Background reading for the EBTs

Recently, I’ve been thinking about the importance of having a decent background in the pre-Buddhist world for understanding the EBTs. I’ve been thinking about having a reading list which points to the most important pre-Buddhist literature for those who want to have a good background in the Vedic and Sramana traditions. Arguably, this is helpful in better understanding the EBTs themselves.

Regarding the Vedic literature, its massive, so I don’t think one needs to sit down and read all the Vedas for this. It would probably not be that helpful either. However, perhaps reading a few passages would be useful. Not sure if there is a book with some key excerpts out there that gives one a decent overview. One could also just read the main Upanishads, which are like 10 or so and have been well translated by Patrick Olivelle. They probably would give one a decent overview of the pre-Buddhist Brahmanical religion.

Regarding the Jain literature, this is easier, since they lost most of their early works. Probably reading a few of the earliest Agamas would suffice. According to Bronkhorst, this is mainly the the Ācārāṅga Sūtra, the Sūtrakṛtāṅga Sūtra, and the Uttarādhyayana Sūtra. They’re freely available in an old (but seemingly serviceable) translation.

Besides that, there’s no primary sources for the other worldviews or sects during the Buddha’s time, like Carvaka, Ajivika or the non-Vedic religions which were practiced outside of the Aryavarta. So one would probably need to go into the secondary literature here. But I am not aware of any one book which summarizes or explains these.

Anyways, I was wondering what people though would be useful to read regarding the non-Buddhist background to the EBTs. What are must reads?


While this may not be exactly what you are looking for, it may be interesting to compare Jain and Buddhist approaches to meditation: The First Jhana as an assimilated Jain Meditation Practice - #6 by dayunbao

I agree with you that understanding the fluid meditation/religious environment in the time of the Buddha would be very interesting. We often think of Buddhism in isolation, but really it was part of a competitive “marketplace” of ideas, each seeking adherents/followers. The Buddha was successful for many reasons, including but not limited to the general coherence of his religious framework, the visible success of his sangha, and his personal integrity. But he did draw and benefit from the practices around him as well.


Yay!! :tada::confetti_ball::partying_face:

Oh. :man_facepalming:

This is a great post. I’m not sure if you want this post to go there, but I wonder if …

… you are interested/willing to discuss the extent to which this is true. I’m not saying it isn’t. But I’d love to be really convinced. Personally I think that the basic intro that you get in Bhante Bodhi’s Middle Length Discourse or In the Buddha’s Words is enough for most people.


I get you, and hey, maybe its the case that its not really necessary at all. In fact, if the Dhamma is universal and the Buddha’s teachings are direct, there should be not real need to have some historical background on the history of ideas of ancient India.

However, just because you don’t need to do something does not mean its not enriching. I think having a broader perspective on the Buddha’s Dhamma would definitely help in understanding some of the intricacies of what he was doing. For example, Gombrich in his “What the Buddha Thought” draws from Vedic literature to give some illuminating explanations of the Buddha’s teachings. Also, I think, and this is especially true for translators, looking at pre-Buddhist terminology is definitely helpful in getting a bead on the meaning of certain difficult terms, like nama-rupa for example.

Furthermore, I find having a broader perspective on the Dhamma’s context vis a vis other Indian religions at the time of the Buddha to be enriching. If you’ll excuse me quoting the oft-quoted statement by the famous Indologist Max Müller on this for a moment: He who knows one (religion), knows none.

A bit of an overstatement surely, but you get the point.


Perhaps something on SuttaCentral itself would be helpful. Many of us have no lifetime left to dive into a massive universe of historical context. I’ve been limping along myself using Wikipedia to find out things like “gods of the thirty-three”. But Wikipedia addresses a broader audience beyond the EBTs. I’d certainly prefer to consult a SuttaCentral wiki with references to the texts you seek. The wiki would be a bridge to a deeper understanding, a welcoming and introductory guide to the universe of Arjuna and chariots.


Regarding Vedic solemn (śrauta) rituals, an excellent study is still Lévi’s 1898 book La Doctrine du Sacrifice dans les Brâhmanas. I’m afraid it is in French, though.
I assume it is in the public domain now, so you should be able to download a copy from Internet Archive etc.


This is a great book: From the introduction:

The main body of the book consists of five chapters (3 to 7) focusing on the early growth of Buddhism, Jainism and the renunciate traditions within Brahmanical religion, roughly from the fourth to second centuries BCE, and three chapters (10 to 12) discussing the period from the fifth to twelfth centuries. The first of these periods corresponds, as far as we can tell, to the initial development of yogic and meditational techniques; the second period covers the growth of Tantric practices and the relationship between yoga and Tantra. The remaining chapters provide introduction and commentary, and sketch developments before, between and after these two key periods.

It’s a very fair and thorough discussion of the various topics without much bias.


I’ve got a ‘must watch’. The Oxford Centre for Hindu Studies has interesting courses that discuss the Vedas and Upanishads and they have some free videos on Youtube too. I don’t have the time or money for the real courses, but the Youtube selection has given me enough to peruse.

I’ve also found some cool commentaries and sub-commentaries on Advaita Vedanta on the Advaita Ashrama Publication House website. Some older editions can be found as a free PDF if you can do some googling. The Oxford videos can give you an idea of the direction you may want to look toward before going here.


It may be useful to have a little more, but my observation of trying to read Vedic literature is that you really need quite a lot of explanation to make sense of it. Books such as Gombrich’s What the Buddha Thought are helpful in pointing out connections.


It’s helpful to use Wikipedia to build a picture of the sociopolitical context in which the Buddha taught in order to get an idea of the knowledge held by his public audience. For example this extract :

"According to Indologist Johannes Bronkhorst, the culture of Magadha was in fundamental ways different from the Vedic kingdoms of the Indo-Aryans. He argues for a cultural area termed “Greater Magadha”, defined as roughly the geographical area in which the Buddha and Mahavira lived and taught.[1] Suggestive of this distinction, in some Vedic and post-Vedic rituals, a “Magadha man” represents the canonical non-Vedic “outsider”, the Magadhan standing in for the presence of any and all non-Vedic peoples or the ritually impure.[12]

Magadha kingdom coin, c. 430–320 BCE, Karshapana

Magadha kingdom coin, c. 350 BCE, Karshapana

With regard to the Buddha, this area stretched by and large from Śrāvastī, the capital of Kosala, in the north-west to Rājagṛha, the capital of Magadha, in the south-east".[13] According to Bronkhorst “there was indeed a culture of Greater Magadha which remained recognizably distinct from Vedic culture until the time of the grammarian Patañjali (ca. 150 BCE) and beyond”.[14] Vedic texts such as the Satapatha Brahmana demonize the inhabitants of this area as demonic and as speaking a barbarous speech. The Buddhologist Alexander Wynne writes that there is an “overwhelming amount of evidence” to suggest that this rival culture to the Vedic Aryans dominated the eastern Gangetic plain during the early Buddhist period. Orthodox Vedic Brahmins were, therefore, a minority in Magadha during this early period.[15]

“The Magadhan religions are termed the sramana traditions and include Jainism, [Buddhism (Buddhism - Wikipedia) and [Ājīvika (Ājīvika - Wikipedia). Buddhism and Jainism were the religions promoted by the early Magadhan kings, such as Srenika, Bimbisara and Ajatashatru, and the Nanda Dynasty (345–321 BCE) that followed was mostly Jain. These Sramana religions did not worship the Vedic deities, practised some form of asceticism and meditation (jhana) and tended to construct round burial mounds (called stupas in Buddhism).[14] These religions also sought some type of liberation from the cyclic rounds of rebirth and karmic retribution through spiritual knowledge.”—“Magadha,” Wikipedia.


The more I look into this, the harder it becomes to find easy answers!

Regarding the early / principal Upanishads, there is no agreement on their date (ranges from 800 BCE to 200 BCE). Bronkhorst thinks they were all finished late, Patrick Olivelle thinks at least five are pre-Buddhist.

The Jain canon is ever more difficult to sort out and read, since all the texts are late, but may contain early layers of material. The big problem is there are few modern translations (other than Herman Jacobi’s Jaina Sutras, from the 19th century…). And the more recent translations are not easy to find online at all, while others are only available in expensive editions from overseas. It seems the study of EJTs is not that important these days. That sucks, I bet there’s some interesting comparative research to be done there.


My easy answer:

Go take a bachelor’s in Buddhism in Buddhist and Pali University of Sri Lanka. During the 1st year (out of 3) of the Bachelor’s we learned pre Buddhism culture and philosophy. Mainly just an overview of Brahmanism, 6 heretical teachers etc.

Super boring. I can’t upload lecture notes and share for now, limited internet. Can try to google up these lecture notes.


I took A History of Hinduism in India and Beyond: ritual, yoga, freedom - my.UQ - The University of Queensland, Australia in undergrad. Would recommended 10/10. They’ve changed the name tho since I did it (it didn’t have yoga in the name before…) Reading list is here:

Required readings in the Vedas…

Hopkins, Thomas J. 1971. The Hindu Religious Tradition, Calif.: Dickenson, pp. 17-35 (chap.2).
Doniger, W. 1981. The Rig Veda, Harmondsworth: Penguin, pp.29-32, 89-93, 99-101, 121-124, 132-137, 148-158. (Hymns: Purusha sukta, 10.90 ; Horse Sacrifice, 1.162; to Agni 1.1, 1.26; to Soma, 8.79, 9.74, 9.113, 8.48; to Indra, 1.32, 3.31, 10.108).
De Bary, William Theodore (ed.) 1958. Sources of Indian tradition, New York: Columbia University Press, pp.18-23. (Hymns from the Atharvaveda; excerpts from the Brahmanas.)

Brereton, J. 1990. “The Upanishads,” in W.T. de Bary and I. Bloom, Eastern Canons: Approaches to the Asian Classics, New York: Columbia University Press, pp.115-135.
Olivelle, P. 1998. The Early Upaniṣads: annotated text and translation, New York: OUP, pp.37-39, 127-31, 145-49, 251-57, 279-87, 434-455.
Being the following excerpts:

Bṛhadāraṇyaka Upaniṣad 1.1.1-2, 4.5.1-15, 6.2.1-16.
Chāndogya Upaniṣad 6.8-6.16, 8.7-8.15.
Muṇḍaka Upaniṣad (all).

But…you live in the US, you could also just turn up at Patrick Olivelle’s office and ask, right?


It might be helpful to know that the influence of the Upanisads on EBT is negligible. I do think that the old Up. are pre-Buddha but their knowledge starts to influence the texts only in the later suttas - this is probably due to geography. So Vedic texts have more chances to be influences on the Buddha’s thoughtworld when they’re older - Satapatha and Jaiminiya Brahmana, Rgveda and Atharvaveda.

I recommend Lauren Bausch’s excellent PhD thesis “Kosalan Philosophy in the Kāṇva Śatapatha Brāhmaṇa and the Suttanipāta

The older influences are obvious in the Buddhist pantheon, where of course deites like the 33 Gods and Sakka/Indra are of ancient Vedic origin.

Other important Vedic influences are the ideas of religious giving and brahmacariya. James Egge wrote “Religious Giving and the Invention of Karma in Theravada Buddhism”. About Brahmacarya there is some literature (e.g. by Mieko Kajihara), but it’s not related to Buddhism. I write about it in my thesis, but I can’t share it yet until the process is finished.

In contrast to the Vedic literature (which is just too much) I recommend reading Jain literature in the source. Next to the texts you mentioned (mostly Acaranga 1 !) I would surely read the Isibhasiyaim, which is ancient but not included in the canon (because it’s para-sectarian).


Sweet thanks, I had not heard of that particular Jain text.

Also, if you have other sources for (relatively) early Jain works, please share!

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This is great ! Thanks
It’s scholarship like this which is helpful to trace such hints which normally would be missed on a preliminary reading.
IMO the other options avaliable apart from reading the principal Upanishads and the few Jain texts available would be to read this type of scholarly literature which connects the pre-buddhist with the Buddhist, digging out the connecting links. These constitute therefore, not so much a background reading for the EBTs than a guide to understand the connections better.
Its better to read these after the primary pre-buddhist literature after getting accustomed to the vocabulary and ideas.

It certainly helps to make sense of why the Buddha said some things he said, and how some of his statements were framed to directly quote the words of his opponent’s scriptures (eg. the frequent use of fire as a metaphor, the reformulation of the triple knowledge of Brahmins, and many other brahmanical motifs, as well as theories of Self). His dhamma, although univeral, seemed perfectly formulated as a response to specific philosophies and views , not just a blanket dismissal of non-buddhist concepts. His teachings were directed at a target audience who were most likely familiar with the Brahmanical scriptures; the brahmins made up a sizable portion of the disciples.

I am an amateur in this respect, reading only out of curiosity and interest in interreligious studies of ancient India as time permits. Although I’m quite sure some of you may have already read it, here’s a small contribution from my end which I have collected over the years (some of these works are referred to in the paper Gabriel linked above):

  1. A Note on Atta in the Alagaddupama Sutta (Norman)
  2. Another Buddhist Criticism of Yajnavalkya (Gombrich)
  3. Theravada Buddhism and Brahmanical Hinduism: Brahmanical Terms in Buddhist Guise (Norman)
  4. On the Buddha’s Use of Some Brahmanical Motifs in Pali Texts (Brett Shults)
  5. Why is a Khattiya called a Khattiya? The Aggañña Sutta revisited (Gombrich)
  6. The Rgveda, small scale societies and rebirth eschatology (Jurewicz)
  7. Collected Papers on Buddhist Studies (Jaini) - This has a section of comparative study of Buddhism and Jainism.
  8. The Two Traditions of Meditation in Ancient India (Bronkhorst)
  9. The Two Sources of Indian Asceticism (Bronkhorst)
  10. Greater Magadha - Studies in the Culture of Early India (Bronkhorst)
  11. Imagining Karma (Obeyesekere)
  12. Playing with Fire: The pratityasamutpada from the perspective of Vedic thought (Jurewicz)
  13. Teaching Of The Vedas (Maurice Phillips) -This is an old and archaic work
  14. The Religion and Philosophy of the Veda and Upanishads - Vol. 1 and Vol.2 (Arthur B. Keith)
  15. The Early Upaniṣads: Annotated Text and Translation (Patrick Olivelle)

Hope you find at least some of it useful. :slightly_smiling_face:
There is still some material pertaining to Jainism I have saved, I will share once I locate it!

As @Ficus brought to my attention, many of the texts I shared were copyrighted and against the forum rules as such. My apologies for lapse in mindfulness when posting.
Hence, I am substituting the material with the name of the books/articles, and the links where available.


May be helpful
Saman Suttam is the religious text created in 1974 by a committee consisting of representatives of each of the major sects of [Jainism] to reconcile the teachings of the sects. After a gap of about nearly two thousand years following composition of Tattvartha Sutra by Acharya [Umasvati] this was the first text to be recognized by all Jain sects. At Umaswati’s time, although multiple orders existed, there was no clear sectarian division. By the 20th century however, Jainism had gradually been divided into several sects

Background of the compilation is given in the link

Samansuttam (JAIN GEETA)_English.pdf (312.8 KB)

There are English translations of some Jain scriptures (including the 3 texts you mentioned) in Jainism page on Wisdom Library