This essay explores the common origins of asceticism among three distinct traditions indigenous to ancient India – Brahmanism, Jainism and Buddhism, as well as demonstrates links between their meditation systems, both in practice and belief.

Before proceeding further, a point has to be made on terminology. The terms ‘Buddhism’, ‘Jainism’ and ‘Brahmanism’ are a recent development and carry problematic assumptions. Coined in the second millennium CE, these should not be interpreted as self-designated terms for the ancient ‘religions’ (Samuel 2008:17; Flügel 2005:2-4). Buddhists adhered to the teachings of the Buddha, “an Indian prince-turned-renouncer” (Carrette and King 2005:95), and established various ‘Buddhisms’ (Gethin 1998:2). Jains abode by the precepts of Mahāvīra, the most recent Jina, and were predominantly homogeneous. In contrast, Brahmins were leaders in a social system and Vedic ritualism animated by Brahman, the ultimate reality. This essay, nevertheless, adopts the simplified terminology for convenience.

Fundamental developments in Vedic India

Around the 5th century BCE, India underwent changes on many fronts – in social, economic, political, religious and scientific domains. The new developments posed direct challenges to Brahmanical hegemony and in due course served as a catalyst for new traditions. At the outset, the movement of population to towns denoted disintegration of the traditional culture and adoption of new complex structures in all areas of life. As a consequence, a śramaṇa ‘movement’ emerged, characterised by mass renunciation and search for heterodox existential ideas. Notwithstanding if a sense of suffering exacerbated in the society of that period (Gombrich 2006[1988]:58-60; Gethin 1998:62-63), the non-Vedic ‘strivers’ gave rise to liberation-oriented monastic traditions. Their leaders, Mahāvīra and Gautama Buddha—as it will be shown—exchanged ideas and broadened the scope of doctrines in ancient India. Among many themes, these ranged from arbitrary to extreme austerities (tapas). While there is no scholarly agreement on the degree to which the new traditions rested upon traditional Brahmanism1, this essay will demonstrate how the Jaina and Buddhist opposition to the society influenced the absorption of some of their beliefs and practices into Brahmanism.

The ritual asceticism of Brahmans

Although early practitioners of all traditions engaged in tapas, the degree and mode of their practice differed. To illustrate this, texts from Vedic, non-Vedic and post-Vedic sources will be examined.

The tapas of the Vedas was power-oriented and brought boons from gods (Mallinson and Singleton 2017:xiv). The verbal root tap denoted heat associated with fertility and a ‘power-bearer’ accumulating sacred energy and merit through chastity. A dialogue between sage Agastya and his wife Lopāmudrā, who he fails to resist, illustrates the striving:

[Lopāmudrā:] ‘Women should unite with virile men.’
[Agastya:] ‘Not in vain is all this toil, which the gods encourage. (...)’
[Lopāmudrā:] ‘Desire has come upon me (...)’
‘Lopāmudrā draws out the virile bull (...)’
[Agastya:] ‘Let him forgive us if we have sinned, for a mortal is full of many desires.’

(Ṛg Veda in Doniger 2005 [1981]:1.179)

Moreover, in preparation for a Vedic ritual, the ‘toil’ of self-control could include fasting or isolation to inflict purifying ‘pain’ and bestow meditative illumination (Bronkhorst 2020:67; Kaelber 1989:146). The karmic reward was a manifestation of the ‘fertile’ force – ripening crops, cattle, offspring, tribal superiority, or heaven (Samuel 2008:156; Witzel 2005[2003]:80; Flood 1996:40). This early Brahmanical asceticism that overcomes nature and, therefore, effects its control (Kaelber 1989:144) was challenged by Jains and Buddhists and their new-self-conscious followers.

The Jaina and Buddhist opposition

The non-Vedic traditions propagated the concept of karmic retribution (Bronkhorst 2007:130-134) and rendered tapas significant in liberation. Their practice of austerities stemmed from discipline, moral values, and abnegation of identification with one’s body and mind. Concordantly with Brahmins, they rejected the appeal of sexual life. But, in addition, they eschewed family life and the society built upon it. They renounced possessions, dwelled in a forest, relied on alms or a strict diet, clothed themselves with robes, or went unadorned, and devoted themselves to stilling the mind.

For Jains, stilling the mind, and the body, was a forceful effort that set them apart from Buddhists. They combined physics with metaphysics and proposed a program of extreme austerities to (i) purge the accumulated residue and (ii) limit new karma build-up:

Nigaṇṭhas, you have done evil actions in the past; exhaust them with the performance of piercing austerities. And when you are here and now restrained in body, speech, and mind, that is doing no evil actions for the future. So by annihilating with asceticism past actions and by doing no fresh actions, there will be no consequence in the future.

(Cūḷadukkhakkhandha Sutta in Ñāṇamoli and Bodhi 2005[1995]:188)

The self-mortification and the ideology of inactivity redeemed karma and freed Jains from saṃsāra (Bronkhorst 2020:64; Chapple 1993:107), whereas Buddhists adopted suppression of senses, body and mind in “the destruction of the roots of desire” (Bronkhorst 2020:66) on the path to nirvāṇa. For the Buddha, the ascetic inaction ideology did not prevent future rebirths to the extent that the insight into the nature of actions did (Bronkhorst 1993:102):

I describe mental action as the most reprehensible for the performance of evil action, for the perpetration of evil action, and not so much bodily action and verbal action.

(Upāli Sutta in Ñāṇamoli and Bodhi 2005[1995]:479)

Emulating Jains, the Buddha undertook a nearly fatal karma-destroying tapasya in advance of his enlightenment. However, he dismissed this extreme program as devoid of greater knowledge, insight, and liberation:

[B]y this racking practice of austerities I have not attained any superhuman states, any distinction in knowledge and vision worthy of the noble ones. Could there be another path to enlightenment?

(Cūḷataṇhāsankhaya Sutta in Ñāṇamoli and Bodhi 2005[1995]:340)

Having eliminated suffering from his practice, the Buddha attained awakening with a peaceful mind and nourished body, establishing ‘the middle way’. His signature definition of noble happiness2 became a gateway known as the fourth dhyāna and a component of nirvāṇa (Gethin 1998:22). Jains, on the other hand, continued to emphasise annihilation and discard pleasant states as counterproductive:

Gotama, pleasure is not to be gained through pleasure; pleasure is to be gained through pain.
(Cūḷadukkhakkhandha Sutta in Ñāṇamoli and Bodhi 2005[1995]:188)

In Jainism, the austerities were paramount and prescriptive, whereas the Buddha permitted them as predominantly optional and uninhibiting to the progression if characterised by right intention and view (Gombrich 2006[1988]:96):

[Puṇṇa:] ‘Seniya is a naked dog-duty ascetic who does what is hard to do (...). What will be his destination?’ (...)
[The Buddha:] ‘[T]here are two destinations for one with wrong view, I say: hell or the animal realm. (...) [I]f his dog-duty succeeds, it will lead him to the company of dogs; if it fails, it will lead him to hell.’ (...)
The Blessed One has made the Dhamma clear (...) the venerable Seniya became one of the arahants.

(Kukkuravatika Sutta in Ñāṇamoli and Bodhi 2005[1995]:493-497)

The absorption into Brahmanism

The collected evidence demonstrates exposure to ideas and dialogue of the traditions posing the new challenge. In the light of saṃsāra, karmic retribution and growing advancement and acclaim of both asceticism and individual training as means of liberation, the worldly achievements bestowed by Vedic gods lost on importance. To address the challenge, though retaining the extrinsic morality (Gombrich 2006[1988]:46-47), the Brahmanic tradition absorbed the non-Vedic doctrines as a fourfold aśrama model. Twice-born became ‘dead to the world’ in pursuit of enlightenment, astutely long after conceiving their successors (Kaelber 1989:121; Bronkhorst 2020:71). The new rule was reflected in the Laws of Manu:

When he has transferred his three sacrificial fires within himself in accordance with the rules, he should become a hermit with no fire and no home, eating only roots and fruits, making no effort to get the things that give happiness, chaste, (...) when he has died, he thrives.

(The Laws of Manu in Doniger and Smith 1991:6.25-34)

Simultaneously, in Vedanta, tapas became significant for facilitating contemplation and liberation (mokṣa) by bringing the plurality of existence to unity (Kaelber 1989:144-146).

Prevailing dissimilarity of religious suicides

To complete the comparison of the traditions in the context of asceticism, it must be noted that no significant evolution was observed in suicidal religious practices. The ritual sacrificers, when they were not substituted, were the offerings to Agni in their own sacrifice (Bronkhorst 2020:67-68). In Jainism, death3 was an opportunity to redeem past actions and attain mokṣa (Chapple 1993:107). Buddhism, on the other hand, produced Bodhisattvas who gave their bodies away to starving sentient beings—out of compassion and for the attainment of favourable rebirths (Mrozik 2006:18-21; Chapple 1993:24).

In conclusion

As demonstrated, some of the key beliefs and practices regarding tapas present common threads in the meditative systems of Brahmanism, Jainism and Buddhism. However, despite the common origins, these traditions were motivated by moderately divergent beliefs and offered alternative solutions to common challenges of people of the same period. The early interaction of their ideas shaped the future course of Indian soteriology.


1. A widely accepted claim that Buddhism was formulated in opposition to Brahmanical thought (Wynne 2011), and therefore drawn upon it, is in contrast with Bronkhorst’s standpoint. He states that links between the Vedas and renunciant traditions are if not weak then at least not primary, in spite of the Buddha operating in the environment of renunciates from the caste in power (Samuel 2008:120-122) and adopting two of them as teachers (Ñāṇamoli and Bodhi 2005[1995]:258; Wynne 2007:20, 93). As examples of his argumentation see 2007:130-134 on rebirth with karmic retribution and 1993:60-97 where he questions the credibility of statements expounding that the Buddha learned meditation stages from the two renunciant priests. The following publications further elaborate on the topic: Samuel 2008, Flood 1996, Kaelber 1989.

2. For the description of happiness leading to the full awaking see the translation of Cūḷasuññata Sutta in the Madhyama Āgama (Anālayo 2012:351).

3. A non-resistant death (sallekhanā) was of particular value in the practice of Jaina asceticism but was subject to circumstances – see Chapple 1993:101.


Anālayo 2012. Madhyama-āgama Studies. Taipei: Dharma Drum.

Bronkhorst, Johannes 1993. Two Traditions of Meditation in Ancient India. Delhi: Motilal Banarsidass.

Bronkhorst, Johannes 2007. Greater Magadha: Studies in the Culture of Early India. Leiden and Boston: Brill.

Bronkhorst, Johannes 2009. Buddhist Teaching in India. Boston: Wisdom Publications.

Bronkhorst, Johannes 2020. “Historical Context of Early Asceticism”. The Oxford History of Hinduism: Hindu Practice. Oxford: Oxford University Press. 62-78.

Carrette, Jeremy R. and King, Richard 2005. Selling Spirituality: The Silent Takeover of Religion. London and New York: Routledge.

Chapple, Christopher K. 1993. Nonviolence to Animals, Earth, and Self in Asian Traditions. Albany: State University of New York.

Doniger, Wendy 2005 [1981]. The Rig Veda. Harmondsworth: Penguin Books.

Doniger, Wendy and Smith, Brian 1991. The Laws of Manu. Harmondsworth: Penguin Books.

Flood, Gavin D. 1996. An Introduction to Hinduism. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Flügel, Peter 2005. “The Invention of Jainism: A Short History of Jaina Studies”. Journal of Jain Studies 11:1-19.

Gethin, Rupert 1998. The Foundations of Buddhism. Oxford and New York: University Press.

Gombrich, Richard F. 2006 [1988]. Theravada Buddhism: A social history from ancient Benares to modern Columbo. Abingdon: Routledge.

Kaelber, Walter O. 1989. Tapta-Marga: Asceticism and Initiation in Vedic India. Albany: State University of New York Press.

Mallinson, James and Singleton, Mark 2017. Roots of Yoga. Milton Keynes: Penguin Books.

Mrozik, Susanne 2006. “Materializations of Virtue: Buddhist Discourses on Bodies”. Bodily Citations: Religion and Judith Butler 15-47. New York: Columbia University Press. 

Ñāṇamoli, Bhikkhu and Bodhi, Bhikkhu 2005 [1995]. The Middle Length Discourses of the Buddha: A Translation of the Majjhima Nikāya. Somerville, Massachusetts: Wisdom Publications.

Olivelle, Patrick 2005 [2003]. “The Renouncer Tradition”. The Blackwell Companion to Hinduism. Oxford: Blackwell. 271-287.

Samuel, Geoffrey 2008. The Origins of Yoga and Tantra: Indic Religions to the Thirteenth Century. Cambridge: University Press.

Warder, Anthony K. 1956. “On the Relationship Between Early Buddhism and Other Contemporary Systems”. Bulletin of the School of Oriental and African Studies 18 (1): 43–63.

Witzel, Michael 2005 [2003]. “Vedas and Upaniṣads”. The Blackwell Companion to Hinduism. Oxford: Blackwell. 68-101.

Wynne, Alexander 2011. “Wynne on Bronkhorst, Greater Magadha: Studies in the Culture of Early India”. H-Net: Humanities & Social Sciences Online (accessed 28 November 2020), <>.

Wynne, Alexander 2007. The Origin of Buddhist Meditation. London: Routledge.

Paula Kaminska
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