with anariya jhānā (with limited capabilities). Both those deal with the ability to look back at previous lives. But with the first one, pubbe nivāsānussati ñānaone could only look at the previous human births.
  • Here, “pubbe” means “previous,” “nivasa” means “house,” and “anussati” means “recall,” i.e., the knowledge to recall successive residences of a given gandhabba. In a given human bhava, a gandhabba could have many different “houses,” i.e., physical bodies. Thus with this ñāna, one could look at human births in the past, in multiple human bhava going back to very long times, depending on the capability of the yogi.
  • The second one, cutupapāda ñāna, extends the capability to see all previous rebirths in any realm. Here cutupapāda (cuti means death and upapāda means birth) refers to all types of rebirths in various realms (niraya, animal, deva, etc.) in the past.
Connection to  Pubbe Nivāsānussati Ñāna

13. Furthermore, the Buddha described how he saw human gandhabbā moving from one physical body to the next (in a single human bhava) with the pubbe nivāsānussati ñāna. He explained that with the following simile: If one is in an upper level of a multi-story building (yes, there were multi-storied buildings at the time of the Buddha) located at a busy junction, one could see people meandering in the streets below.

  • Some people stay on the street, sometimes sitting in a bench or standing by the road, etc.; this is analogous to gandhabbā just waiting for a physical body (i.e., a womb).
  • Sometimes, a person enters a house and stays there for a long time; this is comparable to a gandhabba in a physical body for a long time, i.e., until old age.
  • Other times, a person may enter a house and come out after a few hours. That is comparable to death at a young age.
  • Also, a person could enter a house and immediately come out. That corresponds to abortion or an unsuccessful pregnancy.

14. Thus the pubbe nivāsānussati ñāna is limited to looking at past human lives. That is an excellent example that the Buddha clearly stated the concept of the gandhabba. The cutupapāda ñāna extends the capability to see all previous rebirths in any realm.

Change of Bhava 

15. If a human dies at the end of the kammic energy for the human bhava, then the cuti-patisandhi transition happens at the moment of the death. In the specific example of a human to deer transition, now a “deer gandhabba” comes out of that dead body and has to wait for a matching “deer womb” to become available.

  • However, if the human was to become a deva, then a fully formed deva will appear instantaneously in a deva realm, the moment the human dies in a kammakkhaya marana. A gandhabba is involved only in human and animal realms; see, “Gandhabba – Only in Human and Animal Realms.”
Connection to Astral Travel

16. Another interesting piece of information comes from how the Buddha (and others with iddhi powers) traveled to deva or brahma lōka with the manōmaya kāya (which is the same as gandhabba.) Here, the physical body is left behind. Yet, the physical body does not die, and is kept alive by the rupa jivitindriya (kammic energy.) Upon returning, the gandhabba can re-enter the physical body.

  • Those who attain the fourth jhāna can develop iddhi powers to be able to separate the manōmaya kāya from the physical body and travel far with that manōmaya kāya. The Buddha stated that just as a sword comes out of its sheath, those with iddhi powers can pull the manōmaya kāya out of the physical body.
  • That manōmaya kāya can then go to distant places within very short times (this is what is called “astral travel” in the present day; see the Wikipedia article, “Astral projection.” A gandhabba is the same as an “astral body.”
  • In the suttā, it is said that the Buddha visited deva or Brahma lokas “within the time that takes a bent arm to be straightened.”
  • It is possible for some yogis with iddhi powers to travel with the physical body. That involves a different mechanism, that is not relevant to this discussion.

17. If you have any other questions or unresolved issues about this discussion, please send me a comment ([email protected]) or post at the discussion forum. I can add to the post to address such questions.

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