The Middle Path

Ian travels to the tree where the Buddha is said to have achieved enlightenment, and explores the paradox of his early followers’ attitudes to vegetarianism.

Episode 2: The Middle Path

Of the many monks of the ancient Indian kingdom of Magadha, only one has become a global household name. Buddhism will spread ahimsa to the ends of the earth, and inspires many millions of vegetarians today.

And yet the oldest Buddhist texts seem to portray the Buddha eating meat. Hear commentary from theologians from both vegetarian and meat-eating interpretations of Buddhism, the insights of world-leading historians, and a dramatisation of the moment in early texts where vegetarian Jain activists clash with Buddhist meat-eating.

Play or download (43MB MP3) (via iTunes) or read transcript.


Monk in red robe, sitting cross-legged in front of saffron-draped altar with offerings.

Rev Dr Varasambodhi by the enclosure housing the trunk of the Mahabodhi tree and the Buddha’s throne.


  • The story of General Siha of Vaiśālī, and the rule of Seen/Heard/Suspect is in the Vinaya Pitaka (“The basket of discipline”) VI.31. Translation by I B Horner 1951
  • The story of Siddharta Gautama’s search for enlightenment is from the Jātaka Sutra of the Sutta Pitaka. Translation by Henry Clarke Warren 1896
  • Gautama Siddharta’s proclamation upon enlightenment is from the Mahāvastu (“great story”) 286. This is the only reading from a text that’s not part of the Pali canon followed by Theravada Buddhists, but from another early Buddhist collection that developed alongside it. Translation by J J Jones 1952
  • The “middle path” speech is from sermon in the Deer Park (at Sarnath, where the Buddha preached for the first time). Translation by Piyadassi Thera 1999

Notes on the Ājīvikas

I was fascinated to find out there was a whole other religion, at the time as important as the Buddhists and the Jains, that’s now almost forgotten, called the Ājīvika. But the evidence we have is fragmented and contradictory – so it was an area where one spends much time but grows only in uncertainty.

Even the small picture I give in the episode only hints at the patchwork of information we have about them.

The very word “Ājīvika” for example, is often used in Buddhist texts in a similar sense to “heretic” – capturing every śramaṇa other than Buddhists and Jains. (US Vyas used the word in the heretical sense in the full interview; but I only used his references to the movement of Makkhali Gosal, which is consistent with the later use. It would have been too confusing to introduce different meanings.)

The “educated guess” I mention is that of Arthur Llewellyn Basham, the twentieth century Welsh Indologist. His book “The Wonder that was India” was the leading popular history of the subcontinent. He did his PhD thesis on the Ājīvikas in the 1940s, and 65 years after publication (Basham, 1951) it is still the standard reference work.

Another view I didn’t have time to include was Johannes Bronkhorst, who quite radically reinterpreted the mentions of Ājīvikas at the turn of the century (Bronkhorst, 2000). He argues that the early Buddhist texts named rival groups not according to doctrine but according to appearance. Most academics assume “Niganthā” in Buddhist texts means the Jains. (The word “Jain” didn’t emerge for many centuries.) So in his view, the words “Ājīvika” and “Niganthā” in Buddhist texts describe (respectively) naked rival orders and clothed rival orders; with the former term including not just the “true” Ājīvikas, but the Jain followers of Mahavir (who would have been naked) and the latter including the Jain followers of the teachings of Parshwa, the preceding tirthankara (Jain inspired teacher, literally “ford-maker”) who had lived centuries before.

(We don’t know if the Jains cohered as a single tradition during Mahavir’s lifetime.)

So, as interesting as this all is, all this tells us is how little we know about this period.

(We can be confident that the Niganthās in the argument at Vaiśālī that our actors portray are Jains because Mahavir is mentioned earlier in the story. Just in case you were wondering.)

Though I did manage to learn that the Ājīvika leader is, once you translate both names into their meaning, basically called Gandalf. (Those years poring over Tolkein’s fictional etymology finally pay off.)


Music by Robb Masters. The actors were Sandeep Garcha, Chetan Pathak, and Selva Rasalingam.


Where there are no established Anglicisations (eg “ahimsa” for “ahiṃsā”), I have rendered Indic languages in Latin letters with marks called diacritics, loosely following the IAST standard explained at Jainpedia. For example “ś” is a soft “sh”, and a bar over a vowel lengthens it.

Bronkhorst, Johannes. 2000. “The Riddle of the Jainas and Ājīvikas in Early Buddhist Literature.” Journal of Indian Philosophy 28: 511–29.
Balbir, Nalini. 1984. “Normalizing Trends in Jaina Narrative Literature.” Indologica Taurinensia 2: 25–38.
Gombrich, R. F. 2009. What the Buddha Thought. Oxford Centre for Buddhist Studies Monographs. London: Equinox Pub.
Alsdorf, Ludwig, and Hanns-Peter Schmidt. 2010. The History of Vegetarianism and Cow-Veneration in India. Routledge Advances in Jaina Studies. London: Routledge.
Nattier, J. J., and C. S. Prebish. 1977. “Mahasamghika Origins: The Beginnings of Buddhist Sectarianism.” History of Religions. An International Journal for Comparative Historical Studies 16 (3): 237–72.
Jha, D. N. 2002. The Myth of the Holy Cow. London; New York: Verso.
Basham, Arthur Llewellyn. 1951. History and Doctrines of the Ajivikas: A Vanished Indian Religion. London: Luzac & Company.
Dundas, Paul. 2002. The Jains. 2nd ed. Library of Religious Beliefs and Practices. London ; New York: Routledge.
Haussleiter, Johannes. 1935. Der Vegetarismus in der Antike. A. Töpelmann.
Smith, Brian K. 1990. “Eaters, Food, and Social Hierarchy in Ancient India: A Dietary Guide to a Revolution of Values.” Journal of the American Academy of Religion LVIII (2): 177–206.

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About Ian

London. Formerly known as New Media. Vegan since 1992.

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