Sources on Early Buddhist Social History

I am growing increasingly interested in the social circumstances of the various wanderers, ascetics and hermits who are so prevalent in the Pali Canon and other Indian sources from around the same time. I’m looking for scholarship that attempts to sort out all of the various and sometimes conflicting images we see of these people, and that also attempts to give an orderly account of the evolution of the bhikkhu sangha from its earliest form to its later developed forms. Does anybody have any scholarly work to recommend? Here are some of the phenomena, issues and questions I’m interested in:

Sometimes bhikkhus wander alone; sometimes they wander in very small groups; sometimes they wander in large groups. Sometimes wanderers are represented as staying in parks and groves; sometimes these parks seem to have been set aside especially for monks, but sometimes they haven’t, and the monks are just permitted to stay there; sometimes the parks have structures built on them, and sometimes they don’t.

Why did people feed wanderers? How did he people who fed wanderers view these wanderers? Sometimes the wanderer seems to be seen as a teacher, and the donor is seen as a kind of patron of teachers seeking instruction. Sometimes the wanderer is seen as a holy man, and the donor is seeking some kind of special merit that comes from giving to holy men. Sometimes, the wanderer might just be seen as beggar, and the donation is viewed as a charitable or compassionate good deed with no particular purpose other than doing a good deed. No doubt these motivations might overlap at times.

Sometimes groups of wanderers are seen as belonging to a group or school, affiliated perhaps with some chief teacher or master. Other times groups of wanderers might be nothing more than that.

In the Pali Canon, are lay supporters ever presented as bringing food to the monks’ dwellings? Or do they always invite them to meals or feed them on alms rounds?

When bhikkhus are wandering in remote jungle thickets and forests, how did they eat? Who fed them and why?

Are there discernible differences in the reasons the poor gave to wanderers and the reasons the rich gave to wanderers?

It is sometimes held that the Buddha lived during a time when there was a samana “movement”. Do we really know this? Or was the tradition of wandering asceticism (and the feeding of wandering ascetics) already very ancient by the Buddha’s time?


I would recommend having a read of the translated Jaina texts. Some of them deal with the samana life in quite some detail, and have an interestingly different perspective than the Buddhist texts. You can find them over on the wonderful


Thank you!

The Āśrama System - Olivelle.


Society at the Time of the Buddha by Narendra K. Wagle

The Sociology of Early Buddhism by Greg Bailey & Ian Mabbett

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I still have Daily Life in Ancient India: From 200 BC to 700 AD unread on my shelf. Might find some helpful info there.

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Thanks Mkoll. Yes, I have that book too, also mostly unread!