Saturday, February 05, 2005

postal scrotum: was the Buddha a practicing Hindu?


I have to take issue with that prong of your argument that Shakyamuni was a religious leader because he was a "practicing Hindu".

There is no evidence of which I am aware that supports this assertion. One could surmise that he was a practicing Hindu as late as his later teenage years when he still resided in his father's house as a prince of the Sakyas. But it's pretty clear that he parted ways with (at least) orthodox brahminism when he left his father's house to take up the life of wandering and inquiry of a sramana. By the time of his enlightenment, it's even clearer that his stance is not that of Hinduism. His own teaching is fundamentally at odds with, even radically destructive of, the core beliefs of Hinduism.

I think it's also hard to characterize buddhism as a religion, so long as by buddhism one means something like what Shakyamuni actually taught. There are two standard ripostes to this. One is the academic posture that you seem to adopt regarding the existence of "multiple buddhisms". The other, more common in intra-buddhist dialogue, revolves around the issue whether what is actually known or reasonably inferred about the actual teaching of Shakyamuni exhausts the content of the term "buddhism".

I incline to the view that Shakyamuni's own teaching is much more akin to the sort of Greek ethical philosophies with which Vallicella's interlocutor compared it. That would make me a kind of buddhist fundamentalist. Others obviously have expended a great deal of effort over thousands of years and in various places to transform that teaching into the core of various -- often ethnic or national --"religions". There are strong family resemblances among such national buddhisms that make it possible to speak meaningfully of them as constituting a coherent ideological concept. I feel that such resemblances, however, also unite them in constituting something significantly different from, and often destructive of, what the buddha taught.


I never argued that Buddhism was a religion-- viz. all those "if" clauses. I'm aware that whether the Buddha was originally a Hindu is up for debate (after all, how much do we actually know about his life from proximate historical sources?)... though I'd strongly contest the idea that the Buddha's background wasn't Hindu, and that he wasn't for a significant portion of his life a practicing Hindu. He most assuredly was-- which is how he came to the conclusion that those practices were unsatisfactory. Did he then completely abandon them in favor of a practice that was so different as to be unrecognizable? No, not at all.

Granted: the Buddha did do something new, and I agree that his ideas could be seen as "radically destructive of" the core beliefs of Hinduism (though "destructive" in what sense? Hinduism flourishes in India, while Buddhism exists there only in isolated pockets).

I took pains, in my previous post, to note that there are people within the Buddhist tradition who deny that Buddhism is a religion. They have my sympathy. On a personal level, I'd agree with any adherent of any religion that the category "religion" is itself an artificial imposition. The academic project, for a person in religious studies, is therefore somewhat muddied: how does one examine and classify religious phenomena in a rigorous manner while also respecting the religion's self-understanding? I'm still trying to answer this question.

But as a religious pluralist, I know where I stand: I'm opposed to reductionist (or "fundamentalist") readings of any religion-- on ethical grounds. For Buddhism in particular, I think it would be the height of irony to argue that Buddhism boils down to inviolable "essentials," outside of which cannot be found "true Buddhism." Such essentialism-- attachment to name and form-- leads immediately to the building of conceptual walls, to anger, conflict, resentment, etc. Christians have been guilty of this for centuries, but the attitude, dualistic to the core, is found in all the religions in which such adherents abide. This was the point I was making in a much earlier, long-winded post on this blog in 2003.

To argue that the Buddha was in no way a practicing Hindu, we'd have to demonstrate that the vocabulary he used, the meditative techniques he employed, and the rhetorical strategies he favored have no Hindu elements and are completely original. Is this even possible?

But this isn't to argue that Buddhism is merely a subtype of Hinduism (though plenty of Hindus have argued this). That would be like arguing that Christianity is merely a subtype of Judaism. If that's how I've made this sound, then I apologize for my sloppiness. But I stand by my original claim: just as Jesus was a practicing Jew, so the Buddha was a practicing Hindu.

Buddhism subverted core Hindu ideas: it was a blow to the prevalent caste system, a blow to the exalted status of the gods in the Hindu pantheon, and most of all a blow to the treasured Hindu notion of atman, the self. But it's also clear that Buddhism arose out of a Hindu matrix, just as Christianity arose out of a Jewish matrix. This is only proper: all things are dependently co-arisen, and nothing is ever wholly new. As Thich Nhat Hanh repeatedly says: Buddhism is composed entirely of non-Buddhist elements.

A Wikipedia entry says the following:

He [Gautama] pursued the path of Yogic meditation with two Brahmin hermits, and although he achieved high levels of meditative consciousness, he was not satisfied with this path.

Gautama then chose the robes of a mendicant monk and headed to southeastern India. He began training in the ascetic life and practicing vigorous austere practices. After 6 years, and at the brink of death, he found that the severe ascetic practices did not lead to greater understanding, but merely clouded the mind and tortured the body.

The above quote supports the argument that the Buddha was a Hindu practitioner. At the same time, the Buddha's obvious break with tradition, noted above, supports the argument that he didn't remain Hindu-- certainly not in an orthodox sense.

I don't see the need to adopt a dualistic stance about this: there's no contradiction in saying the Buddha was a practicing Hindu and that he subverted Hinduism while producing something new. The common wisdom is that Gautama was, for a long while, a Hindu practitioner, which is all I was claiming. The enlightenment he attained was also recognizable to Hindus, which wouldn't be possible if the Buddha's awakening were something completely alien to Hindu experience. The Buddha's Hindu practice enabled him to speak the Hindu idiom, even as he was presenting something radically different.

Here is a very fair take on the matter:

Yoga and Buddhism are sister traditions which evolved in the same spiritual culture of ancient India. They use many of the same terms and follow many of the same principles and practices. For this reason it is not surprising that many of us born in the West, particularly after an initial exposure, are apt to regard Yoga and Buddhism as more or less the same. The differences that have existed between the two systems historically are less obvious to us than their commonalities. Those who study Buddhism may find so much similarity in Yoga that they will see a strong Buddhist influence on Yoga. Those who study Yoga may find so much similarity in Buddhism that they will see a strong yogic influence on Buddhism.

However the tendency to find commonality between these two great spiritual traditions is not limited to the West. Swami Vivekananda, the first great figure to bring Yoga to the West, examined the Buddhist Mahayana scriptures (Sutras) and found much similarity between their key teachings and those of Vedanta. In recent years with the influx of Tibetan refugees, including the Dalai Lama, into India since the Chinese occupation of Tibet there has been a new dialogue between the two traditions that is bringing about greater respect between them. Tibetan Buddhists often appear at Hindu religious gatherings and partake in all manner of discussions.

Nor is the attempt to connect the two traditions limited to modern times. Various synthetic Hindu-Buddhist teachings have existed through history. Buddha himself was born a Hindu and some scholars have argued that Buddhism as a religion apart from Hinduism did not arise until long after the Buddha had passed away. A Shiva-Buddha teaching existed in Indonesia in medieval times, and for many Tantric Yogis it is difficult to tell whether they were Hindus or Buddhists. Buddha became accepted as an avatar of Vishnu during the period while Buddhism was still flourishing in India, and most Hindus still consider that we live in the age of the Buddha-avatar. Most Hindus accept Buddha, even if they do not accept all Buddhist teachings.

However such synthetic trends did not exclude disagreements and debates between the two traditions, which were quite common historically. Nor did they ever succeed in fully uniting them. Their traditions and lineages remain separate to the present day. Generally the Hindu Yoga tradition sought to absorb Buddhism into itself by reinterpreting Buddha in a more Hindu light. Buddhism however strove to maintain its separate identity. Most Hindu and Buddhist teachers, including those of the Yoga school of Hinduism, found it necessary to discriminate their doctrines, particularly on subtle levels of practice and insight. Hence while we can honor the connections between these two systems, we cannot overlook their differences either.

Another passage, found here-- it's very polemical so treat it with great caution:

As part of their entrenched power position, the British colonizers and later their Nehruvian successors have always tried to control the discourse on religion. Among other concerns, they have seen to it that the term "Hindu" got divorced from its historical meaning, which quite inclusively encompassed all Indian Pagans, in order to fragment Hindu society. In parallel with their effort to pit caste against caste, they have tried to pit sect against sect, offering nurture to the egos of sect leaders by telling them that in fact they were popes in their own right of full-fledged religions, equal in status but morally superior to Hinduism. Hindu revivalists have countered this effort by reaffirming the basic Hindu character of tribal Animism, Jainism, Buddhism, Sikhism and more recent reformist sects.

A more practical way of dealing with the question whether given sects are Hindu or not, is to study the specific claims made by the "separatist" ideologues of the communities concerned. When we do so, we find that Hindu revivalist critique has pin-pricked (though not yet exhaustively) some of the cheap modern apologetics by which community leaders want to affirm the uniqueness and superiority of their own tradition as compared to Hinduism. This is especially true of the number one selling argument of all non-Hindu or would-be non-Hindu religions in India: that they, unlike Hinduism, are egalitarian.

If a man is poor and without social position, or if he is the target of accusations and the object of contempt, he finds himself quite alone. Even his relatives avoid and disown him. And if later on his name is cleared and his good fortune returns, the fairweather friends will again come flocking to his company.

It takes little more than this very elementary psychology to understand anti-Hindu separatism among the offshoots of Hinduism. Nobody wants to get associated with a religion which is hated and held in contempt. Conversely, when a religious tradition or doctrine gains prestige, numerous people and groups will surprise you with their discovery of how they had essentially been espousing it all along. We can safely predict that the day when Hinduism is held in high esteem again, the Ramakrishnaites will echo Swami Vivekananda’s call to "say with pride: we are Hindus". On that day, Sikhs too will quote the Gurus’ pledges of loyalty to Hindu Dharma.

Given the clumsy performance of Indian governments and the Hindutva leadership, it is a miracle that there are any Hindus left at all. But somehow, without doing much, the Hindus or their Gods seem to get things done.

At the practical level, Hindus may explore the common ground with these borderline-Hindu communities, these "prodigal daughters", simply by doing things together. No matter if neo-Buddhists disown Hinduism but sit down to practise the Buddha’s spiritual discipline; let Hindus sit down beside them and also practise what the Buddha taught. No matter if Sikhs refuse to visit non-Sikh Vaishnava shrines, Hindus will continue to visit Sikh Vaishnava shrines, and likewise to offer worship at the Mahabodhi temple, etc. Let the others call these places non-Hindu all they want; Hindus may claim them as their own simply by paying respect to them. Daughters may try to break away from their mother, but a mother cannot disown her daughters."

The above passage is more concerned with the political dimension of the Hinduism question, but it reveals that some Hindus have strong opinions about Hinduism's relationship with its "offshoots."

As for the issue of whether Buddhism is a religion: personally, I don't care one way or the other. I could say the same for opinions about Christianity. Such opinions aren't consequential to my beliefs and practice (such as they are). I do, however, think it's a worthwhile exercise to wrestle with the question.


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