Disappearance of Buddhism in India
vpcnk at HOTMAIL.COM
Fri Jul 26 20:44:36 CDT 2002
This is something I wrote for a Buddhist list regarding the disappearance of
Buddhism in India.
In our mind the philosophical angle represents the true reason for the
disappearance of Buddhism as a seperate religion from the Indian soil. We
will analyze the development of some core issues in Buddhist philosophy to
illustrate this point :
1. The Buddha - the Buddha is distinct from other philosophical streams due
to his teaching of anatta. Most schools taught the reality of the Self -
knowing the self is salvation - so the path is subjective. In contrast the
Buddha ignored the self and taught the control/discipline of the non-self -
his path thus is objective.
But it is to be noted that nowhere do we find the Buddha denying the atman -
anatta only meant the all that's not the self - the non-self.
There are three fundamental reasons for the teaching of anatta :
a. The individual self is a compound of the psycho/physical being and the
spirit - thus it cannot be said to have any substance.
b. When reality is beyond the mind and is not be attained by any action, why
does it need to figure in spiritual practice at all? Understanding and
disciplining the non-self - the mind/body/senses - is what is required.
Including reality in a spiritual scheme only results in endless speculation
on it which is actually counter productive to spiritual progress.
c. Also in the ultimate sense, one needs to let go of the will which is the
root of the "I" sense for reality to manifest.
It is in these three contexts that the Buddha taught anatta.
2. Hinayaana especially the Milindapanha has an axe to grind. Engaging in
polemics against the other ethical schools it leans heavily on anatta and
asserts that there's no substance at all. Everything is momentary. The
Sarvaastivaada schools indulge in some metaphysical speculation - atomism
3. Naagaarjuna comes in with two fundamental objectives :
a. to warn against excessive stress on anatta and
b. to condemn the speculative trend in Sarvaastivaada.
He too follows the Buddha in his fundamental teaching :
a. to understand and reject unreality using shunyataa and
b. to abandon the will using the chatushkoti and bhakti (devotion).
Till here Buddhists by always cleverly talking only about unreality or
referring to liberation in phenomenal terms as "end of suffering" or
"elimination of kleshas", had always maintained an ambiguous stand on
reality. Naagaarjuna too remains ambiguous about the ontological status of
nirvaana expressing it only in epistemological terms as "cessation of
plurality" and the "world removed from the lens of causation is itself
nirvaana" etc. But his heavy negative dialectic in condemning the unreal had
earned shunyavaada the reputation of nihilism. Also the trend in Maadhyamika
circles to get caught in the intellectual loop and make the chatushkoti
itself a view needs to be corrected.
4. So the Yogaacaarins come into the picture with the main objective : after
chatushkoti, the necessity to practice yoga so as to attain the reality of
pure consciousness (vijnaanamaatra).
So here for the first time, necessiated by the excessive negativity of the
Maadhyamika, Buddhism is forced to compromise on its ambiguous stand on
reality and come forth with a clear assertion on the nature of reality.
5. Now along comes Gaudapaada - an orthodox philosopher who notes the
similarity of the teachings of the Mahaayaana with the Upanishads. It is to
be noted that the Vedaanta was not in vogue and atbest practiced only in
very select circles as historically we do not have a record of other schools
even talking about it before the rise of Advaita - but now using Mahaayaana
dialectic it is revived.
Gaudapaada only shows that all epistemological or psychological observations
of Mahaayaana presupposes a metaphysical base - you can dispute the
metaphysical conceptions about the object but cannot deny the object itself.
It can be said that the world is like a circle created by waving a
firebrand. But still without the firebrand even such an analogy would not be
possible. The negative is only the luxury of the mind but without conceptual
construction every single instance of our conscious experience only affirms
something and never denies anything. Nobody says : "I'm not" or "this is
not". Consciousness (here I'm talking about basic awareness and not mind
consciousness) itself implies something positive to be conscious about. And
even with respect to conceptual construction, the negative has no value in
itself and exists only in relation to something else.
The negative standpoint has its use but if you take it to its extreme it
only winds up in nihilism. Affirming an absolute is the natural next step
after the chatushkoti. The analysis of the three states of the waking, dream
and deep sleep which reveals the existance of a changeless part of our
identity due to which our identity survives the three states, is itself the
pointer to reality.
Metaphysics if logically reconciled with Mahaayaana thought, can end only in
the spiritual absolutism of the Upanishads. In the Lankaavataara Sutra when
questioned whether Vijnaanavaada was not the same as the Atman doctrine, the
Tathaagatha answers that while the proponents of the Atman doctrine hold
that the "Self is", the Vijnaanavaadins hold that the Self neither is, nor
is not, nor both, nor neither. But it is to be noted that this reference to
the Atmavaadins is only directed towards those who taught the plurality of
souls which was historically rooted in strong implications of individuality.
But Gaudapaada interpreting the Upanishadic Atman as a single all pervasive
non-dual consciousness is not liable to such criticism and thus comfortably
asserts in his Kaarika that only those who go beyond the concepts of Self,
non-Self, both or neither are truly omniscient! Gaudapaada goes all the way
to show that the Upanishadic Brahman is the true teaching of the Buddha.
Only the Buddha didn't teach it - naitad Buddhena baashitam - out of
practical interest. Gaudapaada provides numerous quotes from the Upanishads
to support his interpretation of non-duality.
The last chapter of Gaudapaada's Kaarika - Alaatashaanti Praakarna or the
quenching of the fire brand has a double meaning - 1. The philosophical
counter attacks as illustrated above and 2. The signal that the Buddhists
had themselves over a period of time moved very close to Vedic religion in
philosophy and it was time to quench the fire brand of Buddhism into the
very source from which it had erupted - the Vedic Religion, which itself had
undergone tremendous transformation since the advent of the Buddha.
Here the Buddhists could have protested that Gaudapaada was hijacking their
philosphy. But the chronological superiority of the Upanishads over the
Buddha is the deciding factor here. The Upanishads had taught it first and
so the Buddhists are on the defensive now.
Some liberal minded Buddhist scholars like Bhaavaviveka reach out to
Gaudapaada in agreement. But other Buddhists like Chandrakirti, anxious to
preserve the distinct identity of Buddhism, are opposed to it. But even here
they only oppose any expression of the absolute and not the absolute itself.
But clearly understanding that they cannot maintain their distinctness on
the philosophies of Naagaarjuna and Vaasubandhu, other Buddhists - Dignaaga,
Dharmakirti et al - again revive the doctrine of momentariness. So from
Yogaacaara absolutism, it degenerates to Sautraantika nihilism. But it is a
lost cause since the doctrine had already been discredited by Naagaarjuna
and Vaasubandhu themselves - "it existed before but doesn't exist now -
entails the error of nihilism" - Mulamaadhyamaka Kaarikaa - Examination of
One thing to note here is that Buddhism is more a religion of reason than
its other Indian counterparts - unlike the saints of Shaivism or Vaishnavism
the majority of whom are poets who gained their popularity through
devotional poetry (even Shankara is popular among the masses only for his
highly inspired devotional hymns) - every Buddhist aachaarya was an
intellectual. Buddhism sustained itself on its philosophical subtleties
attracting the intelligensia in the society - naturally it caused a heavy
brain drain from the braahmanical ranks.
But the rise of Advaita Vedaanta which "completes the full picture", by
cooly reconciling Buddhist epistemology and psychology with Upanishadic
metaphysics, with its historical prestige rooted in scripture and powered by
as inspiring a figure as Shankara must have heavily stemmed the intellectual
flow thus sapping the interest in Buddhist philosphy over a period of time.
Buddhist philosophy had helped the Indian mind to climb to a certain level -
without doubt the concepts of maayaa and its implication - advaya or
non-duality - are Buddhist contributions without which there would be no
Advaita at all - but after a certain stage it was helpless to prevent itself
from being assimilated into/by Advaita Vedaanta.
Losing its strong point - philosophy (though in the negative sense) - it
failed to attract new talent and gradually died out.
Please note that we do not hold that Buddhism and Advaita are the same -
they have a different set of ideals and practices - but just that these
differences alone weren't enought to sustain Buddhism's individual identity
The above analysis does not do full justice to Shankara's contribution -
maybe at a later date I'll write on how Shankara advanced the level of
understanding with regards reality.
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