Pali text, illustration and English translation of Dhammapada verse 419-420:
cutiṃ yo vedi sattānaṃ upapattiṃ ca sabbaso |
asattaṃ sugataṃ buddhaṃ tamahaṃ brūmi brāhmaṇaṃ || 419 ||
yassa gatiṃ na jānanti devā gandhabbamānusā |
khīṇāsavaṃ arahantaṃ tamahaṃ brūmi brāhmaṇaṃ || 420 ||
419. Who knows how clutching creatures die to reappear in many a mode, unclutching then, sublime, Awake, that one I call a Brahmin True.
420. Whose destination is unknown to humans, spirits or to gods, pollutions stayed, an Arahant, that one I call a Brahmin True.
The Story of the Skull-Tapper
It seems that there lived at Rājagaha a brāhman named Vangīsa, who could tell in which of the states of existence men were reborn at death. He would rap on their skulls and say, “This is the skull of a man who has been reborn in hell;this man has been reborn as an animal; this man has been reborn as a ghost;this is the skull of a man who has been reborn in the world of men.”
The brāhmans thought to themselves, “We can use this man to prey upon the world.” So clothing him in two red robes, they took him about the country with them, saying to everyone they met, “This brāhman Vangīsa can tell by rapping on the skulls of dead men in which of the states of existence they have been reborn;ask him to tell you in which of the states of existence your own kinsmen have been reborn.” People would give him ten pieces of money or twenty or a hundred according to their several means, and would ask him in which of the states of existence their kinsmen had been reborn.
After travelling from place to place, they finally reached Sāvatthi and took up their abode near the Jetavana. After breakfast they saw throngs of people going with perfumes, garlands, and the like in their hands to hear the Dhamma. “Where are you going?” they asked. “To the monastery to hear the Dhamma,” was the reply. ‘What will you gain by going there?” asked the brāhmans; “there is nobody like our fellow brāhman Vangīsa. He can tell by rapping on the skulls of dead men in which of the states of existence they have been reborn. Just ask him in which of the states of existence your own kinsmen have been reborn.” “What does Vangīsa know!” replied the disciples, “there is no one like our Teacher, who is the Buddha.” But the brāhmans retorted, “There is no one like Vangīsa,” and the dispute waxed hot. Finally the disciples said, “Come now, let us go find out which of the two knows the more, your Vangīsa or our Teacher.” So taking the brāhmans with them, they went to the Monastery.
The Buddha, knowing that they were on their way, procured and placed in a row five skulls, one each of men who had been reborn in the four states of existence: hell, the animal world, the world of men, and the world of the deities; and one skull belonging to a man who had attained arahatship. When they arrived, He asked Vangīsa, “Are you the man of whom it is said that by rapping on the skulls of dead men you can tell in which of the states of existence they have been reborn?” “Yes,” said Vangīsa. “Then whose is this skull?” Vangīsa rapped on the skull and said, “This is the skull of a man who has been reborn in Hell.” “Good! good!” exclaimed the Buddha, applauding him. Then the Buddha asked him about the next three skulls, and Vangīsa answered without making a mistake. The Buddha applauded him for each answer he gave and finally showed him the fifth skull. “Whose skull is this?” he asked. Vangīsa rapped on the fifth skull as he had on the others, but confessed that he did not know in which of the states of existence the man had been reborn.
Then said the Buddha, “Vangīsa, don’t you know?” “No,” replied Vangīsa, “I don’t know.” “I know,” the Buddha said. Thereupon, Vangīsa asked him, “Teach me this charm.” “I cannot teach it to one who is not a monk.” Thought the brāhman to himself, “If I only knew this charm, I should be the foremost man in all Jambudīpa.” Accordingly, he dismissed his fellow brāhmans, saying, “Remain right here for a few days; I intend to become a monk.” And he became a monk in the name of the Buddha, was admitted a full member of the Sangha, and was thereafter known as Venerable Vangīsa.
They gave him as his meditation topic the thirty-two constituent parts of the body and said to him, “Repeat the preliminary words of the formula.” He followed their instructions and repeated the preliminary words of the formula. From time to time, the brāhmans would ask him, “Have you learned the formula?” and the Venerable would answer, “Just wait a little! I am learning it.” In but a few days he attained arahatship. When the brāhmans asked him again, he replied, “Brethren, I am now unable to learn it.” When the monks heard his reply, they said to the Buddha, “Venerable, this monk utters what is not true and is guilty of falsehood.” The Buddha replied, “Monks, say not so. Monks, my son now knows all about the passing away and rebirth of beings.”
Explanatory Translation (Verse 419)
yo sattānaṃ cutiṃ ca upapattiṃ ca sabbaso vedi
asattaṃ sugataṃ buddhaṃ taṃ ahaṃ brāhmaṇaṃ brūmi
yo: if someone; sattānaṃ [sattāna]: of beings; cutiṃ [cuti]: the decay; upapattiṃ ca: the birth too; sabbaso [sabbasa]: in every way; vedi: knows; asattaṃ [asatta]: non-attached to any form of birth or death; sugataṃ [sugata]: of disciplined ways; buddhaṃ [buddha]: possessing knowledge; taṃ: him; ahaṃ: I; brāhmaṇaṃ brūmi: declare a true brāhmaṇa
He knows the death and birth of beings in every way. He is not attached either to birth or death. He has arrived at the proper destination. He possesses the knowledge of the essences. This person I describe as a brāhmaṇa.
Explanatory Translation (Verse 420)
yassa gatiṃ devā gandhabba mānusā na jānanti
khīṇāsavaṃ arahantaṃ taṃ ahaṃ brāhmaṇaṃ brūmi
yassa: of some; gatiṃ [gati]: the state of rebirth; the path; devā: neither gods; gandhabba mānusā: nor spirits nor humans; na jānanti: do not know; khīṇāsavaṃ [khīṇāsava]: totally blemishless;arahantaṃ: have attained the higher spiritual state; taṃ: him; ahaṃ: I; brāhmaṇaṃ brūmi: declare a brāhmaṇa
Their path, neither gods, nor spirits, nor humans can fathom. Their taints are totally eradicated. They have attained the higher spiritual state. This person I declare a brāhmaṇa.
Commentary and exegetical material (Verse 419-420)
This story is concerned with Cutūpapāta-ñāna which is the knowledge of the vanishing and reappearing of beings. This knowledge is identical with the divine eye–abhiññā. The expression abhiññā is applied to the six higher powers, or supernormal knowledge, which consist of five mundane (lokiya) powers attainable through the utmost perfection in mental concentration (samādhi), and one supermundane (lokuttara) power attainable through penetrating insight (vipassanā), like the extinction of all cankers (āsavakkhaya), in other words, realization of arahatship. They are: (1) magical powers (iddhi-vidhā), (2) divine ear (dibba-sota), (3) penetration of the mind of others (ceto-pariya-ñāṇa), (4) divine eye (dibba-cakkhu), (5) remembrance of former existences (pubbe-nivāsānussati), and (6) extinction of cankers (āsavakkhaya).
Now, O’ monks, the monk enjoys the various magical powers (iddhividha), such as being one he becomes manifold, and having become manifold he again becomes one. Without being obstructed he passes through walls and mountains, just as if through the air. In the earth he dives and rises up again, just as if in the water. He walks on water without sinking, just as if on the earth. Cross-legged he floats through the air, just as a winged bird. With his hand he touches the sun and moon, these so mighty ones, so powerful ones. Even up to the brahma world has he mastery over his body.
With the divine ear (dibba-sota) he hears sounds both heavenly and human, far and near.
He knows the minds of other beings (parassa ceto-pariya-ñāṇa), of other persons, by penetrating them with his own mind. He knows the greedy mind as greedy and the not-greedy one as not greedy; knows the hating mind as hating and the not-hating one as not hating; knows the deluded mind as deluded and the not-deluded one as not deluded; knows the shrunken mind and the distracted one, the developed mind and the undeveloped one… the surpassable mind and the unsurpassable one… the concentrated mind and the unconcentrated one… the freed mind and the unfreed one.”
With the divine eye (dibba-cakku-yathā-kaṃmūpaga-ñāṇa or cutūpapāta-ñāṇa), the pure one, sees beings vanishing and reappearing, low and noble ones, beautiful and ugly ones, sees how beings are reappearing according to their deeds (Sanskrit kama): ‘There beings followed evil ways in bodily actions, words and thoughts, insulted the sages, held evil views, and according to their evil views they acted. At the dissolution of their body, after death, they have appeared in lower worlds, in painful states of existence, in the world of suffering, in hell. Those other beings, however, are endowed with good actions… have appeared in a happy state of existence, in a heavenly world…”
He remembers manifold former existences (pubbe-nivāsānussati), such as one birth, or a hundred thousand births; remembers many formations and dissolutions of worlds. ‘There I was, such name I had… and vanishing from there I entered somewhere else into existence… and vanishing from there I again reappeared here.’ Thus he remembers, always together with the marks and peculiarities, many a former existence.”
Through the extinction of all cankers (āsavakkhaya) even in this very life he enters into the possession of deliverance of mind, deliverance through wisdom, after having himself understood and realized it.”