Āśramas, agrahāras, and monasteries*
(to appear in: Proceedings of the Fifth Dubrovnik International Conference on the Sanskrit Epics and
Purāṇas, 11-16 August 2008)
Readers of Kālidāsa’s Abhijñānaśakuntala will remember the scene in which King
Duṣyanta, in hot pursuit of an deer, is stopped by the following words (in the translation
of Michael Coulson): “No, no Your Majesty! Don’t kill him, he’s a deer of the
hermitage.” (bho bho rājan āśramamṛgo ’yaṃ na hantavyo na hantavyaḥ). It turns out
that Duṣyanta, without realizing it, has come close to the āśrama, here translated
hermitage, of Kaṇva where, we learn from these words, deer cannot be killed. The King
is subsequently invited to visit the āśrama, and he does not fail to recognize the signs:
Those grains of wild rice beneath the trees must have dropped from fledgling
mouths in parrots’ nests,
While the oily stones here and there must have been used for crushing ingudī nuts.
The deer are so trustful their pace doesn’t alter at the noise of our approach,
And on the paths from the pool clothes made of bark have dripped long trails of
water. (tr. Coulson)
Āśramas obey different rules of behaviour than other parts of the kingdom, rules which
even the king must obey. Yet an āśrama, too, needs the protection of the king. This is
clear from the compliment which Duṣyanta receives from one of its inhabitants: “By
seeing how the ascetics’ holy rites are free of all hindrance, you will realize how much
your bow-scarred arm protects.”
Āśramas of this kind, i.e. places inhabited by ascetically inclined Brahmins, are a
common feature of Brahmanical literature. They are frequently mentioned in the two
Sanskrit epics — the Mahābhārata and the Rāmāyaṇa — and in more recent
Brahmanical literature, but not in the Vedic Saṃhitās, Brāhmaṇas and early Upaniṣads.1
This raises the question: how, when and why did this institution arise? Is it true that
“[m]ost of even the largest āśrama-s ... began as a simple dwelling of a sādhu who had
* I thank Danielle Feller and Yaroslav Vassilkov for useful comments.
1 “In the older Vedic literature the word āśrama in the sense of a hermitage seldom occurs.
Virtually the only example of the word in a śruti-text is an āśrama called Vasiṣṭhaśilā in
Gopathabrāhmaṇa 1,2,8.” (Tsuchida, 1991: 79-80; similarly Olivelle, 1993: 18).
ceased travelling and settled, frequently after many years of pilgrimage to holy places
throughout the Indian subcontinent”?2 This article will explore an alternative possibility.3
Romila Thapar (2005: 164) makes the following observation about Kālidāsa’s
play: “The āśrama of the Kaṇvas carries traces of a new incipient institution which was
to develop into the agrahāras of post-Gupta times, institutions which changed the socio-
economic landscape. Tax-free land was donated by the king for settlement by brāhmaṇas
which could be in areas already under cultivation or newly opened to cultivation. These
were to become powerful nuclei and networks of brahmanical culture.”
Thapar’s remark suggests that two initially different institutions started
influencing each other at the time of Kālidāsa, that people began to think of āśramas as
being similar to agrahāras at that time even though they were originally different from
each other. But is this correct? Were āśramas and agrahāras originally different
institutions that subsequently came to influence each other, or were they rather, right
from the beginning, two aspects of one and the same institution? Or is the historical
situation perhaps more complex than either of these two possibilities?
At first sight the Arthaśāstra appears to support the view that two different
institutions are involved. In its chapter on the settlement of the countryside this text
states:4 “He should grant [lands] to priests, preceptors, chaplains (purohita) and Brahmins
learned in the Vedas [as] gifts to Brahmins (brahmadeya), exempt from fines and taxes,
with inheritance passing on to corresponding heirs, [and] to heads of departments,
accountants and others, and to gopas, sthānikas, elephant-trainers, physicians, horse-
trainers and couriers, [lands] without the right of sale or mortgage.” This passage speaks
about brahmadeyas, a term which is close in meaning to agrahāra and is sometimes
compounded with it in the early sources (brahmadeyāgrahāra; see below). Another
passage of the Arthaśāstra speaks about land to be given to ascetics (tapasvin):5 “On land
unsuitable for agriculture, he should allot pastures for cattle. And he should grant to
2 Clark, 2006: 29.
3 Witzel (2006: 476 n. 57) wonders “whether the forest idylls of the [Mahābhārata] (such as that
of Śakuntalā and her stepfather Kaṇva) are, in reality, a copy of the Jaina practice of establishing
ascetic’s dwellings (or caves) in the south”. We will see below that there may be an element of
truth in this supposition.
4 Arthaśāstra 2.1.7: ṛtvigācāryapurohitaśrotriyebhyo brahmadeyāny adaṇḍakarāṇy
abhirūpadāyādakāni prayacchet, adhyakṣasaṃkhyāyakādibhyo
gopasthānikānīkasthacikitsakāśvadamakajaṅghākārikebhyaś ca vikriyādhānavarjāni. Ed., tr.
5 Arthaśāstra 2.2.1-2: akṛṣyāyāṃ bhūmau paśubhyo vivītāni prayacchet /
pradiṣṭābhayasthāvarajaṅgamāni ca brahmasomāraṇyāni tapasvibhyo gorutaparāṇi prayacchet
//. Ed., tr. Kangle. This is the beginning of the Prakaraṇa called Bhūmicchidrāpidhāna, on which
see Hinüber, 2005: 491 ff.
ascetics wildernesses (araṇya) for Veda-study and soma-sacrifices, with safety promised
to [everything] immovable and movable in them, one goruta at the most.”
As said above, two different forms of land grants seem to be spoken about in these
passages, which might be characterized, respectively, as rewards for past (and perhaps
ongoing) services, and as support for future religious practices. The āśrama in Kālidāsa’s
play apparently belongs to the second category.
The Arthaśāstra, too, speaks of āśramas in the sense ‘hermitage’. They may need
adjudication in the royal court (1.19.29), they figure in a list of isolated places (2.35.14),
in conquered territory they must be honoured (13.5.11). Here, too, one’s first impression
is that these āśramas should be connected with the second category of donated land.
But let us not jump to conclusions. Brahmins can be the beneficiaries of both
kinds of land grants. Indeed, given that Veda-study and soma-sacrifices are Brahmanical
activities, we must assume that Brahmins were the ones that would primarily profit from
the second kind of land grant; they are also explicitly and prominently mentioned in
connection with the first kind. If we now confine our attention to the Brahmin recipients
of both kinds of grants, we have to ask what difference it would make to receive one or
the other of the two. The Brahmins listed to receive the first kind of land grant are priests
(ṛtvij), preceptors (ācārya), chaplains (purohita) and Brahmins learned in the Vedas
(śrotriya). All of these are presumably involved in Vedic study and Vedic ritual. It goes
almost without saying that, from the point of view of the Arthaśāstra, they will continue
these activities if and when they decide to retire to the land that has been granted to them.
Like the ascetics, they too will be involved in Veda-study and sacrifices, whether soma-
sacrifices or other kinds. It follows that, at least in theory, the end result of the two kinds
of land grants to Brahmins is very similar in the two cases, for both types of Brahmins
are expected to continue carrying out their ritual activities and Veda studies.
The Buddhist canon, too, distinguishes Brahmins who have received a
brahmadeya (brahmadeyya in Pāli) from those who live in āśramas (Pāli assama): the
former are often depicted as being rich, the latter as ascetics.6 However, the opposition
may have to be taken with a grain of salt, as it was apparently already by the composers
and editors of the Buddhist suttas. Tsuchida, describing the ascetic Keṇiya, is led to
observe (1991: 82): “we must admit that the Keṇiya depicted in the Sela-sutta exhibits
several features which do not fit with the image of a hermit. For instance, one who was
capable of giving a feast for one thousand two hundred and fifty monks all at the same
6 Tsuchida, 1991. On pp. 56-57 Tsuchida gives a list of brahmadeyas figuring in the Nikāya texts;
see also Wagle, 1966: 18-19. Note that the mention of these two kinds of Brahmins in the
Buddhist canon does not necessarily imply that they existed already at the time of the Buddha.
time could hardly have been found even among the mahāsāla-Brahmins, [not] to say
anything of the hermits.” Tsuchida attributes these features to the narrator’s exaggeration
or even caricaturization, “which blurs to no small extent the essential difference between
Keṇiya and those wealthy Brahmins living in villages”. This may be correct, but the
exaggeration may have to be explained by the fact that the narrator knew that there was a
continuity between these two kinds of Brahmins, and therefore that the difference
between them was not all that essential. Both, at any rate, were preoccupied with Vedic
ritual in various forms, and with the transmission of Vedic texts.7
The importance of ritual activities and Veda studies in the case of recipients of
agrahāras is confirmed by inscriptional evidence from various periods. A copper-plate
from Gujarat, dated 812 CE, specifies that a local ruler donates a village to a number of
Brahmins “for the increase of the religious merit of my parents and of myself; for the
sake of acquiring a reward in this world and in the next; [and] for maintaining the bali,
the caru, the vaiśvadeva, the agnihotra, the sacrificial rites, etc.”.8 Bali, to cite Apte’s
dictionary, is the offering of a portion of the daily meal of rice, grain, ghee &c. to all
creatures, caru the oblation of rice or barley boiled for presentation to the gods and the
manes, vaiśvadeva an offering to all deities.9 The maintenance of the bali, caru,
vaiśvadeva, agnihotra and other rites is a frequent theme in inscriptions. It is, for
example, the reason for the gift of a village to a Brahmin recorded on copper plates from
Baroda dated 609 or 610 CE.10 Another inscription on copper-plates from Gujarat, this
one dated 910-911 CE, concerns the gift of a village to a Brahmin “in order [to enable the
donee to perform] the bali, caruka and vaiśvadeva”.11 Sometimes a village is donated to a
Brahmin “who keeps alive the sacred fire (āhitāgni),... knows the whole Veda, [and]
delights in the six duties [enjoined on Brahmins].”12 An inscription from around 540 CE
makes reference to a grant to several Brahmins for enabling them to offer the five
mahāyajñas, i.e., bali, caru, vaiśvadeva, agnihotra and havana.13 The five mahāyajñas are
7 Perhaps a distinction can be made between recipients that live on the land or in the village
which they receive, and those who don’t. The inscriptional evidence sometimes suggests that a
donee lives somewhere different from the village which he receives, as in the case of a fifth-
century inscription from Gujarat, in which the Brahmin Naṇṇasvāmin, residing in Kāpura,
receives “the village Kanīyas-Taḍākāsārikā included in this same district” (atraiva
viṣayāntargata-Kanīyas-Taḍākāsārikā-gramo; E. Hultzsch in EpInd 10 [1909-10], p. 53-54).
8 J. F. Fleet in EpInd 3 (1894-95), 53-58.
9 For details, see Mylius, 1995, s.v. bali, caru and vaiśvadeva.
10 F. Kielhorn in EpInd 6 (1900-01), 294-300.
11 E. Hultzsch in EpInd 1 (1892), 52-58.
12 F. Kielhorn in EpInd 6 (1900-01), 18 ff.
13 Sten Konow in EpInd 10 p. 74: bali-caru-vaiśvadevāgnihotra-havana-pañca-mahāyajña-
kriyotsarpaṇārtham. Konow translates (p. 76): “for the maintenance of the five great sacrifices,
(viz.) bali, caru, vaiśvadeva, agnihotra (and) havana, and of (other) rites”. Kane, HistDh II, 2 p.
854, referring to this passage, interprets it differently, saying “for enabling them to offer bali,
specified in the Mānava Dharmaśāstra in the following manner: “The sacrifice to the
Veda is teaching; the sacrifice to ancestors is the quenching libation; the sacrifice to gods
is the burnt offering; the sacrifice to beings is the Bali offering; and the sacrifice to
humans is the honoring of guests.”14 Providing for the expenses of the five great
sacrifices, i.e., the five mahāyajñas, is a common purpose of donations.15 We find it in a
copperplate inscription from Bengal dated 488 CE and elsewhere.16 The village Cūkuṭṭūr
was donated in the fifth century CE to seventy-four Brahmins for the purpose of Vedic
study, performing sacrifice and teaching.17 The Cambay plates of Govinda IV, dating
from 930 CE, contain a long specification of the purposes for which the village Kevañja
is granted to a Brahmin called Nāgamārya: “for the purpose of (maintaining) the bali,
caru, vaiśvadeva and atithitarpaṇa; for the performance of the optional, indispensable
and occasional rites; for the performance of the śrāddha and sacrificial ceremonies such
as the darśapūrṇamāsa, cāturmāsya, aṣṭakā and āgrayaṇa (rites) and the fortnightly
(śrāddhas); for the purpose of preparing the caru, puroḍāśa, sthālīpāka and so forth; for
the purpose of (granting) priestly fees and gifts in connection with homa, niyama, the
study of one’s own Veda, and religious service; for the purpose of (providing) accessory
assistance for the rites concerning rājasūya and the seven forms of the soma sacrifice
such as the vājapeya, agniṣṭoma and so forth; for the purpose of (offering) garments,
ornaments, entertainment, gifts, sacrificial fees, etc. to the various priests, such as
Maitrāvaruṇa, Adhvaryu, Hotṛ, Brāhmaṇācchaṃsin, Grāvastut and Agnidh; and for the
purpose of (supplying) the requisite materials for preparing sattra, prapā, pratiśraya,
vṛṣotsarga, reservoirs, wells, tanks, orchards, temples, etc.”18 Most inscriptions are not
caru, vaiśvadeva, agnihotra and the five mahāyajñas”. Virtually the same expression occurs also
elsewhere, for example in an inscription from 736 CE (G. V. Acharya in EpInd 23 [1935-36], p.
152 lines 36-37: bali-caru-vaiśvadevāgnihotrātithi-pañca-mahāyajñādi-kriyotsarpaṇārthaṃ;
Acharya translates [p. 154-55]: “for the purpose of performing the five great sacrifices, viz., bali,
caru, vaiśvadeva and atithi”). Cf. Njammasch, 2001: 289.
14 Manu 3.70: adhyāpanaṃ brahmayajñaḥ pitṛyajñas tu tarpaṇam / homo daivo balir bhauto
nṛyajño ‘tithipūjanam //. Ed. tr. Olivelle. Nalinikanta Bhattasali in EpInd 18 (1925-26), p. 78 n. 9
observes: “Of these [five great sacrifices specified in the Mānava Dharmaśāstra], the 2nd, 3rd
and 4th (which are equivalent to caru, bali and sattra) appear to have been the most important,
and the term bali-caru-sattra-pravartanam (i.e. establishment of bali, caru and sattra) came to
mean the establishment of a householder.”
15 See, e.g., H. H. Dhruva in EpInd 2 (1894), p. 22; Datta, 1989: 92. The fact that the mahāyajñas,
unlike śrauta rites, are for the benefit of virtually all inhabitants of the universe (“the Creator, the
ancient sages, the Manes, the whole universe with myriads of creatures of various grades of
intelligence”; Kane, HistDh II, 1 p. 697) may explain to at least some extent this popularity.
16 N. G. Majumdar in EpInd 23 (1935-36), 52 ff.
17 Chauhan, 2004: 89, with a reference to K. V. Ramesh, Inscriptions of the Western Gaṅgas,
Delhi 1984, p. 23.
18 D. R. Bhandarkar in EpInd 7 (1902-03), 26-47.
quite as specific as this, but we may assume that it gives expression to the purpose that is
behind many if not most other donations of land to Brahmins.19
An inscription from the end of the seventh century CE and originally put up in the
north-west of the subcontinent records the erection of a building for Brahmins familiar
with the three Vedas; the way in which the place is described — “where the quarters of
the heavens are deafened by the noise of the constant explanation of Vedic lore”
(saṃtatavedavyākhyānaghoṣabadhirīkṛtadiṅmukha) — shows that its donor, a certain
Harivarman, intended to further promote this activity.20 A pillar inscription from Mysore
that may be assigned to the first half of the sixth century CE tells us that a king had a
great tank made at a spot “which is ever praised with auspicious recitations of sacred
texts by Brahmin students solely devoted to manifold vows, sacrifices and initiatory
rites” (vividha-niyama-homa-dīkṣā-parair brāhmaṇai snātakai stūyamāne sadā mantra-
vādais śubhaiḥ).21 It seems implied that the pious act of the king is meant to encourage
these Brahmins to continue these activities. An inscription from the area of Baroda dated
in the middle of the twelfth century CE recalls the fact that King Kumārapāla ordered
that ramparts be built for the city of Nagara-Ānandapura; the benefit is mutual, for “there
the Brahmins ... protect the king and the realm and guard them by sacrifices that ward off
evil and cause prosperity”.22 A copper plate inscription from the south, dated in the
beginning of the sixth century CE, renews the gift of a village to eight Brahmins “who
are engaged in performing and helping others to perform sacrifices, in study and in
teaching, and in making and receiving gifts”.23 The link between sacrifices and the well-
being of political power is clear from an inscription from the eighth century CE which
mentions a Mahārāja Mādhavavarman “who washed off the stains of the world by his
ablutions after eleven aśvamedha sacrifices, who celebrated thousands of sacrifices, who
by a sarvamedha sacrifice obtained the supreme dominion over all beings, who
celebrated a hundred thousand bahusuvarṇa, pauṇḍarīka, puruṣamedha, vājapeya, yūdhya
(?), ṣoḍaśin, rājasūya, prādhirājya, prājāpatya and various other large and important
excellent [sacrifices], who by the celebration of excellent sacrifices attained to firmly
established supremacy”.24 A copper plate inscription in Prakrit from the Telugu country
19 Cp. Lubin, 2005: 95: “The recipient’s qualification for such patronage, wherever it was
mentioned, was his training in textual recitation and the application of mantras in ritual
performances, or expertise in a learned discipline such as grammar, logic, law, astrology, or
poetics. The authority of the brahmin was thus explicitly justified, in principle anyway, by his
mastery of sacred knowledge.”
20 F. Kielhorn in EpInd 1 (1892), 179-184.
21 F. Kielhorn in EpInd 8 (1905-06), 24-36.
22 Vajeshanker G. Ojhā in EpInd 1 (1892), 293-305.
23 G. V. Srinivasa Rao in EpInd 24 (1937-38), 47-52.
24 F. Kielhorn in EpInd 4 (1896-97), 193-198.
“to be assigned to a much earlier period” than the eighth century CE records the donation
of a village to two Brahmins “for conferring on ourselves victory [in war] and for
increasing [our] merit, length of life, and power”.25 Other copper plates in Prakrit, these
ones dating from around the year 100 CE, state confidently: “Fortune, wealth, power and
victory were given [by the donees to the king as a reward for the grant].”26 The Junagadh
Rock inscription of Skandagupta from the middle of the fifth century CE expresses the
wish that a certain city “may become prosperous, full of inhabitants, cleansed from sin by
prayers (brahman) sung by many hundreds of Brahmins”.27 A stone inscription from
Sirpur to be dated in the 8th or 9th century CE states clear conditions with regard to the
descendants of the twelve Brahmins who receive a share in the villages there specified:
“Their sons and grandsons [who succeed them] should be such as offer sacrifice to fire
and know the six supplements of the Vedas, who are not addicted to gambling, prostitutes
and such other [bad associations], who have their mouths clean and who are not servants.
If one does not answer to this description, [he should be abandoned]; also one who dies
sonless — in their places must be appointed other Brahmins possessing the foregoing
Gifts of land to Brahmins, as these and other inscriptions suggest, were not merely
rewards for services rendered in the past but also spiritual investments for the future.29
Their purpose — to cite Burton Stein (1980: 146) — was “to provide a reliable source of
support to Brahmins for the pursuit of their sacral responsibilities”. The benefit was
mutual and concerned the donor as much as the donee. This implied that donors would
look for Brahmins who could be considered the best investments.30 Theoretically it also
meant that Brahmins would not accept donations of land from unworthy kings. We do not
know how many Brahmins actually refused a land grant for this reason, but we do know
that Kalhaṇa’s Rājataraṅgiṇī (1.307) looks down upon the Brahmins from Gandhāra for
this very reason: they did accept agrahāras from a worthless king.
Note that the sacral responsabilities of the Brahmins usually concerned rites they
could carry out on their own. Grants of land or villages are rarely associated with the
Brahmins’ participation in solemn Vedic rituals. Kings sometimes boast of having
25 E. Hultzsch in EpInd 6 (1900-01), 84-89.
26 E. Hultzsch in EpInd 6 (1900-01), 315-319.
27 Fleet, 1887 (CII 3), pp. 56-65.
28 Rai Bahadur Hira Lal in EpInd 11 (1911-12), 184-201.
29 Honoring Brahmins — as Manu 7.82-83 reminds us — is an inexhaustible treasure (akṣayo
nidhiḥ), which neither thief nor enemy can steal, and which never perishes.
30 A late copper-plate inscription speaks of Brahmins who are “fit to receive land-grants”
(bhūdānapātrabhūta); Gopinatha Rao in EpInd 18 (1925-26), p. 167 l. 62-63. Cp. Manu 7.86.
Already some Dharma Sūtras (Gautama 11.11; Vasiṣṭha 1.44) point out that the king takes a share
of the merits of Brahmins, or a sixth part of their sacrifices and good works.
performed major sacrifices such as the aśvamedha, but these are not the sacrifices which
Brahmins perform in their agrahāras. This would normally not even be possible, for such
solemn rites require Brahmins from various Vedas, plus of course a yajamāna, preferably
the king himself. Solemn rites were performed by some rulers, but they are not normally
the reason why agrahāras were given. Land or villages were not given in order to secure
the presence of Brahmins who might then perform the major Vedic sacrifices. There are
some indications that suggest that Brahmins invited to participate in a Vedic sacrifice
might afterwards return home.31 Such invitations and visits were not in need of official
deeds, and would therefore not leave traces in the epigraphic record.
The donors — in the case of land grants very often kings, queens or others close to
the centres of political power — were keen to emphasize their generosity; surviving
inscriptions, which typically represent their point of view, deal exhaustively with this
side of the transaction. Inscriptions, to be sure, were not normally composed by kings and
other power brokers themselves, but they were very often composed for them and in their
The Brahmin donees had other concerns. For them it was vital to show that land
gifts were good spiritual investments. They did so by depicting the life in Brahmin
settlements as being profoundly religious, with an emphasis on all those activities (ascetic
practices, Vedic sacrifices) which were held to benefit rulers that supported them and
their kingdoms. Where kings blew their own trumpets in the inscriptions composed on
their behalf, the Brahmins used the literature for which they were responsible to exalt the
concentration of religious energy in what they called āśramas, depicted as places of great
peace and intense religious activity.32 The literature for which Brahmins were responsible
is, of course, what we habitually refer to as classical Sanskrit literature, including the
Seen in this way, it is at least possible that the references to agrahāras which we
find mentioned primarily in inscriptions, and those to āśramas which are so frequent in
31 Datta, 1989: 84 f.; 92.
32 Cp. Malamoud, 2005: 173: “Le ‘bois d’ascétisme’ est, dans l’Inde, la forme simple et parfaite
33 Occasionally the voice of a donee finds expression in an inscription. The Śaiva ascetic named
Prabodhaśiva, for example, created an āśrama in the second half of the tenth century which is
described as follows (R. D. Banerji in EpInd 21 [1931-32], p. 152): “At night, this hermitage
(āśrama) causes to the people the semblance of lightning on account of the phosphorescence of
plants (growing near it), resembling lightning, (that) of clouds on account of the (dark) bees
flying at the sides of mountain peaks, (that of thunder) on account of roars of lions causing the
skies to echo (and that of showers) on account of the air being cooled by the sprays of the waters
of the Śoṇa. In this place herds of monkeys kiss the cubs of lions, the young one of a deer sucks
at the breast of the lioness; so other (lower animals), who are (natural) enemies, take leave of
classical Sanskrit literature, concern one and the same historical institution, or better
perhaps: two different institutions with considerable overlap. Agrahāras were donated to
Brahmins because their donors expected their occupants to live more or less in
accordance with life as it was presumably lived in āśramas, and Brahmins depicted
āśramas in this particular manner at least in part in order to entice their rulers to create
such settlements, or more of them.
All this is, for the time being, just a hypothesis which has to be tested. Consider
the following challenge it has to face. Thapar’s formulation “new incipient institution
which was to develop into the agrahāras of post-Gupta times” suggests that the
forerunners of the agrahāras of post-Gupta times were still a new phenomenon at the
time of Kālidāsa, and as yet non-existent at the time of the Sanskrit epics. In other words,
it suggests that āśramas existed well before the institution associated with the name
agrahāras came about. Is this correct?
An inspection of the available evidence shows that nothing is less certain. We
have seen that the Sanskrit epics are among the earliest sources that use the term āśrama
to refer to places where ascetically inclined Brahmins reside.34 Well, the Mahābhārata is
also among the earliest sources that use the term agrahāra.35 It is used several times in
books 3 and 15, at least once in a passage that shows that its meaning corresponds to later
usage: Bhīma, the father of Damayantī, promises to give as agrahāra a village the size of
a town to the Brahmin who will find his son-in-law Nala.36 Book 15 uses the compound
brahmadeyāgrahāra.37 It is of course possible that the word agrahāra only occur in later
strata of the Mahābhārata, but this is hardly evidence that the institution did not exist
before; it is rather surprising that it is mentioned at all in this text.
What is more, there is further evidence that shows that land grants were known
from an early date onward, both from the Mahābhārata and from other, presumably
earlier texts. Least valuable in this respect is the section on the donation of land
(bhūmidāna) in the Anuśāsanaparvan (Mhbh 13.61); we may legitimately suspect this
their antipathy; indeed, in forests devoted to austerities (tapovana) the minds of all become
34 The mention of an āśrama in the Gopatha Brāhmaṇa (see note 1, above) is not in conflict with
this observation. The Gopatha Brāhmaṇa, which belongs to the Atharvaveda, appears to be “a
secondary treatise in the style of such a work” and is, moreover, more recent than the Śrautasūtra
of that Veda (i.e., the Vaitāna Sūtra; see Gonda, 1975: 355-356), which in its turn presupposes its
Gṛhyasūtra (the Kauśika Sūtra; see Oldenberg, 1892: xxx-xxxi, with p. xxxi n. 1; Gonda, 1977:
35 We have already seen that the Pāli Buddhist canon speaks about both āśramas and
36 Mhbh 3.65.1-3: agrahāraṃ ca dāsyāmi grāmaṃ nagarasaṃmitam. See further Mhbh 3.222.43
(unusually explained by Nīlakaṇṭha and van Buitenen).
37 Mhbh 15.2.2; 15.16.15; 15.19.11.
section of being relatively late. We read here that “nothing is superior to the giving of
land” (v. 4) and other laudatory remarks. Donations of land are also mentioned elsewhere
in the Mahābhārata, regularly in other sections of the Anuśāsanaparvan, but also in the
first book (Mhbh 1.57.26; where it is a source of purification) and in the Śāntiparvan (at
Mhbh 12.36.16 it is once again a means of purification). According to the
Anuśāsanaparvan, “whatever sin a man may commit when in straitened circumstances,
he is purified therefrom by making a gift of only as much land as is equal to gocarma”.38
The Rāmāyaṇa states that the giver of land (bhūmida) attains the highest destiny (paramā
gati; v. 35), the one also attained by heroes and good people as a result of Vedic study
(svādhyāya) and asceticism (tapas) (Rām 2.58.37).
Other ancient texts confirm that land grants were known from an early time
onward. Several passages in Vedic and its auxiliary literature contain references to land
grants.39 Consider the following passage from the Śatapatha Brāhmaṇa (18.104.22.168; tr.
Eggeling): “Now as to the sacrificial fees: whatever there is towards the middle of the
kingdom other than the property of the Brāhmaṇa, but including land and men, of that the
eastern quarter belongs to the Hotṛ, the southern to the Brahman, the western to the
Adhvaryu, and the northern to the Udgātṛ; and the Hotṛkas share this along with them.”
The same passage also contains the following protest (Śatapatha Brāhmaṇa 22.214.171.124; tr.
Eggeling): “It was Kaśyapa who officiated in his sacrifice, and it was concerning this that
the Earth40 also sang the stanza: ‘No mortal must give me away; thou wast foolish,
Viśvakarman Bhauvana: she (the earth) will sink into the midst of the water; vain is this
thy promise unto Kaśyapa.’”. The same protesting verse, slightly modified, is again put in
the mouth of the earth (bhūmi) at Aitareya Brāhmaṇa 39.8 (8.21), once again in
connection with Viśvakarman Bhauvana.41 But whether in the form of protest or not,
these passages testify to the fact that land grants existed and were known to them. A
passage in the Chāndogya Upaniṣad (4.2) is also of interest. It tells the story of Jānaśruti
Pautrāyaṇa, a generous donor who wishes to be instructed by a certain Raikva. He offers
him “six hundred cows, a gold necklace, and a carriage drawn by a she-mule” (tr.
Olivelle), but Raikva is not interested. Only when a wife and the village in which he lives
are added to the list does he agree.
[A word should be added about passages in Vedic and para-Vedic literature that
refer to a sacrificer “who desires a village”. The expression grāmakāma occurs in various
38 Kane, HistDh II, 2 p. 859, with a reference to Mhbh 13.61.16 and other texts.
39 Cp. Chauhan, 2004: 79; Thaplyal, 2004: 233 ff.
40 Eggeling explains: “Or, the ground, which Viśvakarman Bhauvana gave away as sacrificial
Saṃhitās of the Black Yajurveda (TaitS; MaitS; KāṭhS; see VWC I, 2 p. 1266), in a
number of Brāhmaṇas (VWC II, 1 p. 613) and Śrautasūtras (VWC IV, 2 p. 1028). Rau
(1957: 59) observes that those desirous of a village probably feel entitled that a village be
given as a fiefdom to them (“Wo immer unsere Quellen für einen grāmakāma bestimmte
Opfer vorschreiben, denken sie wahrscheinlich zunächst an eine Person, die vom König
ein Dorf als Lehen zu erhalten sich gerechtigt glaubt”). Bodewitz (1990: 227 n. 2), citing
Rau, comments: “This may apply in the case of [the Jaiminīya Brāhmaṇa], where the
economic profit is of central importance, but in [the Pañcaviṃśa Brāhmaṇa] the
leadership of the grāma, to be regarded as a ‘Schar wandernder Viehzüchter’ (Rau, p. 53)
or a clan, seems to be meant.” Whatever the historically correct interpretation in each text
and context, the frequent occurrence of this term in Vedic and para-Vedic literature may
have contributed in later times to giving a solid foundation to the aspirations of those who
wished to become recipients of a village as agrahāra. Indeed, the ninth century author
Jayanta Bhaṭṭa reports that his grandfather, wishing a village, performed the sāṃgrahaṇī
sacrifice; as a result he obtained the village Gauramūlaka.42]
Some Dharmasūtras present further material. The Āpastamba Dharmasūtra
(2.26.1) stipulates: “If [a king] gives land (kṣetra) and wealth to Brahmins according to
their worth without depriving his own dependents, he will win eternal worlds.” (tr.
Olivelle). The Gautama Dharmasūtra (19.16) enumerates land (bhūmi) in a list of gifts:
“Gold, cow, garment, horse, land, sesame seeds, ghee, and food — these are the gifts.”
(tr. Olivelle). The Vasiṣṭha Dharmasūtra (28.16) specifies: “A man who gives gifts of
gold, land, or cows obtains an eternal reward.” (tr. Olivelle). And again (29.19): “Three,
they say, are super-gifts: cows, land (pṛthvī), and knowledge. The gift of knowledge is
superior to all gifts and surpasses even those super-gifts.” (tr. Olivelle). The Śāṅkhāyana
(1.14.13-14), Kauṣītaka (1.8.33-34) and the Pāraskara Gṛhyasūtras (1.8.15-16) state: “A
cow is the optional gift to be given by a Brahmin, a village by a Rājanya …” (tr.
Oldenberg). The Gobhila Gṛhyasūtra (4.8.14-16) describes an oblation of butter made
with the mouth while repeating a certain mantra with the mind, then adds: “If (that
oblation of butter) catches fire, twelve villages (will be his). If smoke arises, at least
41 Śabara’s Bhāṣya still maintains that land cannot be given away, only the share of its produce
that the “owner” may be entitled to; Kane II, 2, p. 865-66.
42 “My own grandfather, desiring a village, performed the sāṃgrahaṇī sacrifice. Immediately
after the completion of the sacrifice he obtained the village of Gauramūlaka.” (tr. Dezsö, as cited
in Kataoka, 2007: 314 n. 5.) François Voegeli draws in this connection my attention to TaitS
126.96.36.199: vaiśvadevīṃ sāṃgrahaṇīṃ nirvaped grāmakāmaḥ. See further Caland, 1908: 106 f.
43 GobhGS 4.8.15-16: jvalantyāṃ dvādaśa grāmāḥ / dhūme tryavarārddhyāḥ /. Tr. Oldenberg.
These passages show that there is no reason to think that agrahāras — or rather
the institution of giving land to Brahmins, under whatever name44 — are a more recent
institution than the āśramas, the “hermitages” where pious Brahmins dedicate themselves
to their religious duties. Chronological considerations do not oblige us to abandon the
hypothesis that these two expressions refer to overlapping institutions — in some cases
perhaps even one single institution seen from two different angles — rather than to two
altogether different ones.
The two different angles can easily be specified. Broadly speaking, the word
āśrama is used from the perspective of the Brahmin recipient (or of him who wishes to
become a recipient), agrahāra from the perspective of the donor, often a royal donor.
Prima facie, much pleads in favour of this distinction. The word āśrama is omnipresent in
Brahmanical literature from a certain date onward, agrahāra is primarily used in
inscriptions made on behalf of donors.45 Only rarely are these perspectives interchanged,
as in Aśvaghoṣa’s Buddhacarita 2.12: “And by constructing there gardens, temples,
āśramas, wells, water-halls, lotus-ponds and groves, they showed their devotion to
dharma, as if they had seen Paradise before their eyes.” (tr. Johnston, modified). Here,
exceptionally, āśramas are described as having been provided by donors. In the Sutasoma
Jātaka which is chapter 31 of Āryaśūra’s Jātakamālā a prince anounces to have
established (niveśita) hermitages (āśramapada) beside other things.46 More typically
descriptions of āśramas do not mention donors, or even the fact that they have donors:
āśramas are simply there, presumably created by their virtuous inhabitants themselves.47
What do inscriptions tell us about the time when land gifts to Brahmins became
current? Already the Hāthīgumphā Inscription of King Khāravela of Kaliṅga, which
appears to belong to the middle of the first century BCE,48 records that Khāravela gave
parihāra to Brahmins (bamaṇānam jātiṃ parihāraṃ dadāti; Kant, 1971/2000: 15, tr. p.
28; Jayaswal & Banerji, 1933: 79, 88). Parihāra (“exemptions”), according to Olivelle
(2005: 303 n. 7.201), refers “to tax holidays of varying lengths granted to Brahmins and
other significant individuals of ... conquered lands”. Freedom from taxation is one of the
principal characteristics of the agrahāras. It seems therefore permissible to assume that
44 Other frequently employed expressions are brahmadeya and brahmadāya. In later sources
brahmadeya and agrahāra do not always mean quite the same; see Stein, 1980: 145.
45 Cp. EDS s.v. agrahāra. Texts like the Rājataraṅgiṇī, which already by its title reveals itself as a
history of kings, are exceptions, for obvious reasons.
46 Jm(V) p. 228 l. 11-12.
47 Yaroslav Vassilkov points out to me (private communication) that there is at least one instance
in the Mahābhārata (9.51.5) where a female ascetic establishes (or builds) an āśrama for herself
already Khāravela, though himself a Jaina, gave agrahāras or similar gifts to Brahmins.
[It may be significant that this fact is mentioned in a passage in which it is recorded that
Khāravela had been close to (had conquered?) Rājagṛha and perhaps Mathurā. This might
suggest that Khāravela came in contact with Brahmins in regions to the west of his
homeland Kaliṅga. In other words, the wording of the inscription allows us to consider
the possibility that the presence of Brahmins in Kaliṅga at that time was still feeble or
Gifts to Brahmins are also mentioned in the Nānāghāt inscriptions presented and
discussed by G. Bühler.50 These too may date from the middle of the first century BCE
(Ray, 1986: 36 f., 212) and appear to have been ordered by the widowed queen of King
Sātakarṇi. We learn from them that sacrifices had been performed and what and how
much had been given by way of sacrificial fee to the Brahmins involved. The inscriptions
are damaged, but enough remains to see that the remuneration had been generous:
numerous cows, coins, waterpots, elephants, and much else. Most interesting for our
purposes is the mention of one excellent village (gamavaro) and again one village (gāmo)
amongst the things donated.51 This means that our first inscriptional sources that
enumerate gifts to Brahmins mention, among those gifts, twice the gift of a village. This
confirms the idea that donations of land — including villages, i.e., inhabited land — are
already part of the remuneration of Brahmins in our earliest surviving relevant
inscriptional sources. They are a frequent element in slightly more recent inscriptions,
too. King Nahapāna, for example, gave sixteen villages to gods and Brahmins
(devatābhyaḥ brāhmaṇebhyaś ca) according to inscriptions in Nāsik and Karle dating
from the first century CE.52
Note in passing that the relationship between land and inhabited villages is close:
inhabited villages can provide the manpower to work the land. This is particularly clear
from two inscription in Nāsik that concern a gift of land donated by King Sātakarṇi
Gautamīputra, dating from around the year 100 CE (Ray, 1986: 38). The first inscription
48 Kulke & Rothermund, 1998: 95. For arguments in support of this date, see Sircar, 1951: 215 f.
Dates as early as 172 BCE have been proposed, but may have to be abandonded. Cf. Kumar,
49 This would of course necessitate a loose interpretation of Aśoka’s statement (thirteenth Rock
Edict) to the effect that there are Śramaṇas and Brahmins everywhere in his kingdom, except
among the Greeks.
50 Cp. Lüders, 1912/1973: 121 no. 1112.
51 Burgess, 1883: 59 ff. The transcript of no. I (10) has gamavaro, that of no. II (1) has gāmo. See
also Sircar, 1965: p. 194 l. 10-11 and p. 196 (Sanskrit). Sircar dates this inscription in the second
half of the first century BCE. The translation “village” for gāma is used, “not in its strict English
sense but, as Baden-Powell used it in his well-known work on land tenure in India, to mean ‘a
group of landholdings aggregated in one place” (Gunawardana, 1979: 55, with a reference to B.
H. Baden-Powell, Land Systems of British India, Oxford, 1896, Vol. I, p. 21).
stipulates that a field of 200 nivartanas is given to certain ascetics. The second inscription
refers back to the first one and states: “We have formerly given a field in the village of
Kakhaḍī to the ascetics (and) mendicants who live here on the mount Triraśmi in the cave
that is our meritorious gift; and that field is not (now) tilled, and that village is no
(longer) inhabited.” To compensate for this loss, another field is given to the same
ascetics and mendicants.53 This may be generalized in the sense that the gift of what
seems to be mere land may often have implied that people living on or near that land —
in a “village” — were obliged to work on it.54 So when another inscription from Nasik
states that a field is given to a cave, with the specification that “from this field [accrues]
the providing of clothes for the ascetic [living there]”, we can be sure that the ascetic
living in the cave is not supposed to till the land in order to buy clothes;55 it is rather local
villagers that are expected to work on the land and put the benefit at the disposal of the
ascetic.56 An inscription from the middle of the fourth century CE concerns, among other
things, a grant of land to a Brahmin, specifying the name of the family-men (kuṭumbin)
by whom the pieces of land are ploughed.57 It is in this connection interesting to recall
that the Mānava Dharmaśāstra includes the person who lives from agriculture (kṛṣijīvin)
in its list of people to be avoided (3.165-66). Brahmins, we are tempted to conclude from
this, should not themselves till the land they have been granted.58
This does not mean that no Brahmins ever tilled the soil with their own hands.59
An interesting counterexample may be constituted by the Ghugrāhāti copper-plate
inscription, presumably dating from the end of the sixth century CE. Its main content is
summarized in the following manner:60 “Supratīka Svāmī, a Brahman, approached the
District Court [...] and applied for a piece of waste land of that locality for settling
himself on it. The Elders and the men of experience decided to give him the piece of land
52 Burgess, 1881: 99-101; Ray, 1986: 38, 212. For a list of such donations, see Ray, 1986: 221 ff.
53 Burgess, 1881: 104 ff.; E. Senart in EpInd 8 (1905-06), 71 ff.
54 Compare this with the following remark by Oskar von Hinüber (2007: 186-87): “one of the
rules given in the collection of ācāras ‘customary law’, in an ācārasthitipātra ‘a vessel for the
continuity of customary law’ …, enumerated in a contract between a king Viṣṇuṣeṇa and the
merchants at Lohāṭakagrāma located probably in Gujarat, shows that peasants certainly were not
free: no. 24 (line 10 of the inscription) varṣāsu svaviṣayāt bījārttham āgatakakarṣakāḥ svāminā
na grāhyāḥ ‘Those peasants, who came here from their area during the rains to buy seeds, must
not be apprehended (and thus prevented from buying) by (their) owner’.”
55 EpInd 8 (1905-06), 77.
56 On the question whether Brahmins themselves ever cultivated the land that was granted to
them, see below.
57 D. B. Diskalkar in EpInd 21 (1931-32), p. 181.
58 The circumstance that there are books in Sanskrit on agriculture (kṛṣiśāstra) shows that
Brahmins were interested in agriculture, but does not by itself constitute compelling evidence that
they practised it with their own hands; see Wojtilla, 2006.
59 See Ritschl, 1980; Gupta, 1983: 40 f.; Njammasch, 2001: 298 f.; Virkus, 2004: 44 f.
60 Nalinikanta Bhattasali in EpInd 18 (1925-26), p. 75-76.
free of any consideration, and after authorising Keśava, Nayanāga and others to mature
the transaction on their behalf gave the piece of land to Supratīka Svāmī. The transaction
was ratified by the District Court by the issue of a copper-plate deed.” Supratīka Svāmī
wants this land, the inscription specifies, “for the establishment of bali, caru and sattra,
(thus) getting it to be of use to a Brahmin”. The Elders and others give it to him on the
basis of the following consideration: “The land, which is full of pits and which is infested
with wild beasts, is unprofitable to the king both as regards revenue and religious merit
(dharmārthaniṣphalā). That land, if made capable of being used, does bring revenue and
merit (arthadharmakṛt) to the king himself.”61 Here one gains the impression that the
donee himself is going to work on the land. It is perhaps significant that this donation is
not called agrahāra or brahmadeya in the inscription and that it is not exempted from
taxes (the king is going to derive revenue from it). The very fact that the donee is
recorded to have asked for it is remarkable and rare.62
Often the donation of a village is presented as follows: the taxes and other income
which the king would customarily receive from that village should now be handed over
to the donee. This is sometimes explicitly stated, as in a Gupta copper plate inscription
from 493-94, which records the gift of a village to a Brahmin; the inhabitants of the
village receive the following command: “You yourselves shall render to him (i.e., to the
Brahmin) the offering of the tribute of the customary royalties and taxes, and shall be
obedient to [his] commands.”63 Another copper plate inscription, some twenty years later,
adds “gold etc.” to the items to be rendered to the donees.64
The gift of a village may also cover cases where a village that is largely or even
exclusively inhabited by Brahmins is freed from all taxes. The parihāra given by King
Khāravela of Kaliṅga to Brahmins (see above) may be of this nature. There are reasons to
believe that Brahmins often clustered together in villages. Passages belonging to the
earliest layers of the Buddhist canon use the expression brāhmaṇa-gāma to refer to
61 Most frequently, “land-grants are not made in the intention to increase the agricultural area,
but, as stated in the documents, to make merit. Then often fields already under cultivation are
donated, and not khila land. ..., seen in the proper perspective in time and space, perhaps hardly
any ruler contributed substantially to the enlargement of land under cultivation.” (Hinüber, 2007:
192 n. 38)
62 A fifteenth century copper-plate inscription records that a certain Vīraṇārya, apparently a
Brahmin, asked for a village in the following words: “Oh! King Virūpākṣa! grant us the village
situated there named Somalāpura.” It appears that this Vīraṇārya subsequently distributed it
among Brahmins. See K. V. Subrahmanya Aiyar in EpInd 17 (1923-24), pp. 193-204.
63 Fleet, 1887 (CII 3), pp. 117-120.
64 Fleet, 1887 (CII 3), pp. 125-129.
them.65 However, a Brahmin village (brāhmaṇa-gāma) is not to be confused with a
brahmadeyya. The introduction of the Ambaṭṭha Sutta shows this. It speaks of the
Brahmin village called Icchānaṅkala, where the Buddha is visited by Ambaṭṭha.
Ambaṭṭha lives somewhere else, viz., in a place called Ukkaṭṭha which is a brahmadeyya,
a royal gift (rājadāya) given by King Pasenadi of Kosala. Apparently the Brahmin village
Icchānaṅkala is not itself a royal gift, a brahmadeyya.66 The introduction to the Kūṭadanta
Sutta, on the other hand, shows that a Brahmin village can be a royal gift and a
brahmadeyya, for the village Khānumata is here described in both ways.67 It seems likely
that passages that refer to brahmadeyyas are relatively late in the Buddhist canon.68
Our reflections so far have led us to the following. There are good reasons to think that
the āśramas that we find so often depicted in Brahmanical literature correspond to an
idealized vision as to what Brahmanical settlements looked like or should look like. Their
idealized depiction also had political purposes, among them to induce kings and those
near them to grant land to Brahmins. These idealized depictions could fulfil this aim if
they convinced those in power that by creating such settlements they could harness
Brahmanical power and use it for their own benefit. The long-term success of this
Brahmanical initiative was great. We have already seen that agrahāras changed the
socio-economic landscape in post-Gupta times. But the initiative to try to induce rulers to
part with land (or rather, the benefits to be derived from it) had been taken many
centuries earlier; the Sanskrit epics contain perhaps the earliest expressions of the ideal of
the āśrama, i.e., the ideal which induced rulers to part with land in favour of Brahmins.
Let us look at a concrete example.
The Rāmāyaṇa tells us that Rāma, Lakṣmaṇa and Sītā come to the āśrama of the
muni Bharadvāja, situated at or near the confluence of the Gaṅgā and the Yamunā.69
Bharadvāja is described as being surrounded by deer, birds and munis (Rām 2.48.17:
mṛgapakṣibhir āsīno munibhiś ca samantataḥ), no doubt an indication of the peaceful
treatment accorded also to animals. Bharadvāja is further said to have performed the
Agnihotra (v. 11: hutāgnihotra), as we might expect from the chief inhabitant of an
āśrama. However, we then learn that there are people from town and countryside nearby
(v. 22: ita āsannaḥ paurajānapado janaḥ) who might come and disturb the āśrama out of
curiosity to see Rāma and his companions. To preserve the peace, Rāma decides to stay
65 See O. v. Hinüber, “Hoary past and hazy memories: tracing the history of early Buddhist texts”
(presidential address delivered at the XVth Congress of the International Association of Buddhist
Studies”, Atlanta, 2008).
66 DN I p. 87.
67 DN I p. 127.
68 Bronkhorst 2007: 353 ff (Appendix VI); McGovern 2013: § IV.4.3.
69 Bharadvāja’s āśrama may be depicted in a sculpture at Bharhut; see Mookerji, 1947:
illustration facing p. 344.
somewhere else, along with his brother and wife.
So far there is little in the description that might make us suspect the great powers
that are associated with the chief inhabitant of the āśrama, Bharadvāja. This becomes
clear later on in the story (Rām 2.84 ff.). Bharata is determined to find Rāma, his older
brother, in the hope of taking him back to the capital so as to accept kingship. Bharata,
too, arrives at Bharadvāja’s āśrama, but unlike Rāma he is accompanied by a large army.
Knowing how to behave, he leaves the army behind when approaching the āśrama, takes
off his arms, and enters alone with his ministers. Bharadvāja is, once again, hospitable,
and insists on offering hospitality to the whole army as well, in spite of protestations by
Bharata. In order to do so, he invokes a number of gods and other supernatural beings,
and the result is amazing. The soldiers receive their best meal ever, including meat and
alcoholic beverages, but not only that. There are pleasures for all the senses, including
music and, perhaps more importantly, beautiful damsels, fifteen for each man. Not
surprisingly, the soldiers have the time of their lives, and express their intention never to
return to the capital, nor to move on, saying: “This is heaven.”
It is not necessary to dwell in detail on the delights which Bharata, his officers and
his soldiers receive, for the duration of one night, in the āśrama of Bharadvāja. It is clear
to everyone, including Bharata’s own soldiers, that this is better than anything they can
expect from the king. It also shows that this humble Brahmin in his āśrama can compete,
if he so wishes, with anything the king might have on offer, and will win this competition
hands down. Bharadvāja, by being a religious Brahmin, disposes of unsuspected powers,
and the king, any king, is well advised to stay on good terms with him. What is more, by
encouraging outstanding Brahmins to dedicate themselves to religious practices in
appropriate surroundings — read: āśramas — a king creates a spiritual powerhouse that
can supplement his own worldly powers.
For the Mahābhārata we can refer to Monika Shee’s study of tapas and tapasvin
in the narrative portions of this epic (1986). Shee dedicates several pages (305-315) to the
characteristics of āśramas. She emphasizes their idyllic nature, and the double perfection
found in them: the perfection of nature in the āśramas, and the perfection of its
inhabitants. This double perfection, and the sacredness of the place in general, may
account for the fact that here wild animals are no threat to each other, that there are
flowers around the year, and that beauty and loveliness characterize the āśrama
throughout. The Mahābhārata leaves no doubt as to the fearful power of ascetically
inclined Brahmins. It is not surprising that kings could be persuaded that the peace of the
āśrama makes it the safest place for these potentially terrifying beings to live in. One
passage adds that there are no āśramas during the evil times at the end of the Yuga.70
The power of Brahmins, and the care kings should take not to offend them, is a
70 Mhbh 3.186.43: āśramā … na bhavanti yugakṣaye.
theme that occurs also in later texts.71 The following passage from the Mānava
Dharmaśāstra says it all:72
Even in the face of the deepest adversity, he must never anger Brahmins; for when
they are angered, they will destroy him instantly along with his army and
conveyances. They made the fire a consumer of everything, the ocean
undrinkable, and the moon to wane and wax — who would not be destroyed when
he angers these? When angered, they could create other worlds and other
guardians of the world, they could convert gods into non-gods — who would
prosper when he injures these? The worlds and the gods always exist by taking
refuge in them, and their wealth is the Veda — who would injure them if he
wishes to live?
Indeed, when it comes to it, the Brahmin does not need the king:73
A Brahmin who knows the Law shall not inform the king about any matter; solely
with his own power should he chastise men who do him harm. Between the king’s
power and his own, his own power is far more potent. A twice-born, therefore,
should punish enemies solely with his own power, and make use of vedic texts of
Atharva-Āṅgirasa — that is indisputable. Clearly, speech is the Brahmin’s
weapon; with that a twice-born should strike down his enemies.
Where did the idea of Brahmanical āśramas come from? If the theory here presented as
to the link between āśramas and land grants is accepted, at least a partial answer to this
question may be found. The Vedic Brahmins were not the only ones to receive land
grants in early India. It is possible that they were not the first ones either. The
chronological positions with respect to Pāṇini of the Vedic texts that show awareness of
land grants — the Śatapatha Brāhmaṇa, the Aitareya Brāhmaṇa and the Chāndogya
Upaniṣad — remain uncertain.74 Well, Pāṇini may have lived some fifty years after the
death of the Buddha, and Buddhist literature reports that Anāthapiṇḍika put at the
Buddha’s disposal a park in Śrāvastī called Jetavana.75 The canonical account does not
say that this park was given to the Buddha or to his community of followers, but this may
be a relatively minor detail. The gift of the Veṇuvana by King Bimbisāra is presented as a
71 A useful collection of passages dealing with the Brahmins’ “weapons of virtue”, both in the
epics and in more recent literature, is provided by Minoru Hara (2007: 613-618).
72 Manu 9.313-316: parām apy āpadaṃ prāpto brāhmaṇān na prakopayet / te hy enaṃ kupitā
hanyuḥ sadyaḥ sabalavāhanam // yaiḥ kṛtaṃ sarvabhakṣo ‘gnir apeyaś ca mahodadhiḥ / kṣayī
cāpyāyitaś cenduḥ ko na naśyet prakopya tān // lokān anyān sṛjeyur ye lokapālāṃś ca kopitāḥ /
devān kuryur adevāṃś ca kaḥ kṣiṇvaṃs tān samṛdhnuyāt // yān samāśritya tiṣṭhanti lokā devāś ca
sarvadā / brahma caiva dhanaṃ yeṣāṃ ko hiṃsyāt tāñ jijīviṣuḥ //. Tr. Olivelle.
73 Manu 11.31-33: na brāhmaṇo vedayīta kiṃcid rājani dharmavit / svavīryeṇaiva tāñ chiṣyān
mānavān apakāriṇaḥ // svavīryād rājavīryāc ca svavīryaṃ balavattaram / tasmāt svenaiva vīryeṇa
nigṛhṇīyād arīn dvijaḥ // śrutīr atharvāṅgirasīḥ kuryād ity avicāritam / vāk śastraṃ vai
brāhmaṇasya tena hanyād arīn dvijaḥ //. Tr. Olivelle.
74 See Bronkhorst 2007: 192 ff.
75 Vin II p. 158 f. This is the place where the Buddha, according to tradition, passed most often
the rainy season; see Bareau, 1993: 21.
straightforward donation to the Buddha and his community of monks, and terminates
with the Buddha’s permission to his monks to accept such gifts.76 It is more than likely
that these stories from the Vinaya do not date back to the time of the Buddha, but they are
relatively old.77 The earliest gift of an immovable object recorded in an inscription is the
donation of a cave to the Ājīvikas by emperor Aśoka.78 Another inscription of Aśoka
declares the village Lummini, where the Buddha was born, free of taxes;79 this is what
might be called a donation of a village, even if the donees in this particular case appear to
be the inhabitants of the village itself.80
It seems, then, that the Brahmins of the centuries preceding the Common Era had
to compete for favours from the rich and powerful. One of the areas in which this
competition found expression was the suitability to receive presents, including presents
of land and villages. The Buddhists, Jainas and Ājīvikas were obvious and rewarding
recipients for such generosity, for they needed shelter for their monks, whether in the
form of caves or in some other form.81 Note that a shelter by itself is of limited use, for its
inhabitants have to eat. The gifts of caves (or of other forms of shelter) could therefore be
accompanied by the gift of one or more villages. An inscription from Karle indicates, as a
matter of fact, that the son-in-law of King Nahapāna, whom we encountered earlier and
situated in the first century CE, gave a village “for the support of the ascetics living in the
caves at Valūraka (= Karle) without any distinction of sect or origin, for all who would
keep the varṣa (there).”82 Various other gifts of villages for the inhabitants of caves are
76 Vin I p. 39; Bareau, 1963: 336-339.
77 See on this Schopen, 2006: 317: “If the compilers of the various Vinayas considered it ‘highly
important’ to regulate the lives of their monks so as to give no cause for complaint to the laity,
and if considerations of this sort could only have assumed high importance after Buddhist groups
had permanently settled down, then, since the latter almost certainly did not occur until well after
Aśoka, it would be obvious that all the Vinayas that we have are late, precisely as both Wassilieff
and Lévi have suggested a hundred years ago.” Bareau (1993: 32) states, with regard to the story
of this meeting of the Buddha and King Bimbisāra: “Sa réalité historique est … plus que douteuse
78 Bloch, 1950: 156.
79 Bloch, 1950: 157; G. Bühler in EpInd 5 (1898-99), 4 ff.
80 Schopen (2006: 316) sees in the fact that this gift is not granted to a monastery, or even to a
monastic group, evidence that Aśoka did not know anything about Buddhist monasteries, which
may indeed not yet have existed at that time. Ray (1989: 444) states: “One of the striking features
of Junnar is that for the first time there is epigraphic mention of the donation of land to monastic
establishments, dated to the first century AD.” See further below. Land grants were already given
to Buddhist monasteries in Sri Lanka in the latter part of the second century BCE, according to
Gunawardana (1979: 53 f.); cp. Xinru Liu, 1988: 106-07.
81 Cp. Lubin, 2005: 80: “Ritualist brahmins do not appear to have established monastic or
scholarly centers comparable to those of the Buddhists. What institutions did brahmin priests and
scholars develop that allowed them to carry on and eventually to attain equal success in many of
the domains where Buddhism was successful?” Part of the answer to this question may well be:
āśramas / agrahāras. The expression āśrama-vihāra to refer to a Buddhist monastery is attested
in an inscription from the Gupta period; see Chatterjee, 1999: 239-40; Chakraborti, 1978: 31. An
inscription from Nālandā, moreover, mention the expression agrahāra where one should perhaps
have expected vihāra; see Sastri, 1942: 83. On the idyllic side of Buddhist monasteries, see
82 E. Senart in EpInd 7 (1902-03), 57 ff.
recorded in inscriptions from the same area and approximately the same time. A cave
inscription from Nasik, for example, concerns the gift of the cave and “grants to this
meritorious donation (viz., the cave) the village Pisājipadaka”.83 The Brahmins were at a
disadvantage in this respect, unless they too created — at least in name, perhaps also in
reality — communities of ascetics dedicated to the religious life, Brahmanical fashion.
The āśrama (whether only literary fiction or real, and whether or not it continued an
already existing institution) may have been their response.84
Timothy Lubin states, in a recent article (2005: 82): “Brahmins did gather to meet
in assemblies called pariṣad, saṃsad, or sabhā to decide questions of ritual or social
dharma, and to serve as a local court of law. But the development of durable, large-scale
Brahmanical institutions lagged behind that of Buddhist monasteries. When it came, it
took the form of brahmin settlements on endowed, tax-free lands (agrahāras) and royally
sponsored temples.” At the conclusion of this article we may think that, if Brahmanical
institutions lagged behind, this was not for lack of trying.
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