Thursday, February 25, 2010


Rahul Sankrityayan

In Buddhism there is no place either for god (creator of the universe) or for revealed book. Morality is based on the act of being good or bad. Those who believe in god subject morality also to the will of god – whatever is prescribed by god is good and whatever is prohibited by him is evil. Here Buddhism differs, it considers the “good of many, happiness of many” (bahujana hitaya bahujana sukhaya) to be the criterion of good and evil.

Socio-economic Views

In the economic and political fields also the views of Buddha are different. He had prescribed the ideal of service for the monks and nuns. He had called those who did not conform to this ideal as “useless consumers of the nation’s wealth” (mogham sa ratthapindam bhunjati). He enjoined upon them to adopt communal living. He had introduced the system of economic communism in the community of monks and nuns. Apart from the eight items (of personal use), such as clothing, the begging bowl, etc. all other things were considered to be the property of the commune (samgha). The houses, gardens, small agricultural and other implements, bedsteads, beddings, etc. were considered to be communal property.

In the days of Buddha whatever land was donated was given to the “present and future commune of the four directions” (agata anagata chatudisassa) alone. This system continued for four or five centuries. The inscriptions in Ceylon [presently Sri Lanka –ed.] indicate that in the two centuries preceding Christ, fields were donated as charity only to the “present and future communes of the four directions”. Of course, in the Buddhist commune economic communism could not continue for long and in the 2nd century BC, according to the testimony of the inscriptions at Sanchi and Bharhut, the monks and nuns were already constructing pillars and railings with their private income which meant that now they had other personal property apart from the eight items of personal use.

Buddha preferred the political system of the republics (ganas). In that age slavery was prevalent, and hence in the Lichhavi (Vaishali) republic, the most prosperous and powerful at the time, democracy existed only for those who belonged to the Lichhavi clan. The slaves were movable property and they were numerous. The non-Lichhhavi Brahmin or grahapati (trader) caste though free had no right of vote for the senate (samsad). They were at the mercy of the Lichhavis. All the same these republics were evidently better than monarchy.

For Buddha the origin of monarchy did not lie in any divine source but kingship was the product of the growth of private property. Private property led to inequality or class division among the people, who started quarrelling among themselves and (overtly or covertly) started trying to snatch each other’s property, and therefore they selected one from among them as their judge, who by accumulating power for selfish ends developed into a king.

Buddha lived in the 6th-5th century BC (death 543 BC). At that time too economic and social discrimination was very sharp. For the eradication of economic inequality he attempted the eradication of economic inequality. Buddha confined his efforts to the monastic communes alone, but the abolition of social inequality he attempted on a universal scale. His voice raised against casteism had its effect but the basic foundation of casteism lay in the high-caste “haves” and the low-caste “have-nots”. Without removing the one the other could not be done away with. All the same Buddha’s communes granted equal rights in the monastic order to the lowest of the castes, the chandalas who were accepted as human beings by courtesy only. Buddhism fervently advocated the brotherhood of man without any distinction of race, country or caste. The principle of coexistence embodied in the panch shila was put into practice by Buddhism. And its missionaries in foreign lands never even dreamt of destroying the culture of any nation.

Buddhist philosophy

Buddhism has made original contributions in several fields but those in the field of philosophy are unique. Of course, it will be erroneous to say that it helped Marx’s philosophy or it ever came anywhere near the fundamentals of Marxism. But an understanding of Marxist philosophy is easier for students of Buddhist philosophy.

We know that Hegel’s philosophy played an important part in the development of Marxist philosophy and Marxist philosophy on its part removed the inconsistencies of Hegelian philosophy. It is said that the reality put up-side-down in the form of Hegelianism was put on its feet by Marx in the form of dialectical materialism. Hegel held that mind or idea was primary and real and matter a product thereof. Marx held matter to be primary and mind to be its highest development. Buddhism in its highest and final form is in a large measure similar to the idealism of Hegel. The idea (vijnana) of Yogachara philosophy is dynamic and nonmaterial. Like Hegel, the Yogachara school of Buddhism too considers idea or mind as the ultimate reality.

The basic tenet of Buddhism is: all is non-eternal. Later on the word “momentary” came to be used for “non-eternal” and it was said that whatever is “real” is “momentary” or “dynamic” and whatever is not “momentary” is not “real”. Thus Buddhist philosophy denied the existence of anything “eternal” and “static” in the world. For Buddhism this is the fundamental concept which has no exception. The denial of god or soul was a corollary of this principle. Buddhist philosophy takes pride in its denial of the soul (anatmavada).

Buddha’s birth synchronized with the end of the age of the Upanishads. The sages (rishis) laid the greatest emphasis on the soul (individual or cosmic) – soul is something nonmaterial, eternal and unchangeable. Buddhism aimed primarily at shattering this eternalist philosophy of the Upanishads, and that is why it was called anatmavada as against the atmavada of the Upanishads.

The dynamism of Buddhist philosophy, i.e., everything is in flux, inspired an entirely different outlook about the world. Even the believers in souls or eternalists were willing to accept the external world as changeable but they believed in an eternal existence within it. This they called atman or Brahman. Buddhists say: if we look inside the trunk of a banana tree we would get only layers within layers, one covering peeling off after the other but no substance inside it, similarly all the things in the universe do not contain any eternal substance – atman or Brahman; the world is void of any eternal element.

Hence the concept of Buddhist voidism (shunyavada). To explain their concept of dynamism the example of clouds or the flame of the lamp is cited. Just as the clouds go on changing each moment, so does this world. Even the most solid diamond or iron goes on changing every moment. Then why the similarity and sameness in their previous and subsequent forms? To this the Buddhist reply is: similarity in organization. The effect is always similar to the cause, hence the illusion of oneness. The flame of the lamp is changing every moment but the new flame born out of the old flame is similar to it, therefore we rush to the conclusion that “it is the same flame”.

Theory of causality

Having accepted the entire inner and outer world, without any exception, as non eternal it was necessary to have a different theory of causality too. Those who held the atoms or matter to be like immutable bricks could assert that by the assemblage of them the new object arises. Their integration and disintegration correspond to the origination and destruction of things. But Buddhist philosophy did not believe in the existence of such immutable eternal bricks. Everything is void of eternal essence, i.e., there are not things (vastu) but events (dharma). They could not be compared to gold which is a primary element and can be molded into different shapes, such as bracelets or pendants. Buddha used a different terminology to explain the law of causality: dependent origination (pratitya samutpada).

Elucidating this terminology Buddha says “When this was, then this comes and it was then this becomes” (asmin sati idam bhavati). At the completion of this, this is born. What has just ended is the cause and what has emerged after the cause is the effect. The effect was wholly nonexistent when the cause was there, and when the effect came into existence the cause completely vanished. There was no eternal substance inside the cause which is transferred to the effect. Actually they have no other relation to each other except that the one preceded or followed the other.

Collectivity of causes

Having accepted the entire inner and outer world in flux, as a conglomeration not of things but of events, the concept of dependent origination becomes inevitable. Dynamism and the theory that there is no eternal substratum forced them to look upon the world as made up of events. Rejection of the old ideas of the law of cause and effect inevitably led to the concept of dependent origination. In other words, dependent origination replaced the old theory of cause and effect.

Here Buddhist philosophy shattered another old concept, according to which one cause was supposed to beget one or several effects. The sages of the Upanishads believed in several strange things originating from the same soul (atman). Even in the material world one element was called the cause and the other element originating from it the effect. Buddhist philosophy contended that no object – or to use their nomenclature dharma – is born of one thing. No effect has only one cause, but several causes together give birth to one effect (object). This theory is called collectivity of causes (hetusamagrivada).

The great philosopher Dharmakirti says: “One (thing) is not born out of one but all is born of collective causes” (na chaikam ekam ekasmat, samagrya sarva sambhavah). When several causes assemble then one effect is created. Though the doctrine of the unity of the opposites is not mentioned as in Marxist philosophy yet it is clearly stated that one effect is the result of the coming together of several causes and if the smallest of them is missing then that effect would not result. According to Buddhist philosophy cause is entirely different from effect, in other words, the emergence of the effect is a qualitative change. And this qualitative change (emergence of an entirely different effect) cannot take place unless all the causes are pooled in the required measure – quantity. This concept of cause and effect includes qualitative change (the effect) and quantity which brings this about (collectivity of causes).

Definition of Reality

In the light of this conception of the world the Buddhist thinkers had to define anew what is “real” and what is “unreal”. For the ancient thinkers this definition was simple enough: that which is eternal, immutable or unchangeable is real and that which is non-eternal, mutable or changeable is unreal. In Buddhism there was no place for such “real” things. They defined a real thing as: that which is capable of objective action (artha-kriya-samartham).

Sweets and bread are real because they are capable of objective action, i.e., they are able of the objective action of nourishment or satisfying our hunger; but the sweets and bread seen in a dream are not real because they cannot satisfy our hunger, they are in-capable of objective action. That which is capable of objective action has been called not only real but absolutely real (paramartha sat). What was real according to the ancient thinkers was not capable of objective action because it was immutable, eternal and perfect. What is the proof of the existence of an inactive thing which is beyond the reach of the senses, since it is not an object of direct perception or of inference based on it?

The criterion of being objectively active is an infallible test of reality, and there is no doubt that in it one gets an inkling of modern ideas. The real should prove itself by objective experiment, nothing can be called real just on the basis of reason. To the rationalist objection that his stand was not rational, Dharmakirti replied: “If the objects themselves are like that, who are we?” (yadidam svayamarthanam rocate tatra ke vayam). Reason is not absolute, only the objective action or experiment is the touchstone of reality. This was a big weapon but it was not used, and there was reason for it. The entire progress of science is based on this principle – that we accept objects as our guide.

Matter and Mind

In Buddhist philosophy there are differences regarding the ideas about body and mind, matter and mind. Monist idealists among Buddhists consider only the mind to be real. Of course, even this “real” (mind) of theirs is dynamic. The others, the dualists, accept the separate existence of matter and mind. But this much both accept that the mind depends on the body (kaya sthitam manah). Mind or consciousness or idea cannot exist apart from the body or matter. This sentence reveals to some extent the mutual relationship between mind and matter, i.e., mind is dependent on matter (body).

Even the dualists did not accept that mind is absolutely different from matter. They said that like water and the waves, the world of matter is a transmutation (parinama) of mind. This is akin to Hegelian philosophy. If instead of “matter is a transmutation of mind” (vijnana parinamosan) it is said that mind is evolution of matter (rupa parinamashchit), then Buddhist idealism will be spared the trouble of standing on its head.

And in their philosophy there was enough ground for thinking in this manner. When every effect is entirely different and qualitatively entirely new as compared to the causes then what difficulty was there in accepting that mind evolves from matter – mind while being entirely different from matter could still be its effect. Dialectical materialism even while asserting that mind has evolved out of matter does not contend that mind is matter on the contrary it considers mind to be different from it and its highest evolution.

In Buddha’s time, on the one hand, there were the atmavadi thinkers who considered the soul to be eternal and immutable. On the other hand, there were materialist thinkers too who denied the existence of the soul, although their materialism had not risen above the level of mechanical materialism. Buddha and his followers propounded a philosophy which includes several features of advanced materialism but they were not prepared to call themselves materialists.

The Buddhist thinkers had from the very beginning been insistent on adopting the middle path in all matters; and here too they wanted to keep themselves between theism and materialism, although with regard to non-eternalism they did not advocate the middle path. For this consideration alone Buddhism is accepted as a religion. In spite of such radicalism in their philosophy, their belief in rebirth, yogic mysticism and some other views are the same as in other religions. That Buddhist thought made violent attacks against many an established tenet is proved by this saying of India’s unparalleled philosopher Dharmakirti: “Vedapramanyam kasyacit kartrivadah snane dharmechha jativada valepah. Santaparamth papahanaya ceti dhvastaprajnanam panca lingani jadye.”

“Accepting the authority of the Veda and someone as the creator, the desire of getting merit through the holy dip, the vanity of casteism and torturing the body to redeem the sins – these are the five characteristics of stupidity”.

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