21. Sakkapañha Sutta

Sakka’s Questions

A God Consults the Buddha

1.1.[263]Thus have I heard.579 Another Sutta with a mythological background, and some truly remarkable features, including the amazing conceit of having Pañcasikha the gandhabba attract the Buddha’s attention by means of a love-song! But all this should not blind us to the fact that some deep matters are discussed in the body of the Sutta — just a little like those later Sutras in which the Lord discussed the mysteries of the Prajñāpāramitā with Subhuti against a gorgeous mythological backdrop. Once the Lord was staying in Magadha, to the east of Rājagaha, by a Brahmin village called Ambasaṇḍā, to the north of the village on Mount Vediya, in the Indasāla Cave.580 RD disbelieves in any original association of this cave and tree with the god Indra (who is, or is not exactly, identical with the Sakka we meet here). The cave was still inhabited at the time of the visit of the Chinese pilgrim Fa-hsien (ca. 405 C.E.), but by the time of Hsüan-tsang (ca. 630) it was deserted. And at that time Sakka, lord of the gods,581 Sakka is the ruler of the Thirty-Three Gods, in a heaven which still belongs to the Realm of Sense-Desires (kāmāvacara), above that of the Four Great Kings but far below the Realm of Brahmā - actually quite a lowly position in the Buddhist scheme of things (see Introduction, p. 41). RD has a useful summary of information about him in the introduction to this Sutta, with a list of his titles and a discussion of the question of how far he can be identified with Indra. felt a strong desire to see the Lord. And Sakka thought: ‘Where is the Blessed Lord, the fully-enlightened Buddha, now staying?’ Then, perceiving where the Lord was, Sakka said to the Thirty-Three Gods: ‘Gentlemen, the Blessed Lord is staying in Magadha...in the Indasāla Cave. How would it be if we were to go and visit the Lord?’ ‘Very good, Lord, and may good fortune go with you’, replied the Thirty-Three Gods.

1.2.Then Sakka said to Pañcasikha of the gandhabbas: [264] ‘The Blessed Lord is staying in Magadha...in the Indasāla Cave. I propose to go to visit him.’ ‘Very good, Lord’, said Pañcasikha and, taking his yellow beluva-wood lute,582 The vīnā is better known in the West today by its Indian name than it was in RD’s time. RD mistakenly calls it a lyre, but it is definitely a kind of lute. The author of the article beluva in PED calls it a flute (and the mistake is repeated under pandu, so is not, apparently, a misprint). It would surely have been beyond the powers of Pañcasikha, or of Krishna himself, to accompany his own song on the flute! he followed in attendance on Sakka. And, just as swiftly as a strong man might stretch forth his flexed arm, or flex it again, Sakka, surrounded by the Thirty-Three Gods and attended by Pañcasikha, vanished from the heaven of the Thirty-Three and appeared in Magadha...on Mount Vediya.

1.3.Then a tremendous light shone over Mount Vediya, illuminating the village of Ambasaṇḍā — so great was the power of the gods — so that in the surrounding villages they were saying: ‘Look, Mount Vediya is on fire today — it’s burning — it’s in flames! What is the matter, that Mount Vediya and Ambasaṇḍā are lit up like this?’ and they were so terrified that their hair stood on end.

1.4.Then Sakka said: ‘Pañcasikha, [265] it is hard for the likes of us to get near the Tathāgatas when they are enjoying the bliss of meditation,583 Jhāna, according to Sakka, but he would scarcely have known what kind of meditation the Tathāgata was practising! and therefore withdrawn. But if you, Pañcasikha, were first to attract584 Pasādeyyāsi: ‘please, attract, charm’. Not the most appropriate term (RD has ‘win overʹ), but suited to Pancasikhaʹs talents. the ear of the Blessed Lord, then we might afterwards be able to approach and see the Blessed Lord, the fully-enlightened Buddha.’ ‘Very good, Lord’, said Pañcasikha and, taking his yellow beluva-wood lute, he approached the Indasāla Cave. Thinking: ‘As far as this is neither too far nor too near to the Lord, and he will hear my voice’, he stood to one side. Then, to the strains of his lute, he sang these verses extolling the Buddha, the Dhamma, the Arahants, and love: