Mathomathis would like present an article on Life in the Womb: Conception and Gestation in Buddhist Scripture and Classical Indian Medical Literature By Author: Robert Kritzer


The first Noble Truth of Buddhism asserts that all is suffering. In this context, the word “all” means all conditioned things, that is to say, all worldly things. Hence anything that perpetuates the cycle of rebirth in this world can be considered antithetical to liberation and subject to condemnation. A number of Buddhist sutras, meditation manuals, and doctrinal texts, probably written before the third century, describe in various degrees of completeness the stages between one lifetime and the next. Th e process of rebirth begins at the moment of death in one life, continues through the intermediate existence or antarābhava, the moment of conception, and the period of gestation, and culminates in the moment of birth in the next life. Among the Buddhist texts that take up the topic, the Garbhāvā krāntisūtra presents the most detailed description of conception and gestation.

Little has been written about this fascinating sūtra. In this chapter, author  compare it’s accounts of the crucial moment of conception and the period of gestation with accounts in Indian medical literature, particularly the Charaka Samhita. On the one hand, there are many similarities, which may be the result of mutual influence between the Buddhist sūtra and the medical texts as well as possible borrowing from a now-lost common source. On the other hand, there are also considerable differences, which can be explained at least in part by the fact that the sūtra and the medical texts have different purposes. Before examining the Garbhavakrantisutra, author will start out by briefly discussing some non-Buddhist Indian religious texts that include descriptions of the rebirth process so that the special features of the sutra will stand out in contrast. Th e texts that I mention are not particularly old; in fact, they are all probably more recent than the sūtra. But we cannot conclude that they are based on the sutra. It is more likely that they borrow from the same common sources as the sūtra and the medical literature.

Rebirth Accounts in Non-Buddhist Religious Texts:- 

In stories of the Buddha’s birth, the Buddha, unlike ordinary people, is said to be born in a state of complete purity, unblemished by the messy fluids that normally characterize birth. Furthermore, he causes his mother none of the usual discomforts of pregnancy and childbirth, and he emerges from her side rather than be born in the conventional way. As a result, he completely avoids the “suffering at birth” (janmaduh-kha) and is able to remain conscious for the entire period of conception, gestation, and birth.1 Uniquely, the Buddha remembers all his past lives and embarks upon his last birth confident that he will achieve enlightenment. Th e experience of ordinary people is quite different. Because of the oppressive environment of the womb and the narrowness of the vagina, they lose consciousness when they are born and, with it, all memory of their past lives. As a result, they are doomed to ignorance and to continued suffering in samsāra. A number of non- Buddhist texts, summarized by Hara, describe how the fetus is folded and distorted in the womb, how it is tormented by contact with the food the mother consumes and with her feces and urine, how it is squeezed unbearably by the vagina, and how it is shocked unconscious when it touches the outside air.

Other texts go into some detail regarding the development of the fetus in the womb. According to the Agnipurāna, the soul (jīva), aft er entering the womb, first becomes kalala (liquid in consistency). In the second month, it becomes ghana (a solid mass). In the third month, the limbs develop; in the fourth, bones, skin, and flesh. In the fifth month, body hair appears. In the sixth, consciousness develops. In the seventh month, the fetus experiences suffering. Its body is covered with the placenta, and its hands are folded on its forehead. If it is female, it is positioned on the left , if male, on the right, and it faces its mother’s back. If it is neuter, it is positioned in the middle of the belly. Th e fetus knows without doubt in whose womb it is. Furthermore, it knows its past lives since it was first born as a human, and it experiences darkness and great pain. Also in the seventh month, the fetus obtains nourishment consumed by its mother. In the eighth and ninth months, it is greatly afflicted, receiving pain when the mother has sex or is very active and being ill when she is ill. A moment seems like a hundred years; the fetus is tortured by its karma, and it wishfully vows, “Brahman, freed from the womb,  will achieve knowledge of liberation.” The fetus is finally turned head downward by the birthwind and goes out, being pressed by the restraint of the vagina, and, for the first month of life outside the womb, it is pained by the mere touch of a hand.

The Garbhopanishad also gives a brief, month-by-month description: During the first month, the fetus passes through the stages of kalala, budbuda (bubblelike), and pin․d․a (a roundish lump), becoming solid by the end of the first month. By the end of two months, the head has developed; aft er three months, the feet; four, the ankles, belly, and hips; five, the back; six, the mouth, nose, eyes, and ears. In the seventh month, the fetus is joined with the soul (jīva). In the eighth month, it is complete in its parts, the sex and certain birth defects are determined, and the senses and consciousness can operate. In the ninth month, it is complete in all its qualities and knowledge, and it remembers its past births and its good and bad karma. Aft er this, the fetus contemplates the suffering of repeated births and deaths and resolves to study Sāmkhya and Yoga in order to achieve emancipation, but when it is born, it forgets its rebirths and karma.

Another account is found in a Jaina text, the Tandulaveyāliya. This work consists of groups of verses separated by prose passages, and there are some minor differences between the verses and the prose. According to the prose account, in the first month, the fetus weighs three-quarters of a pala (about 75 grams). In the second month, it is called pesī, which is described as being ghana, or solid. In the third month, two-heartedness (dohala) develops. Th is is the condition in which the fetus influences the mother, who develops inexplicable whims. In the fourth month, the fetus causes the mother’s body to swell up. In the fifth month, five lumps, namely the hands, feet, and head, develop. In the sixth month, bile and blood accumulate. In the seventh month, the fetus develops seven hundred veins, five hundred muscles, nine arteries, and 35 million pores. Th e fetus is complete in the eighth month, and birth takes place in the ninth. These accounts display some differences, as can be seen in the accompanying table. One thing we notice in comparing these three texts is that there is little agreement regarding the precise terms assigned to each of the earliest stages of the fetus, although similar words appear in all texts, such as kalala and ghana. However, the most striking difference among the texts is that the description in the Tandulaveyāliya, the shortest of the three, does not refer to the subjective experience. Table shown below provides A Comparison of the Development of the Fetus in the Agnipurāna, Garbhopanishad, and Tandulaveyāliya [Jaina]
Month Agnipurāna Garbhopanishad Tandulaveyāliya [Jaina]
1 Soul enters the womb becomes kalala Kalala, bubuda, pinda; becomes solid (kathina) verse prose: kalala, abuya, pesī, ghana
weight: 3/4 pala
2 Becomes solid (ghana) Head develops Becomes pesī, which is solid (ghana)
3 Limbs develop Feet develop Two-heartedness (dohala) develops
4 Bones, skin, flesh develop Ankles, belly, hips develop The mother’s body swells up
5 Body hair appears Back develops Hands, feet, and head develop
6 Consciousness appears Mouth, nose, eyes, ears develop Bile and blood accumulate
7 Fetus experiences suffering, knows its career Fetus is joined with soul 700 veins, 500 muscles, nine arteries, 35 million pores develop
8 Receives pain from mother’s activities, vows to attain liberation after birth Complete in all parts, consciousness can operate Fetus is completed
9 Head turned downward by the birth-wind, pressed by the vagina, experiences pain after birth Complete in all qualities, remembers past births and karma, resolves to achieve emancipation, forgets past births and karma upon being born Birth takes place

of the fetus. However, the group of verses that are found at the end of the first section of the text elaborates on the suffering of birth in a way similar to the other texts. Thus, although the month-by-month account in the Tandulaveyāliya is more neutral and, as we shall see, closer to accounts found in the medical texts, it is put to use in the same way as those of the other religious texts in emphasizing the ills of samsāra and encouraging the pursuit of liberation. The most dramatic religious account of the rebirth process, however, is found in the Buddhist Garbhāvakrāntisūtra. Although it shares many features with the non-Buddhist texts mentioned here, it is far richer in medical or pseudo medical detail, and, especially in the later version, it is far more insistent on its religious message, intent upon illustrating the first Buddhist Noble Truth of suffering in every stage of the rebirth process.