Gautama was a sramana

The ascetic way and beyond

An age of intellectual and religious ferment

The 6th century BCE was, in India, an age of intense intellectual and religious ferment, as it was also in Persia, Greece, and China. It marked a turning point in the emergence of reflective (self) consciousness, the latest stage at the end of a long evolution which saw the mind, originally fused with the body and nature, gradually free itself from these to finally emerge, first as membership consciousness, and finally as ego consciousness. In this last step, one starts seeing oneself as an “independent self,” rather than as member of a community or a nation, as it were, an organ in a biological system, or a cog in a machine. The Greek “hero” reflects the emergence of the independent ego. Already in the 6th century BCE, however, there was a growing awareness that, with the new confidence and self-reliance the autonomous ego had brought, came a sense of separatedness, feelings of sin, shame and delusion, as well as a new sensitivity to impermanence and the  precarity of one’s life. In other words, what the Buddha has encapsulated in the first Noble Truth: Life is suffering.

The sramanic movement

In India, the “ferment” triggered by this new malaise was shaped by the sramanic movement as it rebelled against the ruling Brahmanical elite, and challenged its crude worldly interests.

Ajivika sramanas

The word sramana, in the sense of mendicant, appears in a Upanisad dated to the 8th century BCE, but the origin of sramanism as a movement is not known. The root sram meant “to perform austerity.” What the sramanas had in common was the engagement in ascetic practices alone or in small groups under the supervision of a teacher, away from the villages. Because these ascetic practices were based on yoga, an elaboration of shamanic techniques associated with the Indus Valley Civilisation, sramanas are regarded as belonging primarily to pre-Vedic indigenous populations that had migrated to the Ganges Basin when this civilisation collapsed around 1700 BCE. Indo-Aryans immigrants had no knowledge of yoga. Shortly before the time of Gautama, however, brahmans had started to join the sramanas, and shared their ascetic pursuits.

Gautama’s quest

The earliest written records about the Buddha only appeared under the reign of King Asoka (c. 269-232 BCE), that is, two centuries after his lifetime. Even then, the events of his life had to be reconstructed, and legend could not always be separated from historical data. Modern scholars have continued the arduous task of reconstruction, but there is still little consensus about their conclusions. To start with, there is no agreement on the Buddha’s dates. The traditional dates – c.  563-480 BCE – have been challenged by scholars who argue for a later period – c. 483-400 BCE. In his Introduction to Buddhism (2013), a coursebook providing a comprehensive and up to date overview of the research about Buddhism, Peter Harvey tells us that Gautama was born as the son of the elected ruler of the small republic of the Sakka (Skt Sakya) people on the border between present-day India and Nepal. As such, Gautama described himself as a Ksatriya. Later texts describe him as the son of a king, but this is not factually true. Monarchies such as Magadha, where the Buddha attained enlightenment and taught, were larger in size, and controlled by the Brahmans, whereas republics were smaller, situated at the periphery, and culturally closer to the pre-Vedic tradition.

Still, the future Buddha had enjoyed the comforts of a rather “sheltered existence” before embarking on his quest. Following a chance encounter with an old man, a sick person, and a corpse, he, in Harvey’s words “set out to find the ‘unborn, unageing, undecaying, deathless, sorrowless, undefiled, uttermost security from bondage – Nirvana.”. 

According to the Suttas, Gautama first sought out teachers who could teach him meditation techniques. With Ajara Kalama he attained a meditational state called the “‘sphere of nothingness’, a mystical trance probably attained by yogic concentration, in which the mind goes beyond any apparent object and dwells on the remaining ‘nothingness’.” With Uddaka Ramaputta he entered a meditational state called the ‘sphere of neither-perception-nor-non-perception’. This went beyond the previous state to a level of mental stilling where consciousness is so attenuated as to hardly exist.” The word “meditation,” here translates the Pali word jhana (Skt dhyana) and refers to an intense concentration of the mind on a object, suppressing all thoughts, in order to  achieve a state at once mentally clear and emotionally calm. The jhanas attained by Gautama with the two teachers are said to belong to the higher formless (arupa) jhanas. These amount to the achievement of a “blank” mind, with thoughts firmly blocked off, perhaps a trance-like state with little consciousness left, which the Buddha later rejected.

The Suttas say that Gautama then turned to the ascetic practices at the core of the ancient pre-Vedic tradition represented by the Ajivikas and the Jains.

The ancient pre-Vedic tradition: Ajivikas and Jains 

Tirthankara Parsvanatha

The Jains have been widely regarded as representing the ancient tradition, with a lineage of 23 Tirthankaras, perhaps going back to the Indus Valley Civilisation. The 23rd Tirthankara, called Parsvanatha, is believed to have been a historical figure, having lived around the 8th or 7th century BCE. Thomas McEvilley, however, claims that the Ajivikas, rather than the Jains, represented the ancient tradition. Both the Ajivika Makkhali Gosala and the Jain Mahavira claimed to be the 24th Tirthankara of that tradition. Mahavira’s parents are said to have been practitioners of Ajivikism, so Mahavira himself would be a reformer of Ajivikism and the founder of Jainism. McEvilley’s main argument is that Gosala held that it was not possible to gain early release from the cycle of rebirths. The soul-like monad had to go through 8,400,000 incarnations before being released from the body. The full series of incarnations, corresponding to an experience of all life-forms, was pre-determined and required for a thorough purification of the soul.

One may ask, why did the Ajivikas practice extreme austerities if they did not believe that human effort could impact in any way the pre-determined series of reincarnations. One, of course, should not forget that austerities were also widely practiced to gain special powers, known as siddhis in Buddhist literature. A. L. Basham confirms that the Ajivikas were known for their public display of such siddhis. If that is so, could it be that, harsh as they were, ascetic feats were seen as an enhancement of life. The Ajivikas are indeed described as having had a positive attitude towards incarnated life. It could well be that the reason they did not seek early release from rebirth was not, originally, their belief in determinism (niyati), but the fact that they were quite happy to have a chance at enjoying life in its innumerable forms. Anthropologists distinguish two attitudes towards the afterlife among ancient cultures. The earlier traditional belief systems saw it as a mere extension of one’s life on earth: one will hang around the place where one used to live, and continue to do the same tasks (this is why tools belonging to the diseased were placed close to them in their tombs). For these people, life on earth was good, and they just wanted to stay there. In later belief systems,  life on earth was seen as wanting, and there was a hope of being reborn in a heaven where life was better. The Ajivikas, in keeping with the ethos of religious practices in the Indus Valley Civilisation, may still have seen life on earth as good, and to be spiritually enhanced in the same way as procreation, and fertility in general, was cultivated.

Jain Tirthankara standing in the austerity meditation posture

What Mahavira’s reform would have reflected was precisely the switch to the mood of pessimism that gripped the world at that time, following the emergence of ego-consciousness and the suffering it generated. The yogic techniques which had been designed to enhance one’s psychic powers were, as it were, “recycled” as techniques to gain release from the round of rebirths, now believed to be the only way a lasting freedom from suffering could be achieved.

From the start, Gautama shared the Jain view that life was suffering. The Jains were following a path of practice meant to free the life monad from the karmic residues which weighed it down, and prevented it from rising to the sky at death, thus compelling it to be reborn in another life-form. Ascetic practices aimed at producing tapas (heat) in order to burn the karmic residues.  Though immoral behaviour produced a heavier “bad” karma than moral ones, there remained a view that all actions, good or bad, generated karma, and were to be avoided. So, while introducing the idea that one could gain early release from the round of rebirths, Mahavira did not provide a full ethical dimension to the human effort required to gain release. The effort required was more a matter of austerities, and the physical “burning” they carried out. The Jain path ended for the most dedicated with a twelve year practice of progressive starvation, ending in the release of the clean monad, now free to rise and disappear into pure light. 

The long fast and the final breakthrough

That Gautama was attempting such a fast to the very end has not been suggested, but he did make a vow that he would fast until a “breakthrough” had been achieved. He went to a grove at Uruvela, and “resolved to strive earnestly to overcome such sensual pleasures by intense effort, trying to dominate such tendencies by force of will.” (Harvey) He practiced non-breathing, and eventually embarked on a long fast in the company of five ascetics. Weeks of fasting, however, only left him emaciated, and too weak to even stand. So, as the story goes, he accepted the bowl of rice milk which a young girl from the village was offering him. Seeing that he had broken his vow, the five ascetics who had been his companions, left him in disgust.

It is at that point that Gautama recalled the experience of deep calm which had come over him when, as a child he had been left under a rose-apple tree, and had spontaneously entered the first jhana. This is a form-jhana (rupa-jhana) described as a rapture beyond sense-pleasures while discursive thought continues. There is a sense of clarity as well as joy and tranquillity. 

That was the breakthrough Gautama had been seeking. What the now enlightened Buddha came to realise at that moment is that liberation could not be obtained by an act of will. Instead, the will had to be dropped. In other words, the (ego) self had to be dropped. Any deliberate and self-conscious effort sustained by a strengthening of will power generates attachment to the result, and this comes in the way of success. The archer only hits the target when he/she no longer cares whether the arrow hits it or not. This is the core of the Buddha’s enlightenment, later tested by Mara’s temptation episode. The Suttas describe how the Buddha sat under the Bodhi tree and “entered the first jhana, and then gradually deepened this state of concentrated calm till he reached the fourth jhana, a state of great equanimity, mental brightness and purity.” Note again that the Buddha did not enter the formless jhanas: such jhanas could only be attained through a will-based suppression of the thinking processes to achieve a blank mind. Just as self-mortification stops the body from functioning in a healthy fashion, the suppression of thoughts by forceful concentration blocks any possibility of insight. In both cases practitioners were misled by the new will-based “heroic” ego-centred consciousness now shaping their approach to life. Recovery of the earlier positive mood of a harmonious relationship with reality could not be “achieved” by dint of sheer will-power, it had to be, as Japanese 13th century master Dogen said,“dropped into.”


Peter Harvey – An Introduction to Buddhism: Teachings, History and Practice (2013) 

Thomas McEvilley – The Shape of Ancient Thought (2002)

Gautama’s Great Departure from palatial life