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A matha (also written math or mutt; maṭha) is a monastic or similar religious establishment in Hinduism[1] or Jainism. A matha is usually more formal and hierarchical than an ashram.

Matha is monastery where one or more sannyasis (renunciate or homeless ascetic) and their followers live. It may refer to the hut of a single ascetic or a large monastery housing a community of ascetics, their students, and disciples. Other Hindu monastic institutions include mandira (temples if a holy one is living there) and ashrama (ashrams, meaning hermitage). The term matha is also used by the Jains.

Hindu renunciates, Sanyassi, were and are wandering mendicants. The tradition of becoming a renunciate (leaving home, family, and commerce) in Hinduism goes back to at least the 6th century BC.[1] The tradition continues until the present. During the early centuries, (from at least the 4th century BC) renunciation was seen as one of the alternative choices of how to live a holy life. In the beginning of the first century AD, the tradition changed to viewing renunciation as the final stage of life after being a student and then a householder.[2] From early times it was practical for the sannyasi to reside in a hut or other shelter during the monsoon season and wander the rest of the year.

During the Indian Medieval period (8th century to 1526 AD), larger monasteries were constructed capable of housing communities of ascetics. According to tradition, the first large mathas in Hinduism were founded by Sankara in the 8th century AD. Sankara taught the concept of settled monastic communities similar to those of the Jains and Buddhists. The construction and support of these monasteries was often sponsored by donations from royal or wealthy patrons. The monks who lived there were often engaged in service to the surrounding community such as teaching, medical care, or charitable feeding of the poor.

Other reformers of Vaishnava Hinduism including Ramanuja (1017 – 1137 AD), Nimbarka (12th or 13th centuries AD), Madhva (1238 – 1317 AD), and Vallabha (1479 – 1531 AD) founded large mathas during this period.

Beginning in the 10th century AD, various Shaiva traditions also founded large mathas during the medieval period[3]

After the end of the medieval period, there was a decline in support by royal and wealthy donors. Large monasteries were not prominent in the interim period until the founding of modern large mathas by Hindu reformers of the last 200 years.


Hinduism came from a mix of sources and has an extensive history going back to 2000 BC.[4] Over the course of that history, Hinduism has been influenced by a variety of events and people, leading to its syncretic existence in the modern world. This section will cover early Hinduism to the Islamic arrival in India in the 12th century AD.

Early History

Hinduism’s origins are rooted in the Indus Valley civilization which rose to power in the latter centuries of the 3rd millennium BC. A variety of material objects that may have had ritual purposes have been found at sites like Mohenjo-daro, and contain symbols that appeared in other ancient civilizations’ religious symbolism and holds possible connections to Hindu symbolism.[5]

Vedic Period

The Vedic period, which began around the second millennium BC, contained the creation of the Rigveda which consists of hymns composed during the last centuries of the second millennium.The writings within the Rigveda reflect the sacrificial religious system that was in place and also contain elements of influence from a variety of sources including Indo-European groups, early Iranians and early Indians. While the Vedas don’t contain detailed histories, they do provide a representation of society at the time including “society's sophisticated organization, its profound interest in human origins, in the question of the meaning and purpose of life combined with a refusal to speculate, its championing of order against chaos and of order within society [and] suggest a maturity that is often associated with humanity at a much later stage of development.”[6] The first appearances of Vishnu and Shiva, two of the most popular Hindu gods today, were first recorded in the Rigveda , originally as minor characters.[7] It was at this time that the religion began to be shaped and transmitted by the established social classes, namely the Brahmins. Via a process called “sanskritization”, lower social groups took on the appearance and religious practices of those who were born into the upper Brahman caste. The practices spread in this fashion and ‘sanskritization' has been thought to be a leading method by which Sanskrit texts traveled through India and Southeast Asia.[5]

Upanishadic Period

Between 800 BC and 500 BC, Indian society began to question and rethink the traditional Vedic order by rejecting orthopraxy in preference for pursuing their own spiritual practice, many times by becoming ascetics.[8] This was reflected in a collection of texts written during that time period called the Upanishads. The name Upanishad comes from the Sanskrit words to describe the practice of “sitting at the feet of an illuminated teacher to engage in a session of spiritual instructions”: Upa (Near) and Shad (sit).[8] From 550 BC to 450 BC, sects began to break away from the Vedic tradition in preference for following teachers, a movement which not only led to Mathas, but Buddhism and Jainism. These groups of ascetics would orient themselves around a teacher, code of conduct and were supported by merchants who wanted a religion that was the less costly to support. The ascetics opposed large scale animal sacrifices that were done by the Brahmans as well as the predetermination of Brahmanic superiority based on birth. While Vedic worship continued, the more common religious life was centered more around worshipping local deities and spirits in nature, which was conducive to the ascetic life. Around 500 BC, asceticism was relatively common and, to help stem the flow of young men into the forests and ascetic life, the Brahmans set up the four ashram doctrine, where the life of a Hindu was split into four stages that each person moves through: celibate religious student, married householder, forest dweller and wandering ascetic. Although the Ashram structure wasn’t completely successful, the duties of the ashrams was integrated into Hindu social structure as dharma.[5]

Classical Period

Various sects like Vaishnavism, Shaivism and Shaktism saw a growth in membership while asceticism declines from the 2nd to 4th centuries. The textual tradition contained in the Ramayana and Mahabharata was recensioned, which increased focus on Rama and Shiva as important gods.[7] The Gupta Dynasty rose and increased its land via conquest. Economic ties with the Roman Empire brought Roman influence into India and can be seen through architecture and art from the time period. At this same time, the worship of Vishnu, Rama and Shiva blended with the Vedic tradition. Going into the 4th century, religious teachings began being taught in local, popular languages and is thought to have begun with worshippers of Shiva called Nayanars and devotees of Vishnu called Azhvars.The rise of devotional practice or bhakti weakened Buddhism’s presence in India and was weakened even more so by proponents of asceticism like Kumarila and Shankara who, according to Gold, “were strongly opposed to Buddhism. In their journeys throughout India, their biographies claim, they vehemently debated with Buddhists and tried to persuade kings and other influential people to withdraw their support from Buddhist monasteries.“ By the end of the 12th century, some Buddhist sites were being reabsorbed into Hindu sites.[5]

Hinduism Under Islam

While Buddhist sites were in decline, Islamic rulers came to India. Some of these rulers opposed Hinduism while others didn’t mind. However, many Hindu temples were destroyed. Religious practice focused more around smaller versions of domestic sacrifice that were connected to a mother goddess. At the time, there were more deities worshipped than are present in Hinduism today. Bhakti movements continued to rise in their use of vernacular, folk religion and unmediated visions.[5] Gold claims that “Muslim conquest may also have predisposed the people to accept the powerful teachings of the poets.[5]



The main function of these institutions, according to Saccinanda, was to give religious teaching and moral advice to others. “So that they might become honest, peace-loving, independent, moral, and well-behaved.”

Other functions of the monastery are “to provide education in Sanskrit, to feed guests, to give money to the poor, shelter to the helpless, and burial to the dead who have no family".[9]


  • Once an individual has decided to enter the ascetic life, his first task is to find a guru who will accept him as a disciple.
  • The guru recognizes a would-be ascetic as his disciple by administering diksa, a rite of initiation that separates the disciple from his former life.
  • Before taking diksa, a disciple must cut all remaining ties to his family of orientation by performing death ceremonies for his parents.
  • Upon taking diksa, an ascetic always takes a religious name ending with the name of his sub-order.[9]

Daily Practices

Ten Elementary steps to liberation (according to Guru Saccinanda)

  1. Leave bed before sunrise.
  2. Pay homage to the sun God Saritri every morning and evening.
  3. Recite sacred verses (mantras) and the name of one's chosen deity while bathing.
  4. Offer sacrificial fire (homa) and perform yogic postures.
  5. Service all guests.
  6. Perform funeral offerings for one's forefathers at noon.
  7. Take sacred food after noon and before evening.
  8. Worship one's chosen deity in the evening.
  9. Meditate upon the welfare of humanity before going to sleep.
  10. Sleep from 11:00 pm to 4:00 am.[9]

Ten Precepts of Ethical Behavior

  1. Be kindly towards a cruel man and you will change him.
  2. Do not dislike others even though they may dislike you, because the wicked must someday repent and submit when their power and policy fail. This is a universal truth.
  3. Control the manner of your speech; this is one of the main factors that makes a man a friend or enemy.
  4. Respect the right of others to speak as they must, because each was created by God.
  5. Do not disrespect a man of low caste, because you may be like him in your next rebirth.
  6. Realize that caste and color are nothing but foolish prejudice in an ignorant man’s mind.
  7. Consider superiors as well wishers and inferiors as blessed.
  8. Be independent, but at the same time try to take care of your parents who have made you a man on this earth by sacrificing their money, matter, and life.
  9. Pray to the deity for the happiness of mankind, not for yourself. The deity only listens to the man who prays for others.
  10. Do not grasp after things; Brahman, the supreme spirit, is everywhere and pervades this universe.[9]


Mathas by and large reside within communities whose caste system fosters a comfortable home for the establishment of a matha. Many individuals who live in matha communities speak Sanskrit, which leads to a difficult time conversing with researchers, or other individuals outside of the institution, who often do not speak the language. Mathas are interesting in that they are not institutions of the state or of the local village. This presents these religious organizations with the interesting role of operating between these two different societal structures. Particularly today, with an ever-changing society moving faster, and faster toward modernity and technological connection. In many ways the matha functions to mediate between the state and local structures, with a particular regard to kinship formations.[10]

An important role of the guru at monasteries, which are dependant upon lay financial support is that of a preacher, according to Guru Jagadananda.[9]

Ethnography as defined by the Oxford dictionary is "the scientific description of the customs of individual people and cultures", has been used to study the structure and function of Mathas. Ethnographers strive to understand how the mathas function within their larger socio-political landscape, and in what ways mathas may mirror this landscape. With this in mind, mathas hold in interesting place in the world of academia in that they do not fall comfortably within the general parameters of a theoretical hierarchy. Most mathas today function under the complex, and largely misunderstood caste system, “They (mathas) are the institutional repositories of the interior memory of a caste, its collective consciousness and public aspirations"[10]

Ranking of Ascetics

The titles given to various stages of the monastic career reflect the traditional Hindu doctrine of the four asramas, or stages of life.

  • Brahmacarin or “novice”: One who is undergoing a period of apprenticeship that may last anywhere from 1–12 years
  • Grhasta, or “householder”: Has no place in the orders, may still maintain normal family relations.
  • Vanaprastha, or “forest hermit”: An older person who has retired from his economic career and sought peace and refuge in a monastery; he may take ascetic diksa and join an order or he may take only lay diksa and style himself as a follower of an order.
  • Sannyasin, or “final renouncer”: A resident ascetic member of an order, who has taken final vows after a period as a brahmacarin, and who may no longer return to secular life.[9]

Hindu Mathas

Advaita Mathas

Vidyashankara temple (Kannada: ವಿದ್ಯಾಶಂಕರ ದೇವಸ್ಥಾನ, Sanskrit: विद्याशंकर मंदिर) at Sringeri Sharada Peetham, Sringeri, Karnataka.

The oldest matha follows the Advaita Vedanta tradition and they are headed by Shankaracharyas, a title derived from the name of Ādi Śankara, a prominent religious teacher of the eighth century.[11] Ādi Śankara established the following mathas, with each of his four main disciples in charge: Sureshwaracharya, Hastamalakacharya, Padmapadacharya, and Totakacharya respectively. The four Āmnāya mathas founded by Ādi Śankara, all of which are Smartist, are:

In addition, these Advaita mathas also claim they were founded by Ādi Śankara:

Sri Vaishnava Mathas

Parakala Mutt - as it stands today

In the Sri Sampradaya tradition of Ramanuja:

Nimbarka Vaishnava Mathas

Ukhra Nimbarka Peeth Mahanta Asthal

In the Nimbarka Sampradaya founded by Nimbarka numerous renowned Mathas exist, some of them are :

Dvaita Mathas (Vaishnava)

Krishnapura Matha at Udupi

Dvaita philosophy was founded by Madhvacharya. He established 8 mathas directly and several others were also established by him and also by his disciples.

Only the pontiffs of these mathas have the right to perform puja to Lord Udupi Shri Krishna. They assume the right to perform puja to Krishna at Udupi one after the other. Each pontiff's right to perform puja to Krishna expires every 2 years; this is called Paryaya.

There are many other mathas. These mathas were all formed by the disciples of Śrī Madhvācārya. Śrī Padmanābha Tīrtha was the first disciple of Madhvacharya who formed most of the mathas except the matha which have the right to perform Puja to Krishna in Udupi.

Other Dvaita mathas

Other Vaishnava Mathas

Nambudiri mathas

In the Indian state of Kerala several ancient Mathas prescribing the doctrine of Purva Mimamsa(an ancient branch of vedic hinduism) are run by the orthodox Nambudiri Brahmin families.Some of these Mathas include the Thazhamon Madom and the Melpathur Madom .Some of the later mathas have started prescribing to the Advaita Vedanta reasoning that Adi Shankara was himself a Nambudri. These family run mathas are mostly found in south-central Kerala.

Other Hindu Mathas

Saraswat Brahmin Mathas (Vaishnava and Smartha)

Kashi Math, Walkeshwar branch, Mumbai.

The Konkani-speaking Goud Saraswat Brahmin follow these mathas:

  1. Kashi Math, Varanasi, Uttar Pradesh (Vaishnava - Dvaita)
  2. Gokarna Math, Poinguinim, Canacona, Goa (Vaishnava - Dvaita)
  3. Chitrapur Math, Shirali, Karnataka (Smartha - Advaita )
  4. Shri Gaudapadacharya Math, Kavale, Ponda, Goa (Smartha - Advaita )
  5. Sri Samsthan Dabholi Math, Dabholi, Goa (Smartha - Advaita )

Kongu Nadu mathas

In Kongu Nadu, there are mathas run by the kulagurus or caste-clan gurus. There are around sixty such mathas, both Smartist and Shaiva, who guide people from the various native castes of this region.[12] Their acharya is Sringeri Sharada Peetham.

Jain Mathas

The term matha is also used for Jain monasteries.

Here is a list of Jain Mathas:


Tamil Nadu



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  2. Encyclopedia of Hinduism: Vol. 2 Sacred Texts, Ritual Traditions, Arts, Concepts. pp. 685–686.
  3. Sears, Tamara I. Housing Asceticism: Tracing the development of Mattamayura Saiva monastic architecture in Early Medieval Central India (c. 8th – 12th centuries AD). PhD. Dissertation 2004. p. 29
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  10. 10.0 10.1 Sood, Aditya Dev. The Matha State: Kinship, Asceticism and Institutionality in the Public Life of Karnataka. n.p.: ProQuest Dissertations Publishing, 2006.
  11. Britannica Online Encyclopedia, Śankara. Encyclopædia Britannica. 2009. Encyclopædia Britannica Online. 22 Jan. 2009 .