Gandhabba State – Evidence from Tipitaka

September 16, 2017; revised September 30, 2107; November 14, 2018; August 31, 2019

Introduction

I will present extensive evidence from the Tipitaka that the gandhabba state is a necessary feature of human (and animal) bhava. It is not an antarabhava (a state“in-between two bhava“). It is within the same human bhava.

  • One’s mental body (gandhabba or manōmaya kaya) controls 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 can get into another womb, when a matching one becomes available. Rebirth stories confirm this account.
  • However, the gandhabba concept is different from the idea of a “soul.” A gandhabba will keep changing during its lifetime. Furthermore, it will make a drastic change when the lifetime of the human bhava comes to an end.
Background

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

2. A critical factor that contributes to this erroneous belief that the gandhabba state 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 evident in the sutta passages above, that it is okkanti (of the gandhabba) that happens, not patisandhi.

  • A human existence (bhava) could last many hundreds or even thousands of years. 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” (of typically several years) between successive human births (jāti). 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; see, “How the Buddha Described the Chance of Rebirth in the Human Realm“). However, 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?

3. 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.

Three Conditions for Conception per Suttas

4. The Buddha has described how three conditions must be satisfied for a conception to occur. That includes how a gandhabba (nominative case is gandhabbō) descending to the womb. For example, 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 hoti. Tamenaṃ, 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 embryo can result. All three following conditions must be met. Union of the mother and father, the mother is in season, and a gandhabba is present. That leads to the formation of an embryo. 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 useful resource. It provides access to not only the Pāli version but also translations into several languages. I encourage everyone to contribute to that website to maintain that valuable database.
  • One needs to keep in mind that some critical Pāli terms are mistranslated there. Those include anicca as impermanence and anatta as “no-self.” Furthermore, translating complex Pāli words like viññāna and sankhāra as just single words in English can lead to severe problems.

5. 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. That needs to happen within a few days of the union of parents, and it needs to be during the mother’s season.

Here, the Buddha explains to Assalayana how the seer Asita Devala questioned seven brahmanā 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 a conception in the womb?”

“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, the concept of a gandhabba was accepted even by other yōgis at Buddha’s time.

6. 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 (nāmarūpa). How that is so, Ānanda, should be understood in this way: If viññāṇa 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 viññāṇa 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 manōmaya kaya (gandhabba), not the patisandhi citta. A patisandhi viññāṇa cannot come out (depart) of the womb! In #7 below, we will present evidence that the other four khandhas always accompany viññāna. That includes 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 cuti-patisandhi moment; see, “Cuti-Patisandhi – An Abhidhamma Description.“
More Details from Suttas

7. 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 food does it consume?”

  • The Buddha answered, “..Yasmiṃ kho, Vacha, 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 uses craving as food.”
  • Thus when a gandhabba leaves one physical and is not yet reborn in another body, its life is sustained by tanhā (craving). That is similar to a rupi Brahma making use of piti (mental happiness) as food. Both gandhabbas and rupi brahmas have subtle bodies (smaller than an atom in modern science; only a few suddhāshtaka). However, some gandhabbas can inhale odors for food and become relatively more dense.

8. 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. That is the first class of conception. Another descends deliberately, but abides and departs unknowing. Another descends and abides deliberately, but departs unknowing. Lastly, another descends, abides and departs knowingly“.

9. 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 seven Buddhas including Buddha Gotama, who have appeared in our cakkāvāta within the past 31 mahā kappa (great eons). English translation of the Sutta at Sutta Central provides a useful summary in a table.
  • However, in this sutta, gabbhā­vakkan­tiyo and okkami are mistranslated at Sutta Central.
Patisandhi Viññāna Same as Gandhabba

10. In the Bija Sutta (Samyutta Nikaya 22.54), it is clear that viññāna 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, I say that it is impossible for viññāṇa to exist, to grow, and to move at rebirth in the absence of form, feeling, perception, and saṅkhāra.”

  • Therefore, the descending of a patisandhi viññāna to a womb MUST be accompanied by all five khandas, which is the kammaja kaya of the gandhabba. Viññāna can never exist without a rūpa; even the Brahmas in arupa realms have hadaya vatthu, a suddhāshtaka made of satara mahā bhuta.
Antarāparinibbayi State and Gandhabba

11. The first seven samyōjana include kāma rāga, rūpa rāga, and arūpa rāga. In the absence of those three samyōjana, one cannot be reborn in any of the 31 realms in the kāma, rūpa, and arūpa lōka. For a discussion on samyōjana, see, “Dasa Samyōjana – Bonds in Rebirth Process.”

  • When a person dies, the gandhabba comes out of the dead body. If that person had removed the first seven samyōjana by the time he dies, that gandhabba could not grasp a bhava in any of the 31 realms.
  • However, since the last three samyōjana of māna, uddacca, avijjā are still there, that person will not be able to attain Parinibbāna either. In other words, gandhabba cannot die either.
  • Then “that person” will remain in the gandhabba state until his kammic energy for the human bhava runs out. That is called the “Anatarāpainibbiyāni” state.
  • That is discussed in the “Samyojana Sutta (Anguttara Nikaya 4:131): “..Katamassa, bhikkhave, puggalassa orambhāgiyāni saṃyojanāni pahīnāni, upapat­ti­paṭi­lābhi­yāni saṃyojanāni pahīnāni, bhava­paṭi­lābhi­yāni saṃyojanāni appahīnāni? Antarā­pari­nib­bā­yissa”.
  • The first five samyojanā are called orambhāgiyā saṃyojanā. Rūpa rāga and arūpa rāga are collectively called upapat­ti­paṭi­lābhi­yā saṃyojanā, and māna, uddacca, avijjā are collectively called bhava­paṭi­lābhi­yā samyōjana.

There are many posts on gandhabba: “Mental Body – Gandhabba,” “The Grand Unified Theory of Dhamma,” and “Gandhabba (Manomaya Kaya).”

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