Wednesday, September 14, 2011

Adi Shankaracharya vis a vis Buddhist religion - a historic perspective

It is very widely felt that Sri Shankaracharya was instrumental in driving the Buddhism out of India. We need to see if this is entirely true or how much.

Buddhism which came into existence by 6th century BC continued to rise even after the demise of Buddha. It saw its peak during the regime of Mauryas, especially Asoka (4-3rd century BC) during which period the Buddhism was all pervasive in India and even a political power to reckon with. Soon after Mauryas, probably the religion started fading out very slowly. Chinese travelers like Fa-Hien (early 5th century AD), Xuanzang (early 6th century AD) note with concern that Buddhism was on a sharp decline in many parts of India. Shankaracharya's came much later, that is 9th century AD.

By the time of Sri Adi Shankara, the Buddhism in India was no more than another a major community and just a theoretical opponent for the Sanathana Dharma. It was no more a big political or religious power to reckon with. It was already on its way out, not because of Shankara, but due to many other politico-religious and economic reasons (and it had more reasons stored in the future in the form of various invasions).

By the time of Shankara, India was in the shape of a religiously looted house, from the point of view of Sanathana Dharma. Buddhism had lost its sheen and had already become highly devoid of all the great ideals taught by the Buddha. 1500 years of its reign in India had certainly created a deep impact on Indian psyche (both in positive and negative ways). But since Buddhism was no more a religion of power now, the Buddhists were helpless, powerless and by and large disillusioned. On the other hand, the followers of Sanatana Dharma had long forgotten the noble way shown by the Upanishats and had confined themselves scrupulously and stubbornly to the ritualistic parts of the Vedic scripture.  Those who did not like this but still not embraced the Buddhism had a kind of appreciation towards Buddhism, at least in principle, due to many of its appealing principles like non-violence, no-sacrifice etc. Many sects like Vaishnavaites had already abandoned Vedic sacrifice etc and adopted a life of non-violence and vegetarian life style. Thus the mass, (Buddhist and Sanathani mass all alike) had lost belief in their respective religions.  The Sanathana Dharma was crumbling under its own weight.  This was the situation that needed a leader who could revive Sanathana Dharma from the clutches of ritualistic approach and show the people the noble path of divine knowledge.

This was the socio-religious scene when Shankara stepped into picture. He had a big task of harmonizing the Hindu scriptural preaching with the moral conscience of the masses. Buddha's principles and teachings appeared quite appealing, including those that deal with fallacy of world, the cycle of karma, trap of desires, the principle of live and let live etc. It seems even Shankara was quite impressed with these principles, why not? They are universally appealing. But there was a problem.  Buddha squarely rejected the supreme authority of the Vedas.  On the other hand, Sri Shankara’s belief and conviction about the Sanathana dharma, and its eternal goodness was firm. He firmly believed even the Vedic scriptures (upon which the Sanathana Dharma relies) ultimately taught those very principles. He believed that this noble vision was only covered behind the thick veil of mundane rituals.  To reform this would mean a bitter debate with the Sanathanis who stuck to their guns.  This is where he had the challenge - of treading on the tight rope - of bringing about the reforms within the framework of Sanathana Dharma and its religious scriptures, the Vedas. This was a fine-balancing act. If you take a stand that Vedas were the ultimate authority, you would be upholding all that is told by the Vedas, even the so called "inhuman practices" prescribed by the Vedas; On the other hand, if you take a stand that the Vedas should be followed except where the practices are evil ones, it means you are not accepting the ultimate authority of Vedas (which was exactly the stand taken by Buddha) it will be a philosophy "outside" the framework of Sanathana Dharma).  So a politically, diplomatically and philosophically correct and acceptable middle path was very much necessary.

Upanishats (also called Vedanta, as they are usually found to be the last of four classes of Vedic literature, i.e., Samhita, Brahmanas, Aranyakas & Upanishats) are a form of philosophical sublimation of the rest of the Vedas. They deal with the metaphysical and spiritual aspects of life such as Atma, Brahma etc rather than ritualistic codes and duties. Hence this part of Vedas is called "Jnyana Kanda". The rest of Vedas that deal with the worldly and ritualistic aspects of life are called "Karma Kanda". Many Vedic schools consider the Karma Kanda itself as the Veda proper, and they consider the Upanishats as only an abstraction and sublimation of the Vedas. Those who pursue the "Karma Kanda" are known as "Poorva Meemamsakas". For them it is only the Veda proper (i.e., Karma Kanda) is the ultimate authority, not the Upanishats. On the other hand there are others who consider only the Upanishats i.e., "Jnyana Kanda" as the ultimate authority. It is said when you enter the realm of supreme knowledge as preached by the Upanishads, the "lower level" ritualistic preachings become meaningless ("atra vedaH avedaa bhavanti"). This is the school of "Uttar Miasma". For them Upanishats are the only pramanas, not the rest of the Vedas. 

Shankaracharya identified himself with this "Uttara Miasma" for three reasons:

  • One, after all, the meaning of all the rituals and all pursuits is ultimately the self realization which comes from the ultimate knowledge of the world and the Brahman. Once you have the knowledge you will realize the futility of all rituals, karmas, and life struggles; you will realize just how unreal the world is, and how you are nothing but an illusory image of the Brahman itself. This, he perceived, to be the view of the Upanishats. 
  • Two, with this you will be doing away with the Karma Kanda, or at least do not consider it as an authority. Thereby all the "evil Vedic practices" like animal-sacrifice etc (which the Bouddhism had always been criticising) will stop even in Sanathana Dharma also (thereby making it as appealing as the Bouddha dharma that was in vogue).
  • Three, this reform will be well within the frame-work of Vedic scriptures (for Vedanta/Upanishats is nothing but a sublimation of the Vedas proper). It is significant to note that so called "advita" as we call it today was not the name given to it by Shankaracharya. He rightly calls his philosophy as "oupanishada darshana" (the darshana according to Upanishats - since he upheld the supremacy of Upanishats).

Then, who were Shankaracharya's main opponents? Not Buddhists, but the Sanathana Dharmis who still had faith in "Karma Kanda" i.e., the "Veda proper". Naturally Shankara had a lot of debates with the doyens of Poorva Mimamsa and other schools like Nyaya, Vaisheshika, Sankhya etc, apart from the already fading Bouddhas. Since Buddhism was never against Sanathana Dharma except in respect of meaning-less rituals etc, this new model of Shankaracharya which by and large resembled the Buddhist model of denial of world and karma, and yet "within the framework of Vedas" really appealed to people and scholars alike. This was the reason why Shankara was able to take the Indian philosophic arena by storm with his novel philosophy. He had as big an impact as the Buddhism itself and eventually filled the political and philosophical vacuum created by the exit of Buddhism in India.


Anonymous said...

very good article, i always see many dubious site propogating false theory of hindu buddhist conflict with ref to history books written by communist historians. Buddhism didnt arised against prevalent vedic religion but was movement against ritualism,& dominanace over religious matter by [articular class. Buddha never opposed/rejected veda. unfortunately he didnt documented his teaching and declared anyone his successor and that led to many claiming temselves cutodians of his teaching and modified that to suit their own agenda. original buddhist philosophy later got dofromed and hijacked by all who were opposed to vedic philosophy. Tantra sect with its ritualism and occult practices could not be accomodated with later advait teaching so merged with buddhism, though it had nothing to do with buddha's teaching. It was teaching of bhagavat and advait that acknoledged sankhya as school of thoughts and later buddha as another avatar of vishu. 9th to 12th centurat peiod temple showing buddha within hindu temple architecture prove there was no major struggle between these philosophy. In north where buddha had major following he considered avatar of visnu. so any attempt to position buddha against mainstream indian religion should be opposed


Very interesting, thought-provoking insights.

haarasana said...

Nice thinking. ur article sumerises Sw. Vivekananda's views & teachings, who darely could declare the limitations of Bhashyas by different Acharyas.
Complete works of Sw. Vivekananda can clear many of such wrong understandings on Sanathana Dharma.

~rAGU said...

Where do stories of Shankara's role in massacre of Bhudhists etc originate from then? I was shocked to read about such stories recently. If they are not true they must be soundly debunked.

Badarinath Palavalli said...

An in depth article covers Sri Adi Shankara and the Buddhism in India.

Thanks a lot for your simple English sir.

Anonymous said...

there are enough historical proof to suggest that adi shankara and his followers had played a role and used violence to destroy hinduism..there is no denial of these facts which are mentioned prominently across various old text both of hindus, buddhist and unbiased traveller's travelogue. Of course little proof exist that adhi shankara directly played a role in killing of monks and destruction of monastries.. but he abhorred buddhism and is clear from his own text.

Manjunatha Kollegala said...

Dear Mr. Anonymous, more mystery seems to be shrouding around your anonymity than Shankara's role in Buddhist massacre! I am not sure if there is any reasons for your remaining behind curtains.

Well, please note that this article was written by me way back in 2011, much long before the blazing discussion about Shankara-Buddhist-massacre that is making round in Facebook and blogs recently. I am not a historian. If you read my article again, you will note that I have put forth my discussion mostly on philosophical and logical grounds rather than hard historical facts and figures - and of course, quoted from history wherever relevant. Even hard historical facts should ultimately conform to this logical and philosophical reasoning. If they did not, either it means that the historical conclusions are wrong/coloured/vitiated by some considerations, or it means that the philosophy is hypocritical and the logic bogus. That calls for a bigger debate for which just the repeated ramblings like "there are enough historical proof to suggest that adi shankara and his followers had played a role and used violence" etc, for sure.

As I have mentioned several times elsewhere in the forums, I have no blind adherence to any philosophy and I am open enough to disregard it as hypocritical the moment I am thoroughly convinced about the same. But the proponents of hypocrisy theory have not been able to convince me. They just make a comment and then abscond without a second word :(

Anonymous said...

Do not agree with everything you wrote, but no doubt you wrote it very well in a simple and clear language, which is something that not even many Westerners from the English language belt are doing these days.

I agree with majority of your opinion and arguments in the article.

Manjunatha Kollegala said...

Dear Mr. Anonymous, how I wish I knew your identity. Thanks for your comments. Yes, of course there could be opinion differences. That could make even more interesting discussions for which you are welcome. Hope you enjoyed reading it.

Amith MP said...

I agree with majority of what you have stated here.But i´m just curious that i have heard Sankara defeated many Budhist monks in debates and as per the rule all were converted to Hinduism.I wonder on what grounds the Budhist philosophy could be refuted to establish the supremacy of Hinduism?? I mean i have considered both to be the same one or the other way.How on earth could there arise a point of dispute ?(Leave alone the Karma Kanda , i was referring to the uttara meemasa part)

Anonymous said...

Blasphemy. Buddha is the ONLY absolute truth on this entire universe. Buddha clearly warned not to pray to any of the Hindu gods and goddesses, his knowledge was perfect. He clearly said, "they are themselves subject to karma and rebirth, and are beings in higher planes of existance. They cannot hear the prayers of people". Even the Brahmas came to Buddha to beg him to teach them Buddhism.

Buddha is the absolute truth. There is no need for vedas, nor for any other text. Whatever has come from the Buddha and preserved unadulterated in the Pali cannon is truth. Buddhism is more refined version of Jainism.

Jainism and Buddhism are the true dharmic paths. vedas may have a starting point, but the truth of Buddhism and jainism predate the Vedas.

Jainism existed thousands of years before vedas were written. Jain scholars will completely disagree with you.

Hinduism came from Jainism, Brahmins brought their outside religion and merged it wiht Jainism to create hybrid religion known as Hinduism today.

Buddha and Buddha ALONE is the way forwards. Buddha's knowledge is perfect, His wisdom is perfect, every word he has uttered is perfect. No one should dare to challenge it.

Manjunatha Kollegala said...

Dear Anonymous,

How I wish you would be kind enough to show me your identity so the discussion could be more 'human'

Well, if you care, Buddha's very teachings were 'blasphemous' in its traditional sense. Logically speaking, it will be a certain blasphemy if I (or you) uphold what Buddha preached. On the other hand, you seem to be of the opinion that Buddha and Buddha alone is the truth (which is a blasphemy in its traditional sense). I did NOT actually resort to blasphemy, not even against Buddha :)

While my article confined itself to a brief examination of the apparent differences between Buddhist preachings and those of traditional Hindu preachings with historical and philosophical point of view, my article did not even touch any of the point of contentions that you raised in your comment.

Well, I DON'T agree with many of your views, but I am keen to discuss and know more about your vies for sure - if only you would be kind enough to speak a bit more clearly with historical and scriptural references, rather than hearsay.