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Current Theories of the Origins of Buddhism

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<poem> Some scholars, 5 under the influence of the materialist interpretation of history popularised by Karl Marx, have sought to correlate the rise of ascetic and intellectual thought-currents of the age of Śākyamuni (624–544 BCE, but the age of Śākyamuni may be extended to 700–500 BCE as the age of philosophers) to the rise of capitalism and mercantile middle class economy. This theory, however, is entirely speculative. There is no clear evidence to prove the existence of capitalism, in the Marxist sense, nor of a money-economy controlled entirely by an organised middle class of society in the seventh and sixth centuries BCE. Moreover, it is impossible to demonstrate that the spiritual ideas of a Bodhisattva are determined by that social consciousness which is consequent on material progress; indeed a materialist interpretation of the origins of Buddhism or of the events of the life of Siddhārtha Gautama is evidence only of the philosophical crudity of the authors of this theory.

The poet Rabindranāth Tāgore 6 expounded the view that Buddhism and Jainism represented the ideals of the kṣatriyas which conflicted with those of the brāhmaṇas, that the history of ancient India is a record of “the pull of the two opposite principles, that of self-preservation represented by the brāhmaṇa, and that of self-expansion represented by the kṣatriya.” This theory, in spite of its striking character, is largely imaginary and cannot be sustained. It is true and is very well known that kṣatriyas were the founders not only of Buddhism, Jainism and Ājīvikism but also of the ascetic and idealistic thought of the early Upaniṣads. But it will be absurd and fantastic to think that supernal teachers like Kapilamuni, Pārśvanātha, Kāśyapa Buddha, Śākyamuni Buddha, Vardhamāna Mahāvīra or even the royal teachers like Aśvapati Kaikeya, Janaka Videha and Pravāhaṇa Jaivali of the Upaniṣads were inspired by a desire to struggle for the supremacy of their supposed ideal of “self-expansion” against that of the priestly “self-preservation. ” The Buddha emphasised the ideal of self-abnegation and taught the tenet of “not-self” while some of the greatest teachers and followers of Buddhism came from the caste of the brāhmaṇas. The fact is that, as we shall see below, the history of ancient India is a record of the two opposite ideologies, that of world-affirmation represented by the priestly brāhmaṇas of the Vedic tradition and that of world-denial and world-transcendence represented by the ascetic śramaṇas of non-Vedic tradition.

And the conflict antedates the formation of the castes of brāhmaṇas and kṣatriyas. Professor G. C. Pande has summed up his valuable researches concerning the origins of Buddhism in the following words: “It has been held by many older writers that Buddhism and Jainism arose out of the antiritualistic tendency within the religion of the brāhmaṇas. We have however tried to show that the anti-ritualistic tendency within the Vedic fold is itself due to the impact of an asceticism 5 Atindranāth Bose, Social and Rural Economy of Northern India,Vol. II. Calcutta, 1945, pp.481f.; D.D. Kosambi, Ancient Kosala and Magadha, JBBRAS, 1951, pp.186f.

6 Rabindranāth Tāgore, A Vision of India’s History, Viśvabhārati Publication, 1951. which antedates the Vedas. Jainism represents a continuation of the pre-Vedic stream from which Buddhism also springs, though deeply influenced by Vedic thought. The fashionable view of regarding Buddhism as a Protestant Vedicism and its birth as a Reformation appears to be based on a misreading of later Vedic history caused by the fascination of a historical analogy and the ignorance or neglect of Pre-Vedic-civilization.”7

This most important and epoch-making statement in the history of Buddhist studies in India, in spite of the fact that Prof. Pande thinks that Buddhism was “deeply influenced by Vedic thought” in its origins, (a view which is open to doubt and debate), does not seem to have made even the slightest impact on the more recent writings of even the most noted Indologists of India belonging to the traditional approach. The Purāṇic myth still holds ground and flourishes. We shall refer to the views of only two most eminent and living Indian scholars who have been awarded India’s highest order of decoration and honour, “Bhārata-ratna,” and who might be considered to represent the prevailing Indian standpoint towards the origins of Buddhism and its relation with Brāhmaṇism and Hinduism.

Dr. S. Rādhakrishnan’s most mature opinion on this point is summarised in the following statements:

“The Buddha did not feel that he was announcing a new religion. He was born, grew up and died a Hindu. He was re-stating with a new emphasis the ancient ideals of the Indo-Aryan civilization.”8 In support of this statement he quotes a passage from the Saṃyutta Nikāya which will be reproduced below. “Buddhism did not start,” he goes on, “as a new and independent religion. It was an offshoot of the more ancient faith of the Hindus, perhaps a schism or a heresy. While the Buddha agreed with the faith he inherited on the fundamentals of metaphysics and ethics, he protested against certain practises which were in vogue at that time.

He refused to acquiesce in the Vedic ceremonialism.” Repeating this idea for a third time in the same lecture, Dr. S. Rādhakrishnan goes on to say that “the Buddha utilised the Hindu inheritance to correct some of its expressions.”Error: Reference source not found This scholar is known for his enlightened understanding of different religious traditions and his view deserves careful attention. But as this same view has been reaffirmed with greater emphasis and closer study of Hindu sacred lore by a more recent and very eminent writer, namely Mahāmahopādhyāya Dr. Pandurang Vāman Kane, it will be convenient to examine this view after setting out the observations and arguments of Dr Kane.

This scholar has written a chapter on the Causes of the Disappearance of Buddhism from India in the concluding part of a work which deals with the history of “ancient and mediaeval religious and civil law in India” based entirely on the Brāhmaṇical literature.9 A noted critic seems to have rightly doubted the desirability of including this unnecessary chapter which contains “some striking passages on Buddhism”10 and the “protest” and “counterblast” of this National Professor of Indology of India against Buddhism and its modern “encomiasts.”11

We are not concerned here with the causes of the disappearance of Buddhism from India but only with the origins of Buddhism and its relation with Brāhmaṇism. Curiously enough the origins of Buddhism have been discussed under the causes of its disappearance. “The Buddha was,” observes Dr. P V. Kane, “only a great reformer of the Hindu religion as practised in his 7 G. C. Pande, Studies in the Origins of Buddhism, University of Allahabad, 1957, p. 317. 8 See the two books cited in note no. 1, pp. 341, 344–45 of the first and pp. ix. xiii, xv (of Foreword) of the second. 9 P. V. (Pandurang Vāman) Kane, History of Dharmaśāstra, Vol. V. Part II, Bhandarkar Oriental Research Institute, Poona, 1962, Chapter XXV, pp. 1003–1030.

10 Cf. J. Duncan M. Derrett, review of Kane’s work in the BSOAS, Vol. XXVIII, Part 2, University of London, 1964, p. 461. 11 Cf. L. M. Joshi, op. cit., pp. 146 and 411.

time. He did not feel or claim that he was forming a new religion nor did he renounce the Hindu religion and all its practises and beliefs. The Buddha referred to the Vedas and Hindu sages with honour in some of his sermons. He recognised the importance of Yogic practises and meditation. His teaching took over several beliefs current among the Hindus in his day such as the doctrine of Karma and Rebirth and cosmological theories. A substantial portion of the teaching of the Buddha formed part of the tenets of the Upaniṣadic period.12 By the “Hindu religion” the author obviously means the religion of the Vedas, Brāhmaṇas and Upaniṣads and the argument is based on the theory that the Upaniṣads are older than the Buddha. Therefore, he goes on to say that “It is generally held by all Sanskrit scholars that at least the oldest Upaniṣads like the Bṛhadāraṇyaka and the Chāndogya are earlier than the Buddha, that they do not refer to the Buddha or to his teaching or to the piṭakas.

On the other hand, though in dozens of Suttas meetings of brāhmaṇas and the Buddha or his disciples and missionaries are reported, they almost always seem to be marked by courtesy on both sides. No meetings are recorded in the early Pāli Texts or Brāhmaṇical Texts about Śākyans condemning the tenets of ancient brāhmaṇism or about brāhmaṇas censuring the Buddha’s heterodoxy. Besides, in all these meetings and talks, the central Upaniṣad conception of the immanence of Brahma is never attacked by the Buddha or by the early propagators of Buddhism.” Besides these arguments based on the supposed pre-Buddhist date of the older Upaniṣads, Dr. Kane seeks to support his thesis by employing a saying of the Buddha.

He further observes: “What the Buddha says may be briefly rendered as follows: “Even so have I, O Bhikkhus, seen an ancient path, an ancient road followed by rightly enlightened persons of former times. And what, O Bhikkhus, is that ancient path, that ancient road, followed by the rightly enlightened ones of former times? Just this very Noble Eightfold Path, viz., right views … … This, O Bhikkhus, is that ancient path, that ancient road, followed by the rightly enlightened ones of former times. Along that (path) I have gone and while going along that path I have fully come to know old age and death. Having come to know it fully, I have told it to the monks, the nuns, the lay followers, men and women; this brahmacariya is prosperous, flourishing, widespread, widely known, has become popular and made manifest well by gods and men.’”

This passage is cited by Dr. S. Rādhakrishnan also in support of his view that the Buddha was re-stating the Indo-Aryan ideals. Commenting on this saying of the Buddha, Dr. Kane says, “It will be noticed that the Noble Eightfold Path which the Buddha put forward as the one that would put an end to misery and suffering is here expressly stated to be an ancient path trod by ancient enlightened men. The Buddha does not claim that he was unique but claimed that he was only one of a series of enlightened men and stressed that the moral qualities which he urged men to cultivate belonged to antiquity.

Having apparently established the brāhmaṇical theory of Vedic origin of Buddhism, Dr. P. V. Kane gives expression to his real intention of incorporating a chapter in his work, The Crowning Glory of a Life, at the age of eighty-two years, and makes these remarks, which seem to come from the very bottom of the heart of a staunch Hindu and must be taken to reflect the opinion and attitude of the orthodox majority in contemporary India:

“In these days it has become a fashion to praise the Buddha and his doctrine to the skies and to disparage Hinduism by making unfair comparisons between the original doctrines of the Buddha with the present practises and shortcomings of Hindu society. The present author has to enter a strong protest against this tendency. If a fair comparison is to be made it should be made between the later phases of Buddhism and the present practises of professed Buddhists on the one hand and modern phases and practises of Hinduism on the other. nobler philosophy than that of Gautama, the Buddha; the latter merely based his doctrine on the philosophy of the Upaniṣads. If Hinduism decayed in the course of time and exhibited bad tendencies, the same or worse was the case with later Buddhism which gave up the noble but human Buddha, made him a god, worshipped his images and ran wild with such hideous practises as those of Vajrayāna.

As a counterblast to what modern encomiasts often say about Buddhism, the present author will quote a strongly-worded (but not unjust) passage from Swami Vivekānanda’s lecture on The Sages of India (Complete Works, Volume III, pp. 248–268, 7th edition of 1953 published at Māyāvatī, Almora): “The earlier Buddhists in their rage against the killing of animals had denounced the sacrifices of the Vedas; and these sacrifices used to be held in every house … These sacrifices were obliterated and in their place came gorgeous temples, gorgeous ceremonies and gorgeous priests and all that you see in India in modern times.

I smile when I read books written by some modern people who ought to know better, that the Buddha was the destroyer of Brāhmaṇical idolatry. Little do they know that Buddhism created brāhmaṇism and idolatry in India … Thus, in spite of the preaching of mercy to animals, in spite of the sublime ethical religion, in spite of the hair-splitting discussion about the existence or non-existence of a permanent soul, the whole building of Buddhism tumbled down piecemeal; and the ruin was simply hideous. I have neither the time nor the inclination to describe to you the hideousness that came in the wake of Buddhism. The most hideous ceremonies, the most horrible, the most obscene books that human hands ever wrote or the human brain ever conceived, the most bestial forms that ever passed under the name of religion have all been the creation of degraded Buddhism (pp. 264f.).” 14 <poem>