Gyana Marga

From Hindupedia, the Hindu Encyclopedia

By Himanshu Bhatt

Gyana Marga or Jnana Marga - the path of Jnana or knowledge, and it is Hindu asceticism. The other 2 paths towards achieving Moksha are Karma Marga and Bhakti Marga.

"In India I found a race of mortals living upon the Earth, but not adhering to it. Inhabiting cities, but not being fixed to them, possessing everything but possessed by nothing." - Apollonius Tyanaeus, 1st century CE

Since the ancient times, two paths (maarga = path) have been laid out before human beings: Karma Marga and the Gyana Marga. Karma Marga: A person has to perform all actions ordained by the scriptures to attain progress in worldly life and also prepare for spirirtual enlightenment.

Gyana or Jnana Marga: Here a person is expected to maintain the body and continue sadhanas or spiritual practices.

Asceticism is found in both non-theistic and theistic traditions within Indian religions. The origins of the practice are ancient and a heritage shared by major Indian religions such as Buddhism, Hinduism and Jainism. These probably developed from a syncretism of Vedic and Sramanic influences.[1]

Asceticism in Indian religions include a spectrum of diverse practices, ranging from the mild self-discipline, self-imposed poverty and simple living typical of Buddhism and Hinduism,[2][3] to more severe austerities and self-mortification practices of monks in Jainism and now extinct Ajivikas in the pursuit of salvation.[4] Some ascetics live as loner hermits relying on whatever food they can find in the forests, then sleep and meditate in caves; others travel from one holy site to another while sustaining their body by begging for food; yet others live in monasteries as monks or nuns.[5] Some ascetics live like priests and preachers, other ascetics are armed and militant,[5] to resist any persecution – a phenomena that emerged after the arrival of Islam in India.[6][7] Self-torture is relatively uncommon practice but one that attracts public attention. In Indian traditions such as Buddhism and Hinduism, self-mortification is typically criticized.[5] However, Indian mythologies also describe numerous ascetic gods or demons who pursued harsh austerities for decades or centuries that helped each gain special powers.[8]


See also: Tapas, Sannyasa

Renunciation from the worldly life, and a pursuit of spiritual life either as a part of monastic community or as a loner, has been a historic tradition of Hinduism since ancient times. The renunciation tradition is called Sannyasa, and this is not the same as asceticism – which typically connotes severe self-denial and self-mortification. Sannyasa often involved a simple life, one with minimal or no material possessions, study, meditation and ethical living. Those who undertook this lifestyle were called Sannyasi, Sadhu, Yati,[9] Bhiksu, Pravrajita/Pravrajitā,[10] and Parivrajaka in Hindu texts.[11] The term with a meaning closer to asceticism in Hindu texts is Tapas, but it too spans a spectrum of meanings ranging from inner heat, to self mortification and penance with austerities, to meditation and self-discipline.[3][12][13]

Asceticism-like practices are hinted in the Vedas, but these hymns have been variously interpreted as referring to early Yogis and loner renouncers. One such mention is in the Kesin hymn of the Rigveda, where Keśins ("long-haired" ascetics) and Munis ("silent ones") are described.[14][15] These Kesins of the Vedic era, are described as follows by Karel Werner:[16]

"The Keśin does not live a normal life of convention. His hair and beard grow longer, he spends long periods of time in absorption, musing and meditating and therefore he is called "sage" (muni). They wear clothes made of yellow rags fluttering in the wind, or perhaps more likely, they go naked, clad only in the yellow dust of the Indian soil. But their personalities are not bound to earth, for they follow the path of the mysterious wind when the gods enter them. He is someone lost in thoughts: he is miles away."[17]

Rig Vedic practices

Penance in the Rig Veda (RV) is known as "tapas" (heat.) The term "tapas" is used in the RV to connote the burning of desires.[18] A story in the RV tells of Dhruva, the son of Uttānapāda (the son of Manu), who performs penance, making him "one with Brahma."[19] In RV[20]there is a sage Manyu Tāpasa (who is identifiable with Manyu Vasistha of RV)[21] (Tāpasa refers to practitioners of tapas in scriptures.) The celibate spiritual stage of life in the RV is known as brahmacharya. Demigods (Devas), too, are associated with asceticism and may have achieved their position as demigods by practice of penances. In the RV[22] Indra is said to have gained Heaven by tapas.[23] (Buddhism reaffirms this fact about Indra.[24])

Keśins are described as friends of Vāyu, Rudra, the Gandharvas and the Apsaras.[25] Some devas are also identified as Kesins, such as in an RV[26] verse wherein Agni, Surya, and Vayu are so called.[27] Furthermore, RV 10.136 is a hymn to Kesin, the sun, typified as a solitary hermit[28] or "Kesi-muni".[29]

Munis are stated in the RV to be "vatasrana" (wind-clad) or 'nude'. The RV uses the terms "nagna" (nude) and "vivastra" (unrobed) for some people as well. Some demigods are associated with the Munis. "Indra is a friend of the Munis"[30],[31]. The Maruts (offspring of Rudra) are mentioned as "young seers who have knowledge of the truth"[32], and they are said to be "like the wild munis (silent sages)"[33]. Varuna, amongst other things, is said, in the RV, to be "clad in sky", that is, he is said to be naked, and that water flows from him as from a jar, etc.[34] Just as the sanyasa is a stage in life where householders that are done their worldly duties take, in the RV too some Munis are described as having become ascetics after completing their worldly duties.[35]

Yatis are another class of ascetics in the RV. Yatin means "control," (i.e., controlling the senses or desires) and is a name given to a class of mendicants in the RV.[36] Like the Muni and Keesins, they seem to be friends of both Indra and Varuna. In RV[37] Indra is said to have helped the Yatis and the Rsi Bhrgu and Praskanva.[38] Yati were a militant group of ascetics as apparent from a few verses from different scriptures. Varuna in the RV is associated with the Yati, just as he is with other mendicants, and he is known as "sahasrayudhayati" (one with an army of a thousand yatis) and "Yasam Varuno yati madhye satyunite avapasyan jananam" or that he behaves as a yati. Another verse claims that Indra smote Vritra like a Yati.[39] The Yatis (along with Devas) are credited with creating all existing things in RV.[40] There was a king in the RV named Yayati, and while the RV doesn't mention his asceticism, the Vayu Purana gives the background story that after his kingship he retired to become a monk. Another backstory filled in later is that in the 12th Manavatara, Taporavi and Taposana were rishis of the era.[41] The Manu of that period was Tapasa.

Nagas are a group if rishis in the RV. Snakes are also known as "nagas", and amongst the RV mendicants, there are ones identified belonging to a Naga group. Rishis from this category are Arbudkadraveya Naga[42] Jatakarna Erwata[43], Sarprajni[44].[45] Vrtra in the RV was also a Naga (called also "Ahi Budhnya" or Serpent of the Bottom) but he became an enemy of Indra. (While the RV demonizes him as a monster, the later scriptures (i.e., Mahabharata and Bhagavatam[46]) explain that he was a Brahmin or priest.) Sisnadevas are also mentioned as a spiritual group who wear "asnatani sutrani"[47] or starched threads (i.e., snakes around their bodies.) The connection with snakes is made because Vasuki is called Sisna.

Yogis are depicted in the Vedas, though the terms 'yogi' or 'yoga' aren't mentioned. For example, the RV mention figures who in later Hindu literature are identified as yogis, such as Rishabha and Aristhanemi (Neminatha.) Scholars write of yogic asanas mentioned in Vedic texts.[48] Descriptions of yoga such as these occur in verses such as RV 5.81.1 which reads "Seers of the vast illumined seer yogically [yunjante] control their minds and their intelligence."[49] Certainly breath control and curbing the mind was practiced since the Vedic times.[50] It is believed that yoga was fundamental to Vedic ritual, especially to chanting the sacred hymns[51] On the Indus Valley seals , figures of a standing yogi appear. This yogic position is known as the Tadasana and has been performed by several sages in their meditation, such as Dattatreya[52] and the Jain Bahubali.

Just as Vrtra is a villain in the RV, there are other mendicants that practice austerities to gain power for evil purposes. Indra and Varuna are said to protect mortals from evil tapas[53].[54]

Post-Rig Vedic practices

Expanding on Indra's relationship with the Munis, the Panchavimsa-Brahmana[55] even restored to life the Munis, Vaikhanasas, who were slaughtered by the Asuras at a place commemorated as Muni-marana ("Place where a Muni was Killed.")[31] In the Atharva Veda, the Vratyas were a class of ascetics that, like the Munis, were associated with Shiva. They called their God Eka-Vratya, who had the same seven incarnations as Shiva. Like the Muni, they "drink poison".[56]

After the Rig Vedic period some enmity between Indra and a few Yati is seen, where some Yati are written to have been fed to hyenas by Indra, but that three Yati boys were spared the same treatment. One of them became King Prthu Vainya who praised Indra.[57] The other Yati survivors were Rayovaja and Brhadgiri. The Aitareya Brahmana, vii. 28 mentions punishing the Yati as among the sins that led the Devas to exclude him from Soma drinking.

The Vedic and Upanishadic texts of Hinduism, states Mariasusai Dhavamony, do not discuss self-inflicted pain, but do discuss self-restraint and self-control.[58] The monastic tradition of Hinduism is evidenced in 1st millennium BCE, particularly in its Advaita Vedanta tradition. This is evidenced by the oldest Sannyasa Upanishads, because all of them have a strong Advaita Vedanta outlook.[59] Most of the Sannyasa Upanishads present a Yoga and nondualism (Advaita) Vedanta philosophy.[60][61] The 12th-century Shatyayaniya Upanishad is a significant exception, which presents qualified dualistic and Vaishnavism (Vishishtadvaita Vedanta) philosophy.[61][62] These texts mention a simple, ethical lifestyle but do not mention self-torture or body mortification. For example,

These are the vows a Sannyasi must keep –

Abstention from injuring living beings, truthfulness, abstention from appropriating the property of others, abstention from sex, liberality (kindness, gentleness) are the major vows. There are five minor vows: abstention from anger, obedience towards the guru, avoidance of rashness, cleanliness, and purity in eating. He should beg (for food) without annoying others, any food he gets he must compassionately share a portion with other living beings, sprinkling the remainder with water he should eat it as if it were a medicine. - Baudhayana[63][64]

Similarly, the Nirvana Upanishad asserts that the Hindu ascetic should hold, according to Patrick Olivelle, that "the sky is his belief, his knowledge is of the absolute, union is his initiation, compassion alone is his pastime, bliss is his garland, the cave of solitude is his fellowship", and so on, as he proceeds in his effort to gain self-knowledge (or soul-knowledge) and its identity with the Hindu metaphysical concept of Brahman.[65] Other behavioral characteristics of the Sannyasi include: ahimsa (non-violence), akrodha (not become angry even if you are abused by others),[66] disarmament (no weapons), chastity, bachelorhood (no marriage), avyati (non-desirous), amati (poverty), self-restraint, truthfulness, sarvabhutahita (kindness to all creatures), asteya (non-stealing), aparigraha (non-acceptance of gifts, non-possessiveness) and shaucha (purity of body speech and mind).[67][68]

The 11th century text, Yatidharmasamuccaya is a Vaishnavism text that summarizes ascetic practices in Vaishnavism tradition of Hinduism.[69] In Hindu traditions, as with other Indian religions, both men and women have historically participated in a diverse spectrum of ascetic practices.[70] Vasishta had called a person free from passions 'sishtah punarkamatma'.

Valmiki in the Ramayana[71] calls Bharadvaja a tapodhana (having wealth in penance), a taptatapas[72] (one who has performed severe penance), and a mahatapas[73] (one of great penance), and his tapas is also mentioned in verse 6.127.16.

Latter periods

Kuchcha means peacock feather, and Kuchiya, its derivitive is used as a term for people with long hair, generally referring to ascetics.[74]


See also: Jainism

Asceticism in one of its most intense forms can be found in one of the oldest religions, known as Jainism. Jainism encourages fasting, yoga practices, meditation in difficult postures, and other austerities.[75] According to Jains, one's highest goal should be moksha (i.e., liberation from samsara, the cycle of birth and rebirth), which requires ethical living and asceticism. Most of the austerities and ascetic practices can be traced back to Vardhaman Mahavira, the twenty-fourth "fordmaker" or Tirthankara.

The Acaranga Sutra, or Book of Good Conduct, is a sacred book in Jainism that discusses the ascetic code of conduct. Other texts that provide insight into conduct of ascetics include Yogashastra by Acharya Hemachandra and Niyamasara by Acharya Kundakunda. Other illustrious Jain works on ascetic conduct are Oghanijjutti, Pindanijjutti, Cheda Sutta, and Nisiha Suttafee.

The Jain text of Kalpasutra describes Mahavira's asceticism in detail, whose life is a source of guidance on most of the ascetic practices in Jainism:[76]

Gyana Marga
The Venerable Ascetic Mahavira for a year and a month wore clothes; after that time he walked about naked, and accepted the alms in the hollow of his hand. For more than twelve years the Venerable Ascetic Mahivira neglected his body and abandoned the care of it; he with equanimity bore, underwent, and suffered all pleasant or unpleasant occurrences arising from divine powers, men, or animals.
Gyana Marga

—Kalpa Sutra 117

Both Mahavira and his ancient Jaina followers are described in Jainism texts as practicing body mortification and being abused by animals as well as people, but never retaliating and never initiating harm or injury (ahimsa) to any other being. With such ascetic practices, he burnt off his past Karma, gained spiritual knowledge, and became a Jina. These austere practices are part of the monastic path in Jainism. The practice of body mortification is called kaya klesha in Jainism, and is found in verse 9.19 of the Tattvartha Sutra by Umaswati, the most authoritative oldest surviving Jaina philosophical text.[77]

Monastic practice

Five Mahavratas of Jain ascetics

In Jain monastic practice, the monks and nuns take ascetic vows, after renouncing all relations and possessions. The vows include a complete commitment to nonviolence (Ahimsa). They travel from city to city, often crossing forests and deserts, and always barefoot. Jain ascetics do not stay in a single place for more than two months to prevent attachment to any place.[78][79] However, during the four months of monsoon (rainy season) known as chaturmaas, they stay at a single place to avoid killing life forms that thrive during the rains.[80] Jain monks and nuns practice complete celibacy. They do not touch or share a sitting platform with a person of the opposite sex.

Jain ascetics follow a strict vegetarian diet without root vegetables. Prof. Pushpendra K. Jain explains:

Clearly enough, to procure such vegetables and fruits, one must pull out the plant from the root, thus destroying the entire plant, and with it all the other micro organisms around the root. Fresh fruits and vegetables should be plucked only when ripe and ready to fall off, or ideally after they have fallen off the plant. In case they are plucked from the plants, only as much as required should be procured and consumed without waste.[81]

The monks of Shvetambara sub-tradition within Jainism do not cook food, but solicit alms from householders. Digambara monks have only a single meal a day.[82] Neither group will beg for food, but a Jain ascetic may accept a meal from a householder, provided that the latter is pure of mind and body, and offers the food of his own volition and in the prescribed manner. During such an encounter, the monk remains standing and eats only a measured amount. Fasting (i.e., abstinence from food and sometimes water) is a routine feature of Jain asceticism. Fasts last for a day or longer, up to a month. Some monks avoid (or limit) medicine and/or hospitalization out of disregard for the physical body.[81]

Shvetambara monks and nuns wear only unstitched white robes (an upper and lower garment), and own one bowl they use for eating and collecting alms. Male Digambara sect monks do not wear any clothes, carry nothing with them except a soft broom made of shed peacock feathers (pinchi) to gently remove any insect or living creature in their way or bowl, and they eat with their hands.[82] They sleep on the floor without blankets, and sit on wooden platforms. Other austerities include meditation in seated or standing posture near river banks in the cold wind, or meditation atop hills and mountains, especially at noon when the sun is at its fiercest.[83] Such austerities are undertaken according to the physical and mental limits of the individual ascetic.

When death is imminent from an advanced age or terminal disease, many Jain ascetics take a final vow of Santhara or Sallekhana, a fast to peaceful and detached death, by first reducing intake of and then ultimately abandoning all medicines, food, and water.[84] Scholars state that this ascetic practice is not a suicide, but a form of natural death, done without passion or turmoil or suddenness, and because it is done without active violence to the body.[84]


The Buddha as an ascetic. Gandhara, 2-3rd century CE. British Museum.

The historical Siddhartha Gautama adopted an extreme ascetic life in search of enlightenment.[85] However, after enlightenment, as the Buddha, he rejected extreme asceticism.[86]

According to Hajime Nakamura and other scholars, some early Buddhism texts suggest that asceticism was a part of Buddhist practice in its early days, wherein body-mortification was an option for the Buddhist monk in his spiritual practice.[86][87] Further, in practice, records from about the start of the common era through the 19th century CE suggest that asceticism has been a part of Buddhism, both in Theravada and Mahayana traditions.


Textual evidence suggests that ascetic practices were a part of the Buddhist tradition in Sri Lanka by the 3rd century BCE, and this tradition continued through the medieval era in parallel to sangha style monastic tradition.[88]

In the Theravada tradition of Thailand, medieval texts report of ascetic monks who wander and dwell in the forest or crematory alone, do austere practices, and these came to be known as Thudong.[89][90] Ascetic Buddhist monks have been and continue to be found in Myanmar, and as in Thailand, they are known to pursue their own version of Buddhism, resisting the hierarchical institutionalized sangha structure of monasteries in Buddhism.[91]


In the Mahayana tradition, asceticism with esoteric and mystical meanings became an accepted practice, such as in the Tendai and Shingon schools of Japanese Buddhism.[88] These Japanese practices included penance, austerities, ablutions under a waterfall, and rituals to purify oneself.[88] Japanese records from the 12th century record stories of monks undertaking severe asceticism, while records suggest that 19th century Nichiren Buddhist monks woke up at midnight or 2:00 AM daily, and performed ascetic water purification rituals under cold waterfalls.[88] Other practices include the extreme ascetic practices of eating only pine needles, resins, seeds and ultimately self-mummification, while alive, or Sokushinbutsu (miira) in Japan.[92][93][94]

In Chinese Buddhism, self-mummification ascetic practices were less common but recorded in the Ch'an (Zen Buddhism) tradition there.[95] More ancient Chinese Buddhist asceticism, somewhat similar to Sokushinbutsu are also known, such as the public self-immolation (self cremation, as shaoshen 燒身 or zifen 自焚)[96] practice, aimed at abandoning the impermanent body.Template:Refn The earliest documented ascetic Buddhist monk biography is of Fayu (法羽) in 396 CE, followed by more than fifty documented cases in the centuries that followed including that of monk Daodu (道度).[97][98] This was considered as evidence of a renunciant bodhisattva, and may have been inspired by the Jataka tales wherein the Buddha in his earlier lives immolates himself to assist other living beings,[99] or by the Bhaiṣajyaguruvaiḍūryaprabhārāja-related teachings in the Lotus Sutra.[100] Historical records suggest that the self-immolation practices were observed by nuns in Chinese Buddhism as well.[101]

The Chinese Buddhist asceticism practices, states James Benn, were not an adaptation or import of Indian ascetic practices, but an invention of Chinese Buddhists, based on their unique interpretations of Saddharmapuṇḍarīka or Lotus Sūtra.[102] It may be an adoption of more ancient pre-Buddhist Chinese practices,[103][104] or from Taoism.[101] It is unclear if self-immolation was limited primarily to Chinese asceticism tradition, and strong evidence of it being a part of a large scale, comprehensive ascetic program among Chinese Buddhists is lacking.[105]

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  102. James A Benn (2012), Multiple Meanings of Buddhist Self-Immolation in China – A Historical Perspective, Revue des Études Tibétaines, no. 25, pages 203–212, Quote: "Of all the forms of self-immolation, auto-cremation in particular seems to have been primarily created by medieval Chinese Buddhists. Rather than being a continuation or adaptation of an Indian practice (although there were Indians who burned themselves), as far as we can tell, auto-cremation was constructed on Chinese soil and drew on range of influences such as a particular interpretation of an Indian Buddhist scripture (the Saddharmapuṇḍarīka or Lotus Sūtra) along with indigenous traditions, such as burning the body to bring rain, that long pre-dated the arrival of Buddhism in China."
  103. James A Benn (2012), Multiple Meanings of Buddhist Self-Immolation in China – A Historical Perspective, Revue des Études Tibétaines, no. 25, page 207
  104. James A. Benn (1998), Where Text Meets Flesh: Burning the Body as an Apocryphal Practice in Chinese Buddhism, History of Religions, Vol. 37, No. 4 (May, 1998), pages 295-322
  105. James A Benn (2012), Multiple Meanings of Buddhist Self-Immolation in China – A Historical Perspective, Revue des Études Tibétaines, no. 25, page 211