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The Upanishads And Sri Buddha – Part 2: Pratītya-Samutpāda & Madhu-Vidya Doctrines

This is The Second Part Of Philosophical Paper Presented By Sunil Upasana In The Swadeshi Indology Conference – 2, Held At IGNCA, New Delhi On February 2017.

About Author: –

Sunil Upasana hails from Kerala (India) and has been a Bengalurean for 17 years. He has had a deep yearning to understand the profound philosophy that underlies Hinduism Read More.

To Read First Part, Click Here.

Critique of Sheldon Pollock’s Theses

            Western Indologist and professor at Colombia University, Sheldon Pollock is the most influential member of the current day Neo-Orientalist school of western Indological studies. He and his followers through their various theses distort Indian tradition, culture, dharma and reformulate them into a new narrative that reflect their worldview. This western universalistic worldview discounts India’s oral tradition, makes kāvyā-s devoid of religiosity, invents chronology for Indian literature so that it serves a pre-decided narrative, and pits Sri Buddha’s teachings against Hinduism. etc. Since Pollock is considered as an authority by many on Indian tradition just by virtue of being a sanskritist, his false arguments about Indian tradition must be critically evaluated and countered if found to be in contrast with what the insider tradition believes.

            Pollock (Pollock 2006:52) claims in his book, The Language of the Gods in the World of Men, that by the rejection of ātman, Buddhism altogether negated Upanishadic thought.

“…positive transvaluations in early Buddhism of core vaidika values were complemented by a range of pure negations, beginning with an-atta (an-atma), the denial of a personal essence, whereby the core conception of Upanishadic thought was cancelled.”

            This is a sweeping claim. By the above statement, Pollock wishes to establish that Buddha wanted to cancel the Upanishadic teaching of ātman concept, be it the notion of a paramātman or individual ātman. But the opinion of eminent Buddhist scholars differ quite radically from the narrative of Sheldon Pollock. WT Rhys Davids (Davids 2000:83-84) says –

            “Gautama was born and brought up and lived and died a Hindu. . . . There was not much in the metaphysics and principles of Gautama which cannot be found in one or other of the orthodox systems, and a great deal of his morality could be matched from earlier or later Hindu books. Such originality as Gautama possessed lay in the way in which he adopted, enlarged, ennobled and systematized that which had already been well said by others; in the way in which he carried out to their logical conclusion principles of equity and justice already acknowledged by some of the most prominent Hindu thinkers. The difference between him and other teachers lay chiefly in his deep earnestness and in his broad public spirit of philanthropy.”

            As the opinion of major Buddhist scholars runs contrary to the claims of Pollock, we must be critically evaluate the narrative built by Pollock through his research and examine the different ātman concepts that existed in the dharmic tradition in ancient times. Such an attempt is made here in this paper.

Continuing his false methods, Pollock argues that Vaidika systems start to write down their ideas due to Buddhist influence and that the Ramayana was written after Buddha, with heavy borrowings from Jataka tales. Pollock (Pollock 2006:52-53) is also emphatic in his opinion that Buddha totally despised the Vedas.

“Against the Mīmāṃsā tenet that the relationship between word and meaning is autpattika, “originary” or natural—a primal, necessary, and non-arbitrary relationship (some-times absurdly reduced by its opponents to a mechanical, even magical view of reference)—Buddhists typically argued for a relationship based on pure convention (sanketa, also avadhi). What was at stake for Mīmāṃsā in asserting the uncreated, eternal nature of language is the possibility that vanmaya, or a thing-made-of-language—that is, a text, like the Veda—could be eternal too, something the Buddhists sought fundamentally to reject.”

            This is only partially true. Buddha was opposed to the Vedas to a certain extent. But this was due to the elements of ritual sacrifice present in the Vedas rather than any disagreement with language convention. There are also opinions from some scholars and dialogues of Buddha that suggest that Buddha did support the ‘original, unaltered’ form of Vedas and later, due to the way sacrificial hymns were interpreted by certain Brahmins, Buddha was compelled to reject their authority and sanctity. This issue is also addressed in this paper.

The Upanishads: The Roots of Buddhist Philosophy

            In the following portions I venture to show that the three major teachings of Sri Buddha – pratītya-samutpāda, anātman and Nirvāṇa – have their roots in Upanishadic philosophy. This will greatly nullify Pollock’s theses which have an inherent tone of separation between Buddha’s teaching and Vedic literature.

Pratītya-Samutpāda of Sri Buddha & Madhu-Vidya of Sage Dadhyāch

Pratītya-samutpāda: –

            Sri Buddha always tried to avoid giving answers either in the affirmative or the negative to certain questions[i] in order to avoid the extremes of eternalism and annihilationism, and keep strictly to the Middle Way[ii]. As an example, for the question does the Thathagatha exist after death or not?, Buddha gave a thick silence as reply because he knew that if he gave ‘Yes’, it would be interpreted as promoting ‘eternalism’. On the other hand, if he gave ‘No’, he would be promoting the annihilation theory. So he remained silent[iii].

Buddha knew that the things that exists in the mundane world, neither exist nor non-exist ultimately. That being the case, what then was happening to them? Buddha’s answer was that, they are always ‘becoming’. Things always arise depending on previous things/conditions. This doctrine is known as pratītya-samutpāda or theory of dependent origination (as per Mahayanists, theory of relativity). The doctrine of pratītya-samutpāda has profound meaning. In Buddhism, pratītya-samutpāda is also known as ‘twelve chain of causation’[iv]. It contains three periods – past, present and future.

In this theory of relativity, every entity in the world depends on other entities for its existence. Not only the objects in the mundane world, but also the mental states, are inter-dependent. Such entities that depend upon each other are said to be essence-less[v]. Continuously changing entities are therefore devoid of essence and thus ultimate existence. Ultimate existence is only for that, which exists by itself, without help from anything external.

Madhu-Vidya: –

            Among Upanishads, the famous madhu vidya doctrine is in the oldest one, the Brihadaranyaka Upanishad. It is taught by the sage Dadhyāch. Madhu-vidya doctrine’s teaching is multifarious. But the main theme is that, everything in this universe is interconnected and thus has no independent existence. Hence, they have no essence. Let us quote from the commentary of Brihadaranyaka Upanishad by Sankaracharya (Swami Madhavananda 2011:262).

“Because there is mutual helpfulness among the parts of the universe including the earth, and because it is common experience that those things which are mutually helpful spring from the same cause, are of the same genus and dissolve into the same thing, therefore this universe consisting of the earth etc., on account of mutual helpfulness among its parts, must be like that. This is the meaning which is expressed in this section…”

            Sankaracharya here explicitly states that universal entities are in mutual helpfulness. Whatever exists by mutual helpfulness has no independent existence and so they are relative.

            It is very much evident that, for a genius like Buddha, the pratītya-samutpāda doctrine can be easily developed from the madhu-vidya doctrine of sage Dathyāch. Also, the law of causation (kārya-kāraṇa siddhānta), mentioned elsewhere in the Upanishads is the foundation of pratītya-samutpāda. In addition, depended origination is strongly based on the law of Karma, which is very well a Vedic concept. The pugdala-dharma śūnyata of Buddhists has its roots in the Upanishads. That being the case, (it is a fact that a prominent teaching of Sri Buddha that gave birth to the anātman theory, has its roots in the Upanishads), how can Sheldon Pollock claim that Buddha nullified Upanishadic thought? In fact, Buddha’s teaching was just a re-statement of Upanishadic thought from a new standpoint[vi].

To Read Third Part, Click Here.

References: –

[i] These fourteen questions are – Is the world eternal? Or not? Or both? Or Neither?; Is the world finite? Or not? Or both? Or neither?; Does the Tathagata exist after death? Or not? Or both? Or neither?; Is the soul identical with the body? Or not?

Potthapada Sutta.

[ii] “If I, Ananda, when the wandering monk Vachhagotta asked me: ‘Is there the ego?’ had answered: ‘The ego is’ then that, Ananda, would have confirmed the doctrine of the Sramanas and Brahmins who believe in permanence (of the ego). If I, Ananda, had answered: ‘The ego is not’, then that, Ananda, would have confirmed the doctrine of the Sramanas and Brahmins, who believe in annihilation (of the ego).”

— Samyutta Nikaya – 44, 10.

[iii] Certain scholar opines that Buddha’s silence was due to his absolutist stand about Ultimate Reality. Thus, Chandradhar Sharma says: ‘The ‘silence’ of Buddha on the fourteen metaphysical questions does not indicate his ignorance of metaphysics or his agnosticism or his nihilism. It indicates his absolutism by revealing that contradictions are inherent in thought and can be solved only by rising to immediate spiritual experience’.

The Advaita Tradition in Indian Philosophy. Page 17.

[iv] Systems of Buddhistic Thought, Yamakami Sogen. Page 85.

[v] Indian Idealism, Surendranath Dasgupta. Page 77.

[vi] “To develop his theory, Buddha had only to rid the Upanishads of their inconsistent compromises with Vedic polytheism and religion, set aside the transcendental aspect as being indemonstrable to thought and unnecessary to morals, and emphasis the ethical universalism of the Upanishads. Early Buddhism, we venture to hazard a conjecture, is only a restatement of the thought of the Upanishads from a new standpoint.”

— Indian Philosophy Volume 1, by S Radhakrishnan. Page 303.  

Featured Image Credit: – https://www.himalayaninstitute.org/series/wisdom-mandukya-upanishad/

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