Early Indian Buddhism


This isn’t a systematic exposition of the gradual spread. The Buddhists were called ‘bald pate Sramanas’. There were six schools of Sramana, which means, literally, ‘someone who practices austerities’. It was as a Sramana that the Buddha left the palace and practised austerities.

Some of the Sramanas were materialists. Some of them say quite openly, “The sacrificial rites, of which the Brahmins have a monopoly, are simply a swindle. Don’t believe in them. When you’re dead, you’re dead. All their talk of karma is nonsense.”

One of them says, “If a man went north of the Ganges, and murdered, and tortured, and stole and plundered, and set buildings on fire, he would make no bad karma. If another man went south of the Ganges and gave in charity, and helped the weak, and healed the sick, he would make no good karma. You live as a combination of the four elements. When you die, it’s finished, so borrow money and live as happily as you can. When you’re dead, they can’t pursue you.”

These views were spoken very openly, and it’s a great tribute to the India of the time that pretty well anybody could say anything. They were met, and they met each other by debate that was supposed to be rational, and also by the prestige of austerities. Curiously, even the materialists practised austerity. Unless you practised them, you would hardly be heard, but it formed a valuable contribution.

Buddha was one of these protesters. They shaved their heads. He’s contrasted with the Sannyasis, the renunciates of Hinduism, who did not shave their heads. Another important difference is this: that in Buddhism the people could renounce at any age. This was forbidden by Manu, the laws of Manu in Hinduism.

Manu is concerned to uphold the social order. You must be, if you’re a Brahmin, a student. Then you must be a householder. You must found a family. Ideally, you should leave a son. When you can hand over to your son, you retire to the forest and practise austerities. Only then, finally, you become a wandering ascetic devoted to attaining liberation. Manu even says, “It’s wrong for a man, in the householder state of life, to think about liberation.”

This contrasts very strongly. One of the accusations against the Buddhists was that they were undermining the structure of society by allowing renunciation at any age, but we should recognise that Buddha, in a sense, accepted this. He didn’t renounce without leaving a son, and his family was properly provided for. There was no anxiety for their future. However, he was a Sramana, and such he calls himself.

They wandered, lived under a tree or in a cave, except during the rainy season. Then they stopped wandering and they stayed in one place. The lay folk, who were impressed from the very beginning with Buddhism, would build, first of all, very simple huts for a renunciate to live in – a Buddhist renunciate to live in. Buddha allowed this, and he allowed communities of huts.

Devadatta, who’s had rather a bad press, was very against this sort of semi-permanent residence, even though it was only for the rainy season. Devadatta foresaw that people would go on staying in them after the rainy season was over, and this is ultimately what happened. Monasteries were formed, where the monk stayed, finally, for the whole year.

The other Sramanas, except for the Jains, didn’t form an order like this, and they’ve all died out, so that it can be said that Buddha foresaw that an order would be necessary, with a fixed place of residence – for some, at least. When the Buddhism allowed laymen, those laymen entered Buddhism, but they remained in Hindu society.

It has been estimated that it’s very unlikely that there were any special Buddhist ceremonies for the naming of the child, for wedding, or for funeral. The evidence is that they continued with the same Hindu ceremonies. The Buddha allowed this, that the Hindus’ structure should remain, but it would not give liberation. He allowed, for instance, prayers to the Goddess of the Earth before a building, or to a deity of a stream.

The Buddhists were part of Hindu society. We tend to think of a difference in belief as immediately separating people from their society. This is partly due to our history. Briefly speaking, Christianity and Islam, the first converts were women and slaves, in the majority: the underprivileged. They both suffered very severe persecution. As a result, a sort of background of violence attended the birth of these religions.

Buddhism was a religion of the cities, of the educated. It went in at the top, in almost all the countries which it travelled to. In India also, it was a religion of the cities. From the very beginning, it was patronised by the well off, as well as by the underprivileged, so there’s no association as we have with the word ‘heretic’.

There used to be a statute on the English Statute book, called ‘Concerning the Heretic who Ought to be Burnt.’ Nothing like that in India. There have been very, very minor oppressions and persecutions, but in general Indian kings, whatever religion they belonged to, were tolerant and kindly to those of other religion.

For instance, Ashoka , although a Buddhist and a great Emperor, would give donations to the Ajivikas. They were Sramanas and they were completely opposed to Buddhism.

© Trevor Leggett

Titles in this series are:

Part 1: Early Indian Buddhism

Part 2: Terrific austerities are condemned

Part 3: Buddhists developed strong logic

Part 4: Ashoka’s Dhamma