Buddhism, an ethical analysis of Upanishads

Published: 07th March 2013 10:25 AM  |   Last Updated: 07th March 2013 10:25 AM   |  A+A-

In what sense can we say that Buddha is intimate to us, that his contribution is of vital importance to us today? What is his place in our national tradition? Unless we answer that question, we shall not be able to accept him with that whole-heart with which we have accepted the other great teachers who preceded and succeeded him.

When we ask ourselves as to what are those traces of the teachings of Buddha in ourselves through which we are slowly and imperceptibly discovering our kinship with this great teacher, we are led to the realization, through a study of his life and message, that he is closest to us in all the essential teachings that he gave, in all the greatness and depth of the holy dedicated life that he lived. We may have forsaken the creed which developed out of his teachings in later centuries as Buddhism; yet, even in the matter of that creed, many aspects of it are akin to our own; but our interest in Buddha today doesn’t proceed from that source; it does not mean that we are going to become Buddhists in the political or sectarian or credal sense.

Whether to become such a Buddhist or not is not a vital question with us; after all, if a man or a group changes the label of his or its creed, it will only result in removing his or its name from one column to another in the census register. It does not result in the increase of the moral or spiritual strength of the nation. But if the nation as a whole or at least large numbers in it can inspire themselves with the spirit of Buddha, can imbibe that spirit by which knowledge can flow into love and service of the people, if that can be developed in us, resulting in a purer and a nobler mode of life, certainly the whole nation stands to gain and to benefit from that assimilation.

That is the line in which the country has tried to understand Buddha, and that is the line in which Swami Vivekananda taught it to accept this great teacher, who according to him, is the fulfilment of the spiritual thought of the Upanishads which had preceded him.

Coming close upon the age of the Upanishads, wherein the foundations of the subsequent developments of culture and religion in India had been laid, Buddha stands closest to the spirit of the Upanishads. In fact, it is not possible to appreciate the life and teachings of Buddha adequately without understanding the spirit of the Upanishads. There are at least a few western scholars who appreciate this fact. A large number of western scholars who have written books on Buddha have been unduly harsh on the prevailing Vedic religion, often confusing their estimates of it with post-Buddhistic developments. It looks as if they sought the growth of the plant of the Buddha movement at the cost of the soil in which it was raised and reared, to trace its life development outside that soil and climate. But there have been, as I said, a few western scholars who have realized that Buddha could not be understood except in the context of the spiritual soil and philosophical climate provided by the sages of the Upanishads.

One such author whom I would like to quote, one who has made a sympathetic study of Buddha, is Edmund Holmes. In his book, The Creed of Buddha, he warns us that to understand Buddha without understanding the Upanishads is to miss the significance of Buddha and his teachings. The understanding of the Upanishads is absolutely essential, for it is against that Himalayan thought background that we can realize the significance of the new advances that Buddha made in the thought and practice of that great philosophy. Writes Edmund Holmes at the commencement of his fifth chapter entitled, A Misreading of Buddha’: `The cumulative evidence afforded by these facts added to the internal evidence which has already been set forth in detail, seems to point with irresistible force to one conclusion, namely, that Buddha accepted the idealistic teaching of the Upanishads --- accepted it at its highest level and in its purest form -- and took upon himself as his life’s mission to fill the obvious gap in it, -- in other words, to make spiritual ideas, which had hitherto been the exclusive possession of a few select souls, available for the daily needs of mankind. If this conclusion is correct, we shall see in Buddhism, not a revolt against the ‘Brahminic’ philosophy as such but an ethical interpretation of the leading ideas of that philosophy.’

-- Excerpt from Dynamic Spirituality for A Globalized World, a commemorative volume of selections from the works of Swami Ranganathananda, late president of RK Math & Mission

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