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Monday, September 3, 2012

Were Jainas non-Aryan? Or rather heroic Aryans?

Some scholars (e.g. Johannes Bronkhorst) interpret the early history of India along the lines of the conflict between a Vedic current and a śramaṇic one, which has been later attested in the writings of Buddhists and Jainas. Some among them interpret this opposition as an Aryan-non Aryan one (I tend to be sceptical about this interpretation, see this post). Others speak of various groups of Aryans, opposing each other, possibly because some had reached India before the others.

I recently read an interesting passage about the link between Jainas and the preceding Vedic background, showing an unexpected continuity between the two:

World renunciation of the sort followed by the Jains, Buddhists and other groups was an institution which entailed not so much the abandonment of social ties for a career of mendicant quietism as an entry into a heroic way of life which derived a great deal of its ethos, at least at its outset in the Ganges basin around the seventh or sixth centuries BCE,from an affinity with the early Indo-Āryan warrior brotherhoods, bands of young menwho at certain times of the year engaged in raiding, concomitant violence and the purificatory practice of celibacy.
The Mallas, whose name was traditionally perpetuated in the discipline at which Padmaprabha claimed to excel (cf. Sanskrit malla, ‘wrestler’),were in origin one such group, and both the Buddhist and Jain scriptures describe them ashonouring the remains of Mahāvīra and the Buddha, both members of the warrior (kṣatriya) class.

In this context, then, I would like to suggest that Jainism can profitably be regarded asexemplifying throughout its history what has been styled the ‘path of heroism’ (vīryamārga), a reconfiguration of warrior codes of bravery and physical control in the ascetic search for spiritual power and mastery (Paul Dundas, The non-violence of violence, in Hinnells and King, Religion and Violence in South Asia, pp. 40--41)

I wonder whether this last remark could apply also to Buddhist milieus?

On Aryan vs. non Aryans, see this post.


Dominik Wujastyk said...

It's interesting that Dundas highlights this very early "heroic" aspect of asceticism, and connects it with the Vedic brother-bands (that Falk wrote about). Ronald Davidson in Indian Esoteric Buddhism also drew attention to the military and heroic aspects of sannyasin culture, e.g., the adoption of the title "maharaja" as part of the title of many ascetics. But he located that as a change that happened after the Gupta period, as a result of sweeping political and military changes in north India. I think there's some issues to clarify and discuss here.

elisa freschi said...

Thank you, Dominik. We should find some evidences for the period between the time of the Jina and that of the Gupta dynasty. If not, the possibility holds that the phenomena are disconnected and that Davidson is right in pointing out to a different phenomenon. Let us keep our eyes open…

Jayarava said...

Hi Elisa

Look out for my paper in the next issue of the Journal of the Oxford Centre for Buddhist Studies (


This article explores the plausibility of Michael Witzel’s speculation that the Śākya tribe might have Iranian origins, or at least Iranian connections. Circumstantial evidence suggests that ideas associated with Iran and Zoroastrianism appear in north-east India, especially amongst the śramaṇa groups, and in particular amongst Buddhists, but not in the Brahmanical culture. Whereas Buddhism is frequently portrayed as a response to Brahmanism, or, especially by Buddhists, as ahistorical, Witzel’s suggestion gives us a new avenue for exploring the history of ideas in Buddhism. This essay attempts to show that, at the very least, possible connections with Iran deserve more attention from scholars of the history of ideas in India and especially Buddhism.


If you accept the conjecture (and it must be said that almost no one except Witzel and me does) then the early Buddhists and Jains were the culmination of a process of assimilation of Iranian tribes that settled first in Rajasthan and then (perhaps around 850 BCE) migrated into the Central Ganges Plain and ended up on the margins of Kosala and Magadha. There they also interacted with local Munda speakers and Tibeto-Burman speakers, as well as the first and second wave of Indic speakers to create a cultural synthesis. The Buddha's moral code, for example, with it's Zoroastrian influences may well have been the one he grew up with. A lot of what we call Buddhism might be culturally Śākyan.

I'm also working on other material about the identity of the Buddha that makes it seem very unlikely that he was a kṣatriya - or any varṇa. Though of course he has a high prestige Brahmin gotra name which does not fit either.

Re the military connections, the Buddhist canon is full of metaphors drawn from the military or royalty well before the Gupta period. Dhammacakkhappavattana (rolling wheels of the kings chariot crushing his enemies); sāsana as a name for the teaching, and a few others I can't recall off hand; Sāriputta referred to as senapati etc. But to what period do we date these texts? I have this sneaking suspicion which I can't confirm, that Asoka had much more influence than we're previously imagined.

The trouble with your idea about Jainism is that their ideal was non-action, not just non-violence. Since any action at all created 'dust' that weighed the jīva down in Saṃsāra, the ideal was to refrain from any action. Jain asceticism is all about not moving, not eating, etc. It certainly takes mental strength to sit entirely still and allow yourself to starve to death, as some of them did. But that style of practice was rejected as unhelpful, and Buddhist asceticism was always much milder. I think they have much less in common than your remarks suggest. Just because they are nāstika, doesn't make them similar!

However alongside the search for vimokṣa was always a search for vidyā or siddhi. Magic and the seeking of extraordinary power is a theme in early Buddhist texts - mostly but not always viewed negatively.


elisa freschi said...

Hi Jayarava, and thanks for the link to your article, which I will read in a moment I am deeply missing your blog!
When you write "The trouble with your idea about Jainism…" are you referring to my final question (implicitly assuming that there might be similarities between the Jaina and the Buddhist milieus) or to Dundas' discussion?
Your last remark about siddhis is also quite interesting. It reminds me of R.Torella's words about the Kashmirian non-dualist Śaiva texts, who seem to celebrate the mumukṣu (the one striving after emancipation), but are in fact secretely supportive of the sādhaka, the one who wants to achieve siddhis.

windwheel said...

My memory is that Basham wrote about 'Shrauta' cattle raiding parties bound by vow not to have a barbecue till they got home. There is no reason to believe such raiding parties suddenly stopped operating between the Upanishadic and Gupta period.
Jains, of course, insist that Tirthankars can only be Kshatriya though Mahavira did unfortunately spend a little time in a Brahmin womb because of a Celestial mix-up. What is interesting about both Jainism and Buddhism is the large number of women, merchants, artisans etc who flock to it from its very inception. The story of Arya Chandana, the slave woman who fortuitously enables Lord Mahavira to break his fast unto death, shows that the liberative power of the Sharaman religions was itself set free to accomplish its task by the female and subaltern.
In the Mahabharata the Vyadha Gita shows that the Just King, Yuddhishtra has to learn not just Statistical Game theory (in the Nala Damayanti episode) but also that most difficult of dharmas- viz that specifies how to treat women and dependents- from such self-realized 'low caste' people as the housewife and the butcher.
Jains themselves, of course, like Buddhists regard themselves as Aryans and identify Rg Vedic Rshba with their first Tirthankara of this time cycle.

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