Buddhism in India


from the Daily News Wesak Annual, 2011

“As the most creative social philosopher in our history, Buddha has symbolized an alternative of possibilities of organizing society, an alternative to the hierarchical and inegalitarian principles of Brahminism”. Wrote Prof. Uma Chakravarti, commenting on Kancha Ilaiah’s book, “God as Political Philosopher, Buddha’s Challenge to Brahmanism”.

There are many people inside and outside India who try to believe that Buddhism has disappeared from India. But Buddhism has been known and practiced from the time of the Buddha and will continue to be of religious importance in India, even if they did not have the neo-Buddhist revival initiated by Dr Ambedkar. Buddhism has only been absorbed to some extent into the greater Indian popular religion which is now known as Hinduism, the same way that in Sri Lanka, the other Indian religions were absorbed into the popular religion known and accepted as Sinhala Buddhism.

Kancha Ilaiah in his book has tried to study Gautama Buddha as a political thinker, and Buddhism as a school that emerged to challenge contemporary Hindu society and its hegemonic ideology of Brahmanism. He also claims that Buddha was the forerunner of all political thinkers, in the East and West, pre dating Manu, Kautilya, even Confucius, Socrates, Plato and Aristotle. Looking at the issue from his viewpoint there is never a question of Buddhism as a religion disappearing from any country.

The problem we face today is that we have been brainwashed by people like Max Muller, by interpreting the Eastern beliefs and practices from their Christian point of view and also because they had their own agenda. The Christian educated Anthropologists and sociologists could not label the Indians either as polytheistic or monotheistic. Because to them there is either one Supreme Being or there are many Gods. They probably could not or did not want to accept that their term God could not explain the Indian concept of Absolute Reality or Infinite Principle, the Western Languages were too poor to express the philosophy of the East.

One example is Max Weber’s “Religion of India”, where he treats Buddhism in the same lines as Jainism, grouping them together into one chapter as the two great heterodoxies. Weber admits that “Buddhism diffused to all areas of India; Jainism to considerable portions of India”. But in the very next paragraph he begins, “This was only transitory. Although Buddhism later completely disappeared from India, it developed into a world religion…” Here he has created two myths, one that it disappeared from India and the other that Buddhism became a world “Religion”. Because Muller and Weber did not understand the Buddha’s teachings, they grouped it under other religions, as the West knew it. The Oxford Dictionary defines Religion as a “particular system of faith and worship” and “human recognition of superhuman controlling power and specially of a personal God or Gods entitles to obedience and worship”. By categorizing Buddhism as a religion they very conveniently made Buddhism to be absorbed into the new Hinduism.

That is probably why Romila Thapar had to say, “Buddhism was not just another religion. It was the result of a more widespread movement towards change which affected many aspects of life from personal beliefs to social ideas”. (Asoka and the Decline of the Mauryas).

We have to read this alongside “What the Buddha Taught” by Walpola Rahula. “Among the founders of religions the Buddha (if we are permitted to call him the founder of a religion in the popular sense of the term) was the only teacher who did not claim to be other than a human being, pure and simple. Other teachers were either God, or his incarnations in different forms, or inspired by him.” He also said “Man’s position, according to Buddhism, is supreme. Man is his own master, and there is no higher being or power that sits in judgment over his destiny.”

Even for a native Indian it would be very difficult to identify and isolate a pure or orthodox Indian religion. Hinduism is considered the oldest religion in the world and the third largest. But there are major basic differences with all other world religions. Hinduism as we know it today is of recent origin, and it is a politicized term to engulf all Indian popular religions. The term Hinduism had first been used as a geographical reference, and then to the inhabitants of the land across the Sindhu, and still later to mean all the people in India other than Christians and Muslims.

Hinduism stands alone as a religion without a Prophet, it is difficult to group orthodox and heterodox sects and there is also no conversion. Instead of converting people of other faiths, they just absorbed the entire community to become a sect within the Hindu society. Hinduism could be seen as a huge ocean, into which numerous rivers flow, and once the river waters mingle in the ocean, we cannot distinguish water from one river and another. It will all taste the same.

Religious compromise was the way the Brahmanical sects continued to retain their supremacy. By the end of the 1st millennium, local cults with new social groups led to the development of the Puranaic religion, and more popular Vedic deities were subordinated by Vishnu and Shiva. The Bhakti cults developed from Saivisim and Vishnuism and also the “sramanic religions’ of Buddhism and Jainism. The ritual of sacrifice had by then developed into the worship of icons, as practiced by the Buddhists. Bhakti cult is said to have spread from about the 12th century, from South India and spread Northwards, after the decline of Buddhism in the South. They also have the concept of ‘Ishta Devata’, the worship of a personal god, where they tend to concentrate their prayers on one deity or a small group of deities, though most devotees are ‘polytheistic’.

The numerous small cults all over India gradually merged into much larger religious communities ending up as Hinduism as we know it today, with a multiplicity of beliefs and interpretations, unlike in any other religion. This evolution was not a linear progression, with new sects branching off, according to Thapar. “It is rather a mosaic of distinct cults, deities, sects and ideas and the adjusting, juxtaposing and distancing of these to existing ones. New deities could be created and linked genealogically to existing ones.”

There is a school of thought which says Advaita Vedanta is ‘Buddhism in disguise’. Advaita (Non-dualism) asserts that the real essential identity of the Jiva is nothing other than Brahman itself. Swami Vivekananda has stated “during the decline of Buddhism in India, Hinduism took from her a few cardinal tenets of conduct and made them her own, and these have now come to be known as Vaishnavism”. Prof. M. D. Nalawade, former Head of the History Department, Pune University has stated, “the walks of people in the ancient times from one sect or religion to another, from native religion to Vedic, Vedic to non-Vedic religions, that is Buddhism and Jainism, and then back to Mixed-Vedic or Brahmanical religion, although outwardly have changed them in adopting different religious names, and ultimately, the Brahmanism, popularly called Hinduism, they continued to practice many of the customs and traditions they liked most and were most difficult for them to unalienate. And to their convenience Brahmins have very skillfully converted Buddhist forms of worship and prayers quite in consonance to Brahmanical or Hindu ideals.”

Prof. Nalawade also claims that vegetarianism came to India only from Buddhism, and that pre-Buddhist India saw the practice of animal sacrifice and that vegetarianism was not known among the Vedic Indians. He also claims that in pre-Buddhist times the cow was never a sacred animal and Brahmins of those days were very fond of the flesh of the cow. He says that Buddha was the first saviour of cows in India. The concept of Ahimsa was absorbed into Hinduism from Buddhism and Jainism, even though it had been briefly mentioned in the Upanishads.

It is accepted by most Indian scholars today that the worship of icons, images and symbols had been revived by the Buddhists and Jains in India, although the origins could be traced to Pre-Vedic Harappan culture which had disappeared during the early Brahmanic period. According to L. M. Joshi, visiting holy places (Tirtha Yatra) had also originated with the Buddhists. He says that the first image that was manufactured in India for the purpose of worship was that of the Buddha. Most of the Buddhist shrines in Andra Pradesh, as it happened all over India, had been converted for Brahmanical worship with the decline of Buddhism in India.

There are many such examples found all over India. In Badrinath “the original Buddha image is still worshipped as that of Vishnu”. Even the temple at Buddha Gaya had been in the hands of Mahanta Shaivites till about the end of the 19th century. L. M. Joshi also claims that the Puranas were written mainly to claim Buddhist places of worship. He says “not only Buddhist holy places and shrines were occupied and transformed into Hindu Tirthas and devalayas and the occupation of non-Brahmanical places and sanctuaries were strengthened by invented myth or pseudo-history (purana), but the best elements of Buddhist culture, including the Buddha, were appropriated and homologized in sacred books”. He also states that Tantrik Buddhism started in South India and Potalka Parvata as the early seat of the origin of Vajrayana (L. M. Joshi, Studies in Buddhistic Culture, 1977)

The eminent surgeon turned Indologist, K. Jamanadas has attempted to prove that the idol at Tirupathi is that of Avalokitheshvara Bodhisatva, in his book, ‘Tirupati Balaji was a Buddhist Shrine’.

Swami Vivekananda believed that the Jagannatha temple of Puri (in Orissa) is an old Buddhist temple, though it is now claimed to have been built by Chodaganga Dev in the 12th century. Vithoba (or Vitahala) of Pandharpur in Maharashtra has been identified as the Buddha by R. C. Dhere. The image is accepted by many as the ninth avatar of Vishnu. Dr. Ambedkar also believed that Vithala was really an image of the Buddha. Lord Ayyappa shrine at Sabarimala, a remote village on the Western Ghats in Kerala, is also believed to be an ancient Buddhist shrine, though the Ayyappans believe it to be of Hariharaputra, the son of Vishnu and Shiva. Yet the devotees still chant “Swamiye saranam Ayyappa“!

Draksharama, near Ramachandrapuram in Andhra, was originally a Buddhist chaitya, which was later converted into a Hindu temple. The Linga is said to be one of the Ayaka Stambhas of the original Chaitya. The Buddhist temples in Andhra have the five vertical pillars made of white marble, which are believed to represent the five major incidents in the life of the Buddha. In the Garbha Griha of the Amareswara temple of Amaraviati (Guntur district, Andhra), there is a typical white marble lotus medallion slab of this type.

The seven Rathas at Mahaballipuram had been built by Buddhists and the sudden abandonment of the unfinished Rathas could have been due to the persecution of the Buddhists, as the Kalabhras gradually lost their political power..

One more example is the temple of lord Mallikarjuna at Sirisallam in the Nallamalai hills, which is claimed by both Hindus and Buddhists, and is believed to be another Buddhist shrine in Andhra, pre-dating the Mahayana developments in the region.

At Ellora in Maharashtra, we can see very clearly where Buddhist caves had been later converted to Saiva temples.

Dr Radha Banerjee, reviewing the book, ‘The Econography of Avalokitesvara in Mainland South East Asia’ says, ‘He ( Avalokitesvara) is a lamp for the blind, a sun shade for those scorched by the sun, a father and mother to the unfortunate. He is also a physician with great healing powers. Avalokitesvara is also said to possess the traits of the Vedic Purusa, Siva, Indra, Vishnu and Surya, which has helped to bridge the gap between the Hindu and Buddhist faiths’.

Though Hinduism is not known for religious persecution, there had been a few unfortunate incidents in the past, and a few incidents recently which were of course politically motivated, and had nothing to do with the faith of the people.

Perhaps what we should study is the fantastic religious tolerance found in India, among all the different sects and faiths engulfed within Hinduism, to find ways for such tolerance among the Buddhists and Hindus in Sri Lanka.

Buddhism is and always should be far more tolerant than even Hinduism.

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