We shall now have a look at the groups where (1) meditative (2) ascetic practices leading to (3) liberation of the soul – my proto-definition of yoga – emerged as a cohesive cluster. These points were the hallmarks of the Sramanas.
In Buddhist texts documenting the period 500-400 BCE and later, we can read about ascetic forest wanderers renouncing village and town based life. These new groups were often called Paribbjajaka (in Sanskrit: Parivrajaka, meaning ‘houseless’) or Sramanas (“strivers”). The Sramanas, as for instance Buddha and the Jain Mahavira, came from the central Gangetic plain, the Magadha cultural area which was an advanced Iron Age society. This region was also influenced by Vedic culture but not dominated by it in the way we see in the areas of orthodox Brahmin-Vedic cultures of Northwest India (five Punjab rivers, early parts of Ganges). The Magadha area was much further advanced in its civilisation and empire building process than the Vedic heartland. Agriculture, productive cultivation of rice and the use of iron, Archaic state building, increased specialisation and division of labour and urbanisation made the former pastoral life cattle raising uncommon.
As we have seen, politically the area was divided into 16 kingdoms and 16 republic confederations (Gana-sanghas) all combatting each other. A group of noble warriors – the Kshatriyas – politically dominated these societies. The Sramanas were closely linked to the Kshatriyas in many ways. Many of their leaders came from the Kshatriya strata and many Kshatriyas in old age joined the Sramanas in the forests. The Kshatriyas have been characterised as follows, highlighting them as invading foreign warrior clans, a notion well known from many instances of early European history and elsewhere:
The rise of this class can probably be compared with the Norman conquest of England, as the growth of a royal caste following the subjugation of a nation by foreigners. The Kshatriyas included not only the members of the royal houses and their kinsmen and nobles but also royal military vassals and feudal chiefs corresponding practically to the barons of early English history (Chatterji 2007, p. 410)
With the advent of the Axial Age civilisation, the Kshatriyas were caught up in lasting conflict between their emerging petty states ending with the establishment of the Mauryan Empire a couple of hundred years later141. This was the general process of the Axial Age civilisation, which simultaneously revolutionised Mediterranean countries and China. The
Axial Age civilisation was the flowering of noble warrior clans like the Kshatriyas, who built up centralised Empires based on military conquest and slavery. Already at the time of Buddha the large kingdoms of Kosala and Magadha dominated and threatened the so-called Khattiya -the confederations of “aristocratic” landowners – to which Buddha belonged146. Many small noblemen and monarchs lost out to invading and victorious princes. We are talking about a period of significant structural change in the underlying eco-material and political conditions: republican confederations in retreat, contending kingdoms in a process of monopolisation, the establishment of trans-regional ruling aristocratic warrior clans. In this context two social groups became central to the genealogy of yoga: the Sramanas and the Kshatriyas.
It was in such turbulent times – as it was in the other Axial Age societies – that new strong groups of Sramanas (i.e. itinerant intellectuals) evolved. There were many different kinds -some sources mention up to sixty different sects or groups. The culture of leaving the village to roam the forest was not new to Northern India. This way of living had since long been known to ascetic forest wanderers, as several scholars claim (Chakravarti 1996, Dutt 1924, 1996 ed. and Rhys Davis 1908, 2004 ed.). It was an ancient way of living echoing what I have called Shamanism. In other words we are talking about the ‘peripheral Shamans’ : Shamans socially displaced at the edge of society from where they now exerted their symbolic power. Under these extraordinary social changes and perpetual wars, there might have been a revival of this cultural field. By “emulating” or entering the ancient cultural field of the Shaman the individual exiled Kshatriya solved his social crisis. In this way he stepped into a cultural field, which imbued him with respect and status.
Thus an old cultural field was revived at this point in history by the new types of outcasts originating in the ruling strata losing their power by the advent of larger regional kingdoms.147 They compensated their loss of political and economical capital by replacing it with cultural capital. Accordingly we see that founding leaders like Buddha and the Jain reformer Mahavira came from the Kshatriyas – the noble warrior class who were often highly educated (Chatterji 2007, Graeber 2011). These elites in social retreat, just copied the lifestyle of ascetic mendicants.
Out of this process of re-positioning emerged new Sramana groups of highly sophisticated people, representing the intellectual and cultural elite of society, enjoying gathering together; discussing and exchanging advanced and often critical intellectual ideas. These groups were not only “religious” oriented sects; many of them were rather perceived as physicians, social reformers and teachers of nature, a new kind of intellectual specialist who reflected the increased division of labour that takes place in any process of civilisation.
From Buddhist texts, it is clear that a majority of the monks were recruited from upper echelons of society (Benavides 2000, Chakravarti 1996). A large proportion were even converted Brahmins. So the Sramanas were closely related to the transforming situation of the upper classes – especially the hegemonic aristocratic warrior class. Hence we also see that groups like the Buddhist and the Jains simulated and mirrored the organisation forms of the Kshatriyas. The uniformed and institutionalised life of the monks shared many expressions and traits with the political organisations of the Kshatriyas republics and their military lifestyles (Obeskeyere 2002). However, as modern readers we should not be tempted to associate the
Kshatriyas with what we normally understand by ‘warriors’. We should rather think of them as the ruling Greek and later Roman aristocratic families who produced thinkers like Plato and Seneca.
In summary, as the whole Sramana movement has many hallmarks of intellectualism, education and urbanisation common to the advent of the Axial Age civilisation, I have concluded that it was clearly an elitist upper strata movement.148 In that respect they can be compared to similar intellectual groups appearing in China and Greece at the same time with whom they shared many themes and ideas (Graeber 2011, McEvilly 2002, Bellah 2011).