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.
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. 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. The genus has many species, and most are wild. […] S. indicum, the cultivated type, originated in India."
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. 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. 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. 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.[note 10] Those Iranian farmers-related people may have arrived in India before the advent of farming in northern India, and mixed with people related to Indian hunter-gatherers c. 5400 to 3700 BCE, before the advent of the mature IVC.
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?
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
[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’?
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!