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Monastic life, for spiritual studies or the pursuit of moksha (spiritual liberation) traces it roots to the 1st millennium BCE, in the Vedic tradition. The earliest Hindu monasteries (mathas) are indirectly inferred to be from the centuries around the start of the common era, based on the existence of Sannyasa Upanishads with strongly Advaita Vedanta content. The matha tradition in Hinduism was likely well established in the second half of 1st millennium CE, as is evidenced by archeological and epigraphical evidence.
Mathas grew over time, with the most famous and still surviving centers of Vedanta studies being those started by Adi Shankara. Other major and influential mathas belong to various schools of Hindu philosophy, such as those of Vaishnavism and Shaivism. The monastery host and feed students, sannyasis (monks, renouncers, ascetics), gurus and are led by Acharyas. These monasteries are sometimes attached to Hindu temples and have their codes of conduct, initiation and election ceremonies. The mathas in the Hindu tradition have not been limited to religious studies, and historical evidence suggest that they were centers for diverse studies such as medieval medicine, grammar and music.
The term matha is also used for monastery in Jainism, and the earliest monasteries near Jain temples are dated to be from about the 5th-century CE.
A matha (Sanskrit: मठ) refers to "cloister, institute or college", and in some contexts refers to "hut of an ascetic, monk or renunciate" or temple for studies. The root of the word is math, which means "inhabit" or "to grind".
The roots of monastic life are traceable in the Vedic literature, which states Jacobi likely predates Buddhism and Jainism. According to Hermann Jacobi, Max Muller, Hermann Oldenberg and other scholars, the Jainism and Buddhism traditions adopted the five precepts first developed in the Vedic-Brahmanical traditions for monk life:
However, in the 20th century, scholars such as Richard Garbe suggested that the pre-Upanishad Vedic tradition may not have had a monastic tradition, and that the Upanishads, Jainism and Buddhism may have been new movements that grew, partly in opposition, on the foundations and ideas of earlier Vedic practices. The asceticism and monastic practices possibly emerged in India in the early centuries of the 1st millennium BCE. Johannes Bronkhorst has proposed a dual model, wherein monastic traditions and matha began in parallel, both in Vedic and non-Vedic streams of traditions, citing evidence from ancient Hindu Dharmasutras dated to have been composed between 500 BCE to about the start of the common era. Other evidence of mathas is found in the Brahmanas layer of the Vedic texts, such as in chapter 10.6 of Shatapatha Brahmana (Yajurveda) as well as in the surviving Aranyaka layer of the Vedas such as in chapter 15 of Shankhayana Aranyaka.
Scholars such as Patrick Olivelle state that the history of Hindu monasteries played a role in the composition of the Sannyasa Upanishads of Hinduism. Six of these Upanishads were composed before the 3rd-century CE, probably starting sometime in the last centuries of the 1st millennium BCE. These six Sannyasa Upanishads are Aruni Upanishad, Kundika Upanishad, Kathashruti Upanishad, Paramahamsa Upanishad, Jabala Upanishad and Brahma Upanishad.
The oldest Sannyasa Upanishads have a strong Advaita Vedanta outlook, and these pre-date Adi Shankara. Most of the Sannyasa Upanishads present a Yoga and nondualism (Advaita) Vedanta philosophy. This may be, states Patrick Olivelle, because major Hindu monasteries (matha) belonged to the Advaita Vedanta tradition. Almost all medieval Sannyasa Upanishads are also Advaita Vedantin because of these monasteries. The only significant exception is the 12th-century Shatyayaniya Upanishad, which presents qualified dualistic and Vaishnavism (Vishishtadvaita Vedanta) philosophy and is likely linked to a Vaishnavism monastery.
In addition to the Upanishads, evidence of matha tradition in Hinduism is found in other genre of its literature, such as chapter 12.139 of the Mahabharata and section 3.1 of Baudhayana Dharmasutras. Matha-s were regionally known by other terms, such as Ghatika-s and Khandika-s. The oldest verifiable Ghatika for Vedic studies, from inscription evidence is in Kanchi, from the 4th-century CE.
The matha tradition of Hinduism attracted royal patronage, attracting endowments to support studies, and these endowments established, states Hartmut Scharfe, what may be "the earliest case on record of a university scholarship". Some of these medieval era mathas of Hinduism in Andhra Pradesh, Karnataka, Kerala and Tamil Nadu, were for Vedanta studies, but some mathas from the 700 to 1000 CE period predominantly focussed on Shaivism, Vaishnavism, military, martial arts, music, painting or other fields of knowledge including subjects related to Buddhism and Jainism. There is evidence, states Hartmut Scharfe, of mathas in eastern and northern India from 7th century CE onwards, such as those in Kashmir, Uttar Pradesh particularly in the Hindu holy city of Kashi, Madhya Pradesh, Bihar and Odisha, but these are not from ancient temple inscriptions, but implied from traveller records (Chinese) who visited these regions.
Brahmins were likely involved in the education and oral culture of textual transmission in ancient India through the gurukul tradition, but inscription evidence collected by E. Hultzsch suggests that at least some matha attached to temples were dominated by non-Brahmins by the early 2nd millennium CE.
The mathas and attached temples routinely hosted debating, Vedic recital and student competitions, and these were part of community festivals in the history of South Asia. These mathas were also the centers where many new texts were composed, as well as the libraries and repository of ancient and medieval manuscripts, where the old texts were preserved and decaying copies replaced over the centuries. Some scholars such as the 8th-century Adi Shankara who established four major mathas in different regions of India, stated in the founding documents that the respective responsibility of the mathas was to preserve one Veda each. Some Hindu monasteries offered hospice care for pilgrims and various forms of assistance to their local communities.
According to Kenneth G. Zysk – a professor specializing in Indology and ancient medicine, Hindu mathas and temples – like Buddhist monasteries – had by the 10th-century attached medical care along with their religious and educational roles. This is evidenced by various inscriptions found in Bengal, Andhra Pradesh and elsewhere. An inscription dated to about 930 CE states the provision of a physician to two matha to care for the sick and destitute. Similarly, a stone inscription in Andhra Pradesh dated to about 1262 CE mentions the provision of a prasutishala (maternity house), vaidya (physician), an arogyashala (health house) and a viprasattra (kitchen) with the religious center where people from all social background could be fed and cared for.
The matha is a monastery, often with numerous students, many teachers and an institutionalized structure to help sustain and maintain its daily operations. Their organization is more sophisticated than an Ashrama or Gurukul which is usually boutique and caters to a smaller group of students. A matha, like a college, designates teaching, administrative and community interaction functions, with prefix or suffix to names, with titles such as Guru, Acharya, Swami and others. In Lingayat Shaiva mathas for example, teachers are Gurus, the administrative functions the responsibilities of Acharyas, and the community relations of Swami. A similar organization is found in Vaishnava mathas.
The word Acharya in Hindu monastic tradition refers to either a Guru of high rank, or more often to the leader of a monastery and sampradaya (teaching institution, denomination). This position typically involves a ceremonial initiation called diksha by the monastery, where the earlier leader anoints the successor as Acharya.
In large denominations that ran a collection of historical monasteries, an Acharya may refer to the leader of a regional monastery school operated in that denomination. Alternate titles of the heads of Hindu monasteries are Jeer, Jiyar or Ciyar. The chief of a collection of large Hindu monasteries in a sampradaya has been sometimes referred to as Jagad guru.
The matha host not only students but many Guru. A Guru, in Hindu tradition, is someone who is a "teacher, guide or master" of certain knowledge. He or she is someone more than a teacher, traditionally a reverential figure to the student, with the guru serving as a "counselor, who helps mold values, shares experiential knowledge as much as literal knowledge, an exemplar in life, an inspirational source and who helps in the spiritual evolution of a student." The term also refers to someone who primarily is one's spiritual guide, who helps one to discover the same potentialities that the guru has already realized. The guru concept is traceable to ancient Vedic times, found in traditional schools as well as a matha.
The oldest references to the concept of guru are found in the earliest Vedic texts of Hinduism. The guru, and gurukul – a school run by guru, were an established tradition in India by the 1st millennium BCE, and these helped compose and transmit the various Vedas, the Upanishads, texts of various schools of Hindu philosophy, and post-Vedic Shastras ranging from spiritual knowledge to various arts. The mathas hosted these teachers and their students as they pursued their studies.
By about mid 1st millennium CE, archaeological and epigraphical evidence suggest numerous larger institutions of gurus existed in India, some near Hindu temples, where guru-shishya tradition helped preserve, create and transmit various fields of knowledge. The first epigraphical evidence of a Shaiva matha, for example, dates to around 800 CE, which was attached to a temple. It hosted scholars and students for theosophical studies. Another inscription from about 1100 CE, states Hartmut Scharfe, attests that a matha was the center of medieval medical studies (Charaka Samhita) and of Vedic grammar in Tamil Nadu.
Madhvacharya, the founder of Dvaita Vedanta school of Hindu philosophy, studied in an Advaita Vedanta monastery like Ramanuja, then disagreed with Advaita, launched theistic Dvaita school of Vedanta interpretation, then established eight mathas (monasteries) in Udupi by early 13th century. These are referred to as Madhva mathas, or Ashta Mathas of Udupi, and include Palimaru matha, Adamaru matha, Krishnapura matha, Puttige Matha, Shirur matha, Sodhe matha, Kaniyooru matha and Pejavara matha. These eight surround the Anantheswara Krishna Hindu temple. The matha are laid out in a rectangle, the temples on a square grid pattern. The monks in the matha are sannyasis, and the tradition of their studies and succession (Paryaya system) were established by Madhvacharya.
There are Madhva mathas set up all over India. Including those in Udupi, there are twenty four Madhva mathas in India. The main center of Madhva's tradition is in Karnataka. The monastery has a pontiff system, that rotates after a fixed period of time. The pontiff is called Swamiji, and he leads daily Krishna prayers according to Madhva tradition, as well as annual festivals. The process and Vedic mantra rituals for Krishna worship in Dvaita monasteries follow the procedure written by Madhvacharya in Tantrasara.
The succession ceremony in Dvaita school involves the outgoing Swamiji welcoming the incoming one, then walking together to the icon of Madhvacharya at the entrance of Krishna temple in Udupi, offering water to him, expressing reverence then handing over the same vessel with water that Madhvacharya used when he handed over the leadership of the monastery he founded.
The monastery include kitchens, bhojan-shala, run by monks and volunteers. These serve food daily to nearly 3,000 to 4,000 monks, students and visiting pilgrims without social discrimination. During succession ceremonies, over 10,000 people are served a vegetarian meal by Udupi bhojan-shalas.
Other Dvaita Mathas include:
Ramanuja, the Sri Vaishnavism philosopher, studied at an Advaita Vedanta monastery with Yadava Prakasha before disagreeing with Advaita idealism, and launching his Vishishtadvaita (qualified Advaita) philosophy. Ramanuja was nominated as the leader of the Srirangam matha, after the death of Yamunacharya, though they never met. Along with his philosophy, Ramanuja is famous for his organizational skills and the lasting institutional reforms he introduced at Srirangam paralleling those at Advaita monasteries of his time. He also travelled and founded many Sri Vaishnavism mathas across India. The Sri Vaishnavism tradition believes that Ramanuja started 700 mathas, but historical evidence suggests several of these were started later.
The Sri Vaishnavism mathas over time, subdivided into two, those with Tenkalai (southern) tradition and Vadakalai (northern) tradition of Sri Vaishnavism. The Tenkalai-associated mathas are headquartered at Srirangam, while Vadakalai mathas are associated with Kanchipuram. Both these traditions have from 10th-century onwards considered the function of mathas to include feeding the poor and devotees who visit, hosting marriages and community festivals, farming temple lands and flower gardens as a source for food and worship ingredients, being open to pilgrims as rest houses, and this philanthropic role of these Hindu monasteries continues. In the 15th-century, these monasteries expanded by establishing Ramanuja-kuta in major South Indian Sri Vaishnavism locations.[note 1]
Some Srivaishnavism monasteries include:
Nimbarka, a scholar variously dated to be from 11th to 13th century, proposed a compromise that was inclusive of all Vedanta schools, stating that everyone is right, that truth is simultaneously Advaita, Vishishtadvaita and Dvaita at the same time, calling his philosophy as Dvaitadvaita or Bhedabheda system. He moved to Vrindavan-Mathura, and launched a matha centered around loving devotion to Radha-Krishna (Radheshyam) worship. This group emphasized togetherness of community, public singing and constant bhakti. The Mathas of this group are:
Ramananda was a 14th-century Vaishnava devotional poet sant of Bhakti movement, in the Ganges river region of Northern India. He studied in an Advaita Vedanta monastery, joined the Ramanuja's Sri Vaishnavism tradition, then proceeded to start god Rama-based Vaishnavism movement from Hindu holy city of Varanasi. The Hindu tradition recognizes him as the founder of the Ramanandi Sampradaya, the largest monastic Hindu renunciant community in modern times. The monasteries of these ascetics are found particularly in the northern and western states of India, in Nepal, but they are also found as wandering monks.
The largest mathas of the Ramanandi tradition are in Ayodhya and Varanasi, and Ramanandi monks are also known as Bairagis or Vairagis (literally, detached ones), their groups called Akharas. The Ramanandi mathas are historically notable for being part of warrior ascetics movement in medieval India, where monks metamorphosed into a militant group, trained in arms, rebelled against Islamic rule and at times cooperated with the British colonial officials as mercenaries.
Known for his egalitarian views in a time of political uncertainty and Hindu-Islam conflicts, Ramananda and his matha accepted disciples without discriminating anyone by gender, class, caste or religion (he accepted Muslims). Traditional scholarship holds that his disciples included later Bhakti movement poet-sants such as Kabir, Ravidas, Bhagat Pipa and others, however some postmodern scholars have questioned some of this spiritual lineage while others have supported this lineage with historical evidence. His ideas also influenced the founding of Sikhism in 15th century, and his teachings are included in the Sikh scripture Guru Granth Sahib. Adhyatma Ramayana is a key text of this matha.
Shaiva mathas were established at least from the 1st millennium onwards, in Kashmir, Himalayan regions such as Nepal and throughout the subcontinent such as in Tamil Nadu. Many of the monasteries and attached temples, particularly in the northwest Indian subcontinent, were destroyed by Islamic armies after the 12th-century, and Shaiva monastic network severely disrupted from the consequent violence. In some cases, the Hindu monasteries were converted into Islamic ribats or madrasa (soldier barracks, schools) during the medieval period. The Shaiva monasteries have been from diverse schools of Shaivism, ranging from nondualist to theistic schools, and regionally went by a range of names such as Jogi (Yogis), Natha, Darshani, Kanphata of Gorakshanath sampradaya.
Shankara is regarded as the founder of the most famous monasteries in Hinduism. These have hosted the Daśanāmi Sampradāya under four Maṭhas, with the headquarters at Dwarka in the West, Jagannatha Puri in the East, Sringeri in the South and Badrinath in the North. Each math was headed by one of his disciples, called Shankaracharya, who each independently continued the Advaita Vedanta Sampradaya. The ten Shankara-linked Advaita monastic orders are distributed as follows: Bharati, Puri and Saraswati at Sringeri, Aranya and Vana at Puri, Tirtha and Ashrama at Dwarka, and Giri, Parvata and Sagara at Badrinath.
The table below gives an overview of the four largest Advaita Mathas founded by Adi Shankara, and their details.[web 1] However, evidence suggests that Shankara established more mathas locally for Vedanta studies and its propagation, states Hartmut Scharfe, such as the "four mathas in the city of Trichur alone, that were headed by Trotaka, Sureshvara, Hastamalaka and Padmapada".
|Padmapāda||East||Govardhana Pīṭhaṃ||Odisha||Prajñānam brahma (Consciousness is Brahman)||Rig Veda||Bhogavala|
|Sureśvara||South||Sringeri Śārada Pīṭhaṃ||Karnataka||Aham brahmāsmi (I am Brahman)||Yajur Veda||Bhūrivala|
|Hastāmalakācārya||West||Dvāraka Pīṭhaṃ||Gujarat||Tattvamasi (That thou art)||Sama Veda||Kitavala|
|Toṭakācārya||North||Jyotirmaṭha Pīṭhaṃ||Uttarakhand||Ayamātmā brahma (This Atman is Brahman)||Atharva Veda||Nandavala|
Other Advaita Vedanta mathas following Smarta Tradition include:
Shaiva Siddhanta is a theistic school of Shaivism based on dualism (human soul and God are different), and it established matha at least from the middle of 1st millennium CE. Archeological evidence dated to 724 CE suggests the existence of an influential Saiva Siddhanta matha named after Mattamayura. Other historical evidence suggests that these Shaiva monks were active in Shaiva theosophical scholarship and the spread of Shaiva ideas in north and west India till about the 12th century.
Other major monasteries include the Golaki matha that existed by the 10th century, famed for its round temple shape, probably near modern Jabalpur in Madhya Pradesh. This monastery featured a cluster of Shiva temples, a hospital, college and lodging for students. The Golaki matha was a center for Vedic studies with parallel studies of Buddhist literature. Inscription evidence suggests set up numerous Shaiva monasteries in the Deccan region under Kakatiya dynasty sponsorship, many of which were destroyed in Hindu-Muslim wars that ended the Kakatiya rule. The origins of Golaki matha of central India has been traced to more ancient monasteries in Kashmir.
In Karnataka, historical evidence suggests that Queen Alhanadevi established the Shaiva monastery called Kodiya matha which included a temple, monastic lodging and study hall, with scholarship on Vedas, Shastras and Puranas. The Chola dynasty sponsored many influential Shaiva mathas. While many Shaiva monasteries had attached temples, some did not and were entirely dedicated to education and scholarship.
The Nath tradition is a syncretic Yoga and Vedanta schools of Hindu philosophy based Shaiva tradition, that reveres Shiva and Dattatreya. Its founding is attributed to the ideas of Matsyendranath and Gorakshanath, developed further with an additional seven other Siddha Yoga Gurus called "Naths" (literally, lords). The Nath Yogi sampradaya and monastic organizations grew starting with the 13th century, with its matha headquarters in Gorakhpur, Uttar Pradesh. Many of their mathas are found in the northern, central and western states of India particularly in the Himalayas, but archeological inscriptions suggest their mathas existed in south India as well. The early Nath monks received endowments in Karnataka, for example, between the 10th and 13th century, which later became a temple and Shaiva matha hub for them near Mangalore. The Kadri matha, for instance, is one of the legendary monasteries in the Nath tradition which attracted converts from Buddhism and infusion of Buddhist ideas into Shaivism, and it continues to be a part of the Nath Shaiva tradition, particularly during the Kumbh Mela celebrations in modern times.
The Nath Siddha tradition of Shaivism is credited with establishing numerous Shiva Hindu temples and monasteries, particularly in Gujarat, Maharashtra, Madhya Pradesh, Rajasthan, Uttar Pradesh, Himachal Pradesh, north Bihar, and Nepal. The Gorakhnath matha is an active Shaivism monastery named after the medieval saint, Gorakhnath of the Nath sampradaya. The matha and town of Gorakhpur in Uttar Pradesh is named after him. The monastery and the temple performs various cultural and social activities and serves as the cultural hub of the city. The monastery also publishes texts on the philosophy of Gorakhnath.
Nath Shaiva monastic organization was one of those Hindu monk groups that militarized and took up arms following the Muslim conquest of India, to resist persecution. They were scorned and persecuted by Mughal Empire officials, and by social, cultural and religious elites. However, the Nath yogi monks have been very popular with the rural population in South Asia since medieval times.
The matha monastic organization has been active since the emergence of Lingayat movement in Karnataka around the 12th century. They have enjoyed community support, and have served as the center for Shaiva studies as well as Lingayat community's educational, cultural and philanthropic activities. There have been six active large Lingayat monasteries, one each at Kedaranath (Himalayas), Kashi (Varanasi, Ganges), Srisaila (Andhra Pradesh), Kalyana, Rambhapuri-Balehalli and Ujjain (all three in Karnataka). There are smaller Vira-Shaiva monasteries, and rural branch monasteries, across India that serve the needs of the local Lingayat communities.
The Lingayat monasteries have associated priestly class who are referred to as the Jangamas, but this class is not part of the monastery and often householders. Anyone, from any social class, can become a Lingayat monk and join its monastery, and the internal organization has allowed social mobility from its earliest days. The Jangamas often officiate rites of passage, such as wedding. The succession in Lingayat branch monasteries may be appointed either by the main monastery, or the local chief may name his successor.
Jain monasteries, states Paul Dundas, have also been called Matha. Archaeological evidence from Tamil Nadu, which has generally survived better than rest of South Asia, suggest monasteries were being built near Jain temples in south India in about the 5th-century CE, and these hosted naked monks of Jainism. In other parts, Jaina mathas received royal support along with Buddhist and Hindu monasteries. According to Jaina texts of the 13th to 15th century, such as by the historian Srutasagara Gani, Jaina monks in these matha were persecuted by Muslim officials for their way of life, thereby suggesting that the matha tradition had continued in the first half of the 2nd millennium.