[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 (parivrajaka), 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 (07,118.015) the Vrishni-s and Andhaka-s were branded Vratyas – uncouth and uncultured- vrātyāḥ saṃśliṣṭakarmāṇaḥ prakṛtyaiva vigarhitāḥ / vṛṣṇy andhakāḥ kathaṃ pārtha pramāṇaṃ bhavatā kṛtāḥ]
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 (AVŚ_15,3.1 to AVŚ_15,18.5) to the “mystical fellowship” of the Vratyas. The Pancavimsa-brahmana , 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 (24:18.2) however addresses them as divine-Vratyas (daivā vai vrātyāḥ sattram āsata budhena). 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 10.8.1.9.1).Shatha-rudriya celebrating the glory of one- hundred – and- eight forms of Rudra hails Rudra as Vrata-pathi, the chief of the Vratyas (TS.188.8.131.52)
[ The Atharva-veda (AV: 15. 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; Pashupati 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.
sa ekavrātyo ‘bhavat sa dhanur ādatta tad evendradhanuḥ ||6||nīlam asyodaraṃ lohitaṃ pṛṣṭham ||7||nīlenaivā priyaṃ bhrātṛvyaṃ prorṇoti lohitena dviṣantaṃ vidhyatīti brahmavādino vadanti ||8|| (AVŚ_15,1.6a to 8a)]
[* 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 seem to think.]
The Atharva Veda (15.2.1-2) 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 stanayitnur). 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.
tasya prācyāṃ diśi śraddhā puṃścalī mitro māgadho vijñānaṃ vāso ‘har uṣṇīṣaṃ rātrī keśā haritau pravartau kalmalir maṇiḥ – (AVŚ_15,2.1[2.5]e) ; tasya dakṣiṇāyāṃ diśy uṣāḥ puṃścalī mantro māgadho vijñānaṃ vāso ‘har uṣṇīṣaṃ rātrī keśā haritau pravartau kalmalir maṇiḥ – (AVŚ_15,2.2[2.13]e) ; tasya pratīcyāṃ diśīrā puṃścalī haso māgadho vijñānaṃ vāso ‘har uṣṇīṣaṃ rātrī keśā haritau pravartau kalmalir maṇiḥ -(AVŚ_15,2.3[2.19]e); tasyodīcyāṃ diśi vidyut puṃścalī stanayitnur māgadho vijñānaṃ vāso ‘har uṣṇīṣaṃ rātrī keśā haritau pravartau kalmalir maṇiḥ – (AVŚ_15,2.4[2.25]e)
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 (dīkṣita-vācaṃ vadanti) , though not themselves initiated (a-diksita), but as’ calling that which is easy to utter (a-durukta) ‘ (Panchavimsa Brahmana, 17.1.9 – aduruktavākyaṃ duruktam ) . This may mean that the Vratyas were familiar and comfortable both in Sanskrit and Prakrit.
garagiro vā ete ye brahmādyaṃ janyam annam adanty aduruktavākyaṃ duruktam āhur adaṇḍyaṃ daṇḍena ghnantaś caranty adīkṣitā dīkṣitavācaṃ vadanti ṣoḍaśo vā eteṣāṃ stomaḥ pāpmānaṃ nirhantum arhati yad ete catvāraḥ ṣoḍaśā bhavanti tena pāpmano ‘dhi nirmucyante
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-sukta 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. – uṣṇīṣaṃ ca pratodaś ca jyāhṇoḍaś ca vipathaś ca phalakāstīrṇaḥ kṛṣṇaśaṃ vāsaḥ kṛṣṇavalakṣe ajine rajato niṣkas tad gṛhapateḥ -(PB 17.1.14)
[* 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) – valūkāntāni dāmatūṣāṇītareṣāṃ dve dve dāmanī dve dve upānahau dviṣaṃhitāny ajināni – (PB 17.1.15) – etad vai vrātyadhanaṃ yasmā etad dadati tasminn eva mṛjānā yānti
Vratyas used a peculiar type of reclining seats (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)- āsandīm āruhyodgāyati devasākṣya eva tad upariṣadyaṃ jayat.
so ‘bravīd āsandīṃ me saṃ bharantv iti ||2||tasmai vrātyāyāsandīṃ sam abharan ||3||tasyā grīṣmaś ca vasantaś ca dvau pādāv āstāṃ śarac ca varṣāś ca dvau ||4||bṛhac ca rathantaraṃ cānūcye āstāṃ yajñāyajñiyaṃ ca vāmadevyaṃ ca tiraścye ||5||ṛcaḥ prāñcas tantavo yajūṃṣi tiryañcaḥ ||6||veda āstaraṇaṃ brahmopabarhaṇam ||7||sāmāsāda udgītho ‘paśrayaḥ ||8||tām āsandīṃ vrātya ārohat ||9||(AVŚ_15,3.1a- 9a)
The Satapatha Brahmana (Sat.Brh.184.108.40.206) also describes the Asandi as an elaborate low seat, with diminutive legs; and, of some length on which a man could comfortably stretch himself, if he chose to. And, more than one person could sit on such a seat. It was said to be made of Khadira wood, perforated (vi-trinna), and joined with straps (vardhra-yukta). It perhaps meant a long reclining chair/ rest. The Asandi is described in the Satapatha Brahmana, as a seat for a king or a leader.
maitrāvaruṇyā payasyayā pracarati | tasyā aniṣṭa eva sviṣṭakṛdbhavatyathāsmā āsandī māharant yuparisadyaṃ vā eṣa jayati yo jayatyantarikṣasadyaṃ tadena muparyāsīnamadhastādimāḥ prajā upāsate tasmādasmā āsandī māharanti saiṣā
khādirī vitṛṇā bhavati yeyaṃ vardhra -vyutā bharatānām ]
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.
hīnā vā ete hīyante ye vrātyāṃ pravasanti na hi brahmacaryaṃ caranti na kṛṣiṃ vaṇijyāṃ ṣoḍaśo vā etat stomaḥ samāptum arhati – (PB 17.1.2)
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 scholar and 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 Svetasvatara 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)
eko hi rudro na dvitīyāya tasthe ya imāṃl lokān īśata īśanībhiḥ / pratyaṅ janās tiṣṭhati saṃcukocāntakāle saṃsṛjya viśvā bhuvanāni gopāḥ // SvetUp_3.2 //
nainam ūrdhvaṃ na tiryañcaṃ na madhye parijagrabhat / na tasya pratimā asti yasya nāma mahad yaśaḥ // SvetUp_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 Shri 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 Kusinara , were 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 Lichchavi, 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 BCE. 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 rundhe// — 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 brāhmaṇasyaupanāyanam |
garbhādekādaśe rājño garbhāt tu dvādaśe viśaḥ || 36 ||
brahmavarcasakāmasya kāryo viprasya pañcame |
rājño balārthinaḥ ṣaṣṭhe vaiśyasyaihārthino’ṣṭame || 37 ||
ā ṣodaśād brāhmaṇasya sāvitrī nātivartate |
ā dvāviṃśāt kṣatrabandhorā caturviṃśaterviśaḥ || 38 ||
ata ūrdhvaṃ trayo’pyete yathākālamasaṃskṛtāḥ |
sāvitrīpatitā vrātyā bhavantyāryavigarhitāḥ || 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).
[ Dr. Ananat Sadashiv Altekar ( 1898-1960)- who was the Professor and Head of the Department of Ancient Indian History and Culture at Banaras Hindu University – (in his Education in Ancient India, 1934) explains that it was in the times of the Upanishads that the Upanayana ceremony gained greater importance. Upanayana literally meant taking a young boy to a teacher in order to hand him over to the latter for his education in the Vedas. Thus, the Upanayana occasion marked the entry of a student, as an inmate (Antevasin), into Guru-kula to pursue Vedic studies. The Upanayana was thus primarily linked to pursuit of studies; and, it was not compulsory for all.
And, again, an Upanayana had to be performed every time a student approached a new teacher; or, when he embarked upon a new branch of study. Dr. Altekar mentions that there were occasions when even married men had to undergo Upanayana while approaching a renowned teacher for learning a new subject (Br. Up.6.2.4). And, such a ceremony that was so often repeated, Dr. Altekar opines, could not have been an elaborate one. It was, by its very nature, a domestic and simple performance. The student had to approach the Teacher, holding the sacred fuel (Samitt), and indicating his complete willingness to learn and to serve the Teacher, as also to tend his sacred Agni-s (Ch.Up.6.5.5 and 5.11.7; and Mu. Up. 1.2.12).
An ardent young student entering a new phase of life after Upanayana was said to be born a second time – Dvija. (A similar notion of a ‘second-birth’ came into vogue in Buddhism when lay person was admitted into the Sangha)
According to Dr.Altekar, for several centuries, Upanayana was not regarded as a Samskara ritual. And, it seems to have become a popular Samskara – ceremony only in the later times. In the earlier times, one was called a Vratya if he was not offering Soma sacrifice or if one was not tending to sacred fires. But, in the later times, the one who had not undergone a Upanayana Samskara came to labelled a Vratya. Subsequently, such a Vratya was re-admitted into the orthodox fold (even if his past three ancestors had failed to undergo Upanayana altogether- Vratya pita pitamaho va na Somam priveshya Vratyah – Sri Madhava’s commentary on Parasara Smriti), provided he underwent the purification ritual of Vratya –stoma (Paraskara Grihya Sutra 2.5)
In course of time, Upanayana came to be regarded as an essential bodily Samskara (Sarira samskara) for all the three classes. And, the non-performance of Upanayana would disqualify one from entering into a valid wedlock.
Although Manu prescribed 8th, 11th and 12th year as suitable for performance of the Upanayana for the Brahmana, Kashtriya and Vaishya boys, it was not taken by the later Law-givers as an absolute norm. For instance; Baudhayana considered anytime between 8 and 16 years of age, for all classes, as suitable. The change in the norm perhaps came about because of the change in the conception and the nature of the Upanayana. In the earlier times, Upanayana marked the commencement of Vedic education ; and, therefore, the child had to start learning at a quite young age. But when Upanayana became a bodily Samskara, any age between 8 and 16 was considered good enough. In any case, commencement of Vedic studies after the age of 16 was discouraged, perhaps because it was thought that the boy’s capacity to absorb and learn a new subject might have by then gone rather slow.
Since the Upanayana ceremony was linked to commencement of education, the Upanayana of girls was as common as that of boys. There is ample evidence to show that such was the case. The Atharvaveda (XI. 5. 18) expressly refers to maidens undergoing the Brahmanharya discipline (brahmacaryeṇa kanyā yuvānaṃ vindate patim ) ; and, the Sutra texts of the 5th century B. C. supply interesting details in its connection. Even Manu includes Upanayana among the sanskaras (rituals) obligatory for girls (II. 66).
After about the beginning of the Christian era, the Upanayana for girls went out of vogue. But, Smriti writers of even the 8th century A. D. like Yama admit that in the earlier times the girls had the privilege of Upanayana and Vedic studies.
The discontinuance of Upanayana was disastrous to the educational and religious status of women. The mischief caused by the discontinuance of Upanayana was further enhanced by the lowering of the marriageable age. In the Vedic period girls were married at about the age of 16 or 17; but by Ca. 500 B. C. the custom arose of marrying them soon after the attainment of puberty. Later writers like Yajnavalkya (200 A. D.), Samvarta and Yama, vehemently condemn the guardian who fails to marry a girl before the attainment of the puberty. Therefore, the Smritis written by 11th century began to glorify the merits of a girl’s marriage at the age of 7, 8, or 9, when it was regarded as an ideal thing to celebrate a girl’s marriage at so young an age, female education could hardly prosper. ]
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 [Atharva Veda 11.5.18a, Satpatha Brahmana.220.127.116.11, 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 deer-skins 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
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