“Renunciation and Society: The Inner Conflict of Tradition”

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The inner conflict of tradition is a reference to the conflict between societal and renunciatory values and ideas that one in form or other persists throughout the tradition.

The Vedic religion had reached great complexity and sophistication by the sixth century B.C.E. Its central element both practically and theologically was the Vedic sacrifice. By this time it had become extremely intricate and expensive, requiring an array of ritual specialists. The development of the Vedic sacrificial theology paralleled that of the sacrifice; finding ever-new meanings and cosmic significances in ritual acts, this theology created both a cosmology and soteriology centered on the sacrifice. The Vedic sacrificial theology was based on two significant claims. First, creation itself resulted from the sacrifice. Second, gods themselves attained immortality through the sacrifice, setting an example for humans to follow.

The obligation to imitate the gods by performing sacrifices is grounded also in a practical concern: humans seek to be like gods, to attain the world of gods, in other words, to become immortal. Brahmanical theology, however, gives that obligation also a cosmic dimension. As the cosmos first emerged from the sacrifice, so it must continually recreated and renewed through the sacrifice if it is not to lapse into chaos and death. The king, as the hub of the social cosmos and as the chief sacrificer  of society, occupies a central position in the sacrificial recreation of the cosmos. The individual and social obligation to perform sacrifices was thereby doubly reinforced.

Next to sacrifice is the obligation to get married and procreate children (especially a son) is central to Brahmanical theology, which regards the family – father, mother, and son – as the only complete person. The Brahmanical conceptions of immortality as freedom from physical death and of the family as the true and complete person are reflected in the belief that a man’s immortality is found in his son. The family line continues in the son despite the death of the father. In a very significant way, therefore, the family is what guarantees human immortality.

The theologies of sacrifice and marriage thus complement and support each other. The obligation to sacrifice and to procreate puts in a nutshell the complex set of duties that defined Brahmanical dharma during this early period. This dharma revolved around ritual duties comprehended by the sacrifice and familial-social duties epitomized by procreation and defined to a large measure the world created by Brahmanical theology.
A significant aspect of this world is that the human individual is not given any conceptual reality within it. The Brahmanical system of ethics works almost exclusively at the level of social groups, and individuals become real only as members of such groups.

The factors that contributed to the discovery of the individual as a central concept in religious and social thought both within and outside the institution of world renunciation, however, were the emergence of kingship and urban culture. Cities and courts of kings, attracted nobles, priests, philosophers, and leaders of religious sects. The breakdown of the strict family and kinship networks that urban life entailed and the resultant freedom for individual initiatives clearly encouraged both ideological and practical challenges to traditional Brahmanism.

The new religious ideology – an individualist ideology where the situation after death as well as final liberation are determined by what an individual does and knows and not by intermediaries – and the increasingly widespread ascetic lifestyles fostered by urbanization stood in sharp contrast to the Vedic religious world centered around the householder and his duties of sacrifice and procreation. What is significant, moreover, is that the challenges to the Vedic world came not just from those outside the Brahmanical tradition, such as the Buddha, but also from people who chose to remain within that tradition. Brahmins themselves were becoming urbanized, sharing the common concerns of the rest of the increasingly urban population.

This process of compromise and assimilation is initiated solely by the custodians of the established world. The example of the ascetic world in ancient India demonstrates that it was indeed a two-way street; the champions of the new world, especially when it has become institutionalized, also seek acceptability, allegiance, and power through compromise and assimilation at both institutional and ideological levels.


Reference: Patrick Olivelle (1992), The Saṃnyāsa Upaniṣads, Chapter 2, Renunciation and Society, The Inner Conflict of Tradition, p.19–57.

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