Antarabhava and Gandhabbaya

July 29, 2016

Title pronunciation:

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

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

2. Antarabhava (“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 a 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 the existence as a deer).
  • Therefore, indeed there is no antarabhava. The time lapse from the cuti citta to the patisandhi citta is negligibly small.

3. The important point is that bhava and jati are two different things. That is why in paticca samupada there is a step, “bhava paccaya jati“. There can be many “jati” or births as a human within a single human bhava; see, “Bhava and Jati – States of Existence and Births“.

  • Living beings in human and animal realms are not born with fully-formed physical bodies. In all other 29 realms, beings are born with full-formed bodies, which are called opapatika or instantaneous births. Thus a deva or brahma is born with fully-formed bodies.
  • This means a deva or brahma will have basically the same body during that bhava, even though that body will undergo changes.

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.

5. This 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; that is true 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 “äyukkhaya marana“, i.e., the end of life for the physical body (here “äyu” means lifetime); there is still more kammic energy for the human bhava left. There is no cuti citta at that time. There is no change in the gandhabbaya at the moment of death of the physical body.

6. Thus if it is an “äyukkhaya marana“, the gandhabbaya comes out of that dead body and waits for another womb. It is extremely unlikely that there will be a matching womb appearing exactly at the death of a human physical body. In most cases, the gandhabbaya has to wait months and more likely years before a matching womb becomes available (gathi of the gandhabbaya have to match those of the parents).

  • Most deaths due to accidents are not due to “kammakkhaya marana“, i.e., the physical body is destroyed in an unforeseen way. Such deaths are caused by strong kamma vipaka or via natural disasters like floods. Then the person in question will be reborn with a new human body. This is why many rebirths accounts describe death in a previous life due to an accident, murder, etc.
  • Of course one could die with äyukkhaya marana even at old age.

7. Now, the reason that the Mahayanists say that there is an antarabhava is that they believe that the gandhabbaya is not human and is a “in between state”.

  • The irony is that many current Theravadins even refuse to believe the EXISTENCE of a gandhabbaya, simply because they do not want to be classified as taking the side of the Mahayanists. They simply believe that when a human dies — and is going to be reborn human — the second human life is initiated INSTANTANEOUSLY. 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 paccaya jati” in paticca samuppada 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 in the human realm happens 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 Tipitaka as discussed in #12, #13 below.

8. According to the Tipitaka, a full-pledged human appears via a series of steps: Jäti, sanjäthi, okkanthi, abhinibbanthi, khandhänan pätilabho, ayatanan pätilabho. This process is described in detail in “Manomaya Kaya (Gandhabbaya) and the Physical Body“.

  • Here, jati is the patisandhi moment, when the kammaja kaya for the new bhava is produced in a thought moment. Moments later, that kammja kaya is augmented by the cittaja kaya and a utuja kaya and a manomaya kaya (gandhabbaya) is formed; this is the sanjathi moment. This gandhabbaya comes out of the dead body of the previous life (bhava).
  • When that gandhabbaya goes into a suitable womb, that is the okkanthi moment. This is what is described as “vinnana of a prince or princess descending into a womb” in the suttas. Note that by the time descending into a womb, the sex is already determined. It is a gandhabbaya that descends into the womb.
  • There is no place in the Tipitaka that says patisandhi happens in a womb. Rather it says, “…gandhabbaya okkanthi hoti“. 

9. Many rebirth account features can be explained by the  correct interpretation where the manomaya kaya (gandhabbaya) inherits many successive (but time separated) physical bodies.

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

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 gandhabbaya brings in his/her gathi (habits), asava (cravings), keles (mental impurities), etc from the previous life, the physical body for the new life has major contributions from the parents. In fact, the DNA of the physical bodies of two successive lives will be very different due to this reason. The building of a new physical body is described in the post, “What does Buddha Dhamma (Buddhism) say about Birth Control?“.

11. Furthermore, even the mental body of the gandhabbaya WILL change in the next life and thus  gathi (habits), asava (cravings), keles (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 vipaka. 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 the life: If one could attain the Sotapanna stage, then one will not be born into an immoral family; if one attains the Anagami stage of Nibbana, then one will never be born 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 an änantariya päpa kammä (say by killing a parent), then one will definitely be born in the apayas at death, even if there is more kammic energy left in the human bhava.

12. Now, let us discuss more evidence from the Tipitaka. During the night of his Enlightenment, the Buddha (or more accurately the ascetic Siddhartha) first attained the “pubbe nivasanussati nana“, before attaining the “cutupapada nana” and finally the “asavakkhaya nana“. It is the asavakkhaya nana that led to the Buddhahood; see, “The Way to Nibbana – Removal of Asavas“.

  • The first two knowledges (nana; pronounced “gnana”;
    ) can be attained even with anariya jhanas (with limited capabilities). Both those deal with the ability to look back at previous lives. But with the first one, pubbe nivasanussati nanaone could only look at 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 gandhabbaya. In a given human bhava, a gandhabbaya could have many different “houses”, i.e., physical bodies. Thus with this nana, 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, cutupapada nana, extends the capability to see all previous rebirths in any realm. Here cutupapada (cuti means death and upapada means birth) refers to all types of rebirths in various realms (niraya, animal, deva, etc.) in the past.

13. Furthermore, the Buddha described how he saw human gandhabbayas moving from one physical body to the next (in a single human bhava) with the pubbe nivasanussati nana. He described that with the following simile: If one is situated 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 just stay on the street, sometimes sitting in a bench or standing by the road, etc; this is analogous to gandhabbayas just waiting for a physical body (i.e., a womb).
  • Sometimes, a person enter a house and stays there for a long time; this is comparable to a gandhabbaya staying 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; this can be compared to a death at young age.
  • Also, a person could enter a house and immediately come out; this is compared to an abortion or an unsuccessful pregnancy.

Thus the pubbe nivasanussati nana is limited to looking at past human lives. This is a good example that the Buddha clearly stated the concept of the gandhabbaya. The  cutupapada nana, extends the capability to see all previous rebirths in any realm.

14. Now, if a human dies at end of the kammic energy for the human bhava, then the cuti-patisandhi transition does happen at the moment of the death of the physical body. In the specific example of a human to deer transition, now a “deer gandhabbaya” comes out of that dead body and has to wait for a matching “deer womb” to become available.

  • However, if the human was destined 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 gandhabbaya is involved only in human and animal realms; see, “Gandhabbaya – Only in Human and Animal Realms“.

15. Another interesting piece of information comes from how the Buddha (and others with iddhi bala) traveled to deva or brahma loka with the manomaya kaya (which is the same as gandhabbaya), leaving the physical body behind (the physical body does not die in this case, and is kept alive by the rupa jivitindriya). Upon returning, the manomaya kaya can re-enter the physical body.

  • Those who attain the fourth jhana can develop iddhi powers to be able to separate the manomaya kaya from the physical body and travel far with that manomaya kaya. The Buddha stated that just as a sword can be pulled out of its sheath, those with iddhi powers can pull the manomaya kaya out of the physical body.
  • That manomaya kaya 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“. In fact, a gandhabbaya is the same as an “astral body”.
  • In the suttas it is said that the Buddha visited deva or brahma lokas “within the time that takes a bent arm to be straightened”.
  • As an aside, it is also possible for some of those with iddhi powers to travel with the physical body. That involves a different mechanism which is not relevant to this discussion.

16. If you have any other questions or unresolved issues pertaining to this discussion, please send me a comment. I can add to the post to address such questions.




Print Friendly, PDF & Email