Scholars tell us that we mustn’t bring our Western minds to bear on words like ‘schism’, and ‘split’, and ‘heretic’, that, in the India of those days, such words didn’t have the meaning that they have for us with our history of blood, and burning alive, and crusades – not at all.
The Chinese pilgrims, for instance, report seeing the Buddhist monks and the Hindus walking together in the processions. There has been very little of the furious hatred. When something has been accomplished by, perhaps, dubious means, the end was not thought to justify the means.
As a case, for instance, although this is not exactly early India, it’s about 700AD, Shankara wished to enter on a confrontation with one of the great ritualists – Hindu ritualists – of the time. He went to see him and he found Kumarila about to burn himself alive.
Kumarila said to him, “The Buddhists developed such strong logic that, in order to meet them, as a young man I disguised myself. I went, and I entered the Buddhist order, in order to learn this logic, which I did. I have used it effectively, but, for the sin of doing that, I’m going to burn myself now. You’d better go and see, and have your debate with my best pupil.”
So, they took the dharma, and the infringement of dharma, very seriously. This was one of the reasons why the caste position was able to go on for so long, because there were these spectacular cases in which the representative of that caste was willing to sacrifice his life, in a particularly difficult way, in order to uphold the dharma of his class.
It’s said, 100 years after the Buddha’s death – but the northern and the southern traditions conflict about the date of the Buddha by about 100 years – it’s said that 100 years after his death there was a first council to meet with a number of points, of which the central one was whether it was right to solicit for money from the laity.
Now, of course, you recognise this same thing in the Order of Saint Francis here. He began as a total renunciate, determined to own nothing, but in his case, because of the authority of the Church, within 24 years the order owned big buildings. However, the same point arose there.
There was a dispute, and it’s thought that this dispute was partly geographical: the monks of the east and the monks of the west. The India of the time was divided into kingdoms, and the east was gradually swallowing the west. That doesn’t make for easy relations, ever.
There was a third council, or there is said to have been a famous third council, held by the Emperor Ashoka after again, perhaps, another 100 years. This used to be, for me, a sort of marker in Buddhist history. I’ve been slightly disoriented by finding that the northern tradition doesn’t mention it. However, all may not be lost. It’s quite possible there was a regional council of the monks of the east.
Ashoka, the great Emperor, is worth reading up and studying in order to meet the point that these religions of the East are unworldly and nearly always disastrous, especially in regard to the doctrine of karma. This reign, even secular historians allow, was a serious attempt to spiritualise a great empire, full of different races, and languages, and cultures, which had recently been conquered by force. That attempt was, for a considerable time – partially, at least – successful.
Ashoka followed certain precedent. In Indian practice, it was quite common for the kings to support religious organisations of all kinds. They recognised that religion was a force for order. Whether they believed in it or not themselves, they recognised its desirability.
To that extent, they were far more intelligent than the sceptics of our own time or like Voltaire, who would simply tear down all religious faith, partially to satisfy their own vanity. Whereas, for instance, the Chinese Confucian sceptic would always perform the ceremonies with great reverence, for the sake of the people who are unable to control themselves without feeling there’s some divine power who is watching, and will reward and punish.
What he is worshiping is harmony and order. What they are worshipping is a personal God, but he supports that because he realises there will be no control without it. He sees – he foresees – as the sceptical… Some sceptical Indian kings foresaw that, without religion, there will be no possibility of social self-control.
Ashoka was a believer in Buddhism, but he realised that it was no use trying to force his own beliefs on the whole country and the varied people, so he chose this concept of dharma, which is a very old one. It means a number of things. One of the things it means is the natural property of a thing.
In Indian logic, the dharma of a diamond is hardness. The dharma of water is liquidity. It can be frozen or it can be converted to steam, but this is not its natural state. There is a natural course for man, which is dharma, and Ashoka utilised this concept, which all the religions of his time had. He said, “I will rule not by conquest, by force, but by conquering the hearts of the people, by dharma.”
It’s an interesting fact that the Indian Machiavelli, Kautilya, about 100 years before Ashoka, said, “There are three kinds of conquerors: the voracious conqueror, the ferocious conqueror, and the virtuous conqueror, who actually conquers the hearts of the people so that they voluntarily accept his rule.” He does comment, in his classic on worldly advantage, that, if you can secure this, you have the greatest advantage.
Ashoka’s Dhamma (dharma) can be read in some of the edicts. He followed a custom in India where, if a king donated, say, the produce of a village to support a temple or a religious order, like the Jains or Shramanas, like the Ajivikas, of course tax officials and other officials are liable to make encroachments and start demanding some of the produce for themselves.
So, there was a custom of engraving the grant in stone. Rather difficult to take away, rather difficult to obliterate quietly, not like a document that you can tear up or that you can have conveniently burnt and then fail to remember just as it was. He followed this system. At the important places in India, he selected some great rock, or crag, or boulder, or he would erect a pillar, and on this he engraved the principles of Dhamma, on which the country was to be run.
© Trevor Leggett
Titles in this series are:
Part 1: Early Indian Buddhism
Part 3: Buddhists developed strong logic
Part 4: Ashoka’s Dhamma