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Tibetan - Buddha Shakyamuni - Walters 543082 - Three Quarter.jpg
Gautama Buddha, called Shakyamuni "Sage of the Shakyas", the most famous Shakya. Seated bronze from Tibet, 11th century.

The Shakya (Pali in the Brahmi script: 𑀲𑀓𑁆𑀬 Sakya, Sākiya, or Sakka,[1][2][3] Sanskrit: Śākya, Devanagari: शाक्य) were a clan of Iron age India (1st millennium BCE), inhabiting an area in Greater Magadha, situated at present-day southern Nepal and northern India, near the Himalaya. The Shakyas formed an independent oligarchic[note 1] republican state known as Śākya Gaṇarājya.[4] Its capital was Kapilavastu, which may have been located either in present-day Tilaurakot, Nepal or present-day Piprahwa, India.[5][6][7]

Gautama Buddha (c. 6th to 4th centuries BCE), whose teachings became the foundation of Buddhism,[note 2] was the best-known Shakya. He was known in his lifetime as "Siddhartha Gautama" and "Shakyamuni" (Sage of the Shakyas). He was the son of Śuddhodana, the elected leader of the Śākya Gaṇarājya.


Historian Romila Thapar notes the word Sakya is derived from Sanskrit "Saknoti (to be able), the saka tree and sakahi".[10] Some scholars argue that the Shakya were Scythians from Central Asia or Iran, and that the name Śākya has the same origin as “Scythian”, called Sakas in India.[11][12] According to Chandra Das, the name "Shakya" is derived from the Sanskrit word "śakya," which means "the one who is capable".[13]



The Shakyas were an eastern sub-Himalayan ethnic group on the periphery, both geographically and culturally, of the eastern Indian subcontinent in the 5th century BCE.[14][15] Bronkhorst calls this eastern culture Greater Magadha and notes that "Buddhism and Jainism arose in a culture which was recognized as being non-Vedic though most of the mythical stories, divinities and concepts of enlightenment are similar to Vedas".[16] The laws of Manu treats Shakhyas as being non Aryan. As noted by Levman, "The Baudhāyana-dharmaśāstra (–4) lists all the tribes of Magadha as if they were outside the pale of the Āryāvarta; and just visiting them required a purificatory sacrifice as expiation" (In Manu 10.11, 22).[14] This is confirmed by the Ambaṭṭha Sutta, where the Sakyans are said to be "rough-spoken", "of menial origin" and criticised because "they do not honour, respect, esteem, revere or pay homage to Brahmans"[17] However these criticisms must be understood in terms of the enmity of the Brahmins towards the views of the Buddha the Sakyan. Some of the non-Vedic practices of this tribe included the worship of trees, tree spirits and nāgas.[18] The worship of Nagas, tree spirit and nagas was also prevalent amongst the Vedic society.


According to Buddhist pali text the name Sakya is inspired from Saka trees, J. F. Fleet notes "we find only a fanciful desire to account for the name Sakya by identifying it with the word sakya, hakya, in the sense of ' able, capable, smart.' But, looking below the surface, we find in the allusion to sakasanda, sakavanasanda, the grove of teak-trees, the real origin of the other name, Sakiya, Sakiya, Sakya.".[19] Historian Romila Thapar notes the word Sakya is derived from Sanskrit "Saknoti (to be able), the saka tree and sakahi".[20] Teak tree is known as śāka, śākākhya, śākavṛkṣa in Sanskrit, having common origin with the Sanskrit word Shākha, meaning ‘branch’. [21]

Munda ancestors[edit]

According to Levman "while the Sakyans’ rough speech and Munda ancestors do not prove that they spoke a non-Indo-Aryan language, there is a lot of other evidence suggesting that they were indeed a separate ethnic (and probably linguistic) group."[22]

Scythian Sakas[edit]

Some scholars, including Michael Witzel[11] and Christopher I. Beckwith[12] argue that the Shakya were Scythians from Central Asia or Iran. Scythians were part of the Achaemenid army in the Achaemenid conquest of the Indus Valley from the 6th century BCE.[23] Indo-Scythians were also known to have appeared later in South Asia in the Middle Kingdom period, around the 2nd century BCE to the 4th century CE.[24]


The accounts of Buddhist texts[edit]

The words "Bu-dhe" and "Sa-kya-mu-nī" (Sage of the "Shakyas") in Brahmi script, on Ashoka's Rummindei Minor Pillar Edict (circa 250 BCE).

The Shakyas are mentioned in later Buddhist texts as well, including the Mahāvastu (c. late 2nd century BCE), Buddhaghoṣa and Sumaṅgalavilāsinī, a commentary by Buddhaghoṣa on the Digha Nikaya (c. 5th century CE), mostly in the accounts of the birth of the Buddha, as a part of the Adicchabandhus (kinsmen of the sun)[25] or the Ādichchas and as descendants of the legendary king Ikshvaku:

There lived once upon a time a king of the Śākya, a scion of the solar race, whose name was Suddhodana. He was pure in conduct and beloved of the Śākya like the autumn moon. He had a wife, splendid, beautiful, and steadfast, who was called the Great Maya, from her resemblance to Maya the Goddess.

— Buddhacarita of Aśvaghoṣa, I.1–2
Bharhut inscription: Bhagavato Sakamunino Bodho ("The illumination of the Blessed Sakamuni"), circa 100 BCE.[26]

Buddhaghoṣa's work (II, 1–24) traces the origin of the Shakyas to king Ikshvaku and gives their genealogy from Maha Sammata, an ancestor of Ikshvaku. This list comprises the names of a number of prominent kings of the Ikshvaku dynasty, which include Mandhata and Sagara.[25] According to this text, Okkamukha was the eldest son of Ikshvaku. Sivisamjaya and Sihassara were the son and grandson of Okkamukha. King Sihassara had eighty-two thousand sons and grandsons, who were together known as the Shakyas. The youngest son of Sihassara was Jayasena. Jayasena had a son, Sihahanu, and a daughter, Yashodhara (not to be confused with Prince Siddhartha's wife), who was married to Devadahasakka. Devadahasakka had two daughters, Anjana and Kaccana. Sihahanu married Kaccana, and they had five sons and two daughters; Suddhodana was one of them. Suddhodana had two queens, Maya and Prajapati, both daughters of Anjana. Siddhartha (Gautama Buddha) was the son of Suddhodana and Maya. Rahula was the son of Siddhartha and Yashodara (also known as Bhaddakaccana), daughter of Suppabuddha and granddaughter of Añjana.[27]

Pali canon traces Gautama gotra (patriline) of Shakya to Rigvedic sage Angirasa.[28][29]

Map of mahajanapadas with the Shakya Republic next to Shravasti and Kosala.

Shakya administration[edit]

The Shakya republic functioned as an oligarchy,[note 1] ruled by an elite council of the warrior and ministerial class that chose its leader.[37][38][39][40]

According to the Mahāvastu and the Lalitavistara Sūtra, the seat of the Shakya administration was the santhagara ("assembly hall") at Kapilavastu. A new building for the Shakya santhagara was constructed at the time of Gautama Buddha, which was inaugurated by him. The highest administrative authority was the sidharth, comprising 500 members, which met in the santhagara to transact any important business. The Shakya Parishad was headed by an elected raja, who presided over the meetings.[25]

By the time of Siddharta's birth, the Shakya republic had become a vassal state of the larger Kingdom of Kosala.[41][42] The raja, once chosen, would only take office upon the approval of the King of Kosala. While the raja must have held considerable authority in the Shakya homeland, backed by the power of the King of Kosala, he did not rule autocratically. Questions of consequence were debated in the santhagara, in which, though open to all, only members of the warrior class ("rajana") were permitted to speak. Rather than a majority vote, decisions were made by consensus.[43]

Annexation by Kosala[edit]

Virudhaka, son of Pasenadi and Vāsavakhattiyā, the servant of a Shakyan chief named Mahānāma, ascended the throne of Kosala after overthrowing his father. As an act of vengeance for cheating perceived slights against his mother, a servant before her royal marriage, he invaded the Shakya territory, massacred them and annexed it.[44][45]


Procession of king Suddhodana from Kapilavastu, proceeding to meet his son the Buddha walking in mid-air (heads raised towards his path at the bottom of the panel), and to give him a Banyan tree (bottom left corner).[46] Sanchi.
Ashoka's Mahabodhi Temple and Diamond throne in Bodh Gaya, built circa 250 BCE. The inscription between the Chaitya arches reads: "Bhagavato Sakamunino/ bodho" ie "The building round the Bodhi tree of the Holy Sakamuni (Shakyamuni)".[47] Bharhut frieze (circa 100 BCE).

The Shakyas were by tradition sun worshippers,[48][49] who called themselves Ādicca nāma gottena ("kinsmen of the sun")[50] and descendants of the sun. As Buddha states in the Sutta-Nipāta, "They are of the sun-lineage (adiccagotta), Sakiyans by birth."[51][52] It is uncertain whether, by the time of Siddhartha's birth, Vedic Brahmanism had been adopted to any significant extent by the Shakyans. Scholar Johannes Bronkhorst argues, "I do not deny that many vedic texts existed already, in oral form, at the time when Buddha was born. However, the bearers of this tradition, the Brahmins, did not occupy a dominant position in the area in which the Buddha preached his message, and this message was not, therefore, a reaction against brahmanical thought and culture."[53]

Purportedly, many Shakyans joined people from other regions and became followers of the Buddha during his lifetime, and many young Shakyan men left their homes to become monastics.[54][55]


Significant population of Newars of Kathmandu valley in Nepal use the surname Shakya and also claim to be the descendants of the Shakya clan with titles such as Śākyavamsa (of the Shakya lineage) having been used in the past.[56]

According to Hmannan Yazawin, first published in 1823, the legendary king Abhiyaza, who founded the Tagaung Kingdom and the Burmese monarchy belonged to the same Shakya clan of the Buddha.[57] He migrated to present-day Burma after the annexation of the Shakya kingdom by Kosala. The earlier Burmese accounts stated that he was a descendant of Pyusawhti, son of a solar spirit and a dragon princess.[58]

See also[edit]


  1. ^ a b See:
    • Gyan Swarup Gupta, Jayant Gadkari and the Encyclopedia Britannica use the term oligarchy.[30][31][32]
    • Stephen Batchelor refers to Shakya (using the alternative spelling of Sakiya) as "a proud oligarchic republic."[33]
    • Kurt Spellmeyer: "The best word, then, to describe the Shakyas’ government might not be 'republic' at all. 'Oligarchy' may be a more accurate choice: rule by the elite."[34]
    • Pankaj Mishra: "the Buddha was most likely not a prince, but a member of a republican oligarchy."[35]
    • Kenneth Pletcher, specifically referring to Shakya and other named states: "the fact that representation in these latter states' assemblies was limited to members of the ruling clan makes the term oligarchy, or even chiefdom, preferable."[36]
  2. ^ Some of the stories about Buddha, his life, his teachings, and claims about the society he grew up in may have been invented and interpolated at a later time into the Buddhist texts.[8][9]


  1. ^ Mentioned for the first time in the Lumbini Edict of Ashoka, Hultzsch, E. /1925). Inscriptions of Asoka. Oxford: Clarendon Press, pp. 164–165
  2. ^ Per J. F. Fleet, "The Inscription on the Piprawa Vase", Journal of the Royal Asiatic Society of Great Britain and Ireland, in Pāli, "Sākiya" is used primarily to refer to people of Shakya in general; "Sakka", primarily to the Shakya country as well as to its noble families; and "Sakya", primarily to members of the Buddhist order.
  3. ^ Fleet, J. F. (1906). "The Inscription on the Piprawa Vase". The Journal of the Royal Asiatic Society of Great Britain and Ireland: 161. JSTOR 25210223.
  4. ^ Groeger, Herbert; Trenkler, Luigi (2005). "Zen and systemic therapy: Similarities, distinctions, possible contributions of Zen theory and Zen practice to systemic therapy" (PDF). Brief Strategic and Systematic Therapy European Review. 2: 2.
  5. ^ Srivastava, K.M. (1980), "Archaeological Excavations at Priprahwa and Ganwaria and the Identification of Kapilavastu", Journal of the International Association of Buddhist Studies, 3 (1): 108
  6. ^ Tuladhar, Swoyambhu D. (November 2002), "The Ancient City of Kapilvastu - Revisited" (PDF), Ancient Nepal (151): 1–7
  7. ^ Huntington, John C (1986), "Sowing the Seeds of the Lotus" (PDF), Orientations, September 1986: 54–56, archived from the original (PDF) on 28 November 2014
  8. ^ Gombrich, 1988, pp. 18-19, 50-51
  9. ^ Tropper, Kurt (2013). Tibetan Inscriptions. BRILL Academic. pp. 60–61, with footnotes 134–136. ISBN 978-90-04-25241-7.
  10. ^ Thapar, Romila (1978). Ancient Indian Social History Some Interpretations. New Delhi: Orient Blackswan. p. 275. ISBN 812500808X.
  11. ^ a b Jayarava Attwood, Possible Iranian Origins for the Śākyas and Aspects of Buddhism. Journal of the Oxford Centre for Buddhist Studies 2012 (3): 47-69
  12. ^ a b Christopher I. Beckwith, "Greek Buddha: Pyrrho's Encounter with Early Buddhism in Central Asia", 2016, pp 1-21
  13. ^ Chandra Das, Sarat (1997). A Tibetan-English Dictionary: With Sanskrit Synonyms. New Delhi: Asian Educational Services. p. 582. ISBN 81-206-0455-5.
  14. ^ a b Levman, Bryan Geoffrey (2013). "Cultural Remnants of the Indigenous Peoples in the Buddhist Scriptures", Buddhist Studies Review 30 (2), 145-180. ISSN (online) 1747-9681.
  15. ^ Gombrich, Richard F (1988), Theravada Buddhism: A Social History from Ancient Benares to Modern Colombo, Routledge and Kegan Paul p= 49
  16. ^ "Bronkhorst, J. (2007). Greater Magadha, Studies in the culture of Early India, p. 6. Leiden, Boston, MA: Brill".
  17. ^ Levman, Bryan Geoffrey. "Cultural Remnants of the Indigenous Peoples in the Buddhist Scriptures." Buddhist Studies Review ISSN (online) 1747-9681.
  18. ^ Levman, Bryan Geoffrey. "Cultural Remnants of the Indigenous Peoples in the Buddhist Scriptures." Buddhist Studies Review ISSN (online) 1747-9681.
  19. ^ The Inscription on the Piprawa Vase J. F. Fleet, page 164,
  20. ^ Thapar, Romila (1978). Ancient Indian Social History Some Interpretations. New Delhi: Orient Blackswan. p. 275. ISBN 812500808X.
  21. ^ Douglas Q, Adams (1997). Encyclopedia of Indo-European Culture. UK: Routledge. p. 208. ISBN 1884964982.
  22. ^ Levman, Bryan Geoffrey."Cultural Remnants of the Indigenous Peoples in the Buddhist Scriptures." Buddhist Studies Review ISSN (online) 1747-9681.
  23. ^ Beckwith, Christopher I. (2015). Greek Buddha: Pyrrho's Encounter with Early Buddhism in Central Asia. Princeton University Press. p. 5. ISBN 9781400866328.
  24. ^ A Brief History of India by Alain Daniélou p.136
  25. ^ a b c Law, BC. (1973). Tribes in Ancient India, Bhandarkar Oriental Series No.4, Poona: Bhandarkar Oriental Research Institute, pp. 245–56.
  26. ^ Leoshko, Janice (2017). Sacred Traces: British Explorations of Buddhism in South Asia. Routledge. p. 64. ISBN 9781351550307.
  27. ^ Misra, VS (2007). Ancient Indian Dynasties, Mumbai: Bharatiya Vidya Bhavan, ISBN 81-7276-413-8, pp. 285–6.
  28. ^ Ganga, Gautami; Bahadur, Himmat (2002). Subodh Kapoor (ed.). The Indian Encyclopaedia: Gautami Ganga -Himmat Bahadur (Volume 9 ed.). New Delhi: Cosmo Publication. p. 2677. ISBN 81-7755-257-0.
  29. ^ Edward J. Thomas, The Life of Buddha p. 22
  30. ^ "India - Early Vedic period". Encyclopedia Britannica. Retrieved 18 March 2017.
  31. ^ Gupta, Gyan Swarup (1999). India From Indus Valley Civilisation to Mauryas. South Asia Books. p. 183. ISBN 978-8170227632.
  32. ^ Gadkari, Jayant (1996). Society and Religion. South Asia Books. p. 101. ISBN 978-8171547432.
  33. ^ Batchelor, Stephen (2015). After Buddhism. Yale University Press. pp. Chapter 2, Section 2, 8th Paragraph. ISBN 978-0-300-20518-3.
  34. ^ Spellmeyer, Kurt (Spring 2017). "Is the Dharma Democratic?". Tricycle Magazine. Retrieved 18 March 2017.
  35. ^ Mishra, Pankaj (2010). An End to Suffering: The Buddha in the World. Farrar, Straus and Giroux. p. 153.
  36. ^ Pletcher, Kenneth (2010). The History of India. Rosen Education Service. p. 64. ISBN 978-1615301225.
  37. ^ Gombrich, 1988, pp. 49-50
  38. ^ Batchelor, Stephen (2015). After Buddhism: Rethinking the Dharma for a Secular Age. Yale University Press. pp. 37. ISBN 978-0300205183.
  39. ^ Schumann, H.W. (2016). Historical Buddha (New ed.). Motilal Banarsidass. pp. 17–18. ISBN 978-8120818170.
  40. ^ Hirakawa, 2007, p. 21
  41. ^ Walshe, Maurice (1995). The Long Discourses of the Buddha: A Translation of the Digha Nikaya. Wisdom Publications. p. 409. ISBN 0-86171-103-3.
  42. ^ Batchelor, Stephen (2015). After Buddhism. Yale University Press. pp. Chapter 2, Section 2, 7th paragraph. ISBN 978-0-300-20518-3.
  43. ^ Schumann, 2016, p. 18
  44. ^ Raychaudhuri H. (1972). Political History of Ancient India, Calcutta: University of Calcutta, pp.177-8
  45. ^ Kosambi D.D. (1988). The Culture and Civilisation of Ancient India in Historical Outline, New Delhi: Vikas Publishing House, ISBN 0-7069-4200-0, pp.128-9
  46. ^ Marshall p.64
  47. ^ Luders, Heinrich (1963). Corpus Inscriptionum Indicarum Vol.2 Pt.2 Bharhut Inscriptions. p. 95.
  48. ^ Ikeda, Daisaku (2012). Living Buddha: An Interpretive Biography. Middleway Press. p. 6. ISBN 978-0-9779245-2-3.
  49. ^ Batchelor, 2015, Chapter 2, section 1, paragraph 10
  50. ^ Nakamura, Hajime (2000). Gotama Buddha: A Biography Based on the Most Reliable Texts, Volume 1. Kosei Publishing Company. p. 124. ISBN 978-4333018932.
  51. ^ Batchelor, 2015, Chapter 2, section 2, paragraph 2
  52. ^ Norman, K.R. (2001). Group of Discourses (Sutta Nipata). Pali Text Society at Oxford. p. 51. ISBN 0860133036.CS1 maint: location (link)
  53. ^ Bronkhorst, Johannes (2011). Buddhism in the Shadow of Brahmanism. BRILL. p. 1. ISBN 978-9004201408.
  54. ^ Sangharakshita (2004). Buddha's Victory. Windhorse Publications. p. 47. ISBN 978-0904766509.
  55. ^ Datta, Nonica (2003). Indian History: Ancient and Medieval. Encyclopaedia Britannica (India) Pvt. Ltd. p. 90. ISBN 978-8179910672.
  56. ^ Gellner, David (1989). "Buddhist Monks or Kinsmen of the Buddha? Reflections on the Titles Traditionally Used by Sakyas in the Kathmandu Valley" (PDF). Kailash - Journal of Himalayan Studies. 15: 5–20.
  57. ^ Hla Pe, U (1985). Burma: Literature, Historiography, Scholarship, Language, Life, and Buddhism. Singapore: Institute of Southeast Asian Studies. p. 57. ISBN 978-9971-98-800-5.
  58. ^ Lieberman, Victor B. (2003). Strange Parallels: Southeast Asia in Global Context, c. 800–1830, volume 1, Integration on the Mainland. Cambridge University Press. p. 196. ISBN 978-0-521-80496-7.


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