The Religions of Ancient India

Key information

Start date
End date
Year of study
Term 2
Module code
FHEQ Level
Department of Religions and Philosophies

Module overview

“The Religions of Ancient India” constitutes an introductory unit within the MA Traditions of Yoga and Meditation. It is designed to provide students with a broad understanding of the major religious traditions (Brahmanism, Buddhism, Jainism) that evolved in India from the Vedic period to the end of the Gupta Empire. It is foundational to the three remaining modules in that it reveals the multiple links that connect religious practice in Brahmanism, early Buddhism and Jainism.

“The Religions of Ancient India” charts the dynamics that propelled the growth of these traditions across northern and central India. It then equips the student with the key methodological tools required to interpret the historical events within these developments. The course is co-taught by three scholars of Indian religions at SOAS, all part of the Department of Religions and Philosophies (Ulrich Pagel, Ted Proferes, Vincent Tournier). As an introductory module to the Religions of India, the course offers the necessary background not only for the more advanced courses in the MA Traditions of Yoga and Meditation but will also be an attractive addition to area programmes with a focus on South Asia.

Objectives and learning outcomes of the module

  • A critical awareness of the historical events, doctrinal positions and religious practices that emerged within, and shaped the development of, the religious traditions of ancient India.
  • An awareness of the variety of sources available for the study of Indian Religions and of the specific way each source category should be processed.
  • An understanding of the main stages in the development of the Indian Religions, and the ability to identify the basic patterns and dynamics of their transmission throughout Asia.
  • An understanding of the centrality of the religious figures and the creative ways with which believers related to them.
  • The ability to chart the religious institutions of ancient India in their wider societal contexts.
  • The ability to evaluate scholarly interpretations, and to take an informed position within a scholarly debate.


One hour lecture ; one hour seminar each week.

Scope and syllabus

The first lecture provides a general introduction and an orientation for the new students of the MA programme: “The Religions of Ancient India” will be the first course at SOAS for most students enrolled in the MA Traditions of Yoga and Meditation. The following nine classes then address in relative depth some of the key concepts, historical developments, practices and beliefs at the heart of the Brahmanical, Buddhist and Jaina traditions of ancient India.

The first four of these are devoted to the brahmanical traditions that emerged in India sometime towards the end of the second millennium BCE. They chart the religio-philosophical ideas, ritual practices and textual sources of the main traditions of Brahmanism in their social and historical contexts. While some will focus on religious issues, others explore the relationship between text and practice, the links between religion and culture, the intersection of religious institutions and the wider social and political framework. The second segment, consisting of three lectures, discusses the early historical developments, doctrinal tenets and religious practices in the early Buddhist communities. In particular, it examines the methods through which Buddhism managed to establish itself within the overarching brahmanical religious environment. The third segment sketches the formation of early Jaina beliefs and practices. It investigates in particular Jaina concepts of purification as well as issues connected to non-violence and asceticism. The discussion of Buddhist and Jaina ideals is initially developed within the śramaṇa traditions of greater Magadha but reaches into the first centuries CE.

The content of all three segments converges thematically through the analysis of a number of beliefs and practices central to Brahmanism, Buddhism and Jainism. These include karma, samsara, dharma, purification, liberation, renunciation, yoga and meditation. The study of these concepts, in their different religious settings, becomes the platform from which the remaining, more advanced courses of this MA launch their study of the traditions of yoga and meditation in India and Tibet.

Method of assessment

One 3,000 word essay (worth 80%); One 750 word word Book Review (worth 20%).

Suggested reading

  • Bakker, H. 1982, “On the Origin of Sāṃkhya Psychology.” Wiener Zeitschrift für die Kunde Südasiens 26: 117–148. Per 34 /135526
  • Basham, Arthur, 2002, History and Doctrines of the Ājīvikas: A Vanished Indian Religion, Delhi: Motilal Banarsidass, (rp. London: Luzac, 1951). JA294 /930006
  • Berkwitz, Stephen C., South Asian Buddhism: A Survey. London & New York: Routledge, 2010. J294.3 /730567
  • Brereton, Joel, “The Upanishads”, in: Approaches to the Asian Classics, ed., WT de Bary and I. Bloom, New York: Columbia University Press, 1990: 115–135. A895.0711 /138862
  • Bronkhorst, Johannes, 2009, Buddhist Teaching in India, Studies in Indian and Tibetan Buddhism, Somerville: Wisdom Publications. JA294.34209 /738083
  • Bronkhorst, Johannes, 2007, Greater Magadha: Studies in the Culture of Early India, Leiden: Brill,. JA934.04 /971112
  • Dundas, Paul, 2002, The Jains, London: Routledge. JA294.4 /844857
  • Flood, Gavin, 1996, An Introduction to Hinduism. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press,. JA294.5/805166
  • Flood, Gavin, 2003, ed., The Blackwell Companion to Hinduism. Oxford: Blackwell Publishing,. JA294.5/843448
  • Gethin, Rupert, 1998, The Foundations of Buddhism, Oxford University Press, 1998. A294.3 /765788.


Important notice regarding changes to programmes and modules