Gandhabba State – Evidence from Tipitaka

September 16, 2017; revised September 30, 2107 (#7 added).

Extensive evidence from the Tipitaka is presented that the gandhabba state is a necessary feature of human (and animal) bhava. It is not an antarabhava state. One’s inert physical body is controlled by one’s mental body (gandhabba or manomaya kaya) that is inside the physical body.

  • Gandhabba state remains through many successive human births within a given human bhava (which can last many hundreds of years). When a given physical body dies, the gandhabba is directed into another womb, when a matching one becomes available. Rebirth stories confirm this account.
  • First, I need to make a change in terminology: In the posts up to today, I have used the term “gandhabba“, but the Pāli term that in the suttas is “gandhabba“. My teacher Thēro, late Waharaka Thēro, always used the term gandhabba (which is the Sinhala term). But I think it is better to use the Pāli term for this wider audience.

1. The Buddha has described how three conditions must be satisfied for a conception to occur — including a gandhabba (nominative case is gandhabbō) descending to the womb — in the Mahā Tanhāsankhaya Sutta (Majjhima Nikaya 38): “..Tiṇṇaṃ kho pana, bhikkhave, sannipātā gabbhas­sā­vakkanti hoti. Idha mātāpitaro ca sannipatitā honti, mātā ca na utunī hoti, gandhabbo ca na paccupaṭṭhito hoti, neva tāva gabbhas­sā­vakkanti hoti. Idha mātāpitaro ca sannipatitā honti, mātā ca utunī hoti, gandhabbo ca na paccupaṭṭhito hoti, neva tāva gabbhas­sā­vakkanti hoti. Yato ca kho, bhikkhave, mātāpitaro ca sannipatitā honti, mātā ca utunī hoti, gandhabbo ca paccupaṭṭhito hoti—evaṃ tiṇṇaṃ sannipātā gabbhas­sā­vakkanti hotiTamenaṃ, bhikkhave, mātā nava vā dasa vā māse gabbhaṃ kucchinā pariharati mahatā saṃsayena garubhāraṃ..“.

Here is the English translation from the Sutta Central website (I have slightly modified it): “..Bhikkhus, the descent to the womb takes place through the union of three things. Here, there is the union of the mother and father, but the mother is not in season, and the gandhabba is not present—in this case no descent of an embryo takes place. Here, there is the union of the mother and father, and the mother is in season, but the gandhabba is not present—in this case too no descent of the embryo takes place. But when there is the union of the mother and father, and the mother is in season, and the gandhabba is present, through the union of these three things the descent of the embryo takes place. The mother then carries the embryo in her womb for nine or ten months with much anxiety, as a heavy burden..”.

  • Even though the venerable Bhikkhus who manage the Sutta Central website do not believe in the concept of a gandhabba, they have at least correctly translated most of the Pāli verse.
  • By the way, the Sutta Central site is a good resource, since not only the Pāli version but also translations into several languages is provided. I encourage everyone to make a contribution to that website in order to maintain that valuable database.
  • One just needs to be careful to keep in mind that some key Pāli terms are translated incorrectly there, including anicca as impermanence and anatta as “no-self”.

2. In the Assalāya­na Sutta (Majjhima Nikaya 93) , there is more evidence that for conception to occur, a gandhabba needs to descend to the mother’s womb at the right time: within a few days of the union of parents, it is the mother’s season.

Here, the Buddha explains to Assalayana how the seer Asita Devala questioned seven brahmana who had the wrong view that they were heirs to Mahā Brahmā. Here are the questions that seer Asita Devala asked:

“Jānanti pana bhonto—yathā gabbhassa avakkanti hotī’ti? “

  • “But do you, sirs, know how there is conception?”

“Jānāma mayaṃ, bho—yathā gabbhassa avakkanti hoti ‘ti. 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”.

  • ‘We do know, sir, how there is conception. There is coitus of the parents, it is the mother’s season, and a gandhabba is present; it is on the conjunction of these three things that there is conception.’

Jānanti pana bhonto—taggha so gandhabbo khattiyo vā brāhmaṇo vā vesso vā suddo vā’ti?“.

  • “But do you, sirs, know whether that gandhabba is a noble or brahman or merchant or worker?”

Na mayaṃ, bho, jānāma—taggha so gandhabbo khattiyo vā brāhmaṇo vā vesso vā suddo vā’ti“.

  • “We do not know, sir, whether that gandhabba is a noble or a brahman or a merchant or a worker.”

Therefore, it is clear that the concept of a gandhabba was accepted even by other yōgis at Buddha’s time.

3. In the Maha Nidana Sutta (Digha Nikaya 15): “..Viññāṇapaccayā nāmarūpan’ti iti kho panetaṃ vuttaṃ, tadānanda, imināpetaṃ pariyāyena veditabbaṃ, yathā viññāṇapaccayā nāmarūpaṃ. Viññāṇañca hi, ānanda, mātukucchismiṃ na okkamissatha, api nu kho nāmarūpaṃ mātukucchismiṃ samuccissathā”ti? “No hetaṃ, bhante”. “Viññāṇañca hi, ānanda, mātukucchismiṃ okkamitvā vokkamissatha, api nu kho nāmarūpaṃ itthattāya abhi­nib­bat­tis­sathā”ti? “No hetaṃ, bhante”.

Translated: “..With consciousness as condition there is mentality-materiality (namarupa). How that is so, Ānanda, should be understood in this way: If consciousness were not to descend into the mother’s womb, would mentality-materiality (nama rūpa) take shape in the womb?” “Certainly not, venerable sir”. “If, the descended consciousness were to depart, would mentality-materiality be generated into this present state of being?” “Certainly not, venerable sir.”

  • Here, is it clear that by “a viññana descending to the womb”, the Buddha meant the descend of the manomaya kaya (gandhabba), not the patisandhi citta. A patisandhi citta cannot come out (depart) of the womb! In #7 below, we will present evidence that vinnana is always accompanied by other four khandhas, including the rupakkhandha (and a gandhabba has all five khandhas).
  • The Pāli word “Okkanti” is often mistranslated as “rebirth”. But it means the “descend” of an already formed manōmaya kaya (gandhabba). Rebirth happens (and a gandhabba is born) within a thought moment, at the cuit-patisandhi moment; see, “Cuti-Patisandhi – An Abhidhamma Description“.

4. In the Kutuhala Sutta (Samyutta Nikaya 44.9), Vacca asked the Buddha, “..Yasmiñca pana, bho gotama, samaye imañca kāyaṃ nikkhipati, satto ca aññataraṃ kāyaṃ anupapanno hoti, imassa pana bhavaṃ gotamo kiṃ upādānasmiṃ paññāpetī”ti?  OR “..“And, Master Gotama, when a being has given up this body but has not yet been reborn in another body, what does Master Gotama declare to be its fuel on that occasion?”

  • The Buddha answered, “..Yasmiṃ kho, vaccha, samaye imañca kāyaṃ nikkhipati, satto ca aññataraṃ kāyaṃ anupapanno hoti, tamahaṃ taṇhūpādānaṃ vadāmi“. OR “..“When, Vaccha, a being has given up this body but has not yet been reborn in another body, I declare that it is fueled by craving”.
  • Thus when a gandhabba leaves one physical and is not yet reborn in another body, its life is sustained by tanha (craving), just like a rupi brahma lives by making use of piti (mental happiness) as food. Both gandhabbas and rupi brahmas have very fine bodies (smaller than an atom in modern science; only a few suddhashtaka). However, some gandhabbas can inhale odors for food and become relatively more dense.

5. In the Sangiti Sutta (Digha Nikaya 33), it is described how a gandhabba can enter a womb in four ways: “..Catasso gabbhā­vakkan­tiyo. Idhāvuso, ekacco asampajāno mātukucchiṃ okkamati, asampajāno mātukucchismiṃ ṭhāti, asampajāno mātukucchimhā nikkhamati, ayaṃ paṭhamā gabbhāvakkanti. Puna caparaṃ, āvuso, idhekacco sampajāno mātukucchiṃ okkamati, asampajāno mātukucchismiṃ ṭhāti, asampajāno mātukucchimhā nikkhamati, ayaṃ dutiyā gabbhāvakkanti. Puna caparaṃ, āvuso, idhekacco sampajāno mātukucchiṃ okkamati, sampajāno mātukucchismiṃ ṭhāti, asampajāno mātukucchimhā nikkhamati, ayaṃ tatiyā gabbhāvakkanti. Puna caparaṃ, āvuso, idhekacco sampajāno mātukucchiṃ okkamati, sampajāno mātukucchismiṃ ṭhāti, sampajāno mātukucchimhā nikkhamati, ayaṃ catutthā gabbhāvakkanti“.

Translated: “..Four ways of entering the womb. Herein, bhikkhus, one descends into the mother’s womb unknowing, abides there unknowing, departs thence unknowing. This is the first class of conception. Next, another descends deliberately, but abides and departs unknowing. Next another descends and abides deliberately, but departs unknowing. Lastly, another descends, abides and departs knowingly“.

  • This is the okkanti (descending of the gandhabba) into the womb (gabbha), as described in the Maha Tanhasankhaya Sutta discussed above.
  • Almost the same description is also given in the “Sam­pasā­da­nīya Sutta (Digha Nikaya 28)“.

6. It is a Bodhisattva in the last birth that, “.. descends, abides and departs the womb knowingly”, the fourth way of entering a womb, mentioned above.

  • In the Mahāpadāna Sutta (Digha Nikaya 14): “..Atha kho, bhikkhave, vipassī bodhisatto tusitā kāyā cavitvā sato sampajāno mātukucchiṃ okkami. Ayamettha dhammatā“.
  • Translated: “..Now Vipassī bodhisattva, bhikkhus, left the Tusita realm and descended into his mother’s womb mindful and knowingly. That is the rule.”
  • At the cuti-patisandhi moment in the Tusita realm, the deva died and a human gandhabba was born, who entered the mother’s womb on Earth.
  • By the way, this sutta describes in detail the last 7 Buddhas including Buddha Gotama, who have appeared in our cakkavata within the past 31 maha kappa (great aeons). the English translation of the Sutta at Sutta Central  provides a useful summary in a table.
  • However, in this sutta, gabbhā­vakkan­tiyo and okkami are translated incorrectly at Sutta Central.

7. In the Bija Sutta (Smayutta Nikaya 22.54), it is clearly stated that vinnana cannot “travel” without the other four aggregates, including the rupakkhandha: “..Yo, bhikkhave, evaṃ vadeyya: ‘ahamaññatra rūpā aññatra vedanāya aññatra saññāya aññatra saṅkhārehi viññāṇassa āgatiṃ vā gatiṃ vā cutiṃ vā upapattiṃ vā vuddhiṃ vā virūḷhiṃ vā vepullaṃ vā paññāpessāmī’ti, netaṃ ṭhānaṃ vijjati“.

“Bhikkhus, Apart from form, apart from feeling, apart from perception, apart from volitional formations, I will make known the coming and going of consciousness, its passing away and rebirth, its growth, increase, and expansion’—that is impossible”.

  • Therefore, the descending of a patisandhi vinnana to a womb, MUST be accompanied by all five khanddhas, which is the kammaja kaya of the gandhabba. Vinnana can never be supported without a rupa; even the brahmas in arupa realms have hadaya vatthu, a suddhashtaka made of satara maha bhuta.

8. When a person removes the first seven samyōjana, but the last three samyōjana are still left with him when he dies, then the gandhabba comes out of the dead body, but cannot be born in anywhere in the 31 realms. For a discussion on samyōjana, see, “Dasa Samyōjana – Bonds in Rebirth Process“.

  • Those first 7 samyōjana include kāma raga, rūpa raga, and arūpa raga. When those three samyōjana are removed, one cannot be reborn in any of the 31 realms in the kāma, rūpa, and arūpa lōka. However, since the last three samyōjana of māna, uddacca, avijjā are not completely removed, that person will not be able to attain Parinibbāna either.
  • Then “that person” will remain in the gandhabba state until his kammic energy for the human bhava runs out. This is called the “Anatarāpainibbiyāni” state.
  • This is described in the “Samyojana Sutta (Anguttara Nikaya 4:131): “..Katamassa, bhikkhave, puggalassa orambhāgiyāni saṃyojanāni pahīnāni, upapat­ti­paṭi­lābhi­yāni saṃyojanāni pahīnāni, bhava­paṭi­lābhi­yāni saṃyojanāni appahīnāni? Antarā­pari­nib­bā­yissa”.
  • It is to be noted that the first 5 samyojanā are called orambhāgiyā saṃyojanā; rūpa raga and arūpa raga are collectively called upapat­ti­paṭi­lābhi­yā saṃyojanā, and māna, uddacca, avijjā are collectively called bhava­paṭi­lābhi­yā samyōjana.

9. At the Third Buddhist Council, Moggaliputta tissa Thēro proved that there is no antarābhava in a debate with the Mahayanists. That correct interpretation is in the  Kathavatthu of the Tipitaka.

10. A critical factor that contributes to this erroneous belief that the gandhabba state is is an “antarābhava” is the inability to distinguish between bhava and jāti. They erroneously believe that patisandhi takes place in the womb. But it is very clear in the sutta passages above, that the word patisandhi is not used; rather it is okkanti (of the gandhabba).

  • A human existence (bhava) could be many hundreds or even thousands of years and many human births (jāti) can take place during that time; see, “Bhava and jāti – States of Existence and Births Therein“.
  • In rebirth stories, there is always a “time gap” between successive human births (jāti). They are always separated by several years or at least few years. In between those successive lives, that lifestream lives as a gandhabba, without a physical body.
  • Even during a given human life (jāti), the gandhabba may come out of the physical body under certain conditions, see, “Manomaya Kaya and Out-of-Body Experience (OBE)“.
  • It is the human bhava that is hard to attain (“How the Buddha Described the Chance of Rebirth in the Human Realm“), but within a given human bhava, there can be many births until the kammic energy for that human bhava runs out. Otherwise, how can one explain all these rebirth stories, where a human is reborn only a few years after dying in the previous human life?

11. I understand the reluctance of many to discard the deeply embedded idea that gandhabba is a Mahāyāna concept. I used to have that wrong view too. But as I have discussed above, many things will be left unexplained and there will be many inconsistencies without it.

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