Sunday, October 27, 2013

A Schopenhauer conference


On 17-18 October 2013, I attended the conference on the 19th-century German philosopher Arthur Schopenhauer organized by the philosophy department of Ghent University. Keeping in mind the interests of my audience as well as my own time constraints, I will limit this report to just one session: the one relating Schopenhauer to Asian philosophies and to the comparative science of religion. Note that I haven’t read any Schopenhauer since the 1980s.


Love deceives us

Jonathan Head, from Keele University, UK, spoke on “Schopenhauer, Love and the Upanishads”. He restated that Arthur Schopenhauer wrote some anti-Christian polemics as well as high praise of the Upanishads. (That much, at least, the old philosopher had in common with yours truly.) His aim was, to explore the influence of Schopenhauer’s reading of the Upanishads with a view to locating the precise differences between agapè (charity, more or less prema) and eros (desire, more or less kāma) in Schopenhauer’s system.

The speaker relied on the “self-expansion model of love”. He found this back is a famous passage of the Bṛhadāraṇyaka Upaniṣad: “It is not for the love of the wife that the wife is dear, but for love of the Self.” The goal of the ordinary self is to become the Self. The Self seeks become everything, and this begins by the attempt to subsume other people. This begins as self-centred (desire), but can become altruistic later (charity). Thus, love becomes a phase in the expansion of the self. Intimacy is a love-relationship of reciprocity in which each person feels validated. Love is motivational.

Schopenhauer, sceptical of self-deceptions, said that romantic love deceives us: “The sex drive deceives us into feeling admiration”; indeed, is a notorious phrase, he opines that only under the influence of his sex hormones, men can describe the “low-height, narrow-shouldered, broad-hipped and short-legged” women as “the fair sex”. Admiring the other’s qualities, the self believes it achieves its own self-expansion, but it is really being deceived by species, which urges men and women on to have such feelings as motivating them to procreate. (Earlier that morning, Schopenhauer had been described as a predecessor of Richard Dawkins, who analyzes altruistic behaviour as serving “the selfish gene”.) Love is the misfiring of the Will’s drive to self-knowledge, an attempt to achieve wholeness.



Christopher Ryan, from the Metropolitan University in London, spoke about “Moral Universalism and Discrimination: Schopenhauerian agapè and Confucian ren”. He is the author of a book on Schopenhauer called “The Death of God and Oriental Religions”.

In Confucianism, we love our family more than others, and that is deemed right. Students are horrified about this. However, the Chinese only go a bit farther in this than most of us. It is easy to see how one would love his father more than someone else’s father; but here the son’s loyalty also means that, against a universal morality, he would truthfully reveal the sins of another, but conceal the sins of his father. Schopenhauer’s agapè is more universalistic than that. Against Immanuel Kant, though, it is a universalism of proportion.

Theories full of abstraction are just empty, according to Schopenhauer; and this includes Kant’s theory of universalist morality. Kant says that actions only take place if there is a sufficient motive, that this is a necessary law for all rational beings. Schopenhauer calls this lacking in any substance unless these motives are located in reality, viz. empirically traced to their biological sources. The species wants to procreate and therefore instils in the individuals something they take to be love.

Schopenhauer sees one criterium for selfless love: fellow-feeling when a sentient being is suffering. But this empathy will empirically be found to be stronger for someone closer of kin, or at least for those with whom we have had tangible relations, though it is conceived as kind of universal. Again anticipating the “selfish gene”, he sees self-sacrifice as ultimately selfish, or at least species-selfish.

Similarly, the Confucians made a moral discrimination opposing contiguous and far: we feel stronger for those closer to us than for those more removed. Kongzi’s follower Mengzi showed first of all that human beings are endowed with a natural fellow-feeling (ren). In his example, we feel motivated to intervene because of sympathy or compassion when we see a child on the verge of falling, and we feel this compassion without calculation. However, these higher, universally intended concepts have a lesser content, because empirically, we feel them less when a being farther removed from us is involved. So, Kongzi (Confucius) is clear that we can love another’s father but never as much as our own. So, this gradedness in compassion is common to both Schopenhauer and Confucianism.

Ryan was aware that the debate between Schopenhauer and the Kantians had also taken place in China itself, more than two thousand years earlier. Kongzi’s notion of graded sympathy was challenged by a philosopher called Mozi, who taught universal love (jain’ai). The arguments to and fro were very similar, and historically, the Confucian gradualist position had won.   



Dennis Vanden Auweele, from my alma mater, the Catholic University of Leuven, spoke about “Religious Love and Resignation”. He proposed to elucidate the notion “a pessimistic religion”,, and in particular Schopenhauer’s dictum that “the purpose of a religious doctrine is, to give a mythological cloak for truths inaccessible to the untutored mind”.

In Schopenhauer’s view (as well as that of many Enlightened intellectuals), philosophy is properly true, but fit only for the few; religion, by contrast, is only allegorically true, but is appropriate for the masses.

Vanden Auwele gave a survey of Schopenhauer’s assessment of the different religions. The philosopher was raised in Christian circles, and though he criticized Christian belief, he kept on evaluating it fairly approvingly. He especially approved of what he called “authentic Christianity”, by which he mean the New Testament, the doctrine of original sin (“the only thing that can reconcile me with the Old Testament”), Saint Augustine and mystics such as Eckhardt. Many people contrast really existing Christianity with some chosen part of Christian doctrine as the “real Christianity”. In the contemporary world, he knew Christianity in its Catholic and Protestant varieties. He considered Catholicism, like the ancient heresy of Pelagianism (which rejects eternal sin) as too optimistic, hence living in illusion, and essentially Pagan; Protestantism as degenerate and too rationalistic. In most respects, Judaism, Islam and “Paganism” (including pre-Vedic but excluding post-Vedic Hinduism) were too optimistic or world-affirming for his taste. By contrast, Buddhism and Upanishadic Brahmanism were in agreement with “authentic Christianity” that this world is a vale of tears from which men needs redemption. 

Schopenhauer believed in a radical separation of goodness from nature. From Protestantism, he inherited the notion (also existing in devotional Hinduism, unknown to him) that  what you do does not affect your status; only faith in God does. By contrast, Pelagianism and partly Catholicism is condemned for optimistically believing that your own works can “force” God to interfere on your behalf. Compassion and asceticism: these virtues lead to self-renunciation via the metaphysical acknowledgment of a mystical unity of reality. In “true” Christianity, all are children of the same father; in Brahmanism, all are of the same essence, one in Brahma. These two are characterized by love: Brahmanism by love of the real, authentic Christianity by God’s agapeic transcendent unconditional love. Judaism and Islam lack this love. Protestantism precludes the awareness of ultimate oneness by eschewing mysticism, while Pelagianism reduces the mysteries to banal intelligence. But above all, Schopenhauer found his pessimistic worldview in (or based it on) Buddhism.

He emphasized the allegorical nature of religion: it is not strictly true, but allegorically. When confronted with a mystery, we should not destroy it by projecting exegetic notions into it, for then only banality remains. Finally, faith is like love: it cannot be forced. It comes to you, you can’t go to it.



The remarkable thing about Arthur Schopenhauer is that he built such a large part of his philosophy on the Upanishads and Buddhism when these were as yet so little-known (around 1820). Only towards the end of his life did he master Sanskrit, so he had to make do with just a few translations. For the Upanishads, he used Anquetil Duperron’s French translation from a Persian translation of the original Sanskrit. Yet, his understanding of them was better than that of many later thinkers. (In the same period, Georg Hegel wrote a undoubtedly biased but fairly insightful commentary on the Bhagavad-Gita.) In this regard, Schopenhauer was the opposite of his admirer Friedrich Nietzsche, who in ca. 1880, in the heyday of German Orientalism, could have used many more translations and personally knew the famous Indologist Paul Deussen, yet relied on amateurs like Paul Jacolliot for the few references he made to Indian thought and society.

Schopenhauer fully acknowledged his Asian sources and never tried to hide these or to claim their ideas as his own. In that respect, he doesn’t seem to fit Rajiv Malhotra’s scheme of the “U-turn”. In this scheme, Westerners first learn from Indian masters, then progressively adopt the learned ideas as their own, and ultimately go and advertise them back in India as the latest intellectual contribution from the West. While Schopenhauer in person didn’t follow this pattern, his followers later kind of completed it. Nietzsche mentioned Schopenhauer a number of times, and the connection which contemporary scholars have made with Asian thought is largely due to Schopenhauer’s influence, but he is already very sparing in referring to Schopenhauer’s Asian sources. Most philosophers at the conference had studied him but not the Indian roots of his thought. 

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Saturday, October 26, 2013

Was the Buddha a Hindu? Are Buddhists Hindus?


In a past article, we had argued that the Buddha lived and died as a Hindu and that Bauddha Dharma is nothing but one of the sects within Hinduism. Ambedkarite neo-Buddhists and Ambedkar-touting secularists are understandably furious when their ambitions for a separate identity or their schemes for pitting Hindus against Hindus are thwarted. So we received a number of questions meant as rhetorical and as exposing the hollowness of our claim. Six are from a certain S. Narayanaswamy Iyer, then three more by a Dr. Ranjeet Singh. We reproduce them and then answer them. First Mr. Iyer’s questions:

(1)   Which of our four Vedams did Buddha follow in his teachings?

Throughout his text, Mr. Iyer presupposes one of the most common weapons which the enemies of Hinduism use: changing the definition of “Hinduism” to and fro, depending on their own best interest. Thus, the Christian mission lobby swears that “tribals are not Hindus”, except when tribals defend themselves against encroachment by Bengali Muslim settlers or take revenge on the Christians for having murdered Swami Lakshmananda and four of his assistants; then they are suddenly transformed into “Hindus”. Here, as long as convenient, “Hindu” is narrowed down to “Brahmanical”. The Vedic tradition, started among the Paurava tribe established in Haryana, was the most prestigious tradition, first to take the shape of a fixed corpus and learned by heart by a class of people set apart just for this purpose. Tribe after tribe adopted this tradition, all while maintaining its own identity and religious practices. Kings in Bengal and South India imported the Vedic tradition and gave land to settle Brahmin communities just to embellish their dynasties with this prestigious Vedic tradition. But other traditions existed alongside the Vedas, both among speakers of Indo-Aryan and among Dravidians and others. Many non-Vedic elements come to light in a corpus collected in the first millennium CE, the Puranas. Many more were incorporated by the later Bhakti (devotion) poets or have subsisted till today as part of oral culture. All these Pagan practices together, Vedic and non-Vedic, constitute “Hinduism”.


When the Muslim invaders brought the Persian geographical term “Hindu” into India a thousand years ago, they meant by it: an Indian Pagan. In Islamic theology, Christians and Jews count as a special category, and Parsis were often considered as Persian and not Indian Pagans. But all the other Indians were called “Hindus”. Whether tribals, Buddhists (“clean-shaven Brahmins”), atheists, polytheists, Brahmins, non-Brahmins, the Lingayats, even the not-yet-existing Sikhs or Arya Samajis or Ramakrishnaites,-- all of them were Hindus. It is now a mark of anti-Hindu polemicists that they manipulate the meaning of “Hinduism”, and interpret it more broadly or more narrowly as per their convenience. The first rule of logic is “a = a”, i.e. “a term retains the same meaning throughout the whole reasoning process”. So, against these manipulations, we will stick to one meaning for Hinduism, viz. the historically justified meaning of “all Indian Pagans”


The Buddha had, according to Buddhist scripture, received a Kshatriya upbringing. That means his outlook was formed by an at least passive initiation into the Vedas. Never in his long life did he repudiate this. On the contrary, he only developed ideas that were already present in the Vedic tradition. Thus, “liberation” was a goal that the Upanishadic thinkers had invented and that set them apart from practically all others religions (certainly from Christianity and Islam). Meditation or yoga as the technique to achieve this liberation was first mentioned in the Upanishads. Buddhist scripture mentions two meditation teachers with whom the Buddha studied. At most he invented a new meditation technique, Vipassana (now vulgarized as “Mindfulness”), but meditation was an existing tradition into which he was initiated by older masters, and to which he contributed his own addition, like others did. Reincarnation and karma are at the heart of Buddhism, and is the first thing which outsiders associate with Buddhism; but these concepts were introduced in the Upanishads. Even the repudiation of what the Vedas had become, particularly the repudiation of ritualism, is already found in the Upanishads. And so is the rejection of desire, the extolling of the value of compassion (daya), and the first options for celibate monkhood. When Buddha became a recluse, he followed a path that was already well established, and that is already mentioned in the Rg-Veda, though only in the third person (the Vedic poets themselves were elite figures and a different class from the renunciates). The Buddha rightly said that he had not invented anything new, that he was only treading an ancient path formerly trodden by the earlier Buddhas.


Hindu attitudes to the Vedas varied greatly. Some had never heard of them, some had heard the names but knew little of their contents, some thought they were interesting literature but not a guiding light for moral decisions or choosing a way of life, some adopted practices which they called Vedic though they were not, some paid lip-service to the Vedas, and some really practised Vedic rituals or learned the Vedas by heart. Within this continuum, the Buddha took his place, without this ever being a problem for the Brahmins. The only two attempts on his life were committed by a jealous pupil of his own, a leading Buddhist. Still, he died at an advanced age.


(2) Which of our 330 devathaas did Buddha worship?


The more usual number is 33, but modern tourists (and therefore also the secularists) have opted for 330 million. This number is based on a mistranslation of “33 big gods” as “33  crore (= ten million) gods”. Anyway, the number can vary, but yes, there are quite a few, let us settle for “a lot”. Like many elite characters and thinkers, the Buddha is reputed to be into other things than worship, as were many people in Vedic society. Sankhya was an atheist school, as was early Vaisheshika, and so were Jainism and the Charvaka school. The Mimansa school, orthodox par excellence, taught that Vedic rituals are effective alright, but the gods invoked during the ritual proceedings are mere cog-wheels in the magical mechanism set in motion by the priests. These gods have no reality in themselves and only exist in so far as they are invested with existence by the human beings who “feed” them. So, atheism was a recognized option among the Hindu elite, of which prince Siddhartha Gautama, the Buddha, was a prominent member.


All the same, he paid homage to the gods on some occasions. His breakthrough to liberation was followed by an intervention of the supreme gods Brahma and Indra, asking him to share his bliss and teach his way to liberation with others – the very start of Buddhism. Had the Buddha or even the later editors of the Pali Canon been as anti-Vedic as the present neo-Buddhists imagine, they could easily have censored this episode out. At the end of his life, during which he was regularly consulted on political matters because he was after all very at home in statecraft, he was asked by the authorities of a republic to formulate the qualities by which a state prevents decline. In reply, he listed the “seven principles of non-decline”, and among them is an abiding maintenance of ancient religious traditions, including rituals and pilgrimages. The ancient religious practices which he knew, were Vedic or at any rate Hindu ones. Buddhist monks later carried Vedic gods such as Indra, Brahma, Ganapati and Saraswati to foreign lands. Japanese temples are dedicated to Benzai-ten or Saraswati, some house the “twelve Adityas/Ten”. The Shingon sect of Buddhism has a quasi-Vedic ritual called “feeding the gods”, exactly the same conception as in the Vedas. Thai and Indonesian Buddhists have adopted the cult of Rama, whom the Buddha did not really worship but whom he venerated as a great scion of the Aikshvaku lineage to which he himself belonged, and of whom he claimed to be a reincarnation. Neo-Buddhists object to the long-established Puranic teaching that both Rama and the Buddha are incarnations of Vishnu, but the germ of this teaching was planted by the Buddha himself when he claimed that Rama and he were the same person.



(3) Which of our samskaarams did Buddha tell his followers to observe and perform?


Samskaarams (life rituals) are meant for people living in society, as the Vedic poets did. Renunciates are living outside society, often they perform their own funeral upon “leaving the world”, and after that the samskaarams no longer apply to them. The Buddha founded a monastic order, an organized form of renunciation. He did not found a separate non-Hindu religion (the way the first Christians did), for his lay followers were part of Hindu society. Mostly we are informed of their caste provenance, their families, their marriage situations. Whatever customs or rituals applied in their respective Hindu communities applied to them as well. Jains developed a separate lay community, but even these lay Jains are part of Hindu society. They observe caste, often intermarrying with non-Jains belonging to the same caste but not with Jains belonging to another caste. In Buddhism, even this much separateness did not exist. Buddhism was nothing but a monastic community within Hindu society. So the Buddhist order did not observe Hindu lay society’s life ritual, just as many non-Buddhist renunciates didn’t.

(4) Which of our varnaashrama rules, duties and practices did Buddha teach his followers, and which of those do they perform today?


Caste is a part of lay society, not applicable to renunciates. Their names revealing their caste provenance are replaced by monastic names. The questioner also betrays his short-sighted assumptions by projecting the caste relations of recent Hindu society on that of the Buddha’s time. Social order was in flux at the time, with the Buddha e.g. defending caste as defined by the paternal line regardless of the mother’s caste against king Prasenadi disowning his wife and son when he finds out his wife (and therefore, he assumes, his son) isn’t a true Kshatriya. Clearly, both conceptions of caste, viz. in the paternal line vs. full endogamy, were competing at the time, with the Buddha taking the then more conservative position, while later the principle of full caste endogamy (only marriage within one’s own caste) was to prevail. Mind you, the Buddha didn’t use this excellent opportunity of a king’s question on caste matters to fulminate against caste. If he was an anti-caste revolutionary, as Dr. B.R. Ambedkar imagined, he would have seized this opportunity to condemn caste itself, but he didn’t.


Caste was in existence but considerably more relaxed than in later centuries. For this reason, the Buddha’s attitude was more relaxed too, unlike the obsession with caste among the neo-Buddhists. Moreover, he had chosen not to rock the boat in a society that tolerated and maintained his monastic order. In every country where Buddhism found a place, it accepted whatever social arrangement prevailed. In Thailand, it didn’t abolish hereditary monarchy though this is a casteist phenomenon par excellence. In China it didn’t abolish the centralized-bureaucratic empire. On the contrary, when the Buddhist White Lotus sect drove out the Mongol dynasty, its leader, who had started out as a Buddhist monk and was deemed the Maitreya Buddha, established a new imperial dynasty, the Ming, replacing the Mongol ruling class by a Chinese ruling class but leaving the exploitative system in place. In Japan, it didn’t abolish militaristic feudalism; instead, its Zen school became the favourite religion of the Samurai warrior class. So, in India too, it fully accepted the arrangement in place, recruited mainly among the upper castes (most Buddhist philosophers were born Brahmins), and concentrated on its spiritual mission. Buddhism as an anti-caste movement is just a figment of the secularist imagination.

(5) Which Hindu priests initiated Buddha into sannyaasam?

Any lineage is founded by someone who takes the jump. Later on, it is continued by followers who go through an initiation ceremony; and when succeeding their guru, they go through an investiture ceremony. But the founder just has his moment of enlightenment. Asking about the founder’s initiation is the mediocre mind’s imposing his humdrum norms onto a genius. Thus, Ramana Maharshi was unprepared when suddenly, the insight overcame him; he didn’t receive it from a teacher. Even so, when Siddhartha Gautama went to the forest, he did become a pupil of at least two meditation masters. Probably they put him through some kind of initiation, though we don’t have the details on it.


The questioner means “Vedic” whenever he says “Hindu”, and projects everything we now know as Hindu (decried by the Arya Samaj as “Puranic”) onto the Vedic age. The institutionalization of Sannyaasa (renunciation) took on a shape recognizable till today with Shankara in ca. 800 CE. In the Vedic age itself, the current formalities of Sannyaasa did not exist. When Yajnavalkya retired to the forest (the occasion on which he pronounced his famous exposition of the Self to his wife Maitreyi), he did not have to take anyone’s permission. Valmiki of Ramayana fame set up his own hermitage, as did seer Vasishtha and his wife Arundhati. So he starts imposing current Hindu norms on the Buddha twenty-five centuries ago. This just illustrates the over-all unhistorical character of the neo-Buddhist rhetoric.



(6) When and where did the initiation take place?


As a youngster, the Buddha must have gone through the thread ceremony making him a full Kshatriya. This was unlike most modern Kshatriyas, who leave it only to the Brahmins to don the thread. Then, he went through the marriage ritual, at least according to the Pali Canon. Some scholars doubt that he had a wife and son and think that later scholars have merely turned a particular nun and a particular monk into his mother and son. Be that as it may, Buddhist scripture makes no effort at all to deny that he had gone through whichever appropriate Hindu rituals were part of the life of anyone belonging to his class and age group.


Later, when he became a renunciate, we are vaguely told that first he searched alone, then he had some companions (though we don’t have all the details about their relations), then he had two successive teachers. To be a renunciate at that time, he did not have to go through specific rituals, but he may have. Then, after he reached his awakening, he became the topmost man in his universe and didn’t recognize any living human being above him and empowered to put him through further ceremonies. His pupils became monks through a ceremony (dharmam saranam gacchami, “I take refuge in the dharma”), just as every other Hindu sect has its own procedure for allowing new members in. The relation of his pupils to him was the same as that of other renunciates to their guru. The institution of guru-dom was, again, exported by Buddhism as far as Japan.

Then we consider Dr. Singh’s additional questions:


1)     Which were the rules, duties and practices he himself followed at that particular time, had followed and used to follow before in the youth and pre-Buddhahood mendicant life?

As the Pali Canon explains, he was the son of the President-for-life of the Shakya tribe, a Kshatriya by birth and upbringing. After he became a renunciate, he practiced asceticism and several meditation techniques of which names are given, though we cannot be sure which techniques are meant by these names. At any rate, they are the same names and probably refer to the same techniques which are incorporated in the Buddhist training scheme before the meditation technique that brought the Buddha his awakening.


2)     Was his marriage with Yashodhara, his first cousin, in accord with the Vedic rules: as per Shaastra injunctions?

Writing only came to India after Alexander, i.e. well after the Buddha. Though the Shaastras contain older material, they were at any rate written centuries later than the Buddha. In the age of the Vedic seers, they were totally non-existent. So, unless Dr. Singh insists that the Vedic seers were un-Hindu, it is not a defining trait of a “Hindu” to follow the Shaastras. Like most anti-Hindu polemicists (and, alas, quite a few pro ones too), he displays a most unhistorical conception of what “Hinduism” means, projecting recent notions onto ancient history.

What this question alludes to, is the difference in marriage customs between the Shakya tribe and the Brahmanical injunctions. The Brahmins practise, and their Shaastras prescribe, rules of “forbidden degrees of consanguinity”. By contrast, certain other peoples, such as the ancient Dravidians or the contemporaneous Muslims, practice cousin marriage. In this case, we find that the Shakya tribe practiced cousin marriage. The Buddha’s father and mother had been cousins, and his own reported union was also between cousins. The Shakyas were apparently aware that within the ambient society, they stood out with this custom, for they justified it with the story that they had very pure blood, being descendants of patriarch Manu Vaivasvata’s repudiated elder children, who had arrived at sage Kapila’s hermitage in the forest and built a town there, Kapilavastu (where the Buddha grew up). So, to keep Manu’s blood pure, the Shakyas had to marry someone with the same blood.

Some scholars say this is just a story made up to convince their neighbours. The true account, according to them, is that the Shakyas were originally an Iranian tribe that had moved along with the great migration eastwards, from the Saraswati plain into the Ganga plain. The prevalence of cousin marriages was one of the main differences between Iranians and Indians. That contemporaries describe the Buddha as tall and light-skinned seems to conform to the Iranian identity. Nowadays also, after twelve centuries in India, Parsis are still physically distinct. Well, be that as it may, the custom of cousin marriage was at any rate in existence among the Shakyas, whatever its provenance.

What we have here, is a typical case of Brahmanical norms being overruled by caste autonomy, another defining feature of Hindu society. For comparison, consider two rather dramatic examples. Widow self-immolation (sati) is forbidden in Brahmanical writings since the Rg-Veda, where a woman lying down on her husband’s funeral pyre is told to rise, to leave this man behind and re-join the living; yet the custom flourished among the Kshatriyas, particularly the Rajputs. Brahmins could lay down norms all they wanted, and ambitious lower castes might well imitate these Brahmin norms; but if a caste decided to defy these norms, there was little that could be done about it. For another example: abortion is scripturally condemned as one of the worst sins. Yet, some castes, such as notoriously the Jats, could kill their unwanted children before or even after birth. If today’s India has a problem with the balance between the sexes because so many girl children are being aborted, this is very much against the Shaastras (though secular feminists addressing ignorant Western audiences will still blame “Hinduism”). But caste autonomy means that the caste Panchayat (council) and not the Shaastric law is the ultimate arbiter. So, if the Shakyas insisted on maintaining their own non-Brahmanical marriage customs, Hindu society allowed them to do so.     

3)     How; on what authority and provision of the scriptures, Hindu Shaastras, had he entered the fourth aashrama and entered sanyaasam, a born prince as he was? Was it dharma for him, a born prince? Was it in accord with and as per the teachings and provisions of the scriptures and enjoined for princes, members of the Kshatriya varna? Is it and has it been so prescribed and postulated? If yes; could we know how and where? On what scriptural grounds: what pramaanas, words and provision of the scriptures?
Here again, we have a lot of projection of later Hindu scripture onto Hindu society during the Buddha’s life. First off, the notion of a “fourth aashrama” is – and here I break ranks with most Hindus and most Indologists – a confused compromise notion. The Vedic system very sensibly distinguished three stages of life: before, during and after setting up one’s own family, i.e. Brahmacharya/student, Grhastha/householder and Vanaprastha/forest-dweller. The first stage is devoted to learning, the second to founding and administering your family (until your daughters are married off and you first grandson born), the third is devoted to renunciation. This renunciation could take different forms and have differently conceived goals, but at least since Yajnavalkya, it was understood as looking for the Self, working on your liberation. This is not split into two, Sannyaasa is not more renounced than the Vanaprastha stage. It is only when ascetic sects introduced renunciation not as a sequel but as an alternative to family life, that Brahmins fulfilled their typical function of integrating new things by extending the aashrama scheme to include Sannyaasa. So, what Buddha entered was not a “fourth stage” (he was still in the second stage and had never even entered the third stage), but an alternative to the second stage (family life), viz. renunciation as a full-time identity and lifelong profession. Just as Shankara was to do, and as Hindu monks mostly still do. Being pluralistic, Hindu society recognizes different forms of renunciation, both after family life and instead of family life..

As a Kshatriya, it was not considered the Buddha’s dharma to renounce the world. His father hoped his son would succeed him to the throne and made every effort to keep him from renouncing the world (including his caste vocation). Similarly, Shankara’s mother tried to dissuade and prevent her son from becoming an early renunciate, as he was her only hope of her having grandchildren. Hindu society recognizes the option of monkhood as an alternative to family life, but this doesn’t mean that individual Hindu lives and schemes cannot be adversely affected by this option. Both Siddhartha and Shankara disappointed their families and renounced their caste dharma to become monks.  



Neither of the questioners has been able to pinpoint a moment in the Buddha’s life or preaching when he made a break with Hinduism. He inherited most of his ideas from the ambient Hindu tradition, and stands out mostly by the institution he founded, the Buddhist monastic order. His meditation technique may be his own, though with a canon written two centuries after his death and by scribes who were less than impartisan, we don’t really know what happened. His intellectual system mostly systematized ideas which were in the air and had already found mention in the Upanishads. Among his monks, Brahmin philosophers gradually refined and perfected his philosophy, ascribing most of their new ideas to the master himself. 

When Dr. B.R. Ambedkar “converted” to Buddhism in 1956, he made his co-“converting” followers promise that they would renounce Hinduism and specific Hindu practices. It was the first time in the history of Buddhism that this happened. The Buddha had never renounced, or made his novices renounce, any religion they formerly practiced – in fact, the notion of “a religion” (as opposed to “religion”, a very approximate translation of “dharma”) hardly even existed. Ambedkar’s involved the typically Christian notion of conversion as “burning what you have worshipped, worshipping what you have burned”. The box-type notion of religious belonging, with rejecting one identity in order to be able to accept another, is fundamentally un-Hindu. In other countries too, entering Buddhism did not entail any formal renunciation of Daoism, Shinto or any other tradition. So, when Ambedkar and his hundreds of thousands of followers (mostly caste-fellows from his own ex-Untouchable Mahar caste) “converted” to Buddhism, most Hindus saw this as just an entry into a particular Hindu sect. As V.D. Savarkar commented, Ambedkar “conversion” was a sure jump into the Hindu fold.

Buddhism was classed as a separate religion from Hinduism because travelers and then scholars had first become aware of it outside India. When separated from its Hindu roots, it did take on a life of its own. Yet in India, it was not more than one of the many Hindu sects, although numerically the most successful one.

Finally, the Buddhist separatist polemic is fundamentally unhistorical in projecting contemporary Hindu traits onto ancient Hindu society. Unfortunately, this also counts for much Hindu activist polemic. Shaastric norms are absolutized, when in fact they were changing throughout history. And most importantly, devotional theistic forms of Hinduism, now long predominant, are projected onto ancient Hinduism which had several distinct conceptions of the divine, including atheism. It is common for Hindus to lambast non-Hindus as “atheists”, as if there were no atheist Hindus. The category “atheists” would naturally include Buddhists, who can therefrom deduce a separate non-Hindu identity. This way, narrow-minded Hindus themselves reinforce the unhistorical neo-Buddhist separatism.

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Wednesday, October 23, 2013

The Aryan Non-Invasion Theory

On the Indo-Eurasian Research List, a certain Touraj Daryaee announced that he was going to write something about the Iranian Homeland Theory, an idea that has reportedly been launched in the 1990s. So, he informed about what must be, according to his information, a similar development in India. I sent him, through the list, the following reply on 21 October 2013. Two days later, moderator Steve Farmer let me know that this message could, alas, not be posted.

Dear Touraj,


The Indian homeland theory dates back to the 18th century European Enlightenment (Kant, Voltaire) and was espoused by the first generation of Indo-Europeanists in the very early 19th century (Schlegel). But by 1830 or so, Eastern or Central Europe (and thus, as far as India was concerned, the "Aryan Invasion Theory") was near-universally accepted as homeland.


Immediately it was put to political use in Britain's colonial policies. It was a God-sent in justifying Britain's occupation of India, as the British were deemed only to be repeating what their Indo-Aryan cousins had done thousands of years ago. As the die-hard colonialist Winston Churchill said more than a century later: "We have as much right to be in India as anyone there, except maybe the Depressed Classes who are the native stock." In India, the theory was immediately seized upon by anti-Brahmin activist Jotirao Phule, incidentally an alumnus of the missionary education system.


In 1916, the British authorities, in a move against the Brahmin-led Freedom Movement, patronized the founding of an anti-Brahmin and Dravidian-chauvinist party, the Justice Party. After independence and till 1962, it espoused a Dravidian (in effect, only Tamil) separatism, and more recently, it supported and aided the Tamil Tigers in Sri Lanka. The AIT is the alpha and omega of its worldview. Idem for the Dalit movement: while its founder BR Ambedkar articulately opposed the AIT, his followers reduce every issue to Aryan upper castes vs. native Dalits. Idem for the "Other Backwards Castes" (Bahujan) or at least their Western-sponsored spokesmen. British colonial administrators also coined the pseudo-Sanskrit term Adivasi ("Aboriginal") for the tribals, projecting the American racial situation, with European invaders subjecting the natives, onto India. Till today, even scholars who ought to know better, innocently use the very word Adivasi as proof of the tribals' native and the non-tribals' invader origins. It was used on many fronts to pit variously defined "natives" against variously defined "invaders".


All this while, Hindu nationalists were also active, e.g. Hindu Mahasabha's founding 1922 and Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh's founding 1925, without ever questioning the AIT which was so massively used against them. The AIT was so unassailable, with all the prestige of the "scientific" West, that nobody dared to question it. It was e.g. roundly accepted in the 1923 book Hindutva by VD Savarkar, the very manifesto of Hindu nationalism. Cultural spokesmen often quoted by Hindu nationalists, such as AK Coomaraswamy and VS Agarwal, also presupposed it in their work. As late as the 1960, RSS leader MS Golwalkar only dared to posit an Indian homeland by crankily postulating that the poles and all other places' coordinates had shifted and that this Indian homeland was the same as the Wolga/steppe homeland that the scholars assumed.


So, Hindu nationalism can perfectly coexist with a foreign homeland, and it did not invent the Indian homeland theory (though the terminology you use implies otherwise). Many national myths are not based on nativeness but on their state's establishment by foreigners, e.g. the USA, of course, or Mexico, but also Romania, Russia and others. What irked Hindu nationalists about the AIT, however, was its political use to divide the Indian population, both before and after independence. (See about this Rajiv Malhotra & Aravindan Neelakandan: *Breaking India*.) Those academics who choose to oppose the Indian homeland theory *because* of its alleged political use by the Hindu nationalists (there are of course other reasons, too), should realize that in that case, they should oppose the East-European homeland theory annex AIT a hundred times more, for it has been politically misused for a far longer time in far more countries (including Nazi Germany, which espoused and used the AIT as a perfect illustration of its racialist worldview), and from positions of power. The Indian homeland theory is the pastime of a handful of writers, while the AIT is on the Indian government website and is taught to hundreds of millions of pupils and students. We hardly have a level playing field here.


This much for the (necessary) background. Now to answer your question. In the 1980s (1982, from memory), a remarkable book was published by KD Sethna, the erstwhile secretary of Sri Aurobindo, and then already nearly 80 years old: Karpasa in Vedic India. It argues that the AIT cannot be true, for the Rg-Vedic culture, indubitably located in India, predates the Harappan civilization. Indeed, he argues, cotton/Karpasa does not figure in the Rg-Veda but is quite present in the Harappan cities. Other material items follow the same pattern, according to Sethna. This drew a few other writers' attention to the subject, and they then published their own (good or not-so-good) arguments for Vedic indigenousness, as well as their account of the massive political use, both in the West and in India, of the AIT. Around 1990, historiography was very much in focus, though mostly of the medieval period (due to the Ayodhya temple/mosque controversy), and in that climate, the Hindu nationalist movement seized upon the Aryan non-invasion theory. But being intellectually very lazy, the movement invested nothing whatsoever in further research into Aryan origins but at once shouted victory: the AIT was declared dead.


Mind you: I have not used the now-common term Out-of-India Theory. To describe the Hindu position, this term is too flattering. It was coined ca. 1996 probably by Edwin Bryant, and assumes Indo-European linguistic unity from Iceland to Lanka, with India as the source of expansion. But in fact, Hindus don't look beyond the Khyber Pass: they are satisfied that e.g. no archaeological proof has ever been found for Aryans moving into India, so they conclude that no Aryan invasion has taken place, but they don't assume the burden of responsability to explain how, in that case, the Europeans have come to speak cognate languages. They don't go looking for traces of India-based tribes moving out of India and making their way to Central Asia and then to Europe. Quite a few of them put in doubt this linguistic unity, disparaging comparative-historical linguistics to be a "pseudo-science", and most don't even think of the non-Indian dimension of the homeland question. The Aryan non-Invasion Theory has millions of followers, the articulate Out-of-India Theory only a handful.


Always welcome if you have any further questions.


Kind regards,


Koenraad Elst

Postscript (23 October 2013): Now I remember another factor for the fairly sudden rise in Aryan Non-Invasion thinking ca. 1990: a few anti-Invasion publications by Western archaeologists such as Jim Shaffer. These emboldened a mass of Indian archaeologists to vent loudly what they had been noticing for some time: that in spite of being the official and well-funded doctrine for a century and a half, the AIT had still not yielded a single trace of the Aryans moving into India. BB Lal, routinely slandered on this list and elsewhere as a mere "Hindu nationalist", made his name as a promising top archaeologist by identifying the "Painted Grey Ware" culture with the Aryans moving deeper into India in the 50s and 60s; but he changed his mind and saw that he had merely *assumed*, not proven, the AIT. He is but one of many scholars who "converted" away from the AIT. Among Indian archaeologists, the Aryan Non-Invasion Theory is by no means a fringe opinion. 

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Tuesday, October 15, 2013

Cosmology of the Divine Mother


On the occasion of Navarātrī, Dirk Gysels, historian and civil servant of the Belgian kingdom, spoke, at the request of his daughter Freya who runs a centre of devotional and ritualistic yoga to the north of Antwerp, about the “Cosmology of the Divine Mother”.  I present the major  lines of the discourse of Dirk, who himself practises Śākta spirituality.

 In contrast with our own Christian upbringing which taught us a very small world, Tantra knows an infinite number of universes, themselves already as large as the modern physicists’ universe. All these together are the Mother, all universes are part of it, but  the Mother is not just the physical dimension, She encompasses deeper, more subtle levels of reality as well.  Navarātrī is the time to contemplate this.

We have a heart but also a mind. Let us, after all the heartfelt bhajans and abhiśekams, approach this question with our mind. We have recited the Durgāsaptaśati, the “Sevenhundred Verses of Durgā”. Those verses not only contemplate the presence of the Mother in phenomena which we, from our dualistic mindset, see as ‘good’, but also in less wholesome phenomena like forgetfulness, thirst, sloth, etc.  In Christianity, divinity is always associated with goodness; it doesn’t know what to do with evil. But the Divine Mother is everything. She is śānta, maṅgala, and raudra, i.e. “peaceful”, “auspicious” and “furious, stormy”. The raudra aspects are worshipped too. So there is no dichotomy between ‘good’ and ‘evil’. There is no separation between ‘me’ and the rest of reality, and more importantly, there is no rift between the Divine and the world. We don’t usually call it “unity” in Tantra, but non-duality, no-two-ness. So for whom do we do pūjā? For something outside or inside yourself? Everything is the Mother, so the Mother worships the Mother. By playing this game, we reach unity.

“Divine Mother” as a choice of words that wells up from the heart: Devī, Ambā. The realization of Devī is rather called Śakti, but ultimately the two are exchangeable.

We know the gross level, but there are subtler levels. The Mother is on all levels. We can start our description from the top and give a top-down explanation or we can begin at the most obvious level of Her reality and present a bottom-up explanation. See it as a ladder, a stairway with different sports.  Now, we start at the summit, on the highest level. From this vantage point, we will survey the 36 tattvas. Tattva is “thatness”: a definition to order everything.

As we know, light is both conceivable as particles and as waves. The particle side is tattva, substance; the wave part is best conceivable in the words of Śaṅkara: ānanda laharī, saundarya laharī, “wave of joy, wave of beauty”.

Now let’s look at tattva from the angle of the Śakti philosophy. Most of these texts, mostly from Kaśmīr, have not yet been translated, and much has been lost, but now texts are dug up and translations are seeing the light of day. Once this was the preserve of a spiritual elite, now is the age of democratization of information.

Most Hindu philosophies see consciousness as the origin of everything. In the West, René Descartes said: “I think, therefore I am”, but even there, being isn’t equal to thinking. And in today’s views, matter is the basis of everything, while consciousness is but an epiphenomenon. But here, the origin is consciousness.

Every tattva has spanda, vibration, pulsation, as explained in the book Spanda Kārikā. We live in a sea of vibrations, and the interference between these vibrations is sometimes harmonic, sometimes dissonant.

When talking of manifestation, let’s be clear: we mean emanation, not creation. In the Devī tradition, consciousness emanates by concealing itself. Mercifully this kind of “veiling”, tirodaṇā, takes place, otherwise there would simply be too many possibilities. (And as some astrophysicists speculate: there may be an infinite number of realities, universes in dimensions unknown to us.)

In the oldest philosophy of India, Sāṁkhya (“enumeration”), there are 24 +1 tattva’s; here, this number is expanded to 36. Sāṁkhya is a dualistic worldview, and dualism is contrary to the experience of the yogis, so 11 extra tattvas are added to unite the two poles.

So, starting above, these eleven are:

1.       Static consciousness, that in which everything rests, the “power of consciousness” (cit-śakti),= Śiva.

2.       The light’s mirror (prakāśa-vimarśa), has the quality of ānanda because it makes consciousness self-conscious, = Śakti. This concept of vimarśa is the key to understanding all manifestation. Static consciousness, when it becomes self-aware, needs mirrors in which it can see itself. All the countless phenomena , all the trillions of conscious entities, serve as mirrors for the static consciousness, as modes of expression  of śakti.

3.       Sadā-Śiva, the “eternal Śiva”, has intentions, will, resolve (saṁkalpa), the “power of intention” (iccha-śakti); represented by Ardhanarīśvara, the “Lord who is half woman”.

4.       Īśvara, the “Lord”, is what religions call God; consciousness feels part Śiva part Śakti. Some texts equate this level with the primordial syllable Oṁ.

5.       Śuddha-vidyā, pure wisdom, often the divine word. All vibrations of all mantras, the  essence of all mantras; if a yogi rises to this level, he is a mantreśvara. Hence in this tradition the importance of mantras. This is the finest level of mantra, recitation is only the gross form. The mantra is a hyperlink to the Goddess,=  the “power of action” (kriya-śakti). All divinities are embedded  in this Śuddha-vidyā as subtle sonic , yet unmanifest, conscious energies.

6.       The first manifestation is Māyā, “that which measures”, and thus restricts, makes finite instead of infinite; also known as Māyāśakti or Mahāmāyā. This is not to be interpreted in its Advaitā Vedānta sense of “(the world as) illusion”. The five highest Śaktis come together in the karaṇabiṇḍu, the “causal point”, like an open hand of which the fingers contract. Yoga amounts to reopening the hand.

7.       The next five are the kañcukas, “armours”, starting with kalā, restrained “autonomy”, limited “agency”, as contrasted with omnipotence.

8.       Vidyā, restrained “knowledge”, as contrasted with omniscience.

9.       Rāgā, restricted “desire”, as contrasted with fullness. Desire is not something to shun: it is the contracted expression of iccha-śakti. One can desire out of lack of something and this leads to bondage or one can desire to express his or her own fullness. So one should not kill desire but transmute it .

10.   Kāla, finite “time”, moment after moment, as contrasted with eternity, the timeless simultaneity of absolute Consciousness.

11.   Niyati, which can mean determinedness, destiny, causality, “finitude”, as contrasted with omnipresence. Niyati being causality is the force that binds the beings to their karmas.

After these eleven, we get the 1 + 24 tattva-s of Sāṁkhya: 1 is the Puruṣa, the “person” or unit of consciousness, the individualized Śiva. The other 24 are Prakṛti, “nature”, the physical version of Śakti. This includes not just matter but also all phenomena that we would call “mental”, i.e. consciousness of anything, consciousness wrapped up in any process, as opposed to pure consciousness resting in itself. Number 1 of these 24 is pradhāṇ, the “first” or principle, 2 is buddhi, the “understanding” meaning the power of discrimination; 3 is ahaṁkara, the “I-maker” or ego; 4 is manas, the “mind”. The rest consists of the five sensory organs (jñānendriyas), five action organs (karmendriyas: elimination, sex, locomotion, handling, speech), five fields of each of the senses, and the five elements. The highest and lowest tattva are strongly united: Śiva and Prthivī, the element earth.

In Prakṛti, everything is characterized by the 3 guṇas or “qualities”: the dark and heavy (tamas), the turbid and energetic (rajas), and the transparent and weightless (sattva).

Everything is a play of these tattvas. All these tattvas are Ganeṣa/Ganapati, “Lord of categories”, the offspring of Śiva and Śakti. Their other child is Kārttikeya (“Son of the Pleiades”) or Ṣanmukha (“six-faced”), or with his Tamil name: Murugaṇ. So Murugaṇ represents the going from gross to subtle, the reascension to his parents Śakti and Śiva. The “six faces” are the 6 cakras, the spear with which he is depicted is the Kuṇḍalinī. Unlike Advaitā Vedānta, wrongly identified with “Indian thought”, this system doesn’t see the  world as just an “illusion”. The world is an emanation of Śiva, the variety of trillions of souls is but the manner in which Śiva meets himself.

The whole system is the Mother. You could call Her the zero-tattva. She is called Mātā Tripurasundarī (“beautiful one of the three cities”) or Lalitā (“playful, spontaneous”). The pouring-sacrifice (abhiśekam) that we do for Her, also has a subtler level. It is ritualistic too, but interiorized: the manas-pūjā or “mental ritual”. But that is another story.

So much for Dirk’s explanation in Heide (Kalmthout) on the last day of Navarātrī.


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