The diversions of Buddhism from Hinduism
In a country as culturally diverse as India, glamorised with numerous celebrations, it is not uncommon for many to explore the origins of such festivities. While it is a fact that not all festivals have originated from Hinduism, most of them such as Diwali (festival of lights), Holi (festival of colours), and Ganesh Chaturthi (a time to remove obstacles and invoke a new beginning) have had their metaphorical and philosophical basis from the religion. In essence, celebrating the festivals is an opportunity for Indians to reflect upon the wisdom and teachings of Hinduism that can be traced back to ancient times.
Hinduism is a collection of philosophical and metaphysical beliefs that have developed over a long period of time. Commonly understood as more of a way of life than an official religion, Hinduism offers a philosophy that is rooted in liberation of the soul back to its purest form, from the illusions, drudgeries and desires of the world. The genesis of Hinduism has perplexed many scholars over the years as there are no formal accounts of its actual beginning. However the religion is believed to be over five thousand years old and probably the part of the oldest civilization known to the world.
Between 750 and 550 B.C , Hindu pundits (priests) tried to reveal the hidden meaning of the Vedas. A stark observation about the Vedas is that they were recited by the priests to the disciples. Spiritually enlightened priests who had been through years and years of meditation had developed an innate understanding on the nature of reality, morality , eternal life and the functions of the soul, which were later on written down as Upanishads, a series of which made each Veda.
The formats of the Upanishads were written as dialogues or discussions between a student and a teacher which carefully aim at exploring how a person can achieve liberation from desires and suffering. The ultimate objective of a Hindu is the state of perfect understanding of all things, also known as “Moksha”. It is important for most Hindus to ultimately understand “atman” (the individual soul of a living being) and the interconnectedness it has with that of “brahman” (the universal soul) as a prerequisite in achieving “Moksha”. Karma has been customised as a misunderstood concept that explains the feeble connections of ones actions and the repercussions of them. However, the true Hindu belief of Karma lies in ones’ perfect understanding of the atman and brahman in order to avoid rebirths. The idea of rebirth in Hinduism refers to the soul’s karma , delivering both the good and bad deeds leading that lead from one reincarnation to another. It is popularly believed that Karma influences specific life circumstances, such as the caste one is born into, one’s state of health, wealth or poverty, and so on.
Hindu ideas about karma and reincarnation strengthened the caste system. If a person was born as an upper-caste male—a Brahmin, warrior, or merchant—his good fortune was said to come from good karma earned in a former life. Nevertheless, throughout history, many in India have had a partial and perhaps inaccurate understanding regarding the exact principle of Karma and Moksha and in the same period of speculation, the other religious doctrines attempted to simplify the complex metaphors of Hinduism.
Buddhism emerged from Magadha (now known as Bihar) during the same time to offer a pragmatic view of people could achieve the egoless state of “Nirvana”. Siddhartha Gautama, the founder of Buddhism was born into a family that lived in Kapilavastu, in the foothills of the Himalayas in Nepal. Prophecy had it that if young Siddhartha was to become a ruler, he had to isolate himself from the world and stay within the domains of his kingdom. If he ventured out at age, he would eventually transform into a universal spiritual leader. Despite having married and becoming a father, the philosophical quest for Gautama led him to explore the mysteries of human nature and life. He was overwhelmed and particularly attentive to old men, sick men and corpses in cremation grounds. Eventually, the sight of a holy man sitting by the river side had offered spiritual refuge from the thought of inevitable suffering. He spent six years wandering through Indian forests in search of wisdom, practices that could lead him to an enlightened state and eternal knowledge which could eradicate suffering.
Buddhism strangely was born of Gautama’s relentless determination to find enlightenment through continuously meditating for 49 days. Historically, Indians regard the fig tree as being sacred due to Buddha (then Siddharth) assuming an enlightened status having sat under one. Many saints and sages in India meditate under fig trees in pursuit of enlightenment, following the footsteps of the Buddha. His realisations revolved around four main ideas through which he understood enlightenment or a “nirvana” which is a state in which all suffering ceases to exist. The ideas were formalised as the Four Noble Truths where (a) Everything in life is suffering and sorrow, (b) The cause of all suffering is people’s selfish desire for the temporary pleasures of this world, (c) The way to end all suffering is to end all desires and (d) The way to overcome such desires and attain enlightenment is to follow the Eightfold Path, which is called the Middle Way between desires and self-denial.
The Buddha’s teachings included many ideas from the Hindu tradition. However, they also differed sharply from that of some. Reincarnation was a commonality between the two religions.He had accepted a cyclical, or repetitive, view of history, where the world is created and destroyed over and over again. However, the Buddha disapproved the privileges of the Brahmin priests, and thus he rejected the caste system. The final goals of both religions—moksha for Hindus and nirvana for Buddhist were similar where both involve a perfect state of understanding and a break from the chain of reincarnations.
3、Buddhism declined in India
The fate of Buddhism in India saw its gradual demise through its own principle of “Anicca”. “All is Flux” is the fundamental principle of Buddhism that alludes to the concept of impermanence. Irrespective of whether the dying away is metaphorical, symbolic or physical, Buddhism has maintained the importance of transforming the original state to that of something else. It was this particular ideology that may have created problems in the staunch castes divided social fabric of ancient India. This is because Indian civilisation and the Brahmanical traditions in those days were fatalistic about an individual’s life path based on the caste they were born into. Buddhism rejected this notion and provided a universal pathway which did not discriminate one based on their inherent caste but discerned individuals on their rigorous morality and orientation to become disciplined.
The social framework of ancient India that propagated the caste system was not conducive to the Buddhist egalitarian principles and what made it even more difficult was the exclusion of the complexities of social and psychological needs of people in search of enlightenment. A Hindu would have to give up all he or she had known about their lineage in order to be indoctrinated into this alternate religion. This meant they would have to reject the social construct of caste system which provided a sense of belonging to them and embark upon an individual journey to find the truth. It would have been difficult for Buddha to explain the actual insights that would encourage followers on his version of truth.
Another important and perhaps a more significant contribution to the decline of Buddhism in India was due to the emergence of the “Bhakti Movement” (Devotional Movement) after 1323 in Kashmir and Bengal (North and East India). As an antidote to the caste system in ancient India, a collective and transcendental version of Hinduism emerged from a part of the Vedas that was originally hidden. The “Advaita Vedanta” (not-two, singular in Sankrit) preached a form of enlightenment which was possible through knowledge of the self in all its components and attributes. The Advaita form of Hinduism did not discriminate against caste, ethnicity, religion or any form of social divide. Under its principles, both the Brahmin (highest caste) and the Sudras (lowest caste) were equal recipients of the eternal wisdom of Hinduism in its Advaita form that would grant “Moksha” or “Nirvana”.
What made matters more interesting was the political infusion of Indian nationalism with that Hindu Universalism during the British Raj. The colonisation of India by the British lead to the Hindu renaissance in the 19th century, which transformed the way the East and the West understood Hinduism. In order to fight off oppression, the idea of a unifying Vedic force which defined the essence of Hinduism was intensely propagated by Hindu reformers. This not only cemented the concept of a unified religious sect that shared universal truths but also a nation that desired to transcend the predisposed attributes (such as the caste system) of Indians. The Hindu reformers founded the “Brahmo Samaj” (based on the Brahman- universal soul), and were supported by the Unitarian Church due to the perception of shared principles and ideologies.
Gradually, Vedanta was known to be the essence of Hinduism and Advaita Vedanta , the true metaphysical philosophy of this multifaceted religion. As a result of the popularised notion of Adavaita Vedanta throughout India and the West, an opportunity was provided for the simultaneous construction of a nationalist ideology which would free India from the clutches of colonial oppression of the British to the theological threats of alternate pathways of Buddhism.