Conditions out of which Buddhism Arose
Gautama, Life, Hindu, Religion, Gods, Philosophy
Whatever we may think of these schools of philosophy, or the connection with or indebtedness of Gautama, the Buddha, to them, they reveal to us the conceptions which his contemporaries had of the universe and the beings inhabiting it. These were honest human attempts to find God. In them the various beings or six conditions of sentient existence are devas or gods; men; asuras or monsters; pretas or demons; animals; and beings in hell. Furthermore, these schools of Hindu philosophy show us the conditions out of which Buddhism arose, furnish us with its terminology and technical phrases, reveal to us what the reformer proposed to himself to do, and, what is perhaps still more important, show us the types to which Buddhism in its degeneration and degradation reverted. The strange far-off oriental words which today scholars discuss, theosophists manipulate, and charlatans employ as catchpennies were common words in the every-day speech of the Hindu people, two or three thousand years ago.
Glancing rapidly at the condition of religion in the era ushering in the birth of Buddha, we note that the old joyousness of life manifested in the Vedic hymns is past, their fervor and glow are gone. In the morning of Hindu life there was no caste, no fixed priesthood, and no idols; but as wealth, civilization, easy and settled life succeeded, the taste for pompous sacrifices conducted by an hereditary priestly caste increased. Greater importance was laid upon the detail of the ceremonies, the attention of the worshipper being turned from the deities "to the minutiæ of rites, the erection of altars, the fixing of the proper astronomical moments for lighting the fire, the correct pronunciation of prayers, and to the various requisite acts accompanying a sacrifice."6 In the chapter of decay which time wrote and literature reflects, we find "grotesque reasons given for every minute rite, dogmatic explanation of texts, penances for every breach of form and rule, and elaborate directions for every act and moment of the worshipper."
The literature shows a degree of credulity and submission on the part of the people and of absolute power on the part of the priests, which reminds us of the Middle Ages in Europe. The old inspiring wars with the aborigines are over. The time of bearing a noble creed, meaning culture and civilization as against savagery and idolatry, is past, and only intestine quarrels and local strife have succeeded. The age of creative literature is over, and commentators, critics and grammarians have succeeded. Still more startling are the facts disclosed by literary history. The liquid poetry has become frozen prose; the old flaming fuel of genius is now slag and ashes. We see Hindus doing exactly what Jewish rabbis, and after them Christian schoolmen and dogma-makers, did with the old Hebrew poems and prophecies. Construing literally the prayers, songs and hopes of an earlier age, they rebuild the letter of the text into creeds and systems, and erect an amazing edifice of steel-framed and stone-cased tradition, to challenge which is taught to be heresy and impiety. The poetical similes used in the Rig Vedas have been transformed into mythological tales. In the change of language the Vedas themselves are unreadable, except by the priests, who fatten on popular beliefs in the transmigration of souls and in the power of priestcraft to make that transmigration blissful—provided liberal gifts are duly forthcoming. Idolatry and witchcraft are rampant. Some saviour, some light was needed.
Buddhism a Logical Product of Hindu Thought
At such a time, probably 557 B.C., was born Shaka, of the Muni clan, at Kapilavastu, one hundred miles northeast of Benares. We pass over the details7 of the life of him called Prince, Lord, Lion of the Tribe of Shaka, and Saviour; of his desertion of wife and child, called the first Great Renunciation; of his struggles to obtain peace; of his enlightenment or Buddhahood; of his second or Greater Renunciation; of merit on account of austerities; and give the story told in a mountain of books in various tongues, but condensed in a paragraph by Romesh Chunder Dutt.
"At an early age, Prince Gautama left his royal home, and his wife, and new-born child, and became a wanderer and a mendicant, to seek a way of salvation for man. Hindu rites, accompanied by the slaughter of innocent victims, repelled his feelings. Hindu philosophy afforded him no remedy, and Hindu penances and mortifications proved unavailing after he had practised them for years. At last, by severe contemplation, he discovered the long coveted truth; a holy and calm life, and benevolence and love toward all living creatures seemed to him the essence of religion. Self-culture and universal love—this was his discovery—this is the essence of Buddhism."8
From one point of view Buddhism was the logical continuance of Aryan Hindoo philosophy; from another point of view it was a new departure. The leading idea in the Upanishads is that the object of the wise man should be to know, inwardly and consciously, the Great Soul of all; and by this knowledge his individual soul would become united to the Supreme Being, the true and absolute self. This was the highest point reached in the old Indian philosophy9 before Buddha was born.
So, looking at Buddhism in the perspective of Hindu history and thought, we may say that it is doubtful whether Gautama intended to found a new religion. As, humanly speaking, Saul of Tarsus saved Christianity from being a Jewish sect and made it universal, so Gautama extricated the new enthusiasm of humanity from the priests. He made Aryan religion the property of all India. What had been a rare monopoly as narrow as Judaism, he made the inheritance of all Asia. Gautama was a protestant and a reformer, not an agnostic or skeptic. It is more probable that he meant to shake off Brahmanism and to restore the pure and original form of the Aryan religion of the Vedas, as far as it was possible to do so. In one sense, Buddhism was a revolt against hereditary and sacerdotal privilege—an attack of the people against priestcraft. The Buddha and his disciples were levellers. In a different age and clime, but along a similar path, they did a work analogous to that of the so-called Anabaptists in Europe and Independents in England, centuries later.
It is certain, however, that Buddhism has grown logically out of ancient Hinduism. In its monastic feature—one of its most striking characteristics—we see only the concentration and reduction to system, of the old life of the ascetics and religious mendicants recognized and respected by Hinduism. For centuries the Buddhist monks and nuns were regarded in India as only a new sect of ascetics, among many others which flourished in the land.
The Buddhist doctrine of karma, or in Japanese, ingwa, of cause and effect, whereby it is taught that each effect in this life springs from a cause in some previous incarnation, and that each act in this life bears its fruit in the next, has grown directly out of the Hindu idea of the transmigration of souls. This idea is first inculcated in the Upanishads, and is recognized in Hindu systems of philosophy.
So also the Buddhist doctrine of Nirvana, or the attainment of a sinless state of existence, has grown out of the idea of final union of the individual soul with the Universal Soul, which is also inculcated in the Upanishads. Yet, as we shall see, the Buddhists were, in the eyes of the Brahmans, atheists, because in the ken of these new levellers gods and men were put on the same plane. Brahmanism has never forgiven Buddhism for ignoring the gods, and the Hindoos finally drove out the followers of Gautama from India. It eventuated that after a millenium or so of Buddhism in India, the old gods, Brahma, Indra, etc., which at first had been shut out from the ken of the people, by Gautama, found their places again in the popular faith of the Buddhists, who believed that the gods as well as men, were all progressing toward the blessed Nirvana—that sinless life and holy calm, which is the Buddhist's heaven and salvation.
It is certainly very curious, and in a sense amusing, to find flourishing in far-off Japan the old gods of India, that one would suppose to have been utterly dead and left behind in oblivion. As acknowledged devas or kings and bodhisattvas or soon-to-be Buddhas, not a few once defunct Hindu gods, utterly unknown to early Buddhism, have forced their way into the company of the elect. Though most of them have not gained the popularity of the indigenous deities of Nippon, they yet attract many worshippers. They remind one that amid the coming of the sons of Elohim before Jehovah, "the satan" came also.10
From another point of view Buddhism was a new religion; for it swept away and out of the field of its vision the whole of the World or Universal Soul theory. "It proclaimed a salvation which each man could gain for himself and by himself, in this world during this life, without the least reference to God, or to gods, either great or small." "It placed the first importance on knowledge; but it was no longer a knowledge of God, it was a clear perception of the real nature as they supposed it to be of men and things." In a word, Gautama never reached the idea of a personal self-existent God, though toward that truth he groped. He was satisfied too soon.11 His followers were even more easily satisfied with abstractions. When Gautama saw the power over the human heart of inward culture and of love to others, he obtained peace, he rested on certainty, he became the Buddha, that is, the enlightened. Perhaps he was not the first Buddhist. It may be that the historical Gautama, if so he is worthy to be called, merely made the sect or the new religion famous. Hardly a religion in the full sense of the word, Buddhism did not assume the rôle of theology, but sought only to know men and things. In one sense Buddhism is atheism, or rather, atheistic humanism. In one sense, also, the solution of the mystery of God, of life, and of the universe, which Gautama and his followers attained, was one of skepticism rather than of faith. Buddhism is, relatively, a very modern religion; it is one of the new faiths. Is it paradoxical to say that the Buddhists are "religious atheists?"
|Written By William Elliot Griffis|
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