Substances according to the Vātsīputrīyas

Little is known about the Vātsīputrīyas who are an ancient (3rd c.) group of Buddhists mostly known because of their pudgalavāda ‘doctrine about the [existence of] persons’. Since they seem to be referred to only in connection with this teaching, I was surprised to find them mentioned by Veṅkaṭanātha in 14th c. South India.

The context is that of a discussion about substance. Veṅkaṭanātha feels the need to respond to the (no longer actual) criticisms of some Buddhist opponents from long ago and tries to establish the persistence of substance through time on the basis of the fact that we can, for instance, touch what we had previously seen, a phenomenon which would be unexplainable if one were to seize only qualia without substrate. The Buddhist point of view is presented as the pūrvapakṣa one needs to defeat:

evam āhur vaibhāṣikāḥ—

nirādhārā nirdharmakāś ca rūpādayaś catvāraḥ padārthāḥ. te cakṣurādyekaikendriyagrāhyāḥ iti. (SS ad TMK 1.8)

So said the Vaibhāṣikas:

“The categories are four, beginning with the visible, [and] they are without support and without characteristics. They are perceivable by only one sense-faculty [respectively], beginning with the sight (for the visible) and so on.”

This is somewhat surprising, since I do not know of Vaibhāṣikas upholding the existence of four instead of five skandhas. Anyway, the reference to rūpa makes one think of the group rūpa-vedanā-saṃjñā-saṃskāra-vijñāna, perhaps in the form of the classification rūpa-citta-caitta-cittaviprayukta found in Vasubandhu’s AKBh.

Immediately thereafter, however, comes the verse about Vātsīputrīyas, which reads as follows:

vātsīputrās tu śabdādīn pañca vaibhāṣikā viduḥ |

śabdātmānaś caturṣv eva kecid ity apare ‘bruvan ||

Here, the reference to śabda brings one back to śabda-sparśa-gandha-rasa-rūpa classification.

I am not sure I can translate the verse correctly, but due to the preceding one, I would try something like:

Others say, by contrast, that the Vātsīputra Vaibhāṣikas know five [categories] beginning with śabda [and] that [these categories] consist in śabda [etc.], instead of only four [categories] (as maintained above).

Does it mean that the Vatsīputrīyas recognised the substances usually acknowledged in “Hindu” systems?

Comments and discussions are welcome. Be sure you are making a point and contributing to the discussion.

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4 thoughts on “Substances according to the Vātsīputrīyas

    • Thank you, Dominik, this is a very good question, and one I am myself struggling with. A commentator on the text above is still able to add a few details on a pseudoetymology of “Vātsīputra”, but apart from that Veṅkaṭanātha seems to be almost a unicum in his milieu. I have discussed some hypotheses (including the fact that there were some Theravādin communities in South India —who seem not to be relevant here, since they do not seem to have preserved non-Theravāda texts—; and more interestingly perhaps, some Jaina libraries) here:

  1. Hi Elisa,
    Thank you for this stimulating post.
    I doubt that rūpādayaś catvāraḥ padārthāḥ would refer to the skandhas. I might be wrong. but I find more plausible that here two abhidharma-classifications of sense objects are briefly compared.
    All the Best,

    • Many thanks! After a discussion with Prof. Katsura, I found a passage in the Abhidharmakośa which might be relevant to this issue. I will write about it soon and would be glad to read your opinion about it.