Are nAstika-s valid successors of the vedic tradition

We had a discussion with ekanetra, the master of Asita-krIDa. ekanetra and me were long-standing students of laukIka itihAsa, and itihAsa-purANa and had spent endless hours talking to each other about history and even enacting it when other youths like biDAlashmashru, brindAputra, jyeShTha-danta hrashvaroman, duShTa-bAhu and sphigmukha diligently applied themselves to their worldly ways. In battle there none like ekanetra — a coethnic, a samAna, a sa-gotra, an intellectual and an AdhAra when we were together. ekanetra and we were thus sporting when he incurred the displeasure of the high deva-s; for many years did he suffer and so did our acquaintance and co-ethnic ST. Now we have burnt their misfortunes and taken the rest on ourselves, for we repay well to our partisans. We were meeting after long and only the yoShA of the vasiShThas, whom the two of us had backed in the battle kR^isha grantha, was not with us to complete the pleasure derived from the company of true friends — indra is said to keep the good things apart. We also wished we had timed it so that ST would have been with us, but it was not be so. ekanetra asked many things which congealed into the below exposition:


What is the original tradition of the Hindus?
The vedic tradition.
Which is the most important vedic doctrine?
The doctrine of knowing indra.
Are bauddha nAstika-s true inheritors of the vedic tradition?
We know that even in the late brAhmaNa period the position of indra was being eroded with the rise of prajApati and to a certain extant rudra and viShNu. Yet, the bauddha doctrines retain the high position of indra, to the extant possible within the nAstika Weltanschauung [to clarify- the tathAgata is the highest object of veneration and power, but shakra is definitely the most powerful of the beings in the world structure] Interestingly, the deities viShNu and rudra find a limited mention in comparison to indra, who is repeatedly termed a boddhisattva and the protector of the bauddha dharma in the early days of this nAstika mata. In fact, some myths of indra, which have been lost in brAhminical tradition are preserved in early bauddha tradition.

Some late upaniShadic traditions which profess connections with the veda rebel against the veda. A clear case is the muNDaka upaniShat. While claiming to be attached to the shaunaka atharvaveda it rebels against vedic authority and claims a knowledge higher than the veda. A similar position is hinted by the earliest yoga texts. The early bauddha texts are not directly disrespectful towards the veda, but rebels against them claiming a higher knowledge to attain the arihant status or buddhahood. In essence, this higher knowledge is merely semantically and descriptively different from the upaniShadic brahma-vidyA and yoga of the yoga texts — phenomenologically these systems are similar.

Sectarian schools of the Astikas developing within the vedic fold like shaiva, vaiShNava and prAjApatya-brahmavAda are also very distinct in their spirit from the original shrauta religion in their displacement of indra and formulation of distinct ritual systems. This in a way is not very different from bauddha-s worshiping the buddha-s and boddhisatvas.

Both the sectarian schools of Astikas and the nAstika bauddha-mata are products of brahma-kShatra activity associated with asceticism. The early pAshupata-s, the early vaiShNava-s both vaikhAnasa and pA~ncharAtra are dominated by ascetic brAhmaNa-s. While buddha was a kShatriya, his primary followers, the first arihants are the brahmins shariputra and maudgalyAyana. Both the sectarian Astika-s and bauddha-s position themselves as The true path. Thus, we might conclude that in diverging from vedic, in conceptual terms, the sectarian Astika-s and bauddha-s are not really all that different. Both may merely be seen as a part of the same continuum of the post-vedic traditions that drastically diverged at different points from vedic principles. Yet, a careful comparison of these traditions raises chronological and sociological issues that are critical for understanding early Hindu history.

Let us observe some features of the early bauddha corpus in comparison to the mainstream Astika texts:
The devas: Both texts speak of a comparable set of gods. As mentioned above in the bauddha system as in the veda indra stands at the head of the pantheon and is the most frequently mentioned deity. brahma is the other god who is prominently mentioned though much less than indra. In the samyutta nikAya 11.5 (the subhAsita-jaya sUtta) presents a brahmodaya contest between indra and the asura viprachitti in which indra triumphs and in his brahmodaya recitation gives verses that declare the bauddha doctrine. This motif of the triumphant indra winning a brahmodaya on account of his elucidation of bauddha thought is very parallel to the late kena upaniShad where indra attains supremacy of the gods because he understands the vedantic brahma vAda. In the dIgha nikaya 20 (mahA-samaya sUtta), the tathAgata introduces the sangha to the devas, gandharva, yakShas etc. In the samyutta nikaya 11.3 (dhajagga sUtta) the tathAgata again mentions several devas and tries to claim that he is greater than them. In these early bauddha works we find the mention of other gods mentioned include prajapati, varuNa, ashvins, viShNu, ishAna (rudra), soma and yama. Thus, the bauddhas were well-conversant with the classical vedic pantheon. In the brahma-jAla-sUtta the buddha disparagingly talks of the worship of the devI shrI. In the chula-niddessa which appears to be of the later layer of the pAli canon we encounter the mention of vAsudeva and balabhadra suggesting that the early pA~ncharatric vaiShNAva sect was known to exist coevally.

However, in addition the bauddha-s also mention certain deities that appear to have been lost or largely forgotten in mainstream Astika religion. These include the 4 divine world-kings: dhR^itarAShTra, virUpAkSha, virUdhaka and kubera. Of these only kubera is prominently retained as king of yakSha-s in Astika tradition. virUpAkSha is remembered as a rAkShasa, whereas dhR^itarAShTra as a nAga. Then there is the goddess manimekhalA, an assistant of indra, who appears to have been popular among seafaring vaishyas as the guardian deity of the sea. She appears in the eponymous tamil bauddha work as a prominent deity and her worship survives to date in Cambodia. These examples illustrate the diversity of Indic tradition outside of the vedic core and remind us that the surviving traditions are only partially cover the original diversity.

It also important to note that the bauddha-s appear to share with the purANas the doctrine of multiple cycles of brahma and indra, which is very alien to vedic thought.

dAnava-s: The early bauddha works know of several dAnava-s such as viprachitti, prahlAda, bali, virochana, rAhu, namuchi, and the kAlaka~njas. Thus, in addition to the typical vedic demons they also appear to record ones otherwise mentioned only in the purANas. An important point to note is that the chief adversary of gautama buddha is namuchi, he is often mentioned by his uniquely bauddha name mAra. Thus, the tathAgata appears to have stolen the conquest of namuchi from indra, just as the vaiShNava-s appear to do it more subtly in their sectarian purANas.

Sects and doctrines: With the exception of the passing mention of worshipers of vAsudeva and balabhadra we do not find a detailed debate with the sectarian Astika-s amongst the early bauddha-s. There is some evidence that a~NgulimAla was a shaiva earlier, but this needs further study. In contrast, in somewhat later bauddha works we find explicit polemics against the worshipers of viShNu and shiva by nAgArjuna. In the even later texts we find the mahAyAna bauddhas internalizing sectarian Astika deties and trying to demonize the Astika versions. The main doctrinal adversaries of the buddha are brAhmaNa vedic ritualists (see below). While he disparages various brAhmaNa-s and ascetics performing magical rites, he himself is not averse to showing his superiority in magical rites to his brahmin adversaries (This is excellently illustrated in the tale of the jaTila urubilva kAshyapa and his followers whom the tathAgata converted by staying in their shrauta sacrificial hall). In philosophical terms too he closely positions himself to the brahminical philosophies and tries to overthrow them. He appears to be aware of vaisheShika in the teachings of pakudha kAtyAyana, and obviously of upaniShadic doctrines which he subverts. Another important point is that he battles lokAyata-s who are described as brAhmaNas. Thus, as seen from the internal evidence of bR^ihaspati and jayarAshi bhaTTa, lokAyata-s were always brAhmANa, probably in core associated with bhUtachaitanya vAda. The early bauddha works also known of a great diversity in shramaNa or ascetic traditions and mention the naked jain (nirgrantha nAthaputra) and AjIvikas of makkhali gosala.

Personalities: The early bauddha works are aware of upaniShadic teachers as historical not contemporary figures and tries to claim them as teachers of bauddha doctrines. These include kR^iShNa-dvaipAyana (a bodhisattva), janaka the king of mithilA, uddAlaka AruNi, shvetaketu and nArada. They also know of the rAmAyaNa with certain fine details, and claim rAma as a bodhisattva. They know the harivaMsha/mahAbhArata, the existence of the historical king yuddhiShThira in indraprastha. In line with the paurANic genealogies they know of ajAshatru of the rising magadhan imperialism as the contemporary of their hero, shuddhodana-putra.

vedic terminology: One of the most important, but oft missed points, is that the early bauddha works consciously adopt vedic terminology for all their major doctrinal concepts: 1) Firstly the doctrine of the buddha is termed dharma. jaimini begins the mImAmsa sUtra-s begin as “athAto dharma-jij~nAsa“. Thus vedic sacrificial ritual was seen as dharma. 2) In the bauddha doctrine the bauddha religious intention is taken to mean karma, again imitating the vedic ritual action which is termed karma. 3) The central knowledge required for the bauddha is called the trayi-vidyA: (i) knowledge of past incarnations of one-self (ii) knowledge of past incarnations of others (iii) knowledge of the four Arya truths. Thus, the vedic term of trayI-vidyA, which signifies the 3 kinds of mantra, R^iks, sAmans and yajuSh-es (not 3 vedas), is imitated. 4) The teaching emanating from the buddha is termed ArSha. Thus, the buddha is being considered a R^iShi like the seers of the veda. 5) The bauddha oral tradition is recorded in the form of recitations termed sUtta-s. Here the term used is the same as the vedic oral recitation the sUkta (sUtta does not mean sUtra as commonly mistaken by the unerudite, but sUktaM), which fits in well with the tathAgata’s teaching being ArSha. 6) The follower of the bauddha path is termed Arya, wherein the vedic term for a dvija eligible for ya~jna is taken up. 7) The aspirant entering the bauddha 8-fold teaching is called snAtaka, imitating the qualified vedic student. 8) Charity given for the support of the sangha is termed dakShiNa in imitation of the vedic ritual fee given to the brahmin.

Thus, the buddha and his early successors saw themselves as the correct inheritors of the older tradition and that they were giving the true or correct meanings of the terms in that tradition– they use the term sad-dharma. Not surprisingly the buddha spends a lot of effort lecturing on who is the true brahmin . Perhaps, this is also consistent with the observation that in the dramiDa maNimekhalai the bauddha-s consider themselves a “vedic” philosophy like sAmkhya and mImAmasa.

Reviewing these points an apparent conundrum emerges: The bauddha-s appear to be linked in a direct sense to the vedic tradition as successors. Whereas, within the Astika tradition we see the sectarian vaiShNavism and shaivism as successors of vedic. These dominate the epics to greater or lesser degrees and have precursors even in the late vedic period. Yet, these find no or little mention amongst the bauddhas. The typical white Indologists and their fellow travelers have persistently tried to claim that the late vedic corpus (upaniShad and mImAmsa sUtras) and itihAsa, and the early bauddha corpus overlapped. However, if we carefully view the evidence we find that as usual the conventional Indological ideas are flawed: The paurANic genealogies, the mentions of the itihAsa-s by buddha but not vice versa, the mention of upaniShadic teachers by buddha and not vice versa, the mention of post-vedic paurANic deities and figures by the early bauddha works, the mention of diverse pre-existing community of ascetics (already a common feature in the itihAsas), the existence of vaisheShika, lokAyata and mImAmsa thought as prior conditions, all suggest that the bauddha mata was indeed later than all the above developments as traditionally believed by Hindus. What this means is that even-though the sectarian streams had prominence in the itihAsa-s they were not as widespread as it might seem in the period of the buddha. Instead the vedic religion was the dominant feature amongst the elite. Further, the folk beliefs preserved by the tathAgata again had indra and the vedic pantheon, along with many others rather than the sectarian pantheons. This shows that the extant of permeation of vedic Indo-Aryan culture into the grass-roots of Indian society and that the true rise of sectarianism at the grass-root level was a later phenomenon.

In reality, like the bauddha-s, the sectarian streams too used the veda as a base. Early sectarian works like harivaMsha use vedic material, but for their own agenda. Thus, subversion was the model in both Astika and nAstika traditions. Herein, Indo-Aryan India paralled the earlier Aryan developments- namely subversion of the proto-Indo-Iranian religion (the ancestor of vedic) by Zarathustra in founding the cult of Ahura-Mazda. The huge departure of Zarathushtra was his tendency towards zealous exclusivism or almost monotheism. Likewise, both the Astika subversionists (shaiva-s and vaiShNava-s) showed some exclusivist tendencies in their later but not early development. The radical departure of the bauddha-s was in erecting blatant nara-stuti (at least vAsudeva and balabhadra were merely emanations of viShNu) and more importantly rejecting deva-bhAShA and Chandas. This linguistic departure more than anything else was probably to set the bauddha-mata aside for ever as a nAstika tradition. This came as we know from siddhArtha’s own mouth as he forebade the brAhmaNas from composing his work into vedic hymns.

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