The Two Sources of Indian Asceticism

The Two Sources of Indian Asceticism

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Item Code: IDI971
Author: Johannes Bronkhorst
Edition: 1998
ISBN: 9788120815513
Pages: 117
Cover: Hardcover
Other Details 8.8" X 5.8"
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From the Jacket:

This book argues that the Indian ascetic traditions have two independent sources, the one Vedic, the other non-Vedic. This point of view has been expressed here and there in the scholarly literature, but it has never yet been argued in detail on the basis of textual evidence. The primary evidence is as follows: Early Indian literature - primarily the Epics, Buddhist and Jaina literature - explicitly differentiates between two types of ascetics, who distinguish themselves from each other in their aims, as well as in various other respects.

In a previous study, The Two Traditions of Meditation in Ancient India (1986). Johannes Bronkhorst published a careful analysis of the meditational traditions of the early Buddhist and Jains. The present volume is concerned with early Hindu traditions of asceticism, in particular in relation to the theory of the four asramas. With characteristic acuity. Broukhorst analyses the early sources, mainly Dharmasutra texts, the early Upanisads, and the Mahabharata, and present his arguments with admirable conciseness and clarity.

The basic problem - which is also the point of departure of his discussion - is the contradiction between previous theories concerning the origin of asceticism in Hinduism: some scholars have sought this origin in certain features of the Vedic sacrifice, while others have stressed its manifestly non-Vedic aspects. Bronkhorst proposes a third solution, viz. that "Indian asceticism might have two source, the one Vedic, the other non-Vedic".

Briefly stated, Bronkhorst argues, on the basis of careful textual analysis, that there were originally no less than "four clearly distinguishable, and distinguished, forms of ascetic life. Two of these four show no sign of having any inherent connection with the Vedic sacrificial tradition: they are the path of mortification and the path of insight, both of which have an intimate link with the belief in rebirth as a result of one's actions. The other two forms of ascetic life... are connected with the Vedic sacrificial tradition, but their link to each other is less evident. There is, on the one had, the Vedic vanaprastha, who lives a life of a sacrificer, but with a number of additional restrictions and mortifications. And on the other hand there is the renunciation (samnyasa) of the aged sacrificer, who renounces everything including his sacrificial habits; only his fires he keeps, but in a different form: they are interiorized". - The second part of the book elaborates and further argues the justification of this conclusion.

The immensely important role which asceticism in a broad sense of the term has played - and indeed continues to play - in Indian religions (including Buddhism) certainly justifies the effort to arrive at a better understanding of its origins. Bronkhorst's study is a major contribution in this respect, and surely will not fail to stimulate further research.

About the Author:

JOHANNES BRONKHORST was born in 1946 in the Netherlands. Indological studies in Poona (Doctorate 1979) and Leiden (Doctorate 1980). Since 1987 Professor of Sanskrit and Indian studies at the University of Lausanne.


This book promises, in its title, to deal with the two sources of Indian asceticism. This is somewhat misleading. For direct information about these sources does not appear to be available. The oldest literary remains of India, primarily the Rgveda, do not contain unambiguous information about the object of our interest, and nor does the archaeological evidence. Speculations can be based on them, but no certain, or very probable conclusions.

The somewhat younger literature - thought perhaps already far removed from the sources concerned - is far more interesting in this respect. It shows a clear awareness on the part of its authors that there were two different kinds, or currents, of asceticism. It also shows the tendency of these two currents to unite, and to become ever more indistinguishable as time goes by. It therefore allows us to conclude that they were distinct from the beginning. In other words, the two currents have, or rather had, two different sources.

This much seems clear, and certain. More precise information about the sources themselves is hard to come by. As said above, the early Vedic texts and the archaeological evidence do not help us much. The present study therefore largely ignores them.

There is another word in the title that requires elucidation. It is asceticism. This word is here used in a rather general sense: it covers the whole range of physical and mental exercises from extreme mortification to certain forms of 'gentle' meditation, it being understood that all these forms of asceticism constitute the whole, or at least a major part, of the life of the ascetics concerned.

The preparation of this volume has taken several years, during which I have had the opportunity to discuss its contents with various colleagues. I thank all those whose comments have enabled me to further clarify different points. Most of all I thank Prof. Gerald J. LARSON, who went through the final draft, and made a number of helpful suggestions.

Preface to the second edition

This edition is largely identical to the first one, published by Peter Lang, Bern, in 1993. The occasion has however been grasped to correct minor errors, mainly typographical, in the main text. Only the introduction has been rearranged to some extent. Some observations - dealing with new publications or publications that have belatedly come to my attention - have been added to the footnotes. These publications have themselves been added to the bibliography. New footnotes can be recognized by the use of an asterisk (*). Additions to existing footnotes are indicated as such. For ease of comparison, the page numbers of the first edition are indicated in the margin.

**Contents and Sample Pages**

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