nAstika-s before the tathAgata and the nirgrantha

An essay by shrI sarvesha tivArI pointed me to some discussions that in turn reminded me of a debate with my parents’ jaina neighbors on a visit to bhArata long ago. He was narrating how vardhamAna was just the last in a long line of nirgrantha-s who had existed yuga after yuga by the side of the sinful vAsudeva-s such as kR^iShNa and rAma, and the kR^ityA-s of their age such as draupadi and sItA. Even as these vAsudeva-s and their prati-vAsudeva-s clashed in epic battle committing much violence the nirgrantha-s of their age practiced and taught the dharma of ahiMsa or the path of the jina beside them. However, none of these great nirgrantha-s who preceded vardhamAna ever find a place in the old itihAsa-purANa and are found only in the mangled versions of the same presented by later jaina authors. To a certain degree the tathAgata too similarly holds that his prior manifestations were around in the time of the heroes of the itihAsa. In large part we can argue that this is retrofitting, but did the two great nAstika-s really come out of nowhere and that too almost at the same time? From textual analysis of such nAstika purANa-s it is rather clear that most of the claims of the nAstika-s in the pUrva yuga-s are retrofitting. These texts were composed relatively late as reactions to the Astika works, rather than being independent traditions of past events. On the other hand White Indologists and their fellow travelers, who are eager to place practically all Hindu texts after the arrival of the two nAstika-s, compound the problem by emphatically declaring all signs of nAstika mata to imply the systems of vardhamAna and siddhArtha, rather than their precursors.

A jaina mantravAdin who was very generous to me with culinary and intellectual hospitality took on this issue in a no holds bared discussion. He was rather unique among the nAstika-s in being well-conversant with Arya shAstra-s. He agreed that the purANa-s of the nAstika were probably reactionary in nature but made the following arguments to present his case for even earlier nAstika presence (along with my (counter) arguments and other comments if any):
1) The RV speaks of muni-s who were vAtarashana (RV10.136.2):
munayo vAtarashanAH pishA~NgA vasate malA
This implies muni-s “girdled with air” i.e. nirgrantha-s or those wearing yellow rags – an image typical of Indo-Aryan ascetics of a later time.
*I agree that these R^igvedic muni-s are indeed early ascetics; however, rather than being jaina they are clearly proto-pAshupata-s because they are described as drinking a narcotic oShadhi, the kunannamA ground by vAyu from a vessel along with rudra (RV 10.136.7):

2) The taittirIya Aranyaka further clarifies who these vAtarashana-s are. In describing the mantra-s of the aruNaketuka chayana in which the chiti is comprised of bricks in the form of vessels filled with water it mentions the emanation of vipra-s from prajApati:
sa tapo.atapyata | sa tapas tapatvA sharIram adhUnata | tasya yan mAMsam AsIt tato.aruNa ketavo vAtarashanA R^iShaya udatiShThan | ye nakhAH te vaikhAnasAH | ye vAlAH te vAlakhilyAH | 1.23.91-92
When prajApati shook his body after performing tapasya from his flesh arose R^iShi-s known as aruna-s, ketu-s and vAtarashana-s, from his nails vaikhAnasa-s and from his hair(?) arose the vAlakhilya-s.
*Some take this not mean real R^iShi-s but astronomical entities: aruNi-s and ketu-s are comets and likewise vAtarashana-s could be some other phenomenon like meteors.
3) However, the TA further clarifies vAtarashana in TA 2.7.1 in the context of providing a brAmaNa explanation for the kUShmANDa mantra-s:
vAtarashanA ha vA R^iShayaH shramaNA Urdhvamanthino babhUvuH |
The R^iShi-s are said to have sought the vAtarashana-s who were shramaNa-s but they vanished and “entered” the kUShmANDa mantra-s. There the R^iShi-s are said to have found them by means of their shraddha and tapas.
Now commentators like sha~Nkara bhagavatpAda and sAyaNa imply shramaNa to mean parivrAjaka. Additionally sAyaNa takes UrdhvamanthinaH to mean UrdhvaretasaH. Our jaina scholar implied that all this means the vAtarashana was a nagna, parivrAjaka and also a celibate (Urdhvaretas) and hence it implied a jaina muni. Thus he argued that there is evidence in the veda for the jaina system having existed side-by-side.
*But we must keep in mind that there is nothing specifically jaina here. The Urdhvaretas is in fact entirely compatible with a pAshupata (rudra the puruSha is described as Urdhvaretas himself in a pAshupata mantra: R^itaM satyaM…). The vAtarashana-s of the tattirIya are clearly teachers of Astika lore such as kUShmANDa ritual and are described as seers of vaidika hymns (most likely the keshI-sUkta). We must also keep in mind that the bR^ihadAraNyaka regards the shramaNa as an Astika, rather than a nAstika ascetic. It is also not clear if the term vAtarashana meant a nirgrantha as interpreted by many. Since the same muni it the RV is described as being clad in yellow rags, it is conceivable that he was not really a digaMbara. Rather, vAtarashana might imply that he was just surrounded by vAta or simply wandering in the open without a home to contain him.

As previously discussed, these references indicate that there is no doubt about the presence of an ancient Indo-Aryan ascetic substratum from which different forms of early Indo-Aryan Astika ascetic traditions, such the pAshupata mata arose. There is no indication that these traditions referred to in the veda are nAstika as the nirgrantha mata.

However, other evidence does suggest a pre-vardhamAna and pre-siddhArtha nAstika tradition. For this evidence we have to turn to an ancient narrative preserved in the mAhAbharata in the speech of arjuna to yudhiShThira (shAnti parvan, chapter 11).The tale narrated by arjuna is referred to as an ancient itihAsa (atraivodAharantImam itihAsaM purAtanam):
Certain youth of good families before having attained adulthood renounced their homes and families and departed to the forest to live there as celibate ascetics abandoning vedic rites. indra out of compassion for their wrong ways went up to them in the form of a golden bird and pointed out their folly. He instructed them that the foremost of the words are the mantra-s and it is the duty of brAhmaNa-s as the first varNa to perform rites with mantra-s. Those who abandon the vedic karman incur pApa. The true asceticism is not renunciation and life in the forest but living in the midst of ones clansmen, performing vedic rituals to the deva-s, manes and entertainment of guests with good gifts. The ascetics having heard those words of shakra then gave up the nAstika path and returned to their homes:
utsR^ijya nAstika gatiM gArhasthyaM dharmamAshritAH |
Here, it is clear that the ascetics were termed nAstika because they were departing from the way of the veda. The narrative is clearly archaic because its primary protagonist is indra and not any of the gods who were ascendant later (as seen in other parts of the bhArata). It teaches a distinct concept of the primacy of vedic ritualism which is also central to the older system typical of the brAhmaNa-s and their mImAMsa successors rather than a sectarian atimArga teaching typical of other parts of the bhArata. Thus, this text might actually indicate the early nAstika-s before the rise of the famous two. Now is there any other evidence for these nAstika-s? Clearly they were contrasted with the vaidika ritualism, and when we look for this feature we do not have to go far – we are led to the upaniShad of the atharvan-s, the muNDaka. This text is strikingly similar to the position that is exactly antipodal to that taught in the Mbh by indra. The muNDaka denigrates vedic ritual or karman and instead praises the insights of the forest dwelling renunciate. But other parts of the muNDaka have elements of a genuine atharvan text. So it is possible that this text actually represents a production of an early nAstika who used an older atharvan text to insert his heterodox material. Indeed, the muNDaka taken together with the AkhyAna in the bhArata, shows that the early nAstika-s arose within the Indo-Aryan ascetic matrix and specifically targeted the performance of vedic rites. Now the muNDaka also illustrates how these nAstika-s also followed what may be termed subversion from within, by posing as the correct interpretations of vaidika tradition (this is again hinted in the initial reply of the ascetics to indra in the mahAbhArata narrative). Later on we see that siddArtha was following the same dynamic – as we have described before he was posing as a true inheritor and correct interpreter of the old path. The only difference was that he used the vulgar language of the lay. Had he followed his brAhmaNa advisers and redone his work in Chandas, then perhaps we may have included the early bauddha as part of the Astika tradition. But vardhamAna and maskarin goshAla were more radical – they simply pursued the trend started by the muNDaka more vigorously to simply drop the lip-service the shruti. So in a sense probably these famous nAstika-s at beginning of the great nAstika phase of the dharma were remembering these older dissenters within the old Indo-Aryan ascetic matrix when they claimed that their precursors had existed in the purva yuga-s.

However, the great god might have not been as kind on other occasions. There is an ancient sUkta of the bhArgava-s (indra juShasva … AV 2.5) that is used in a permuted form during the great ritual of the ShoDashin. In this it is said that indra slew the yatI just as he crushed vR^itra. In his commentary sAyaNa explains that the yati-s are the brood of the asura-s who are parivrAjaka-s. In the brAhmaNa-s we repeatedly hear the tale of the yati-s being done over to the hyenas by indra. Here sAyaNa describes them as being ya~jnavirodhIjanAH. The jaina scholar hazarded that these yati-s were the early nAstika-s. While this is plausible the evidence is hardly strong – we are hardly given the reason why the yati-s were fed to the hyenas. In the account in the pa~nchaviMsha and jaiminIya brAhmaNa-s, indra spares 3 of the yati-s from being eaten. These he supports and they attain the gifts of brAhmaNa, kshatriya and vaishya status by praising indra with 3 sAman-s which are synonymized with them: rayovAja, pR^ithu-rashmI and bR^ihadgiri. While the yati story is tantalizing if anything the survivors are at least firmly within the vaidika fold rather than being nAstika.

In conclusion we see that there were early dissenters among the Indo-Aryan ascetics who might have deviated from the path of vedic ritualism. These can indeed be seen as predecessors of the famous nAstika-s as they shared some general features with them. However, it is unlikely that they represented the specific traditions of the kshatriya nAstika-s siddhArtha and vardhamAna or the enigmatic goshAla. As we have seen earlier on these pages the primary rivals who were portrayed as being “conquered” in the bauddha lore are the brAhmaNa-s who upheld vaidika tradition. In this regard the last tirthankara is similar. His primary converts are brAhmaNa-s – these are called gaNadhara-s. The foremost amongst these was indrabhUti gautama of the a~ngirasa lineage. Only after the nirgrantha converts 10 brAhmaNa-s does he spread his message more generally, using these initial converts as his messengers. In the narrative of the conversion of indrabhUti it is said that he was performing a great shrauta yAga. The deva-s were called for the soma offering but he saw that instead of coming to him they went over to attend a lecture by vardhamAna. Furious he challenged vardhamAna for a debate but was defeated by the nagna and made a nAstika. This indrabhUti rose considerably in importance in the jaina lore and was nearly deified by the shvetAmbara-s. Further the jaina lore claims that when sacrificial altars of the brAhmaNa-s were excavated below them were found images of the nagna-s indicating their primacy over the vaidika dharma. What these observations indicate is that even though there earlier nAstika traditions they were quite weak even at the time of the origin of the two nAstika-s. Thus, even though like to portray themselves as having long independent history we see that they are closely associated with their primary rivals – the mImAmsaka brAhmaNa-s.

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