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What is a samana?

I discovered "samanas" in Herman Hesse's book Siddhartha (it is a great book if you haven't read it).  Briefly, samanas are wandering ascetics from ancient India.

Here's a nice description of the origin of Samanas in the 5th century BCE:

"The foremost science in North India at that time was astronomy. New, precise observations of planetary movements, combined with newly developed means of calculation, had led astronomers to conclude that time was measured in aeons, incomprehensibly long cycles that repeat themselves endlessly.

Taking up these conclusions, philosophers of the time tried to work out the implications of this vast temporal frame for the drama of human life and the quest for ultimate happiness. These philosophers fell into two broad camps: those who conducted their speculations within the traditions of the Vedas, early Indian religious and ritual texts that provided the orthodox beliefs of the old order; and other, unorthodox groups, called the Samanas (contemplatives), who questioned the authority of the Vedas.

Modern etymology derives the word Samana from "striver," but the etymology of the time derived it from sama, which means to be "on pitch" or "in tune." The Samana philosophers were trying to find a way of life and thought that was in tune, not with social conventions, but with the laws of nature as these could be directly contemplated through scientific observation, personal experience, reason, meditation, or shamanic practices, such as the pursuit of altered states of consciousness through fasting or other austerities.

Many of these forms of contemplation required that one abandon the constraints and responsibilities of the home life, and take up the life of a homeless wanderer. This was the rationale behind Prince Siddhattha's decision to leave the home life in order to see if there might be a true happiness beyond the sway of aging, illness, and death."  (from