Who were the Vratyas – the searching wanderers?

13 Sep

[This article attempts to trace the meaning that the term Vratya acquired  at various stages in the unfolding of Indian history; and, wonders how well that meaning mirrored the state of Indian society at that  given stage.]

Every civilization has certain unique features, which differentiate it from the rest. Indian civilization is distinguished by its resilience; continuity with change; and its diversity. The composite fabric of Indian civilization is woven with strands and shades of varying textures and hues.

Rig Veda repeatedly refers to the composite character of its society and to its pluralistic population. It mentions the presence of several religions, cults and languages; and calls upon all persons to strive to become noble parts of that pluralistic society.

The pluralistic character of that society was characterized not merely by its composition but also by the divergent views held by its thinkers. There were non -conformists and dissenters even among the Vedic philosophers. In addition, there were individuals and groups who were outside the pale of the Vedic fold; and who practiced, the pre-Vedic traditions; and rejected the validity of the Vedas and its rituals.

The prominent among such dissenters and rebels were the Vratyas. They were an atrociously heterogeneous community; and defied any definition. Even to this day, the meaning of the term Vratya is unclear; and is variously described. The amazing community of the Vratyas included magicians, medicine men, shamans, mystics, materialists, vagrant or mendicant (pari-vrajaka), wandering madmen, roaming- footloose warriors, mercenaries, fire eaters, poison swallowers , libidinous pleasure seekers and wandering swarm of austere ascetics.

Some of them were violent and erotic; while some others were refined and austere; and a lot others were just plain crazy. It was a random assortment of nuts and gems.

[ Even in the later times , Vratya was used as derogatory term. For instance ; in the Drona parva of the Mahabharata (14.1-15) the Vrishni-s and Andhaka-s were branded Vratyas – uncouth and uncultured.]

The Rig Veda mentions Vratyas about eight times (e.g. 3:26:6; 5:53:11; 5:75:9; 9:14:2); and five groups of the Vratyas are collectively called pancha-vrata (10:34:12). The Atharva Veda (15th kanda) devotes an entire hymn titled vratya- suktha to the “mystical fellowship” of the Vratyas. The Tandya and Jaiminiya Brahmanas too talk about Vratyas; and describe a sacrifice called Vratya-stoma, which is virtually a purification ritual.

The Rig Veda, generally, employs the term Vratya  to denote: breakaway group or an inimical horde or a collection of men of indefinite number; living in temporary settlements. The Atharva- Veda too, uses the word in the sense of a stranger or a guest or one who follows the rule; but, treats it with a lot more respect. Apparently, the perceptions changed a great deal during the intervening period.

The Jaiminiya Brahmana (2:222) describes  Vratyas   as ascetics roaming about themselves in an intoxicated state. The Tandya (24:18) however addresses them as divine-Vratyas (daiva vai vratyah). The Vajasaneyi-samhita refers to them as physicians and as guardians of truth. They seem to have been a community of ascetics living under a set of strange religious vows (Vrata).

Interestingly, Shiva –Rudra is described as Eka –Vratya* (AV celebrating the glory of one- hundred – and- eight forms of Rudra hails Rudra as Vrata-pathi, the chief of the Vratyas (TS.

[ The Atharva-veda (AV: 5. 1-7) speaks of seven attendants of the exalted Eka Vratya, the Vratya par excellence  : Bhava of the intermediate space in the East;  Sarva in the South; Pashupathi in the West; Ugra of the North; Rudra of the lower region; Mahadeva of the upper region ; Asani of  lightening ; and, Ishana of all the intermediate regions. It is said; though they are named differently they in truth are the varying manifestations of the one and the same Eka Vratya. While Rudra, Sarva, Ugra and Asani are the terrifying aspects, the other four: Bhava , Pashupathi a, Mahadeva and Ishana are peaceful aspects.

Of these, Bhava and Sarva by virtue of their rule over sky and earth protect the devote against calamities, contagious diseases and poisonous pollution.]

[*  However, Dr.RC Hazra in his work Rudra in the Rg-veda (page 243) remarks that Eka-Vratya is to be identified with Prajapathi ; and , not with Rudra,  as some scholars think.]

The Atharva Veda (15.2.a) makes a very ambiguous statement: “Of him in the eastern quarter, faith is the harlot, Mitra the Magadha, discrimination is the garment, etc…..” in the southern quarter Magadha is the mantra of the Vratya; in the other two quarters Magadha is the laughter and the thunder of the Vratya. (Mitra, maAtm, hasa and stanayitnii).  It is not clear what this statement implies. But it is taken to mean that the Magadha tribes were friends, advisers and thunder (strong supporters) of the Vratyas.

The implication of this is rather interesting. The breakaway group from among the Vedic people (including the pre Vedic tribes), that is, the Vratyas left their mainland and roamed over to the East; and ultimately settled in the regions of Magadha, where they found friends and supporters. The reason for that friendly reception appears to be that the Magadha tribes in Eastern India were not in good terms with the Vedic people in the Indus basin; and saw no difficulty in accommodating the Vratyas. And, more importantly, the Magadhas did not follow or approve the Vedic religion; and they, too, just as the Vratyas, were against the rites, rituals and sacrifices of the Vedic community.

The Vedic people too did not seem to regard the Brahman of the Magadha region. They were considered not true Brahmins, but only Brahmins by birth or in name (brahma-bandhu Magadha-desiya)- (Latyayana Srauta sutra .8.6)

The Vratyas roamed about, mostly, in the regions to the East and North-west of the Madhyadesha, that is, in the countries of Magadha and Anga .They spoke the dialect of Prachya, the source of the languages of Eastern India. It is also said ; the Vratyas  also spoke  the language of the initiated (dlksita-vac) , though not themselves initiated (a-dtksita), but as’ calling that which is easy to utter (a-durukta)t difficult to utter ‘ (Panchavimsa Brahmana, 17.1.9) .This may mean that the Vratyas were familiar and comfortable both in Sanskrit and Prakrit.

They lived alone or in groups, away from populated areas. They followed their own cult-rules and practices. They drifted far and wide; roamed from the Indus valley to banks of the Ganga. They were the wandering seekers.

[According to Mahamahopadhyay Haraprasad Sastri,the vast territory to the South of the Ganga and North of the Vindhya ranges extending from Mudgagiri (Monghyr) in the East to the Charanadri (Chunar) in the West was called the land of Magadha tribes. The Anga region was around Bhagalpur area.]

The Kesi-suktha  of Rig Veda (10:13:6); Latyayana –sruta-sutra (8.6-7); Bahudayana –sruta- sutra (26.32); Panchavimsati Brahmana (17. 1.9-15) and vratya- suktha of Atharva Veda (15th kanda), provide graphic descriptions of these magis, the Vratyas.  These descriptions put together project a truly impressive, colorful and awe-inspiring image of the wandering Vratyas.

They were distinguished by their black turbans (krishnam ushnisham dharayanti) worn in a slanting manner (LSS 8.6-7); a white blanket thrown across the shoulders(BSS 26.32);  displaying long matted hair (kesi); a set of round ornaments for the ears (pravartau); jewels (mani) hanging by the neck;  rows of long necklaces of strange beads swinging across the chest ; two (dvi) deer-skins tied together for lower garment, and sandals  of black hide , with flaps, for the feet (upanahau); carrying a lance (Pra-toda) , bow (AV 15.2.1)  and a goad (pratoda) ; and , riding a rickety   chariot / cart  ,with planks ( amargagamirthah) tied together with strings,   suitable for rough roads (vipatha) drawn by a  horse or a mule (LSS 8:6,10-11).The Vipatha was said in greater use in Eastern regions (Prachyartha). 

Panchavimsati Bralhmana (17.1.9-15) further states that the Vratya   leader (Grhapati) wore a turban (Usnisa), carried a whip (Pratoda), a kind of bow (Jyahroda*), was clothed in a black {krsnasa) garment and two skins (Ajina), black and white (krisna-valaksa), and owned a rough wagon (Viratha) covered with planks (phalakastirna). He also wore garment lined of silver coins (Niska). His shoes were black and pointed.

[* The descriptions of the Jya-hroda, a sort of arms carried by the Vratya, occur in the Pancavimsa Brahmana (17.1.14) as also in the Katyayana (22.4.2) and Latyayana (8.6.8) Sutras. It is described as a ‘bow not meant for use’ (ayogya’ dhanus); and also as a ‘bow without an arrow’ (dhanushka anisu). It obviously was a decorative-piece meant to enhance the impressive look of the Chief.]

And, the others, subordinate to the leader, had garments with fringes of red (valukantani damatusam) , two fringes on each, skins folded double (dvisamhitany ajinani), and footwear (Upanah).

Vratyas used a peculiar type of reclining seats (asandi)

Vratya Asandi

[A-sandi is a generic term for a seat of some sort, occurring frequently in the later Samhitas and Brahmanas, but not in the Rig-Veda.  In the Atharvaveda (AV. 15.3.2) the settle brought for the Vratya is described at length. It had two feet, lengthwise and cross-pieces, forward and cross-cords. It had a seat (Asada) covered with a cushion (Astarana) and a pillow (Upabarhana), and a support (Upasraya).

The Satapatha Brahmana (Sat.Brh. describesthe Asandi as an elaborate seat. It is said to be made of Khadira wood, perforated (vi-trinna), and joined with straps (vardhra-yukta) . It perhaps meant a long reclining chair/ rest.]

They moved among the warriors (yaudhas), herdsmen and farmers.  They did not care either for the rituals or for initiations (adhikshitah); and not at all for celibacy (Na hi brahmacharyam charanthi).They did not engage themselves in agriculture (Na krshim) or in trade (Na vanijyam). They behaved as if they were possessed (gandharva grithaha) or drunk or just mad.

The scholars generally believe, what has come down to us as Tantra is, in fact, a residue of the cult-practices of the Vratyas. The Tantra, even to this day, is considered non-Vedic, if not anti-Vedic.

The Atharva Veda (Vratya Kanda) mentions that Vratyas were also a set of talented composers and singers. They found they could sing a lot better—and probably hold the notes longer—if they practiced what they called pranayama, a type of breath control. They even attempted relating their body-structure to that of the universe. They learnt to live in harmony with nature. There is, therefore, a school of thought, which asserts, what came to be known as Yoga in the later periods had its roots in the ascetic and ecstatic practices of the Vratyas. And, the Vratyas were, therefore, the precursors of the later ascetics and yogis.

It is said, the theoretical basis for transformation of cult-practices into a system (Yoga) was provided by the Samkhya School. Tantra thus yoked Samkhya and Yoga. Over a long period, both Samkhya and Yoga schools merged with the mainstream and came to be regarded as orthodox (asthika) systems, as they both accepted the authority of the Vedas. Yet, the acceptance of Samkhya and Yoga within the orthodox fold seemed rather strained and with some reservation, perhaps because the flavor -the sense of their non-Vedic origin rooted in the Vratya cult practices of pre  Vedic period –  still lingers on.

The German Indologist Jakob Wilhelm Hauer (1881 –1962) – who had made the beginnings of Yoga in India the theme for his doctor’s thesis –   in his Der Yoga als Heilweg (Yoga as a way of salvation) traces the origin of Yoga to the wandering groups of the Vratyas.

JW Hauer, who represented the leading commentators on Eastern thought in the days of CG Jung, mentions that many of the groups that had roots in the Vratya tradition (such as: Jaiminiyas, Kathas, Maitrayaniyas and Kausitakins) were eventually absorbed into the orthodox fold. He also remarks that Chandogya and Svetasvatara Upanishads are closer in spirit to the Vratya- Samkhya ideologies.

It is the Svetasvaratara Upanishad which declares Rudra as the Supreme, matchless and one without a second – eko hi rudro na dvitiiyaaya tasthu– SV.3.2. It establishes Rudra as the Absolute, the ultimate essence, not limited by forms and names – na tasya pratima asti yasya nama mahadyasha – SV.4.19)  ]

The Samkhya school, in its earlier days, was closely associated two other heterodox systems, i.e., Jainism and Buddhism. In a historical perspective, Samkhya-Yoga and Jainism – Buddhism were derived from a common nucleus that was outside the Vedic tradition. And, that nucleus was provided by the Vratya movement.

Interestingly, Arada Kalama, the teacher of Gotama who later evolved in to the Buddha, belonged to Samkhya School. Gotama had a teacherfrom the Jain tradition too; he was Muni Pihitasrava a follower of Parsvanatha. The Buddha later narrated how he went around naked, took food in his palms and observed various other rigorous restrictions expected of a Sramana  ascetic. The Buddha followed those practice for some time and gave them up, as he did not find merit in extreme austerities.  The Buddha, the awakened one, was a Yogi too. His teachings had elements of old-yoga practices such as askesis (self- discipline), control, restraint, release and freedom. The early Buddhism, in fact, preserved the Yogi – ideal of Nirvana.

Thus, the development of religions and practices in Eastern regions of India, in the early times, was inspired and influenced – directly or otherwise – by the Vratyas.

The contribution of the Vratyas, according to my friend DSampath, was that they gave a very time and space based approach to the issues.  They were the initial social scientists with rationality as the anchor, he says.

Some of the characteristics of the Vratya-thought found a resonant echo in Jainism and Buddhism. Just to mention a few: Man and his development is the focal interest; his effort and his striving is what matters, and not god’s grace; the goal of human endeavor is within his realm; a man or a woman is the architect of one’s own destiny ; and there is nothing supernatural about his goals and his attainments. There was greater emphasis on contemplation, introspection, pratikramana (back-to-soul),; and a deliberate shift away from  exuberant rituals and sacrifices seeking health, wealth and happiness.

The Vratya was neither a religion, nor was it an organized sect. It was a movement seeking liberation from the suffocating confines of the establishment and searching for a meaning to life and existence. The movement phased out when it became rather irrelevant to the changed circumstances and values of its society.  The Vratyas, the searching wanderers, the rebels of the Rig Vedic age, faded in to the shadowy corners of Vedic religion, rather swiftly; yet they left behind a lingering influence on other systems of Indian thought.


The Jain tradition claims that it existed in India even from pre- Vedic times and remained unaffected by the Vedic religion. It also says, the Jain religion was flourishing, especially in the North and Eastern regions of India, during the Vedic times.

Because of the basic differences in their tenets and practices, the two traditions opposed each other. As a part of that ongoing conflict, certain concepts and practices appreciated by one religion were deprecated by the other. The term Vratya was one such instance.

The term Vratya has a very long association with Jainism; and its connotation in Jainism is astonishingly different from the one implied in the Vedic tradition where it is employed to describe an inimical horde. On the other hand, Vratya in Jainism is a highly regarded and respected term. The term Vratya, in the Jaina context, means the observer of vratas or vows. Thus, while the Vedic community treated the Vratyas as rebels and outcasts, the tribes in the eastern regions hailed Vratyas as heroes and leaders (Vratya Rajanya).

The Vedic and the Jain traditions both glorify certain Kings who also were great religious Masters. In the Hindu tradition, Lord Rsabha – son of King Nabhi and Merudevi, and the ancestor of Emperor Bharata (after whom this land was named Bharatavarsha) is a very revered figure. The Rig Veda and Yajur Veda, too, mention Rishabhadeva and Aristanemi. According to the Jain tradition Rishabhadeva is the first Tirthankara of the present age (avasarpini); and, Aristanemi is the twenty-second Tirthankara.

The Jain tradition refers to Rishabhadeva as Maha-Vratya, to suggest he was the great leader of the Vratyas.

Further, the Mallas, in the northern parts of the present-day Bihar, with their capital at  the city of Kusavati or Kusinarawere a brave and warlike people; and were one of the earliest independent republics (Samgha). The Jaina Kalpasutra refers to nine Mallakis as having formed a league with nine Lichchhavis, and the eighteen Ganarajas of Kasi-Kos’ala.They were also said to be  a part of a confederation of eight republics (atthakula )  until they were vanquished and absorbed into the Magadha Empire, at about the time of the Buddha. The Mallas were mentioned as Vratya – Kshatriyas.

Similarly, their neighboring tribe, the Licchhavis who played a very significant role in the history and development of Jainism were also called as the descendants of Vratya-Kshatriyas. Mahavira was the son of a Licchhavi princess; and he had a considerable following among the Licchhavi tribe. In the Jaina Kalpa Sutra, Tris’ala, the sister of  Chetaka – the Lichchhavi chief of Vesali, is styled Kshatriyani  .

The Buddha too visited Licchhavi on many occasions; and had great many followers there. The Licchhavis were closely related by marriage to the Magadhas.

The Buddhist tradition has preserved the names of eminent Lichchhavis like prince Abhaya, Otthaddha, Mahali, general Siha, Dummukha and Sunakkhatta. The Mallas , like the Lichchhavis, were ardent champions of Buddhism. In the Mahaparinibbana Suttanta they are sometimes called Vasetthas

Pundit Sukhlalji explains,  the two ethnic groups of ‘Vratva’ and ‘Vrsala’ followed non-Vedic tradition; and both believed in non‑violence and austerities.  He suggests that both the Buddha and Mahavira were Kshatriyas of Vrsala group. He also remarks that the Buddha was known as ‘Vrsalaka’.

It is not surprising that the Licchhavi, Natha and Malla clans of Eastern India proved fertile grounds for sprouting of non-Vedic religions such as Jainism and Buddhism.

Thus, both Buddhism and Jainism were in tune with  the philosophic atmosphere prevailing in Magadha, around sixth century BC. Apart from his philosophical principles, the Buddha’s main contribution was his deprecation of severe asceticism in all religions and acceptance of a sensible and a rational approach to life.

The nucleus for development of those non Vedic religion was, reputedly, the ideas and inspiration derived for the Vratya movement.


In the mean time Vedic perception of Vratyas had undergone a dramatic sea- change.

Latyayana –sruta-sutra (8.6.29) mentions that after performing Vratya-homa the Vratya should Tri-vidya-vrti the threefold commitment to study of Vedas, participating in the performance of Yajnas; and giving and accepting gifts. These three were the traditional ways of the priestly class.

Apasthamba (ca. 600 BCE), the Lawgiver and the celebrated mathematician who contributed to development of Sulbasutras, refers to Vratya as a learned mendicant Brahmin, a guest (athithi) who deserves to be welcomed and treated with respect. Apasthamba, in support of that, quotes sentences to be addressed by the host to his guest from the passages in Atharva Veda (15:10 -13).

According to Atharva Veda, Vratya is a srotriya, a student of the scriptures, (of at least one recession), and a learned person  (Vidvan) faithful to his vows (vratas). In summary, the passages ask:

” Let the king , to whose house the Vratya who possesses such knowledge comes as a guest , honor him as superior to himself, disregarding his princely rank or his kingdom.

Let him, to whose house the Vratya possessing such knowledge comes as a guest, rise up of his own accord to meet him, and say “Vratya, where didst thou pass the night? Vratya, here is water; let it refresh thee .Vratya let it be as thou pleasest. Vratya, as thy wish is so let be it done.”

[From Hymns of the Atharva Veda, by Ralph T.H. Griffith…Hymn x and xi of Book 15]

[ tád yásyaiváṁ vidvān vrā ́tyo rājñó ’tithir gṛhān āgáchet  // – 15.10.1

Śréyāmsam enam ātmáno mānayet táthā kṣatrāya  nā ́ vṛścate táthā rāṣṭrāya nā ́ vṛścate // -1510.2

tád yásyaiváṁ vidvān vrā ́tya úddhṛteṣv agníṣu ádhiśrite agni hotré ’tithir gṛhān āgáchet // – 1`5.12.1

tád yásyaiváṁ vidvān vrā ́tya ékāṁ  rā ́trim átithir gṛhé vásati  / yé pṛthivyā ́ṁ púnyā lokā ́s tān evá ténā ́va runddhe// — 15.13.1 ]

There is, thus, a gulf of difference between the perception of the early and later Vedic periods. This amazing transformation seems to have come about as a result of sustained and successful contacts between the Upanishads and the systems of Samkhya and Yoga. There was a healthy interaction between the two streams of the Indian tradition. The Samkhya-Yoga ideas found a place in the Upanishads. At the same time, the Upanishads brought its impact on Buddhism and Jainism. The savants of orthodox tradition such as Kumarila Bhatta (ca.6th century AD) accepted the Buddhist schools as authoritative because they had their roots in the Upanishads. (Tantra vartika)

The ideologies of the two traditions moved closer during the period of Upanishads. It was a period of synthesis.


The term Vratya acquired a totally different meaning by the time of the Dharma Shastras. Manu Smruti (dated around third or second century BCE) states that, if after the last prescribed period, the twice-born remain uninitiated, they become Vratyas, fallen from Savitri. (Manusmriti: verse II.39)

Manusmriti (verse X.20)  also informs that those whom the twice-born  ( Brahmin , Kshatriya and Vaishya ) beget from  wives of equal caste, but who, not fulfilling their sacred duties, are excluded from the Savitri (initiation), must also designate by the appellation Vratyas.

The samskara of initiation or upanayana (ceremony of the thread) was considered essential for the dvijas (the twice-born). Manusmriti mentions the recommended age for upanayana and for commencing the studies. It also mentions the age before which these should take place.

In the eighth year after conception, one should perform the initiation (Upanayana ceremonies of sacred thread) of a Brahmana, in the eleventh year after conception (that) of a Kshatriya, but in the twelfth year that of a Vaisya. (MS: II.36)

The initiation of a Brahmana who desires proficiency in sacred learning should take place in the fifth year after conception, that of a Kshatriya who wishes to become powerful in the sixth, and that of a Vaisya who longs for success in his business in the eighth.(Ms: II.37)

The time for the Savitri initiation of a Brahmana does not pass until the completion of the sixteenth year (after conception), of a Kshatriya until the completion of the twenty-second, and of a Vaisya until the completion of the twenty-fourth. (MS: II.38)

After those (periods men of) these three (castes) who have not received the sacrament at the proper time, become Vratyas (outcastes), excluded from the Savitri (initiation) (MS. II.39)

garbhāṣṭame’bde kurvīta brāhmaasyaupanāyanam | 
garbhādekādaśe rājño garbhāt tu dvādaśe viśa || 36 ||

brahmavarcasakāmasya kāryo viprasya pañcame | 
rājño balārthina aṣṭhe vaiśyasyaihārthino’ṣṭame || 37 ||

ā odaśād brāhmaasya sāvitrī nātivartate | 
ā dvāviśāt katrabandhorā caturviśaterviśa || 38 ||

ata ūrdhva trayo’pyete yathākālamasask | 
sāvitrīpatitā vrātyā bhavantyāryavigarhitā || 39 ||

Oddly, the insistence on upanayana and making it compulsory seems to have come into vogue in the post-Upanishad period. During the Atharvana period, initiation was regarded as second-birth; and was associated with commencement of studies or as a requirement for performing a sacrifice. The significance of the second birth in the Vedic time was, therefore, largely, religious and not social. Not everyone was required to obtain the Upanayana samskara. The upanayana was a voluntary ceremony for those who wished to study or perform a sacrifice.

It was only after the Grihya-sutras crystallized, upanayana turned into a samskara, as a recognition of ones position in the social order.Some scholars , however , suggest, Vratya does not necessarily denote a person who has not undergone upanayana samskara; but, it refers to one who does not offer Soma sacrifice or keep the sacred fire(agnihotra).


In any case, during the period of Dharma sastras, those who did not adhere to the prescriptions of the sastras and did not perform the prescribed rites and ceremonies were termed Vratyas.There were, obviously, many people who didn’t bother to follow the rules.

The smritis therefore, provided a provision for purification of the errant persons through a ritual (vratya stoma); and created a window for taking them back into the fold; and for rendering them eligible for all rites and rituals.

[ In the Puranas , the Sisunaga kings are mentioned as Kshattra -bandhus, i. e., Vratya Kshatriyas.]

The object of the entire exercise undertaken by the sastras, seemed to be to build and preserve a social order, according to its priorities .But, in the later periods these smaskaras lost their social significance, entirely. The social conditions deteriorated rapidly during the medieval period.  Even in the religious life, upanayana remained just a routine ritual, often meaningless. Agnihotra vanished almost entirely.

In a way of speaking almost all of us are Vratyas, in terms of the smritis.

[.. Let me digress, here, for a little while.

In the Vedic era, women were initiated into the thread ceremony. It was essential for both sexes who wished to study [Atharwa Veda 11.5.18a, Satpatha Brahmana., and Taittariya Brahamana II.3.3.2-3]

Yama, a Law-giver even prior to Manu, upheld education for women, but stipulated the female students should not engage in begging their meals, wearing deerskins or growing matted hair (as male students might do) [VirS.p.402]

All that changed radically, for worse, during the period of Dharma sastras. The woman lost the high status she once enjoyed in Vedic society. She lost some of her independence.  She became an  object to be protected.

The harsh prescriptions of the Dharma shatras have to be placed in the context of its times, in order to understand why such changes came about.

The period after 300 B.C witnessed a succession of invasions and influx of foreigners such as the Greeks, the Scythians, the Parthian, the Kushans and others. The political misfortunes, the war atrocities followed by long spells of anarchy and lawlessness had a disastrous effect on the society. Fear and insecurity haunted the common people and householders.

Sons were valued higher than the daughters because of the increased need for fighting males, in order to survive the waves of onslaughts. It was   imperative to protect women from abductors. The then society deemed it advisable to curtail women’s freedom and movements. The practice of early marriage perhaps came in as a part of those defensive measures. The education of the girl child was no longer a priority. The Sastras compromised by accepting marriage as a substitute for Upanayana and education. The neglect of education, imposing seclusion and insecurity that gripped their lives, had disastrous consequences upon the esteem and status of women .The society in turn sank into depravity.

The Manusmruti and other Dharmasastras came into being at the time when the orthodox society was under dire threat and when it was fighting for survival. The society had entered in to self preservation – mode. The severity of the Dharma Shastras was perhaps a defensive mechanism, in response to the threats and challenges thrown at its society.

Its main concern was preserving the social order and to hold the society together. Though the sastras pointed out the breaches in observance of the prescribed code of behavior, it was  willing to condone the lapses, purify the wayward and naughty; and admit them back into the orthodox fold. Further, It even readily took  under its fold the alien hordes such as Kushans, Yavanas (Ionians or Greeks), Sakas (Scythians) and others; and recognized them as Vratya – Kshatriyas…]


To sum up, Vratya in the early Rig Veda denoted an amorphous collection of heterogeneous groups of pre- Vedic tribes and  the dissenters from among the Vedic community, who rejected the Vedic concepts and extrovert practices of rites, rituals and sacrifices seeking from the gods gifts of health, wealth and glory. The Vratyas turned in to nomads and drifters. The wandering seekers roamed the land and finally settled down in the Magadha region, in the East, where they found acceptance.

The Vratyas appeared to be a set of extraordinarily gifted and talented people, who brought fresh perspectives to life and existence; to the relations between man and nature and between nature and universe. Their innovative ideas spawned the seeds for sprouting of systems of thought such as samkhya and Yoga. Those systems in turn inspired and spurned the movement toward rationalism and man -centered – non Vedic religious systems Jainism and Buddhism.

What the Vratyas did, in effect, was they deliberately moved  away from the extrovert and exuberant rites and rituals; brought focus on man and his relation with the nature and his fellow beings. Their scheme of things was centered round reason (not intuition). They turned the mind inwards, contemplative and meditative.

It is clear that in the ancient times, the two religious systems – one in the Indus valley on the west and the other along the banks of the Ganga in the east- developed and flourished independent of each other. Their views on man – soul –world – god relationships, differed significantly. Because of the basic differences in their tenets and practices, the two traditions opposed each other. They seemed to have even stayed away from each other. That, in a manner, explains why the Saraswathi is referred over fifty times in the Rig Veda, while the Ganga hardly gets mentioned.

Towards the later Vedic era something magical (chamathkar) appears to have taken place. By the time of Atharvana period, the concepts and perceptions of the two traditions seemed to have moved closer.The later Vedic traditions recognized and and accorded Vratyas a place of honor. That was  the result of  sustained and successful contacts between the Upanishads and the systems of Samkhya and Yoga; and the impact that Upanishads brought  on Buddhism and Jainism. It was the age of understanding and  synthesis.

The interaction between the two systems heightened during the period of the Buddha and Mahavira. In the later centuries, the texts of the orthodox school (e.g. Brahma sutras, Yoga Sutra, Panini’s grammar, Anu Gita etc.) devoted more attention and space for discussing the Buddhist principles, especially the theories relating to cognition.

The shift towards East was symbolized by the transfer of the intellectual capital of ancient  India from Takshashila (Taxila) to Pataliputra (Patna) and Nalanda, when Taxila was overrun by the invading Persians (third century BCE).That provided an impetus not merely for fresh activity within the orthodox schools , but also for greater interaction with the heterodox religions.

Both the traditions inspired, influenced and enriched each other over the centuries; absorbing and complementing each other’s principles and practices; and finally synthesizing into that fabulous composite culture, the Indian culture.

That synthesis was symbolized when the post Vedic tradition hailed and worshipped its god Ganapathy with the joyous chant Namo Vratapataye – salutations to the chief of the Vratyas.( Ganapaty-atharva-shirsha)

The Dharmasastras mark a period of degeneration in the orthodox society, as it reeled under the onslaught of hordes of successive invaders and plunderers. The concerns of security and survival took precedence over innovation, development and expansion. It became an inward looking society seeking for right answers and remedies to preserve its form and structure. It’went in to a self-preservation mode. Its society metamophasized and shrank into a pupa:  cautious and ultra conservative.

Vratya then meant someone naughty and unmanageable ( It appears , it is only the Marathi language that still retains such meaning of the term). Yet, the society could ill afford to abandon him to his whims and wayward manners. It was willing to pardon, purify and welcome him back in to its fold, clasping him dearly to its bosom. It was ready to accept even   the foreigners as its own.For instance ;  the medieval Rajput families descended from immigrant races from West in the distant past were treated Vratya-Kshatriyas ; and given pedigrees going back to Rama, Yadu, Arjuna and such other heroes of the mythologies

Thereafter, for a long period of time, the term Vratya went off the radar screen of the Indian religious life; because the samskaras and their associated disciplines had lost their sanctity and significance.

The only other occasions when Vratya came in to play , were in the context of the vratya stoma purifying ceremonies.

*.Vratya stoma ceremonies were performed before anointment and coronation of kings, in the middle ages. For instance, Shivaji went through Vratya stoma and upanayana ceremonies, on May 29, 1674, before he was crowned.(For details , please refer to Malhar Ramarao Chitnis – Siva chatrapathiche charitra Ed by K N Sane , 1924 – based on the reprorts of eyewitnesses and court officials )

*. Even as late as in the 19th and early 20th centuries, the Hindus returning from foreign lands were purified through Vratya stoma.

*.Dr. S. Radhakrishnan stated that individuals and tribes were absorbed in to Hinduism through vratyastoma.(The Hindu View of Life)

*.Satguru Sivaya Subramuniyaswami cites many instances of people forcibly converted to other faiths  re -admitted to Hinduism and issued Vratya stoma certificates.


At each stage in the evolution of Indian History, Vratya was accorded a different meaning; and that meaning amply mirrored the state of Indian society at that stage.

The obscure term Vratya, in a strange manner, epitomizes and conceals in its womb the tale of unfolding of Indian thought through the ages.


Sources and references:

 Early Indian Thought by prof.SK Ramachandra Rao

‘The Path of Arhat: A Religious Democracy’ by Justice T. U. Mehta

Jaina Tradition and Buddhism:

Rsabha in the Atharvaveda by Dr. Satya Pal Narang

Mention of Magadha in Vedic Literature

SanatanaDharma –sources

Sanathana Dharma – Vratya

Hymns of the Atharva Veda, by Ralph T.H. Griffith…Hymn x and xi of Book 15

Does Hinduism Accept Newcomers? Satguru Sivaya Subramuniyaswami


Posted by on September 13, 2012 in History, Indian Philosophy, Rigveda, Vratya


Tags: , , ,

22 responses to “Who were the Vratyas – the searching wanderers?

  1. sreenivasaraos

    March 20, 2015 at 2:57 pm

    thanx for sharing a very nice & imp. info. (. when i was very young,a school-girl, i do remeber our teacher mr.joshi ji often used to address all of us as ” my dear vratyas”)
    regards and love,

  2. sreenivasaraos

    March 20, 2015 at 3:00 pm

    Dear Kalpita, that is because it is only the Marathi language that still retains meaning of the term Vratya as someone who is naughty and unmanageable.


  3. sreenivasaraos

    March 20, 2015 at 3:00 pm

    a great blog as one expects from srinivasarao sb.
    i read it glued to the computer in one stretch.

    dmr sekhar.

    • sreenivasaraos

      March 20, 2015 at 3:01 pm

      dear shri shekar,
      thank you for the comments and the recommendation.
      you are truly amazing; you could read it in a stretch.
      i could not do it…after i posted it on the net. i found it difficult.
      i wish i could do away with avoidable repetitions. but, i am too lazy.
      thank you for your patience and appreciation.


  4. sreenivasaraos

    March 20, 2015 at 3:02 pm

    dear srinivasarao,
    let me share with you my limited understanding of
    vratyas…as i understand they were social reformers…
    they were the inital social scientists with rationality as the anchor…
    samkya which was talking about the purusha and the prakriti concept
    sought into the stream of indivdual consciouness a psycho somatic
    understanding of human beings…
    yoga was more somatic-spirtual and vratyas joined them to create an entity known as
    soma-psyhic-apiritualism… they moved away form the concept of god and were probably the first to postulate existantialism.(ashtavakra samhita is the other existantial work but i have not done any research on that)

    there is reason to believe that they travelled to river suvarna rekha and narmada valley .. many of their writings were proscribed by the popular vedic community and and some got lost..
    i am in touch with one such treatise on which i am trying to write detailed bashya..
    it s entitled “manav sutra” or aphorisms of being human. this was handed over to me by my guru dr pulin garg who was a leading educationist and psychoanalyst and organisation theorist of his times…

    later some of these did join the main stream of sankara’s vedic subdivison of
    ganapathi branch of sanathana dharma followers..

    the first satsang of the formation of this side of sanathana dharma was held at
    mayureshwar(one of ashta vinayaka temples in maharshtra)
    my great grand father has written a n adavitic treatise on ganapathyam or the adavitic secret behind ganapathy….

    all this is shruthi and smruthi and i have no reference to offer. so they could also be discarded as hearsay…sankara was the one who with his strong rational approach stemmed the growth of the new relegions which sprung form the thoughts of the vratyas like jainism..
    even as late as 300 ad vritya tradition was very much alive….
    i enjoyed and learnt a lot about these who were the sufis of hindu religion and were responsible for its creative growth…

    may i humbly request you to enlighten me on samkhya philosphy, its metaphors???
    if you have the time and inclination… you will help me in my evolution….


    • sreenivasaraos

      March 20, 2015 at 3:05 pm

      dear shri sampath,

      thank you for your detailed comments and recommendation.

      i agree, the vratyas were a set of highly creative people; they moved away from concept of god; they placed man at the centre of the scheme of things; and they brought rationalism to the fore. samkhya –yoga systems in their early forms also were associated with the vratyas.

      it is also true that at each stage in the development of the indian thought, the term vratya acquired a different meaning and connotation; and they varied with each other, vastly. the explanation you provided was one of the facets of the term; there were others too.

      i tried to trace the nuances associated with the term at each stage in the evolution of indian thought, over the ages; and place each one of those nuances in the context of its times.

      somehow, the shades of meaning accorded to the term during a particular phase in our history, seemed to mirror the state of our society at that particular duration. i was fascinated by it; and i said, the obscure term vratya, in a strange manner, epitomizes and conceals in its womb the tale of evolution of indian thought over the ages.

      i had not come across a similar line of enquiry. i wish someone better equipped, more competent and learned attempts a work along those lines. that would be more credible and authentic.

      i could have dwelt a little longer on the time-line; and also on the close inter-relation of upanishads –samkhya -buddhism. the latter, especially, would have added some depth to the discussion,
      because upanishads represent the age of synthesis. but, i desisted from doing that because the blog was getting lengthier and i intended to focus on vratya and its evolution. for similar reasons, i did not discuss about samkhya_yoga, per se.

      i am not familiar with manava sutras; and shall be grateful if you could let me know about that, in some detail.

      please also write about ganapathyam, you mentioned; and about vratyas.

      as regards samkhya and its metaphors, i shall, attempt a brief note, as i understand it, shortly.

      kindly respond.


      • sreenivasaraos

        March 20, 2015 at 3:07 pm

        dear sreenivasarao,

        vratyas contribution is to give a very
        time and space based approach to the issues…

        as to the manv sutra the english transl;ation is avilable .. i am posting this in
        a yahoo grpoup called indian mythology .com…

        if you are interested in becoming a member of the grpoup. do let me know and send a note and i shall send you an invitaion…i would love your contribution to the group..

        the advaitic text on ganapathyam original is not their with me . but i can reconstruct the essense and write a small note on the same..


  5. sreenivasaraos

    March 20, 2015 at 3:03 pm

    shri rao

    your article is illuminating, your presentation is enchanting…

    what is the upanayana? why is it confined to the upper castes alone? why did the rg veda not mention the ganga? so many questions have been answered here with simple, credible and scholarly authority.

    thanks! it is only sometimes that one enjoys sulekha these days. today is wonderful…would mail you…

    warm regards.


    • sreenivasaraos

      March 20, 2015 at 3:03 pm

      dear riverine,

      thank you for the comments and the recommendation.
      i am delighted to see you on these pages after quite some time.
      i am glad you found the post interesting and readable.
      please keep talking.


  6. sreenivasaraos

    March 20, 2015 at 3:09 pm

    highly interesting and a very significant blog

    i will have to read it again on further visits before i can make any statement that is fair to the
    knowledge and effort so evident in this blog…
    will be back soon – meanwhile, thanks for such a rich blog.

    Raj Armugam

    (i was referred to this blog by dmrsekhar)

  7. sreenivasaraos

    March 20, 2015 at 3:12 pm

    Well Professor, this is one of the more substantial and interesting Blogs I’ve read in ages. By pal Sampathji even rears up for a grin and mention, I’m looking forward to reading the comments and reading more historical Blogs from you. I also noticed on your page my dear friend G Gopal’s name , what a wealth of knowledge and a class act he was. I really miss him.

    For me in particular this is fascinating because I am currently looking for a co author to help me write a group of small Hardy Boys size adventures where I embellish either real hstory or legend and combine each adventure and my recurring characters into the adventure along with a particular culture and religion. Naturally, India has many, so I see at least three small books with India settings and maybe as many as five each set in a different time and locality.It is a fun project as I’m looking not only at books but film, electronic games and even action figures ! Despite what we were speaking to on my Blog, these books actually celebrate and share various religions/ ways of life with the audience.

    I’ll chime in again after I’ve read more, but really nice work ! Impressive ! BTW No foot notes needed in the series…:-))


    • sreenivasaraos

      March 20, 2015 at 3:12 pm

      Dear bilingual, I am truly stumped… I wonder how you ever managed to dig out this relic. I am very glad you breathed fresh lease of life into this old and forgotten blog. Thanks.

      As regards Mr. Giridhar Gopal; yes, as you observed we interacted rather closely. Both followed and appreciated each other’s writings and experiences. During June 2008, he wrote: I have to meet you and we have to spend a lot of time together….Following that I did plan to travel from Cincinnati – OH (where I was at that time) to meet him at his home in Westchester County New York . But, somehow that did not happen. But earlier to that (may be in Dec 2007) he wrote: “Sreenivas, death to me at my age is not that distant nightmare, but something that could happen and my wish with Robert Frost will be that I have “promises to keep and miles to go before I sleep, and miles to go before I sleep”, but if I cannot travel that distance, so be it. The important thing for me will be whether my life made a difference for the better: was the world around me better off because I was. If the answer is yes, I will go cheerfully.”

      Yes: I do miss him.

      What you said about fascinations is truly interesting. That reminds of the conversations I had (over the net ) with Deepamjee ( Shri Deepam Chatterjee) who pursued similar interests , which is producing stories, comic strips, videos based on epic-mythological stories . Please check my post Re: Your research on Karna that came up in that context. Please do go through the comments section. I reckon, you may find his experiences useful. You may perhaps like talk to Deepamjee .

      You are welcome.

      Warm Regards

      • sreenivasaraos

        March 20, 2015 at 3:16 pm

        Dear bilingual,We badly need such ‘bad ducks’; else , it is more of the same.
        Please keep coming.

  8. sreenivasaraos

    March 20, 2015 at 3:15 pm

    Dear sreenivasrao sir,
    A very very enlightening and an educative piece.
    Sir, I am not as learned as you are but I suspect the term VRATYA was used for the NATIVES by the incoming ARYANS ( I am of the view that incoming Aryans were actually REFINED NAGAS).
    Now , who were the Natives? —- they were NAGAS of SUNDALAND, who began moving NORTH and WEST around 8000BC, when sea level rose by 400 feet due to melting glaciers and formations of river channels to the sea. This was at the end of last ICE AGE.
    You are aware SUNDA LAND has been now credited to be the first human civilization established some 20,000 years back in the submerged portion of land between present day Eastern coast of India and Indonesia.
    I am of the view that NAGAS WERE THE INHABITANTS OF THIS REGION WITH LORD SHIVA AS THEIR DIETY. AT THE END OF ICE AGE THEY MOVED UP NORTH AND WEST TO ESTABLISH ” RIVER CIVILISATIONS” , such as SARASWATI RIVER or INDUS VALLEY CIVILISATION. Their journey continues WESTWARD TILL 4000 -4500 BC, when a major GEOLOGICAL UPHEAVAL, made them revert to their original land—– this time they came as ARYANS ( refined Nagas).
    This is what RIGVEDA refers to as INDRA- VRATRA BATTLES. Also, the Panch-VRATA is reference to five regions of the south, generally associated with DRAVIDA culture. I, though hold that there was nothing known as Dravida— it was BUDDHIST MONK KUMARILLA BHATA,S COINAGE OF THE TERM TO DESCRIBE THE VRATRIYAS. Hedid it in his book TANTRIKAVRATA in the Seventh century AD. And a Christian Missionary ROBERT CALDWELL picked it up and popularized the term DRAVIDA. it was in 1853 AD.
    This is my deductions of reading of various books
    Rajee Kushwaha

    • sreenivasaraos

      March 20, 2015 at 3:15 pm

      Dear Shri Rajee, That was interesting and well informed response. I respect your views.

      As I mentioned, the exact meaning of the term Vratya is unclear. Further, it acquired different /contrasting shades of meanings and connotations over the centuries depending upon the region and its context. When we look at the explanation provided by a particular text, we may also have to see that in the context of its time and region. It cannot therefore be pinned down to a specified meaning. I have tried to trace the changing nuances of its hues following a particular line. The other interpretations might equally be apt.

      Regarding Shiva, as I mentioned, he is hailed as Eka –Vratya, Vrata-pathi, the chief of the Vratyas. Shiva is referred to as the god of the non Vedic Vratyas. Perhaps we should bear in mind, whatever is non-Vedic is not necessarily non-Aryan; and, that the Vedic beliefs may not represent the whole of the old Aryan communities. At the same time, the term ‘non-Aryan’ should not be construed to mean aboriginal or savage.

      Similarly, the usage of Aryavarta and Madhyadesha and its extent did change over the periods.


  9. sreenivasaraos

    March 20, 2015 at 3:18 pm

    Dear Professor, thank you for a most excellent article! I am a caucasian person living in the United States, an aspiring writer. I have been researching the Vedas, Jains, Buddhists, yoga, Indus Valley, Harappa, ancient Indian astronomy & mathematics, the Mohenjo Daro seals, etc., etc., etc. I was so relieved to find that your definition of the vratyas was in sinc with what I thought it was. Can you describe tantra? Most people feel it is a sexual practice, but it is also part of Taoist Martial Arts. Can you tell us any thing more in-depth? Thank you for your most excellent article!


    • sreenivasaraos

      March 20, 2015 at 3:18 pm

      Dear Kimberlee , Welcome to the world of Sulekha. Thank you for resurrecting an old and a forgotten blog.

      The term Vratya, as I explained, carries more than one meaning. It acquired various shades of nuance depending on the context and the times it was used. I have tried to trace its course over the centuries. I am grateful you found it readable and useful.

      As regards Tantra, I posted a series of articles on Tantra and Agama, with particular reference to Vaikhanasa Agama. Please check the links, starting with the following :

      Please let me know if I can be of any assistance.


  10. sreenivasaraos

    March 20, 2015 at 3:19 pm

    Dear Shri Bala, The chronology in Indian History is a knotty issue. The date of Sri Shankara is still a subject of debate. It floats anywhere between 5th century BCE and eighth century AD. But, it is generally accepted, the period around 750 AD (+ or – 50) might be his date. He is identified as a younger contemporary of Kumarila Bhatta. The period of the latter is presumed to be around 6th-7th century AD.

    Vratya stoma is basically a purification ritual. It was performed for varieties of reasons; but, all of which involve some sort of cleansing. Vratya stoma includes many rituals besides Panchagavya prashana, Achamana, sankalpa, Punyahavachana, mangala nIrajana and abhisheka by waters drawn from various sacred rivers. As you mentioned, the Upanayana ceremony might have drawn the practice from Vratya stoma .That might be because, Upanayana is regarded a virtual re-birth, starting afresh burning (diksha) away the past.


  11. sreenivasaraos

    March 20, 2015 at 3:20 pm

    thank you so much for the clear and insightful post on vratyas. As part of my Masters in Yoga & Meditation Traditions I have been assigned an essay on the cultural and religious significance of the vratyas. After reading so much of the literature and scholarly papers I was left none the wiser! Your succinct article was the best thing I’ve read!


    • sreenivasaraos

      March 20, 2015 at 3:21 pm

      Dear Tammy , I am glad you found the article fairly useful. Thank you for the appreciation.

      I have tried here to trace the nuances associated with the term at each stage in the evolution of Indian thought, over the ages; and place each one of those nuances in the context of its times. Somehow, the shades of meaning accorded to the term during a particular phase in our history, seemed to mirror the state of our society at that particular duration. I was fascinated by it; and as I said, the obscure term Vratya, in a strange manner, epitomizes and conceals in its womb the tale of evolution of Indian thought over the ages.

      I did this, because had not, elsewhere, come across a similar line of enquiry. I wish someone better equipped, more competent and learned attempts a work along those lines. That would be more credible and authentic.

      I could have dwelt a little longer on the time-line; and also on the close inter-relation of Upanishads – Samkhya -Buddhism. The latter, especially, would have added some depth to the discussion. But, I desisted from doing that because the blog was getting lengthier and i intended to focus on Vratya and its evolution. For similar reasons,I did not discuss about Samkhya- yoga, per se.

      I have posted separate series of articles on Samkhya, Upanishads as also on Buddhism.


  12. sreenivasaraos

    March 20, 2015 at 3:23 pm

    Term Vratya derived from prakrit word VRATA means wove takers It is a basic tradition in Jainism for every house holder to follow ascetic order with small steps of woves that all you researches ignored These were the original Shramana people opposed the Vedic animal sacrifice in Yajna and opposed it. Vedics ignored and categorize them as to start with certain rebellious cult but Shraman Dravidian were the original inhabitants of Indus valley civilization. Probably after arrival of Vedic people some way destroyed the original Indus script that’s one of the reason India has no written History The aim of vedic people was to retain their knowledge in oral tradition Hence they can manipulate and destroy the true original Indian history. You can ignore, speculate,and run away but you cannot hide.


    • sreenivasaraos

      March 20, 2015 at 3:23 pm

      Dear Shan , Thanks for the visitRegarding the term Vratya in the Jain context , please read from the paragraph starting with words ” The Jain tradition claims that it existed in India even from pre- Vedic times and remained unaffected by the Vedic religion. It also says, the Jain religion was flourishing, especially in the North and Eastern regions of India, during the Vedic times. “I trust this answers your query.Regards


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