Buddhism versus Hinduism: Encounters of the imagined kind(Part II)

The attempt by Western scholarship to disassociate Buddhism from the Indic fold as a separate religion is a true reflection of the 'othering' that they practice in their own religions.

Buddhism versus Hinduism: Encounters of the imagined kind(Part II)

Continued from Part 1

Buddha and Buddhism as Saviours – The creation of a clash by the best European minds

Orientalists had started treating Buddhism as a separate religion because they discovered it outside India, without any conspicuous link with its original home, India. When its origins became clearer, writers made Buddha a Martin Luther and Buddhism a Protestant-like to attack and successfully convert a branch of a massive Indian traditional tree into a religion called Buddhism. It now supposedly rebelled against another branch called Hinduism.

The clearer texts of Buddhist traditions rapidly crystallised into a proper religion in seventy years in Western libraries and institutes. By the mid-19th century, a West, that alone knew what Buddhism was, started judging Buddhism that existed ‘out there’. Buddhism became a textual object; defined, interpreted, and classified through its textuality.

Like Hinduism, Buddhism also had a corrupted ‘popular’ Buddhism and a pure, simple, and original ‘philosophical’ Buddhism. Everyone was not enamoured with Buddhism because of its ‘corruptions’ and ‘repressions’. Even a Max Mueller, sympathetic to Buddhism, felt compelled to compare it with Christianity only to find the former inferior. By the turn of the 20th century, Buddhism fully matured in the libraries of Paris and London.

The so-called clash of Buddha with Hinduism is just the fevered imagination of later intellectuals. There were deep flaws in their conceptualisation of Buddhist traditions. SN Balagangadhara (The Heathen in His Blindness) shows that the supposed clash between Hinduism and Buddhism was a European colonial project simply failing to understand the nature of Indian traditions and unjustly transposing European ideas to the Indian soil. Writer after writer successfully made the ‘religion’ of Buddhism rebelling against the tyrannies of ‘Hinduism’ like a Martin Luther attacking the Church. Also, European authors and their Indian followers imaginatively superimposed the medieval Europe religious wars on the supposed Hindu-Buddhist encounters. Shankara driving out Buddhism with his debates is ignorance on the part of believers of both.

Was there an exclusive Buddhist sect?

There never was a separate non-Hindu Buddhist society. As Koenraad Elst says, ‘this box-type division of society in different sects is another Christian prejudice infused into modern Hindu society by Nehruvian secularism’. They were Hindus and some of them had a veneration for the Buddha. In a traditional Indic household, one can have deities and saints of all kinds adorning the pooja room and the walls. An exclusive belief in Buddha to the complete rejection of any other god or saint is quite simply an unbelievable proposition in traditional cultures like India.

Buddhist buildings, temples, rituals, and mantras follow established Hindu Vedic patterns and Vastu Shastra. Buddhist monks to China and Japan took the Vedic gods like the twelve Adityas and Saraswati (River goddess Benzaiten) with them. Buddha’s seven principles for ensuring that a society does not perish included respecting the festivals, pilgrimages, rituals, and holy men. These festivals were mainly ‘Vedic’, of course, like the pilgrimage to the Ganga. Buddha, a conservative, thus wanted the existing customs to continue both in social and in religious matters. He was hardly a revolutionary.

Did Buddha ever reject the Varna System?

Buddha in his many teachings never had told them to give up varna. He was more interested in spiritual transformations rather than social matters of creating egalitarian societies. Buddha accepted the varna Vyavastha; he, in fact, put the Kshatriyas at the top of the hierarchy. Many of his recruits were Brahmins who developed many intellectual arguments of Buddhism in debates. The common narrative is that universities are a gift of Buddhism, but Buddha’s friends, Bandhula and Prasenadi, studied at the University of Takshashila. The universities existed at the time of the Buddha; later Buddhists developed these institutions.

Buddhist texts, The Dhammapada and the Sonadanda Sutta reveal that the Buddha, contrary to popular narratives, never rejected the varnas. Buddha clearly describes a true Brahmana and places the Kshatriyas at the top of the hierarchy while explaining the evolution of castes. Rejection does not try to define the perfection of the rejected. Calvin rejected Catholicism but defended Christianity in trying to define a true Christian. Marx rejected capitalism but not by trying to define who a true capitalist is. Hence, Buddha’s explanation of the social systems placing Kshatriyas at the top, criticising exploitative Brahmins, and a keenness to define a true Brahmin is not rejection in any sense.

The Kshatriya kings and magnates considered Buddha as their own and patronized his monastic order. After Buddha died, the elites made a successful bid for his ashes based on the Kshatriya varna. Buddha predicted the coming of a Maitreya, a future awakened leader and that he would be born in a Brahmin family. Prasenadi rejected his wife because she was the daughter of a king by a maid-servant. Buddha convinced him to take her back by reminding the king of the old view that varna passed on exclusively in the paternal line.

The Shramanas or the Bhaktas, a tradition that later gave rise to the Ajivikas, Jains, and Buddhists, became a revolutionary movement in scholarly writings. For them, renunciation was the primary condition for enlightenment in contrast to the Brahmana tradition of rituals and philosophical schools. The Shramanas were outside the caste system, but not ‘outcastes.’ Buddha as a part of the Shramana tradition had clear terms of dialogue with the Brahmana tradition. He taught the eight-fold path and told that everyone in their position in the Varna vyavastha could follow them in their quest for enlightenment. All four classes are equally pure and what matters is their conduct. Even the most hostile critics of Hinduism have agreed on this.

Ambedkar’s rejection of Hinduism

The conversion of a Buddhist tradition or sect into a religion became full-fledged with the conversion of Dr Ambedkar along with thousands of his followers in 1956. This also strengthened the anti-Hindu program of Buddha in a retrospective manner. Conversion, implying a rejection of all previous beliefs, is a typical religious concept prevalent in Christianity and Islam. Traditional cultures do not put such demands. One can embrace another tradition keeping the old view perfectly intact.

Dr Ambedkar was a great intellectual and his contribution to the Constitution is well-known. He rightly rejected the Aryan theory which scholars today now gloss over. He also clearly enunciated the problems arising from the extra-territorial loyalties of the Indian Muslims, seeing themselves as members of universal Islamic brotherhood in his book ‘Pakistan and Partition of India’. Of course, some of the mischievous elements in society do not want to mention this when they try to forge a unity of Dalits, Muslims, and tribals into a single platform against the Hindus.

Both Nehru and Ambedkar, who did not much like each other, went wrong in their understanding of a tradition as a religion. Ambedkar radicalized the notion of a separate Buddhist religion further. The twenty-two pledges of Ambedkar and the Neo-Buddhist are almost a polemic against all the Hindu Gods, Brahmins, and Hindu rituals. It rejects the claim of the Buddha as a reincarnation of Vishnu by calling it propaganda. Ironically, this was a self-claim of Buddha himself and not of cunning Brahmins. The pledge asks for following the Buddha’s message of rejecting Hindusim completely as it is detrimental to societal progress. The pledge, unfortunately, makes a caricature of Buddha and Buddhism in Indian history by promoting enmity despite claiming, again ironically, that all human beings are equal.

Nehru suffered from a major cultural disconnect with India; the Indian experience and conceptualization of the sacred and the divine made little sense to him. As Saumya Dey (The Cultural Landscape of Hindutva) quotes Nirad Chaudhary who wrote in his book Thy Hand, Great Anarch that ‘Nehru had no direct access to the Indian mind; Nehru was both ignorant of Hindu traditions and sometimes even hostile to them.’

Nehru and Nehruvians were comparatively not as radical in their implementation. Nehru made Buddhism the unofficial state religion by adopting the “lion pillar” of Buddhist Emperor Ashoka as a state symbol and putting the 24-spoked Chakravarty wheel in the national flag.  The concept of Chakravarty (“wheel-turner”, universal ruler) predates Ashoka even as the 24-spoked wheel can have other interpretations, as Elst says. It could represent the Sankhya philosophy view with the central Purusha and the 24 elements of Prakriti. Nehru, with his limited understanding of traditional India, broadly believed that most of the good things in Hinduism emanated from Buddhism, Islam, Christianity, Greece, the West-anyone or anyplace except Indians and India.

Conclusion- Traditions and Religions

The clash of Hinduism and Buddhism is simply a popular internalised myth. It has roots in a poor and continuous misunderstanding of Indian traditions as religions. Dr Balagangadhara explains this with clarity in his classic book The Heathen in His Blindness. India is a land of traditions and not religions. If Islam, Christianity, and Judaism classically are religions, then there are no religions in India. As a corollary, if what we have in India are religions then Islam, Christianity, and Judaism are not religions. Indian traditions do not meet the criteria of religion – A Book, A Church, A Messenger, One True God by any stretch of the imagination.

Traditional cultures like the obliterated Greco-Roman world of the past and the living Indian world of the present characteristically have multiple gods, including the divine feminine. Jain or Buddhist traditions and darsanas (or philosophies) like Yoga, Samkhya, Nyaya, and Vaisesika have no need of a god too in their expositions. The single purpose of multiple paths, including atheism, is Enlightenment (Moksha, Nirvana, merging with the Self or Brahman, and so on) and the discovery of Truth. There is typically deification of even animals and nature. This stands in contrast to the typically male True God of Abrahamic religions with every other god being false. What comes down from ancestors is tradition and this is religio for Indian culture just as it was in the past in the Greco-Roman world.

Rituals form the basis of traditions and these help in uniting people. Religions with their specific concept of My One True God versus Your False Many Gods divides people and breeds intolerance and hate. The history of Christianity and Islam is quite evident across many centuries. Traditions however evolve- merging, dissolving, and exchanging with other traditions of the land. The main principle is not tolerance or acceptance which is the maximum a religion can achieve but an indifference to the differences. 

This indifference to differences allows traditions to survive without the threat of violent personal attacks. Intense debates, yes; violence, almost never. This allows a person to hold multiple views and believe in multiple gods too. Cicero was officiating as a priest but the entire arsenal of Enlightenment thinkers was from his single work questioning the existence of God. The Charvakas of India could argue about the non-existence of god from temple courtyards without fear of their lives.

This is the Indian solution to the pluralism and multi-culturalism of the world now packing into smaller geographical areas. India could absorb so many alien religions without major disruptions in society. This was because the religions took the form of traditions in a genuine manner, sometimes maybe as a continuation or modification of many ancestral Hindu practices of the converted. Religions became traditions as they lost the focus on proselytization too. In a traditional world, conversion entailing complete rejection of previous beliefs is unknown and almost unethical.

Muslims and Christians playing the highest devotional music to Hindu gods without any threat to personal identity or faith is a small example. Many Hindus enter the Church or the mosque with equal faith as anyone else but without feeling a loss of his or her belief systems. This is what tradition means. Further, in traditional cultures, many practices may not have a scientific explanation like the Bindi on the forehead or the worship of the linga or the devotion to the cow. These are simply traditional practices handed down by ancestors.

Looking for scientific explanations, the why question, is typically in a religious culture where these questions become important. Hence, the West persistently asks these questions to which Indians struggle to find an answer- what is the purpose of the Bindi? Why is the cow revered so much? Is linga puja worshipping the phallus? Is Ganesha’s trunk a limp phallus? And so on. Religious cultures ask the why question and hence it gives rise to atheism and science, says Dr Balagangadhara. Traditional cultures ask ‘the how’ question and bring people together.

This is how Buddhism was just another tradition in the Hindu land where new traditions, sects, and gurus evolve all the time showing many paths to the final enlightenment. The many paths, many gods, and many philosophies are a rich reflection of the traditional land of India. A profound misunderstanding of traditions as religions is the cause of much friction and trouble. The Buddha sits happily with many deities and saints in many Hindu households.

Though a few intellectuals had some clue regarding this, most of the influential and dominant thinkers, including the well-wishers, went wrong on this. Religionizing traditions takes one from tolerance, acceptance or indifference to intolerance, discrimination, or hate. This is precisely the route that Buddhism in scholarly writings and intellectual understandings took. Dr Ambedkar made it even more radical. Converting Hindu traditions into a Hindu religion in the classic Abrahamic mould similarly makes it more intolerant and self-asserting. The rise of the Hindutva phenomenon is a manifestation of this process.

The solution for India is not secularism which was applicable to medieval Europe only with multiple Christian denominations fighting each other. Secularism paradoxically will be the cause of increasing fundamentalism as Dr Jakob De Roover warns in his book Europe, India, and The Limits of Secularism. The solution is to traditionalise religions rather than religionising the traditions. We require more research into this, says Dr Balagangadhara. As we are carving out separate identities of various traditions and sects, some in the form of religions, like ‘Buddhism’, ‘Sikhism’, ‘Jainism’, ‘Ramakrishnaites’, ‘Arya Samajis’, ‘Lingayats’, and so on as being different from ‘Hinduism’, India is just losing its capacity to handle and absorb the pluralism and multi-culturalism which had always been our forte and the key to survival.

Buddha was not fighting anybody the way scholars want him to. He was showing another path and was simply a beneficiary of an established Hindu pluralistic tradition.

References and Further Reading

  1. https://pragyata.com/how-buddha-was-turned-anti-hindu/ by Koenraad Elst
  2. Were Shramana and Bhakti Movements Against the Caste System? Martin Fárek in Western Foundations of the Caste System: Sufiya Pathan and Prakash Shah (Eds.) Martin Farek, Dunkin Jalki (Author)
  3. The Heathen in His Blindness: Asia, the West and the Dynamic of Religion by S. N. Balagangadhara
  4. Do All Roads Lead to Jerusalem? The Making of Indian Religions by Divya Jhingran and S N Balagangadhara (A simplified version of the above book)
  5. Europe, India, and the Limits of Secularism (Religion and Democracy) by Jakob De Roover
  6. Fundamentals of Indian Philosophy by Ramakrishna Puligandla
  7. Presuppositions of India’s Philosophies by Karl H. Potter
  8. https://www.researchgate.net/publication/240585568: How to Speak for the Indian Traditions: An Agenda for the Future by S. N. Balagangadhara
  9. The Cultural Landscape of Hindutva And Other Essays by Saumya Dey
  10. Hindu View of Christianity and Islam by Ram Swarup

About Author: Pingali Gopal

Dr Pingali Gopal is a Neonatal and Paediatric Surgeon practising in Warangal for the last twenty years. He graduated from medical school and later post-graduated in surgery from Ahmedabad. He further specialised in Paediatric Surgery from Mumbai. After his studies, he spent a couple of years at Birmingham Children's Hospital, UK and returned to India after obtaining his FRCS. He started his practice in Warangal where he hopes to stay for the rest of his life. He loves books and his subjects of passion are Indian culture, Physics, Vedanta, Evolution, and Paediatric Surgery- in descending order. After years of ignorance in a flawed education system, he has rediscovered his roots, paths, and goals and is extremely proud of Sanatana Dharma, which he believes belongs to all Indians irrespective of religion, region, and language. Dr. Gopal is a huge admirer of all the present and past stalwarts of India and abroad correcting past discourses and putting India back on the pedestal which it so truly deserves.

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