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Predecessors and Prototypes: Towards a Conceptual History of the Buddhist Antarābhava

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The Buddhist Sanskrit term antarābhava refers quite literally to existence (bhava) in an interval (antarā) and designates the temporal space between death and subsequent rebirth. It is apparent that, among the early schools of Buddhism in India, the status of this intermediate existence inspired considerable controversy. However, in spite of its controversial beginnings, the concept of the antarābhava continued to flourish and to exert a significant force upon the theories and practices of the later Northern Buddhist traditions. Questions concerning the conceptual origins of this notion and its theoretical connections with earlier Indian systems of thought have received little scholarly attention, despite a growing popularity of literature on the subject of death in Buddhist traditions. In this essay the possible links between the early conceptual systems of Hinduism (the Vedic and Upaniṣadic traditions) and Buddhism are examined to determine whether certain theoretical developments in Hinduism may have contributed to the emergence of the Buddhist notion of a postmortem intermediate period. The conclusion is drawn that the early Buddhists, in formulating a concept of the antarābhava, borrowed and reinterpreted elements from Hindu cosmography and mythology surrounding the issue of postmortem transition.

Affiliations: 1: Department of Religious Studies Cocke Hall, University of Virginia Charlottesville, Virginia 22903, USA


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