brahman by birth or guna and karma

Sankar Jayanarayanan kartik at ENG.AUBURN.EDU
Fri Nov 22 23:32:09 CST 1996

On Fri, 22 Nov 1996, Ramakrishnan Balasubramanian wrote:

> Why, even Vyasa was the son of a fisherwoman.

But I doubt if Satyavati, Vyasa's mother, was the daughter of a
fisherman. She is supposed to have been born of the seed of a deva
which was swallowed by a fish, if I remember right. So she had divine
genes :-)

> And yes, I too remember the
> Yaksha Prashna in which Yudhishtra talks about brahmin-hood. Ingenious
> speculations and explanations notwithstanding, brahamana hood does not depend
> on birth. There is nothing buddhistic about this, infact. One common
> misconception is that the Buddhists were against caste system. That's untrue.
> Buddha in one of his discourses says people who do good deeds will be
born as
> brahmins or kshatriyas.

But Buddha says that the "Brahmin by birth" formula does not hold. As in
this quote:

"I do not call him a Brahmana merely because he is born of a (Brahmin)
womb or sprung from a (Brahmin) mother. He is merely a ``Bhovadi'' (one
addressed as ``Sir'') if he is with impediments. He who is free from
impediments, free from clinging - him I call a Brahmana."

Very clearly, Buddha did place the title "Brahmana" in high esteem, though
the meaning he assigns to it has nothing to do with Jati.

> The only thing is that he holds kshatriyahood higher
> than brahmin hood. A careful reading of Buddhist texts will reveal this
> (ignoring the usual mis-info spread in text books of Indian history,
> in India and pop-culture myths). In fact, sociologists speculate that the
> Buddhist and Jainist movements were to assert the superiority of kshatriyas
> over brahmins (See Ghurye, Caste and Politics in India (?)) and not an
> anti-caste movement per se.

Buddha definitely permitted people of any caste into his Sangha.
The Buddhist dharma is independent of caste, unlike hinduism, which
allocates different roles in society to different castes and even in
many cases, the rules pertaining to moksha (eg. according
to Shankara, only Brahmins can take up Sannyasa). So I don't know
how exactly you can conclude that Buddhism was not anti-caste. Maybe you
mean that Buddhism was simply "without caste"?

The Dhammapada devotes an entire chapter called "Brahmanavagga" to the
explanation of the term "Brahmana." Again evidence that the term
"Brahmana" was a "high caste" during Buddha's time (especially since
etymologically, the term has nothing to do with Buddhist ideology) and
the fact that Buddha himself incorporated this term into his teaching shows
that he wasn't exactly placing the "Brahmins" (or Bhovadis) in a lower
position than the Kshatriyas. Rather, it seems to be the opposite.

And among Buddha's greatest disciples was Mahakassapa, a Brahmin.
Many other disciples like Pippalana and Dona were also Brahmins. One of
the great triumphs of Buddhism was the conversion of about 200 Brahmin
students at Varanasi.

Also, there were several postings arguing against Buddha being
considered a Rishi or equivalent, since his teachings were refuted by
later great advaitins.

The following extract is from "Gotama Buddha" by H. Nakamura:

(Chapter 6, section 6 titled "Brahmana students of the south", p.97)

"...The story of the conversion of Bavarin and his Brahmana disciples can
be found. According to this account, Bavarin left the capital city of
Kosala and came south to Dakkhinapatha....A benevolent god appeared to him
and revealed the following:

`There exists a leader of the world formerly from the capital city of
Kapilavatthu, a descendant of the Okkala king, Ikshvaku, and son of the
Sakya tribe, who illuminates the world. O Brahmana, he is the truly
enlightened Sambuddha. He has reached the ultimate in all things, and has
attained divine powers and complete vision. He has reached the extinction
of all, extinct are all doubts and he is emancipated. The Buddha, the man
with vision, preaches the Dharma for the world; go to him and inquire, he
will explain to you.'

"...Bavarin called his Brahmana disciples who were well-learned and
masters of the Veda and told them:

`Come students, I shall make an announcement, listen to my words:
the man known as the Sambuddha, whose presence is extremely rare in this
world, has truly arrived. You must quickly go to Savatthi and see this
ultimate man.'

The disciples then asked how they might recognise that the man they were
told to see was actually an Enlightened Sambuddha: `O' master Brahmana,
how can we know by seeing him that he is the Buddha. Please teach us, as
we do not know, how we may identify him.'

Bavarin replied by giving proof of how to determine that the man they met
was the Buddha:

`Among the Vedas the thirty-two marks of the perfect man appear and are

Those who have such marks upon their physical body have only two courses,
there is no third.

If he is to remain as a house-holder he will conquer this great earth
without harshness and he will rule with justice.

If he departs from his house and becomes homeless (a monk), then he will
uncover the earth and become an Arhant, the ultimate Sambuddha.

You should ask him within your mind my (the master's) birthdate, name and
appearance (special marks), regarding my disciples and the problem of the
head faling.

If he is truly a Buddha who has no hindrance in vision, even to the
question asked in your mind he will answer in words.'

"...Hearing Bavarin's words, his sixteen disciples: Ajita,
Tissa-Maitreya,...being themselves well-knowledgeable, wise and
established individuals who engaged in meditation (Jhayin) and who had
planted good karma previously...

"...the capital of Magadha, where they arrived at a beautiful graceful
rock temple...

"...At that time, the Bhagavat was before the congregation receiving their
respect as he preached the Dharma like the roar of a lion in the forest.

"Ajita beheld the Sambuddha, the truly enlightened appear as the glowing
sun, or the replete full moon.

"At that time observing the perfect physical appearance of the Bhagavat,
with joy he stood in a corner and within his mind asked the questions:
`Tell me about my masters' birthdate, speak of his name and appearance and
how he is well-versed in the Vedas and to how many he teaches.'

"The Bhagavat clearly answered: `His age is one hundred and twenty years,
his name is Bavarin, his physical body has three unique characteristics
and he has mastered the utmost of the three Vedas. He possesses the
characteristics of a great man, has well mastered the traditional
vocabulary and rules of ritual, he instructs five hundred disciples and
has mastered the utmost of his Dharma.'

"...Ajita asked: 'The question of the head and the dropping of the head
Bavarin asked. O' Bhagavat, please explain that. O' hermit please
illuminate our doubts.'

"The Bhagavat replied: `Remember that ignorance is the head and bright
knowledge based upon faith, concentration, meditation, desire and efforts
can make the head fall.'

"This is the view that appears in the ancient Upanishads; however, in
Brahmanic teaching preceding Buddhism it was believed that those who
engaged in debate beyond their abilities or who indulged in improper
actions would lose their heads."

Well, the above narration seemed to indicate that the Buddha was "tested"
by Brahmins who finally came to the conclusion that he was a Sambuddha. So
is the Buddha considered a Rishi (or equivalent) or not?

Moreover, Gaudapada does, in his Karika, say that:

"The Jnana of the Buddha is all-pervasive, but does not extend to external
objects...But this is not in the teachings of Buddha...We salute this
knowledge to the best of our ability."

Now, it's quite obvious that the above is a praise to the Buddha, for
Gaudapada plainly says that it is the _knowledge of the Buddha_ which is
not in the teachings of the Buddha, which is merely saying that true
knowledge of the Buddha is ineffable and therefore cannot be expressed in
words, not that the teachings of the Buddha are false or that Buddha
wasn't enlightened. Moreover, the first verse of the last chapter of the
Karika is an invocation to "The greatest among the bipeds" and the entire
fourth chapter is based upon Buddhist teachings. According to Richard King
(and I agree with him), Gaudapada was trying to reconcile the teachings of
the Buddha with the Upanishads.

> Ramakrishnan.


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