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Historical Context of Early Asceticism

Dictionary: NOSD
Hindu Practice. Gavin Flood, Oxford University Press (2020). © Oxford University Press.
DOI: 10.1093/oso/9780198733508.001.0001
Historical Context of Early Asceticism
Johannes Bronkhorst
Ascetics have impressed foreign visitors to India from an early time onward. e
Greek Megasthenes, who spent time in eastern India around the year 300 ,
described ascetics that remained motionless for a whole day in one single pos-
ition. More than a thousand years later, Arab travellers marvelled at men in India
who remained motionless for years on end (Mackintosh-Smith2014: 57). Aer
almost another millennium, in the seventeenth century CE, the Frenchman
François Bernier saw ascetics who remained standing seven days and nights,
without sitting or lying down, leaning against ropes while asleep. Today Indian
ascetics still impress foreigners, but the latter no longer have to leave their arm-
chairs and can observe the sādhus, yogis, or fakirs on their television or computer
is chapter will briey present what we know about asceticism in early India.
It will present the evidence schematically, because this is the only way in which an
understanding of complicated historical processes can be conveyed.
Hindu asceticism has two main sources. ese two sources are connected with
the two cultures that existed side by side in northern India during the early period:
(1) the culture of Greater Magadha (see Bronkhorst2007) and (2) Brahmanical
culture. Most of the ascetic practices and ideas we nd described in surviving
Hindu literature draw upon both of these sources, presenting a mixture of their
features. It is clear, however, that the two types of asceticism once existed
independently of each other, and that the two have to some extent succeeded in
surviving on their own. For expository purposes, it will be useful to present
Hindu asceticism in its main developments in three sections: 1. Asceticism in
Greater Magadha; 2. Brahmanical Asceticism; and 3. e Meeting of the Two
Traditions. Aer a section on the special powers attributed to ascetics in India
(4), this chapter will conclude with section 5: Asceticism and Human Nature.
1. Asceticism in Greater Magadha
Greater Magadha is the name here used to designate a region in the eastern parts
of the Ganges valley that included, at the time when Buddhism and Jainism came
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     
into being, the kingdom called Magadha. A precise geographical delimitation of
this region is hard to give, but it coincides by and large with the region where
both the Buddha (the founder of Buddhism) and the Jina (the most recent sacred
teacher of Jainism) preached. Indeed, the ideological background of asceticism in
Greater Magadha is primarily known from the surviving texts of Buddhism and
Jainism, even though there are also other sources.
e main feature of this ideological background is the belief in rebirth and kar-
mic retribution. is belief, as we will see, was initially not part of Brahmanical
culture, and is all by itself responsible for a number of characteristics of asceti-
cism in this part of the sub-continent.
e belief in rebirth and karmic retribution in its most common form holds
that all deeds one performs will have consequences in this or a next existence.
ose who held this belief were convinced that by simply acting in this world,
rebirth in this or another world, whether as human beings or as something else,
was unavoidable. is prospect may not have seemed disagreeable to all, whether
in ancient India or in the modern world—some people nowadays lay out large
sums of money in the hope of a next life through cryonics—but those who
turned to asceticism or related methods did so in principle to avoid such a fate.
In other words, all forms of asceticism we know about that originated in Greater
Magadha were based on the wish to escape from the cycle of rebirth and karmic
ose who sought an escape from the cycle of rebirth and karmic retribution
came up with four responses in particular: (i) inactivity asceticism; (ii) fatalism;
(iii) insight into the true nature of the self; and (iv) a modied understanding of
karmic retribution. ese will now be discussed in order.
1.1. Inactivity Asceticism
If rebirth is the result of deeds carried out in earlier existences, the way to end
rebirth passes through the suppression of all deeds. Suppressing all activity was
the way in which numerous seekers aer freedom from rebirth attempted to
attain their goal. Best known among them are the Jainas, but they were not the
only ones: this method also gained prominence in Hindu texts, showing that
others than only Jainas followed this path. Since Jainism has le us a canon of
scriptures that allow us to gain a deeper understanding of this particular path, we
will concentrate on this movement.
Non-activity to avoid the results of activity seems straightforward. Deeper
reection shows that it is not. One can—and certain Jaina ascetics did—stop all
activity and remain motionless (standing, sitting, or lying), trying to suppress all
thought and even holding ones breath until death ensues, but this does not
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  
guarantee that one will not be reborn: earlier activities will have le their traces
and these will lead to retribution in a next life. Even the most severe form of
inactivity asceticism is pointless if there is no way to get rid of the traces of
earlier deeds.
Jainism had an answer to this dilemma. Inactivity asceticism is a painful aair.
Fighting exhaustion while standing in the blazing sun, hungry and thirsty, with-
out being able to scratch when bitten by insects, or to ward o oensive creatures,
is an excruciating experience. It is useful, however, according to the Jaina scrip-
tures. e very suering one goes through as a result of suppressing all activity
destroys the traces of earlier deeds. If one inicts upon oneself this kind of suer-
ing for long enough, and at the right time (i.e. aer the right preliminary exer-
cises), one may reach the point where all earlier traces are destroyed. Death at
that moment, in a motionless position, the mind brought to a complete standstill
and breath interrupted, frees the person from rebirth.
1.2. Fatalism
Total immobilization, as shown above, is by itself not good enough to guarantee
freedom from rebirth. Jainism presented an additional mechanism in the form of
the suering that necessarily accompanies seriously performed inactivity asceti-
cism: this suering would destroy the traces of all those deeds that had been
accomplished before the ascetic abstained from further activity.
Not all were convinced. e adherents of one movement in particular, the
Ājīvikas, did not think that traces of earlier deeds could be gotten rid of in this
manner, or indeed in any other manner. Future rebirths were therefore inevitable,
whatever one did (or abstained from doing) in the present life. However, the
Ājīvikas did not give up hope altogether. All living beings, they maintained, have
to pass through a long, but nite, cycle of rebirths. e duration of the total cycle
is more than astronomical—about two and a half million times the duration of
the universe as calculated in modern cosmology—but will come to an end, at a
dierent moment for each living being.
How will those behave who have come to the end of their cycle? Ājīvikism
appears to have held that those individuals will live ascetic lives, not unlike Jaina
ascetics. But whereas Jaina ascetics practised asceticism in order to gain lib er-
ation, Ājīvika ascetics did so because they were near liberation.
Unfortunately, Ājīvikism has not survived until today; nor has it le us any
scriptures. All the information we can obtain about it has to be culled from refer-
ences to it in other texts. Since Ājīvikism was close to Jainism, the Jaina canon is
an important source of information. Some of this information is conrmed in
references to this movement in the early Buddhist canon. Epigraphy tells us that
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     
Ājīvikism survived into the second millennium of the Common Era in South
India, aer which it disappeared altogether.
1.3. Insight into the True Nature of the Self
Inactivity asceticism might be described as the manifestation of an unwillingness
to identify with body and mind. Ascetics systematically ignore pain and other
bodily or mental signals. e question could and did arise what remains if one
does not identify with body and mind. Is there anything that can be considered
ones self, dierent from those two? Certain seekers thought there is. ey
believed that each person has a core, her self, which is dierent from both body
and mind, and therefore unrelated to all bodily and mental activity. In fact, the
real self is intrinsically inactive.
e belief in a totally inactive self could go hand in hand with the inactivity
asceticism and fatalism described above, and there are indications in the texts
that it did. However, certain seekers put relatively more emphasis on the nature of
the self at the expense of ascetic fervour. Aer all, if the core of one’s being never
acts, it is not subject to karmic retribution. In order to escape from the cycle of
rebirths, it is sucient to identify with this core of one’s being, ones true self, and
no longer therefore with one’s body and mind.
Insight into the true nature of the self becomes in this way a sine qua non for
liberation from karmic retribution. It is responsible for some of the philosophical
developments that came to accompany—or replace—ascetic religious practice.
All the schools of classical Brahmanical philosophy have one thing in common:
they all propose a vision of the world in which one or more inactive selves occupy
a central position. is is true of Sāṃkhya, the philosophy with close links to
Yoga, but also of the school of Nyāya-Vaiśeṣika, and of course of Vedānta in its
various manifestations.
For our present purposes, the Sāṃkhya school of philosophy is of most inter-
est. As stated above, one of its central elements is a completely inactive self.
Nothing much can be said about it apart from the fact that it is conscious: this
consciousness is, of course, totally motionless, a bit like the ame of a candle
where there is no wind. All that is active belongs to the realm of Original Nature
(prakṛti), fundamentally dierent from the self. Its activity covers mental activity
as much as physical activity. is activity is due to the fact that it has three dier-
ently orientated constituents (called guṇas): Goodness (sattva), Vigour (rajas),
and Darkness (tamas). Mental activity is the result of the interaction of Original
Nature (which is active but not conscious) and the self (which is conscious
butnot active). A predominance of sattva allows the self toshine through,
thus facilitating the identication with this inactive centre of the personality.
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  
Ascetic practice should therefore aim at bringing about a predominance of sattva.
We will see below that another interpretation of this same scheme of mental
functioning is possible, too.
1.4. A Modied Understanding of Karmic Retribution
Buddhism falls into a category of its own because it rejects the belief that all activ-
ity leads to karmic retribution and, by implication, that only through inactivity
can one be freed from rebirth. It is, moreover, emphatic in its rejection of the
belief that insight into the true nature of the self is a condition for liberation.
If deeds do not lead to rebirth and karmic retribution, what does? e Buddhist
answer is: the desires and intentions that inspire us to act. Deeds that may have
been inadvertently carried out are not by themselves causes of rebirth and karmic
retribution. As a result, rather than suppressing deeds and destroying the traces
of deeds, the Buddhist path aimed at the destruction of the roots of desire. is
can neither be done through inactivity asceticism nor through an insight into the
true nature of the self. e Buddhist method was—and could not but be—a psy-
chological method that aimed at a radical and lasting modication of the struc-
ture of the mind. is change could only be produced in a state of mind dierent
from ordinary consciousness. Certain forms of meditation were thought to prod-
uce that particular state of mind.
e Buddhist path was clearly less straightforward and more complicated than
the other paths considered so far. It involved a dierent notion of the mechanism
of karmic retribution, and psychological practices that were far removed from
everyday experience. It could therefore easily give rise to misunderstandings. is
is what happened. e result is that already the early Buddhist canon contains
numerous contradictory indications as to the right path to follow. Analysis shows
that features from the inactivity ideology slipped in, without replacing the authentic
bits. Fortunately, it is possible for modern research to separate the wheat from the
cha, since the inactivity ideology is easily recognizable in the added ascetic and
mental practices.
In chronological terms, we know that the dierent forms of asceticism that
were a response to the belief in rebirth and karmic retribution, and that have been
described in outline above, existed at the time of the Buddha and the Jina, the
founders of Buddhism and Jainism respectively. Recent research puts the death of
the Buddha in or soon aer the year 400 ; Mahāvīra (the most recent Jina)
appears to have been a contemporary of the Buddha who died some years before
him. It is possible that before Mahāvīra there had been an earlier preacher of
(avariant of) Jainism, Pārśva. If so, asceticism inspired by rebirth and karmic
retribution existed already before the h century . Unfortunately, no more
precise date can be given.
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     
2. Brahmanical Asceticism
e centre of Brahmanical culture lay west of Greater Magadha. Brahmins were
primarily sacricial priests, specialized in the sacricial culture that nds expres-
sion in the corpus of texts called the Veda. is sacricial culture implied various
restrictions that, in the end, led certain Brahmins to the cultivation of an ascetic
lifestyle. Restrictions demanded of the Vedic sacricer included fasting, sexual
abstinence, limitations of speech, restricted movements, and more. Sacricial
consecration (dīkṣā) frequently imposed these restrictions on the sacricer.
Certain Brahmins extended these sacricial restrictions beyond the sacrice
itself and beyond the time span reserved for its regular execution. In other words,
certain Brahmins decided to live a consecrated life for the remainder of their
days. ey oen used the same word, dīkṣā, ‘consecration, in this context. Another
principal feature of Brahmanical asceticism was the central place that the sacri-
cial re plays in it. is is not surprising. Fire played a fundamental role in Vedic
culture in general. A Brahmin kindled his own sacricial re aer nishing his
religious studies. He maintained it until his death, upon which his bodily remains
were to be burned in this re.
Brahmanical ascetics went further. ey would abandon almost all they pos-
sessed, except of course the sacricial re, and withdraw to the forest, separating
all links with ordinary society. In the forest, they would make regular ritual
oerings to the re, and survive by what the forest would provide, primarily roots
and fruits.
Beside the sacricial re, a further concern of the Brahmanical ascetic was
purity. is explains his refusal to enter into any form of contact with society. In
practice, this meant that the Brahmanical ascetic would not accept anything,
including food and, more precisely, agricultural products. e question can be
asked whether human beings can nd enough fruits and roots in the forest to
survive while at the same time dedicating much time to looking aer the sacri-
cial re. e answer to this question is only to a limited extent relevant at present.
e consecrated life of the Brahmanical ascetic was and remained an ideal that
certain people no doubt tried to approximate, and that exerted a determining
inuence on much of subsequent Brahmanical literature.
Close study of the Vedic sacrice has shown that its victim is a substitute for
the sacricer. is allowed Sylvain Lévi to state, already in 1898 (p. 133), that ‘the
only authentic sacrice would be suicide’ (‘Le seul sacrice authentique serait le
suicide’). Heesterman (1993: 173, with a reference to Heesterman1987) observed:
‘self-sacrice is an all-but-ubiquitous theme in the ritual brāhmaṇa texts, the vic-
tim as well as other oerings being regularly equated with the sacricer’. Biardeau
(Biardeau and Malamoud1976: 38) added that ‘the cremation [of the body of the
deceased sacricer] is itself conceived of as a sacrice in which the sacricer has
become the victim. In other words, the sacricer is or can be the victim in his
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  
own sacrice, with the proviso that most oen he is replaced by a substitute; he is
himself sacriced in his re aer his physical death. ere are reasons to think
that certain Brahmanical ascetics were not willing to wait that long. ey ended
their lives by voluntarily entering into the re.
Dating Vedic religion is a perilous undertaking; dating the beginnings of
Brahmanical asceticism even more so. However, we have good reasons to believe
that Alexander of Macedonia (‘Alexander the Great’) met Brahmanical ascetics
inTaxila in 325 , i.e. only y or seventy-ve years aer the death of the
Buddha, well before Buddhism and Jainism had penetrated into those far western
regions. One of these Brahmanical ascetics (Calanus/Greek: Kalanos) ac com pan ied
Alexander to Persia, where he ended his life by voluntarily entering the re. We may
conclude that Brahmanical asceticism existed at that time. It must therefore date
back at least that far. It can therefore be claimed with condence that Brahmanical
asceticism and the dierent forms of asceticism characteristic of Greater Magadha
coexisted—though in dierent parts of the Indian sub-continent—in and
presumably already before the year 400 .
3. e Meeting of the Two Traditions
Alexander’s conquests in the north-western parts of the Indian sub-continent
profoundly aected the political situation. e strongly brahmanized regions that
he had conquered did not remain in Greek hands for long and soon became part
of the Maurya Empire. e capital of this empire was Pāṭaliputra, the capital of
Magadha and therefore right at the centre of Greater Magadha. e brahmanized
regions of north-western India were now governed by rulers who had no sym pathy
for Brahmins or their sacricial culture, and whose natural sympathies lay with
the religions of Greater Magadha, primarily Jainism, Ājīvikism, and Buddhism.
Brahmanism survived this dicult period, but not without undergoing pro-
found changes. ese changes came both from within and from without.
3.1. Changes from Within
e Maurya Empire deprived the Brahmins of their natural sponsors, rulers who
nanced the sacrices that Brahmins carried out for them. Brahmanism, as a
result, turned inward, with an increased emphasis on household rites and private
piety. Brahmanical asceticism had existed before the Maurya Empire (think of the
ascetics Alexander met), but could not but gain in appeal during this period, pre-
cisely because the element of private religious motivation plays an important role
in it. It is, however, possible that it downplayed some of its more extreme aspects,
most notably the custom of ending one’s life by entering voluntarily into the re.
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     
Traces of the earlier situation survive, as in the following passages:
Aer having addressed his relatives, he makes the res rise up in himself.
‘Forthe re is a comrade, an observer of joy and pain’, thus it is said. With the
verse: is is thy due place of birth, etc.he shall set re to himself in the
three sacricial res. (Mānava Śrautasūtra 8.25)
Having made the sacricial priests place all the sacricial utensils on the limbs
of the sacricer (i.e., of his own), he should place (his ve breaths, viz.) prāṇa,
apāna, vyāna, udāna and samāna, that are in (the ve sacricial res, viz.)
āhavanīya, gārhapatya, anvāhāryapacana, sabhya and āvasathya, all [ve of them],
in all [of the ve sacricial res]. (Kaṭhaśruti, ed. Schrader (1912: 31l.7–32l.3))
Both these passages suggest at rst that the person concerned ends his life in his
re(s), but both then continue as if he is still alive and ready to proceed to a next
phase of ascetic life. is makes most sense if we assume that the editors used
earlier passages (in which the person really dies) but give them a ‘symbolic’
interpretation, so that he now stays alive.
One law book—the Vasiṣṭha Dharmasūtra (29.4)—states in so many words
that one reaches the world of Brahma by entering the re. ere is even a
sacrice—the so-called Śunaskarṇa (= ‘dog-eared’) sacrice—in which the
sacricer dies and his body is burnt in the re; according to at least one source,
the sacricer brings this about by entering the re.
3.2. Changes from Without
Brahmanism could not avoid coming into contact with the altogether dierent
ideology of Greater Magadha. If it had tried to stay aloof from outside inuence
in earlier days, which seems likely, this was no longer possible once its adherents
had become part of the Maurya Empire, whose rulers felt close to that ideology.
We can only guess what this interaction may have looked like on the ground, but
its eects on Brahmanical asceticism are more than clear.
e belief in rebirth and karmic retribution was unknown to the Vedic trad-
ition. No Vedic texts are acquainted with it, with the exception of some passages
in Upaniṣads. ese passages are associated with the names of Uddālaka and
Yāj ñ av a l k y a , a n d o c cu r i n t he Bṛhadāraṇyaka, Chāndogya, and Kauṣītaki Upaniṣads.
e Bṛhadāraṇyaka and the Chāndogya Upaniṣads point out that this knowledge
For details, see Bronkhorst2016: 417–22 (Appendix II).
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  
had thus far been unknown to Brahmins. As the Chāndogya Upaniṣad (5.3.7)
puts it: ‘before you this knowledge has never reached Brahmins. In all the worlds,
therefore, government belonged exclusively to royalty’ (tr. Olivelle 1992). e
importance of this admission is not always fully appreciated by modern scholars.
Brahmins, normally the guardians of important and esoteric knowledge, are here
stated not to have known a crucially important fact. ese are probably the only
Vedic passages that make such an admission. ey state in so many words that
rebirth and karmic retribution were borrowed notions in the Brahmanical
tradition. e texts do not say from whom they borrowed this notion, but it will
be clear that they borrowed it from the culture of Greater Magadha.
Not all Brahmins accepted rebirth and karmic retribution at the time of those
Upaniṣads. It took another thousand years before this belief became part and par-
cel of Brahmanism in most of its forms. e most orthodox Brahmins—the
Mīmāṃsakas, who occupied themselves with Vedic interpretation—did not do so
until the middle of the rst millennium . e Cārvākas, who were at one point
close to the Mīmāṃsakas, refused to accept rebirth and karmic retribution until
the end of the rst millennium, aer which they disappeared from sight. But
clearly this belief gained enormously in importance in Brahmanism already dur-
ing the centuries preceding the Common Era, and aected the way people thought
about asceticism.
is is clear from the fact that certain Brahmanical texts—primarily the
Dharmasūtras, which may date from the last centuries preceding the Common
Era—present young Brahmins and others who are twice-born with four options
as to how they wish to spend their lives. In the theoretical scheme presented by
these texts, a young man rst spends time with a teacher. At the end of this period,
he can (i) decide to remain a religious student for the rest of his life; (ii) marry
and create a family; (iii) become a Brahmanical ascetic (vānaprastha, ‘forest-
dweller’) and withdraw to the forest with his wife and re; or, nally, he can
(iv)become a renouncer who abandons all including his wife and re, and survives
furthermore by begging. e terms used for the renouncer are primarily parivrāj
or parivrājaka, which means ‘wandering mendicant’; later on another term came
to be used, saṃnyāsin, which literally means ‘renouncer’.
A look at the way of life of the forest-dweller shows that it corresponds to the
lifestyle of the Brahmanical ascetic described above. It is not surprising that this is
one of the options open to the religious Brahmin (and, at least in theory, to other
twice-born men, i.e. Kṣatriyas and Vaiśyas). More surprising is the fourth option,
that of the renouncer, for it has no inherent connection with Brahmanical trad-
ition. It has all the more connection with the ascetic lifestyles that had been com-
mon in Greater Magadha.
e Dharmasūtras, then, reserve a place for a form of asceticism that has no
inherent link with the Brahmanical tradition: they allow a young (male) Brahmin
to enter a life of religious mendicancy in which all connections with Vedic ritual
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     
have been broken. Many experienced this as embarrassing, and it is easy to
understand why.
e importance of progeny in the Brahmanical tradition can hardly be over-
esti mated. A person’s wellbeing aer death depends on ritual performances car-
ried out by his son. Indeed, the texts sometimes speak of the three debts with
which a Brahmin is born. It nds its classical expression in a Vedic text, the
Taittirīya Saṃhitā (
A Brahmin, at his very birth, is born with a triple debt—of studentship to the seers,
of sacrice to the gods, of ospring to the fathers. He is, indeed, free from debt,
who has a son, is a sacricer, and who has lived as a student. (tr. Olivelle1992: 47)
e idea of voluntarily renouncing parenthood is, as a result, almost un imagin-
able in traditional Brahmanism. And yet, those who opt for a life of religious
mendicancy do precisely that.
In view of the above it is perhaps not surprising that Brahmanical texts looked
for ways of taming an intruder that could no longer be expelled. External forms of
asceticism had entered Brahmanism from Greater Magadha and were there to
stay. Strict sexual abstinence was part of them, and this implied that any young-
ster who opted for this path before and instead of marriage would be without o-
spring. (e same applies, of course, to the young man who decides to remain a
religious student for the rest of his life.) For traditional Brahmanism this was hard
to accept. e simplest way to avoid this outcome would be to move these forms
of asceticism to a later phase of life, well aer the production of ospring.
is is indeed what happened. e relatively early Dharmasūtras had oered
four options to the young man at the end of his period of study. More recent texts
on Dharma turn these four options into a sequence of four stages. e rst stage
is now the period of study. Aer this the young man is expected to marry and
found a family. is second period is followed by one in which he withdraws into
the forest with wife and sacricial re. Only at the very end does he abandon all
so as to become a religious mendicant in search of enlightenment. ese are the
four āśramas that become a standard ingredient of classical Hinduism.
e transition from the third āśrama, that of the forest-dweller, to the fourth
āśrama, that of the religious mendicant, remained somewhat problematic for
Brahmanical thinkers: no inner logic appears to connect these two altogether dif-
ferent forms of asceticism. is puzzlement nds expression in certain Brahmanical
texts. An example is provided by the two passages we studied earl ier: one from
the Mānava Śrautasūtra, another from the Kat ̣haśruti. ese two passages
reinterpret self-destruction in the sacricial re as a transition to a next phase of
ascetic life. is next phase of ascetic life lies beyond ordinary life, and follows
indeed on the symbolical death of the person concerned. Henceforth he no longer
belongs to the realm of ordinary human beings, and is ‘dead to the world’. His
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bodily remains will not even be incinerated (as happens in the case of everyone
else), for his incineration has already taken place, though symbolically, when he
entered this phase of life.
We noticed above that Brahmanism felt threatened by the forms of asceticism
that had entered it from the region to its east. e invention of the four sequential
āśramas was a way to deal with this threat. It was not the only one. Another one
became at least as popular and found its primary expression in the Bhagavadgītā,
a text that became extremely inuential and remains so today.
Recall that insight into the true inactive nature of the self was one of the
responses to the doctrine of rebirth and karmic retribution. It found expression
in the Sāṃkhya philosophy (though not only there). In Sāṃkhya the inactive self
is strictly dierentiated from Original Nature, which is active on account of its
three constituent guṇas. In classical Sāṃkhya, Original Nature is compared to a
dancer (female: the word prakṛti is feminine) who performs before the self (the
Sanskrit word for self is puruṣa, which also means ‘man’). e dancer performs as
long as the man shows an interest, but stops dancing when the man no longer
pays attention. In classical Sāṃkhya, therefore, insight into the true nature of the
self went hand in hand with calming the activity of Original Nature.
e Bhagavadgītā interprets the situation dierently. If a person realizes that he
is not involved in ‘his’ actions, that Original Nature works on its own, driven by
the three guṇas without the involvement of the self, that person will no longer be
attached to the fruits of his actions. But mind and body will continue to act. Mind
and body, the Bhagavadgītā proclaims, will act in accordance with the position in
society in which one is born. Since ones position in society is determined by the
caste-class system that is supposed to prevail in Brahmanical societies, the person
who knows his true self will abide by the rules imposed by Brahmanism. Far from
leaving society to search for liberation, such a person will become a pillar of trad-
ition al Brahmanical society, free from the desire to change his position in life. On
several occasions (3.35 and 18.45–8) the Bhagavadgītā emphasizes that it is better
to perform ones own duty imperfectly than someone elses well.
is reinterpretation of an originally ascetic philosophy became a potent
weapon in the hands of Brahmanism and its vision of society. Doubters now
learned that the highest goal (liberation, or union with God) is best reached not
by leaving the world and becoming wandering mendicants, but by following in all
details the rules of Brahmanical society. ese rules are weightier than any moral
considerations. is is clear from the way in which the Bhagavadgītā presents its
message. e warrior Arjuna has moral qualms about the battle that is about to
start and in which he is to play a central role. God, in the form of Kṛṣṇa, tells him
to forget these moral qualms and to carry out his duty as a warrior without asking
these questions and, of course, without getting attached to the fruits of his actions.
Brahmanism did not succeed in banishing asceticism, as suggested in the
Bhagavadgītā, or indeed in preventing young people from taking up the ascetic
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life, as the sequence of life stages (āśrama) would expect them to do. Ascetics
remained and remain a prominent feature of the religious landscape we oen call
Hinduism, and there can be no doubt that respect for ascetics was and is as
important for many ordinary Hindus as respect for Brahmins. It is not surprising
that the two were and are engaged in an implicit competition.
4. Asceticism and Power
Ascetics in India have, as far as we can see, always been associated with special
powers. To the extent that they occupied themselves with mental exercises of
various sorts, it is not surprising that extraordinary mental powers were attrib-
uted to them, or that they claimed such mental powers for themselves. But also
non-mental powers came to be attributed to advanced ascetics, even in Buddhism
and Jainism where mental development held the centre of attention.
Information about the special powers of ascetics in early India usually comes
from narrative literature. is is once again not surprising, since stories are our
most important source of information about popular beliefs of the time. Members
of the general public who were in awe of this or that ascetic were inclined to
believe that the ascetic concerned was in the possession of extraordinary powers.
is observation may have been valid quite independently of the particular cur-
rent to which the admired and/or feared ascetic may have belonged. He may have
looked upon himself as a follower of the Buddha or of the Jina, or he may have
been a Brahmin who dedicated himself to Brahmanical asceticism; he may also
have been an ascetic without a link to any of these currents.
is general picture has to be adjusted in light of the following. From among
the currents we have studied in the preceding pages, one—and to the best of our
knowledge only one—made a concerted eort to spread the idea that its ascetics
were particularly powerful, so much so that fear and reverence towards them was
an absolute necessity. is one current was, of course, Brahmanism. e strong
Brahmanical preoccupation with language, and with the special powers it attrib-
uted to certain verbal expressions, primarily mantras, explains the central role of
curses among the means by which Brahmins were believed to exert their power.
e belief in the extraordinary powers attributed to Brahmins stood them in
good stead. Indeed, it was perhaps the most important instrument enabling
Brahmanism to succeed in spreading far and wide from an initially limited
geographical area, and to gain the respect and awe that characterized them in the
following centuries. is belief primarily spread through the intermediary of
On the supernatural perceptions and powers of Indian ascetics, see Franco2009; White2009;
Jacobsen2012; Olson2015. On the role that stories of Brahmanical power played in the spread of
Brahmanism, see Bronkhorst2016: § IIB and III.5.
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narrative. Brahmanical narrative—and for the early period we may rst of all
think of the Sanskrit epics, i.e. the Mahābhārata and the Rāmāyaṇa—is brim-full
of extremely powerful Brahmins, all of them ascetics, whose powers far exceed
those of the worldly rulers they meet, and of everyone else. No one can read the
narrative portions of these epics without realizing that the heroic valour of the
warriors in these stories fades in comparison with the ascetic powers that those
Brahmins have at their disposal. By emphasizing the power of those Brahmins,
and by illustrating this with examples that leave no room for doubt, the epics could
become an important instrument for the accomplishment of the Brahmanical
project of gaining pre-eminence in society.
In this situation, it was only to be expected that rival currents—such as
Buddhism and Jainism—felt they had to compete, with the result that ever more
extraordinary powers came to be attributed to their ascetic saints, too. Stories
about powerful ascetics of all colours henceforth adorned the Indian religious
5. Asceticism and Human Nature
So far this chapter has dealt with the historical context of early asceticism in
India. To some extent this historical context explains why certain individuals in
early India engaged in asceticism at all. Among the motivating factors we found
the wish to escape from rebirth and karmic retribution, and the goal of reaching
perfect Brahmanical purity. ere were no doubt other motivating factors, such
as the desire to escape from society or, paradoxically, the wish to conform to soci-
etal pressures once ascetic traditions had been institutionalized. e hope of
obtaining the supernatural powers that were attributed to ascetics may also have
inspired some to pursue an ascetic way of life. As so oen, historical processes are
far too complicated to be fully caught in simplifying schemes. And yet, such
schemes do sometimes enable us to see the forest for the trees. ey most certainly
do so in this case.
However, ascetic practices are no child’s play. No amount of historical informa-
tion can suciently explain that people were willing to take such extreme steps,
which sometimes resulted in death, presumably in response to beliefs they held.
It has to be remembered that asceticism was (and is) not an exclusively Indian
phenomenon. Ascetic practices are known from other cultures, some of which
had no known historical connections with India. In each of these alternative
ascetic traditions there are no doubt belief systems in which these practices nd
their place. But the occurrence of similar ascetic practices in dierent theoretical
contexts obliges us to conclude that belief systems can only provide a partial
explanation (if at all). Another part of the explanation has to be based on the fact
that ascetics in dierent cultures have one thing in common: they are all human
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beings. It appears that human beings, simply by being human, have what it takes
to ensure that some of them, in certain cultural contexts, will engage in activities
of the kind we call ascetic.
is is not the place to elaborate these observations. Note, however, that a
recurring theme in asceticism in dierent cultures is the disinclination to identify
with one’s body and mind, and the tendency to remain aloof even when faced
with extreme conditions. is can be accompanied by a belief that the inner self is
fundamentally dierent from body and mind, as we saw was true for certain
Indian ascetics. However, ascetic practices are not always accompanied by this
particular belief. is suggests that specic beliefs (such as, for example, the doc-
trine of karma in India) may in the end not be the cause of ascetic practices, but
perhaps rather the other way round: their eect (see Bronkhorst2001 and 2017).
e other motivating factor behind ascetic practices considered above, viz. the
Vedic sacricial tradition, is similarly in need of further explanation in more gen-
erally human terms. For sacrices, too, occur in altogether dierent cultures. e
willingness to inict harm upon oneself, and in certain cases to kill oneself, ts
into a more general understanding that looks upon the sacrice as a ritual man-
ner to solemnize a hierarchical relationship. e sacricer ritually subordinates
himself to the entity—usually a divinity, sometimes another human being—to
whom the sacrice is made. Instances of the opposite, in which the sacrice gives
ritual expression to the hierarchical superiority of the sacricer over others, also
exist (Bronkhorst2012b). is understanding of the sacrice makes sense of the
situation in India and elsewhere. We have seen that the Vedic sacrice inspired
some people (think of Calanus, mentioned above) to violently put an end to their
own life.
All this makes sense of a form of asceticism that occurred in early India but
that does not derive from the two traditions, singly or jointly, specied above. In
fact, this kind of asceticism is close to the margins of what is commonly called
asceticism, and has structural similarities with the Vedic sacrice, or rather with
sacrice in general. It manifests itself in Buddhism and elsewhere.
Earlier in this chapter we had occasion to draw attention to the connection
between the Vedic sacrice and (Vedic) asceticism. e kind of Buddhist asceti-
cism now to be discussed has structural similarities with sacrice, without there
being reason to suppose that it is historically linked with the Vedic sacrice.
An o-recurring theme in Indian Buddhist literature—especially in the so-
called Jātakas, but also in the Lotus Sūtra (Plank2014: 181–6)—is giving away all
ones possessions, including ones body or parts of it. Numerous stories told about
the former lives of the Buddha depict him as involved in such activities. We nd
here, for example, King Śibi who cut o parts of his body to feed a bird of prey, or
Prince Viśvāntara, who gave away all his possessions including his wife and
children. But this theme was more than a mere literary motif. e Chinese
pilgrim Yijing, who visited India around the year 700 , reports that there were
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Buddhists in India who burned their own bodies as an act of religious fervour.
e habit of self-mutilation became particularly popular in China, where it occurred
on a large scale in conjunction with the worship of Buddhist relics or stūpas
Self-mutilation, and self-decapitation in particular, are also known from
Hinduism. Hero stones in Andhra commemorate such cases of suicide, and
devices were created to permit devotees to decapitate themselves without outside
help. ese suicidal practices have no known link to the Vedic tradition, whereas
in some cases a historical link with Buddhism seems plausible (Sudyka2014).
We saw that, in theory, the victim in a Vedic sacrice is to be identied with
the sacricer; in other words, ‘the only authentic sacrice would be suicide(see
section 2 above). e self-destructive behaviour of certain Buddhists falls in this
same category, all the more since these Buddhists, by oering themselves, or parts
of themselves, to the Buddha, hierarchically subordinate themselves to the
Buddha in the way in which the Vedic sacricer subordinates himself to the gods.
e same can be said about the self-decapitations of Hinduism. Certain scholars
think therefore that this kind of behaviour arose in Buddhism under the inu-
ence of the Vedic sacrice.
is theory is hard to maintain. Buddhism was critical of the Vedic sacrice
and did not try to imitate it in any way. What is more, few Vedic sacricers
literally harmed themselves; the idea that Buddhists would outperform them in
this respect is highly unlikely, to say the least. And, nally, self-mutilation in
Buddhism developed on a large scale in China rather than in India, and therefore
far from any possible inuence of the Vedic sacrice.
We must conclude that this particular form of Buddhist ascetic behaviour, and
by extension the tradition of self-decapitation in Hinduism, arose neither out of the
traditions of asceticism outlined above, nor out of the Vedic sacrice. ey must
rather be looked upon as new and independent developments, based on the same
human predisposition that also gave rise to sacrice, both in India and elsewhere.
Self-destruction and self-mutilation in India as an expression of religious
respect and subordination occurred both in Buddhism and Hinduism, as we have
seen. In Buddhism, it primarily occurred during the early period, and was there
largely conned to literature. To the examples discussed above we must add the
infamous custom of suttee, in which a widow follows her dead husband on the
funeral pyre. Once again, there is no reason whatsoever to think that suttee was
inuenced by Buddhism or by the Vedic sacrice, or vice versa.
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Full-text available
This article claims that the study of religion has overlooked a feature of the human mind that may yet help to explain certain aspects of religion. Awareness, it is here argued, can vary along a dimension that is characterized by the density of associations and other inputs that accompany it. The mechanism behind this is concentration, including the stronger form of concentration here called absorption. Absorption has cognitive effects, and is at least in part responsible for the human tendency to believe in a different, " higher, " reality. Various other features usually associated with religion— including ritual behavior and asceticism—also make sense in the light of this observation.
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This paper deals with the theme of giving away the body or parts of it. This theme is frequent in Buddhist literature, but also finds expression in the real life custom, attested in India and more so in China, of burning one’s own body as an act of religious fervour. The paper studies the potential link of this theme with the Vedic sacrificial tradition, and comes to the conclusion that there is no such link.
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This article initially argues that asceticism and related phenomena in classical India and in Christian antiquity suggest the existence of a universal, shared, innate human predisposition. After providing descriptive data on the widespread belief in a soul distinct from the body, along with cross-cultural accounts of ascetic practices, the article turns to a general reflection concerning the characteristics of an innate disposition termed the 'ascetic instinct' in light of other such dispositions, notably the 'language instinct' hypothesized to exist by some linguists. Further evidence in support of the proposed ascetic instinct, this time drawn mainly from tribal societies, is also presented. The article concludes by drawing on recent research on language and symbolic thinking to propose how this counter-reproductive universal arose and how it has survived in human beings.
In this book, J. C. Heesterman attempts to understand the origins and nature of Vedic sacrifice—the complex compound of ritual practices that stood at the center of ancient Indian religion. Paying close attention to anomalous elements within both the Vedic ritual texts, the brahmanas, and the ritual manuals, the srautasutras, Heesterman reconstructs the ideal sacrifice as consisting of four moments: killing, destruction, feasting, and contest. He shows that Vedic sacrifice all but exclusively stressed the offering in the fire—the element of destruction—at the expense of the other elements. Notably, the contest was radically eliminated. At the same time sacrifice was withdrawn from society to become the sole concern of the individual sacrificer. The ritual turns in on the individual as "self-sacrificer" who realizes through the internalized knowledge of the ritual the immortal Self. At this point the sacrificial cult of the fire recedes behind doctrine of the atman's transcendence and unity with the cosmic principle, the brahman. Based on his intensive analysis Heesterman argues that Vedic sacrifice was primarily concerned with the broken world of the warrior and sacrificer. This world, already broken in itself by the violence of the sacrificial contest, was definitively broken up and replaced with the ritrualism of the single, unopposed sacrificer. However, the basic problem of sacrifice—the riddle of life and death—keeps breaking too surface in the form of incongruities, contradictions, tensions, and oppositions that have perplexed both the ancient ritual theorists and the modern scholar.
Le sacrifice dans l'hindouisme
  • Madeleine Biardeau
Biardeau, Madeleine. 1976. 'Le sacrifice dans l'hindouisme', in Madeleine Biardeau and Charles Malamoud (eds.), Le sacrifice dans l'Inde ancienne. Paris: Presses Universitaires de France.
Le sacrifice dans l'Inde ancienne
  • Madeleine Biardeau
  • Charles Malamoud
Biardeau, Madeleine and Charles Malamoud. 1976. Le sacrifice dans l'Inde ancienne. Paris: Presses Universitaires de France.