Terrific austerities are condemned

Terrific austerities are condemned

There used to be a statute on the English Statute book, called ‘Concerning the Heretic who Ought to be Burnt.’ Nothing like that in India. There have been very, very minor oppressions and persecutions, but in general Indian kings, whatever religion they belonged to, were tolerant and kindly to those of other religion.  For instance, Ashoka , although a Buddhist and a great Emperor, would give donations to the Ajivikas. They were Shramanas and they were completely opposed to Buddhism.

Then Buddhism is regarded – was regarded – by the Hindus of the time, as something coming from the warrior caste. This was also a tradition. In the Upanishads, there are a number of cases where the warriors are shown as possessing the real secrets, while the Brahmins are lost in ritualism. There are a number of instances of this. It speaks very highly for the integrity of the Brahmins that they’ve preserved these many and central passages which show them in a very unfavourable light.

Buddhism was against caste or class distinction. For instance, there’s the story of the royal princes who joined Buddhism, but a barber had joined the day before. The Buddha made them do reverence to him as their senior in the order, but that barber was a Vaishya, the third class, not a Shudra, an outcast – well, of the lowest caste or class.  They have found a number of cases where those who entered Buddhism have recorded their previous caste, or class, and their profession. One would have thought that the underprivileged – the lowest classes or castes – would flock to Buddhism, which was already becoming a prosperous religion, with the backing of kings and the wealthy, but this isn’t so at all. In some of the lists, 70 or 80% of those who entered Buddhism were Brahmins, who sacrificed their Brahminhood, who sacrificed their privilege.  Then it would be another 10% or 20% would be warriors, the ruling class. The two underprivileged classes, the merchants and, still more, the Shudras, it’s a very, very small percentage. This is a surprising fact, but it may be one of the sources of the vitality of Buddhism that the people who joined, joined not to get rid of a disadvantageous social status but made great sacrifices to join.

Why the untouchables didn’t join is still a problem, but it can be summed up, perhaps, in the remark of a famous British administrator: ‘The Brahmin is sure he’s worth 100 untouchables, and most of the untouchables think so, too.’ The Brahmins, it’s easy to think of them as a cynical exploiting class, but, as a matter of fact, many of them took their responsibilities very seriously. One of them was to fearlessly criticise the executive power: the warriors.

The Greeks, as you know, invaded India. After being repulsed, they kept an ambassador at the court of Chandragupta. This is about 300BC. That Ambassador, Megasthenes, has left quite elaborate details of the situation in India of the time. His book no longer exists, but there are many quotations in the classical literature.  He was very impressed with what he saw there: the fearlessness of the Brahmins. One of them was invited by Alexander to join his army. Most of them refused, but one of them accepted. When he found that he had an incurable disease in the centre of the army, in full view, he calmly sat on a pile of wood and burnt himself alive.

It is a fact that the Buddha and Buddhists use the word ‘Brahmin’ often, and ‘Shramana’, as a great term of praise. It’s a bit like the usage of the word ‘gentleman’, which originally meant ‘a man of good birth’ but now means ‘somebody who behaves gently’. He uses ‘Brahmin’ and ‘Shramana’ in that sense.

The next point about the austerities: in India at the time, as the Buddhist pilgrims from China report some thousand years later as having continued, terrific austerities were practised. It became a sort of sport. There was great rivalry among the ascetics as to which could perform the more terrifying self-torture.  This is condemned in Buddhism, and condemned also in the Hindu scriptures such as the ‘Bhagavad Gita’, which says, ‘These terrifying austerities are connected with the sexual instinct and the perversions, and should not be practised,’ and that the real austerity is, ‘To tell the truth and to be unruffled in success or in failure of undertakings.’

The Buddha himself – and there are some accounts in one Chinese sutra of exactly what austerities he did perform – went through the full programme of self-torture.  He was asked afterwards whether, having dropped the asceticism, he was in favour of it or against it. He said, “With my vision, I see some ascetics going to heaven and some ascetics going to hell.” It depends entirely on their spiritual state, but renunciation itself is a great austerity. To be able to give up without being ruffled is listed as one of the great austerities, one of the hardest things.

Now, one or two other things I wanted to say. There are splits in Buddhism, and it now seems that these splits go back much further than the traditional account of them. Traces can be found. As you know, the Pali – the tradition which went to Western India and then went down south and had what is called ‘Pali’, as its language – has an almost complete record.  Of the northern tradition, perhaps four-fifths of the original Sanskrit documents have disappeared in India, but a very nearly complete record exists in the Chinese translation. There are considerable contradictions between the southern tradition, which is comparatively well-known, and the northern tradition, which is now being studied extensively. Some of our ideas have to be not necessarily blown to pieces but have to be revised to take account of new possibilities.

Again, the 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.

© Trevor Leggett

Titles in this series are:

Part 1: Early Indian Buddhism

Part 2: Terrific austerities are condemned

Part 3: Buddhists developed strong logic

Part 4: Ashoka’s Dhamma


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