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Kassapa the Mesopotamian: Buddhism and the Near East by Indrajala

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Kassapa the Mesopotamian: Buddhism and the Near East
By Indrajala (Jeffrey Kotyk)


Until fairly recently it had been generally misunderstood that the Buddha's heritage was essentially Vedic and that his movement was a reaction against Brahmanism, though as recent research has concluded it would seem that Śākyamuni's Indo-European culture was related to yet distinct from the Vedic Āryans to the west, and moreover Brahmanism was not so significant in his homeland.

Bronkhorst in his works Greater Magadha and Buddhism Under the Shadow of Brahmanism details in great length how the Greater Magadha region (present day Bihar and West Bengal in modern India) was related to but culturally quite distinct from the Vedic peoples to the west (the Kuru-Pañcāla region comprising northwest India/Pakistan around the upper to mid reaches of the Gaṅgā and Yamunā rivers). Both peoples were migrants into the Indian subcontinent and shared a common ancestry as Indo-Āryans, though they diverged from one another culturally and linguistically over time. They initially had many common gods, such as Indra among others, though their religious proclivities went in different directions.

The Kuru-Pañcāla in a period before the Buddha's time developed what we would understand as Vedic orthodoxy and orthopraxy, while Magadha to the east maintained their earlier traditions along with embracing śramaṇa spirituality. The Vedic peoples in this period regarded the peoples of Magadha as impure and uncultivated – a land that spoke a distorted dialect and was polluted, requiring purification when returning from it. While it appears Magadha was aware of the Vedas and probably hosted their own native Brahmin priests, neither were so significant.


Nevertheless, the earlier idea that Buddhism was a reaction to Brahmanism is still widespread. Geoffrey Samuel in his work The Origins of Yoga and Tantra Indic Religions to the Thirteenth Century explains as follows:

It would seem that by the time of the historical Buddha and of the Jaina teacher Mahāvīra, the generic Indo-Aryan cultural tradition was an accepted part of society through much of the Central Gangetic region. There were also Brahmins and a degree of movement between the Brahmins of this region and those of Kuru-Pañcāla. It seems clear, however, that the nature of Vedic and Brahmanical religion in this region was different and considerably less dominant than in the Kuru-Pañcāla region.[1]

Basically around the Buddha's era there were two unique and clearly self-conscious cultural spheres in northern India: the Brahmanical heartland to the west and a “Greater Magadha” to the east.

This is also reflected in the archaeological record. The distribution of two pottery styles seem to reflect these two cultural spheres: the painted gray ware (PGW) in the Indo-Gangetic divide throughout the Doab and the black slipped ware (BSW) towards the east. The former is generally linked to the early Brahmanical culture of the area. While nothing definitive can be concluded from pottery distribution, it is still remarkable. Erdosy notes the following:

While it may be a mistake to equate the distribution of this ware [PGW] with an effective social group, the coincidence of the territory of madhyadeśa, representing the heartland of ārya orthodoxy, with it is striking.[2]

To some extent the Buddha's homeland was even materially different from the Brahmanical cultures to the west. The misunderstanding that Buddhism was a reaction to Brahmanism further arises from later sources which, as Bronkhorst explains, “colonized” the past and made it seem more significant than it really was:

Among the methods used by the new Brahmanism to attain its goals we must count the adoption of a new life-style, and the composition of literary works that address both a brahmanical and non-brahmanical audience to emphasize the features and claims that Brahmins presented as rightfully and inherently theirs. All these tolls share one feature: they all deny that the new Brahmanism is new at all. Brahmanism and all that is part of it has always been there, and is the very opposite of new. The sacred language of the Brahmins, for example, came to be thought of as being without beginning: Sanskrit is eternal, the original language that is as old or older than the world itself. The same applies to other aspects of brahmanical culture.
This tendency to colonize the past expresses itself in a particularly interesting manner in the way in which Brahmanism came to think of the cause of their past agonies. Remember that the Maurya empire had spelt disaster for Brahmanism. What better way to take revenge than by claiming that this mighty empire, far from almost vanquishing Brahmanism, had obeyed the brahmanical order of things? Rudradāman's inscription, studied in the preceding chapter, shows that this is what he, or his advisers believed. What is more, the Maurya empire had itself been created by brahmanical acumen. … Such colonization of the past became all the easier in later days when the influence of Brahmins at court had become a fact with which all were familiar. ...[T]he Buddhists of the subcontinent came to reformulate their own past in brahmanical terms. Accepting that the Maurya empire had been created with the help of a brahmanical minister may have come to be looked upon as natural, even by Buddhists.[3]

A reading of early and later Buddhist literature will reveal said reformulation the past which understandably if not understood gives the modern reader the impression that Brahmanical culture was much more significant in Magadha than it really was originally. The Buddha was aware of Vedic culture and clearly interacted with it, but he was not reacting against it. This misconception still pervades mainstream thought as Samuel points out:

As for the suggestion, still prevalent in the popular literature, that Buddhism represented a protest against the pre-existing Brahmanical caste system, there seems little truth in this. The Buddha's comments on Brahmin claims of high caste suggest less an opposition to an already imposed caste system than a refusal by a spiritual leader belonging to an established group of high status to accept a new imported Vedic-Brahmanical model in which the Brahmins are supreme. References to Vedic material in the earliest Buddhist literature are limited although there is evident knowledge of the existence of the Rg, Sāma and Yajur Vedas and suggestions of detailed engagement with Vedic ideas.[4]

Essentially we can discern two major Indo-Āryan cultures of north India during and before the Buddha's time stemming from a common source. We can trace such a common source back further. The Indo-Āryans were related to the Indo-Iranians whose own Avestan (the language of Zoroastrian scripture) hymns are often near identical to certain Vedic hymns. Consider the following:

yo vo apo vasvish yajate asuranish asurasya vashishthabyo hotrabhyo
yo vo apo vanguhish yazaite ahuranish ahurahe vahishtabyo zaothrabyo
He who worships you, the good waters, the Ahurian wives of Ahura, with best libations.

We also know that Indo-Europeans, distantly related to the Indo-Āryans of India, settled in the Tarim Basin (Kucha, Khotan, etc.) and perhaps western China proper at a presumably very early date given the existence of Indo-European loanwords in Old Chinese (written records commence from around 1200 BCE onward).[5]

We know that both aforementioned groups of Indo-Āryan culture were ultimately not indigenous to the Indian subcontinent. This of course begs the question where it came from, but more importantly did it ever accumulate noteworthy foreign elements from elsewhere that were digested and then passed on to the cultures of which it branched off into throughout the subcontinent?

The oldest datable record concerning the religion of an Indo-Āryan people is found in the Near East. The Mitanni inscription details a peace treaty between the Hittites and the Hurrian kingdom of the Mitanni. It dates from between 1360-1380 BCE. The text invokes the names of five male deities, easily recognizable as Vedic Sanskrit for Mitra, Varuṇa, Indra and the twin divine horsemen or Nāsatyas (Aśvins).[6]

There were thus readily identifiable Indo-Āryan people present and clearly successfully settled in the Bronze Age Near East around the time when the Indus Valley civilization in India was in its final collapse, yet still before the Bronze Age collapse, when between 1206 and 1150 the Mycenaean kingdoms, the Hittite Empire in Anatolia and Syria, and the New Kingdom of Egypt in Syria and Canaan all collapsed.

There is evidence that Mesopotamian civilization in fact significantly influenced Indo-Āryan cultures one way or another, perhaps also with long-distance trade coupled with the later migration of Āryans into the Indian subcontinent through the northwest.

Indus Valley seal. National Museum of India.

We know that there were trade links between Mesopotamia and the Indus Valley civilization in northwest India. While the latter fell into decline and ruin, pastoralist Āryan people, also related to the ancestors of the Persians, probably simultaneously migrated into northwest India and beyond to the east. The Vedic tradition seems to describe the original Indus Valley people as asuras, so they were in contact for a time. We could surmise that the early Indo-Āryans migrating into India also had a degree of access to trade with the Near East.

Thomas McEvilley in his work The Shape of Ancient Thought Comparative Studies in Greek and Indian Philosophies describes at great length complex contacts and relationships between Indian and Hellenic philosophies, but also notes some of the very ancient influences on the Vedas from Mesopotamian sources. This is remarkable but also makes sense given the existence of Āryan peoples in Mesopotamia in the 14th century BCE.

In India in the late second millennium – the Middle Vedic period in terms of Sanskrit literary history – the reexpanding trade with the Near East brought with it elements of cultural diffusion. Contact with the Mesopotamian cultural stream may have left significant traces in the pantheistic hymns, of a type found widely in the Near East, in the the tenth book of the Rg Veda and in the appearance of Akkadian words in the Atharva Veda, both of which seem to have been taking shape at about the time the Neat Eastern trade was revived.[7]

McEvilley dates the wave of Akkadian influence to around 1000 BCE (this is incidentally during the Bronze Age dark age), further identifying two Akkadian words apsu and tiamat which originate from the Creation Epic.[8] Tiamat is known as a monster of chaos or a primordial ocean goddess who mates with Apsu (the god of freshwater) to produce younger gods.There are many more Akkadian loanwords found in Vedic literature.


Akkadian we will recall was a widely spoken and read language, plus the earliest recorded Semitic language, in Mesopotamia. It was in use from the 29th century BCE until it declined into mere academic or liturgical use before finally dying around 100 CE. It was a lingua franca amongst the various peoples of Mesopotamia who produced vast amounts of literature in it using cuneiform script.

There is one intriguing theory proposed by Malati J. Shendge in her work The Language of the Harappans: From Akkadian to Sanskrit that the earlier Indus Valley civilization, which she identifies as the Asura culture described in Vedic literature, was Akkadian speaking. It collapsed but still exercised a degree of linguistic influence on later inhabitants. She discerns over 400 words in both Sanskrit and Akkadian with comparable semantic and phonetic similarities, including the names of famous deities like Uma, Śiva, Viṭhobā and Vitthala, as well as kinship terminology for the Asuras, names for body parts and various other words (for example sūnu (son) in Sanskrit corresponds to Akkadian Śumu).

If her theory is true (there are many theories about the Harappans, many of which uncomfortably tied to matters of nationalism and ethnic identity in India), then it aids in explaining the origins of Akkadian loanwords in Vedic Sanskrit, though I would add these same loanwords would also be found to some extent in the other non-Brahmanical Indian languages spoken in India.

For example, one other noteworthy Indic name also found in Akkadian and Sumerian sources is Kaśyapa (in Pali Kassapa). One will recall that one of the Buddha's chief disciples was Mahā-Kaśyapa. The past buddha immediately prior to Śākyamuni was called Kaśyapa. Malati J. Shendge provides the following details:

1. Kaśyapaḥ:
Kaśyapo Māricaḥ, PN composer of RV I.99, VIII.29; Rebhaḥ Kaśyapaḥ, family name of the composer of RV VIII.97. With this, cp. Sum. Kaššeba, king (priest-king?), Akk. Kaššāpu, sorcerer, (denotes sun-god Šamaš), also kašāpu, to use charms, bewitch, OB on, Kaššeba (=Šamaš)
In Indian sources, the name was borne by the husband of Aditi and father of the Ādityas (Varuṇa, Mitra, etc. seven). He was obviously a very ancient mythical personage who was connected with creation.[9]

Personal names have a tendency to be preserved across time and multiple cultures. For instance, plenty of people in the English speaking world today have Hebrew names that are traced back to the Biblical Near East. Kaśyapa seems to have been a common enough name for Āryan peoples both in the Vedic cultural sphere and Greater Magadha, though it seems it is traceable to Near Eastern origins. So, there was once a Mesopotamian named Kaššāpu or, as they say in Pali, Kassapa. The existence of such Mesopotamian personal names in even early Buddhist literature suggests there was probably a lot more deeper influences from the Near East even in the Buddha's cultural heritage.

As noted above, various Vedic gods, also have cognates found in Akkadian sources. It is undeniable that Mesopotamian civilization influenced the Āryan peoples linguistically, culturally and religiously. With respect to religion, McEvilley notes:

The India macranthropic hymns begin to appear in the tenth book of the Rg Veda, in the Middle Vedic period (roughly 1000 B.C.). At the same time, the Atharva Veda shows Akkadian loan-words and remnants of Akkadian mythological names. In the Puruṣasūkta, or Hymn to the Cosmic Person, in the tenth book of the Rg Veda (X.90), the universe is described as a giant human body. The structure of the hymns parallels Akkadian examples in its tendency to allegorize the body of the pantheos from the top down.[10]

There is also the possibility that elements of śramaṇa culture – specifically the asceticism – can also be traced to Near Eastern sources. While some modern scholars speculate that the śramaṇa culture emerged during the second urbanization on the subcontinent, there is no clear evidence to determine this as certain. However, we do know that ascetic practices similar to what was reported in the Buddha's day were also practiced in Mesopotamia and interestingly in ancient Greece as well. Again McEvilley:

Wandering seers such as the Vratyas were active in the Middle Vedic period in India and, like the Greek cults mentioned, seem to have carried some traditional Mesopotamian elements. … The assortment of characters who gathered in the milieu of ancient temples in the Near East and eastern Mediterranean displayed a mixed array of strange practices such as browzing (cattle imitation), a common ascetic vow in India known to have been practiced in Mesopotamia in antiquity also.[11]

The influences from the Near East continued well into ancient Indian history. One prime example is the existence of Babylonian elements in Indian astrology/astronomy (the distinction is a modern one), which was later incorporated into some areas of Indian Buddhism starting perhaps around 400 BCE. The scholar David Edwin Pingree (1933-2005) after a lifetime of study divided Indian astrology into four categories based on the origins of the material:

I. Vedic (c.1000-400 BCE)
II. Babylonian (400 BCE-200 CE): Vedāṅgajyotiṣa
III. Greco-Babylonian (c200-400): Yavanajātaka
IV. Greek (c400-1600): Āryabhaṭīya.
V. Islamic (c1600-1800)

Considering the aforementioned existence of Akkadian religious and linguistic elements in Vedic Sanskrit, the introduction of Babylonian elements could possibly be determined as even earlier. However, the native Indian literature itself does not recognize the existence of foreign elements in their models. Likewise, modern Neo-Hindu adepts in classical Indian astronomy/astrology like Richard Thomson would argue that Vedic astronomy (jyotiṣa) was indigenous to Vedic culture which moreover was native to north India.

Vaiṣṇava tradition indicates that the jyotiṣa śāstra is indigenous to Vedic culture, and this is supported by the fact that the astronomical siddhāntas do not acknowledge foreign source material. The modern scholarly view that all important aspects of Indian astronomy were transmitted to India from Greek sources is therefore tantamount to an accusation of fraud. Although scholars of the present day do not generally declare this openly in their published writings, they do declare it by implication, and the accusation was explicitly made by the first Indologists in the early nineteenth century.[12]

Such hostility towards more scientific approaches to scholarship still does not negate that foreign elements are clearly discernible within classical Indian astronomy. As noted above, one hindrance in discussing such subjects as this is that strong religious and nationalistic sentiments exist in contemporary Indology. I know this from personal experience.

As noted above, Vedic civilization came to dominate and heavily influence Buddhism to the point that Buddhist past itself was “colonized” by such ideas retroactively. Vedic astrology was also further incorporated into some Buddhist sūtras (see my article here). This was one such conduit through which various Near East ideas came through into Buddhism, which was further transmitted onward in modified forms to the rest of Asia.

Later Near Eastern-influenced Hellenic elements would like have a significant role to play in transmitting aspects of ancient Mesopotamian into India, though this is a topic for a future post. Here we will summarize the points above:

To understand Buddhism requires an understanding of the Buddha's cultural heritage and the environment in which the early sangha developed. However, that greater Indo-Āryan environment was also subject to organic change and foreign influences over time. This of course is quite difficult trace and understand given the lack of historical records and other issues. Nevertheless, as demonstrated above, there were in fact many influences on that environment coming from Mesopotamia: linguistically, culturally and religiously.

As we explored in an earlier post Rome, Persia, China and Indian Buddhism, there is a need to understand the greater Eurasian context when considering any social movement or historical development. Admittedly, this requires a comprehensive understanding of a vast amount of history, though the results are often thought provoking and raise many more questions.


  1. Geoffrey Samuel, The Origins of Yoga and Tantra Indic Religions to the Thirteenth Century (New Delhi, India: Cambridge University Press, 2008), 100.
  2. Quoted in Geoffrey Samuel, 45.
  3. Johannes Bronkhorst, Buddhism in the Shadow of Brahmanism Handbook of Oriental Studies (Leiden: Brill, 2011), 66-74.
  4. Geoffrey Samuel, 100.
  5. See “Indo-European Vocabulary in Old Chinese A New Thesis on the Emergence of Chinese Language and Civilization in the Late Neolithic Age” by Tsung-tung Chang:
  6. Geoffrey Samuel, 96.
  7. Thomas McEvilley, The Shape of Ancient Thought Comparative Studies in Greek and Indian Philosophies (New Delhi, India: Motilal Banarsidass Publishers, 2008), 2.
  8. Thomas McEvilley, 29.
  9. Malati J. Shendge, The Language of the Harappans: From Akkadian to Sanskrit (New Delhi, India: Abhinav Publications, 1997), 208.
  10. Thomas McEvilley, 26.
  11. Thomas McEvilley, 17.
  12. Richard L. Thompson, Vedic Cosmography and Astronomy (Delhi, India: Motilal Banarsidass, 2004), 15-17.


by Indrajala (Jeffrey Kotyk)