The Five Indriyas were originally Brahmanical


This is a continuation of what is turning out to be an informal “series” of topics related to Brahmanical influence on Early Buddhism, especially the Buddha himself (though this is harder to decipher and open to interpretation). For those interested, I’ve done one on The 8 Liberations, the Aggañña Sutta/DO, the Buddha’s self-mortification practices, and looked at some references in the DN.

This post concerns the pañcindriya, often translated as the “five [spiritual] faculties.” Pañca meaning ‘five’ leaves indriya to be the star of the compound. Etymologically, indriya is derived from the Vedic god ‘Indra’ — a powerful god of conquest and vigour who ingests the psychoactive, mythical substance Soma to empower himself. The suffix at the end denotes something of, belonging to, or dear to Indra, and it has attested usage in the Rig Veda where it means something along the lines of ‘power’ or ‘strength’ — an essential quality of the god Indra. There is an older entry on the term here by T.W. Rhys Davids. Clearly the term itself is of Vedic/Brahmanical significance and is pre-Buddhist. We could think of indriya as the power or tools of expressing divine strength within oneself, miming the behavior or nature of divine power (Indra) as was common in the Vedic period.

The term itself does not necessarily mean that the pañcindriya were borrowed over from Brahmanism. I believe there are more clues that point to this, however. For one, the Buddha openly says that these were pre-Buddhist practices. A clear example is in MN 26 (and its parallel versions of the story in MN 36, MN 85 or MN 100.) where he says that he first learned the oral texts of his former teachers and developed the five faculties just as his teachers had; he saw that his teachers had realized the meditative states their theories pointed to, and so he went on to realize it as well.

Tangentially, there’s an interesting sutta where the Buddha’s former teacher Uddaka Rāmaputta (a very Brahmanical name) is said to have made a declaration in verse about being a master of the Veda. The Buddha of course corrects this in his typical way by saying that a true master of the Veda is one who truly understands the six sense fields. DN 29 also attributes a phrase to Uddaka Rāmaputta which has Upanisadic parallels (that I won’t go into here).

Many scholars have discussed how and why the Buddha’s former teachers were almost certainly associated with contemplative / renunciant Brahmanical circles; I’ve already listed two very brief and straightforward of examples that would lead one to believe so. I won’t go into this into detail here, but other reasons are the similarities between the Brahmanical practices in the Pārāyanavagga—advocated by the Buddha—and the domain of nothingness taught by Ālāra Kālāma; the Brahmanical terms in the PV and elsewhere employed all throughout the Buddha’s teaching (nāmarūpa, even indriya here, and many many more); the presence of memorized oral texts in their circles (which to our knowledge would suggest Brahmanical texts for the time period); some theoretical correspondences between their formless attainments and the early/pre-Buddhist Upanisads; the Buddha’s somewhat surprising knowledge of contemplative Brahmanism in various suttas; the fact that Uddaka Rāmaputta was both criticized and praised by brahmins in AN 4.187 combined with evidence of tension between celibate renunciant brahmins and non-celibate ritual brahmins pre-Buddhism (for example in Aitareya Brahmana 7.13); etc. etc. I’ve briefly listed some major examples, but if you would like to learn more I suggest digging deeper into this.

We have a decent profile so far. However, I’d argue the most suggestive evidence in light of this is the content and meaning of the faculties themselves. They are:

  1. saddhā (faith)
  2. viriya (energy)
  3. sati (mindfulness)
  4. samādhi (immersion)
  5. paññā (wisdom)

How would these be relevant to brahmins / Brahmanical contemplatives? Well, saddhā was an extremely important concept in Vedic religion that transformed in the early Upanisads and onwards. It was with faith that brahmins performed rituals for their ancestors and the gods, and eventually it was asceticism and truth that became ‘śraddhā’ (Skt of the Pāli) for contemplative brahmins. A more traditional understanding of faith in the ritual sense is provided by Yājñavalkya in BU 3.9:

“On faith [śraddhā], for a man gives a sacrificial gift only when he has faith. So the sacrificial
gift is founded on faith.”

As far as ‘liberation’ and the afterlife were concerned, one of the most crucial things in Brahmanism was the cremation sacrifice: after one lived a life of fire sacrificing and preparing their ātmán for the afterlife, there was one more sacrifice left—their own body being offered into a fire by other brahmins. If this was performed incorrectly, the afterlife would be ruined; all of this is part of the definition and understanding of śraddhā (e.g. JUB 3.11.7). However, in the BU and CU we see how true knowledge of the fire sacrifice or the practices of austerity/seeing truth are manifestations of faith (śraddhā) which connect one to the divine and lead to good afterlife or transcendence

"He remains alive for as long as he lives, and when he finally dies, they offer
him in the fire. … The people who know this, and the people there in the wilderness who venerate truth as faith [śraddhā] —they pass into the flame … comes to the regions of lightning and leads him to the worlds of brahman.
BU 6.2.14-15

We see then that saddhā—faith—was an extremely important concept in earlier Brahmanism and all the way into the pre-Buddhist contemplative Upaniṣadic literature. If anything, it fits in better here than Buddhism: it was faith in the divine and sacrifice that led one to good afterlife, and it was faith in the knowledge of the Veda and the deeper meaning of sacrifice that led to transcendence in somewhat later thought. This was adopted to faith in the Buddha and his message. We know that saddhā as an indriya had to have been adapted by the Buddha because it is impossible that his former teachers had “faith in the awakening of the Buddha.” This itself is another hint that these have been adapted.

Moving on from saddhā, viriya is another important Vedic concept. I will not go into as much detail as this should be relatively self-explanatory in the sense of energy/diligence/persistence, etc., but vīrya (Skt.) is related to masculine virility / power and gaining it or working with it as a kind of energy and strength was a common theme in Brahmanical tradition.

Next is sati. This too should be relatively self-explanatory, provided we set aside some erroneous notions of ‘mindfulness’ in English today. Sati (or smṛti) refers to ‘memory’ and ‘recollection,’ or sometimes keeping something in mind, staying focused on it, recalling it with attention, etc. This is clearly related to memorizing and reciting the Vedas from memory to perform ritual or know theory. It is also tied to plain meditation practice with the breath which is attested as far back into the Śatapatha Brāhmaṇa (for more information see Jurewicz ‘Fire, Death and Philosophy’ 2018).

Samādhi as a meditative altered state of consciousness is also clear. The Buddha’s former teachers were mainly remembered as teaching extremely deep states of samādhi as a form of liberation. Altered states of consciousness go back as far as the Vedic period (or earlier) and were induced with the help of Soma (already discussed briefly earlier). As the Vedic peoples expanded and time passed, Somic exultation (which was related to realizing immortality and unity with the Sun/gods in the Vedas) was lost; people had to come up with new ways to reach states equivalent to the state of Somic exultation without the plant. This is where breath practices and austerities (tápas) crop up in the ŚB for instance, and we see the continuation and development of this in the CU, BU, etc.

Paññā is the goal of contemplative practice. Veda itself means knowledge, and was already a very significant concept. The term prajñā though gains more significance in the early Upaniṣads and its fulfillment is equated with liberation/immortality—precisely the goal of the Buddha’s former teachers and the Brahmanical contemplatives.

When we take all of the contextual and logical correspondences into account, along with the terminology itself (indriya) connecting these to Vedic tradition and the Buddha’s own attribution of them to pre-Buddhist contemplatives, I think it becomes rather obvious that these were originally Brahmanical and that the Buddha adapted them to fit with his own system because of their practical value. I would go so far as to think that his former teachers had already probably adapted them from earlier ideas (saddhā for sheer ritual; viriya for vigour, perhaps related to generative power in creation/ritual, cognition, child bearing, rule, etc. which were highly significant for the present and afterlife; sati for memorizing the Veda; samādhi for altered states gained while reciting, sacrificing, reflecting, taking Soma, or meditating; and paññā for insight into the Veda and deeper/hidden knowledge that developed into the Upaniṣads and onwards).

Very briefly, I’d like to add that this would extend to the pañca bala as well. Not only are the lists identical, they are also heavily associated with one another and bala is a Vedic term as well (though this is not necessarily the strongest argument on its own as I have already discussed). The connections are simply much less clear, but I would argue that we could assume a connection here with caution. I also think this contributes to the ever-expanding list of correspondences between the Buddha’s former teachers and Brahmanism. If we were not to assume that they were Brahmanical, the list itself still has incredible similarities and must have been adapted from something.

I will leave a summary of bullet points below for reference in case anyone finds them useful:

  • Indriya is a Vedic term in origin still highly recognizable in this regard
  • The Buddha’s former teachers were highly associated with contemplative Brahmanism and were said to possess the five indriya
  • The indriya have clearly been adapted by the Buddha from how his former teachers used them and thus had some original meaning
  • Many or all of the indriya have direct ties to Brahmanism and at times make more sense as originally coming from a faith-based religious system shifting into a contemplative/meditative one



Do you suggest that the five indriyas were originally under the Brahmanical faith and practices:
aham brahmāsmi ‘I am Brahman’ (Bṛhadāraṇaya Upaniṣad 1.4.10)?

But the Buddha changed it into the Buddha faith and practices.

Yes, essentially. I am not saying specifically the practice of any one Brahmanical ideology, but generally I think they were around in Brahmanical circles and the Buddha adapted them to fit his teaching.

Regarding the five indriyas in SN and SA suttas, two definitions of faith-indriya are found, and wisdom-indriya is the chief, although last in the order of listing the five (pp. 219-221):

Pages 218-221 from The Fundamental Teachings of Early Buddhism Choong Mun-keat 2000.pdf (289.1 KB)

The contents of the five indriyas are consistent in the SN and SA versions, except in the case of the faith-indriya.

Soma is the secration in you going up your spine to heaven of thirty-three where Indra rules. Which reprents higher conciousness. Thats why its something that he didnt change. Thats why in suttas you dont hear of them mocking Indra. Brahma is ordinary conciousness. Which is why Buddha is dipicted as above Brahma in sutta.