Friday, August 22, 2014

The Married Monks of Kroraina

The kingdom of Kroraina florished in the middle of the Taklamakan desert in the first centuries of this millennium, and is now known to us through the buildings and artefacts preserved by the desert until their discovery and excavation by explorers and archaeologists. Among the most important of the discoveries from the kingdom were documents providing a detailed (if incomplete) picture of the daily life of Buddhist monks in the region in the 3rd to 4th centuries.

The manuscript Or.8211/1374, containing a letter about the adoption and marriage of a girl into the monastic community.

Over 700 of these documents were excavated by Aurel Stein in the early 20th century and are now in the collections of the British Library and the National Museum of India. Most of them are letters, written in the Gandhārī language and the Kharoṣṭhi script, on wooden tablets. A document was usually made of two wooden tablets placed together, with the content of the letter inside. The two parts were bound with string and sealed with clay, and the cover tabled was inscribed with the name of the addressee

One of these tablets reveals a very interesting aspect of the lives of the monks in Kroraina. It records a dispute that arose out of the adoption of girl as a daughter by one monk, who was then given as a wife to another monk:

The śramamna Budhavam̄a says that the śramamna Śariputra received as an adopted child from Denuǵa Aṃto his daughter called Śirsateyae. The śramamna Śariputra gave this daughter to the śramamna Budhavam̄a as his wife in lawful marriage. The daughter of that woman Śirsateyae, Puṃñavatiyae by name, was given as wife to the śramamna Jivalo Aṭhama. This Aṭhama died...

The practices mentioned here (and in other documents) seem to be regarded as normal, only written about when problems arise leading to disputes, such as the death of a one of the monks. So it seems that the kings of Kroraina accepted that these monks were allowed to be married and have children. Yet this could hardly be simply a case of ignorance: the stricture of celibacy is at the centre of the Buddhist monastic vows.

Photo 392/27(89)Photograph of the excavation of site N.xxvi in Niya, one of the houses in which śramamna lived.

We can only speculate on the nature of the compromises that we made in order to allow for married śramaṃna in the knowledge of the requirements of the vinaya. It might be that the śramaṃnas took the full monastic ordination but ignored the strictures on celibacy. On the other hand, they may have received only the lay vows, but adopted the status of a fully-ordained monk for ritual purposes. Another possibility is that they combined the life of a celibate monk with that of a householder by taking a wife but remaining celibate, with children brought into the family through adoption.


Translations of most of the documents from Niya can be read on the IDP website. All of the British Library documents have been digitized. Transcriptions can be found at

Further Reading

Brough, John. 1965. "Comments on Third-Century Shan-Shan and the History of Buddhism." Bulletin of SOAS 28: 591–93.

Burrow, T. 1940. A Translation of the Kharoṣṭi Documents From Chinese Turkestan. London: The Royal Asiatic Society.

Hansen, Valerie. 2004. "Religious Life in a Silk Road Community: Niya during the Third and Fourth Centuries." In John Lagerwey, ed. Religion and Chinese Society 1: 279–315. Hong Kong: The Chinese University Press.

Padwa, Mariner. 2007. "An Archaic Fabric: Culture and Landscape in an Early Inner Asian Oasis (3rd–4th Century C.E. Niya)." PhD Dissertation. Harvard University.


  1. Is there something to show that "śramamna" (i.e. Sanskrit śrāmaṇa) means "bhikṣu" in this time and place? It wouldn't necessarily have done so elsewhere.

  2. That's a good question, which I have also wondered about. As far as I can tell (others would know better) the word śramaṇa was usually used to refer to monks in the Buddhist context in India (and śramaṇera for novices), but it is not necessarily simply synonymous with bhikṣu, as you point out. Another bit of evidence is that the Chinese pilgrim Faxian, who was travelling around the same time as these documents, usually uses the Chinese characters for śramaṇa when he is writing about monks.

  3. I think we need to revisit these documents in light of Shayne Clarke's new books, Family Matters in Indian Buddhist Monasticisms,

  4. Shayne Clarke has also found evidence from Indian Buddhist sources that challenges the centrality of the image of the renunciant who has severed all family ties. Clarke has found inscriptional and textual indications that relationships between renouncers and their families did not end with ordination.
    In his analysis of inscriptions from various sites around the Indian subcontinent, Clarke shows that monks and nuns made donations together with family
    members and that monks and nuns continued to identify as members of fami-
    lies when describing themselves in inscriptions.9 Moreover, Clarke suggests that the line between celibate renunciant and sexually active lay person is not as clear as received wisdom in Buddhist studies would have it, arguing that only the Pali vinaya mandates expulsion for those who violate the precept on
    celibacy. The other five vinayas presuppose that violations will occur and make provisions so that violators are able to stay.10 Clarke maintains that attention to vinaya literature provides a useful focusing lens for exploring issues of
    family life in Indian monasticism. Extant vinayas are much more permissive of ongoing relationships between renunciants and their families than one would
    guess from the portrait of the renouncer found in sutra literature. Sutra literature presents an idealized portrait of the renouncer because, according to
    Clarke, it represents what monastic institutions wished to show the public. The monastic codes offer scholars a more accurate window onto Indian monasticism as a set of mundane practices.11

  5. That's a summary of his book from Liz Wilson in the introduction of the book, Family in Buddhism.