non-Buddhist texts on meditation?

Vedānta is often said to have a strong meditation tradition next to Buddhism. I can’t find any of their texts that describe meditation though. All the Jaina texts on meditation seem to be very recent/modern. Patañjala yoga seems to be quite close to Buddhist meditation; but the later haṭha is barely what we would consider meditation. Sames goes with meditations in the Tantras I’ve encountered, mostly imagination/visualization…

So, I guess my question is again… where is the strong meditation tradition (with textual evidence) outside of Buddhism?


Do you mean ancient texts or recent ones?

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Yea, ancient.

There’s the “neti neti” of the sage in the Bṛhadāraṇyaka Upaniṣad, but that’s not nearly as descriptive as what we find in the extensive EBT’s. Like, where are the real alternative meditation styles?

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I have once researched about the practice of meditation in Jainism and wasn’t able to find much in terms of ancient or early textual references. Of the spiritual traditions present in the times of the Buddha they were my best bet and I was left without much!

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Noticing now my OP seems dismissive. The various dhāraṇā’s, dhyāna’s, and samādhi’s of the medieval haṭha texts are real for their own respective traditions. From what I’ve seen of them there’s a lot of detailed visualizations of their patron deities, that just doesn’t strike me as “meditation” for whatever reason. I guess my expectations are largely shaped by Buddhist studies, but at the same time I have an intuition that there must be some other great meditation traditions…

It’s sad that most of what we know of those BCE śramaṇa traditions comes through the lens of the EBT’s. Ājīvika, ajñana, cārvāka/lokāyata, atomists, amoralists… all but lost, preserved only through what must be a slightly tinted polemical lens.

Jains readily admit that most of their early texts were lost in ?fires? I think. So that, again, most of what we have of their doctrine & practice comes from EBT’s. With the exception of but a handful of texts, I think @Gabriel might know which ones and their relative dating.

In fact, in the oldest sutta identified by Ui Hakuju (1882—1963), the “Pārāyana”, you could not even find the word “jhāna”.

I only found half of that word in the second oldest suttas, the Sagāthā Vaggasaṃyutta, once:

SN.9.5. Ānandasuttaṃ
“Rukkhamūlagahanaṃ pasakkiya, nibbānaṃ hadayasmiṃ opiya;
Jhā gotama mā pamādo, kiṃ te biḷibiḷikā karissatī”ti.

“You’ve left for the jungle, the root of a tree,
with extinguishment in your heart.
Practice absorption, Gotama, don’t be negligent!
What is this hullabaloo to you?”

jhā,(梵dhyā)﹐【字根III.】1.沉思(to muse)、禅修(to meditate)。2.燃烧(to burn)。

Jhā is the etymon of jhāna, why not this gatha uses the whole word?
Is that for the rhyme scheme?
It doesn’t make sense, because the other 3 lines are with 11, 10 & 11 syllables.
No need to put a standard 8-syllable sloka here.

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It is far more than just slightly tilted unfortunately. Yes, it’s in the EBT, but my personal impression is that the Buddha had little business discussing the teachings of other people. At several places (maybe not all) when other teachings or Niganthas are mentioned it is relatively simple to show that these were later additions.

Because of the almost monopoly status of the EBT on meditation it may even seem to the casual reader that the Buddha invented meditation altogether! This is most probably not true: the EBT admit Gotama’s two teachers with high ‘arupas’ and at one point Nataputta rejects the idea of a second jhana - implying that he knew of the first.

Both terms, samadhi and jhana, are probably of later / samana origins: samadhi starts appearing in late Grhya- and Dharmasutras and later in the Sanskrit Epics. An exception is dhyana (Skt. for jhana) in Chandogya-Upanisad 7.6, 7.7 & 7.26 (a later part of the Upanisad) - I think correctly translated as ‘deep reflection’ by Olivelle in this context.

So the terms are probably of sramanic origins and it’s futile to look for them in older literature. An exception is the Atharvaveda with all its difficult transmission where ‘dhyana’ is mentioned in AV 2.34.3, AV 18.2.47, AV 20.88.1. It seems in meaning somewhere between ‘deep reflection’ and ‘meditative contemplation’.

But this was not your question. The terms might appear, but without reference to a technique. My impression from the ancient brahmin texts is that there were two sources that can be perceived as ‘meditation’: a. the equivalent of ‘right view’ and reflection upon it and b. austere practices aiming at a trance-like stillness of mind.

Regarding a. you can find very often in the early Upanisads first an esoteric revelation and then the formula ‘who knows this…’, and then something like ‘attains immortality’ or so. We must assume that this involved a deep reflection by the students, the effects of which we can easily imagine as similar to a first jhana - repeating, immersing, delighting in the words, becoming one with them, etc.

The trance-like meditation of b. belongs to the category of ‘tapas’ practice, a set of ascetic, often physically demanding practices in which - we again must assume - ecstatic or trance-like states were achieved. The quality of tapas is fiery and has tremendous determination as its root. Through dedication and pain purification is achieved. This is known from the times of the Brahamanas on (much earlier than Buddhism) and the Atharvaveda.

Often before the main rituals people had to ritually purify themselves through preliminary rituals and tapas-practice. It is said that under the right circumstances tapas draws closer the presence of the gods. Again we can imagine that this was accompanied by extraordinary feelings or visions.

Sacred fasting was a tapas practice, but also standing motionless, lying on the ground in the sun without moving etc., i.e. exertion and endurance. It is not clear unfortunately what happened mentally, but we can assume that like the body also the mind was stilled. If you stand on one spot motionless for hours you have to somehow deal with pain, either trance or meditation. But surely you develop a certain understanding and skill with the mind - be it ultimately fruitful or not.

It’s also easy to draw a line from the brahmanic tapas practice to the Jain practices of pain endurance, being motionless and avoiding any karma. A basic idea is through these practices to overcome the human condition rather than to realize its potential. With this in mind it is not very surprising that austerities were the initial practice of Gotama (although I would not take the suttas literally on this).

I didn’t include many references here but the above is not really controversial. A good overview can be found in Kaelber (1989): Tapta Marga - Asceticism and Initiation in Vedic India.

Regarding the Jain texts it’s really unfortunate that there is not nearly as much and good recent research as with EBT studies. Many of the scholarly assumptions are over 100 years old and I wouldn’t rely much on it. My personal impression of the literature (Oldenberg’s translations are available) is that they are partly indeed old and don’t show obvious meddling as with the EBT. As with many EBT suttas that I hold as very old also many Jain sutras are not technical but inspirational.


The main issue with Jaina texts is that differently from Buddhist canon they did not undergo a major review and standardisation such as the one done in Sri Lanka.

Also, their teachings have never been part of a full translation project and such as the one involved with the bringing of Buddhism to China in the early days.

It is a sad outcome of their spiritual tradition having never really left the indian subcontinent.

I wonder if that is also consequence of a lack of emphasis in missionary efforts and proselytism as a whole - in Buddhism there is no gift superior to the gift of Dhamma…


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A good reason is there really isn’t that much to say or explain. To get into the 4 jhanas, buddhist or non buddhist version of it, you only have to do one thing. Pacify the body and mind.

It just takes a lot of practice, thousands of hours for most people to be able to do it on demand and use it all the time.

More detailed teachings than just “pacify” (passaddhi-sam-bojjhanga) is just to address the things that can block or slow your progress.


Ok. So what’s the dating on those early Svetambara texts, as old as the early Upaniṣads and EBT’s? Obviously, Nigaṇṭhas/Jains are described in the Early Buddhist Texts.

Do they mention any meditation techniques? The Buddhist accounts make it sound like it’s all bodily torture.

Thank you for this really detailed reply, Gabriel.

An earlier form is supposedly present in the Rg Veda, in the famous Gāyatrī/Sāvitrī Mantra which mentions “dhī” and some other places in the early Vedas describing mind in ritual.

I’ve always thought of this tapas practice was coming more from samana traditions than brahmana. It just seems to me more of a wild forest man thing than something for the priestly caste. Interesting, I guess we have more solid evidence on the brahmin side because the samanas probably didn’t keep records as well.

I totally understand what you mean. It sounds indeed like a forest thing. But then again keep in mind that big cities only came up at or shortly after the Buddha’s time, and the upanisads are considered ‘forest texts’ as well. Just as the Sangha partly deteriorated into a priestly congregation so might as well the Brahmins.

Also the brahmins were never a unified block, there were several big lineages and traditions and even within them there were disagreements and different practices.

Tapas practice is basically part of Vedic brahmacarya (studentship) as long as we can trace it back, let’s say around 500 or 700 years before the Buddha. If this was incorporated from sramana traditions it would mean 1.that sramanas existed for already a very long time before Buddhism/Jainism 2. that they existed very far west, in what was 700 years before Buddha the Brahmin mainland. Both is possible but frankly this would be quite stunning and would smash our ideas about brahmanism - no way of telling unfortunately…

It puts part of Buddhist vocabulary into new light, right?


Thanks so much for the responses, everyone. A lot of fascinating Jain studies to delve into.

Two oft-cited non-Buddhist texts on meditation, in my experience, are Patañjali Yogaśāstra and the Vijñāna Bhairava Tantra. The yoga sūtra’s, being sutras, are compacted and vague though they do seem to lay out several systems ultimately aimed at samādhi and liberation. They also share many common themes with Buddhism, morality, spiritual/magical powers, sense restraint (pratyāhāra), “holding in mind” like sati (dhāraṇā) preceding dhyāna (jhāna) and samādhi. Of course, just as with comparing Jainism and Buddhism, the language may be similar but the metaphysics it’s embedded in and the “meaning” of the terms are pretty divergent.

That Yogaśāstra was probably composed somewhere in the first few centuries of the CE. The Vijñāna Bhairava Tantra is a text from probably about the 10th c. CE; I think it’s a great little meditation collection. It contains 112 dhāraṇā which are aimed at achieving “God-consciousness” in the Bhairava monistic system, which besides the metaphysics, is probably not unlike other samādhis. Since it’s so short, I would encourage at least flipping through it. The meditations range from the bizarre (to me at least) subtle body visualizations and mantras to some very ordinary “everyday” kind of techniques that show a keen knowledge of states of awareness and the inner workings of the mind that these Kashmiris must have had. Meditations like: relaxing into the rhythm of a carriage ride, finding the “middle tone” between all the varied sounds in live music, meditating on the terror of nighttime, putting the attention on one object then another a few times then putting the mind on one object and before moving to the second letting the mind go in-between, fully absorbing into the pleasure of some delicious food. These are of a totally different nature than the ascetic meditation traditions, these are householder techniques.

Those two stand out to me at least; still looking for others though… Seems everyone claims that vedanta (especially advaita) has some great meditation tradition but I really haven’t found any texts for it…

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As Philipp Maas points out the YS quote Vasubandhu, so they are directly influenced by certain Buddhism and an early branch of Samkhya (here an interesting podcast with him). The YS must therefore come from the 4th or 5th cCE - quite late.

Yes, the brahmanas start to formalize certain sets of knowledge that contribute to liberation. I’d like to call it ‘right-view-meditation’ for lack of a better term. Atman and Brahman are often part of these, but also the so-called bandhus, tables of correspondences between micro- and macro-cosmos.

E.g. the left eye stand for x, the right eye for y, the breath for z, the sacrifice, the ritual etc. Like a cosmic library of interrelation one can tap into. This must be also the result of some sort of ‘meditation’.

The Mbh and the Gita are a strange piece of literature. With the epic format and the synthesis of ideas they are more evidence that something was going on rather than being original source material. Kind of like the Lalitavistara. The epics are not very revealing in terms of where the spiritual practice is coming from. For example as much as they borrow from Buddhism, as far as I know, they are very intransparent about it.

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What I meant is that historically with sutras, samhitas and ritual literature the new genre of an epos is an interesting development. The epic poet was probably more collecting than creating original philosophy. In this sense the Lalitavistara is also a collection of stories, strung together by narrative. They’re obviously not exactly the same.

Actually the Brahmanas and Srautasutras do a fine job here as I guess you know. How often do we have for example in the Satapatha a discussion like “Some say that the ritual should be perfomed in this way… But this is wrong because…” Sure, is doesn’t mention names but it reveals different practices and ideas, and seemingly in an accurate way, not polemicizing.

The Dharmasutras later have a much harsher disctinction between right and wrong, and my impression is that EBT canonization falls right into this period of time when Indian schools formed camps and the many similarities were sacrificed for the sake of differentiation - the ‘branding’ became more aggressive. Again, Mbh and Gita were much more inclusive and added lots of sramanic material (nirvana, samadhi, karma etc.) in a new Indian synthesis.

I don’t want to digress much into Mbh territory (where I’m not that firm anyway), just a quote from Hiltebeitel: “… the Mahåbhårata is quiet if not exactly silent on the non-Brahmanical traditions, and particularly about Buddhism …” (Buddhism and the Mahåbhårata, in: Boundaries, dynamics and construction of traditions in South Asia, 2011)

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No Advaita Vedanta texts?

Here’s a work of interest by the Jain Pali scholar P.S. Jaini:

The Jaina Path of Purification

Contrary to what the title might suggest, it isn’t a translation of some Jain equivalent of the Visuddhimagga, but rather the author’s own exposition of the Jain path. Nevertheless it is quite a rich source of material on Jain contemplative methods, for which you should start with chapter VI: Vrata and Pratimā: The Path of the Layman.


Thanks, bhante.


He is to Jain texts rather what K.R. Norman is to Pali Buddhist ones, but he does Pali Buddhist studies as well.