Dighanaka: Richard Gombrich has shown beyond any reasonable doubt that the Sutta is a lively and ingenious parody , Buddhaghosa, unfortunately, saw neither the joke nor the allegory of the Aganna Sutta, took the whole thing literally, and left the Theravada tradition saddled with a creation story so laughable it makes the creationism of Christian fundamentalists seem like sound science.
Robert: Certainly an Oxford don like Richard Gombrich has impeccable academic credentials with numerous peer-reviewed publications in his field of pali studies. Nevertheless, there are other academics, well-versed in pali, and published in peer-reviewed journals who reach different conclusions from the esteemed professor.
Dr. Rupert Gethin wrote an article in the prestigious ‘History of Religion’ journal (Vol.36, No.3,1997),
""According to Gombrich the first half of the discourse introduces the problem of the relative status of brahmanas and suddas; this question is then dealt with in a tongue-in-cheek satirical manner by the Aganna myth. Gombrich regards the overall form of the Agganna- sutta as we have it as attributable to the Buddha himself and thus original. But for Gombrich the text is “primarily satirical and parodistic in intent,” although in time the jokes were lost on its readers and the myth came to be misunderstood by Buddhist tradition “as being a more or less straight-faced account of how the universe, and in particular society, originated.”
…Gombrich’s arguments for the essential unity of the Agganna text as we have it are extremely persuasive, yet I would DISAGREE with the implication that we should regard the mythic portions of the Agganna-sutta as solely satirical. It…seems to me UNLIKELY that, for the original compiler (s) of and listeners to the discourse, the mythic portion of the sutta could have been intended to be understood or actually understood in its entirety as a joke at the expense of the poor old brahanas. . The question I would therefore ask is, Do we have any particular historical reasons for supposing that it is unlikely that the Buddha should have recounted a more or less straight-faced cosmogonic myth?
My answer is that we do not. Indeed, I want to ARGUE THE OPPOSITE: what we can know of the cultural milieu in which the Buddha operated and in which the first Buddhist texts were composed suggests that someone such as the Buddha might very well have presented the kind of myth contained in the Agganna-sutta as something more than merely a piece of satire. Far from being out of key with what we can understand of early Buddhist thought from the rest of the Nikayas, the cosmogonic views offered by the Agganna-sutta in fact harmonize extremely well with it. I would go further and say that something along the lines of what is contained in the Agganna myth is actually REQUIRED by the logic of what is generally accepted as Nikaya Buddhism.
Note that Dr. Gethin is no strong believer in the sutta (in fact, he considers it a myth); he is not labouring under the weight of piety towards the Theravada like me. Yet, despite Gombrich showing ‘beyond any reasonable doubt’(according to you) that the sutta is a parody Gethin reaches an opposite conclusion.
Who is right? Well, another leading academic, Steve Collins, has said he agrees with Gombrich, so perhaps the ‘Aganna sutta is a hilarious joke’ theory is now winning the academic battle… Then again there is the thesis put forward by Schneider and Meisig that the Aganna sutta had some input from the Buddha but that later monks added on the bulk of the cosmological pieces; so is that the actual truth? Or will another scholar weigh in and support Gethin, or will a completely different theory emerge oneday?