BUDDHISM –THE INDIAN PROTESTANTISM

BUDDHISM –THE INDIAN PROTESTANTISM
                                                Smt. Sathyabai Sivadas.

Religions of the world can be divided into two types, the River Type and the Tree Type. A number of canals start from different places, swell up in their course and join together to form a mighty river. Similarly, different belief systems, cults, traditions etc. start from the invisible past and come together to be encompassed into a great religion. In later days, philosophical explanations are added, mythological and historical legends are composed in the attempts to unify and substantiate the existence of these varieties. Hinduism is the perfect example of this.

As a tree starts with the germination of one seed, the tree type religion starts with the thoughts of one man. Like a tree it grows, taking roots among the people. After some time the solid trunk of the tree divides and sub-divides into a number of branches and spreads out wide. In the religion founded by one man also this happens because people are different and they think in different ways. Christianity, Islam, and Buddhism are perfect examples of this.

Buddha, the Man

So, Buddhism started with a man-Siddhardha Gouthama, the son of a king, who emerged as Buddha later on. He never introduced himself as the son of a king but only as Buddha, the awakened one. While wandering among the people, impressed by his glowing appearance, a question was put to him,

“Are you a god?” “No.”
“Are you an angel?” “No.”
“Then are you a saint?” “No.”
“Then what are you?” “I am the awakened one.”

From Siddhardha to Buddha
This great transformation took place more than 2500 years ago. It is only natural that historical facts are touched up with the cosmetics of legends to make them look more attractive. Everyone knows that when Siddhardha was born, his horoscope was cast, and the astrologer predicted that either he would become the Emperor of the world, or the Redeemer of mankind. Naturally he was kept entrapped in the luxuries of the palace and carefully guarded against any exposure to unhappiness and suffering. The story of the four passing sights is also well-known: the sight of an old man, a body racked with disease, a dead body, and a monk in ochre robes with a shaven head. These sights taught him the lesson that life is subject to old age, disease and death. It made him think: where is the realm of life in which all these are overcome? The vision of the monk pointed to withdrawal and search. So he broke free from the snare of the palace and left.

Six years followed during which his full energies were concentrated towards this search which was not at all easy. The process appears to have moved through three phases, with no record as to how long it lasted, and how sharply the three were divided.

His first act was to seek out two of the foremost Hindu masters of the day to pick their minds for the wisdom in their vast tradition. He learnt a great deal about Raja Yoga and Hindu philosophy so much that Hinduism today claims him as its own, holding that his criticisms of Hinduism of that day were only reforms. To include Buddha as an incarnation of Vishnu was a clever conciliatory move for the revival of Hinduism.

His next step was to join a band of ascetics and give their way a full try. He practised all types of austerities. He held his breath until he felt that he was being smothered. He fasted so severely that he fainted. Someone gave him a little rice gruel and saved his life. This experience taught him the futility of asceticism. It had not brought enlightenment. In fact this made him think of The Middle Path between asceticism and over-indulgence in life.

In the third and final phase, Gouthama devoted his quest to a combination of rigorous thought and mystic concentration along the lines of Raja Yoga. He sat down beneath a fig tree with a vow not to move until he was enlightened. 

Records offer a course of temptations in the form of Desire, Death, Mara and the last one, Reason. After conquering all these forces of evil, finally on a full-mooned May night, his mind pierced the last bubble of mystery and wisdom blossomed in him. The great awakening had arrived. Gouthama’s being was transformed and he emerged as Buddha. The event was of cosmic import. The fig tree rained red blossoms. All created things filled the morning air with their rejoicings and the earth shook with wonder. For a total of forty nine days he was deep in rapture, after which his glorious glance opened onto the world.

For nearly half a century Buddha trudged the dusty paths of India, preaching the ego-shattering, life-redeeming elixir of his message (Details are there in other papers). At last at the age of eighty, around the year 480 B. C., he died eating accidently poisoned food.

Buddha the Man to Buddhism the Religion
This has to be seen against the background of Hinduism out of which it grew. Unlike Hinduism, which emerged by slow, largely imperceptible, spiritual accretion out of an invisible past, the religion of Buddha appeared overnight. Buddhism drew its basic vitality from Hinduism, but against its prevailing aberrations and corruptions, Buddhism recoiled like a whiplash. It hit back and hit back hard. Hinduism writhed under the impact of Buddha and his sermons. It was a religion against Hindu perversions--an Indian Protestantism.

To understand the teachings of Buddha, we shall need a minimal picture of the existing Hinduism that partly provoked it. There are some general areas common to all religions. These are authority, ritual, speculation, tradition, salvation and mystery. Each of these has an important function to perform in religion. Buddha’s reactions against Hinduism were mostly in these general areas. Let us take this one by one. 

Authority in Religion: Leave alone the supreme authority of God, a human agent is required to solve man’s problems in religious life. Some men rise above others by their study of religion, in their capacity to understand and deal effectively with the human spirit. By virtue of their competence their advice will win respect and their words will become authority. In the Hinduism of those days, this authority was reserved for the Brahmins alone. Strict guild regulations have been devised to ensure that the religious truths discovered in their culture remain their secret possession in order to maintain authority

Buddha preached a religion devoid of this authority. His attack on authority was double –edged. On the one hand, he wanted to break the monopolistic grip of the Brahmins on religious discoveries. A good part of his reforms was to make it generally known that what had been the property of a few ,has become the common property –contrasting his own openness with the Brahmins’ secrecy. “The Thadhagatha had no such thing as a closed fist of a teacher.” In his death-bed also he said, “I have not kept anything back.”

The second part of his attack was directed towards individuals. They were depending on Brahmins for guidance and explanations in religious matters. To them he said, “Learn and discover through your own experience”

Rituals in Religion: A second natural element in religion is ritual. Perhaps it was the cradle of religion, and the clothing of ethics and theology. Religion originated in celebrations and concern. When people felt like celebrating or deeply concerned about something, they get together singing and chanting, gesticulating and dancing. These natural reactions, in course of time were codified into religious rituals. In Hinduism, ritual, instead of being a protective covering in which the seed of ethics might germinate, has become a restricting shell. Endless libations, sacrifices, chants, and musicals were available if one had the cash to pay the priest, but the spirit of religion had largely departed. 

Buddha preached a religion devoid of rituals. Repeatedly he ridiculed the ancient meticulous observances of Brahminic rituals. He believed and taught that belief in the efficacy of rites and ceremonies is one of the ten fetters that bind man’s spirit. He strongly resisted Hinduism’s idols which were the centre of ritualistic worship. This fact has extracted comments that Buddhism is not a religion, but only rational moralism.

Speculation : Speculation is the third characteristic of religions. Interminable disputes as to whether or not the world was created in one day or over a period of time, what the upper and nether worlds are like, and what precisely transmigrated after death---Buddha was silent about these. When a disciple asked him whether the world is eternal or not, whether the soul and body are the same or different, he answered in a parable: A man was shot with a poisoned arrow. His friends wanted to get a surgeon to pull out the arrow immediately and start treatment. If the man wanted to know who sent the arrow, from where it was shot, what type poison was used etc. etc. before the arrow was released, what would happen? The man would die. Similarly, whether body is real or the spirit is real, whether the world is eternal or not, there is grief, suffering and despair. Only the path that leads to the destruction of suffering is real and relevant. So the Buddha told his followers, “let these unexplained things remain unexplained. Follow the useful path.”

Tradition : Tradition is the means of conserving and transmitting the cultural wealth of the past to the future through the present.Language is an important medium for this. In the Hinduism of the day, tradition had become a drag on progress because of its insistence that Sanskrit should remain the language of religion, though it was no longer intelligible to the people. Buddha preached his religion in Pali which was the language of the common man. This can be compared to Martin Luther’s decision to translate the Bible from Latin to English and German.

He rejected not only the language, but also the messages and teachings which were blocking the passage to the destruction of suffering. Though he had liberated himself from the past, many of his contemporaries were still under the weight of the past. He urged them to break free, “Do not go by what is handed down, nor on the authority of your traditional teachings. If you find them conducive to only loss and suffering, reject them” ( Some Sayings Of The Buddha –Oxford University Press)

Fatalism inherent in the Theory of Rebirth: In the Indian society of Buddha’s day, many had come to accept the cycle of birth and re-birth as never-ending. Added to this was the Brahmin- sponsored notion that release from this cycle, or liberation was possible only from the Brahmin caste, and one has to pass through thousands of births to be born as a Brahmin. As a result, a sort of dejection and sense of defeat had settled over the people. The general feeling was that there was no escape from this fate. Nothing struck Buddha as more pernicious than this fatalism.

Buddha preached a religion of intense self-effort. He severely condemned the notion that only Brahmins could attain enlightenment. He believed and asserted that whatever be your caste, you can achieve enlightenment in this lifetime, “Let a man of intelligence come to me, honest, candid, straight forward. I will instruct him and if he practises as he is taught, then he will come to know for himself and to realize that supreme religion and goal.”

The Supernatural: Buddha preached a religion devoid of supernatural. He condemned all forms of divinations, soothsaying and forecasting as low art and forbade his monks from playing around with any form of superhuman power. Hinduism in those days had degenerated into mystery and mystification. Magic and divinations had taken over. Religion had become a technique for cajoling innumerable gods to do what you want them to do. Buddha was totally against this. “No god or gods could be counted on, not even the Buddha himself.”He told his followers, “When I am gone, don’t bother to pray to me.... work out your salvation by yourself with diligence.”

The most startling thing that Buddha said about man was that he has no soul. This doctrine has caused Buddhism the name as a religion. His denial of a soul as a spiritual substance appears to be the chief point that distinguished his point of transmigration from the Hindu concept. While Hinduism held incarnation as a soul assuming a different body, Buddhism holds it as transmigration-the flame of a candle passing from one to another.

After his death, all the accouterments of religion which he tried to exclude, came tumbling into his religion with a vengeance, so that it is now much different from the original.Has Buddhism undergone transmigration? 

Buddha preached a religion which was empirical, scientific, pragmatic therapeutic, psychological, democratic and directed to individuals. Whether Buddha’s religion –without authority, without ritual, without theology, without tradition, and without supernatural- is also a religion without God? Is a question reserved to be discussed. Thankyou.

                                                                                                                Smt. Sathyabai Sivadas, Lecturer(retd) A. P. Educational Service 
BIBLIOGRAPHY Chief Editor, SIVAGIRI(English)Quarterly.
1 An Intruduction to Hinduism-------------Prof. Gavin Flood.(Cambridge U.P)
2.The Religions of Man----------------------Prof. Huston Smith(Harper&Row)
3. Some Sayings of the Buddha -----------Oxford University Press
A paper presented at the National Seminar on BUDDHISM- WORLD HARMONY AND PEACE at Kakatiya University sponsored by U.G.C. on 12th&13th Sep. 2009.