The Unity of Indic Religions (I): There is No Discord, Only Different Ways of Understanding the Supreme Reality
Buddhism: Ethics matters, not Metaphysics
The British colonial masters sought to divide Indian society in every conceivable way. It was a joint enterprise of administrators, scholars, and missionaries. An important part of that enterprise was misrepresentation of different branches of Sanatana Dharma as distinct religions opposed to one another. The idea was to malign Hinduism and, more importantly, diminish Hindu society by slicing large sections away from it. Buddhism, Jainism, and Sikhism were misrepresented as minority religions “which represent a revolt against Brahmanism, casteism, hegemony of upper classes, etc.” to malign Hinduism. It is especially so with Sikhism, which is doctrinally identical with Hinduism. After decades of sustained repetition, even educated Indians are taken in by the propaganda.
In a secular India, it has been a double whammy for Hinduism. When scholars like Ram Swarup point out the essential unity between Hinduism and other Indic traditions like Buddhism, Jainism, and Sikhism, it is viewed as a shrewd attempt to swallow up “minority religions which represented a revolt against Brahmanism”. When the same scholars point out the fundamental differences between Sanatana Dharma and Abrahamic religions, they are accused of indulging in hate speech and fomenting communal discord.
To set the record straight, it is necessary to underline, once again, the basic spiritual and philosophical unity among the different branches of Sanatana Dharma while respecting their distinctive features. Thereafter, we shall study the difference between the basic premises and approaches of Sanatana Dharma and Abrahamic religions. We begin with Buddhism: the largest offshoot of Hinduism.
Hindus have always regarded Gautama Buddha and Buddhism as an intimate part of their tradition and heritage. Buddhism is Hindu in its origin and early development, spiritual discipline, language, psychology, art, and architecture. However, western scholars came to study Buddhism as a separate religion because they discovered it outside India where it had been present for centuries while it was hardly visible in India after its decimation at the hands of early Muslim invaders. Dr. B R Ambedkar, Dalit icon and India’s first law minister, is credited with reviving Buddhism in modern India when he renounced his Hindu roots and embraced Buddhism along with his followers, shortly before his death in 1956. He did so, however, in protest against caste indignities heaped upon him and in search of a non-Hindu identity. His conversion, therefore, strengthened the erroneous belief that Buddhism was a separate faith that arose out of a revolt against Hinduism.
Jawaharlal Nehru, India’s first Prime Minister, turned the mild anti-Hindu version of Buddhism into the unofficial state religion of India. He adopted the “lion pillar” of the Buddhist Emperor Ashoka as state symbol and put his 24-spoked Dharmacakra (Wheel of Righteousness) in the national flag. Certain materialist-secularist intellectuals and groups warmly welcomed this revival of Buddhism in modern India because in it they saw a timely corrective to the “supernatural prejudices” regarding God and Soul and “superstitions which weaken a nation”.
According to them, Gautama Buddha observed a tactical silence over metaphysical and religious issues, but preached a rational morality called his three sîla, cutting out the whole superstructure of meaningless mysticism. So, Buddhism was a revolt against Hinduism, not only against certain prevalent sacrificial cults and rigidities in caste organization, but also against the whole spiritual tradition and premises of the age. This view of Buddhism, originally sponsored by the West, has been taught in schools for decades and has now almost become commonplace. This should not surprise us, given the deliberate massive and mischievous distortion of every aspect of the history and culture of the Indian people by “progressive” historians. Nor should it surprise us that a closer look at history or Buddha’s own teachings hardly support such a presentation of Buddhism.
Early Buddhism is not an original doctrine. Buddha himself admits that the dharma which he had discovered through self-culture is the ancient way, the Arya (i.e., noble) path, the eternal Dharma. He adapted the venerated tradition of the land to meet the special needs of the age. He shared with Upanishadic literature a healthy contempt for soulless ritualism and reaffirmed their ethical universalism. Like the rest of Aryan India, he believed in the law of karma, rebirth, and the possibility of attaining emancipation.
Dr. S Radhakrishnan (Indian Philosophy, Part I, p. 361) quotes Rhys Davids who says “Gautama was born and brought up and lived and died a Hindu… There was not much in the metaphysics and principles of Gautama which cannot be found in the one or the other of the orthodox systems, and a great deal of his morality can be matched from earlier or Later Hindu books. Such originality as Gautama possessed lay in the way in which he adopted, enlarged, ennobled, and systematized that which had already been well said by others, in the way in which he carried out to their logical conclusion principles of equity and justice already acknowledged by some of the most prominent Hindu thinkers.”
Historically, Siddhartha the Buddha was a Kshatriya, scion of the Solar or Ikshvaku dynasty, son of the chieftain (Raja) of a Shakya tribe, belonging to the Gautama gotra or clan. Till his death he was known as Shakyamuni, “renunciate of Shakya tribe,” which traced its lineage to the eldest children of Manu, the patriarch so often mentioned in Hindu scriptures.
The Hindu belief about Buddha being the ninth incarnation of Vishnu is not a deceitful invention of Brahmins, but a proclamation made by Buddha himself. In the Dasaratha Jataka, he narrates the story of Rama and says: “At that time the king Suddhodana (Buddha’s father) was the king Dasaratha, Mahamayi (Buddha’s mother) was the mother, Rahula’s (Buddha’s son) mother was Sita, Ananda was Bharat, and I myself was Rama-pandita”. The Buddhist tradition acknowledges that Shakyamuni was a Vedic Hindu: he preached his wisdom to humankind only at the urging of the Vedic gods, Indra, and Brahma. The story, incidentally, underlines the importance of human life: only a human being can undertake the sadhana and achieve enlightenment which is prized highly even by gods. It is pertinent that Indra’s weapon, the vajra (thunderbolt), is the principal symbol of Tibetan Buddhism known as Vajrayana.
There is a good deal of misconception about Buddha’s attitude to caste. He certainly did not abolish caste, nor did he oppose it per se. He did not promote inter-caste marriage in any of his teachings. He even allowed birth in a Brahmin family to be viewed as a reward for merit. He predicted the future coming of an enlightened teacher named Maitreya who, he specified, will be a Brahmin. When King Pasendi disowned his wife and son on learning that the wife was the daughter of a Shakya ruler by his maid servant and not a full-blooded princess, Buddha persuaded him to take them back. Buddha’s argument was NOT that caste was bad or did not matter, but that caste was passed on exclusively on paternal lines. However, Gautama Buddha firmly rejected exclusiveness and arrogance that came to be associated with caste by holding that all men had power to become perfect and admitting people from all castes into his fold. Moreover, he held that caste is determined by conduct and character, not by birth. “Not by birth is one a Brahmin, not by birth is one an outcaste; by deeds is one a Brahmin, by deeds is one an outcaste.” However, this idea is not foreign to Brahmin texts. Buddha was a spiritual reformer par excellence who found a place for the poor and the lowly in the Kingdom of God, so to say. Buddha set out to find a way out of the suffering associated with human existence. Establishment of a casteless society would be too lowly, and at the same time too distracting an endeavor for what he regarded as his lifework.
At a time when endless discussions about metaphysical subtleties and theological issues absorbed the energies of men, Buddha announced the triumph of natural law over supernaturalism. When mechanical rituals and puerile priest craft had sapped the vitality of a living Dharma, he proclaimed a religion which declared that each man could get salvation for himself without the mediation of priests or reference to Gods. With his boundless and universal love and compassion for all living beings, Buddha enhanced the respect for humanity and improved the tone of morality. He restored the belief in the permanence and universality of natural law.
The sublime grandeur of his teachings can be gleaned from some of his utterances: “It is foolish to suppose that another can cause us happiness or misery”. “Never in this world hatred ceases with hatred—hatred ceases with love”. “One may conquer thousand men in battle, but one who conquers himself is the greatest victor”. “Not by birth, but by his conduct alone, does one become a low caste or a Brahmin”. “Hide your good deeds and confess before the world the sins you committed”.
Yet the relationship between Hinduism and Buddhism is misunderstood and their intimacy minimized because of Gautama’s silence over such fundamental questions as Brahma, God and soul, questions which occupy the center stage in Upanishadic literature. Studied silence was his answer when asked whether the world is eternal or evanescent, whether body and soul are one and the same or separate, whether a man survives death or not, and such others.
There were two reasons for Buddha’s silence to such questions. He refused to answer all questions that did not lead to an individual’s practical spiritual benefit. Right effort is more important than idle cerebration. As he said to a monk named Malunkyaputta, “The religious life, O Malunkyaputta, does not depend on the dogma that the world is eternal, infinite or finite, that the soul and the body are identical or different, or the dogma that the saint exists or does not exist after death. It profits not, nor has it to do with the fundamentals of religion, nor tends to aversion, absence of passion, cessation, quiescence, the supernatural faculties, supreme wisdom, and Nirvana” (Chulla-Malunkya-sutta, Majjhima Nikaya 2.2.3).
Another, equally weighty reason for Buddha’s silence was the impossibility of answering metaphysical questions in a language intelligible to the human mind. Buddha illustrated this point with the help of a very apt analogy in reply to a question on the real status of a liberated soul. If a fire were to burn in front of you, you would be aware of this fact. Suppose the fire becomes extinct, you would be aware of that fact also.
“But Vaccha [a mendicant of Vatsa gotra], if someone were to ask you, ‘in which direction has that fire gone, east, or west or south?’ What would you say, O Vaccha?” asked the great teacher.
“The question would not fit the case, Gautama. For the fire which depended on fuel of grass and wood, when that fuel has all gone, and it can get no other, being thus without nutriment, is said to be extinct,” Vaccha replied.
Buddha concluded: “In exactly the same way, Vaccha, all form, all consciousness by which one could predicate the existence of the saint has been abandoned, uprooted, pulled out of the ground like a palmyra-tree, and become non-existent and not liable to spring up again in the future. The saint, O Vaccha, who has been released from what is styled as form and consciousness is deep, immeasurable, unfathomable (gambhîra, appameyya, duppariyogaho) like the mighty ocean. To say that he is reborn would not fit the case. To say that he is not reborn would not fit the case. To say that he is both reborn and not reborn would not fit the case. To say that he is neither reborn nor not reborn would not fit the case”
(Agg-vaccha sutta, Majjhima Nikaya 2.3.2).
Sages of Upanishads would have approved of Buddha’s silence. They have given a similar answer, though in a more positive language. The Mandukya Upanishad (1-7) describes the transcendental reality is adrishta (unseen), agrahya (ungraspable), acintya (non-thinkable), alakshana (non-distinctional), and avyapadeshya (undesignable). “From there the speech, along with mind, returns baffled (yato vacho nivartante aprapya manasa saha),” says the Taittiriya Upanishad 2-9. “There the eye goes not; speech goes not, nor the mind. We know not, we understand not. How would one teach it?” (na tatra chakshurgachchhati na vaggachchhti no mano na vidmo na vijanimo yathaitad anushishyat), says the Kena Upanishad (1-3).
As regards atman or individual self, Buddha tells us clearly what the self is not, though he gives no clear account of what it is. “Our form, feeling, perception, disposition and intelligence are all transitory, and therefore evil, not permanent or good. That which is transitory, evil, and liable to change is not the eternal soul. So, it must be said of all physical forms whatsoever, past, present or to be, subjective or objective, far or near, high or low: this is not mine, this I am not, this is not my eternal soul” (Mahavagga, 1,21).
Gautama Buddha agrees with the Upanishads that the world of origin, decease and suffering is not the true refuge of the self. But he is silent about the Atman enunciated in the Upanishads. He neither confirms nor denies its existence. That is because of the fact that we transcend the experience when we make assertions about the permanent soul behind the phenomena, and Buddha in his teachings did not want to step out of the living experience. About the eternal reality beyond the world of change also, Buddha maintains a meaningful silence. He establishes that there is nothing permanent in the world, and if only the permanent deserved to be called the self or Atman, then nothing on earth is self. Everything is anatta (anatma) or not-self. The world is one continuous vibration, bound by an iron law of causality. Reality is dynamic, changing every moment. It is a stream of becoming. Absolute reality is not property of anything on earth. It is impossible that what is born should not die.
Buddha confined his attention to the relative world of becoming and, unlike thinkers of Upanishads did not posit a universal, life-sustaining unchanging reality. His silence indicates that in his view the eternal substance is not available for explanation of phenomena. Experience is all that is available to us, and the Absolute lies beyond experience. Yet, however much Buddha refused to answer questions about the ultimate reality beyond the phenomenal world he did not seem to have any doubt about it. “There is an unborn, an unoriginated, an unmade, am uncompounded: were it not, O mendicants, there would be no escape from the world of the born, the originated, the made and the compounded” (Udana, viii, 3).
Buddha says of nirvana, “The Tathagata, O Vaccha, is free from all theories; but this, Vaccha, does the Tathagata know, – the nature of form (rupa), and how form arises, and how form perishes; the nature of sensation (vedana), and how sensation arises, and how sensation perishes; the nature of perception (samjna), and how perception arises, and how perception perishes; the nature of the predispositions (samskara), and how the predispositions arise, and how the predispositions finish; the nature of consciousness (vijnana), and how consciousness arises, and how consciousness perishes. Therefore, say I that the Tathagata has attained deliverance and is free from attachment, in as much as all imaginings, or agitations, or false notions concerning an Ego or anything pertaining to an Ego, have perished, have faded away, have been given up and relinquished”. There is not a trace of nihilism here. What perishes is ego and its associates, not the self. Compare Shankara: manobuddhyahankarachittani naham.
“The Deathless has been found by me,” declared Buddha after his enlightenment. Nirvana was described as a state “in which there is neither old age, nor fear, nor disease, nor birth, nor death, nor anxiety”. In Udana (Suttapitaka), it is called abhuta, ajata, akata, asankhata (unbecome, unborn, unmade, uncompound).
Yet, on individual self, on world and on Nirvana, Buddha’s meaningful silence, pregnant with deep significance, was interpreted as a categorical denial by some of his later followers. Nagasena in Milinda Panha, for example, seems to commit Buddha to a negative dogmatism which denies existence of soul, objects of world and a future for the liberated. Life becomes misery, world an illusion and Nirvana permanent self-annihilation in this view.
In working out with remorseless logic the consequences of Buddha’s ideas Nagasena also demonstrated their inadequacy. Acts of perception and memory are impossible without a constant unchanging self. One perception cannot perceive another. Practically, if loss of identity and consciousness in a boundless void (mahashoonya) is all that awaits a seeker of truth, why would one undergo rigours of an ethical life and arduous sadhana? At the same time, without rising above the little self and realizing the futility of worldly pleasures, one cannot even take the first step towards self-realisation. The seeming self, both vital and mental, must fall silent before the voice of God could be heard. The four qualities listed by Shankara (viveka, Vairagya, Shadsampatti and Mumukshutva) as essential pre-requisites for study of Vedanta also underline this view.
Thinkers of Upanishads dwell on the evanescence of the world and its pitiful futility if its connection with the eternal is snapped. On the other hand, there are many schools of Buddhist philosophy and Buddhist methods of sadhana which are akin to the more affirmative tradition of Hinduism.
In fact, Hinduism and Buddhism (as also Jainism) are two ways of looking at reality; they differ in emphases but are similar in substance. Ram Swarup puts it beautifully. “The views of Hinduism and Buddhism on dukkha and ananda are complementary, not contradictory. Looked at from below, from the viewpoint of duality and multiplicity, in divorce from the divine, the world is true to the Buddhist picture of suffering, misery, change and sorrow. But looked at from above, through the all-comprehensive view of the One or That, all is seeped in ananda, everything is the ecstatic play of the Divine Mother, or the loving and rapturous lila of Sri Krishna or Shiva – to use traditional Hindu images”. As the Taittiriya Upanishad says: “Out of joy all this life came forth; by joy all this is sustained and into that joy all this will merge. Ananda is Brahma”.
Where is the contradiction?