Historical Backdrop

One of the biggest myths about the origins, growth, and spread of Buddhism is the fact that Buddhism was a revolt against Vedanta. Variants of this myth include characterizing this as a revolt against Brahminism and the corrupt Brahmin priestly class. To be fair, there is a grain of truth in the last bit about the corruption of the Brahmin priestly class but the originators of this myth are really hitting at Vedanta because they posit Buddhism as a philosophy that stands in opposition to Vedanta.

But how far is this true?

Buddha is called the Light of Asia for an assortment of just and profound reasons, and he well deserves all the accolades heaped on him although he is beyond them. At the same time, his teachings have been mostly misinterpreted based on the need of the hour, which in modern times have mostly been political. An infinitely tragic consequence of such interpretations of convenience is the fact that that Buddha as a person has been reduced to a little more than a tool for mass manipulation: the Dalit movement is the most glaring example of this mass manipulation using Buddha.

Nothing could be farther from the truth: Gautama Buddha stressed on integration while our neo-Buddhist champions seem to be working overtime to ensure that societal splintering is what Buddha preached. Needless, this is yet another perverse consequence of the Marxist hijack of Ambedkar’s discourse and his conversion to Buddhism.

This Marxist hijack, like their hijack of Indian history also rests on and is a continuation of the British falsification of Indian history. In the context of Buddhism, here’s the Marxist formula: Brahmins were the “oppressing” class and the rest of the society was the “oppressed” class. As we already saw, there might be some truth saying that there existed a set of powerful priests who monetarily exploited people. Such a class of people have existed at all times in all societies. But tarring all Brahmins with this broad brush violates basic common sense.

Indeed, it is highly suspect that this priestly class could be termed “Brahmins” in the real meaning of the term: if they monetarily exploited others, they automatically fell from Brahminhood, which stresses on the need for voluntary acceptance of poverty and aparigraha or non-possession or not accepting anything from anybody. At the other end, it does egregious injustice to those real Brahmins who contributed immensely to enrich India’s spiritual traditions. If this Marxist deceit is taken to its logical conclusion, people Yagnavalkya, Uddalaka, Nachiketa, Chyavana, Dadichi, et al become oppressors, and Buddha becomes some kind of a warrior and cult-founder who opposed them.

However, we arrive at this simple truth after examining Buddha’s own words, a truth that can be expressed in just one sentence: Gautama Buddha reformulated Vedanta and made it accessible to the common people of his time who couldn’t quite cope with complex philosophical treatises. In other words, Buddhism is one of the many nectars that sprung from the fount of Vedanta.

Misinterpretation, Ignorance and Truth

Today, most of those who claim that Buddhism stands in opposition to Hinduism/Vedanta fall into a few broad categories:

  • Those who have read only Buddha’s teachings but not the Vedas
  • Those who have read both but have a superficial understanding of the Vedas and/or Buddhism
  • Those who have not read the primary sources of both and rely mostly on translations
  • The rest, pursuing whatever agenda they see fit using whatever tricks that help them further that agenda.

And so, let’s discard all of this and begin by examining some of the broad similarities between Buddhism and the Vedas. The items I have chosen include some of the core and widely known Vedic concepts. Apart from mere similarities in semantics and/or terminology, there exist non-ignorable parallels between these Vedic concepts and their correspondences in Buddhism; that is, how Gautama Buddha understood and/or expounded on each of these. The effort here is not one of upmanship–i.e. to show how the Veda is superior to Buddhism or vice versa; rather, it is to show how both are inextricably linked, how Buddha drank deep from the fount of Vedanta, digested it, made it his own, and disseminated it.

It is important to first understand at a very high level, the structure and division of the Vedas. This is an essential backgrounder to understand what part of the Veda deals with philosophy. The Vedas can be commonly divided into two broad categories: the Karma Kaanda (ritualistic mantras) and the Gnana Kaanda (mantras that expound philosophical precepts).

Mantras from the Karma Kaanda are what one typically listens to during various ceremonies such as the naming, wedding, and death ceremonies, as well as when yagnas are performed. While these are mainly ritualistic, one can reasonably say that they do not contain much by way of philosophy in the sense of the Upanishads. However, they do contain philosophy mainly at a symbolic level–for example, the Rig Vedic Suktas on Fire, Water, Rain, and the conception of what’s known as the “Vedic Gods (sic).” And so we see that Buddha’s “rebellion”–which neo-Buddhists and various other phony intellectuals celebrate–was directed against the misuse of the Karma Kaanda and not the philosophy embodied in the Vedas. In the words of Swami Prabhavananda, author of Spiritual heritage of India,

However, the later followers of Buddha misinterpreted Buddha’s opposition to the Karma Kaanda as his opposition to the Vedic Dharma itself. This caused them to sever themselves away from the Mother (Vedic) Dharma.

And so as we see, the rot in Buddhism set in hundreds of years before the present day Marxist manipulators of Buddhism.

More importantly, the emphasis on the philosophy of the Upanishads cannot be stressed enough. The Upanishads almost wholly deal with abstraction at the highest level—they are attempts at articulating spiritual experiences using language. And language deals with the concrete. What’s more, the Upanishads attempt to capture the indescribable by trying to describe it. This is why the Upanishads are written in the form of poems. As any student of classical literature knows, poetry is the art and talent of trying to approach abstraction, be it in the realm of universal truths or the vagaries of human feeling. And so when Shakespeare says in an avowedly political play, in an avowedly rhetorical speech that

The evil that men do lives after them, the good is oft interred with their bones it at once becomes a universal truth.

This is an important point and a distinction to note if we need to clearly understand because (i) Buddhism is both an inspiration and an offshoot of Vedanta (ii) and because of (i), there’s a seamless harmony between Vedanta and Buddhism.

While there are numerous instances one can provide to illustrate the truth of both (i) and (ii) above, in the interest of brevity and limitations of space, we can use just one. And it is one of the most crucial instances because it lays to rest the myth that Buddha rebelled against the Vedas.

Buddha and Yagna

This instance has to do with just one word: Yajna. This is incorrectly translated as “sacrifice” in the sense of killing a living being and offering it as a sacrifice, signifying wanton cruelty. And it is this incorrect translation that came eminently handy for the Marxist manipulators to posit the Vedic culture and civilization as evil and Buddha’s teachings as some kind of a revolt against it.

The word Yajna is derived from the root, Yaj as in Yaj Pujayaam or Yaj SangatikaranamYaj itself means to make an oblation to, to sacrifice, oblation, adore, honour, worship, respect, revere, and so on. From a purely ritualistic standpoint, it encompasses men, materials, form, structure, semantics, and mechanics. Yajna in a social and philosophical context also implies several nobler aspects of sharing, interaction and harmony, which spans the entire universe—as in Yajnena yajnamayajanta devaah, from the Purusha Sukta. As it is commonly understood, Yagna is not performed in isolation barring the Brahma Yagna, which Brahmacharins (celibate Vedic students) perform. Mostly, a Yajna involves a congregation of varying numbers of people with the ultimate goal of preserving Rta or the Cosmic Order. It is thus clear that behind all the ritual, Yajna represents a deeper, philosophical symbolism.

Performing a Yajna is an act of free will. Individuals performing a Yajna do so on their own accord for the implicit purpose of preserving the spiritual harmony of the universe. No book, authority, or person prescribes–much less commands–performing a Yajna. Thus what began as a desirable and noble ritual gradually lost its original symbolism, meaning, and goal and degenerated into mere ritual. And this made it easy for those who chose to exploit it. This is pretty much what happened in Buddha’s time. And justifiably, Buddha condemned it. He condemned the Yajna-as-mere-ritual, and not the original symbolism.

If anything, Buddha has held Yajna in the highest esteem. In one place he says that My Yagna involves no animal sacrifice, no money to be spent, and in another,

Make thy heart the sacrificial pit, and
Thy soul the sacrificial fire

This verse is indeed a direct inspiration from the celebrated Jnana Yajna section of the Mahanarayana Upanishad, which exhorts the seeker to perform the internal Yajna thus:

Devotion the wife,
The Body the Samit (small pieces of wood),
The Heart the sacrificial pit,
The Hair the dried blades of grass (to be offered to the fire),
The Veda/knowledge the fire,
Desires the ones to be sacrificed

Therefore, Buddha’s angst as we have seen was directed towards the exploitative behaviour in the name of Yajna, and not against Yajna itself. Which presents a problem the Veda-baiters choose to ignore: if they reject Yajna, they necessarily need to accept the symbolism that Yajna represents. It is equivalent to saying, “I condemn curd but I don’t accept the existence of milk.” And it is to avoid facing this logical problem that they’ve taken refuge in chicanery, by pitting Buddhism against Vedanta.

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Sandeep Balakrishna

Writer, blogger and lapsed IT professional.