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Samana and the sects of Buddha's time

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Samana and the sects of Buddha's time by Ven. Dhammika

The two main religious movements at the time of the Buddha were those of the brahmans and the samanas. I have not been able to check it but I think our word shaman is related to the Pali samana. The brahmans adhered to age old Vedic religion and considered the Vedas to be the ultimate spiritual authority. However, the more forward looking brahmans of the day were starting to doubt the efficacy of Vedic rituals and give more attention to ethics and meditation. In particular, they were increasingly uneasy about Vedic sacrifices which involved the slaughter of animals. However these and other teachers still saw themselves as still within Vedic orthodoxy and so it is more correct that they were the founders of schools rather than sects.

The samanas on the other hand, rejected the Vedas and most Brahmanical beliefs and practices and were considered unorthodox, even heretical, by the brahmans. This brahman disapproval of samanas is well illustrated by Ambattha’s comment that the Buddha and his disciples were ‘petty, shaven menial samanas, the black scum of Brahma’s foot’ (D.I,90). The last part of this insult refers to the Hindu belief that low caste people were created by Brahma, the supreme god, from his feet. Because most samanas ignored caste rules this put them on a par with low castes and outcastes in the eyes of the brahmans. They ignored social norms and expectations, they were usually celibate and in spiritual matters gave precedence to experience rather than scriptural authority. They experimented with meditation, self-mortification, yogic breathing, fasts and sensory deprivation. When, as a result of such practices, an individual had some kind of mystical experience which led him to believe he had attained enlightenment or liberation, he would attract disciples and this would lead to the founding of a sect.

Some of the sects mentioned in the Tipitaka include the Ajivaka (Those of the Pure Life), the Mundaka Savaka (the Shaven Disciples), the Jatila (the Matted-hair Ones), Paribbajaka (the Wanderers), the Majandika, the Medandika (the Trident-bearers), the Aviruddhaka (the Free Ones), the Gotamaka (Gotama’s Disciples) and the Devadhammika (the Godly Ones, A.III,276). These and other samana sects were also collectively known as ‘fords makers’ (titthiya) because they claimed to be able to show the way to ‘cross’ from this world to the next. Soon Buddhists began to use this word for any non-Buddhist samana sect. The two dominant samana sects of the time and the only ones to survive to the present were the Nigantha (The Bondless Ones A.III,276), later known as the Jains and the Sakyaputtas, the Buddhists. The Buddha was often referred to as ‘the samana Gotama’ (D.I,4). There was a great deal of religious switching at the Buddha’s time. Early in the Buddha’s career three famous brothers, the Kassapas, who were the leaders of a band of Jatilas became his disciples bringing all their followers with them (Vin.I,). It was this incident more than any other that drew widespread attention to the Buddha so soon after he started teaching. The two men who later became Buddha’s senior disciples, Sariputta and Moggallana, had both been Ajivakas before becoming Buddhists. Occasionally those who had been the Buddha’s disciples joined other sects, Sunakkhatta being an example of this (D.III,2).


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