A Brief Historical Survey Of Buddhism And Vedanta
The Upanisads are the fountainhead of all Indian Philosophy. Buddha did not preach anything absolutely new. He was disgusted with the orthodox Vedic ritual, with the sacrifices in which animals were butchered, with the rigidity of the caste system and with the supremacy of the Brahmandom. Buddha himself speaks in very high and respectable terms about a true Brahmana whom he regards an ideal saint who has done away with all sins and ignorance and who shines with the light of pure wisdom.
In the doctrines of Buddha there was nothing which would seriously militate against the Upanisadic philosophy. It was in fact based upon it. But after the death of the Buddha, the Hinayanists misunderstood his teachings. Proclaiming that the No-soul theory and the theory of Universal Momentariness were the corner-stone of Buddhism, they reduced mind to fleeting ideas and matter to fleeting sensations.
This brought a vehement protest from Ashvaghosa and from the Mahayana Sutras. The Sarvastivadins and others were dubbed as Hinayanists. They were either Charvaka or layman or at best Pratyeka-buddhas or men of inferior intellect, who could not understand the real teaching of the Buddha which was meant for the Mahayanist Bodhisattvas. Ashvaghosa interpreted Buddha in the light of the Upanisads and declared Reality to be Pure Existence, Pure Consciousness and Pure bliss— all in one.
It is to the credit of Nagarjuna who flourished in the second century that he for the first time synthesized the scattered doctrines of the Mahayana Sutras. His work was ably carried on by his disciple Aryadeva. Shunyavada brought. Buddhism closer to Vedanta.
In the fourth century flourished Asanga and Vasubandhu. They agreed with Shunyavada in declaring Reality to be devoid of all plurality. They also agreed with it in declaring all phenomena, subjective as well as objective, to be mere appearances. But they developed the view that Reality is Pure Consciousness— the view which was indicated but not fully developed by Shunyavada. Vijnanavada thus brought Buddhism still closer to Vedanta.
In the fifth century flourished Dinnaga. At that time Brahmanism was undergoing a rapid revival and the rivalry between Buddhism and Brahmanism was increasing. Dinnaga saw clearly that Vasubandhu had merged Buddhism in Vedanta. He did not like it. In his mistaken zeal to distinguish Buddhism from Vedanta, he turned to Hinayana for his inspiration and fell back on the theory of Momentariness. Vasubandhu was so revered and was so famous that he had the unique distinction of being called ‘the second Buddha’. Dinnaga therefore did not think it proper to challenge the authority of Vasubandhu openly. Saying that so far as ultimate reality was concerned he agreed with Vasubandhu, he busied himself with the revival of Buddhistic logic. He wanted to dilute the Absolute Idealism of Vasubandhu with the Critical Realism of the Sautrantika. He ruthlessly criticized the Naiyayikas whom he called ‘bunglers in logic’ and founded the Svatantra-Vijnanavada school of Buddhistic logic. There was no harm in this. Dinnaga was perfectly free to do this provided he did not touch ultimate reality. His greatest error lay in declaring Ultimate Reality to be an absolutely dissimilar particular ‘thing-in-itself’ which was a unique momentary point-instant of Consciousness. He agreed with Vasubandhu in maintaining that Reality was Consciousness. But his error lay in declaring this Consciousness also to be momentary. Thus Dinnaga, on the one hand, paid lip-homage to Vasubandhu, and on the other, really undermined the very root of Vasubandhu’s philosophy. Dinnaga therefore is the first Buddhist philosopher who is really responsible for the downfall of Buddhism, at least of Buddhistic philosophy. There were also other social, economic, political and religious causes. But the new interpretation of the theory of Momentariness and its application even to the Ultimate Reality created a philosophical chasm between Buddhism and Vedanta. Thus Dinnaga was the first man who sowed the poisonous seed which grew into a plant in Dharmakriti and bore fruits in Shantaraksita, and led to the doom of Buddhistic philosophy in India. Had Dinnaga tried to develop or even to explain the philosophy of Vasubandhu this tragedy would have been certainly averted.
In the sixth century came Gaudapada who is the first known systematic exponent of Advaita Vedanta. He openly based his philosophy on the Upanisads. The influence of Nagarjuna and Vasubandhu on Gaudapada is clear. The phrases and terms used by him were not the monopoly of any particular school. They were the heritage of the common language. Gaudapada is charged with being a crypto-Buddhist. If this charge means that Gaudapada was really a Buddhist who pretended to be a Vedantin, it is foolish. If on the other hand, it means that Gaudapada was influenced by Buddhism, it is correct. Those who dub Gaudapada as a crypto-Buddhist tend to suggest that he had a definite leaning towards Buddhism and only outwardly professed to be a Vedantin. Their error lies in the mistaken belief that Buddhism and Vedanta are two absolutely opposed systems. Our entire treatment of Buddhism and Vedanta gives a death-blow to such wrong notion. It is a great irony of fate that Buddhism and Vedanta, though they are the off springs of the same mother, the Upanisadic Philosophy, though they are fed by the same ideology, though they are nurtured by the same methodology, though they are brought up in the same ontology, and though they grow up in the same philosophical atmosphere, yet the Buddhist should regard the Vedantin as a pagan (tirthika) and the Vedantin should regard the Buddhist as an alien (Bahya)! The Hinayana and the Svatantra-Vijnanavada are philosophically responsible for this grave misunderstanding. Fortunately the Hinayanists were corrected by the Mahayanists, but unfortunately no great Buddhist was born to correct the error of Svatantra-Vijnanavada. If one is really fond of this ‘Prachchhanna’- terminology, then instead of dubbing Gaudapada as a Prachchhanna-Bauddha, it will be far more appropriate for one to dub the Shunyavadins and the Vijnanavadins as Prachchhanna-Vedantins.
We have seen that Gaudapada represents the best that is in Nagarjuna and Vasubandhu. While the Buddhists either kept indifferent or out-wardly professed to be, if not exactly the opponents of Vedanta, at least the followers of a faith different from that of Vedanta, it was the mission of Gaudapada to convince people including the Buddhists that his philosophy and also the Buddhist philosophy so far as it agreed with his own, were directly rooted in the Upanisads. Gaudapada’s impartial spirit is highly admirable. His attitude towards Buddha and Buddhists is one of love and even of respect. He extended his hand of friendship towards the Buddhists, but unfortunately the Buddhists did not respond.
Bhavaviveka who flourished in the sixth century and was a junior contemporary of Gaudapada, in his Tarkajvala quotes approvingly from Gaudapada. Bhavaviveka is the first Buddhist to recognize the impartial spirit of Gaudapada. But he too, instead of directing his energy towards the bridging over of the chasm created by Dinnaga, drew his inspiration from Dinnaga and in his zeal of founding a new school, founded the Svatantra-Madhyamika school which wanted to support Shunyavada by means of independent logical arguments. Against this school, Buddhapalita founded the Prasangika Madhyamika school which rejected all independent arguments.
The seventh century gave rise to the Shunyavadins like Chandrakirti and Shantideva, to the Svatantra-Vijnanavadins Dharmakriti and to the Mimarhsaka Kumarila. At that time Brahmana religion, culture and philosophy were undergoing a vigorous revival and the antagonism between Buddhism and Brahmanism had much increased. Buddhistic Tantra degenerating into Vamamarga was increasingly prevalent. Due to the changed economic, social and political conditions. Buddhism was losing the patronage of the wealthy. Under the supervision of perverted monkdom the Buddhist monasteries were rapidly becoming nurseries of corruption. These conditions badly required a Buddhist scholar who could have bridged over the gulf between Buddhism and Vedanta. But unfortunately none rose to the occasion.
Chandrakirti bitterly criticized the Svatantra-Madhyamika School of Bhavaviveka and the Svatantra-Vijnanavada School of Dinnaga. But he too failed to imbibe the spirit of Gaudapada. Though there were enormous similarities between Gaudapada and Nagarjuna, Chandrakirti completely ignored Gaudapada. Thus he did positively nothing to bridge the chasm between Buddhism and Vedanta.
Shantideva felt that it was not wise to keep silent on or leave undeveloped the conception of Reality. He therefore fervently extolled the Bodhi chitta. But he too failed to remark openly that Buddhism and Vedanta were the offspring of the same philosophy.
The need of the hour was some staunch Vijnanavadins who could revive and develop the philosophy of Vasubandhu and who could boldly proclaim that it was based on the Upanisads. But instead we had Dharmakriti, the Svatantra-Vijnanavadins, who glorified the error of Dinnaga and harped on the separatist tunes. The Naiyayikas and the Mimamsakas were the two major opponents of Buddhism in that time. Dharmakriti ruthlessly criticized both. To do that was no crime. In fact Shankara and Sureshvara also bitterly criticized Mimamsa. But nothing happened to them. Dharmakriti ought to have accepted the philosophy of Vasubandhu and openly declared that it was based on the Upanisads. Other he could have well busied himself with his logic and with the criticism of Nyaya and Mimamsa and other schools. A genius as he was, he ought to have corrected Dinnaga’s mistake by ousting the theory of momentariness from the realm of Reality and restricting its application to phenomena only. Had he done that Buddhism would not have met the fate it did. But what he actually did was to widen the gulf between Buddhism and Vedanta created by Dinnaga and thus to hasten the doom of Buddhism in India.
Dharmakirti’s attack on Mimamsa was so damaging that it provoked his contemporary Kumarila to write his voluminous Shloka-Vartika to refute Buddhism and defend Mimamsa. In fact Kumarila is the first man who dealt effective blows after blows on Buddhism.
The attacks of the Naiyayikas and of Kumarila, in their turn, gave rise in the eighth century to Shantaraksita and Kamalashila who extensively refuted them and criticized all other schools prevalent in their time. Shantaraksita and Kamalashila also, like Dinnaga and Dharmakriti, paid lip-homage to Vasubandhu saying that so far as the ultimate reality was concerned, they were following in the footsteps of Vasubandhu, but they too really undermined Vasubandhu’s philosophy and repeated the Himalayan blunder of Dinnaga. They admit that there are many similarities between Buddhism and Vedanta and that the only error of Vedanta is that it declares Consciousness to be permanent. Vedanta accepts the criticism of other schools by them so far as it does not violate Vedantic standpoint. Vedanta points out that a momentary Vijnana cannot be called self-luminous or real. Consciousness must be called, at least empirically, permanent, for whatever is momentary is misery and whatever is permanent is bliss. Dialecticians of the first rank as Shantaraksita and Kamalashila undoubtedly were, they could have saved the situation from taking a worse turn.
Perhaps the atmosphere was so much full of hatred and animosity that Shantaraksita and Kamalashila could not even think of bridging the gulf. Shantaraksita, of course, remarks that learned Brähmanas have great respect for Buddha, that a true Brahmana is he who has removed all sins (vahitapapatvad brahmanah) and that such Brähmanas are to be found only in the religion of the Enlightened Sage. But such things receded into the background when instead of real arguments dogmatic arguments and repartees often came into the forefront. For example, the Mimamsakas said : Because Buddha taught his doctrine to fools and Shudras, therefore it is clear that his teaching was .false like a counterfeit coin. In fact, just as a herbal medicine which has been touched by the teeth of a mongoose removes, even when playfully used, all poison from a limb bitten by a snake, similarly any argument, whether Vedic or secular, emanating from the mouth of a follower of the Veda removes all poisonous misconceptions of Buddhism. And the Buddhist retorted: long time has passed and women are fickle by nature. So it is very difficult to ascertain the purity of the Brahmana race. The feeble and the foolish Brahmana at the very sight of the poisonous eyes of a Buddhist-snake, cannot even breathe much less can he think of setting it aside. Even a reasonable argument from the mouth of a follower of the Veda looks ugly like a necklace or a string of beads placed on the feet. Now, the result of all this was that Buddhism could not resist the onslaught of Brahmanism and was ousted from the land of its birth. Shantaraksita himself was forced to retire to Tibet where he called his disciple Kamalashila too. And with them virtually ended the Buddhistic philosophy in India, though a Buddhist scholar here and a Buddhist scholar there continued even up to a much later date.
Then came the great Shankara in that very eighth century just after Shantaraksita. He gave the final death-blow to Buddhistic philosophy. We have seen that Shankara was greatly influenced by Buddhism. But the vital error of the Svatantra-Vijnanavadins together with other things which degraded Buddhism changed the love and respect towards Buddhism shown by Gaudapada into the outward animosity and hatred exhibited by Shankara. He has nothing but bitter and strong remarks for Buddhism. We have seen that Shankara does not criticize Shunyavada and real Vijnanavada. Svatantra-Vijnanavada is the only school of Mahayana criticized and rightly refuted by Shankara. Why did Shankara not refute Shunyavada and Vijnanavada? There are two hypotheses. It is said that on account of the mutual animosity» hatred and distrust, the Buddhists kept their texts secret from the non-Buddhists. It is also said that Kumarila in order to know the essentials of Buddhism first became a Buddhist and studied in a Buddhist monastery for years. It may be that the Shunyavada and the Vijnanavada texts were not avail-able to Shankara. But there is another hypothesis which seems to be more probable when we remember how faithfully and correctly Shankara has presented Sarvastivada and Svatantra-Vijnanavada. It may be that Shankara fully knew how similar Shunyavada and Vijnanavada were to his own Vedanta and that the differences were more or less a matter of emphasis only. He also knew that the best in them was already preserved in Gaudapada’s and also in his own philosophy. He also knew that their fundamental teachings could not be refuted because he him-self accepted them. Shankara’s aim was to oust Buddhism, so he just dismissed Shunyavada as nihilism by taking the word Shunya in its popular sense of negation and avoided Vijnanavada by taking it in the sense of Svatantra-Vijnanavada only.
Most of the Post-Shankarites, following Shankara, do the same thing and repeat his arguments. But when Buddhism was ousted and the struggle died down, people began to think dispassionately about Buddhism. Thus we find some post-Shankarites remarking that if Shunyavada is not nihilism they have no quarrel with it for then it is merged in Vedanta, and if Vijnanavada is not subjectivism advocating the reality of momentary vijnänas but is absolute idealism, they have no quarrel with it for then it also embraces Vedanta. We find in the
same school an eminent person like Shriharsa openly admitting the similarities between Buddhism and Vedanta.
Even in the present time Buddhism is generally misunderstood. We have tried to clear the misunderstandings about it and have pointed out that throughout it is rooted in Vedanta. Mahayana Buddhism and Vedanta should now be viewed, not as two opposed systems, but only as different stages in the development of the same Upanisadic thought.
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