Rise of Neo-Brahminism
8 Rise of Neo-Brahminism
BUDDHISM was the product of social conditions in India
which developed after the downfall of sacerdotal supremacy; it was the ideology of those progressive classes which could not ignore the consequences of the dissolution of Vedic society. Rejecting the dogma of other-worldliness, Buddhism secured enthusiastic support of the rising business classes (vaishyas) besides the kshatriyas, shudras and outcastes, the most oppressed sections of the Brahmin society, who all flocked to it.
The new philosophy of revolution caught the imagination of the Indians, and like an onrushing tide swept the country from one end to the other. Within four centuries after the passing away of the Buddha, Brahminism was eclipsed; its dogmas, tenets and traditions were ridiculed. Repeatedly challenging the supremacy of the Brahmins, the Buddhist and the Jaina texts openly declared kshatriyas to be superior. This view is supported even by the Mahabharata which says that the king dictated and the priest obeyed.
It is not suggested that the Buddhist Revolution had totally annihilated the Vedic religion or the caste system of the Brahmins. That was the consummation devoutly wished for but neither Buddhism nor Jainisl11 were successful in achieving it. Brahminism with its declining and dilapidated insti¬tutions continued to exist though in a moribund state; the elite of the Indian society and large masses of the people went
over to the Revolution which by removing strangling restric¬tions, brought them spiritual freedom, social emancipation and economic prosperity. Brahminism had fallen on bad days.
The crafty and astute Brahmins were, however, biding their time. They did not sit with folded hands witnessing the disaster unconcerned but were in search of an opportunity to stage a come-back. The deviations from the strict materialist conception and rationalist doctrines in the teachings of Buddha proved to be a fatal weakness of his philosophy and led to dissensions in the Buddhist order affording the needed oppor¬tunity to the defeated and demoralised Brahmins.
Early Buddhism did 110t admit the existence of any extra¬natural or metaphysical intelligence or force such as jivatman (soul) or Parmatman (Universal Soul or God) which might cause the combination of atoms to create the universe. The aggregation of atoms was said to be a mechanistic process out of which arise the so-called “internal” or intelli¬gent part of existence. This is the logical conclusion of Buddha’s fundamental assumptions. But the Buddhist philo¬sophy refused to draw this conclusion. Buddha studiously maintained silence and whenever questioned did not firmly reject the notions about the existence of soul or God. The reason must have been his acceptance of the theory of karma, sam sara (rebirth) and nirvana (liberation). The world is full of sorrows and miseries, he held, and one must run away from it and that can be done by obtaining liberation. The ideas of karma, samsara and nirvana contradict the fundamental theory of Buddhist Philosophy. The Brahmin thinkers pointing out the weakness vigorously lashed at the revolutionary creed. It was a strong whip with which to beat the Revolution.
In order to refute the Brahminical dogma of eternal truth, the Buddhist rebels expounded the doctrine of momentariness of everything that exists in the universe and this doctrine began to be applied not only to the physical but also to the mental phenomena. The adverse effects of earthly existence¬pain, sorrow, misery, suffering-were also declared to be non¬permanent. It opened the path towards idealism. What is momentary can not be real and abiding. Therefore pain and SUffering are only mental states which do not exist. What
exists is idea. Such an ideational deviation rendered Buddhism susceptible to Brahminical influence and subject to severest onslaughts of its antagonists.
While the positive rationalist-materialist character of Buddhism made it victorious and brought about the social revolution its ideational deviation led it to its defeat and downfall.
The deviation became pronounced when followers of Buddha were divided into different schools broadly classified under Hinayana (Lesser Vehicle) and Mahayana (Greater Vehicle). The most renowned teacher of the latter school, Nagarjuna, who flourished in the beginning of the Christian Era brought (philosophically speaking) Buddhism from a Brahmin family very close to Brahminism. He was a convert to Buddhism. He played a similar role in Buddhism as St. Paul did in Christianity. His doctrines are known as Madhyamika or “Middle Path” (not to be confused with Buddha’s “Middle Path”) and is so-called because, he claimed, it avoids the extremes of reality and unreality. He stated that everything which surrounds us is empty and whatever we see is an illusion. The highest goal can neither be called void nor not-void. His Madhyamika theory is therefore generally called sunyavada or School of Nihilism. It declares : “there is no reality, mental or material, nor is there anything real.” Though nihilism of the Mahayana Buddhists is different from that of earlier nihilists because in it emptiness means indetermina¬teness, Nagarjuna stresses that sunya is not nothing; it is, he asserts, positively speaking, basis of everything. His void is in fact nirvana or end to the cycle of rebirths. Nevertheless, being identical with pure consciousness, it has been described by critics as Buddhist Brahman, being considered as Ultimate Reality.
Mahayanists were initially named as the Mahasanghikas (members of the great community) and the Hinayanists were called Theravadins or Sthaviravadins (believers in the teachings of elders). The main deviation of the former was to deify Buddha and to assert that he was supra mundane (/okkottara) so that what passed as Buddha on earth was just an apparition. With this change, Buddhism became an established Church and a religion. It shed most of its revolutionary character and
devised ways and means to provide a place in the new reli¬gion for the laity. “Nagarjuna was the Luther of Buddhism”, says Havell, “the apostle of bhakti-marga who would find means of expression for the deep-seated religious instincts of the masses through the way of devotion to the Divine Teacher rather than through the dry agnostic philosophy of Hinayana School. The latter, having accomplished the Buddha’s mission of freeing the people’s soul, fast bound by the chains of sacerdotal superstitions, was too cold and austere to satisfy the passionate and emotional nature of Southern races.”!
Significantly, the Mahayana School was dominated by the Brahmins. From early days of the Revolution a handful of Brahmins had joined the Buddhist Sangha and taken active part in spreading the message of the Enlightened One. When their number became larger they were able not only to corrupt the order but also subvert the Revolution. Says Havell:
“The popular party, headed apparently by Brahman members of the Sangha, detached itself from the primitive doctrines of the faith and under the name of the Mahayana, or Great Vehicle, compiled a revised version of the Dharma in which the divinity of Buddha was accepted as an orthodox belief, and Patanjali’s teaching of Yoga became incorporated in the Buddhist canons.”2
The rise of the Mahayana School proved alike the cause of Buddhism’s greatest popularity and its extinction. Under the Mahayanists the creed of Buddha spread rapidly to every corner of the subcontinent and beyond its borders. The orthodox Hinayana survived in some pockets in South India where a prosperous merchant community lived. Buddhism was the philosophy of the revolutionary classes. Unfortunately in North India progressive social forces ceased to develop and Buddhism was compelled to seek the patronage of the upper classes which accentuated its ideational deviation. With the adoption of Mahayana by the followers of Buddha it became easier for the alert Brahmins to bring them under their influence. The difference between Buddhism and Brahmi¬nism was no greater than that which separated one Brahmi¬nieal school from another.3
The Buddhist monks now began to take part in Hindu processions. “The Buddhist family which gave its chief support to the local monastery, would at all time rely on the services of the Brahmins at birth, marriages and deaths”, says A. L. Bhasham. “If for a time Buddhism became to all intents and purposes a separate religion, denying the Vedas, the ordinary layman might not see it in that light. For him Buddhism was one of the many cults and faiths, by no means mutually exclusive, all of which led to salvation and all of which were respectable and worthy of honour. ‘ Thus in medieval North India the Buddha came to be looked on as the ninth of the ten incarnations of the great god Vishnu and Buddhism gradually lost its individuality, becoming a s~ecial a~d rather u.northodox ~indll sect, which like many others, dId not survlve … Buddhlsm in India was dead.”4
Nor was the fate of Jainism very different from that of Buddhism. It is true that in Jainism there is no God or Creator and man’s emancipation from suffering .does not depend on the mercy of any Supreme Being. Man is the architect of his own destiny, stressed Mahavira. But Jainism more than Buddhism, is a philosophy of escapism; the best life is the life of renunciation; it is the shortest way to salvation. As stated earlier Jaina thinkers propounded the basic doctrine of their philosophy in what came to be known as syadavad, the theory of probability. They failed to affirm or take to its logical conclusion their materialistic conception of the universe. When all knowledge is only probable and relative your opponent’s view is as likely to hold as yours. The re~ult of this spirit of accommodation led to its own failure. Brahmin philosophers made sayadavad as the thin end of the wedge with which to break down Jainism and expose the hollowness of its thought. Besides, Mahavira too like Buddha accepted the popular Brahmin theory of rebirth which was incompatible with the revolutionary view of inconstant nature of soul on which he had built his philosophy. Later Jainism was also ~ot ,:nwilling to admit some gods from the Brahmin pantheon m.to Its own galaxy of spiritual and deified men. “Beginning with castes and sub-castes taken over from Hinduism Jainism was progressively adopting a number of Hindu prac~
tices and beliefs, with the result that it was gradually becoming almo&t indistinguishable from the surrounding creeds. It lost its characteristic marks and its adherents then fell a prey to the prevailing proselytising forces.”5 Thus Jainas became a sect, albeit somewhat heterodox, of the Brahmin society.
Under the Mahayana school Buddhism ceased to be the ideology of social revolution or refuge for the downtrodden and the outcaste. For more than three hundred years the inmates of the Buddhist monasteries were recruited mostly from the poor and oppressed classes. The Sangha was not influential enough to win patr0ns among the Aryan aristocracy. But after having shed its original revolutionary fervour, the gates of monasteries were closed for the lowly and the disinherited. Opulent monasteries became the preserve of the upper class monks and nuns; slaves and outcastes were excluded by ordinances. “The multitude of diademed Bodhisattavas”, ob¬serves D. D. Kosambi, “magnificent women in rich but highly revealing costumes and their handsome male companions stretch unbroken from Gandhara to Bharhut to Ajanta and Amravati. No rotting half-eaten corpse, no leprous beggar with festering sores mars the smooth harmony of sumptuous frescoes and reliefs to remind the monk of the Founder’s doctrine. Nor does the art portray the normal hardships of the poorest villager (pamara), whose surplus the monk could eat, but The Buddhist Order thus tended to move away from the common people and isolate itself, which in turn diminished much of its religious strength, a development which one suspects the Buddha would not have found acceptable.”7
Ashoka sought and to some extent succeeded in furnishing the ideology of the social revolution, but he was mistaken to believe that through widest publicity of Dhamma alone could the anti-revolutionary forces be checked for ever. He pande¬red demonstratively to the vanities of monasticism. Already in his time tendencies were visible towards the development of rituals among the Buddhists which were no less repugnant than the Brahminical sacrifices it superseded. “The cult of relic worship developed a ritual as elaborate as that of Vedic times, and popular belief in the miraculous was exploited to promote lavish expenditure on the building of stupas and monasteries for the safe custody of a supposititious eye-lash, tooth, or toe-nail of the Blessed One, or of the ashes of a Buddhist saint.”8
By mere wide proclamation of the Dhamma, Ashoka expected to change human nature and give such spiritual in¬sight to people as would make the Revolution everlasting. “But the millennium had not arrived and human nature was not changed by the affirmation of great spiritual truth.”9
Even such an ardent admirer of Buddhism and Ashoka as Rhys Davids has to admit : “That he (Ashoka) failed was no wonder. The set of opinions he favoured with his patronage was enfeebled and corrupted by his favour. With all his evident desire to do the very best possible things, and always to be open to the appeals of the subjects he looked upon as his children, he left his empire in such a condition that it soon disintegrated and crumbled away. He made the boast (vain boast) that the Brahmin, who claimed to be gods upon the earth, had, by his efforts, ceased to be so regarded, and he himself committed the irreparable blunder of imagining himself to be a deus ex machina, able and ready to put all things and all men straight.”10
Barely forty years after the great Emperor’s death, the Mauriya dynasty ended when its last monarch, Brihadratha was assassinated by his Brahmin general, Pushyamitra, during a
whose misery was easily discounted on the callous theory that the suffering must have been deserved because of misdeeds in some previous birth.”6
The standard of conduct set up in the Buddhist Sangha did not reach the high ideal of its Founder. The Master’s message to the humanity that the good Jiving alone led to emancipation from suffering was forgotten and the obscurantism of Brahmin priesthood entered the monasteries and nunneries. “Gone were the days”, says R. Thapar, “when the Buddhist monks lived entirely on the alms which they collected in the morning hours for now they ate regular meals in vast monastic refrectories. Monasteries were built either adjoining a town or else on some beautiful and secluded hill-side far removed from the clam our of cities. Secluded monasteries were suffi¬ciently well endowed to enable the monks to live comfortably.
military review in 184 B.C. If Kalhana, the author of Raja¬tarangni, is to believe at least one of Ashoka’s descendants, Jalauka, was anti-Buddhist and pro-Brahmin and is reported to have been an ardent Shaiva (worshipper of Shiva).l1
Having beaten the Buddhists on both philosophical and political fronts, the Brahmins took the offensive for the res¬toration and revivification of the old order. They were determined to go to any length and adopt any means to destroy the Revolution and obliterate the names of the opponents of Vedas from history.
In this campaign no holds were barred; even if truth was to be sacrificed Brahmin philosophers did not hesitate to do so. In the “Shanti Parvan” of the Mahabharata, Narada, messenger of the gods, is reported to have advised Shuka on the authority of Sanatkumara: “Speaking the truth is the proper thing; but rather than truth, speak that which will lead to the welfare of all, because that in which the highest welfare of all consists is in my opinion the real truth. “12
In the eyes of the Brahmins the welfare of all consisted in the destruction of Buddhism and the restoration of the Vedic religion, for which aim truth could be unhesitatingly overlooked. The first step in this direction was to destroy the heterodox literature, particularly dealing with materialist ideas and rationalist principles produced during the centuries when free thought flourished. “While at least the major texts of the other schools are preserved for us”, bemoans D.P. Chatto¬padhyay, “all the original works of the Lokayatikas are lost beyond the prospect of any possible recovery. What we are actually left with are merely fragmentary survivals of the Lokayata, but all these are preserved in the writings of its opponents, i.e. of those who wanted only to refute and ridicule it.”13 No wonder that the doctrines and theories of Indian materialist schools have been distorted and Chattopadhyay has to warn the modern student that he should “always remain alert to distinguish between the vilification of and genuine information about the Lokayata.”
But the Brahmins did not stop with destruction of the anti- Vedic rationalist literature. The vandalism also made Buddhist religious places as its target. Coming to power,.
Pushyamitra wishing to gain notoriety decided to perform some unusual feat. “When questioning people as to why Ashoka gained fame, he was told that it was due to Ashoka having built 84000 stupas for Buddhism. Whereupon Pushymitra decided that he would gain fame by destroying these 84000 stupas.”14 Soon the nefarious practice spread and the defenders of Vedic cult emulated Pushymitra. Not only were the stupas and chaityas razed, the monks and nuns as also the Buddhist laity were physically liquidated without any pity or remorse. The ruthless policy of extermination continued so long as Buddhism remained a force to be reckoned with.
The renowned Kashmir historian, Kalhana, who lived in the twelfth century A.C. says that King Jalauka, instigated by wicked persons, ordered demolition of viharas because the sound of clarions disturbed his sleep.15 In the reign of another Kashmir monarch, Abhimanyu, the Brahmin historian records, the Buddhists were murdered in large numbers year after year and to avoid being accused of the crime the King resided during winter for six months outside the Kashmir valley in Dharvabhisara and other places.16 To exonerate his co¬religionists of the crime, Kalhana attributes the genocide to heavy snowfall but exposes his partiality by adding: “During the period owing to some indescribable spiritual power of Brahmins who made votive offerings and sacrifices, were not destroyed while the Buddhists perished.”I? Another King of Kashmir, Nara alias Kinnara, adds the poet-historian, enraged by alleged abduction of a woman by a Buddhist, caused thousands of viharas to be burnt down and had the villages belonging to them occupied by the Brahmins residing in Madhyamatha.18 The massacre of Buddhists and destruction of their religious places did not stop until Buddhism was rooted out from the valley. Kalhana concludes: “When the rites originating from Nila (the author of Nilamat Purana) had been reestablished by the King (Gonanda III), the bhikshus and the snow calamities ceased altogether (to give trouble).”19
In other parts of India the Buddhists fared no better at the hands of Brahmin temporal power. Professor P. Lakshmi Narasu says: “A century after Kanishka, Vikramaditya, King of Sravasthi, became a persecutor of the Buddhists. Mihirkula,
a worshipper of Shiva, slaughtered countless followers of Buddha. Sashanka, Raja of Bengal, proved in the middle of the seventh century A.C. an inveterate enemy of Buddhism and endeavoured a number of time to uproot the Bodhi tree … At the instance of Kumarila Bhatta the Buddhists were driven out of Kerala. According to Shankara Vijaya (Con¬quest of Shankaracharya), King Sudhanvan issued the following injunction to his people : ‘From the bridge (of Rama in Ceylon) to the Himalayas, who does not slay the Buddhists, both old and young, shall be slain’… Sulpani, the oreat founder of the Bengal School of Law, made the very “sight of a Buddhist atonable by the most severe penances.”20
Refuting the claims of the present-day Hindu revivalists that Brahminism has always been tolerant of other creeds, P. Ramanathan writes about prosecution of Buddhists and Jainas in South India : “Apologists like Vivekananda and Dr. Radhakrishnan describe Hinduism as a religion which never persecuted, nay never proselytised … The impalling of 8,000 Tamilian Jainas on a single day by the Tamilian Brahmin, Thirignana Sambhanda, at Madurai around 600 A.D. is a matter which is even now celebrated ‘by an annual festival in the Meenakshi temple at Madurai and at many other temples. The Vaikuntha Peru mal temple in Kanchipuram is only one among numerous containing bas relief sculptures of the murder and torture of Tamilian Buddhists and Jainas.”21
The Brahmin writers have gleefully stated that the heterodox faith of Buddhism was wiped out by a dreadful persecution held at the instigation of Kumarila Bhatta in the first half of the eighth century. This view has been accepted by the Western orientalists like Wilson and Colebrook. Indeed W. T. Wilkins makes the sweeping charge: “The disciples of Buddha were so ruthlessly persecuted that all were either slain, exiled or made to change their faith. There is scarcely a case on record where a religious persecution was so succcess¬fully carried out as that by which Buddhism was driven out of India.”22 Rhys Davids questions the veracity of this accusation. He observes; “We must seek elsewhere for the causes of the decline of the Buddhist faith, and they will be found, I think, partly in the changes that took place in the
itself, partly in the change that took place in the intel¬lectual ~tan~ard of the people.”23 But the part played by per.secutlOn III destroying the Buddhist Revolution cannot b
The ~atal blow to th.e Revolution was, however, dealt not by genocIde of the BuddhIsts and Jainas but by the Maha¬bharat~ .War. When. due to their own folly the kshatriyas were dI:’Ided and enmIty led to the gigantic clash the counter¬revolutlOn~ry f~rces. to?k advantage of the situation in getting the kshatnya elIt~ lIqUIdated in the fratricidal war.
Despit~ the destruction of Lokayata literature, massacre of the BuddhIsts and the Mahabharata War the embers of the R:volution con.tinued to smoulder for hundreds of years. Fa¬BIen, .the ~hlllese pilgrim, found in the fourth century A.C. Buddhism.alIve though everywhere in decay. In the seventh ~entury hIS more famous countryman, Bieun Tsiang, reports
nearly two h?ndred thousand of Buddhist order of whom three-fourth stIll adhered to the older form (Binayana) and
fourth were Mahayanists.”24 one
Though.the Buddhists continued to measure swords with the Brahmllls, th~ former were playing a losing game. The en~ ?f th~ revol~tlOnary era had arrived. “A study of the relIglO-phI1osophical literature, both Buddhist and Brahminical of the peri~d”, says Nihar Ranjan Ray, “shows that fro~ about the thIrd and fourth centuries Aryavarta was in a great fe~ment . of thought and minds and ideas came into conflict WIth mlllds and ideas, and in these and following centuries combata~ts came roughly to be ranged on two sides, one representmg the though t of Nagarj una, Aryadeva, Asanga, Vasubandhu and Dinnaga, another represented by the Yogasu:ras and Nyaya Sutras, by Vatsyayana, Uddyotakara, and Kumanla, to name only a few. Out of this ferment and turmoil evolved neo-Brahminism, sturdy and vigorous in action robust ~nd virile in imagination, fertile in creation and com~ prehenslvely ethnic in origin. “25
. One ~ay. bemoan this outcome but it is futile to deny that It was. InevIt~ble l~nder the circumstances. The fact of the matter IS that In anCIent India no rising economic class gained the necessary strength with which it could successfully challenge
the sacerdotal supremacy and destroy it for ever. In the eighth and seventh centuries B.C. the Vedic tribal order broke down and the Indian society was in a state of dissolution; it caused suffering and hardship all around. There was universal dissatisfaction with the conditions of life as they were. Brahmins had prevented the growth of trading and mercantile classes though they were helpless before the warrior clan of ruling kshatriyas. The kshatriyas supported by the weak trading classes, were ,the only force to bury the dying order and found a new progressive society on its ashes. But they did not prove strong enough to administer the final blow. “All the schools of Indian Philosophy, quasi-materialistic or materialistic, rationalistic or atheistic barring the honourable exception of Charvak, bear the stamp of vacillation and diffidence. All looked upon Nature as a source of bondage, the freedom was not to be sought in breaking the bondage that is by under¬standing and conquering Nature but by the imaginary way of running away from the evil”. The pre-occupation of the philosopher’s mind is how to gain moksha (liberation) from
samsara (cycle of births).
The idea of bringing Nature under control of man did not
enter into the calculation of Indian speculation. Release from rebirth was the greatest aspiration of all. Tapas (self-torture) became the common means of attaining the goal. In neo¬Brahminism, tapas was set up as great ideal and tapsvi (self-torturer), the ideal man. Says Rhys Davids: “From this time onwards down to quite the modern times this tapas, self¬mortification, is a permanent idea … there is no question here of penance for sin, or an appeal to the mercy of an offended deity. It is the boast of superiority advanced by the man, able through strength of will, to keep his body under, and not only to despise comfort, but to welcome pain.”26 Tapas is not the conquest of nature: it can only help in blocking all the ways of knowing external nature. For that reason it means plunging headlong into the dark ocean of blissful ignorance.
In the social dissolution of ancient India, people saw that life was full of miseries and even the legitimate desires of man could not be satisfied. Instead of finding the ways to remove the miseries and fulfil the desires the philosophers laid utmost stress on control of desires which would lead to freedom from the evils of nature and thus the misery would end. The revolutionary Buddhism and Jainism could not fully live down that corrupting tradition and were eventually vitiated by the poison. “The triumph of the doctrine of self¬mortification as the way out of the miseries of life represented the defeat of the forces of dissatisfaction with, and the revolt against, the established order of Brahmin society. It was the triumph of the so-called spiritualist view of life and a tremendous social reaction. “27
In similar circumstances, in ancient Greece, merchant princes rose in rebellion against the power and privileges of priest¬hood and created a purely materialistic philosophy. It was a powerful class with an effective voice and therefore succeeded in sweeping away the sacerdotal supremacy. The trading classes in India failed to achieve that success because they were weak; hence their revolutionary materialist philosophy was also of a compromising character.
Some trade in large volume appears to have grown in certain regions of South India, which fact explains the estab¬lishment and persistence of Hinayana Buddhism in those parts. Says Havell : “The Aegean, Babylonian and Dravidian cultures … were essentially mercantile civilisations with a more limited spiritual outlook than the Aryan though in the nature of things they would leave more material evidence of their existence for posterity, for they were more concerned with the happiness which lies in the material possessions than in spiritual thoughts,”28