[Advaita-l] Buddha confirmed to preexisting social norms of the Vedic society of his time

Raghav Kumar Dwivedula raghavkumar00 at gmail.com
Sun Mar 18 00:51:27 EDT 2018

The relevance of the above topic is I admit somewhat indirect to
Vedic/vedantic study. But since it's claimed by a few that Vedic society
was supposedly inequitous while the Buddha was ostensibly a reformer, i
wanted to share this blog post from the blog of Dr.Koenraad Elst.


               Indians and Westerners who know Buddhism through Dr. Bhimrao
Ambedkar and other modern pamphlet literature,  sometimes believe that the
Buddha started a movement of social reform, mobilizing against caste and
recruiting among low-caste people. As against this, Chinese and Japanese
Buddhists who have studied their religion only through its source texts,
think that Buddhism was an elite movement, recruiting among the upper
castes and patronized by kings and magnates. We will argue that these
believers are right, while the neo-Buddhists in India and outside
enthusiasts in the West are wrong.

                A good place to start is the Buddha's use of the term
*Ārya*. Buddhists
claim that when the Buddha lived and taught, the term *Ārya* had a general
psychological-ethical meaning “noble”, a character trait larger than and
not dependent on any specific cultural or religious tradition or social
class (let alone linguistic or racial group). It is used in the famous
Buddhist expressions,the “four noble truths” (*catvāri-ārya-satyāni*) and
the “noble eightfold path” (*ārya-astāngika-mārga*).   However, we must
look at the historical data without assuming modern and sectarian

Firstly, we must take into account the possibility that the Buddha too used
the term *Ārya* in the implied sense of “Vedic”, broadly conceived. It no
longer meant “Paurava”, the ethnic horizon of the Veda-composing tribes
(whereas in Anatolian and Iranian it would retain this ethnic meaning,
“fellow citizens” against “foreigners”, “us” against “them”), but in the
post-Buddha *Manu Smrti* and in general Hindu usage, it would retain the
association with the Vedic tradition, hence the meaning “civilized” in the
sense of “observing Vedic norms and customs”. The Buddha too may have
conceived of his personal practice as restored-Vedic and more Vedic than
the “decadent” formalism around him. “Back to the roots” is of all ages,
and it may have affected the Buddha as well. What speaks in favour of this
thesis is that the Buddha himself, far from being a revolutionary, appealed
to the “ancient way” which he himself trod, and which “the Buddhas of the
past” had also trodden.

After Vedic tradition got carried away into what he deemed non-essentials,
he intended to restore what he conceived as the original Vedic spirit.
After all, the anti-Vedicism and anti-Brahmanism now routinely attributed
to him, are largely in the eye of the modern beholder. Though later
Brahmin-born Buddhist thinkers polemicized against Brahmin institutions and
the idolizing of the Veda, the Buddha himself didn’t mind attributing to
the Vedic gods Indra and Brahma his recognition as the Buddha and his
mission to teach. His disciples took the worship of the Vedic gods as far
as Japan.

As Luis Gómez [1999: “Noble lineage and august demeanour. Religious and
social meanings of Aryan virtue”, in Bronkhorst & Deshpande: *Aryan and
Non-Aryan in South Asia*, Harvard, p.132-133] points out, the Buddhist
usage of *Ārya* is subject to “ambiguities”, e.g. in the *Mahāvibhāsā*:
“The Buddha said, ‘What the noble ones say is the truth, what the other say
is not true. And why is this? The noble ones […] understand things as they
are, the common folk do not understand. […] Furthermore, they are called
noble truths because they are possessed by those who own the wealth and
assets of the noble ones. Furthermore, they are called noble truths because
they are possessed by those who are conceived in the womb of a noble

At the end of his life, the Buddha unwittingly got involved in a political
intrigue when *Varsakāra*, a minister of the *Magadha*kingdom, asked him
for the secret of the strength of the republican states. Among the seven
unfailing factors of strength of a society, he included “sticking to
ancient laws and traditions” and “maintaining sacred sites and honouring
ancient rituals”. [*Dīgha Nikāya* 2:73] So, contrary to his modern image as
a “revolutionary”, the Buddha’s view of the good society was close to
Confucian and indeed Brahmanical conservatism. Far from denouncing “empty
ritual”, he praised it as a factor of social harmony and strength.  He
wanted people to maintain the ancestral worship of the Vedic gods, go to
the Vedic sites of pilgrimage and celebrate the Vedic festivals. In this
light, his understanding of *Ārya* may have been closer to the Brahminical
interpretation of the term as “Vedic” than nowadays usually assumed.

This even applies to the Buddha’s view of caste. Of most of the hundreds of
men recruited to the Buddha’s monastic order, we know the provenance, hence
the caste. More than 80% of the hundreds of men he recruited, were from the
upper castes. More than 40% were Brahmins. The Buddha himself was a
*Ksatriya*, son of the President-for-life of the proud *Sākya* tribe, and
member of its senate. His lay patrons, who had their personnel or their
feudal subordinates build monasteries for the Buddha, included most of the
kings and magnates of the nether Ganga region. Indeed, this patronage is
the main reason why Buddhism succeeded in becoming a world religion where
most other contemporaneous sects dwindled and disappeared.

                The successor-Buddha prophesied for the future, the
Maitreya, is to be born in a Brahman family, according to the Buddha
himself. When the Buddha died, his ashes were divided and sent to eight
cities, where the elites had staked their claims purely in caste terms: “He
was a Kshatriya and we are Kshatriyas, so we are entitled to his ashes.”
Clearly, his disciples, after undergoing his teachings for forty-five
years, were not in the least hesitant to display their caste in a Buddhist
context par excellence.

In his study of caste and the Buddha (“Buddhism, an atheistic and
anti-caste religion? Modern ideology and historical reality of the ancient
Indian Bauddha Dharma”, *Journal of Religious Culture*, no.50 (2001)), the
German Indologist Edmund Weber quotes the biographical source-text
*Lalitavistara* and concludes: “The standpoint which caste a Buddha should
belong to has not been revised in Buddhism up to the present day. It is
dogmatised in the *Lalitavistara* in the following way: a Bodhisattva can
by no means come from a lower or even mixed caste: ‘After all Bodhisattvas
were not born in despised lineage, among pariahs, in families of pipe or
cart makers, or mixed castes.’ Instead, in perfect harmony with the Great
Sermon, it was said that: ‘The Bodhisattvas appear only in two kinds of
lineage, the one of the brahmanas and of the warriors (kshatriya).’”

                A word returning frequently in Buddhist texts is
“nobly-born”. Buddhists were proud to say this of their Guru, whose noble
birth from the direct descendants of Manu Vaivasvata was an endless object
of praise. Birth was very important to the Buddha, which is why his
disciples wrote a lot of hagiographical fantasy around his own birth, with
miracles attending his birth from a queen. The Buddha himself said it many
times, e.g. of the girls who should not be molested: they should be those
of noble birth, as distinct from the base-born women who in the Buddha’s
estimation were not equally delicate.

                The Buddha also didn’t believe in gender equality. For long
he refused to recruit women into his monastic order, saying that nuns would
shorten its life-span by five hundred years. At long last he relented when
his mother was widowed and other relatives, nobly-born Kshatriyas like the
Buddha himself, insisted. Nepotism wasn’t alien to him either. But he made
this institution of female monastics conditional upon the acceptance that
even the most seasoned nun was subordinate to even the dullest and most
junior monk. Some Theravada countries have even re-abolished the women’s
monastic order, and it is only under Western feminist influence that
Thailand is gradually reaccepting nuns.

                The Buddha’s ascent to Awakening was predetermined by
physical marks he was born with, according to his disciples. Buddhist
scripture makes much of the Buddha’s noble birth in the Solar lineage, as a
relative of *Rāma*. The Buddha himself claimed to be a reincarnation of
Rama, in the Buddhist retelling of the *Rāmāyana* in the *Jātaka*s. He also
likened himself to the mightily-striding *Visnu*. Later Hindus see both
Rama and the Buddha as incarnations of Vishnu, but the Buddha started it
all by claiming to by Rama’s reincarnation.

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