The Shramanas and Shramanic Traditions

Vedas, Sruti

by Jayaram V

Shramanas refer to the ascetics and renouncers of ancient India who gave up worldly life and practiced austerities (tapah) for liberation. They belonged to various independent groups and movements which are collectively known as Shramanic (śramanic) or renouncer traditions. Although historians tend to draw a line between Vedic and non-Vedic renouncer traditions, and identify the Shramanic traditions mainly as non-Vedic, the classification is artificial and may be incorrect.

Shramanas and anchorites

The Sramanic traditions seemed to have gained momentum in the first half of the first millennium BCE, although some of them may be as old as some hymns of the Rigveda. As Gavin Flood pointed out, it is difficult to arrange the ancient renouncer traditions into such clear-cut categories as Vedic and non-Vedic since the history of that period is vague. It is true at least with regard to the influences which shaped the later Vedic period and the available information does not “provide us with an adequate picture of the religious and cultural life of that period spanning over half a millennium.”

Before the advent or renouncer traditions, the Vedic tradition had the institution of anchorites or hermits, who lived in seclusion, sometimes alone and sometimes with their families and disciples. They practiced austerities (tapah) to attain purity of the mind body and spiritual powers (taposhakti). They were primarily ascetics, but not renouncers in the strict sense of the word, since they did not entirely give up the world or worldly life.

They munis, sadhus and rishis engaged in worldly activities such as teaching esoteric knowledge to chosen disciples, marriage and procreation. They also occasionally returned to worldly life to participate in debates and discussions, receive gifts or serve as high priests in royal ceremonies or seek help from their patrons for protection against the unruly tribes in the forests. They also gave counsel to kings and queens and others when needed, and helped them in resolving their personal and family problems. The anchorite tradition probably gave birth to the renouncer traditions in the later Vedic period, with the crystallization of the Ashrama system with its division of four phases of human life and the internalization of Vedic rituals in contemplative practices.

References to early ascetics such as kesins, rishis, munis, are found in the Rigveda and many Upanishads such as the Brihadaranyaka and Mundaka Upanishads. It is possible that in their formative stages Shaivism and Vaishnavism were also renouncer traditions, with clear emphasis upon renunciation and asceticism as the means to liberation, although subsequently they seemed to have acquired theistic and devotional elements due to the influence of Vedic and non-Vedic beliefs and practices such as Bhakti (devotion), devotional worship (paridhana), idol worship and domestic worship (puja).

Shraman and Shaman

Some scholars allude to a connection between the Shamanic traditions of Central Asia and the Shramanic traditions of ancient India, suggesting that the tradition of Shamans had its roots in the beliefs and practices of ancient Shramanas. Although the phonetic similarity between the two words, Shaman and Sramana suggest some historical affinity, there is not enough evidence to support the theory. The idea was also disputed on the basis of the languages which were predominantly spoken in the Shamanic cultures.

Shramana (śramana) means a person, an ascetic, a religious mendicant or a devotee, who labors, toils or subjects himself to the hardships of an austere life. It is derived from the root word “shram,” which means to exert, to toil, to perform austerities and penances, to mortify the body, etc. Shramanas engaged in various spiritual and expiatory practices (tapah) to cleanse themselves and transform their gross energies into their subtle and pure counterparts. The Vedic practice of observing penances (vratas) by householders such as fasting to fulfill their desires or seek forgiveness for past sins was probably derived from the Shramanic traditions.

Whether they belonged to the Vedic or non-Vedic fold, the beliefs and practices of Sramanas revolved around two fundamental concepts namely samsara (bondage to the cycle of births and deaths) and Moksha (liberation from samsara). However, they also widely differed with regard to the existence or non-existence of soul and God, the nature of reality, fate, free will, karma, afterlife, moral percepts, spiritual practices, the means to knowledge and liberation, and so on. Some of them were atheistic, some were theistic and some were agnostic. None of the Shramanic traditions which we know believed in God or God as the source of all.

The early developments

Ancient India witnessed the birth of many sramanic traditions led by great saints and seers, who were motivated by a strong desire to steer clear of the worldliness and opportunism which crept in the Vedic traditions. To strike new paths and find alternative approaches to salvation, they led religious and spiritual ideas and speculative philosophies into newer directions, discarding at the same time the orthodox practices of sacrificial rituals, human and animal sacrifices and the outward worship of gods and goddesses for worldly gains.

The early Shramanas lived in forests or wandered from place to place with the world as their abode and the sky as their roof. They lived on alms and in abject penury, possessing nothing except a few possessions to keep themselves alive, avoiding contact with worldly people and past relations, abstaining from pleasures and comforts, subjecting their minds and bodies to rigorous and at times excruciating discipline, and practicing indifference and sameness to the dualities of life. They often interacted with other ascetic groups and engaged in debates and discussions, but mostly preferred to live in isolation, away from worldly influence and public attention.

The Shramana ascetics led austere and exemplary lives, practicing humanitarian values such as compassion to all living beings. They focused upon attaining spiritual purity, through austerities, renunciation of desires and the cultivation of virtues such as nonviolence, truthfulness, non-stealing, non-possession, etc. They also rejected the unjust caste system, the superiority and mediation of the priestly classes, and the authority of the Vedas.

The Hindu Dharmshastras (law books) probably incorporated many beliefs and practices of sramanic traditions in their formulation of the ideal code of conduct for those who renounced worldly life and took up renunciation as wandering ascetics or sanyasis either independently or as a part of the householder’s Ashrama system. Although some believe that the idea of renunciation entered Vedism through Shramanic traditions, there is no evidence to support it.

There might have been some commingling of ideas and internal reforms. However, Vedism seems to have its own tradition of renunciant practices since the time the earliest Upanishads were composed. It is even possible that Shramanic traditions freely borrowed ideas such as meditation (dhyana), yoga, purification, liberation, self-restraint, withdrawal of the mind, self-knowing, detachment, renunciation, etc., from Vedism and improved upon them.

The Shramans of Sixth Century BCE

The sramanic traditions rose to zenith during the 6th Century BCE, around the time Buddha and Mahavira were born. It was one of the most remarkable periods in the history of India during which the subcontinent witnessed the rise of 16 principal States (Mahajanapadas) ruled by monarchs and at least ten independent republics which were governed by rulers who were chosen by people and local bodies (sabhas).

Freedom of thought and diversity were the hallmarks of this period which resulted in the flowering of numerous religious and spiritual movements, led by great spiritual masters, who tried to break free from the weight of oppressive orthodoxy, the rigid caste system, discriminatory practices and the stifling of free thought and freedom of religious practice by privileged classes. S.Radhakrishnan described this period of religious unrest and great diversity in the following words.

“Some thinkers identified mind and soul; others distinguished them from each other. Some held to the supremacy of God, others to that of man. Some argued that we know nothing about it; others flattered their audiences with mighty hopes and confident assurances. Some were busy building elaborate metaphysical theories; others were equally busy demolishing them. Many theories, independent of the Vedic tradition, arose. There were Nigganthas or fetter-freed; the Samanas or the ascetics who did not belong to the Brahminical order; those who sought peace of soul in the renunciation of the world; those who practiced self-mortification denying themselves nourishment for long periods; those who tried spiritual abstraction, the dialecticians, the controversialists, the materialists and the skeptics, and those who are wise in their own conceit like Saccaka, who had the audacity to say, ‘I know no Samana, no Brahmana, no teacher, no master, no head of a school, even though he calls himself the holy supreme Buddha, who, if he face me in debate, would not totter, tremble, quake, and from whom the sweat would not exude. And if I attacked a lifeless pillar with my language, it would totter, tremble, quake; how much more a human being!’ It was an age of speculative chaos, full of inconsistent theologies and vague wranglings.”

The diversity of religious thought

The Lalithavistara describes in the words of the Buddha the diversity of religious beliefs and practices and the "speculative chaos" which prevailed in his time.

“While at Uruvela, Sakya called to mind all the different forms of penances which people in his time were in the habit of submitting to and which they thought raised the mind above all carnality. ‘Here,’ he thought, ‘I am born in the Jambudvipa, among people who have no prospect of intellectual redemption, crowded by Tirthikas, or revealers of the truth, with diverse wishes, and at a time when their faculties were wriggling in the grasp of the crocodile of their carnal wants. Stupid men who seek to purify their persons by diverse modes of austerity and penance, and inculcate the same. Some of them cannot make out their mantras; some wander after different sources; some adore cows, deer, horses, hogs, monkeys or elephants. Seated at one place in silence, with their legs bent under them, some attempt greatness. Some attempt to accomplish their penance by inhaling smoke or fire, by gazing at the sun, by performing the five fires, resting on one foot or with an arm perpetually uplifted or moving about the knees…some pride themselves on their saluting Brahma, Indra, Rudra, Vishnu, Devi, Kumara.’…”

The six Shramanic traditions

Of the numerous renunciant traditions which originated in India, only Buddhism and Jainism survived. The rest were lost. Their number is difficult to determine, we do not have any original texts of that period, and the information which we have about them is fragmentary and very little. However, it appears that many shramanic traditions must have sprung up in an environment of great intellectual and spiritual churning, just as the plethora of New Age movements and guru traditions which exist today. Many must have perished too in quick succession as new ideas and movements appeared replacing the old and holding better promise. Some were probably assimilated by the Vedic tradition, especially those which belonged to Shaiva, Vaishnava, Shakta and Tantric traditions. The rest were lost.

Currently, we have knowledge of only a few Shramanic traditions which existed in ancient India. Their memory is preserved in a few Jain and Buddhist texts as an unintended consequence of their attempt to present them in a poor light in comparison to their own with a certain bias. Hence, they cannot be accepted as authentic, accurate or reliable sources of information. In the following discussion, the author used the available information with some imagination and logic to present a coherent view of their respective belief systems.


One of the earliest Sramanic movements was probably that of Ajivikas. It was led by Gosala Mankhaliputta, also mentioned in some texts as Maskarin Gośāla, Gosala Mankhaliputta or Manthaliputra Goshalak. He was a popular teacher of his time and remembered for his unconventional teachings. The Ajivkias believed in fatalism or predeterminism, according to which the world was governed by the inexorable force of Niyati, which could neither be changed nor controlled by anyone. Hence, as their name implied, they lived passively, as if they were lifeless and lacked free will, without exerting themselves and accepting whatever life or fate offered. The sect flourished in the early Mauryan era in the Avanti and Anga regions, but subsequently lost its momentum and disappeared around seventh century AD. According to Ashokavadana, a Buddhist text, the Ajivikas were patronized by Bindusara but his son, King Ashoka, put about 18000 of them to death since he was not happy about the way they depicted the Buddha.


The materialistic traditions of ancient India are collectively placed under the generic name, the Lokayatas, which meant those who accepted the finality of the world and worldly life and rejected all notions of afterlife. It is possible that many materialistic traditions prevailed in ancient India, and we have lost their specific names. Of them, the one that was led by Ajita Kesakambali seemed to have gained some popularity, since he is mentioned in the Buddhist texts. It may be wrong to call him a materialist in the western sense, because he led a very austere life of self-denial and renunciation, giving up all material comforts, and wearing only a cloth made of human hair to cover his body. According to the Buddhists texts, as quoted by Rhys-Davids, he opposed sacrifices and ritual worship, disputed the karma doctrine, acknowledged only four elements rather than five, and considered death itself as the final liberation from mortal life.

The Charvakas

By definition, the Charvakas, named after its founder Charvaka, also falls under the category of the Lokayatas. However, because of their beliefs and practices they stand in their own right as a distinct Sramanic tradition. The Charvakas were pure atheists, and like the Lokayatas denied the existence of an eternal soul or God. They recognized only four elements and accepted wealth (artha) and enjoyment (kama) as the chief aims of human life. They believed that this world was final and there was no world other than this. Hence, they also earned the distinction as Lokayatas. Since they did not believe in soul, salvation or afterlife, and accepted death as final liberation, they prescribed the uninhibited enjoyment of life as an ethical ideal and the highest purpose of life. The Lokayatas rejected all means (pramanas) of knowledge, except direction perception. For them, whatever the senses could not grasp or perceive was either untrue or nonexistent.

The Sasvatavadins

They were the eternalists, who believed in the eternal existence of the seven basic elements which made up the reality namely Earth, Water, Fire, Air, Joy, Sorrow and Life. Pakudha Kaccāyana was either the founder of this sramanic tradition or a prominent teacher of it. He is believed to be a contemporary of the Buddha and Mahavira, just as many other Shramanic teachers. According to Samannaphala Sutta, Pakhuda taught that all existence arose from the combination of the seven basic elements or building blocks. They were the cause of all, but without a cause, eternal, unmade, irreducible, uncreated, noninteractive, stable, indestructible, immutable and independent. Each being was an aggregation of these seven elements. Beings experienced life and death and pain and pleasure due to their aggregation and segregation, while the elements themselves remained unchanged, immune and untouched by any of these modifications.

The Ahetuvadins

They believed in the amoral and purposeless nature of the soul, holding that actions produced no fruit or karma. There was nothing moral or immoral, sinful or virtuous about any actions since they produced no consequences for the souls. Purana Kassapa, a contemporary of the Buddha and Mahavira, was either its founder or one of its proponents. The tradition held that the soul was distinct from the body and did not participate in any actions. Therefore, the moral and immoral actions of the body produced no consequences for it. The Buddhist text, Samannaphala Sutta, quotes Purana Kassapa stating that even if a person either directly or indirectly through others engaged in immoral, unethical and criminal actions such as killing, torturing, mutilating and stealing, no evil would accrue to him. The same happened in case of pious deeds also. In both cases, the soul remained untouched and pure since it did not cause (ahetu) any of these actions. From social and ethical perspective, the amoralism of Purana Kassapa is problematic since it condones criminality and evil actions and ignores the need to regulate human life for the order and regularity of the world. The tradition probably held similar beliefs about suicide and permitted its members to use it as the means to liberation.

The Ajnanis

The school believed in the absolute or universal indeterminism, which meant that nothing in the whole existence was certain or conclusive or firmly established. Everything existed in a state of flux as a mixture of composite truths and realities. Sanjaya Belatthiputta, a contemporary of the Buddha was said to be its proponent. He proposed that it was impossible to know with certainty or draw a clear conclusion about any truth or phenomena in the whole existence. One could not determine one or another way, accept or deny, approve or disapprove of anything. Therefore, he suggested that the best way to live in this world and avoid suffering was to suspend one’s judgment and remain neutral. It is wrong to name the tradition as the tradition of ignorants (Ajnanis). They were intelligent people, who for reasons of their own believed in the impossibility of attaining indisputable, right knowledge, and accepted indeterminism, doubt and uncertainty as the facts of life and the truth of things. According to them there were no absolute or universal truths. All knowledge was a mixture of relative and opposing truths which could be proven or disproven from different perspectives. Using this analogy, they challenged all metaphysical notions and refused to accept or deny any of them.

Jainism and Buddhism

Historically, both Buddhism and Jainism are the only Shramanic traditions of the ancient India which survived until the present times. They follow two distinct approaches to life and liberation. Jainism believes in eternal souls, eternal nature of life and in the practice of extreme austerities and penances, including self-mortification to achieve liberation, while Buddhism believes in the impermanence of life, in the nonexistence of soul and in the moderate, middle path as the royal path to Nirvana. Both traditions gained immense popularity in ancient India. However, while Jainism remained confined to certain areas in India with limited following, Buddhism went beyond the subcontinent and became immensely popular in the whole of Asia.

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