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Śramaṇa (Sanskrit: श्रमण; Pali: samaṇa) means ‘one who labours, toils, or exerts themselves (for some higher or religious purpose)’ or ‘seeker, one who performs acts of austerity, ascetic.’ The term in early Vedic literature is predominantly used as an epithet for the Rishis with reference to Shrama associated with the ritualistic exertion. The term in these texts doesn’t express non-Vedic connotations as it does in post-Vedic Buddhist and Jain canonical texts. During its later semantic development, the term came to refer to several non-Brahmanical ascetic movements parallel to but separate from the Vedic religion. The śramaṇa tradition includes Jainism, Buddhism, and others such as the Ājīvikas, Ajñanas and Cārvākas.

“The śramaṇa movements arose in the same circles of mendicants in ancient India that led to the development of yogic practices, as well as the popular concepts in all major Indian religions such as saṃsāra (the cycle of birth and death) and moksha (liberation from that cycle).

“The Śramaṇic traditions have a diverse range of beliefs, ranging from accepting or denying the concept of soul, fatalism to free will, idealization of extreme asceticism to that of family life, wearing dress to complete nudity in daily social life, strict ahimsa (non-violence) and vegetarianism to permissibility of violence and meat-eating.”[1]

“Shramana (from the Sanskrit word shram, ‘to strive’) [is a] general term denoting religious adepts from the middle of the first millennium before the common era whose beliefs stressed renunciation, ascetic practices, and the search for intuitive insights. Shramana religious practice was individualist, experimental, free-form, and independent of society. All of these qualities put them in religious competition with the brahmin priests, whose practice stressed mastery of sacred texts and performing enormously complex rituals; the need for sponsors for these rituals made brahmin religion ‘establishment’ religion, serving its patron classes. Indian grammarians use the pair shramana and brahmin to illustrate typically bitter opponents, along with examples such as mongoose and cobra, and their difference seems to be between a religious model stressing individual charisma (shramana), and one stressing highly trained technical expertise (brahmin). Part of the shramana tradition remained outside the Hindu fold by virtue of resolutely rejecting the authority of the Vedas; the Jains, Buddhists, Ajivikas, and other religious groups developed as a result of this rejection of the Vedas. Part of the shramana tradition was absorbed into traditional Hinduism in the dharma literature, which found a place for renunciant asceticism in the form of the Sanyasi, the last of the four traditional stages of life (ashramas).”[2]

Śramaṇa-Brāhmaṇa conflict[]

“Of the only two references to the word śramaṇa (practicer of religious exertions - from, śram ‘to exert’) in the Vedic literature, one is found in the Bṛhadāraṇyaka Upaniṣad where it is placed side by side with tāpasa (practicer of religious austerities - from tap, ‘to warm’) indicating that a śramaṇa, like tāpasa, belonged to a class of mendicants. It is not clear if this word śramaṇa at this stage referred exclusively to a member of the heterodox orders of monks whom we meet frequently in the Pali scriptures of the Theravāda school of Buddhism. In the latter the compound word śramaṇa-brāhmaṇa is of common occurrence and definitely refers to two distinct groups of holy men, the former denoting all kinds of mendicants including the Buddhists, and the latter solely reserved for the brāhmaṇs, the lay upholders of the Vedic tradition. The brāhmaṇ mendicants are here designated by the term tāpasa but never by the word śramaṇa. In contrast, the Buddha is called a great (mahā) śramaṇa, and the members of his order (saṅgha) are referred to by the non-Buddhists as the śramaṇas, the sons of Śākya. In the Jain texts also, Mahāvīra the Jain teacher, a contemporary of the Buddha, is called a śramaṇa, a title by which later Hindu writers identified the ascetics of the Jain and Buddhist faith.

“The Pali scriptures occasionally betray a certain animosity between the śramaṇas, particularly the Buddhists, and the brāhmaṇs. But on the whole their attitude to each other was one of cordiality. In subsequent periods, however, the successes of Buddhists in converting the great emperor Aśoka and in winning for their order the support of a large number of rich merchants, traditionally the patrons of the brāhmaṇs, must have produced great hostility between them; so much so, that Patañjali (''c''. 150 B.C.) in his Mahābhāṣya cites ‘''śramaṇa''-brāhmaṇa,’ together with ‘cat and mouse,’ ‘dog and fox’ and ‘snake and mongoose,’ as illustrations of such hostility. Centuries later, Hemacandra (12th century A.D.) himself a ''śramaṇa'' (a Jain monk), cites the same example in an identical context in his grammar, thus emphasizing the traditional hostility between the ''śramaṇas'' and the brāhmaṇas that permeated medieval Indian society.”[3]


  1. “Śramaṇa - Wikipedia.” 2019. June 18, 2019. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Śramaṇa.
  2. Lochtefeld, J. G. 2001. “S.” In The Illustrated Encyclopedia of Hinduism, Volume 2, 639. The Rosen Publishing Group, Inc. https://books.google.com/books?id=g6FsB3psOTIC&pg=PA639#v=onepage&q&f=false
  3. Jaini, P. S. 2001. “Śramaṇas: Their Conflict with Brāhmaṇical Society (1970).” In Collected Papers on Buddhist Studies, 1st ed., 48–49. Motilal Banarsidass Publishers. http://www.ahandfulofleaves.org/documents/Collected%20Papers%20on%20Buddhist%20Studies_Jaini.pdf