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Jain ascetic

A shramana (Sanskrit श्रमण śramaṇa, Pāli शमण samaṇa) is a wandering monk in certain ascetic traditions of ancient India, including Jainism, Buddhism, and Ājīvika religion (now extinct). Famous śramaṇa include religious leaders Mahavira and Gautama Buddha.

Traditionally, a śramaṇa is one who has renounced the world and leads an ascetic life of austerity for the purpose of spiritual development and liberation. According to typical śramaṇa worldviews, a human being is responsible for their own deeds and will reap the fruits of those deeds for good or ill. Salvation, therefore, may be achieved by anybody irrespective of caste, creed, color or culture (in contradistinction to certain historical caste-based traditions) providing the necessary effort is made. The cycle of rebirth (saṃsāra) to which every individual is subject is viewed as the cause and substratum of misery. The goal of every person is to evolve a way to escape from the cycle of rebirth but Sramanic traditions dispense with the rites and rituals of popular religion as factors in the attainment of emancipation and emphasise instead the paramount importance of ascetic endeavour and personal conduct.


The Sanskrit word śramaṇa is derived from the Sanskrit verbal root śram "to exert effort, labor or to perform austerity". Śramaṇa thus means "one who strives" in Sanskrit.

A traditional Sanskrit definition is śramati tapasyatīti śramaṇaḥ ("a śramaṇa is he who exerts himself and performs religious austerities"). One of the earliest uses of the word is in Taittiriya Aranyaka (2-7-1) with the meaning of 'performer of austerities'.

Buddhist commentaries associate the word's etymology with the quieting (samita) of evil (pāpa) as in the following phrase from the Dhammapada, verse 265: samitattā pāpānaŋ ʻsamaṇoʼ ti pavuccati ("someone who has pacified evil is called 'samaṇa'").[{{fullurl:{{wikipedia:FULLPAGENAME}}}}#endnote_PED_samana]

Various forms of the word became known throughout Central and East Asia, largely through the spread of Buddhism in that area. According to a still disputed etymology, the word shaman, used by the Tungus people for their religious practitioners, may be borrowed from a local variant of the word śramaṇa.

Śramaṇa movement

Several śramaṇa movements are known to have existed before the 6th century BCE, where they peaked during the times of Mahavira and Buddha. Śramaṇas adopted a path alternate to the Vedic rituals to achieve salvation, while renouncing household life. They typically engaged in three types of activities: austerities, meditation, and associated theories (or views). As spiritual authorities, at times śramaṇa were at variance with traditional Brahmin authority, and they often recruited members from Brahmin communities themselves, such as Cānakya and Śāriputra[{{fullurl:{{wikipedia:FULLPAGENAME}}}}#endnote_Gethin_10].

The Views of Six Samana in the Pali Canon
(based on the Sāmaññaphala Sutta1)
Question: "Is it possible to point out the fruit of the
contemplative life, visible in the here and now?"1
samaṇa view (diṭṭhi)
Amoralism: denies any reward or
punishment for either good or bad deeds.
Fatalism: we are powerless;
suffering is pre-destined.
with death, all is annihilated.
Eternalism: Matter, pleasure, pain and
the soul are eternal and do not interact.
Restraint: be endowed with, cleansed by
and suffused with the avoidance of all evil.2
Agnosticism: "I don't think so. I don't think in
that way or otherwise. I don't think not or not not."
Notes: 1. DN 2 (Thanissaro, 1997; Walshe, 1995, pp. 91-109).
2. DN-a (Ñāṇamoli & Bodhi, 1995, pp. 1258-59, n. 585).

Mahāvīra, the 24th Jina, and Gautama Buddha were leaders of their śramaṇa orders. According to Jain literature and the Buddhist Pali Canon, there were also some other śramaṇa leaders at that time[{{fullurl:{{wikipedia:FULLPAGENAME}}}}#endnote_Gethin_11][{{fullurl:{{wikipedia:FULLPAGENAME}}}}#endnote_common_words]. Thus, in the Mahāparinibbāna Sutta (DN 16), a śramaṇa named Subhadda mentions:

"those ascetics [samaṇa] and Brahmins who have orders and followings, who are teachers, well-known and famous as founders of schools, and popularly regarded as saints, like Pūraṇa Kassapa, Makkhali Gosāla, Ajita Kesakambalī, Pakudha Kaccāyana, Sañjaya Belaṭṭhaputta and the Nigaṇṭha Nātaputta..."[{{fullurl:{{wikipedia:FULLPAGENAME}}}}#endnote_Walshe_268].

Nigaṇṭha Nātaputta (Pāli; Skt.: Nirgrantha Jñātaputra) refers to Mahāvīra[{{fullurl:{{wikipedia:FULLPAGENAME}}}}#endnote_Titthiyas]. In regard to the above other teachers identified in the Pali Canon, Jain literature mentions Pūraṇa Kassapa, Makkhali Gosāla and Sañjaya Belaṭṭhaputta. (The Pali Canon is the only source for Ajita Kesakambalī and Pakudha Kaccāyana.)[{{fullurl:{{wikipedia:FULLPAGENAME}}}}#endnote_Bhaskar_49]

Gautama Buddha regarded extreme austerities and self-mortification as not useful or necessary in leading to enlightenment and recommended instead a "middle way" between the extremes of hedonism and self-mortification. Devadatta, a cousin of Gautama, caused a split in the Buddhist saṅgha by demanding more rigorous practices. Followers of Mahāvīra continued to practice fasting and other austerities.

The śramaṇa idea of wandering began to change early in Buddhism: The bhikṣu started living in monasteries (Pali, Skt. vihāra), at first during the rainy seasons, but eventually permanently. In medieval Jainism also, the tradition of wandering waned, but it got revived in the 19th century. Similar changes have regularly occurred in Buddhism.

Śramaṇa philosophy

Indian philosophy is a confluence of Śramaṇic and Vedic streams that co-existed and influenced each other.[1] Śramaṇas held a pessimistic world view of samsara as full of suffering. They believed in Ahimsa and rigorous ascetic practices. They believed in Karma and Moksa and viewed rebirth as undesirable.[2] As opposed to Śramaṇas, Vedics held an optimistic world view of the richness in worldly life. They believed in efficacy of rituals and sacrifices, performed by a privileged group of people, who could improve their life by pleasing certain Gods. The Sramanic ideal of mendicancy and renunciation, that the worldly life was full of suffering and that emancipation required giving up of desires and withdrawal into a lonely and contemplative life, was in stark contrast with the Brahminical ideal of an active and ritually punctuated life. Traditional Vedic belief held that a man is born with an obligation to study the Vedas, to procreate and rear male offspring and perform sacrifices. Only in his later life he may meditate on the mysteries of life. The idea of devoting one's whole life to mendicancy seemed to disparage the whole process of social life and obligations.[3] Because the sramanas rejected the Vedas, Brahmins labelled Sramana philosophy "nastika darsana" (heterodox philosophy).

The following beliefs and concepts formed the common basis of all Śramaṇa philosophies:-

  • Denial of creator and omnipotent God
  • Rejection of Vedas as revealed texts
  • Belief in Karma and rebirth, and Samsara and transmigration of Soul
  • Belief in purification of soul to attain moksa through Ahimsa, renunciation and austerities
  • Denial of efficacy of sacrifices and rituals for purification
  • Rejection of caste system

Ultimately, the sramana philosophical concepts like ahimsa, karma, re-incarnation, renunciation, samsara and moksa were accepted and incorporated by the Brahamanas in their beliefs and practices.[4] According to Gavin Flood, concepts like karmas and reincarnation entered the mainstream brahaminical thought from the sramana or the renouncer traditions.[5] According to D. R. Bhandarkar, Ahimsa dharma of sramanas made an impression on the followers of Brahamanism and their law books and practices.[6]

Following are the two main schools of Sramana Philosophy that have continued since ancient times in India:

Jain philosophy

Jainism derives its philosophy from the teachings and lives of the twenty-four Tirthankaras, of whom Mahavira was the last. Jain Acaryas - Umasvati (Umasvami), Kundakunda, Haribhadra, Yasovijaya and others further developed and reorganized Jain philosophy in its present form. The distinguishing features of Jain philosophy are its belief in the independent existence of soul and matter, the denial of a creative and omnipotent God, belief in an eternal and uncreated universe, a strong emphasis on non-violence, an accent on relativity and multiple facets of truth, and morality and ethics based on liberation of the soul. The Jain philosophy of Anekantavada and Syadvada, which posits that the truth or reality is perceived differently from different points of view, and that no single point of view is the complete truth, have made very important contributions to ancient Indian philosophy, especially in the areas of skepticism and relativity. [7]

Buddhist philosophy

Buddhist philosophy is a system of beliefs based on the teachings of Siddhartha Gautama, an Indian prince later known as the Buddha. Buddhism is a non-theistic philosophy, one whose tenets are not especially concerned with the existence or nonexistence of a God or gods. The question of God is largely irrelevant in Buddhism, though some sects (notably Tibetan Buddhism) do venerate a number of gods drawn in from local indigenous belief systems. The Buddha criticized all concepts of metaphysical being and non-being. A major distinguishing feature of its philosophy is the rejection of a permanent, self-existent soul (atman).

Usage of "Śramaṇa" in Jain texts

In Jainism the monks and ascetics are known as Śramaṇas , while the Jain laymen are called as Sravakas. The religion or code of conduct of the monks is known as Śramaṇa Dharma. Jain canons like Ācāranga Sūtra[8] and other later texts contain a multitude of references to Sramanas with one of the verse defining a good Sramana :

"Disregarding (all calamities) he lives together with clever monks, insensitive to pain and pleasure, not hurting the movable and immovable (beings), not killing, bearing all: so is described the great sage, a good Sramana."
- Ācāranga Sūtra. 1097

The chapter on renunciation contains references to vow of non-possession by the Sramanas :

"I shall become a Sramana who owns no house, no property, no sons, no cattle, who eats what others give him; I shall commit no sinful action; Master, I renounce to accept anything that has not been given.' Having taken such vows, (a mendicant) should not, on entering a village or scot-free town, take himself, or induce others to take, or allow others to take, what has not been given."
-Ācāranga Sūtra, 799

Acaranga Sutra speaks of three names of Mahavira the twenty fourth Tirthankara , one of which was a Sramana :

"The Venerable ascetic Mahavira belonged to the Kasyapa gotra. His three names have thus been recorded by tradition: by his parents he was called Vardhamana, because he is devoid of love and hate; (he is called) Sramana (i.e. ascetic), because he sustains dreadful dangers and fears, the noble nakedness, and the miseries of the world; the name Venerable Ascetic Mahavira has been given to him by the gods."
- Ācāranga Sūtra 954

Another Jain canon, Sūtrakrtanga[9] describes Sramana as an ascetic who has taken Mahavratas or five great vows:

"He is a Sramana for this reason that he is not hampered by any obstacles, that he is free from desires, (abstaining from) property, killing, telling lies, and sexual intercourse; (and from) wrath, pride, deceit, greed, love, and hate: thus giving up every passion that involves him in sin, (such as) killing of beings. (Such a man) deserves the name of a Sramana, who subdues (moreover) his senses, is well qualified (for his task), and abandons his body."
- Sūtrakrtanga, Book 1: 16.3

In one of the disputations with other heretical teachers, prince Ardraka, who became a disciple of Mahavira, tells Makkhali Gosala the qualities of Sramanas :

"He who (teaches) the great vows (of monks) and the five small vows (of the laity 3), the five Âsravas and the stoppage of the Âsravas, and control, who avoids Karman in this blessed life of Sramanas, him I call a Sramana."
- Sūtrakrtanga, Book 2: 6.6

Śramaṇa in Western literature

Various references to śramaṇas, with the name more or less distorted, have been handed down in Western literature about India.

Nicolaus of Damascus (c.10 CE)

Nicolaus of Damascus is famous for his account of an embassy sent by an Indian king "named Pandion (Pandyan kingdom?) or, according to others, Porus" to Caesar Augustus around 13 CE. He met with the embassy at Antioch. The embassy was bearing a diplomatic letter in Greek, and one of its members was a "Sarmano" (Σαρμανο) who burnt himself alive in Athens to demonstrate his faith. The event made a sensation and was quoted by Strabo[{{fullurl:{{wikipedia:FULLPAGENAME}}}}#endnote_Strabo] and Dio Cassius[{{fullurl:{{wikipedia:FULLPAGENAME}}}}#endnote_Dio_Cassius]. A tomb was made to the "Sarmano", still visible in the time of Plutarch, which bore the mention "ΖΑΡΜΑΝΟΧΗΓΑΣ ΙΝΔΟΣ ΑΠΟ ΒΑΡΓΟΣΗΣ" (Zarmanochēgas indos apo Bargosēs – The sramana master from Barygaza in India).

Clement of Alexandria (150-211)

Clement of Alexandria makes several mentions of the Sramanas, both in the context of the Bactrians and the Indians:

"Thus philosophy, a thing of the highest utility, flourished in antiquity among the barbarians, shedding its light over the nations. And afterwards it came to Greece. First in its ranks were the prophets of the Egyptians; and the Chaldeans among the Assyrians; and the Druids among the Gauls; and the Samanaeans among the Bactrians ("Σαμαναίοι Βάκτρων"); and the philosophers of the Celts; and the Magi of the Persians, who foretold the Saviour's birth, and came into the land of Judaea guided by a star. The Indian gymnosophists are also in the number, and the other barbarian philosophers. And of these there are two classes, some of them called Sarmanae ("Σαρμάναι"), and Brahmanae ("Βραχμαναι")." Clement of Alexandria, "Exhortation to the Heathen" [{{fullurl:{{wikipedia:FULLPAGENAME}}}}#endnote_Clement]

To Clement of Alexandria, "Bactrians" apparently means "Oriental Greek", as in a passage of the Stromata:

"It was after many successive periods of years that men worshipped images of human shape, this practice being introduced by Artaxerxes, the son of Darius, and father of Ochus, who first set up the image of Aphrodité Anaitis at Babylon and Susa; and Ecbatana set the example of worshipping it to the Persians; the Bactrians, to Damascus and Sardis." The Stromata, or Miscellanies, Book I, Clement of Alexandria. [{{fullurl:{{wikipedia:FULLPAGENAME}}}}#endnote_Clement]

Porphyry (233-305)

Porphyry extensively describes the habits of the Sramanas (whom he calls Samanaeans) in his "On Abstinence from Animal Food" Book IV [{{fullurl:{{wikipedia:FULLPAGENAME}}}}#endnote_Porphyry]. He says his information was obtained from "the Babylonian Bardesanes, who lived in the times of our fathers, and was familiar with those Indians who, together with Damadamis, were sent to Caesar":

"For the polity of the Indians being distributed into many parts, there is one tribe among them of men divinely wise, whom the Greeks are accustomed to call Gymnosophists. But of these there are two sects, over one of which the Brahmins preside, but over the other the Samanaeans. The race of the Brahmins, however, receive divine wisdom of this kind by succession, in the same manner as the priesthood. But the Samanaeans are elected, and consist of those who wish to possess divine knowledge." Porphyry, "On abstinence from animal food," Book IV.
"All the Brahmins originate from one stock; for all of them are derived from one father and one mother. But the Samanaeans are not the offspring of one family, being, as we have said, collected from every nation of Indians..." Porphyry, "On abstinence from animal food," Book IV.

On entering the order:

"The Samanaeans are, as we have said, elected. When, however, any one is desirous of being enrolled in their order, he proceeds to the rulers of the city; but abandons the city or village that he inhabited, and the wealth and all the other property that he possessed. Having likewise the superfluities of his body cut off, he receives a garment, and departs to the Samanaeans, but does not return either to his wife or children, if he happens to have any, nor does he pay any attention to them, or think that they at all pertain to him. And, with respect to his children indeed, the king provides what is necessary for them, and the relatives provide for the wife. And such is the life of the Samanaeans. But they live out of the city, and spend the whole day in conversation pertaining to divinity. They have also houses and temples, built by the king". Porphyry, "On abstinence from animal food," Book IV.

On life and death:

"They are so disposed with respect to death, that they unwillingly endure the whole time of the present life, as a certain servitude to nature, and therefore they hasten to liberate their souls from the bodies [with which they are connected]. Hence, frequently, when they are seen to be well, and are neither oppressed, nor driven to desperation by any evil, they depart from life." Porphyry, "On abstinence from animal food", Book IV.

Śramaṇa in contemporary Western culture

German novelist Hermann Hesse, long interested in Eastern, especially Indian, spirituality, wrote Siddhartha, in which the main character becomes a Samana upon leaving his home (where he was a Brahmin).


  1. ^ According to Rhys Davids & Stede (1921-25), "Samaṇa," p. 682: 'an edifying etymology of the word [is at] DhA iii.84: "samita-pāpattā [samaṇa]," cp. Dh 265 "samitattā pāpānaŋ ʻsamaṇoʼ ti pavuccati"....' The English translation of Dh 265 is based on Fronsdal (2005), p. 69.
  2. ^  Gethin (1998), pp. 10-11, 13.
  3. ^  Gethin (1998), p. 11.
  4. ^ In the Buddhist Pāli literature, these non-Buddhist ascetic leaders – including Mahavira – are also referred to as Titthiyas of Tīrthakas.
  5. ^  Bhaskar (1972), n. 49.
  6. ^ Some of terms are common between Jainism and Buddhism, including:
       • Symbols: caitya, stūpa, dharmacakra
       • Terms: arhant, nirvāṇa, saṅgha, ācārya, Jina etc.
    The term pudgala is used by both but with completely different meanings.
  7. ^  Walshe (1995), p. 268.
  8. ^  Strabo, xv, 1, on the immolation of the Sramana in Athens (Paragraph 73)
  9. ^  Dio Cassius, liv, 9.
  10. ^  Clement of Alexandria "Exhortation to the Heathen"
  11. ^  Clement of Alexandria "The Stromata, or Miscellanies" Book I
  12. ^  Porphyry "On abstinence from animal food" Book IV, Paragraphs 17&18.


  • Basham, A. L. (1951). History and Doctrines of the Ajivikas.
  • Bhaskar, Bhagchandra Jain (1972). Jainism in Buddhist Literature. Alok Prakashan: Nagpur. Available on-line at [Note that the on-line version is misattributed to Dr. Hiralal Jain who solely wrote this text's foreword.]
  • Fronsdal, Gil (2005). The Dhammapada: A New Translation of the Buddhist Classic with Annotations. Boston: Shambhala Publications. ISBN 1-59030-380-6.
  • Gethin, Rupert (1998). The Foundations of Buddhism. Oxford: Oxford University Press. ISBN 0-19-289223-1.
  • Hesse, Hermann (1992). Siddhartha (Novel).
  • Ñāṇamoli, Bhikkhu (trans.) and Bodhi, Bhikkhu (ed.) (2001). The Middle-Length Discourses of the Buddha: A Translation of the Majjhima Nikāya. Boston: Wisdom Publications. ISBN 0-86171-072-X.
  • Rhys Davids, T.W. & William Stede (eds.) (1921-5). The Pali Text Society's Pali–English Dictionary. Chipstead: Pali Text Society. A general on-line search engine for the PED is available at
  • Thanissaro Bhikkhu (trans.) (1997). Samaññaphala Sutta: The Fruits of the Contemplative Life (DN 2). Available on-line at
  • Walshe, Maurice O'Connell (trans.) (1995). The Long Discourses of the Buddha: A Translation of the Dīgha Nikāya. Somerville: Wisdom Publications. ISBN 0-86171-103-3.
  1. Dr. Kalghatgi, T. G. 1988 In: Study of Jainism, Prakrit Bharti Academy, Jaipur
  2. Flood, Gavin D. (1996) p. 86-90
  3. Pande, Govindchandra (1994) p. 135
  4. Y. Masih (2000) In : A Comparative Study of Religions, Motilal Banarsidass Publ : Delhi, ISBN 8120808150 ""We know only this much that the doctrine of karma-samsara-jnana-mukti is first seen in the clearest form in the shramanic tradition. It is now even accepted by orthodox bhramins. This doctrine is not clearly spelled out in Rgvedas and not even in the oldest parts of Upanishads called chandogya and Brhadaranyaka." Page 149 "The four pillars of Jainism karma-samsara-jnana-mukti have been assimilated into Hinduism. The Pancamahavrata of Jainism (Satya, Ahimsa…) have been fully adopted by Hinduism though not with the same rigour." Page 237-8
  5. Gavin D. Flood (1996), An Introduction to Hinduism, Cambridge University Press : UK ISBN 0521438780 P. 86
  6. By D. R. Bhandarkar, 1989 "Some Aspects of Ancient Indian Culture" Asian Educational Services 118 pages ISBN 8120604571 p. 80-81
  7. McEvilley, Thomas (2002). The Shape of Ancient Thought. Allworth Communications. p. 335. ISBN 1581152035. 
  8. Jacobi, Hermann (1884). Ācāranga Sūtra, Jain Sutras Part I, Sacred Books of the East, Vol. 22.. 
  9. Jacobi, Hermann (1895). (ed.) Max Müller. ed. Jaina Sutras, Part II : Sūtrakrtanga. Sacred Books of the East, Vol. 45. Oxford: The Clarendon Press. 

See also