The pre-Buddhist religion of the Sakyas

Does anyone have any academic sources on the pre-Buddhist religious practices of the Sakyas? I’ve been looking, but its not an easy topic to find sources on.


What can be said is that absorption was practiced but not insight, the latter being the Buddha’s discovery.

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There is unfortunately almost certainly no good source for this question. Pre-Buddhist literature was composed further south and further west. We don’t have texts from the local cultures before the Buddha, and the only non-Buddhist texts from before that time is Brahmin, or not well edited Jain sources which are still probably later than the Buddha. And the Brahmin sources don’t really deal with the non-Vedic practices of the ‘new regions’ in the east.

The Kanvya recension of the Satapatha Brahmana is the regionally closest pre-Buddhist text, but I’ve never heard anything revealing related to your question.

I think Levman tried to squeeze as much information as possible regarding your question - maybe you’ll find something interesting there: Cultural remnants of the indigenous peoples in the Buddhist Scriptures


This text and its references may be of interest to you.


So, the religion of the Sakyas is linked to the Sun, Ādicca. Possibly such a tradition is still found in Nepal and/or nearby regions?

Thank you this is great!!!

The article lists the sources as Ikeda and Batchelor, not sure if they are really the best historical sources. Are there any other sources or primary ones for the idea that they were sun worshippers?

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"Form is like a mass of foam
And feeling but an airy bubble.
Perception is like a mirage
And formations a plantain tree.
Consciousness is a magic show,
a juggler’s trick entire.
All these similes were made known
By the “Kinsmen-of-the-Sun.”
Samyutta Nikaya III 142

Ok but this is an epithet for the Buddha, it doesn’t say anything about the Sakyans being sun worshippers or anything like that.

Please - how to find

in SC?

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This has some interesting theories.

Possible Iranian Origins for Sākyas and Aspects of Buddhism

Samyutta Nikaya 22
95 A Lump of Foam
SC 9


It can indeed be said, but that does not make it correct. :wink: The idea that “vipassana” is a uniquely Buddhist practice was propagated by the 20th century vipassana teachers. I am not aware that any of them had actually read the non-Buddhist sources. The Upanishads are full of contemplations that would fall under the general heading of vipassana. The later Yoga Sutra, undeniably under Buddhist influence, introduces clear teachings on both samatha and vipssana.

Of course, insight as practiced in non-Buddhist traditions is not identical with Buddhist insight, but then, Buddhist morality is not identical with other moralities: yet we never say that the Buddha “invented” morality.

The basic idea of vipassana is a meditative contemplation focused on gaining wisdom and insight into the true nature of reality, and that is clearly present. Indeed, the contemplation of not-self is a major theme of the pre-Buddhist vipassana teaching of Yajnavalkya. Obviously, he did not promote the idea that “all things” are not self: but rather, one contemplated again and again on all the things of the world that one identified as not-self, seeing through them all until one arrives at the True Self: infinite consciousness. There are more than a few contemporary teachers of “Buddhist insight” whose philosophy is rather similar.

The Buddha himself never claimed that he invented vipassana. Indeed, one could argue that he simply adopted Vajnavalkya’s system and took it one step further. What he did say, rather, is that the full understanding of not-self is unique to his teaching.

Thank you for acknowledging the limits of knowledge!

Great paper, thanks for the link.

Indeed! Those references are not great.

The Buddha’s family lineage is said to be the ādicca or the Sun. To argue that they are therefore primarily sun-worshippers is a huge leap. My name is “best” and it harks back to “beast”, therefore I worship Beelzebub?

Sun worship is common in the ancient world. It’s quite possible sun worship was involved in Sakyan family worship, but it’s hardly an obvious or received fact. The division between solar and lunar lineages is more to do with mythic claims to family prestige than to ongoing religious practices.

If you’re going to look for a god, the sun seems like an obvious choice. Typically, though, sun worship plays a perhaps surprisingly small role on most mythologies. I think the reason for this is the same as why worship of Mary and saints is preferred in Catholicism: large and powerful deities are too distant, to removed from everyday life. The sun, after all, doesn’t change, so it seems hard to imagine it would bend to one’s will or answer prayers. And what’s the need? It’s there anyway. So sure, acknowledge the sun in principle, but the main focus of sacrifice and worship is on the rain, the harvest, the growth of plants, the spread of disease: things that are uncertain and need management and taming.

The religious practices talked about in the suttas focus much more on animist spirits like nāgas and yakkhas.

Personally, I believe it is likely that there have been cultural interchanges between India and Iran going back a long time. I mean, the Indo-Iranian religions and languages are shared. Even earlier, the Indus Valley civilization shows signs of trade with the western civilizations of Iran and thereabouts. I think early humans were moving and trading much further and more frequently than we give them credit for. I suspect that the 2-fold option of the worldly or spiritual path of the bodhisattva, and the associated conception of the Mahapurisa, and possibly the 32 marks, is influence by the epic of Gilgamesh.

So I’m not dogmatically opposed to the idea of Iranian influence, in fact I think it’s likely. Still, the idea that the Sakyas had an Iranian origin seems lacking evidence, and is more of an intriguing proposal than anything else.

The obvious etymology for their name is sāka or “teak”. Teak is an incredibly powerful hardwood, ideal for building large “royal” compounds. Probably coincidentally, the conquest of cedar is the prime mythic quest of Gilgamesh. It is common if not universal in ancient cultures for families, especially landed families, to have an identification with some kind of object, a totem for the clan, and a teak tree would be ideal for a landed family of royal pretensions. For a family to be the “culture heroes” associated with teak means association with the gods of cities, or rather, what we would see as substantial and fortified townships.

Along similar lines, the ultimate solar ancestor of the Ādiccas is Okkāka (Ikṣvāku in Sanskrit), i.e. the culture hero of sugar. As Athena introduced the olive, or Osiris the grain, or Ninkasi the beer, so Okkaka would have been the hero who introduced sugar cultivation (probably the sugar beet). Obviously this is not a historical individual, but an archetypal demigod. Possibly he would have been worshiped in the seasonal rites of harvest.

Why sugar is so honored, apart from it being tasty, is likely lost in the mists of time, but my guess would be that it was an early regional “cash crop” or surplus crop. Such surplus would have been traded or shared via sacrifices or other means (cf. the “potlatch”). When a tribe gets control of a major and desirable tradeable resource, we are starting to move from a culture of nomads or villagers to towns and regional trade.

It is imperative to understand that the origins of the Sakyan people, in the Pali texts, are spoken of in purely and primordially mythological terms. Without a deep study of mythology, modern interpreters almost always fall into the trap of imposing an overly literal historical interpretation.

By far the greatest source of ancient Indian mythology is the Jātaka stories. Yet even in Levman’s excellent article, there are only a few rather basic references to Jātakas. But there are very many religious practices of apparently great age that are spoken of in the Jātakas, including elements of kingship, such as sacred regicide or royal control of seasons, that appear in stories of the Buddha’s lineage. The kings of the Mahasammata lineage spoken of in the Agganna Sutta, for example, are closely linked to the regularity and fertility of the seasons. But I have spoken of such things many times, and will not bore you with another exposition!