On Vinaya

By Sreejit Datta, Assistant Professor, Director of Centre for Civilisational Studies & Resident Mentor

Would it not be a conceited gesture, highly counterproductive to the purpose at hand, if one were to commence some kind of an ‘exposition of vinaya’ – a formulation which implicitly carries an air of being an authority on the subject? One fears that such an approach itself may end up becoming an obstacle on the path of contemplating upon vinaya and communicating the results thereof, no matter who the contemplator is. Therefore, may this exercise be regarded only as an exploration; one that is conscious of its own limitations, posed by the very nature of the means to explore (language, thought, intellect) as well as the limitedness of the explorer’s intuitive vision and creative powers. Let it be treated neither more nor less than a careful consideration of available information and the present author’s reflections on them with a view to understanding Vinaya; and therefore, with an offering of salutations to Vighnahantṛ, to whom we shall shortly return, let us proceed. 

An exercise in grasping the essence of vinaya – the effortless self-governing humility that is the cream of vidyā received as time-bound and yet time-defying education – essentially amounts to an exercise in capturing the distinctive character of the Indian Civilisation, in at least some of its aspects, if not all. That is to say, at the end of such an exercise awaits the discovery of: 

  1. how the Indian Psyche processes and reacts to the material as well as the subtler spiritual phenomena around it, 
  2. what its deepest motivations are, 
  3. how those motivations get channelised to various streams of action, 
  4. and how in these regards it differs from other civilisations, particularly the Western Civilisation. 

Put differently, the seeker who would attain siddhi in a prospective Darśana of vinaya (supposing there can be one) would also witness the very Face of the Ᾱrya Culture – resplendent, fully developed, duly decked out in the various aṅgarāga-s – twofold enlightenment dawned in a single revelation; a successful penetration of the emotive-intellectual cakravyūha of the Indian Civilisation’s enigmatic heart! 

But any such future Darśana of Vinaya will need a sound intellectual backing, no matter how evocative and spiritually stimulating it may otherwise be. Bereft of a rational foundation, a Darśana is bound to come under attack from all possible quarters, in which case it would be prone to a quick unravelling. Just as an enduring palace needs a strong foundation made of substantial material, a Darśana too needs a sound logical-rational substratum – for Darśana is no less a palatial construct itself; sprouting from earthly conditions and often impelled by material empirical observations, but dialectically gradually unfolding itself in the region of the intellect into a more fully developed system and yet un-complacently aspiring to find its fulfilment by reaching above and beyond the temporality of that mental station and into the heavenly regions of light and bliss and self-consciousness, an almost ineffable but a more substantial universality. 

Intellectuality is a necessary device so far as it helps in curing “woolly thinking”, as Professor Swami Agehananda Bharati would have put it. But a fixation with intellectuality must be avoided at all costs, as it signals a death of spiritual progress and thus a closure of the pursuit of Self-knowledge, the parā-vidyā. The intellectual being that resides within the Self shares space with the material, the emotional, the intuitive, and the super-intuitive beings – all of whom are interconnected with each other with bonds of varying strength. The variation depends not just on which two beings are connected by a bond, but also on each person within whom the various beings are accommodated. The self-governing discipline of vinaya helps in the avoidance of complacency. 

If we are not satisfied with a mere mental and verbal elucidation of vinaya, if we demand a more direct perception of this object of our knowledge – a vision or Darśana of vinaya – then such a Darśana will require the support of logical argumentation and a rational basis firstly to prop itself up and secondly to propel a seeker toward its ultimate, most mature, and integral insight after his or her mental confusions and curiosities have been attended to. Only such an ambitious endeavour may bring the diligent and conscientious seeker face-to-face with the entirety of the vision of vinaya rather than seeing or perceiving the thing only partially, in fragmentary parts and not in its whole Truth. 

Accordingly, a future Vinaya Darśana would require its own elaborate epistemological defence – considering that vinaya is a form or manifestation of wisdom, a condensation and distillation of knowledge; a special kind of wisdom and a special form of knowledge that one can hope to be possessed of (or perhaps possessed by). Therefore, it is only too normal to look for a theory of this special form of knowledge – especially with regard to the methods through which it could be derived, what its validity consists in or what gives it logical cogency, expounding on its scope (of application, usefulness, and benefits), and discerning the distinction between what constitutes justified belief about vinaya and what turns out to be a mere opinion.

But such a defence is perhaps beyond the scope of a single article like this one. However, we can attempt it in a condensed form, rather than in a more desirable elaborate form (let us hope that the future holds one in-store), using a very Indian trick: the semantics of our God-s. Let us now try and understand vinaya in a manner with which we are more intimately familiar: through a devout but observant engagement with our deities. Taking a cue from the philosopher Ramchandra Gandhi, we will speak of Sri Ganesha, and try to understand in what way Ganesha explains vinaya – a quality, a value, a form of knowledge capable of signifying the very heart of our civilisation. 

Thus, any project that seeks to truly fathom the meaning and scope of vinaya in all its latent potentialities is destined to grapple with the essential civilisational characteristics of India. Here it must be mentioned that undertaking such a project would require the will to go beyond intellectuality and the courage to expose oneself to the emotive experience of participating in a certain culture. Such an experience can scarcely be anything other than transformational, enriching, and ultimately rewarding for the participant-seeker. He may suffer a loss of time, perhaps a significant amount of time; but in the end, at best, he would have gained a key to discovering the bedrock of human civilisation and true culture. He would end up learning how to combine the consciousness of the Self with the calm confidence that exudes from the possession of that Self-consciousness if only he would allow this immersion (but certainly not dissolution) of the intellect (which is fixated on the empirical-inferential) in the emotive refined by vidyā – the pure unshackled intuition which is attuned to the Self and thus gain the discipline to diligently follow it through. This discipline, gained by the process of refinement of what was crude, unformed, and uninformed, is nothing but vinaya.  The sannyasis and the bhikshus – the ascetics, the mendicant monks, the renunciates were all expected to internalise this discipline in one form or another, as evidenced by the name Vinaya Piṭaka – literally the ‘Basket of Disciplines’ (meant primarily for Buddhist monks, in this specific case) – of the Tripiṭaka. Another concept which is closely associated with vinaya in the Buddhist context is śīla (roughly translated as ‘virtuous conduct’), which consists in the ten ethical precepts, which in turn belong to the Prātimokṣa (Pali Pātimokkha) of the Vinaya Piṭaka. Vinaya, within the Buddhist tradition, laid down such rules of conduct and discipline for one’s life in the Sangha that helped preserve the teachings of the Buddha through several millennia. Note that:

“The monastic tradition and the rules upon which it is built are sometimes naïvely criticized — particularly here in the West — as irrelevant to the “modern” practice of Buddhism. Some see the Vinaya as a throwback to an archaic patriarchy, based on a hodge-podge of ancient rules and customs — quaint cultural relics that only obscure the essence of “true” Buddhist practice. This misguided view overlooks one crucial fact: it is thanks to the unbroken lineage of monastics who have consistently upheld and protected the rules of the Vinaya for almost 2,600 years that we find ourselves today with the luxury of receiving the priceless teachings of Dhamma. Were it not for the Vinaya, and for those who continue to keep it alive to this day, there would be no Buddhism.” (Vinaya Pitaka: The Basket of the Discipline)

Another important aspect to vinaya in the Buddhist context, as well as in the larger Dharmic context, is its integrality with Dhamma/Dharma. Because what Bhagavan Buddha taught was not merely a philosophy (indeed it was more than that, it was a Darshana – a therapy meant to cure the sufferings inherent to the human condition), it did not suffice to merely intellectualise his teachings. One needed to put them into practice, live them, embody them. And such embodiment of Dhamma in day-to-day human life was made possible by the laying down of the vinaya and its sincere observance by the members of the Bauddha Sangha. In the Mahāparinibbāna Sutta, the Buddha is quoted as saying:  

“Now, Ānanda, if it occurs to any of you—”The teaching has lost its arbitrator; we are without a Teacher”—do not view it in that way. Whatever Dhamma and Vinaya I have pointed out and formulated for you, that will be your Teacher when I am gone.” (Dīgha Nikāya, 16)        

Hence it is justifiable to say that: 

“It helps to keep in mind that the name the Buddha gave to the spiritual path he taught was “Dhamma-vinaya” — the Doctrine (Dhamma) and Discipline (Vinaya) — suggesting an integrated body of wisdom and ethical training. The Vinaya is thus an indispensable facet and foundation of all the Buddha’s teachings, inseparable from the Dhamma, and worthy of study by all followers — lay and ordained, alike. Lay practitioners will find in the Vinaya Pitaka many valuable lessons concerning human nature, guidance on how to establish and maintain a harmonious community or organization, and many profound teachings of the Dhamma itself. But its greatest value, perhaps, lies in its power to inspire the layperson to consider the extraordinary possibilities presented by a life of true renunciation, a life lived fully in tune with the Dhamma.” (Vinaya Pitaka: The Basket of the Discipline)

Vinaya, in the Buddhist context, is primarily focused on the monastic order of the Sangha and its disciplined life. Yet in a larger milieu of the Ᾱrya culture, the acquisition of vinaya is neither an exclusive obligation nor an exclusive prerogative of the sannyasi. The householder must also acquire qualities of a similarly disciplined and well-ordered life suited to his own unique situation in the society for the proper discharge of his particular duties – isn’t that what the Sage Devasthana, quoting Manu and Brihaspati, teaches Yudhishthira the king and the quintessential householder, in the Shanti Parva of the Mahabharata? Gentleness, decency, humility, modesty – all these qualities and more that the sage mentions in his discourse were prized virtues of the average Indian householder and his children till the other day. In certain places in India, such as in Bengal, all such men or women who possessed these qualities even acquired a class-identifier: ‘Bhadra-samāja’, and accordingly a decent man came to be known as a ‘Bhadralok’ and a decent woman a ‘Bhadramahila’. Most importantly, the outward, social projection of this identity is underscored primarily by the manifestation of vinaya in the form of an individual’s humility, which is surely one aspect of the vinaya-discipline but not all that it has to offer. This is why the loss of audacity and the onset of vinaya is resented by the renegade Bengali poet Shakti Chattopadhyay in the following manner: “Tumi gechho, spardha gechhe, binoy eshechhe…” (translation: “With you departed audacity, and along came vinaya”). This is postmodernity’s resentment at being initially snubbed by society, at a time when postmodern anti-values were competing to make headway into the general culture of the Bengali society.  

We started off by pithily – almost aphoristically – defining vinaya as “the effortless self-governing humility that is the cream of vidyā received as time-bound and yet time-defying education”. Upon retrospective reflection, that terse definition seems linear, unidirectional, and inadequate. We can, and should, also define vinaya from the opposite direction as the abhāva or absence of conceit. This reverse approaching of the subject, or rather the object under our present rational scrutiny, this negational method of defining vinaya should be juxtaposed with the former unidirectional way of defining the same to achieve a non-conflicting, complementary whole. For, by juxtaposing the negational definition, one takes away the possibility of retaining a deeply embedded form of conceit almost inherent in the unidirectional definition and its obligatory certainty of “effortlessness”, its all-too-graphic dynamism of “receiving”, its pride of possessing even something as sublime as “time-defying education”. In other words, the second definition apprehends the pitfalls of the first and also supplies a remedy to them when the two are placed together. But without the first, we are left with nothing that can fill the void created by the absence of conceit. The absence of conceit is not necessarily its opposite – it may just be null, a zero, a gaping nothing. Thus, the two definitions stand for two necessary and sufficient parts of a conceivably complete verbal explication of vinaya. While it is hoped that there will be more precise definitions formulated by other thinkers in the future, it should be noted that verbal constructions on vinaya will always remain secondary to the realisation and embodiment of vinaya.     

Let us see how such a juxtaposition of the two sides of the aforementioned definition works out in our attempt to understand vinaya through the devata-s. 

Gaining an essential understanding of anything is to understand it from all angles and in all its aspects perfectly, points out Ramu Gandhi. In this connection, he evokes the religious practice of pradakṣiṇa and interprets it, with remarkable insight, as a “cognitive gherao” of the thing that one is trying to understand. When it came to grasping the cosmos, Ganesha had taken to perambulating Shiva and Parvati instead of embarking on the ambitious project of physically encircling the cosmos, as was done by Kārtikeya. Gandhi reminds us of these two approaches taken by the two devata-s while explaining the ontological differences between – 

a) doing a linear, exhaustive, photographic survey of the appearance of the object of knowledge, and 

b) gaining a holistic grasp of the same by entering into its very heart.      

While the first of these approaches, the ‘Kartikeya approach’ characterises the “literalness and linearity; meaning as being and power of intentionality; resoluteness” emanating from realisation, the second approach or the ‘Ganesha approach’ stands for “symbolism and cyclicality; being as meaning and identity…and humility”. (Gandhi, 1984) Let us extend this comparison to argue that the ‘Kartikeya approach’ is characteristic of the Western civilisation, and the ‘Ganesha approach’ of the Bharatiya or Ᾱrya civilisation, at the heart of which lies vinaya. The distinction between the two approaches here is helpful in decolonising one’s thoughts, one’s ideas, leading to cultural and political Swaraj. This does not reject what the West has to offer in terms of what it has been able to gather about the universe, about our lives and experiences – but the awareness of this distinction acts as the discriminating faculty, a kind of political Viveka, to determine the relative value of the West’s knowledge and Bharatavarsha’s knowledge. It fosters identity, thus helping in self-preservation – a fortification to mindless unresisting dissolution into the Other. Om Śrī Gaṇeśāya Namaḥ!      

This article was first published in Swatantra Magazine.


  1. Dictionary meaning of Vinaya:

Vinaya: vi + √ nī + a (ac)-bhā 

  1. viśeṣanayana’ sat-patha-pravartana, śikṣaṇa – आरोहे विनये चैव युक्तो वारणवाजिनाम्।।2.1.28।। Valmiki Ramayana “[He was an] expertly engaged in riding and disciplining elephants and horses”)
  2. śikṣā (विनयसम्पन्नस्सुमित्रानन्दवर्धन: 1.1.25 Valmiki Ramayana; also, विद्याविनयसंपन्ने ब्राह्मणे etc. from the Bhagavad-Gita 5.18 and commentary on the same: “विद्या च विनयश्च विद्याविनयौ विद्या आत्मनो बोधो विनयः उपशमः ताभ्यां विद्याविनयाभ्यां संपन्नः विद्याविनयसंपन्नः विद्वान् विनीतश्च यो ब्राह्मणः” – Shankaracarya; and “…विद्या वेदार्थपरिज्ञानं ब्रह्मविद्या वा विनयो निरहंकारत्वम् अनौद्धृत्यमिति यावत्। ताभ्यां संपन्ने ब्रह्मविदि विनीते च ब्राह्मणे सात्त्विके सर्वोत्तमे ।” – Madhusudana Saraswati). It is interesting to note here that vinaya has been interpreted as the absence of I-ness (and not merely conceit or pride for being something as the chief sense of ‘I’) and also as the discipline of self-control or the conquest over one’s senses in these commentaries, apart from being plain humility. In this sense, vinaya becomes the necessary state of consciousness of the Brahmavit, i.e., the Brahma-knower, the Brāhmaṇa. In other words, here vinaya is understood as the discipline leading to and the fruit of the direct experiential knowledge of the Self by the two venerable commentators. Also note that “vinayanam [i.e., śikṣaṇam] lipijñānavacanakauśleṣu”Daśakumāracaritam of Daṇḍin
  3. Maryādā, śiṣṭācāra, sabhyatā – the quality of being sabhya (महामात्रवचः श्रुत्वा रामो दशरथं तदा । अभ्यभाषत वाक्यं तु विनयज्ञो विनीतवत्।। 2.37.1 Valmiki Ramayana; here that specific quality of Sri Rama is being highlighted which makes him an exemplary knower of vinaya – “vinayajña”, one who embodies civility, decency, and modesty in speech and action; one who respects decorum, etiquette, protocol; one who is cultured and couth; one who is sober, courteous, refined, and sophisticated enough to know how to address others, when to speak etc.; one who exercises his discretion and maintains appropriateness in every situation.)
  4. praṇati, praṇāma – bowing down in reverence 
  5. anunaya – supplication  
  6. indriya-jaya (vide definition no. 2 above; also “vinayenāsya navañca yauvanam” – Raghuvaṁśa 8.6; 10.71)
  7. nigraha, śāsana – subjugation (“dṛptavinayādhikṛta” Raghuvaṁśa 9.62)
  8. ākarṣaṇa – pulling (“uttarīyavinayāt…” Śiśupāla-vadha of Māgha 10.42)
  9. ānukūlya – favour (“vinayādiva yāmayanti te…” Kirātārjunīyam 2.45)
  10. śālīnatā, lajjā – modesty (“vinayavāritavṛttiratastayā…” Abhijñanaśakuntalam 2.11)
  11. jitendriya – one who has conquered or subjugated the sense organs (the six indriya-s including manas, the thought organ) 
  12. daṇḍa – punishment (“pūrve [doṣabhāji] tu vinayoḥ guruḥ”) Śabdakalpadruma
  13. adhikāra – prerogative (“viphalavinayayatnāḥ kāminīnāṁ…” Śiśupāla-vadha of Māgha 11.36)
  14.  apākaraṇam (vinayanam) or nivṛtti – abatement, alleviation (“tṛṣṇāvinayanaṁ bhuñje” – I eat until my hunger is alleviated: Dhṛtarāṣṭra in Mahabharata 15.3.29)      

 (Bandyopadhyaya, 1966)       

(ii)  In the Viṣṇu Sahasra-nāma or the Thousand Names of Vishnu, found in the Mahabharata, we find vinaya as one of the names of the great deity. Therein the word – or the name – carries both of these following connotations:

  1. the Law or the Principle that punishes the evil-doer   
  2. one who embodies and illustrates the supreme humility

The first of these connotations is reflected in a somewhat reduced sense in the name Vinaya Piṭaka – one of the three cardinal Buddhist scriptures that together constitute the Tripiṭaka – as those laws or rules of discipline that are meant to be followed by monks in the Buddhist tradition. This is derivable from the word’s lexical meaning, which can be taken in any of the following analogous senses: ‘leading’, ‘guidance’, ‘training’ (especially moral training), ‘education’, ‘discipline’, and ‘control’.    


Bandyopadhyaya, H. (1966). Bangiya Sabdakosh- a Bengali-bengali Lexicon (1st ed.). Sahitya Akademi.

Gandhi, R. (1984). I Am Thou (1st ed.). Indian Philosophical Quarterly Publications, University of Pune.

Ganguli, K. M. (2015). The Mahabharata of Krishna-Dwaipayana Vyasa Translated Into English Prose. Palala Press.

Quote | The Buddhist Monastic Code, Volumes I & II. (n.d.). Home | Dhammatalks.Org. Retrieved July 5, 2021, from https://www.dhammatalks.org/vinaya/bmc/Section0003.html

Vinaya Pitaka: The Basket of the Discipline. Access to Insight. Retrieved July 4, 2021, from https://www.accesstoinsight.org/tipitaka/vin/index.html

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