Thursday, July 16, 2009

The Brahmin and the Buddhist

At a stall in a Bangalore temple, I found a little book – the size of a pocket book, seventy odd pages thick, and priced at ten rupees – on Swami Vivekananda’s famous Parliament of the World Religions speech in Chicago, 1893.

The book contained the text of Vivekananda’s address and there was a section titled Buddhism: The Fulfilment of Hinduism. I was drawn immediately. Like many other Indians, I’ve always wondered why Buddhism, after having been so dominant for a millennium in India, receded so comprehensively even as it expanded eastward. What was the relationship between Buddhism and Hinduism? The former, with its suspicion of ritual worship and caste, seemed like the latter’s adversary; it also seemed as if the latter had reasserted itself strongly and caused the former's decline. To such an extent that Buddha is considered by many today as an incarnation of Vishnu.

Vivekananda’s reading is different: to him the Buddha was “the fulfilment, the logical conclusion, the logical development of the religion of the Hindus.” Rejecting the ceremonial side of Hinduism, the Buddha had instead taken the spiritual route. Caste was not a barrier to enlightenment: “a man from the highest caste and a man from the lowest may become a monk in India and the two castes become equal...there is no caste; caste is simply a social institution.” And Vivekananda speaks admiringly of the Buddha’s “wonderful sympathy for everybody, especially for the ignorant and the poor.” Because Sanskrit was largely the language of ritual and not spoken, the Buddha wanted his teachings to be written in the vernacular of the day.

But it is in the final two paragraphs that Vivekanda reveals his thesis: how Buddhism and Brahmanism (which I assume refers here to Hinduism -- at least the Hinduism of the Vedic kind) complement each other, how without one the other cannot survive.

As Buddhism died out in India,
Brahmanism lost something – that reforming zeal, that wonderful sympathy and charity for everybody, that wonderful leaven which Buddhism had brought to the masses and which had rendered Indian society so great that a Greek historian who wrote about India of that time was led to say that no Hindu was known to tell an untruth...

Hinduism cannot live without Buddhism, nor Buddhism without Hinduism. Then realize what the separation has shown to us, that the Buddhists cannot stand without the brain and philosophy of the Brahmins, nor the Brahmin without the heart of the Buddhist. The separation between the Buddhists and the Brahmins is the cause of the downfall of India. That is why India is populated by three hundred millions of beggars, and that is why India has been the slave of conquerors for the last thousand years. Let us then join the wonderful intellect of the Brahmin with the heart, the noble soul, the wonderful humanizing power of the Great Master [the Buddha].
It’s a striking thought, since there are indeed places in the world today -- India is one, of course -- where the two religions exist independently, without the other.


ORP-Shiva said...

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