Were the Buddha's extreme ascetic practices also Brahminical?

Typically, we imagine that the Buddha, after leaving his first two teachers and going off to practice his period of extreme austerities, was doing something identical to or similar to the Jains. We tend to think that there’s a strong likelihood he was initiated first in some sort of Brahminical tradition, and then practiced in some Jain-like tradition, and then went off on his own. This provides a pretty balanced picture when we think about the traditions from the time period that survive to this day. Hinduism developed out of Brahminism in interaction with other philosophies and religions, and Jainism developed over time to where it is today.

I don’t have access to the book, but Patrick Olivelle has one titled “Ascetics and Brahmins: Studies in Ideologies and Institutions” (2011). Having skimmed through some of the section summaries and previews, it seems that he talks about how there are plenty of attestations of Brahminical ascetics who would live off of left-over food, wander for alms, go naked, wear bark or animal hides, and do all kinds of austerities.

Now, if we go off of tradition, the Buddha’s first three sermons were on (1) the middle way between asceticism / indulgence, and the 4 noble truths, (2) non-self, and (3) the fire sermon. The last two are clearly addressed to more Brahminical audiences, in that they are responding to Brahminical concepts. The attā in the 2nd sermon is one that is an inner controller, as in the Upaniṣads. The third sermon plays on the symbolism and imagery of fire in response to the ritual fire maintained by brahmins. If I recall correctly, the second sermon is traditionally considered to be taught to the same group as the first sermon as well.

Knowing that extreme asceticism was potentially practiced in Brahminical circles, is it possible that the Bodhisatta was still inspired from a more Brahminical school of thought in starting these austerities? Maybe he thought—after things didn’t work out with Āḷāra Kālāma/Uddaka Rāmaputta—that he should ramp up his practice in-line with some of the other Brahminically-initiated ascetics who opted for an extreme lifestyle of austerities, rather than switching to a completely new school of thought. He never mentions being a student of Nigaṇṭha Nātaputta, nor any of his disciples. Moreover, in MN 26 (one of the more reliable accounts of the Bodhisatta’s backstory), he simply mentions leaving Uddaka Rāmaputta to find the supreme state, and then going to an area in Magadha and eventually realizing it there. There is no mention of an extreme ideological shift. As Bhante @sujato pointed out in his post on the Padhāna Sutta (Snp 3.2), there seems to be less of a clean break than we are sometimes led to believe in a more neat-and-tidy version of the Buddha’s backstory. That is not to say that there wasn’t a major shift in his mindset and practice, but when we combine this with MN 26 and the knowledge of Brahmin asceticism striving for liberation already being established, it would almost make more sense to me that this was the rough trajectory.

Indeed, in MN 85 where he expands on what he did once he arrived at Magadha, he simply realized that he needed to withdraw further from sensuality and did some extreme practices to try and force his mind and body into seclusion from pleasures (he even says that this was an insight of his, giving the simile of wet sticks). There is nothing inherently Jain about this, and the idea of tapas certainly cropped up in Brahminical circles as well. What he describes is a clean transition from (seemingly) Brahminical circles—perhaps focused more on theory and meditation rather than heavy austerity—to experimenting with different forms of fasting, asceticism, and austerities on his own, and then eventually turning to a more balanced approach with jhānic pleasure and less mortifying striving. No mention of Jainism or any other school of thought.

Certainly it would make sense that he may have mixed, mingled, discussed, and borrowed ideas from other ascetics and śramaṇas. We get a very diverse picture of people doing all kinds of practices in the Buddha’s day with some recurring stock formulas. Perhaps the transition was not so abrupt, but he simply decided to take on the austerities (as I said above), and he tried out some different austerities that other people were doing and that he thought could be helpful in this time period. Although he may have left behind a good amount of the ideology of his former teachers, he certainly had the same goal, the conceptual frameworks, the meditation practices, and the spirit to strive for the far-shore and cross over saṁsāra instilled in him, all of which was shared with certain groups of Brahmins (especially the more ascetic ones). Maybe the five ascetics who came with him and attended on him were former ascetic/spiritual-seeking Brahminical students as well who accompanied him on a journey to live a more extreme and austere life like some of their [Vedic] forefathers—or, more simply, their ascetic Brahminical peers who seem to appear constantly throughout the suttas (see note on Bāhiya, or any of the stock formulae for ascetics and brahmins doing austerities). He was quite accomplished according to his former teachers, so perhaps these five ascetics followed him for his skill, convinced that they could figure out the way to liberation (where their teachers got close but failed) living in heavier seclusion and austerity.

We do often hear the Buddha and some of his disciples talk about how good brahmins of the past lived austere, meditative lives, and this seems to be a narrative that Yājñavalkya / muni-minded Vedic groups tended to partake of as well. Perhaps they even had some legendary sages in their lineage under the former Kosalan teachers who had lived hermit or bhikkhu lifestyles.

A lot of the similarities with Jainism could easily be a case of just shared ascetic (samanabrāhmana) ideas in the East. Bausch has already offered what, to me, is a strong case for the āsavās in the Buddha’s teaching being more of Brahminical descent ideologically (perhaps from sramanic cross pollination; the BAU teachings on them in relation to colors and the self certainly have parallels in Jain or even Ājīvika doctrine). All the far-shore language and imagery is easily the same, and it being found across these ascetic traditions is no surprise; they probably pulled from the same ideological substratam at different points in time. I feel like perhaps the Buddha was a casteless sramana who had been initiated in internal/ascetic Brahminical circles, went off on his own as an accomplished meditator and teacher, and experimented with other forms of asceticism without ever making a hard switch over or adopting major doctrinal ideas.

Note: Bāhiya of the Bark Cloth is a case study for this. Not only was he likely involved in an Upanisadic tradition (at least in the narrative, be it later or not) based off of the teaching presented to him in terms of the 4-fold Upanisadic epistemology that is also related to the ātman, but also his bark attire and extreme restraint/austerity (tapas, mentioned by Yājñavalkya in the BAU) led him to believe he was enlightened—which he was not far off from; all he needed was to let go of his metaphysical assumptions and accept the ‘bare’ reality of conditioned experience, leaving behind the epistemological leaps characteristic of most/all Upanisadic systems.

EDIT: In MN 56, the Buddha discusses with a disciple of Nigaṇṭha Nātaputta (Mahāvīra), and is corrected on a basic doctrinal point about how they refer to actions/deeds. This, to me, is more indicative of the fact that the Buddha was not familiar with Jain doctrine personally, and was only informed by word-of-mouth and in encounters with disciples. This is such a fundamental and basic aspect of Jainism (action/karma, here called daṇḍa) that it does not really make sense for the Buddha to be ignorant of it had he been a practitioner. Not a definite, but another clue perhaps.

EDIT2: Both Alexander Wynne, in “The Origin of Early Buddhist Meditation,” and Bronkhorst, in “The Two Traditions of Meditation in Ancient India,” despite disagreeing on some grounds, show that extreme asceticism was a part of early Brahminical meditation, even if somewhat marginal. This includes an extreme form of breath-restraint meditation—sometimes characterized by pressing the tongue to the mouth or clenching the teeth—nearly identical to what the Bodhisatta describes doing in his period of austerities and searching. Mortification and self-denial were in the repertoire in order to free oneself from karmic retribution (which Bausch demonstrated was a concept already present in the Kānva Satapatha Brāhmana) and liberate the ātman, essential goals of early Brahminical contemplative practice. This is, again, more evidence that the Bodhisatta was simply opting for a more extreme and austere form of Brahminical-adjacent practice after departing from his former teachers.


This is interesting, as it seems to be said by tradition (I don’t remember where this comes from, though*) that the Buddha’s first 5 disciples were related to 5 brahmins that were consulted by his father on the occasion of his birth in order to tell his fate. These brahmins were convinced that the newly born baby was to become either a wheel-turning monarch or a Buddha, and they kept watching him and keeping in contact throughout his life. Some of them died, but their sons continued following him, and Kondañña was said to be the only survivor of the original group.

*I think Hecker mentions it in his biography of the Buddha which exists in German, but also in English as far as I know.

I don’t know how much there is to it, but …


If the Buddha was originally interested in Brahminism It would have been recorded so. The itinerant lifestyle and austerities were characteristic of the sramana movement:

“It was as a śramaṇa that the Buddha left his father’s palace and practised austerities.[55] Gautama Buddha, after fasting nearly to death by starvation, regarded extreme austerities and self-mortification as useless or unnecessary in attaining enlightenment, recommending instead a “Middle Way” between the extremes of hedonism and self-mortification.[56]”—Wikipedia

Your question “were the Buddha’s extreme ascetic practices also Brahaminical?” seems also relevant to dhuta ‘an ascetic practice’ (e.g. SN 16.5 = SA 1141 = ASA 116; cf. EA 12.5-6).

Was dhuta practice also Brahminical?

According to the Pali tradition, dhuta ‘an ascetic practice’ consists of thirteen items (dhuta-angas), but twelve items in the northern Buddhist tradition (see p. 302, note 31 in Choong Mun-keat “A comparison of the Pali and Chinese versions of the Kassapa Samyutta , a collection of early Buddhist discourses on the Venerable Kasyapa”, Journal of the Royal Asiatic Society (Cambridge University Press), vol. 27, issue 2 (2017), pp. 295-311).

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Ah, and if it was recorded?

The Buddha’s first two teachers were almost certainly in Brahminical circles. When discussing with brahmins in the Pārāyana, they are familiar with the same practices; Uddaka’s name is Brahminical; the Bodhisatta said he learned their texts and theories before doing the practices, which means it had to be an existing textual tradition in line with these practices (like, say, the Upanisads); in the Snp the Buddha says he knows the Gāyatrī mantra, a major mantra for the Kosslan brahmins in more spiritual renunciant circles; the Buddha, throughout the suttas, consistently demonstrates himself to be well-versed in Brahminical concepts—especially spiritual / contemplative ones—which later tradition is ignorant of; his own formulation of doctrinal concepts draws heavily from contemplative Brahminical concepts. Notice too that these two teachers, despite having a following and students, are never listed among the śramaṇa teachers, despite the Buddha knowing and even re-encountering some of his former peers in these groups. The first three traditional sermons and stories about them in relation to Brahminism I mentioned could also be relevant to this, considering the ideas are quite relevant to contemplative Brahminical-based ideologies.

From “The Early Upaniṣads” by Patrick Olivelle:

In its present form, this Upanisad (Bṛhadāraṇyaka) has seen at least three editorial phases. The first consists of individual passages, dialogues, and stories that may have been preserved in the memory of individuals or groups. In the second phase different editors at different times must have made three independent collections of them, collections that are preserved as the three sections of the BU.

The Wikipedia quote you give is just a standard description of the mainstream story; it says nothing of the Buddha’s ideologies. Many of these contemplatives in Brahminical circles also left behind their homes and perhaps even castes, and were very unorthodox for Western ‘mainstream’ brahmins. The Buddha could be a śramaṇa involved in Brahminical muni-circles. He wasn’t a brahmin by birth nor was he teaching Brahminism, and thus he was part of a new śramaṇa religious movement, but that doesn’t mean he didn’t learn in those circles earlier, which he must have done based on the overwhelming evidence in the texts of his knowledge. The idea of being a casteless wanderer who becomes a true brahmin due to knowledge and spiritual development is precisely what these contemplative Brahminical circles would have been motivated by.

It’s not clear that there was such a strict divide between samaṇas and brāhmaṇas when it came to the more extreme contemplative ones focused solely on the more esoteric spiritual teachings (as opposed to external ritual). Lots of the eastern Brahminical contemplative/renunciant traditions’ ideas and practices came from contact with śramaṇic traditions, it seems, and so the two often come quite close. In the Bṛhadāraṇyaka Upaniṣad, we see educated spiritual teachers who are women, a somewhat disdainful tone for external/superficial ritual at times, etc.—all unorthodox for more mainstream Brahminism from the West. These sages and traditions were even excluded a few centuries later from the land of the Aryans and quite heavily criticized.

From Wikipedia on Śramaṇas

Sramana in that context obviously means a person who is in the habit of performing srama. Far from separating these seers from the vedic ritual tradition, therefore, śramaṇa places them right at the center of that tradition. Those who see them [Sramana seers] as non-Brahmanical, anti-Brahmanical, or even non-Aryan precursors of later sectarian ascetics are drawing conclusions that far outstrip the available evidence.
—Patrick Olivelle, The Ashrama System
According to Olivelle, and other scholars such as Edward Crangle, the concept of Śramaṇa exists in the early Brahmanical literature. The term is used in an adjectival sense for sages who lived a special way of life that the Vedic culture considered extraordinary. However, Vedic literature does not provide details of that life. … Additionally, in the early texts, some pre-dating 3rd-century BCE ruler Ashoka, the Brahmana and Śramaṇa are neither distinct nor opposed. The distinction, according to Olivelle, in later Indian literature “may have been a later semantic development possibly influenced by the appropriation of the latter term [Sramana] by Buddhism and Jainism” …
Pande attributes the origin of Buddhism, not entirely to the Buddha, but to a “great religious ferment” towards the end of the Vedic period when the Brahmanic and Sramanic traditions intermingled.

From the Bṛhadāraṇyaka Upaniṣad (trans. Olivelle):

‘Clearly, Kapya, if a man knows what that string is and who that inner controller is—he knows brahman; he knows the worlds; he knows the gods; he knows the Vedas; he knows the spirits; he knows the self; he knows all.’ That’s what he told them. …
"Without knowing this imperishable, Gargi, even if a man were to make offerings, to offer sacrifices, and to perform austerities in this world for many thousands of years, all that would come to naught. Pitiful is the man, Gargi, who departs from this world without knowing this imperishable. But a man who departs from this world after he has come to know this imperishable—he, Gargi, is a Brahmin.


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I think the word tapas is much more relevant:

  1. Penance, religious austerity, mortification; तपः किलेदं तदवाप्तिसाधनम् (tapaḥ kiledaṃ tadavāptisādhanam)Kumārasambhava 5.64.
  2. Meditation connected with the practice of personal self-denial or bodily mortification; गीरा वाऽऽशंसामि तपसा ह्यनन्तौ (gīrā vā’'śaṃsāmi tapasā hyanantau) Mahābhārata (Bombay) 1.3.57.; Bhāgavata 12.11.24.

This word recurs throughout the Pāli suttas in the same sense, and it is found in the teachings of Yājñavalkya / the Jains, etc. ‘Dhuta’ refers literally to ‘shaking off’ and is a much rarer word. It would be interesting to look at the historical use of the ‘dhutāngas’ though as well!


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The following is from the thesis “Early Buddhism and its Relation to Brahmanism” by Gabriel Ellis, from the chapter “Tapas in Early Buddhism” (p. 72):

“We conclude that tapa was indeed practiced in early Buddhism, by enduring hardship and pain, hunger and thirst, criticism and violence. It thereby shared its attitude to spirituality with austere Brahmin practices. As with other śramaṇa movements, it was also for Buddhist monastics essential to be able to endure the harsh conditions of the recluse forest life, focused on meditation and modesty. Therefore it was consistent for early suttas to praise the Buddha’s tapa, which would have resonated with Brahmins, and to teach it to the early forest Saṅgha as well (see also section 1.5). We assume that over time, while a minority continued to practice this austerity (see Freiberger, 2006) the Saṅgha became more settled in urban monasteries, so that hunger, thirst, and hardship became rare. This increased the contrast to the still austere wandering ascetics and Jain monastics and made tapa problematic as a concept for Buddhist self-description. Tapa was then used to criticize the self-inflicted hardship and physical pain of non-Buddhist practitioners, thus devaluing the spiritual benefits of tapa in general. The disappearance of tapa from the intra-Buddhist discourse made it easier to present Buddhism as ‘the middle path’ between sensual indulgence and self-torment.”

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This could partly explain the perceived reliance on Brahmanical concepts of the EBTs. It’s not only that scholars are generally more familiar with the Vedic material, which they are. The fact is that many of the early Buddhist disciples are depicted as Brahmins (see, i.a., Mrs. Rhys Davids’ witty ‘census’ of the Theragāthā). Perhaps they were also bringing Brahminical ideas and names to the textual material… We’re dealing with mutually nourishing and evolving traditions, and I suspect that the texts as we have them all start in medias res in relation to these centuries-old dialogues.

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The Visuddhimagga lists the thirteen ‘ascetic practices’ dhuta-angas (Dhutanga - Wikipedia). Do any Pali suttas record the Buddha teaches all the thirteen practices of dhuta as a set of practices?

One of the dhuta practices, no. 13. "Sitter’s Practice (nesajjik’anga) — living in the three postures of walking, standing and sitting and never lying down ", seems very difficult to practice, and also not good for health, both mental and physical.

The Buddha had a full understanding of Brahmanism, being able to use Vedic Cosmology and Advance it into Buddhist Teachings. In His Palace of Younger Years He studied the Vedas to an extent, then went forth and decided on the Middle-Way. But Brahmanism, even Vedic Renounced Order of Life (Sanyassis) are to be well taken care of, so most Brahmans wouldn’t consider it Scriptural to fast against the recommendation of the Vedic Scriptures. Buddha just had to find the Way for all, that paved an Age of Ahimsa to humans and animals alike, something that was falling apart in those times for the so called current Brahmans of the Age. So He came to the Middle-Wsy by example.

Brahman means someone who understands the Supreme Brahman, Vishnu, so unless these “Brahmans” were on Buddha’s side of understanding they were Brahmans only in name, not by Faith in Qualification, and that doesn’t come by family name unless one is Krishna or Jesus or something like that (being the unborn Supreme Brahman.)

Anyway, interestingly enough I found a hidden away Bhagavad Gita recently full of Buddhist Palindromes that was the one that Vivasvan spoke to Manu eons ago.

Buddha rejected the Vedas to establish the Dharma, but in my personal opinion there is no conflict between the Vedas or the Dharma, or in fact any religion, once they are fully established.

How about Shiva? Do you think Shiva is not the Supreme Brahman? Or, do you think Vishnu is also Shiva?

Shiva is an Emanation of the Supreme Brahman “Transformed” as an Eternal Servant to Krishna or Buddha. For example Shiva started Advaita Vedanta which is considered by some to be “covered Buddhism.”

Shiva is my Guru, along with the Buddha, when I was first told that Shiva would be my Guru I was startled, but He respectfully brought me into a life of Eternal Devotion to the Buddha, the Dharma, and the Sangha, through the Ekayana which includes Theraveda Buddhism. My primary Responsibility is to Buddhism thanks to Shiva.