What is meant by the renouncer tradition?Before I begin to explain what exactly the renouncer tradition is, I think that it is important to give a brief outline of the religious history pre-dating this tradition, and also to acknowledge the social life at the time and its mentality.By the time that the renouncer tradition was beginning to establish some recognition, sixth century B.C.E, a group of texts called the Veda had been in existence and had been enjoying their religious influence upon the Indian culture for about a thousand years. It is presumed that a group of people called the Aryas had boasted a great influence in certain parts of India, and it is from their ideology that the Vedic tradition arose. This ideology, for the most part, was developed by a hereditary group within this Aryan society known as brahmanas, and their literature was the Veda. At the forefront of the Vedas ideology, was ritual sacrifice.
They saw it as a creation of inherently magic powers, a sort of mimetic magic, i.e by performing certain sacrifices one would create an effect in reality – a sort of voodoo practice. They believed that this ritual keyed them into life, and therefore great emphasis was placed on maintaining these ritual sacrifices so as to maintain order.
to know sacrifice is to know and control the world. – Flood – Introduction to Hinduism.The central rite of the religion was when the priest/brahmin, sang the praises to a particular devas/god, from sacred sacrificial verses known as mantras, and offered him sacrifices by placing it in the sacrificial fire. This rendition of these mantras, was also seen as manipulating a sacred power known as Brahman, so this act of ritual sacrifice can be seen as almost a bribe to the gods/devas, to ensure order within the cosmos and giving what was wanted. As one can see, the priest held a very significant role with the ritual sacrifice, it was considered a great responsibility as the act itself was very important. This was reflected by being placed at the top of a hierarchical class system, of four social classes.
The class that you were in was determined by birth and here one would remain for the entirety of their life; Brahmins, Ksatriyas (warriors/leaders – maintained order in society), Vaisyas (generated wealth through trade and farming) and finally Sudras (servants – served all the other classes). These four social classes, of brahmanical society, fall again into two groups; Aryas and non-Aryas. The Aryas group consists of the top three classes of the hierarchical classes previously mentioned, they are referred to as twice-born (dvija). The male members of this group go through a form of initiation and go on to study the vedic tradition under the supervision of a Brahmin teacher. When they have completed their studies their duties consist of maintaning a sacrificial fire and performing rituals in the presence of the priest. The non-Aryas group consists of the lowest social group, the sudras. By accepting this brahmanical view of the world, one was accepting their authority.
At the time of the renouncer tradition, many of the brahmins aimed at the heaven of the creator god Brahma, through means such as sacrifice, austerities, study of the vedic teachings and truthfulness, however, this orthodox practice of the brahmins was not carried out by all brahmins. At this time, corruption had formed within this religious movement. Some brahmins were reaping in the rewards of large and expensive bloody sacrifices, which were often paid by kings, the teaching had become distorted, too much emphasis was being placed on the sacrifice, rather than any type of symbolistic or esoteric knowledge of it (.iii.)When reflecting on the social position at this time, one will notice a disruption here also. Urbanisation was expanding as well as trade, roads were improving, and this enabled new ideas to circulate more quickly, particularly of those of the wandering ascetic. Emphasis on trade and enterprises heightened individual values and needs above the wider social group, it was a form of individuality which emphasised the distinct self.
– Introduction to Hinduism – Flood. It was in this context of urbanisation that the renouncer tradition developed.(iv)Renouncer traditionThe renouncer tradition was a new vision of the human condition.
It saw the emphasis that originally was placed on the vedic sacrificial ritual shift to that of knowledge. It developed a clear identity against an empty vedic tradition which did not lead to liberation.The renouncer saw that all life was suffering (dukka),( this was probably encouraged by the rise of disease due to the rise of urbanisation), because one was subjected to an existence of rebirth, and that liberation (moksa) would not come about by being born into the right class or studying the vedic texts and performing rituals. They believed that ones actions (karma) determined the status of ones rebirth (samsara), therefore for one to be free from suffering it was imperative that action was minimised and spiritual knowledge (jnana) was of the utmost importance. Spiritual knowledge (jnana), was to know and understand the nature of the universe (brahman) and of the self (atman).
Although jnana was at the forefront of the renouncers mind, it was important that they were detached from the material and social world in order to lead a life of dedication in search of truth, knowledge and understanding, to try and escape the rounds of rebirth and ultimately achieve liberation from their existence of suffering. This was aided through asceticism (tapas) and meditation. (Tapas is like a inner heat or energy generated through ascetic practices and gives power to the renouncer.) These wandering ascetics threatened brahmanical supremacy by offering rival visions of the world and society.
The renouncer rejected the vedic tradition and wandered free from householder duties and family; dependant on alms – this allowed them to think and develop their ideas. The name given to these wandering philosophers was Samanas. Most came from urban dwellings where traditional authorities were being questioned and disease was inevitable.
sought to find a basis of true and lasting happiness in a changing and insecure world. – Introduction to Buddhism – Harvey.The Sanskrit term samnyasa is understood as the renunciation of the world.
It refers both to the initiatory rite at which a renouncer formally breaks all his ties with society and to the way of life which he is so initiated. There are many sects that took on this renouncer mentality and all there main features are the same, but there doctrines and practices varied.A question which I am sure resides on everyones mind at this point is, where did this idea of renunciation actually stem from? It is all very well describing various conditions in which this tradition grew up, but it is interesting to see a certain continuity, or not as the case maybe. The first place to look for a sense of continuity, is in the Vedic texts. In the Rg Veda Samhita, there is a description of long-haired ascetics (Kesin) or silent ones (muni) in the Kesin Hymn. They are naked or swathed in wind. They have ecstatic experiences they are possessed by the gods – this is debatable, however, there is speculation as to whether this is induced by drugs/ hallucinogenic or yoga practices that would remove the mind to another state of consciouness.
This description of the Kesin is reminiscent of later ascetics who undergo inner experiences, which I mentioned earlier, and will explain further later. It seems reasonable to assume that this Kesin hymn represents a form of asceticism that existed outside of the traditional vedic culture, prior to the renunciation movement, and perhaps even an influence or inspiration for this later movement. This theme of continuity is further emphasised through one of the samana traditions – Buddhism. In this the Buddha himself is referred to as muni ( silent one). However, one must not jump to simple generalisations and assume that the renouncer tradition evolved from roots in the muni culture. It must not be forgotten that the development of renunciation in the Upanisads ( which I will outline later) is closely related to the vedic ritual tradition, but also that the Jain and Buddhist movements (both sects of the renouncer tradition), appear to be moving away from this.
It appears that no clear conclusion can be made. Therefore, one turns to examine the non-vedic influences, to try and decipher this mystery and find an answer to our question. There seems to be two ideas that contribute to this side of the argument. The first is that the renouncer traditions developed outside vedic ritualistic circles and gradually integrated into the vedic traditions. The second is illustrated by both Patrick Olivelle and Louis Dumont as a conflict of tradition between Brahma ritualist and the renouncer.
Dumont points out that the Brahman is a man-in-the-world, he is not an individual (which is characteristic of the renouncer as explained previously) – he exists in a network of social relationships. On the other hand the renouncer is an individual outside society, an individual who is devoted to his own salvation and destiny, for them nothing is a ritual. With hindsight we can see that the renouncer tradition has aided in the development of Indian relgion, and it created values that later diffused to the Brahmanical householder tradition.I have already mentioned in passing a few of the different sects of the renouncer tradition, but I think that it is imperative to explain these further and see the differences in doctrine and practise and even the similarities in the religions that all evolved form the same ideal.The first will be the examination of the Upanisads and the Brahmanical renouncer.
The contents of the Upanisads include the dispensability of ritual, esoteric knowledge and the attainment of freedom and immortality through a process of concentration and spiritual interiorisation. This expanding religion of the Upanisads is classified as Jnanamanga or the way of knowledge this is rather a strong contrast to the Karmamarga, the way of works – i.e ritual sacrifice – that is seen in the Samhitas and Brahmanas. This esocteric knowledge is like a secret doctrine, only conveyed through a teacher, student relationship, this is emphasised by the etymology of the word Upanisads. Upa – closely, ni- down and sad – sit, i.e this implies a student sitting at the foot of a teacher or guru, a sort of individual study, ( this form of teaching seems to be a common practise throughout all renouncer sects).
This knowledge that we find in the Upanisads is not something that is suposed to be grasped in concept, – only in realisation. The Upanisads, is merely a means of knowing reality, not to teach it. Jnana (knowledge) is essentially a revelation to the individual, not an instruction imposed upon one. The Upanisads illustrate the different stages of realising this knowledge, of which there are four. This first and lowest state of this realisation is jagarita-sthara this stage might been known as the normal state – where one is bound to temporal and spatial existence, to the laws of the physical universe, rational thought and perceptions. The second stage is svapna-sthana , this is considered a sort of dream state, one is no longer bound to the physical world, space and time. The third stage susputi – this constitutes a dreamless and blissful sleep, but there is no consciousness of this state.
The final stage is Turiya, this brings about supreme consciousness of consciousness, cessation of all movements, complete freedom and knowledge of the self (atman) and the universe (brahman) – ie. pure and transcendent knowledge it is ominscience. These states are reached through various different practices of ascetics and meditations.- (v.
) (in some respects this parallels with the Buddhist doctrine, which will mention in due course.)With all this talk about knowledge, you are probably quite bewildered about what this knowledge actually entails. It is the knowledge of the true self (atman) and the underlying truth of the universe (brahman), essentially these two become one in the full realisation of the two.
There is a hymn in the Artharva-Veda, which seems to contain this whole ideology in a nutshell. In the lotus of mine doors (the human body) enveloped in the three strands there dwells a supernatural being possessed of Atman: this do those who know Brahman know. Free from desire it is, wise, immortal, self-resistant, delighting in ( its own sweet) savour, no wise lacking. Knowing this Atman, wise and ageless (yet ever) young, one had no fear of death.
– Artharva-Veda – Zaehner – Hinduism. In short the Atman is the essence of the human soul, and the Brahman is the changeless ground of the universe which is at the same time the source of all change. Here are two quotes that might help to illustrate this idea of Brahma, and Atman which could never be described in temporal or spatial terms.the essence of the self is absolute, realised within the self – Flood – Introduction to Hinduism.To illustrate Brahman we use a well known simile. Brahman is like salt when dissolved in water. You know it is there, you can not see it, only experience it through your senses.
The brahman is the womb of both the existent and the non-existant. – Atharva Veda – Hopkins – Hindu Religious Tradition. All things derive from Brahma and are supported by it – to know Brahma is to know the essence of everything, (ie. Atman) – Brahman is not only the basic principle of the cosmos; it is also the self of man. – Hopkins – Hindu Religious Tradition.
To realise ones brahman, leads to the cessation of action (karma) which essentially leads to the liberation form the rounds of rebirth. This is because Karma affects the rounds of rebirth and ones position in the cosmos. All this is articulated in the Upanisads.
The topics are first seen in the earlier writings of the Brahmanas and the Aranyakas and later developed in the Brihadoranyaka and the Chandogya. In the later texts of the Upanisads this ideaalogy is fully developed.To mention another of the few renouncer traditions; Buddhism, Jainism, Materialism and Skeptism. Buddhism was a contemporary of the Upanisads ideology (as were the above). It remains ambigious, however, who was influenced by who.Buddhism influences the Brahmanical renouncer religion, and Brahmanical religion influences Buddhism. – Hopkins – Hindu Religious Tradition.
Buddhist and Brahmanical renouncer idealogy were very similar, there was, however, differences in practice and in some cases doctrine. Buddhism followed the same individualistic teaching guide, where a member of the sangha (Buddhist monastic community) would supervise their students study. Buddhism had developed this monastic community which the Brahmanical renouncer religion did not seem to have. Part of the doctrine that says all life is suffering was in fact the first noble truth of the Buddhists elevated teaching.
Meditation was at the forefront of importance, just as the Brahmanical renouncer had the four levels of knowledge (jnana), so did Buddhism (Four Jhana), one rose to these different levels through meditation, once they had reached the fourth Jhana, they had come to the transcendent path that lead them to nibbana. However, one could not come to this stage of meditation before they had prepared themselves. This was done through the study and understanding of the step-by-step discourse ( Dana, sila, Karma, Cosmos and the Heavens) and then the elevated teaching of the Buddha – Four Noble Truths (ie.
suffering, recognition of it, cessation of suffering, middle way – eightfold path.)Jainism was also part of the Samana tradition and a contemporary of both Buddhism and the Brahmanical renouncer tradition. The Jains believed that everything was animate, and had a jiva ( life principle or soul – similar to the atman and Dharma). Jiva was everything that was sentient, and ajiva was everything that was non-sentient, in life these two have become associated with each other (ie. body and mind). The Jains believed that this association prevented jiva from realising its true nature – ie. immortality, omniscience, and absolute completeness.
The aim was to liberate the jiva from the rounds of rebirth, by freeing it from its bondage with Karma (action) and ajiva. This was done through extreme asceticism – ie. plucking hairs out of ones head, fasting etc. They believed that to avoid a new generation of karma one had to practice; non-violence, no killing, and vegitarianism. In some respects, the Buddhism agreed with the Jains basic teaching, such as the idea of rebirth and non-violence – however, they believed the Jains idea of karma to be inflexible, and they opposed their practice of extreme asceticism.
(vi.)Another tradition of the Samana group was Ajivaka, that opposed both Buddhism and Jainism. They believed in something called niyatti (impersonal destiny) that governed all. Humans did not have the ability to effect their own destiny through karma, their karma was not freely done, everything was determined. However they did believe in rebirth – but again, Karma did not determine it, the soul was driven by niyatti. Both Vandhamana (Jainism founder) and the Buddha criticised Ajivaka on its ideology of fatalism, because it was a denial of human potential and responsibility.
Another two traditions of the Samana movement were the Materialists and the Skeptics. The Materialists denied any kind of self other than one which could be directly perceived – but this self was annihilated at death. They also denied rebirth, karma and niyatti.
They believed that action was a spontaneous action, and that spiritual progression was impossible.The skeptics believed that all knowledge was impossible. They avoided any commitment to any point of view.As one can see, although there was a strong movement of renunciation, there was many different ideas and practices among them. This was an exciting time for religious expansion, for a thousand years the people of India had been following the traditions of the Veda. Here was something new, times were changing and religion was looking to follow.
Bent on renunciation, these virtuous men who are detached from reiterated existence wander forth for the well-being of the world, fulfilling all their perfections.- ln. 258 – Distant Epoch – Story of Gotama Buddha. Religion