Āḷāra Kālāma & Uddaka Rāmaputta - what tradition?

Not sure if this will really have an answer, so I’ll leave it to the mods’ discretion whether this belongs in “discussion” instead.

The meditation teachers of the then-not-yet-awakened bodhisatta were the teachers Āḷāra Kālāma & Uddaka Rāmaputta. Does anyone know or have any speculation on what tradition they belonged to? Whatever tradition it was must have highly valued meditation and meditative states.

1 Like

This link suggest Alara Kalama was a Samkhya adept.

To support this claim it refers to Buddhacarita - an epic poem in the Sanskrit mahakavya style on the life of Gautama Buddha by Aśvaghoṣa, composed in the 1st century CE - which attributes to Alara few doctrinal affirmations which are Samkhya in nature. To read those check paragraphs 12 - 34 of this other link:

The account found in the same text gives the impression that Udraka / Uddaka merely repeated what Alara said, with the difference he pushed for a higher/subtler meditative attainment (neither-consciousness-nor-unconsciousness):

  1. Ārāḍa’s explanation could not please [the Bodhisattva’s] mind. He knew that he was no all-knower and that he should practice and further seek for excellence. He went to the seer Udraka, but he too relied on an existing self.
  2. Although he observed a subtle object, he saw that it was beyond perception and non-perception.Dwelling in the absence of perception and non-perception, he still did not have the road to escape.
  3. “As beings reach that, they will certainly fall back again!” Because the Bodhisattva was seeking to escape, he also rejected the seer Udraka.

It is noteworthy that in the Khuddaka Nikāya’s Milindapanha we learn that these were not the only previous teachers of the Boddhisatta:

‘Those eight Brahmans who, just after the birth of the Bodisat, took note of the marks on his body— Rāma, and Dhaja, and Lakkhaṇa, and Mantī, and Yañña, and Suyāma, and Subhoja, and Sudatta —they who then made known his future glory, and marked him out as one to be carefully guarded-these were first his teachers.

‘And again, O king, the Brahman Sabbamitta of distinguished descent, who was of high lineage in the land of Udicca, a philologist and grammarian, well read in the six Vedaṅgas, whom Suddhodana the king, the Bodisat’s father, sent for, and having poured out the water of dedication from a golden vase, handed over the boy to his charge, to be taught—this was his second teacher.

‘And again, O king, the god who raised the agitation in the Bodisat’s heart, at the sound of whose speech the Bodisat, moved and anxious, that very moment went out from the world in his Great Renunciation—this was his third teacher.

‘And again, O king, Āḷāra Kālāma—he was his fourth teacher.

‘And again, O king, Uddaka the son of Rāma—he was his fifth teacher.


Thanks @Gabriel_L. Seems there’s not much in the early Buddhist texts. I think the Milinda Pañha is considered one of the later of the Khuddaka, Buddhacarita written in classical Sanskrit would also be placed relatively late. The oldest surviving text of sāṁkhya, the SāṁkhyaKārikā, is also dated to a few hundred years CE. Whether you can make the claim that it relied on oral tradition stretching back further, I’m not sure. I haven’t studied that sāṁkhya text in depth or read any studies on it, but from what I have seen it really stresses metaphysical doctrine and doesn’t really make mention of meditation. However, taking the sāṁkhya hint from these later Buddhist texts I’ll armchair theorize…

As I mentioned in this other thread on Patañjala Yoga, it seems that those sutras had a metaphysical basis in samkhya but were preserving a meditative tradition. Maybe we could say that PYS is the best clue we have as to the tradition of the teachers Kālāma and Rāmaputta?

Of course, this meditative yoga tradition would probably be different from the hardcore ascetic yoga we see referenced at other places in the suttas, such as with the dog and cow penance practicing ascetics, or the rude matted-hair ascetics. These more hardcore tapasyins, the kinds that would bake their bodies in the sun (by the way, probably the origin of the ‘tapas’ term which literally means to burn, but later took on the meaning of spiritual heat), the kinds that would stand on one leg nearly all the time, or would raise one arm until it atrophies; these kinds of ascetics have probably existed in India for a very very long time and it is unlikely that they would have many written records (especially if they chose to raise their writing hand! :laughing:).

One example I think is rather interesting comes from Punjab, 4th c. BCE, members of Alexander the Great’s company (emph. mine):

fifteen men standing in different postures, sitting or lying down naked, who continued in these positions until the evening, and then returned to the city. The most difficult thing to endure was the heat of the sun, which was so powerful, that no one else could endure without pain to walk on the ground at mid-day with bare feet.’ Two more ascetics called upon the king. ‘They came up to Alexander’s table and took their meal standing, and they gave an example of their fortitude by retiring to a neighbouring spot, where rain, which had now set in, it being the commencement of spring. The other stood on one leg, with a piece of wood three cubits in length raised in both hands; when one leg was fatigued he changed the suppor to the other, and thus continued the whole day.’

The written records for yoga of any kind are sparse in the early period, but there are two disctinct traditions and periods of yogic literature that produced quite a lot of works - the Tantic from ~6th-12th c. CE and the Haṭhic from ~12th-colonial. Both of these later traditions could be seen to contain elements drawn from the two earlier yogic groupings theorized above, haṭha more the inheritor of the ascetic stream.

Anyway, all that we have to rely on is some loose guesswork. I find this kind of comparitive study to be interesting though.


Hi Matt,

This isn’t specified in the early texts, and Ashvaghosa’s claim about Sankhya affiliation is ahistorical.

From various hints, I think it’s likely they were yogis in the Upanishadic tradition.


Thank you bhante.

Gonna leave this one as “unanswered” as it isn’t so clear-cut.

Out of curiousity, what are the various hints as to their Upanishadic yogi-ness?

1 Like
  1. We don’t really know of many groups of yogis in the Buddha’s time. Alara and Uddaka don’t seem to have been part of the samaṇa movement. The structure of the bodhisatta’s practice pre-awakening seems designed to show how he practiced to the utmost of what was available at the time. Clearly the austerities are Jain-like, so by elimination, Upanishadic yogis are the most likely.
  2. At least one of the key contexts, MN 26, is set in a brahmin’s hermitage.
  3. “Rāmaputta” sounds very much like a brahmin name. Uddaka (= Udraka) is the name of a brahmanical rishi.
  4. Uddaka’s saying criticized by the Buddha in DN 29, “one sees but does not see”, referring to a razor’s edge, is reminiscent of Upanishadic style teachings about the imminent Self; for example, Uddālaka’s teaching on the split banyan seed in the Chandogya.
  5. The students of Alara and Uddaka began by memorizing the texts (oṭṭhapa­hata­mat­tena lapi­talāpa­na­mat­tena). We don’t have any evidence for any religious texts other than the Brahmanical at this time. (The Jains and others may well have had texts, but we have no evidence for it.)
  6. The students were practicing within a lineage or tradition. We have reference to theravāda, sakaṃ ācariyakaṃ, as well as the detail that Rāmaputta is following in the footsteps of Rāma, his (spiritual or biological) father. Most of the samana movements claimed, like the Buddha’s, to have been established by their founders (Jainism being an exception.)
  7. The students learned the five faculties, a set of dhammas that have many connections with things in the Upanishads, and which are featured prominently in the (admittedly later and philosophically divergent) Yogasutra (śraddhāvīryasmṛtisamādhiprajñāpūrvaka itareṣām || YS_1.20 ||)
  8. Having mastered the five faculties, including jhana under samādhi, the highest teachings are the arupas. These have many affinities with Upanishadic teachings. And elsewhere, advanced brahmin yogis are cloesely associated with these, especially in the Parayanavagga.
  9. The Pali commentary seems to assume they were brahmins. I haven’t looked into this with any detail, but a quick glance at the commentary to MN 26 shows that they depict Alara as referring to the Marks of a Great Man, which of course was regarded as a brahmanical idea.

As so often in these studies, no single criteria is decisive. But multiple independent criteria are all easily explained by a single, simple, and obvious hypothesis. Since there is, so far as I know, no counter-evidence or convincing alternative hypothesis, I regard this as probably the correct explanation.


Are there any discriptions about jhānas (dhyāna) in Upanishads?


Moving this thread to Discussion, as suggested in the OP.


If we keep in mind that jhāna is probably an East Indian sramana term and not Vedic it’s more understandable that it doesn’t appear much in the pre-Buddha upanisads. But still we have some occurrences…

Chandogya-Upanisad 7.6.1: dhyāna, undoubtedly, is greater than citta, for the earth in a sense is reflecting deeply; the intermediate region in a sense is reflecting deeply (dhyāyatīva), sky…, waters…, hills…, and gods and men in a sense are reflecting deeply. Therefore, those who achieve eminence among men in this world have, in some sense, received their share of the fruits of deep reflection. Small-minded men are cantankerous, backbiting, and offensive, whereas those who are noble-minded have, in some sense, received their share of the fruits of deep reflection. So, venerate deep reflection.

CU 7.6.2: If someone venerates brahman as dhyāna - well, a man obtains complete freedom of movement in every place reached by dhyāna, if he venerates brahman as dhyāna.

CU 7.7.1: "Perception (vijñāna), undoubtedly, is greater than dhyāna, for it is through the
faculty of perception that one comes to perceive the [Vedas]

(Also in CU 7.26.1)

In the Kauṣītaki-Upaniṣad is apparently means 'thought:
KU 3.3: When a man is fast asleep and sees no dreams at all, then these become unified within this very breath—his speech then merges into it together with all the names; his sight merges into it together with all the visible appearances; his hearing merges into it together with all the sounds; and his mind merges into it together with all the dhyānas.
[similar in KU 3.2, KU 3.4, and KU 4.20]


Thanks for the reply. Since this is not directly related to the OP. Can you post this to below thread?

1 Like