Brahmanas and Sramanas


Regarding ancient philosophy, Megasthenes1 states:

All that has been said regarding nature by the ancients is asserted also by philosophers out of Greece, on the one part in India by the Brachmanes, and on the other in Syria by the people called the Jews.

Megasthenes also states that the Jewish writing is the earliest of all these. Also, the Jews divided their scriptures into three books, often called the TaNaK:

Torah (Books of Moses)

N'vi-im (Prophets)

K'tuvim (Writings)

The Jewish dispersion spread worldwide including India after the breakup of the Israel and Judah around the 6th c BC.

The society of India in Megasthenes time was divided in seven classes. The philosophers are the first in rank but form the smallest class in point of number. Their services are employed privately by persons who wish to offer sacrifices or perform other sacred rites, and also publicly by the kings at what is called the Great Synod, wherein at the beginning of the new year all the philosophers are gathered together before the king at the gates, when any philosopher who may have committed any useful suggestion to writing, or observed any means for improving crops and the cattle, or for promoting the public interests, declares it publicly. If any one is detected giving false information thrice, the law condemns him to be silent for the rest of his life, but he who gives sound advice is exempted from paying taxes or contributions.

The second class consists of the husbandmen who form the bulk of the population, and are in disposition most mild and gentle. They are exempted from military service and cultivate the land undisturbed by fear. They never go to town, either take part in its tumults, or for any other purpose.

The third class consists of herdsmen and hunters who alone are allowed to hunt and to keep cattle. The fourth class consists of those who work at trades, of those who vend wares, and those who are employed in bodily labor. The fifth class consists of fighting men. The sixth class consists of the overseers, to whom is assigned the duty of watching all that goes on, and making reports secretly to the king. The seventh class consists of the councilors and assessors of the king. To them belong the highest posts of the government, the tribunals of justice, and the general administration of public affairs.

No one is allowed to marry out of his class or exchange one profession or trade for another, or follow more than one business. However, an exception is made in favor of the philosopher who for his virtue is allowed this privilege. The division of the society into seven classes is also recorded by Arrian1.

Megasthenes makes a distinction in the philosophers. He makes a division of the philosophers saying that they are two kinds - one he calls the Brachmanes and the other the Sarmanes. He states,

The Brachmanes are best esteemed for they are more consistent in their opinions. They live in a simple style and lie on beds with rushes or skins. They abstain from animal food and sexual pleasures and spend their time in listening to serious discourse and in imparting their knowledge to such as will listen to them. Though after living in this manner for 37 years, they return to regular life of ease, eat flesh, marry many wives and have children.

The Sarmanes live in the woods, where they subsist on leaves of trees and wild fruits, and wear garments made from the bark of trees. They abstain from sexual intercourse and from wine. The Sarmanes knew no God, and Buddhist and Jains who are agnostics, are classified in this group.

Megasthenes makes a further distinction amongst the Brachmanes. In one instance he states that among the Brachmanes in India a sect of philosophers who adopt an independent life, and abstain from animal food and all victuals cooked by fire, being content to subsist upon fruits, which they do not gather from the trees, but pick up when they have dropped to the ground, and their drink is the water of the river Tagabena (probably the Tungabahadra, a large affluent of the Krishna). Throughout life they go about naked, saying that the body has been given by the Deity as a covering for the soul. They hold that God is light, but not such light as we see with the eye, not such as the sun or fire, but God is with them the WORD, by which term they do not mean articulate speech, but the discourse of reason, whereby the hidden mysteries of knowledge are discerned by the wise. They maintain that all men are held in bondage, like prisoners of war, to their own innate enemies, the sensual appetites, gluttony, anger, joy, grief, longing desire, and such like, while it is only the man who has triumphed over these enemies goes to God.

Hence in ancient India, prior to the Christian era, there were two types of philosophers - Brachmanes and Sarmanes, also called in literature as Brahmanas and Sramanas, who were theists and agnostics respectively. Also amongst the Brahmanas, there were some who lived an austere life while others though living an austere life for a while, transitioned to regular family life with comforts.

Hence in ancient India, prior to the Christian era, there were two types of philosophers - Brachmanes and Sarmanes, also called in literature as Brahmanas and Samanas, who were theists and agnostics respectively. Buddha is often referred to as samana Gautama. Also amongst the Brahmanas, there were some who lived an austere life while others though living an austere life for a while, transitioned to regular family life with comforts.

Many scholars link the Brahmanes (or Brahmanas) with the Vedic ancestors of the modern day Brahmins and the Tevijja Sutta is typically quoted as evidence. However, With the above evidence in the background, lets investigate the Tevijja Sutta. First in verse 2 we see that these Brahmanas were wealthy.

Now at that time many very distinguished and wealthy Brahmans were staying at Manasakata; to wit, Kanki the Brahman, Tarukkha the Brahman, Pokkharasadi the Brahman, Janussoni the Brahman, Todeyya the Brahman, and other very distinguished and wealthy Brahmans.

Then we see in verse 10 that these Brahmanas taught various paths of salvation to Brahman

'Concerning the true path and the false, Gotama. Various Brahmans, Gotama, teach various paths. The Addhariya Brahmans, the Tittiriya Brahmans, the Chandoka Brahmans [the Chandava Brahmans], the Bavharija Brahmans. Are all those saving paths? Are they all paths which will lead him, who acts according to them, into a state of union with Brahma?

'Just, Gotama, as near a village or a town there are many and various paths, yet they all meet together in the village -- just in that way are all the various paths taught by various Brahmans -- the Addhariya Brahmans, the Tittiriya Brahmans, the Chandoka, Brahmans, the Bavharija Brahmans. Are all these saving paths? Are they all paths which will lead him, who acts according to them, into a state of union with Brahma?'

Brahman is defined by the Brahma Sutras (1.1.2) as the Omniscient, Omnipotent, all merciful Being from whom proceed the origin of all things. To a Brahmana, Brahman is God.

Regarding the three Vedas, there is nothing in the Tevijja Sutta to indicate that it refers to the Rig, Yajur and Sama, rather the opposite seems apparent. On the contrary in verse 25 of the the Tevijja Sutta Buddha clearly states that calling on Indra, Soma and Varuna are non-Brahmanic qualities.

'In just the same way, Vasettha, do the Brahmans versed in the Three Vedas, -- omitting the practice of those qualities which really make a man a Brahman, and adopting the practice of those qualities which really make men non-Brahmans -- say thus: "Indra we call upon, Soma we call upon, Varuna we call upon, Isana we call upon, Pajapati we call upon, Brahma we call upon!" Verily, Vasettha, that those Brahmans versed in the Three Vedas, but omitting the practice of those qualities which really make a man a Brahman, and adopting the practice of those qualities which really make men non-Brahmans -- that they, by reason of their invoking and praying and hoping and praising, should, after death and when the body is dissolved, become united with Brahma verily such a condition of things can in no wise be!'

Also as indicated earlier, the Jewish scriptures familiar worldwide are certainly a possiblity as the three Vedas. Also from verse 25, we can conclude that the Rig Vedic practices were in existence, however, these were considered evil and Buddha praises in verse 81 those Brahmanas who live an austere life throughout their lives

'Then you say, Vasettha, that the Bhikkhu is free from household and worldly cares, and that Brahma is free from household and worldly cares. Is therethen agreement and likeness between the Bhikkhu and Brahma?'

'There is, Gotama!

Very good, Vasettha. Then in sooth, Vasettha, that the Bhikkhu who is free from household cares should after death, when the body is dissolved, become united with Brahma, who is the same -- such a condition of things is every way possible!

'And so you say, Vasettha, that the Bhikkhu is free from anger, and free from malice, pure in mind, and master of himself; and that Brahma is free from anger, and free from malice, pure in mind, and master of himself. Then in sooth, Vasettha, that the Bhikkhu who is free from anger, free from malice, pure in mind, and master of himself should after death, when the body is dissolved, become united with Brahma, who is the same-such a condition of things is every way possible!'

The word Bhikku means disciple. Hence what we see here are the Brahmanas as described by Megasthenes and these are distinct from those following the Rig Vedic ways, which is considered non-Brahmanic.

Unfortunately, translating Brahmanas as presently day Brahmins seems to be a common problem today amongst some scholars. A scholar named John Richards (on the web) has translated the Dhammapada, verse 388 as

A brahmin is called so by breaking with evil deeds. It is by pious behaviour that a man is called a man of religion, and by casting out blemishes one is called one gone forth.

However, another web site correctly translates the same verse as

Because he has discarded evil, he is called a Brahmana; because he lives in peace, he is called a Samana; because he gives up the impurities, he is called a Pabbajita - recluse.

_____________________

1Ancients India as described by Megasthenes and Arrian (A translation of the fragments of the Indika of Megasthenes collected by Dr. Schwanbeck and if the first part of the Indika of Arrian), by J.W.McCrindle, Trubner & Co, London, 1877.

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