The lost Vajjian clan of the Ñātikas

One of the many things I learned from the book An Early History of Vaiśālī was about the Ñātika clan. They were perhaps the second-most important of the clans that made up the Vajjian Leagure (after the Licchavīs), yet there is little information about them, and they seem almost absent from the Pali texts.

One of the rather noteworthy aspects of the clan is how variable the spelling of their name is. We find Jṇātṛika or Jṇātaka in Sanskrit; Ñātaka in Pali, Nāyika in Jain Prakrit, and well as Nāṭaka, and so on. The variety of forms and dialectical variations is forbidding, but it appears that the sense of the word is simply “the clan”, i.e. it is ñāti as in “family”.

By far the most famous member of the clan was Mahāvīra, the leader of the Jains. In Pali, he is known as Nigaṇṭha Nāṭaputta. The later name is explained by the commentary as “son of a dancer”; it is also sometimes spelled Nāthaputta (son of a lord). However given the universal Jain tradition that he was a Jṇātṛika, it seems certain that this is a misunderstanding, and that Nāṭaputta in fact means “a son of the Jṇātṛi clan”, i.e. a Jṇātṛika. It is the same pattern as Sākyaputta, which means “Sakyan”.

Given this, perhaps we should reconsider how we present his name. Nigaṇṭha means “knotless”, but it is just a term for a Jain ascetic (as bhikkhu is for Buddhists). Perhaps we should translate his name as “the Jain monk of the Ñātika clan”. @Brahmali

But it appears that this is not the only relic of the Ñātikas that is obscured by spelling. There is a town called Nādika, Nātika, Ñātika, etc., which lay on the road between Kotigama (near the Ganges crossing from Pataligama) and Vesali. The Buddha visits there on a number of occasions.

The commentary explains the name in two different ways. The DN commentary relates it to ñāti as in family, whereas the SN commentary calls it nādika from a pond (nadi = “river”). It would seem that this old confusion in spelling led to the effective disappearance of the clan from Buddhist memory.

This being so, we should accept the first derivation, and regard Ñātikā as the correct spelling.

Notably the texts never say Ñātikagāma “the village of the Ñātikas”. Normally we find the singular form, often in accusative (nātike). And the Buddha is said to “enter Ñātika for alms”, so clearly it was a town or village. It seems this may be a reason why it has been taken simply as the name of the place rather than of the people. However in DN 16 the Buddha is said to go to Ñātikā (in plural). In Pali, a region is often named in plural after the people who live there, such as kosalesu “among the Kosalans", or “in the land of the Kosalans”. Thus Ñātikā would mean “the land of the Ñātikas”.

There is currently only very vague information as to where the Nāyikas/Ñātikas/Jṇātṛikas lived.

They are said to have had their main seats in Kuṇḍapura and Kollāga, which were suburbs of Vesali. Maps typically show them to the north-east of Vesali. Ñātika is south of Vesali, but of course it is more than likely that a large clan lived in several places.


Thank you for sharing this important observation Bhante :pray:

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A couple more things I just noticed.

The whole narrative with the Ñātikas intervenes rather oddly in the Mahāparinibbāna narrative. Suddenly Ānanda asks the Buddha about all these people from Ñātika who have passed away. It seems that both he and the Buddha know all these folks by name, and they’ve not just died, but in their hundreds they have realized various stages of awakening. Why are we suddenly so concerned with these pople, and why does the narrative want to convince us there were so many attained Buddhists in Ñātika?

Now we have an answer: because it was the home town of Mahāvīra. He had only recently passed away himself, and in such a short time even his own people were such devoted and accomplished followers of the Buddha.

I also think I stumbled on the reason, or a reason, for the spelling confusion. The basic confusion probably happened because of the local dialect, and probably because the name was known as Mahāvīra’s town and hence spoken in his local dialect, which in the Jain texts is Nāya. But in the Mahāparinibbānasutta, a little later on the Buddha famously takes the water from a little river, which is nadikā. “River-people” would be nādikā, and this spelling, in the context of the already-confused situation regarding Ñātika, may have contaminated the spelling of the clan name.


I am not sure more reading or rummaging through these two books below will be useful or not but they seemed relevant, at least the first one, and it has a lovely image of a carving of Anāthpindika! Both books are by Bimala Churn Law.

  1. Ancient Indian Tribes:
  2. Ancient Mid-Indian Ksatriya Tribes:

I haven’t been able to find Volume 2 of the second book…I am not sure it exists.


Interesting. For now I have rendered his name as “the Jain ascetic from Ñātika”. There are only two occurrences in the entire Vinaya Piṭaka.

Right. This has always seemed odd to me too. Your hypothesis here seems very reasonable.


Surely Nāṭaputta is parallel to Sakyaputta = “Sakyan”, not “from Sakya”. Ñātika is almost certainly named after the clan, and Ñātikaputta means “of the Ñātika clan”.

More interestingly, it occurs to me that Nigaṇṭha Nāṭaputta now exactly parallels the familiar samaṇa gotama, i.e. “the ascetic of the Gotama clan”. This makes it a much more normal form, rather than taking Nigaṇṭha Nāṭaputta as an odd personal name. It seems this was the formal mode of address for leading ascetic, and is respectful but not reverential.

There’s about 50 occurences in the suttas, so “the Jain monk of the Ñātika clan” will get clunky very quickly. Perhaps simply “the Jain Ñātika” to parallel “the ascetic Gotama”?


Or use “ascetic” and reserve “monk” for bhikkhu? The Jain ascetic Ñātika.

This might need a bit of a re-education campaign (or this thread to go viral) :wink: otherwise it’s unlikely that people will know that this isn’t just any Jain monk but Mahavira/Nigantha Ñāṭaputta. To not understand this isn’t essential to the reading of the suttas, but it is ‘nice’.

We really need to revitalize the rich vocab in English for ascetics: anchorite, cenobite, or friar? Or stick with the word that was invented specificaly for Indian naked ascetics: gymnosophist?

True. Maybe introduce him as “Mahāvīra, the Jain anchorite of the Ñātika clan”.


How many people except you know what an anchorite is? :open_mouth:

(I thought you wanted to make accessible translations … :laughing:)


Yes, I had to stop, reverse, re-read and take a good guess at that one.
… then I googled… and I was wrong.


Of course. My thinking was simply that Sakka is also a republic, and so in principle one could say “the ascetic Gotama of Sakka”. Since Ñātika is a town, and perhaps even an area, I thought my rendering would be acceptable. But yes, it is not quite accurate.

But what is the relationship of Gotama to Sakyaputta? I would have thought the former is a subset of the latter. Do we know anything about this? And does not the same distinction hold in the case of Ñātika?


It seems a bit more complicated than that, because Gotama is a widespread clan name not restricted to the Sakyas. Obviously there’s been some research on that point, which I am not really up to date about. The other day I learned that sometimes families can be named after the Brahmanical clan of their priestly lineage, so maybe that is a thing?

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