Thursday, June 19, 2008

Buddha, Vedas and the Brahmana culture

Posted 21st of March, 2008 @ Vraja Journal.


Having been a long-time follower of a tradition deriving from the Vedic heritage, one may wonder what all has fallen behind with my embracing the Buddhist way. After all, the Buddha is reputed to have rejected the Vedas, a move that earned his tradition the "nastika" label (atheist or infidel), as opposed to the six astika darshanas or orthodox philosophical systems, of which Vedanta is one.

To get a clearer picture of what the rejection of the Vedas means, we ought to take a good look at what the Vedas were at the Buddha's time, around 400 BCE. In this, the pious belief that everything was written some 5000 years ago has to subside as a theory unattested to by any substantiated evidence, giving way to defendable historical and linguistic scolarship. Since this isn't intended to be a scholarly paper, I am not extensively referencing the statements — a quick online search on any of the titles will bring you good amounts of information on studies on the dating of the texts mentioned.

While the literary tradition of the Vedas seems to have began around the 2nd century BCE, the oral heritage reaches farther into antiquity with Rig Veda being the earliest at around 1500 BCE, the rest of the hymn and ritual texts forming and growing over the millennium that was to follow. Then, the sacrificial culture embraced by the brahmanas was well established and predominant at the Buddha's time, and as much is confirmed in the vast body of Buddhist literature.

What about the Upanishads? Chandogya and Brihadaranyaka, and possibly a few other of the old Upanishads, existed by the time of the Buddha, dating to the Vedic Brahmana period (9th-8th century BCE). And bear in mind that the Upanishads were the "secret doctrine" back in the days. Readers familiar with these two works know much of the philosophy to be rather deeply involved with the symbolism of the sacrificial procedures, and as such not easily accessible or understandable to the general populace — the bulk of whom were, according to many, restricted from the study of the sruti in any case. Texts such as Gopala-tapani, with distinct Vaisnava traits, came in at a much later date (13th to 14th century CE).

A look at Vedanta-sutra, the first good shot at systematizing and reconciling the often ambiguous or conflicting statements scattered across the Upanishads, reveals it as obviously post-dating the Buddha — in fact, Samudaya-adhikaranam and Nabhava-adhikaranam specifically discuss refutation of some Buddhist doctrines. Mahabharata is assumed to have reached its final form in the 4th century CE, and the famous Bhagavad Gita it contains is held to be post-Buddhistic.

As for the Puranas, they began to grow in the Gupta period (320-500 CE) with texts such as Bhagavata-purana coming in a later (generally dated to 9th-10th century CE), and Brahma-vaivarta even a few centuries further down the line. This raises the interesting issue of whether Shankara really didn't comment on the Bhagavata just because this misleader-avatar of Shiva secretly respected it, or whether he didn't comment on this advaita-classic just because it didn't yet exist. The post-humous — by one and a half millennium — prediction of Buddha as an avatar of Vishnu is also a theme deserving more attention in a different context.

Then, it is easily understood that the bulk of what we know as Hinduism today wasn't explicitly included in the Buddha's rejection of the Vedas. Had he lived a millennium later and been a bit more diplomatic in his rhetoric, we might well find the "Buddha-sampradaya" included under the broad umbrella of today's Hinduism. What else are statements like "the less intelligent who are attached to the flowery words of the Vedas" (BG 2.42), "cross beyond the three mundane gunas of the Vedas" (BG 2.45) and "those blinded by desires worship the gods" (BG 7.20) but downplaying the defunct and spiritually hollow sacrificial culture?

In the Pali canon, the Buddha's teachings written down from memorized heritage in the 1st century BCE, we find some remarks shedding light on the Brahmana tradition and the sacrificial culture of the times. Among the explicit objects of critique found in the suttas are the brutal sacrifical culture, the corrupt moral nature of the brahmanas, and the birth-based caste divisions with their unenlightened and often racist values.

The Brahmana-dhammika-sutta of Sutta-nipata, for example, discusses the contrast between the ancient, pious brahmanas and the subsequent corruption, owing largely to greed, that led to elaborate and ever-growing sacrifices. The text (28) notes that in the ancient days diseases were but three — desire, hunger and death — but with the slaughter of cattle in sacrifices the diseases multiplied to ninety-eight, and so cried the gods and the forefathers, seeing the injustice inflicted on innocent animals.

Following the subsiding of the sacrificial culture, and with the introduction of many noble values (no doubt partially owing to the growing influence of Buddhism and Jainism), Hinduism has grown to be much more than the Vedas the Buddha once rejected. I'll refrain here from commenting on how far it (or any one of its branches) is reconcilable with Buddhism (or any one of its branches), but there certainly is a great deal of shared ground on which peaceful and mutually fruitful co-existence can prosper.

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