I thought it might be interesting to discuss the arguments that Richard Gombrich collects in Chapter 9 of his recent book What the Buddha Thought
regarding the Dependent Origination sequence.
In brief, the argument is that the 12-step chain is the result of pasting together two chains, and that the first four links are a parody of Vedic Cosmogony.
The arguments are based on articles by Joanna Jurewicz, which unfortunately I can't easily access right now, such as "Playing with fire: the pratityasamupada from the perspective of Vedic thought", Journal of the Pali Text Society 26:77-103 (2000).
I'll give a brief sketch for those with no access to Gombrich's book. However, it's hard to do justice to it without typing out several pages of the book...
For reference, the 12 links are:
1. Avijja (ignorance);
2. Sankhara (mental fabrications);
3. Viññana (consciousness);
4. Nama-rupa (name-and-form);
5. Salayatana (six sense-media);
6. Phassa (contact);
7. Vedana (feeling);
8. Tanha (craving);
9. Upadana (clinging);
10. Bhava (becoming);
11. Jati (birth);
12. Dukkha (suffering, unsatisfactoriness).
In the Rig Veda :
1. First there is nothing, not even existence or non-existence. This corresponds to ignorance.
2. A volitional impulse (kama - desire) initiates the process of creation.
3. Desire, 'the first seed of the mind', creates consciousness.
4. Gombrich: "Pure consciousness is thus at best reflexive, cognizing itself. From this reflexivity, in which there is only one entity, develops an awareness of subject and object; this in turn leads to further individuation, until we reach the multiplicity of our experience: individuation both by name (nama), using a linguistic category, and by appearance (rupa), perceptible to the senses."
"The later Buddhist tradition did not understand how the Buddha had appropriated this term nama-rupa from the Upanishads. Realising that at this point in the chain there should be a reference to the emergence of the individual person with teh five khandha, the tradition made nama-rupa equivalent to the five khandha by saying that rupa was the first khandha and nama referred to the other four. Since three of these four (vedana, samkhara, and vinnana) appear elsewhere in the chain under their usual names, this can hardly be correct."
He then quotes Jurewicz to the effect that in Vedic cosmogeny the act of giving name and form marks the final formation of the Creator's atman. The Buddha, of course, was rejecting the idea of the atman and the denial of the atman makes the Vedic cosmogony meaningless.
Gombrich: "... at a very early stage the Buddhist tradition lost sight of the texts and doctrines to which the Buddha was responding. And, I might add, irony does not weather well."
He goes on to speculate that this four-step parody was subsequently stuck together with the later part. Erich Fauwallner argued long ago that the chain would logically have started with Tanha, in order to match up with the Four Noble Truths, but starting with the sense bases would work equally well.
Gombrich: " My conclusion is that Frauwallner and Hwang are right, and the Buddha's chain originally went back only five links, to thirst. (It could also go back six, seven, or eight links - nothing hangs on the difference.) Then, at another point, the Buddha produced a different causal chain to ironize and criticise Vedic cosmogony, and noticed that it led very nicely into the earlier chain - perhaps because it is natural for the creation of the individual to lead straight on to the six senses, and these, via 'contact' and 'feeling', to thirst. It is quite plausible, however, that someone failed to notice that once the first four links become part of the chain, it's negative version meant that in order to abolish ignorance one first had to abolish consciousness!"
I can elaborate a little more if there is some interest, but I'm particularly interested is comments from people who have thought about these Vedic references.