Sramanas connected to pre-Aryan hunter gatherers? Evidence from MA 18

I have often wondered whether there was a connection between the non-Brahmanical religious movements in India at the time of the Buddha, and pre-agricultural communities. Could they represent a link to the native people before the Aryan immigrations and the agricultural culture they brought with them?

In particular I have wondered about this when we read descriptions of some ascetic practices. I will quote from MA 18 as an example, and I will highlight what I find interesting. I will give the quote in full but interrupt it occasionally:

Sīha, there are renunciants and brahmins, who go naked and unclothed, who use their hands as clothes [to cover their private parts], or use leaves as clothes, or use beads as clothes; who will not use a pot to get water, or will not use a ladle to get water;

Being naked or using leaves as clothes or not using pots or ladles, all seem rather normal for hunter gatherers I would say. Of course some may use pots, but there might be no need.

who will not eat food [obtained by others] by robbery with blade and cudgel; who will not eat food obtained by deception, or by personally approaching [a donor], or by sending a faithful follower [to get it], or [when called thus:] “Come, venerable sir!”, or “Very well, venerable sir!”, or “Stay, venerable sir!”

Different topic but this seems very odd to me to say it’s “lowly action, leading to suffering” etc. to refuse stolen goods. This and some other items below seem to rather contradict Buddhist ethics.

Or [there are those] who, when two are eating together, will not eat with them; or who will not eat food from a house where there is a pregnant woman, or from a house where there is a pet dog; or who will not take food from a house where flies are buzzing around excrement; or who do not eat fish, do not eat meat, do not drink alcohol, do not drink water [considered as] evil, or do not drink at all but train in the practice of not drinking; or who eat one mouthful and are content with one mouthful, or eat two mouthfuls, or three, four . . . or at most seven mouthfuls and are content with seven mouthfuls.

This part I’m not connecting with the OP topic, but refusing to drink alcohol, classed as “lowly action, leading to suffering” etc.? Very curious!

Or [there are those] who eat [only the alms] they obtain at a single [house] and are content with what they obtain at a single [house], or at two [houses], or three, four . . . or at most seven [houses] and are content with what they obtain at seven [houses]; or who have one meal a day and are content with one meal, or one meal in two days, or in three, four, five, six, or in seven days, or in a fortnight, or who have one meal in a month and are content with one meal [in a month].

Once again we have typical Buddhist monastic routine of eating only once per day, classed as bad! Also being content with food offered by 7 households, seems quite reasonable to me!

Or [there are those] who eat edible roots, or wild rice, or millet, or rice bran, or rice scum, or coarse food; who go to secluded places and live off [what they find] in seclusion, or eat roots or eat fruits, or eat fallen fruits.

This again seems very much in line with hunter gatherers.

Or [there are those] who clothe themselves in patchwork robes,

Once again a surprise since that was standard Buddhist practice!

or in robes made of hair, or in robes made of coarse fabric, or in robes made of hair and coarse fabric; or who wear complete hides, or wear pierced hides, or wear complete pierced hides; who keep their hair disheveled, or keep their hair in braids, or keep their hair disheveled and in braids,

These all seem plausibly hunter gatherer practices.

or shave their hair, or shave their beard, or shave their hair and beard, or tear out their hair, or tear out their beard, or tear out their hair and beard.

Again seemingly standard Buddhist practice.

Or [there are those] who stand continuously, abstaining from sitting; or move about in a squatting position; or lie down on thorns, using a bed of thorns; or lie down on fruits, using a bed of fruits; or who worship water day and night, pouring it out with their hands; or who worship fire, keeping it burning continuously.

Or [there are those] who worship the sun and moon, revering them as spirits of great might, and saluting them with palms together.

Plausibly hunter gatherer practices.

In these ways they experience untold suffering in the practice of self-mortification. Sīha, there is such asceticism; I do not deny it.

But, Sīha, such asceticism is lowly action, leading to suffering, leading to distress, a practice of worldlings; it is not the noble path.

So I find this quote interesting in two ways, with regard to hunter gatherers, and with regard to apparently contradicting standard Buddhist practices.

Other references:
There are many, but just for example we have

  • Ud 1.10, ‘Bāhiya of the Bark Robe’
  • Tha Ap 139, “I was dressed in deer-leather then,
    wearing garments made out of bark.”
  • Tha Ap 431 “Having departed home with faith,
    I went forth into homelessness.
    Wearing robes made out of bark, I
    placed my trust in asceticism.”
  • AN 6.54 has an interesting reference to perhaps professional bark strippers, indicating an industry of using bark?
    “Like this, deva: Root-cutters take the root of the tree; bark-strippers take the bark; leaf-pickers take the leaves; flower-pickers take the flowers;"
  • AN 3.93 has an extended section with a lot of parallel to the original quote I gave:

“Mendicants, wanderers who follow other paths advocate three kinds of seclusion. What three? Seclusion in robes, almsfood, and lodgings.

Wanderers who follow other paths advocate this kind of seclusion in robes. They wear robes of sunn hemp, mixed hemp, corpse-wrapping cloth, rags, lodh tree bark, antelope hide (whole or in strips), kusa grass, bark, wood-chips, human hair, horse-tail hair, or owls’ wings. This is what wanderers who follow other paths advocate for seclusion in robes.

Wanderers who follow other paths advocate this kind of seclusion in almsfood. They eat herbs, millet, wild rice, poor rice, water lettuce, rice bran, scum from boiling rice, sesame flour, grass, or cow dung. They survive on forest roots and fruits, or eating fallen fruit. This is what the wanderers who follow other paths advocate for seclusion in almsfood.

I will continue with the quote in a moment but just to say, ‘herbs’ appears to translate ‘Sākabhakkhāpi’, and the PED gives ‘sāka’ as Tectona grandis (teak), though perhaps here is just refers to edible leaves? I was curious whether ‘sāmāka’ translated here as ‘millet’ refers to domesticated millet, or some wild grain. The PED gives it as Panicum frumentaceum, which may be referring to Echinochloa frumentacea, widely grown in India, Pakistan and Nepal, and according ti Wikipedia " While also being part of staple diet for some communities in India, these seeds are, in particular, (cooked and) eaten during religious fasting (willingly abstaining from some types of food / food ingredients). For this reason, these seeds are commonly also referred to as “vrat ke chawal " in Hindi (i.e., “rice for fasting”, literally).” But I wanted to know if there is textual basis for this identification as a domesticated species.

Searching the canon, the only instances of ‘sāmāka’ in the 4 main pitakas seem to be in this stock passage, occurring in 2 DN suttas, 5 MN suttas, and 3 AN suttas.

KN is harder to search since the scheme for referencing texts is different in the Pāli Reader compared to Sutta Central, and the search function in Sutta Central is nearly impossible for me to use (would be awesome if it could be made similar to the Pāli Reader!) But I found one at least with the help of copy and paste and google, which is Snp 2.2, where ‘Sāmākaciṅgūlakacīnakāni’ is translated as ‘millet, wild grains, broomcorn’. So far I do not see evidence that it was a cultivated, rather than wild, species.

‘Wild rice’ translates ‘nīvāra’ which the PED just gives as “raw rice, paddy”, and raw rice really ought not be eaten, but Monier-WIlliams does give this as ‘wild rice’.

‘Poor rice’ translates ‘daddula’. The PED gives this as “a cert. kind of rice” and I would speculate this might also be a wild grain?

‘Water lettuce’ translates ’ haṭa’, which the PED identifies as Pistia stratiotes. Wikipedia says of this:
" While considered edible, Pistia stratiotes is not palatable as it is rich in calcium oxalate crystals that are bitter in taste."


“There are various medical uses of Pistia stratiotes throughout regions in Asia and Africa. In Nigeria, the dried leaves are prepared into a powder form and are applied to wounds and sores for disinfection.[44] A similar use is present in Indian traditional medicine, where the powdered leaf is applied to syphilitic eruptions and skin infections.”

‘Rice bran’ translates ‘kaṇa’, and the PED gives this as “the fine red powder between the husk and the grain of rice”. However, Monier-WIlliams does not give this definition, but does give these:

  • related to [ kanA ] , [ kaniSTha ] , [ kanIyas ] , [ kanyA ] , in
    all of which smallness is implied BRD. ) , a grain , grain of corn ,
    single seed AV. x , 9 , 26
  • long pepper Suśr.
  • cummin seed L.

So on that one, I wonder if it might be talking about something other than cultivated rice, such as those seeds it mentions.

‘Scum from boiling rice’ translates ‘ācāma’, and the PED and M-W agree on that, and M-W includes “mentioned as drunk by Jain ascetics”. I do however wonder if this term at that time might have been applicable to similar things not derived specifically from cultivated rice? All the previous examples are nutritious, whereas it would take a huge amount of rice to make enough ‘scum’ for a meal! So I hesitate to take that one as literally understood in translation.

‘Sesame flour’ translates ‘piññāka’. Interestingly, Wikipedia says about sesame " Sesame seed is one of the oldest oilseed crops known, domesticated well over 3,000 years ago." and " Sesame seed is considered to be the oldest oilseed crop known to humanity.[6] The genus has many species, and most are wild.[3] […] S. indicum, the cultivated type,[5][16] originated in India.[12][17][3]"

So it makes sense that this could have been a wild sesame very close to domesticated sesame, or that it had already undergone some level of domestication by hunter gatherers before the agricultural invasion/migration. (Hunter gatherers are known to have engaged with some level of domestication of plant species, it’s not as black and white as once thought).

Also M-W gives ‘Asa Foetida L.’ and ‘saffron L.’ as alternative meanings, though sesame does fit well with this narrative.

‘Grass’ translates ‘tiṇa’, and eating grass sounds strange, but the PED gives:
“grass, herb; weed; straw; thatch; hay, litter”
Similarly, M-W gives:
“grass , herb , any gramineous plant , blade of grass”
So I wonder if this is actually referring to another wild herb or herbs in general.

‘Forest roots and fruits’, and ‘fallen fruit’, are quite straightforward and well expected for hunter gatherer food.

‘Cow dung’ translates ‘gomaya’ and perhaps that is as straightforward as it sounds. Firstly I wonder if that was actually true or just a bit of bad PR added in. Secondly I am reminded of the Korean medical practices of consuming shit, and the modern microbiome research that shows the benefits that can come of such practices, and whether that has any connection and would be especially noteworthy of people with a taboo of such things, as agriculturalists may have. Also I wonder if it were true, whether it might not actually be from cows, or some other similar animal, such as aurochs, the wild ancestor of the cow? (Indian fossil records of aurochs go back to the Middle Pleistocene, and the apparently according to Wikipedia, " According to IUCN, the Indian aurochs disappeared before the 13th century AD, leaving only the Bos primigenius primigenius , whose range was by then restricted to Europe.[1] The wild population of Indian aurochs was likely extinct millennia earlier than that; the most recent skeletal remains, from Uttar Pradesh, date from around 1,800 BC."

Now we don’t have to discount cow dung for my idea to be worth consideration anyway. It could be that the non-Aryans were not ‘pure’ hunter gatherers but rather just primarily so, and could have been involved with domesticated cattle in some way. But what I mean to point out is that this list could represent a contrast between a pre-Aryan diet, and an Aryan diet. And the pre-Aryan diet may have looked ‘backward’ to those who were Aryan or had adopted their diet. And likely felt to be course and often bitter, relative to the cultivated crops of the agriculturalists, which were developed to be less bitter, more sweet, and softer/less fibrous, as are the general trends of cultivated foods.

Also bear in mind that in the Buddha’s home region, the Brahmin were not the highest varna, indicating that the Vedic culture had not yet become fully established in the region. And this gives me more cause to wonder if there were hunter gatherer tribes still in existence then, or that it was still within memory and seen as the ‘old way’, and there might have become some kind of cult status around it, for some of the Sramana groups.

Just to give you a quick quote from Wikipedia on that topic in case it interests you:

According to Shinde et al. (2019) about 50–98% of the IVC-genome came from people related to early Iranian farmers, and from 2–50% of the IVC-genome came from native South Asian hunter-gatherers sharing a common ancestry with the Andamanese.[30] Narasimhan et al. (2019) found the IVC-genome to consist of 45–82% Iranian farmer-related ancestry and 11–50% AASI (Andamanese-related hunter-gatherer) ancestry.[21] Narasimhan et al. (2019) conclude that the Iranian farmer-related ancestry is related to but distinct from Iranian agri-culturalists, lacking the Anatolian farmer-related ancestry which was common in Iranian farmers after 6000 BCE.[78][note 10] Those Iranian farmers-related people may have arrived in India before the advent of farming in northern India,[45] and mixed with people related to Indian hunter-gatherers c. 5400 to 3700 BCE, before the advent of the mature IVC.[81]
Source: Peopling of India - Wikipedia

And to quote from ‘Inside Current Anthropology: India’s Hunter-Gatherers: Hidden in Plain Sight’ - highlights added by me (source: Inside Current Anthropology: India's Hunter-Gatherers: Hidden in Plain Sight | Wenner-Gren Foundation ):

Civilization flourished in India as early as 3000 BCE. With a history of advanced agricultural production going back more than five thousand years, it would seem unlikely that hunter-gatherers would have escaped displacement by farming or integration into the new way of life. However, new scholarship suggests that of the 5.2 million present-day and recent hunter-gatherers worldwide, fully 1.3 million live in mainland India, in addition to 600 Andaman islanders. This would account for 25% of the global population of hunter-gatherers—a much higher fraction than had previously been assumed.

The article gives some interesting reasoning as to why they survived, and there is some relevance to our topic which I will highlight:

When interviewing Tamil-speaking Hindus in the 1960s, Gardner found that his subjects considered the forager to be admirable and “one of us.” In the Current Anthropology article, Gardner outlines three elements of Hindu culture that may have accommodated the continuation of hunter-gathering on the Indian subcontinent.

First, Hinduism emphasizes a system of mutual dependence among occupational specialists in their society. Since hunter-gatherers collected and exchanged medicinal plants, wild honey, and other valuable forest products with their specialist neighbors, they were believed to serve an important economic function and were allowed to continue their way of life unmolested. Hindus considered these foragers to belong to the larger social system.

In addition, since they were not viewed as outsiders, Indian hunter-gatherers were not expected to prove their adherence to cultural norms. As long as contacts remained tangential, they merely had to provide lip-service to Hindu notions of propriety to avoid harassment from their neighbors but did not have to change their customs in any meaningful way.

Finally, in Hindu society hunter-gatherers were appreciated for their simple, hermitical lifestyle. Living quietly and peaceably in the forest, these foragers were ascribed by many the ritual purity afforded to Hindu ascetics.

That respect and associating their way as ‘holy’ is what I was referring to before, so I am glad to see that confirmed here. Also the bit about medicinal herbs sounds totally expected to me, since hunter gatherers seem generally well versed in medicinal plants.

Now to get back to that sutta passage we were in the middle of…

Wanderers who follow other paths advocate this kind of seclusion in lodgings. They stay in a wilderness, at the root of a tree, in a charnel ground, a forest, the open air, a heap of straw, or a threshing-hut. This is what wanderers who follow other paths advocate for seclusion in lodgings. These are the three kinds of seclusion that wanderers who follow other paths advocate.

In places that were warm enough, hunter gatherers might not have been building houses, actual buildings. In fact I even wonder about the influence of this on the Buddha’s own Sramana religion he created, as it seems perhaps a norm for Buddhist monks to have slept out in the open, and of course there is plenty of talk of going to the wilderness and dwelling at the foot of trees! Also note the Buddha sleeping on a pile of leaves (AN 3.35).

Even if there was also at times use of buildings, especially in monsoon I guess, when they would stop wandering for the rains. As for the threshing-hut, I assume perhaps that’s similar to a modern traveller sleeping the night in a farmer’s barn for some sneaky shelter! And I can quite imagine a wandering hunter gatherer doing that if it started raining. And we also have the Buddha sleeping in a potter’s workshed (MN 140).

The passage continues:

In this teaching and training, there are three kinds of seclusion for a mendicant. What three? Firstly, a mendicant is ethical, giving up unethical conduct, being secluded from it. They have right view, giving up wrong view, being secluded from it. They’ve ended defilements, giving up defilements, being secluded from them. When a mendicant has these three kinds of seclusion, they’re called a mendicant who has reached the peak and the pith, being pure and grounded in the essential.

When a farmer’s rice field is ripe, they’d have the rice cut swiftly, gathered swiftly, transported swiftly, made into heaps swiftly, threshed swiftly, the straw and chaff removed swiftly, winnowed swiftly, brought over swiftly, pounded swiftly, and have the husks removed swiftly.

This last bit is not so relevant but I included it because it shows how saturated the culture is in agriculture, and so seems to give that interesting contrast! Basically, I am suggesting that the critique of those people might rest on an agricultural society being biased against aspects of hunter gatherer culture.

Now when it comes to spirituality, we could take a different approach, saying ok your clothing and eating habits are very interesting, but they won’t make you enlightened! And sure, if they were only having those habits because they thought it was spiritual, that is perhaps questionable. But the interesting point for me is the possibility that what we are seeing here is some aspects of hunter gatherer culture that were either alive and well at that time, or aspects of them that had somehow become incorporated as a spiritual tradition. Or perhaps even some of those traditions (perhaps even including Jainism and/or other Sramana religions we read about) coming directly out of hunter gatherer societies, which might explain why they were so categorically separate from the Brahmanical religion.

Ok so one question that could be interesting is whether we have any evidence of these groups (wearing bark or eating wild food etc.) ever consuming milk products, or even specifically NOT doing so? I ask this because if they were actually from hunter gatherer populations, they should have been lactose intolerance, in contrast to the majority of the Aryans. Anybody have any EBT references on that?

Some images:
For your pleasure, I will provide a few images.
[Edit: I removed this one now also as it is apparently against the rules, it does show breasts and scanty clothes that look like they’re made of leaves. No complaint about the moderation but I do think this is a great example of us, as an agricultural society, thinking there is wrong with seeing naked breasts, and how different that view is in hunter gatherer culture as for example this Indian tribe still existing today. This rather fits my point!]

Jarawa tribe (hunter gatherers), Indian Ocean, seeming to use ‘leaves as clothes’ (to borrow the expression from MA 18

Jarawa again:
[Edit: photo removed of a woman in her native attire, basically only with a string round her waste.]
Is this naked enough for MA 18’s ‘naked and unclothed’?

Jarawa again:
French filmmakers make secret documentary on Jarawa, FIR filed | Deccan Herald
MA 18’s ‘leaves as clothes’?

Bark cloth may have seemed strange and backward to those who only knew of agriculturalist woven fibres. But here’s a photo (right) of a Baganda woman wearing barkcloth in Uganda, c. 1940


Interestingly in the source I got that from, they write the following:

In her doctoral thesis on the history of the textile, Venny Nakazibwe of Makerere University says the material has served as “a connecting thread” between past and present generations, but that its role and meaning has been in flux, based on the “dynamics of the social, economic, cultural and political structures at a given historical moment.”

Now that was about 20th century, but I am suggesting that such practices as wearing only bark cloth and so on, may have been that similar kind of ‘connecting thread between past and present generations’ back then at the time of the Buddha! And indeed still carried on today, as some Indian ascetics still wear bark cloth now.

Also searching for images of bark cloth so share, I found a photo of an article of bark cloth apparently in the National Museum, New Delhi, and attributed to the 20th century, and being from the Garo tribe. They are from Meghalaya in NE India, and are one of the few remaining matrilineal tribes. According to Wikipedia,
“According to one oral tradition, the Garo first migrated to the Garo Hills from Tibet (referred to as Tibotgre) around 400 BC”

By the sounds of it they may have been hunter gathers (referenced even in 1800 as “inhabited a tract of hills covered with almost impenetrable jungle”). Anyway, bark cloth was quite common around the world before agriculture and has survived in various regions to some extent.

Well, I look forward to input and hope this interests someone!

1 Like

Wonderful and fascinating post! Much to chew on here. Thank you!

1 Like

And for a previous discussion on buildings used by the Sangha, and my light exploration as to how monastic buildings might have been related to hunter gatherer buildings, see here:

And a photo teaser for that:

Something to look into, too, is the role of nomadic peoples in ancient times, who periodically moved into the civilized regions and settled. Sometimes they integrated peacefully, sometimes they raided the cities, and sometimes they conquered them. This happened from antiquity up to the era of the Mongol Empire in the 1300s.

I personally haven’t the time to research it in any depth, but I do wonder whether the [Edit: ksatriyas] weren’t actually a tribe or group of tribes (rather than a caste) that had recently settled on the periphery of the Aryan civilization, and the ascetics were originally nomadic shamans who developed a unique religious tradition through interaction with the Brahmins. Or, as you say, they may have already been there in India when the Indo-Aryans arrived with the Vedic oral tradition, and then the ascetics were the result of adopting some Vedic ideas.

There’s a good educational video series on the history of Central Asian nomadic peoples by Kenneth Harl called the Barbarian Empires of the Steppes that gives an overview of what’s known about them ca. 2014. The link above is to the course guide, but the lecture series is available in audio and streaming video through the Great Courses Library. I highly recommend it as background research of what was happening in ancient times in Eurasia.

Poverty is a concept that can only exist in agricultural societies. Original hunter-gatherers live in the wilderness and do not use products and techniques typical of agricultural societies (involving complex manufacturing, scientific research etc.), so they would be considered as very poor by sedentary populations. Sramanas also lived in poverty and in the wilderness, at a time when there were likely still some hunter-gatherer tribes around, deep in the forests of remote areas. So it’s only natural that sramanas would borrow techniques from their forest dwelling contemporaries.

What is today considered as forest dwelling would have then been considered as luxury

Beyond luxury: I have magic potions which can ward off insects and cure diseases better than even kings of the day could dream of!


This is a really interesting subject and a great topic for research. I agree completely with the basic thesis: the mendicant life is, at least in part, modeled after the “simpler” and “purer” lifestyle of indigenous peoples, many of whom still existed in the Buddha’s day.

You might want to also look at some of the legendary suttas like the Agganna and Cakkavattisihanada, these contain descriptions of lifestyles with these elements.

There’s also a lot of relevant material in the Jatakas. For a non-Pali example, check out the following:


Hmm, interesting! I have not noticed non-Aryan pastural traits in the Sramana traditions myself, though my eyes are not so trained to see that as I guess I have more interest in hunter-gatherer culture than more modern (from the perspective of hunter-gatherer culture) pastural culture, like the nomadic peoples you mentioned.

Regarding ‘shamanic’ influence on Buddhism though, Bön would seem to be a good example. Now Bön is generally considered (and self-considered) to be the religion of Tibet before Buddhism. However, I have come across (many years ago) some interesting research which proposed something quite different. The Bön narrative is that a guy, Tonpa Shenrab, became enlightened about 4,000 years ago (the dating may vary, I think some even say 18,000 years ago!), and came to Western Tibet and so his religion, Bön, started. And the general Tibetan and scholarly view seems to have been that Bön has many similarities with Tibetan Buddhism because it has absorbed and copied Tibetan Buddhism, whilst the scholarly view also claims that Tibetan Buddhism itself also absorbed features from Bön.

This other research I read about gives a different proposal. Apparently, there is Bön historical tales which claim that enlightened man Tonpa Shenrab, Bön’s founder, came to Tibet from a land called ‘Taji’, which was Westward of Tibet. And this research suggest it was in fact Tajikistan, and apparently the part of the name ‘Taji’ of that region actually has a very long history. Tonpa Shenrab’s life story is pretty much the same as the Buddha’s - he was born into royalty (a common misunderstanding in Buddhism of the term ‘raja’! I see the Buddha’s father as the elected head of a Republic, not a king as the term ‘raja’ has been taken by so many), he left that life and undertook austerities, but so far as I remember at some stage, maybe after enlightenment (?) he had a partner and … maybe had kids? Anyway it’s a little different but this research suggests that these and many other similarities may not have been absorbed from Buddhism but some native religion in Tibet, but rather, the religion that came to Tibet from Tajikistan may have been a form of Buddhism there (there was plenty of Buddhism in that general region so far as I understand), but had mixed with some native shamanic tradition/s, so this mixed form of Buddhism then found its way to Western Tibet.

I actually tried to go to Western Tibet once, from Kashgar in NW China. Kashgar is a major hub of the Silk Road, and there were so many cultures there - Uighurs, Kazaks, Kyrghys and various others. I was also interested to see elements of Tibetan culture in Northern Pakistan on the way to Kashgar, shamans with very long sleeves dancing at a festival for example. Travelling overland is really nice because you can see cultures gradually changing, as well as landscapes of course. I felt I could see some clear connections also with the musical instruments in Kashgar that the Uighurs were playing, and traditional Tibetan musical instruments. So it makes plenty of sense to me that religion would also travel from Central Asia into Western Tibet.

Of course also within Tibet I think Buddhism from India, and that apparently earlier transmission of Buddhism which came to be known as Bön, did influence each other plenty. I think I even saw some questioning as to whether Dzogchen (which unlike Mahamudra (which was from India) seems perhaps to originate from Tibet though Tibetans may say otherwise!) may have actually started in Bön before being taken on by Buddhism.

Anyway, I don’t know of pastural shamanism influencing the Sramana tradition, but I would be interested to hear about any research on it.

I don’t know. I guess the Aryans themselves were pastural tribes, weren’t they? And I heard they came to India in repeated waves. And also speculation that the Sakyas may have been a later wave, which may help to explain why they were not into the Indian Vedic tradition - or at least I have not seen evidence that they were, although many do seem to assume they were. I don’t know if the later waves were following religions that had also evolved from the pre-Indian Vedic or proto-Vedic religion (so far as I understand, Zoroastrianism also evolved from the same religion the Indian Vedic religion evolved from, for example), or following some other kind of religion. Again I would be interested to hear about any research on that.

Yeah I at least get the sense that at least much or most of inequality arises with the specialisation of skills. In hunter-gatherer society, so I’ve heard, there can be some degree of specialisation, but for example a shaman, who is specialised in that obviously, would still be gathering food in the same way as the other people. Whereas once you have farming, you have surplus. So then you need record keeping. So then you develop writing, and have specialised scribes, and also trade, so you have merchants, shop keepers, and so on. Oh and also with surplus and storage of surplus (after harvest!), you have theft! And of course people become able to gather more surplus than others. And surplus is heavy so you have money. And people can hoard money, and so on!

Yeah. Although regarding ‘scientific research’, that might depend on how broadly we define that. It seems it is possible to develop highly detailed knowledge and understanding, based on experience and also testing, in hunter-gatherer society. And whilst the methods may differ from ‘modern science’, for me some of that I could personally consider potentially types of ‘scientific research’. This could include medical research, knowledge of water resources, and so on.

Yes that’s possible. Though I am also curious as to the possibility that there was a more foundational connection. That it might not merely have been Sramanas picking up tips from hunter-gatheres, but rather, Sramanas actually being, or being descended (genetically and/or culturally) from hunter-gatherer peoples.

Probably not by the agriculturalists! Perhaps not even by the pastoralists! I say this in part from the sense I’ve got from the Buddhist texts, but also due to my sense of the mental difference between agricultural peoples and hunter-gatherers, where the former physically create a severe differentiation between the ‘tamed’ world, being the human domain, and ‘the wild’, which is something to be kept at pay, fended off - for example in terms of plants, keeping the natural plants out of the crop fields, and the wild animals away from the domesticated ones. And I think that has a huge mental impact, of heavy dualism, which in turn I think may be critically important for agricultural religions such as Judaism and its derivatives (Christianity etc.), which have a warring controlling God and his people are ‘chosen’, categorically superior to all the non-human life forms, and even have attitudes such as the land being for them, for them to control and till and so on. It all seems very much out of tune with any kind of natural interconnected balance. Whereas hunter-gatherers seem to me to generally see them as a mere part of the interconnected web of existence, a part of the natural world, not really any division between the mentally-created domains of ‘human’ and ‘nature’, ‘our land/species’ and ‘the wild’.

Ah I’m glad you think so!


I looked up Cakkavattisihanada and what came up was DN 26, is it that to which you refer, or another text? (DN 26 is listed here as ‘Cakkavattisutta’). I could not notice hunter-gatherer references in that that sutta.

Agganna, I take it this mean DN 27? I’m just having a glance as I see:

“Sir, the brahmins say: ‘Only brahmins are the first caste; other castes are inferior. Only brahmins are the light caste; other castes are dark

It’s interesting that was observed back then, and it’s fairly true nowadays too. At least if this light and dark is referring to the skin. I see the word translated as ‘caste’ is ‘vaṇṇa’, which is ‘varna’ in Sanskrit, which I usually consider to be a higher order of classification than ‘caste’, ‘caste’ which I take to be subdivisions of varna (jati) though I don’t know what the current convention is so I will just use the term ‘varna’. But anyway, the PED gives ‘vaṇṇa’ as:

appearance etc. (lit. “cover, coating”). There is a considerable fluctuation of meaning, especially between meanings 2, 3, 4. One may group as follows. – 1. colour Sn 447 (meda°); S V.216 (chavi° of the skin)

… and so on. So @sujato is this possibly a kind of double meaning, varna meaning both societal division and also skin colour, so that while the second meaning doesn’t come in the rhyming lines around this line, this one could basically have the double meaning of:

  • Only brahmins are the light varna; other varna are dark
  • Only brahmins are light skinned; the others are dark skinned.

Or putting the double meaning into one:

  • Only brahmins are light skinned; the other varnas are dark skinned.

Anyway, this makes me wonder further about the Brahmin specifically being the keepers of the Vedic religion. And I wonder if the Sramanas might have usually been non-Brahmin? They are clearly differentiated, Brahmin vs. Sramana, but I wonder if this may have also had a genetic element. Do we know what coloured skin or from what varna the Sramana are generally reported to have had/been from, in the EBTs? If dark skinned/non-Brahmin, then this could lend support to the idea of their religion coming from non-Aryan culture.

This part is interesting too:

You’ve both abandoned the first caste to join an inferior caste, namely these shavelings, fake ascetics, riffraff, black spawn from the feet of our Kinsman.
Te tumhe seṭṭhaṁ vaṇṇaṁ hitvā hīnamattha vaṇṇaṁ ajjhupagatā, yadidaṁ muṇḍake samaṇake ibbhe kaṇhe bandhupādāpacce.

That’s interesting that he’s not saying about leaving the Brahmin caste to join a Sramana religion, but rather, to join an inferior varna. That is most interesting in itself, and secondarily, the term ‘kaṇhe’ is interesting too, the same term we had above, meaning ‘dark, black’. The ‘blackness’ may imply support for the Sramanas being of non-Aryan stock like was said about the non-Brahmin varnas, and I wonder, does referring to them as a varna, imply therefore that they were (for the most part at least) not of Brahmin stock also?

Now just to give a counter to that, the text does continue:

Because any mendicant from these four castes who is perfected—with defilements ended, who has completed the spiritual journey, done what had to be done, laid down the burden, achieved their own true goal, utterly ended the fetters of rebirth, and is rightly freed through enlightenment—is said to be foremost by virtue of principle, not without principle.
Imesañhi, vāseṭṭha, catunnaṁ vaṇṇānaṁ yo hoti bhikkhu arahaṁ khīṇāsavo vusitavā katakaraṇīyo ohitabhāro anuppattasadattho parikkhīṇabhavasaṁyojano sammadaññāvimutto, so nesaṁ aggamakkhāyati dhammeneva, no adhammena.

So that implies there were members of all 4 varna among the Buddha’s Sramana religion at least (which we already know of course), but I still wonder if perhaps Sramana religions may at the time have been primarily composed of non-Brahmin people, otherwise, I’m not sure the previous quote would make as much sense. And/or whether they had prior to that period, been (originally) composed of mostly or wholly non-Brahmin. Perhaps the Brahmin started joining as a kind of counter-culture movement, just as Buddhism may have started in the US as an Asian import followed only by Asians, but over time, some non-Asians joined in and renounced their own culture’s religion (which may often have made them into ‘outcastes’ too!).

Regarding food, I guess the part you are referring to is maybe this sequence? The foods are listed:

After a very long period had passed, solid nectar curdled in the water.
Atha kho tesaṁ, vāseṭṭha, sattānaṁ kadāci karahaci dīghassa addhuno accayena rasapathavī udakasmiṁ samatani;
It appeared just like the curd on top of hot milk-rice as it cools.
seyyathāpi nāma payaso tattassa nibbāyamānassa upari santānakaṁ hoti;
evameva pāturahosi.
It was beautiful, fragrant, and delicious, like ghee or butter.
Sā ahosi vaṇṇasampannā gandhasampannā rasasampannā, seyyathāpi nāma sampannaṁ vā sappi sampannaṁ vā navanītaṁ evaṁvaṇṇā ahosi.
And it was as sweet as pure manuka honey.
Seyyathāpi nāma khuddamadhuṁ aneḷakaṁ;

When the solid nectar had vanished, ground-sprouts appeared to those beings.
Atha kho tesaṁ, vāseṭṭha, sattānaṁ rasāya pathaviyā antarahitāya bhūmipappaṭako pāturahosi.
They appeared just like mushrooms.
Seyyathāpi nāma ahicchattako; evameva pāturahosi.
They were beautiful, fragrant, and delicious, like ghee or butter. […]

When the ground-sprouts had vanished, bursting pods appeared, like the fruit of the kadam tree.
Bhūmipappaṭake antarahite padālatā pāturahosi, seyyathāpi nāma kalambukā; evameva pāturahosi.
They were beautiful, fragrant, and delicious, like ghee or butter.
Sā ahosi vaṇṇasampannā gandhasampannā rasasampannā, seyyathāpi nāma sampannaṁ vā sappi sampannaṁ vā navanītaṁ evaṁvaṇṇā ahosi. […]

When the bursting pods had vanished, ripe untilled rice appeared to those beings. It had no powder or husk, pure and fragrant, with only the rice-grain.
Atha kho tesaṁ, vāseṭṭha, sattānaṁ padālatāya antarahitāya akaṭṭhapāko sāli pāturahosi akaṇo athuso suddho sugandho taṇḍulapphalo.
What they took for supper in the evening, by the morning had grown back and ripened.
Yaṁ taṁ sāyaṁ sāyamāsāya āharanti, pāto taṁ hoti pakkaṁ paṭivirūḷhaṁ.
And what they took for breakfast in the morning had grown back and ripened by the evening,
Yaṁ taṁ pāto pātarāsāya āharanti, sāyaṁ taṁ hoti pakkaṁ paṭivirūḷhaṁ;
so the cutting didn’t show.
nāpadānaṁ paññāyati.
Then those beings eating the ripe untilled rice, with that as their food and nourishment, remained for a very long time.
Atha kho te, vāseṭṭha, sattā akaṭṭhapākaṁ sāliṁ paribhuñjantā tambhakkhā tadāhārā ciraṁ dīghamaddhānaṁ aṭṭhaṁsu.

There’s so much mythology in this sutta - do you think these foods are real? I could imagine the last 3 might be, and wonder if that ‘untilled rice’ is referring to some kind of wild rice-like grain maybe? It seems wild rice was eaten in China from maybe around 15,000 years ago, then domesticated (from Oryza rufipogon) maybe around 8,000 years ago. Whereas in India, rice was domesticated from a different species (same genus), Oryza nivara, becoming the ‘indica’ rice of today (vs. ‘japonica’ in China, SE Asia etc. - by the way other species of the genus were domesticated, one in Africa, and one in South America - the latter came to an end after colonisation). It seems that wild rice was being eaten on the Ganges plains by about 9,000 years ago, and farming it by at least 4,500–4,000 years ago. It seems the japonica rice was introduced into Northern India via Central Asia maybe by 2nd~1st millenium BC, not sure how when - some say around 4,000 years ago -(e.g. ’ Consilience of genetics and archaeobotany in the entangled history of rice’, D.Fuller et al, 2010) seemingly along with domesticated cannabis and perhaps some rice farming technology too. So it seems there has been some genetic input there too, and a short season indica was brought to China around 1,000 years ago with improved harvest time, so there has been some cross breading back and forth over time. Anyway, it could be that the rice cultivation at the time of the Buddha was recent enough for there to be some cultural memory of the opportunistically gathered wild rice of the people before them, especially if some hunter gatherers were still not adopting these farming methods and domesticated crops.

Here’s an image for you on rice in India

In case it interests you I’ll include some detailed info about this, which also gives us a Buddhist connection to the spread of rice cultivation:

Later evidence from the region, such as Lahuradewa period 1B and Senuwar Period 2 (Saraswat 2005), suggests that rice was a major food resource, probably cultivated, before crops from other regions were adopted, most notably free-threshing wheat and barley adopted in the region between 2400 and 2200. From this period and into the early second millennium BC, agriculture is not in doubt, including both native species and introduced cultivars; after 2000 peninsular Indian cultivars were adopted, such as mung bean and horsegram (Fuller 2006). Earlier cultivation of rice by c. 3000–2600 is implied by recent finds beyond its probable wild zone at Early Harappan Kunal (Saraswat and Pokharia 2003), and perhaps the third millennium in the Swat valley of Pakistan (Costantini 1987). The available morphometric evidence for Neolithic Gangetic rice (collected in Harvey 2006) indicates that grains are on the small side, congruent with morphologically wild rice, and perhaps immature grains, being present. All of this evidence could be seen as indicating a long history of cultivation and/or gathering of morphologically wild rice in the Ganges, with the evolution of non-shattering forms occurring quite late after the introduction of domesticated japonica rice carrying the key mutations, especially the recessive sh4 allele, and perhaps the white pericarp rc mutation (cf. Kovach et al. 2007; Sweeney and McCouch 2007).

What is striking in the Indian archaeobotanical record, however, is the rapid spread of rice in the second and first millennia BC (see Fuller 2002: 316, fig. 7). In north-western South Asia, including the greater Indus valley, Gujarat and Rajasthan, secure finds of rice date from the Late Harappan period (cf. Fuller 2002; Kharakwal et al. 2007). Based on grain-shape ratios (Costantini 1979, 1987) and bulliform phytoliths (Fujiwara 1993; Sato 2005), however, this rice appears to include japonica types, which may indicate diffusion from China via central Asia by this period (also suggested by the occurrence of Panicum miliaceum, Cannabis and harvest knives in the Late Neolithic of Kashmir (Fuller 2006: 36)). By the start of the second millennium rice cultivation was also established in Orissa, although better evidence for a mixed agricultural system, including peninsular Indian pulses and rice, dates from the mid-second millennium (Harvey et al. 2006; Harvey 2006).

Further south, in the Deccan, however, rice cultivation takes off in the Iron Age. Earlier finds are few and problematic, including three grains in the Late Jorwe at Inamgaon (Kajale 1988) and plausibly wild grains in low numbers at Hallur in Karnataka (Fuller 2003: 378). However, from Iron Age and Megalithic sites along the eastern peninsula, such as Bhagimohari and Veerapuram, it is clear that rice had been adopted as a major crop (Kajale 1984, 1989), while further south rice-husk-tempered pottery and systematic archaeobotany from sites in southern inland Tamil Nadu indicate the establishment of rice cultivation before the end of the first millennium BC (Cooke et al. 2005; Fuller 2006: 53–5). In central India the spread of rice has been attributed to the spread of elite-supported Buddhist establishments and urbanism, and it is associated with major irrigation works (Shaw and Sutcliffe 2003; Shaw et al. 2007).

Source: Fuller, Dorian Q. and Qin, Ling(2009)‘Water management and labour in the origins and dispersal of Asian rice’,World Archaeology,41:1,88 — 111

But yeah I don’t know if these 3 plants the sutta is mentioning are real or not, but ‘untilled rice’ does sound rather hunter gathery!

The later part is interesting,

and now the rice grains have become wrapped in powder and husk, it doesn’t grow back after reaping, the cutting shows, and the rice stands in clumps.
Tesaṁ no pāpakānaṁyeva akusalānaṁ dhammānaṁ pātubhāvā kaṇopi taṇḍulaṁ pariyonandhi, thusopi taṇḍulaṁ pariyonandhi, lūnampi nappaṭivirūḷhaṁ, apadānaṁ paññāyittha, saṇḍasaṇḍā sālayo ṭhitā.
We’d better divide up the rice and set boundaries.
Yannūna mayaṁ sāliṁ vibhajeyyāma, mariyādaṁ ṭhapeyyāmā’ti.
So that’s what they did.
Atha kho te, vāseṭṭha, sattā sāliṁ vibhajiṁsu, mariyādaṁ ṭhapesuṁ.

Now, one of those beings was reckless. While guarding their own share they took another’s share without it being given, and ate it.
Atha kho, vāseṭṭha, aññataro satto lolajātiko sakaṁ bhāgaṁ parirakkhanto aññataraṁ bhāgaṁ adinnaṁ ādiyitvā paribhuñji.

It is suggestive of starting agriculture, isn’t it! I also wonder if this was a people starting with rice paddies, or if it was the new Aryans making paddies, and the local hunter gatherers taking their rice - a conflict between the two world views and the concept of land ownership? Or whether this is less of a historical echo, and more of a logical observation that with ownership and accumulation, comes theft and disagreement? Or even a story inspired by the present conflict between hunter gathers and expanding agriculturalists and their opposing attitudes to rice?

The next part

Why don’t we elect one being who would rightly accuse those who deserve it, blame those who deserve it, and expel those who deserve it?
Yannūna mayaṁ ekaṁ sattaṁ sammanneyyāma, yo no sammā khīyitabbaṁ khīyeyya, sammā garahitabbaṁ garaheyya, sammā pabbājetabbaṁ pabbājeyya.
We shall pay them with a share of rice.’
Mayaṁ panassa sālīnaṁ bhāgaṁ anuppadassāmā’ti.

Again I wonder if this is logical speculation type story, or perhaps also an echo of past times or hunter gatherer ways. I heard some tribes would elect someone for such roles but on a temporary basis. Not sure about getting payment for it… And I have wondered about the Sakyas’ political system, I’d love to know more about that, sounds maybe better than some king systems and our modern system that for some odd reason is labelled ‘democracy’.

This part is interesting:

‘Lord of the fields’ is the meaning of ‘aristocrat’, the second term to be specifically invented.
Khettānaṁ adhipatīti kho, vāseṭṭha, ‘khattiyo, khattiyo’ tveva dutiyaṁ akkharaṁ upanibbattaṁ.

That’s interesting that he’s saying kshatriya (I’ll use the Hindi instead of ‘aristocrat’ otherwise I’ll get confused!) means lord of the fields! It seems that’s not the etymology and I know the Buddha played with etymology for jokes (like saying ajhā… what was it, something like ajhāyaka or something, means someone who doesn’t do jhāna :rofl: (reciter of the vedas) But whether he just made that up or whether it was said by others also, connecting his own varna to the fields specifically, is interesting. And in this case, connecting the origin or his varna to the origin of agriculture!

This part

‘They please others with principle’ is the meaning of ‘king’, the third term to be specifically invented.
Dhammena pare rañjetīti kho, vāseṭṭha, ‘rājā, rājā’ tveva tatiyaṁ akkharaṁ upanibbattaṁ.

Would that be king, or rather, something like ‘chief’? I guess the meaning was fairly broad back then anyway. Though it comes to mind because the Buddha’s father having been a raja seems to have led to the mistaken belief by so many that he was a king, though he was not.

Anyway it’s cool that he’s giving a humanistic story to the origin of the varna rather than saying the gods made them!

Then on the origin of the brahmin, we have:

‘These beings build leaf huts in a wilderness region where they meditate pure and bright, without lighting cooking fires or digging the soil. They come down in the morning for breakfast and in the evening for supper to the village, town, or royal capital seeking a meal.
‘ime kho, bho, sattā araññāyatane paṇṇakuṭiyo karitvā paṇṇakuṭīsu jhāyanti, vītaṅgārā vītadhūmā pannamusalā sāyaṁ sāyamāsāya pāto pātarāsāya gāmanigamarājadhāniyo osaranti ghāsamesamānā.

You this this reminds me of the image I included :slight_smile: And, the way it’s being presented it sounds to me as if it may have no walls.

Ah and now I see, ajhāyaka is from this very sutta! :laughing:

Ok this has been fun but now I have to rest. Thanks for the stimulating references!

1 Like

I’m not sure what you mean by “more modern” pastural culture. It developed after the Ice Age on the Russian Steppes, so I guess it’s a development after hunter gathering, but it goes back before the Buddha.

The main themes I notice in Buddhist writings that are common among nomadic tribes:

  • Praising the freedom of the nomadic lifestyle (the really obvious one!)
  • Having little interest in property or riches (even rejecting the idea of property)
  • Refusing to adopt writing and preferring oral storytelling
  • The Śākya and Vṛji were republican confederacies (i.e., tribal heads voted for leaders)
  • The Śākya and Vṛji had strong warrior cultures

I wonder about the early relationship between the kṣatriya and brāhmaṇa castes because of the way they are juxtaposed in sutras like Ambāṣṭha (DN 3/DĀ 20) that depict the two as though they were different ethnic groups occupying different lands, with the Brahmins taking the attitude of civilized people looking down on barbarians. I.e., if we pay attention to how the Śākya and the Buddha are equated with the kṣatriyas vs. the brāhmaṇas. The Śākya had settled at that point, but culturally they were still primitive to the Brahmins, given the disparaging attitude they had. But the Vṛji were considered a dangerous foe by Ajātaśatru when he asked the Buddha for advice about attacking them. That sounds right when I look at the history of the “barbarians” running circles around civilized armies.

It reminds me of the relationship between the Romans and the Celts in Europe. The Romans were probably related to the Aryans in some distant way, given how similar their languages were, and they settled in Italy and developed a civilization like the Aryans in India did. The Celts settled too, but they maintained their tribal warrior culture and refused to adopt writing. The Romans considered them primitive and barbaric. The difference is that we only have a secondhand outsider’s view of the Celts because there aren’t any Celtic texts to read. But Buddhists did and their texts survived, and so I think we are getting the “primitive tribal” view of the nomadic vs. civilized divide when we read their scriptures. Which we don’t normally get because the civilized people were the ones writing histories most of the time.

Another point that shows how it was more complex in India is the story about the original brahmanas that’s in DN 27. At first, they were like ascetics going off in seclusion and living on alms. But then later they started living in the villages as ritual priests maintaining scriptures. Which would make sense as a distant memory of the early days when the first Aryans settled and developed civilization.

I think it’s true, though, that hunter gatherer tribes would have similar themes. They were also nomadic, moving to where the food was from time to time. And they would have warrior cultures, too, to defend themselves. So, I think both of these thoughts (hunter gatherers and pastoral tribes) have their points. It’s pretty interesting to look at these Buddhist stories in a bigger context like that.

Anyway, I don’t have any major research to back the above up; it’s just the impression I’ve gotten after learning more about ancient history in Eurasia while translating Āgamas.

Yes, I’ve read that Central Asian peoples were not always that serious about the religions they adopted. They would often convert to a religion like Buddhism, Nestorian Christianity, or Islam because of miracles that they (thought they) witnessed missionaries perform. Tribal animism was alive and well as late as Genghis Khan in the 1200’s, but it would get mixed up with the world religions when missionaries came and converted people. Manicheanism was like Buddhism, Zoroastrianism, and Christianity put into a blender. Of course, there were serious Buddhists in the trading cities along the Silk Road that were influenced by Greek, Persian, and Chinese culture, but the nomads were another story.


There is also a linguistic connection: the word ‘shaman’ is derived from Evenki şamān, which is probably a distant relative of samaṇa/śramaṇa.саман#Etymology

1 Like