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Greater Magadha

Last updated 2021 May 13

The basic idea of Greater Magadha is that it was a culture separate from Vedic/Brahmanical Hinduism focused around the Magadha region, roughly around present-day Bihar and neighbouring areas. This culture did not hold the supremacy needed for it to be documented as well as Brahmanical Hinduism has been, but we can find clues of its existence through its interactions with Brahmanical Hinduism and traces in the other religious traditions, such as Jainism and Ājīvikism.

Based on the known philosophies of Ājīvikism and early Jainism, we can ascertain that there was a religious belief in inevitable karmic retribution for all of one’s deeds, and the only solution to this suffering was the total cessation of action (expressed in both through voluntary starvation). One of the examples of this philosophy is the Bhagavad Gītā, which shares with Ājīvikism the idea that the body will act out its dharma (in the Gītā only once self-realisation is attained, but inevitably so in Ājīvikism) and is separate from the soul.

Buddhism actually is not a continuation of this strain of thought since it says that karmic retribution is given only for deeds acted upon with desire (tṛṣṇā) and liberation from this desire is the path to freedom from the cycle of rebirth. Other features of Greater Magadhan culture are:

“It will be clear from the above that there was such a thing as Vedic asceticism during the late-Vedic and early post-Vedic period, and perhaps already before these two. This asceticism pursued different aims from the asceticism practised in Greater Magadha, and has to be distinguished from the latter." (p. 84)

Patañjali saw the two—Brahmins on the one hand, all those covered by the term Śramaṇa on the other—as two groups of people who were at loggerheads. This is of course precisely what we would expect, given the cultural division of northern India at his time. (p. 85)

The Āpastamba Dharma Sūtra (c. 600–300 BCE) interestingly disparages the parivrāja (wandering ascetic, who thinks on the nature of the self) path of life (among four options for a Brahmin), favouring the life of a gṛhastha. Its description of the vānaprastha is very much like early Jainism (inaction and silence, reduction of consumption to nothing). And it gives a second type of vānaprastha who is like a Vedic ascetic. Megasthenes’s accounts also confirm this situation: one Vedic ascetic and two non-Vedic.

“In an enlightened one there is obtainment of peace.”
That is opposed to the scriptures.
If there were obtainment of peace in an enlightened person, he would not experience pain even in this world.

Āpastamba Dharma Sūtra 2.21.14–16

Where the Jainas believed that the suffering engendered by a radical immobilization of body and mind would destroy the traces of deeds carried out earlier, the Ājīvikas did not accept this as a possibility. For them there was no shortcut to liberation; the full karmic burden of past deeds had to exhaust itself by bringing about results, and this gave rise to a long series of innumerable lives, at the end of which the person would reach liberation. (p. 105)