The origins of Buddhist and Jaina orders

This post will be an abstract of chapter 6 from Samuel Geoffrey’s The origins of Yoga and Tantra, which is one part of our homework until the next lecture. I will not explain terms used here (and i am also leaving out most sanskrit terms), so you either need to have some knowledge on this topic, which is very likely as you are reading this blog, or you can just google and wikipedia the stuff you don’t know to get a general picture. I don’t claim completeness on this topic, this is a personal excerpt which you can read for personal delight 🙂 If you want to dig deeper into this topic, i highly recommend that you just get the book!



The origins of Buddhist and Jaina orders

Early monasticism and asceticism are closely linked to each other. Before Buddhist and Jaina traditions developed around the 4th and 5th century BC, there is nothing known about monasticism somewhere else in the world, though this should become an essential part within world culture. Asceticism is generally for liberation from rebirth, a good afterlife or attaining an altered state of consciousness. Those who used this practice were committed to withdraw not only from everyday society but also from the entire cycle of rebirth.The Vedic or Brahmanical ascetics or renunciates seek rebirth in heaven. Especially in the beginning, they used to be unmarried or married practitioners who live in the forest, subsist on forest produce, maintain a ritual fire and pursue ascetic pracitces. Sometimes they are described as having matted hair ;).  Those Brahmins were highly regarded by the Buddha especially by comparison with wealthy Brahmins who were normal housholders and had been given land and wealth by local rulers in exchange for their services as Vedic teachers and ritualists.  In the later tradition, the forest dwelling Brahmins tend to become  something, that is done later in life. Samuel concludes that there are 2 types of ascetics: a ‘Vedic’ semi-renunciate type, mainting a ritual fire and seeking rebirth in heaven and a ‘non-Vedic’ ascetic, without a fire who wants to reach liberation from the cycle of rebirth.

From the literate material we have, we get the impression that early Jaina and Buddhist materials had a great deal in common, including most parts of their terminology as well. Early Jaina yoga seems to incorporate extreme ascetic practices, based on the Brahmanical example while Buddhist regard extreme ascecticism as inappropriate. This can also be seen as criticism of Jainas and ascetic Brahmins. Buddhist tradition aimed at a middle way, wearing robes in contrast to nakedness and settled down in communities rather than wandering from place to place.

Now the next part was highly interesting for me, as it relates a little bit to my thesis. It has been suggested that as a predecessor for these early orders were ‘ancient Indo-European warrior brotherhoods‘. As those groups are usually rather aggressive young men who went out raiding and hunting it seems unlikely for them to have been a model for the notoriously pacifist Jainas and Buddhists. Samuel points out, that ascetics have been linked with militarism in Indian history and have even served as warriors. Concluding this thought, he emphasizes the early Buddhist and Jaina teachings are anything but martial so those groups might have worked as an structural, organisational model but hardly as a major predeessor.

The early Buddhist orders had death as a significant topic in their development.  They built up links with local communities, settled at places associated with the cult of the dead and took care about dealing with the process of dying and also looking after the spirits of those who passed away. To be able to deal with this unsavoury world of dangerous and dark supernatural powers which most people want to stay away from, you have to become a specialist and renounce secular life. Buddhists provided a specific ethical dimension to village life, linked to Buddhas teachings on virtous and non-virtuous actions and their consequences. Buddhism was a state ideology as well as an integral part of village religion.

The five Jaina Great Vows are abstention from killing and violence of any kind, not lying, not taking what has not been given, the renunciation of sexual activity and the renunciation of attachment.  The five precepts of the Buddhists are quite simliar: don’t kill or steal, no sexual misconduct, make no false speech and don’t take intoxicants.

Concerning meditation techniques the book refers to Johannes Bronkhorst’s Two Traditions of Meditation in Ancient India (which is also recommended reading), both Jaina/Buddhist and Brahmanical pracitices were an attempt to bring the body and/or mind to a halt through ascetic pracitce. It was a forceful effort to restrain the mind and bring it to stillness. It leads even to the point where breathing is being stopped and the idea of fasting to death is found in both contexts. The austere process of cutting down eating leads to a detox, as we would call it nowadays. The body should be cleaned of all negative factors in order to ease the way to focus on spiritual matters as death approaches. But there existed also other sets of pracitces, which are closer to the term meditation as we use it today, including the four Brahmic States: cultivation of love/friendliness towards other beings, compassion, sympathy towards the joy of others and equanimity. Those practices are described in early Buddhist texts and have been practiced by Buddhist and non-Buddhist alike. At the same time it is reported that Buddhist take those states further and they are presumably an old part of the shared culture of ascetics. Jaina and Brahmanical practicioners aimed at stopping activities of body and mind while Buddhists described their own pracitce as attaining equanimity towards the senses rather than ceasing them to function.

Samuel sees Buddha’s teaching as a reformulation of a kind of shamanic training, a set of practical and experimental techniques rather than a body of discursive knowledge. The image was that Buddha had achieved a deeper level of understanding the body-mind-complex and this insight was vital to the early tradition because it implied a crucial innovation: the idea of a programme of specific practices through which others might replicate this achievement.

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