Saccaka was neither an ascetic nor a Jain

In MN 36 and MN 37 we meet the memorable figure of Saccaka, a renowned debater who boasts of trouncing the Buddha in debate. Needless to say, things don’t go quite as he planned.

His name is given as saccaka nigaṇṭhaputta. This is translated variously as:

  • Saccaka, the Nigaṇṭha’s son (Bodhi)
  • Saccaka, son of the Jain (woman) (Chalmers)
  • Saccaka, the son of Jains (Horner)
  • Saccaka, a Nigantha (Jain) (Thanissaro)
  • Saccaka, the son of the Nigaṇṭhas (Analayo, from the Chinese at SA 110)
  • the Nigaṇṭha Saccaka (Malalasekera, Dictionary of Pali Proper Names)

The commentary says that he was born of Jain parents, hence his name. Initially I was sceptical of this, thinking that the suffix -putta was being used in its pleonastic sense, i.e. simply “a Jain”.

However, elsewhere the term nigaṇṭha is always used of Jain ascetics, while nigaṇṭhasāvaka is used for lay Jain followers. This is the only place that uses nigaṇṭhaputta. Of course it might just be an odd idiom, but it suggests it applies to Saccaka personally, which would support the commentary.

So the first question that arises is, was Saccaka actually a Jain? In the dialogues with the Buddha, Saccaka uses arguments that are fairly generally applicable to the ascetic culture of the time, and doesn’t specifically invoke Jain ideas. It is true, he does invoke the virtue of self-mortification, but this was not unique to the Jains; and in doing so, he mentions ascetics other than Mahāvīra, the Jain leader. Decisively, at the end of MN 36 he speaks critically of Mahāvīra just as he does other ascetics. Clearly, he was not a Jain.

The second question is, was he an ascetic? At the beginning of MN 35 he is described as a renowned debater, as sādhusammata (“regarded as holy”). However, he is never referred to with any of the epithets specifically reserved for ascetics. And at the end of MN 35, he offers the Buddha and the Sangha a meal, which is of course a service restricted solely to the lay community. So he is not an ascetic.

It seems, then, that the commentary must be correct, and he is known as nigaṇṭhaputta because of his parents. For the sake of clarity, therefore, it is best to translate something like:

Saccaka, the son of Jain parents


Very interesting and illuminating.

Is it possible that in this case “nigantha” is not being used to refer to the particular sect of Jains, but in a broader, original sense referring to the unfettered? In that case, maybe “niganthaputta” is an epithet meaning something like “follower of the unfettered ones”?

1 Like

In the EBTs, nigaṇṭha is used very consistently of the Jains. TW Rhys Davids commented on this long ago, I believe in Buddhist India.

There is a similar situation in the west, where you have terms for religious orders that, in their basic sense, are generic and could apply to anyone, yet are always used of a specific order. Thus “Dominicans” = followers of the Lord, “Jesuits” = followers of Jesus, “Benedictines” = benevolent ones, and so on.

As for “Marists”, well that should be self-evident. :sunglasses: