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Why Buddhism died out in India

Date:Wed, 10 Apr 2002 2:10:38 AM Eastern Daylight Time

From: Nanda Chandran

Reply-To:Buddhist Academic Discussion Forum <BUDDHA-L@LISTSERV.LOUISVILLE.EDU>Sent from the Internet


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In my mind factors like the monastries getting destroyed or religious persecution by other sects, by itself could not have wholly wiped out Buddhism in India.

It might be easy to kill people or destroy buildings - but how do you destroy ideas? The negative standpoint of Buddhism - anatta, shunyavaada, vijnaanamaatra - had always had its share of admirers in India. Even if there weren't any major Buddhist monastry or teacher present, still over the centuries several intelligent persons could have engaged in philosophical enterprise based on Buddhist ideas. But no such thing has happened – after a point in time it seems to have lost popularity and waned out.

In my mind there's a fundamental philosophical reason for the death of Buddhism in India.

I would like to analyze the development of some core issues in Buddhist philosophy on this issue:

1. The Buddha - the Buddha is distinct from other philosophical streams due to his teaching of anatta. Most schools taught the reality of the Self – knowing the self is salvation - so the path is subjective. In contrast the Buddha ignored the self and taught the control/discipline of the non-self - his path thus is objective.

But it is to be noted that nowhere do we find the Buddha denying the atman - anatta only meant the all that's not the self - the non-self.

In my mind there are two fundamental reasons for the teaching of anatta:

a. When reality is beyond the mind and is not be attained by any action, why does it need to figure in spiritual practice at all? Understanding and disciplining the non-self - the mind/body/senses - is what is required. Including reality in a spiritual scheme only results in endless speculation on it which is actually counter productive to spiritual progress.

b. Also in the ultimate sense, one needs to let go of the will which is the root of the "I" sense for reality to manifest.

It is in these two contexts that the Buddha taught anatta.

2. Hinayaana especially the Milindapanha has an axe to grind. Engaging in polemics against the other ethical schools it leans heavily on anatta and asserts that there's no substance at all. Everything is momentary. The Sarvaastivaada schools indulge in some metaphysical speculation - atomism etc

3. Naagaarjuna comes in with two fundamental objectives :

a. to warn against excessive stress on anatta and
b. to condemn the speculative trend in Sarvaastivaada.

He too follows the Buddha in his fundamental teaching:
a. to understand and reject unreality using shunyataa
and b. to abandon the will using the chatushkoti and bhakti (devotion).

Till here Buddhists by always cleverly talking only about unreality or referring to liberation in phenomenal terms as "end of suffering" or "elimination of kleshas", had always maintained an ambiguous stand on reality. Naagaarjuna provides some ontological hints - "cessation of plurality" and the "world removed from the lens of causation is itself nirvaana" etc. But his heavy negative dialectic in condemning the unreal had earned shunyavaada the reputation of nihilism. Also the trend in Maadhyamika circles to get caught in the intellectual loop and make the chatushkoti itself a view needs to be corrected.

4. So the Yogaacaarins come into the picture with the main objective : after chatushkoti, the necessity to practice yoga so as to attain the reality of pure consciousness (vijnaanamaatra).

So here for the first time, necessiated by the excessive negativity of the Maadhyamika, Buddhism is forced to compromise on its ambiguous stand on reality and come forth with a clear assertion on the nature of reality.

5. Now along comes Gaudapaada - a philosopher who notes the similarity of the teachings of the Mahaayaana with the Upanishads. It is to be noted that the Vedaanta was not in vogue and atbest practiced only in very select circles as historically we do not have a record of other schools even talking about it before the rise of Advaita - but now using Mahaayaana dialectic it is revived.

Gaudapaada only shows that all epistemological or psychological observations of Mahaayaana presupposes a metaphysical base - you can dispute the metaphysical conceptions about the object but cannot deny the object itself. It can be said that the world is like a circle created by waving a firebrand. But still without the firebrand even such an analogy would not be possible. The negative is only the luxury of the mind but without conceptual construction every single instance of our conscious experience only affirms something and never denies anything. Nobody says : "I'm not" or "this is not". Consciousness (here I'm talking about basic awareness and not mind consciousness) itself implies something positive to be conscious about. And even with respect to conceptual construction, the negative has no value in itself and exists only in relation to something else.

The negative standpoint has its use but if you take it to its extreme it only winds up in nihilism. Affirming an absolute is the natural next step after the chatushkoti. The analysis of the three states of the waking, dream and deep sleep which reveals the existance of a changeless part of our identity due to which our identity survives the three states, is itself the pointer to reality.

Metaphysics if logically reconciled with Mahaayaana thought, can end only in the spiritual absolutism of the Upanishads. Only the Buddha didn't teach it - naitad Buddhena baashitam - out of practical interest. Gaudapaada provides numerous quotes from the Upanishads to support his interpretation of non-duality.

Here the Buddhists could have protested that Gaudapaada was hijacking their philosphy. But the chronological superiority of the Upanishads over the Buddha is the deciding factor here. The Upanishads had taught it first and so the Buddhists are on the defensive now.

Some liberal minded Bauddha scholars like Bhaavaviveka reach out to Gaudapaada in agreement. But other Bauddhas like Chandrakirti, anxious to preserve the distinct identity of Buddhism, are opposed to it. But even here they only oppose any expression of the absolute and not the absolute itself.

But clearly understanding that they cannot maintain their distinctness on the philosophies of Naagaarjuna and Vaasubandhu, other Buddhists - Dignaaga, Dharmakirti et al - again revive the doctrine of momentariness. So from Yogaacaara absolutism, it degenerates to Sautraantika nihilism. But it is a lost cause since the doctrine had already been discredited by Naagaarjuna and Vaasubandhu themselves - "it existed before but doesn't exist now - entails the error of nihilism" - Mulamaadhyamaka Kaarikaa - Examination of Essence.

One thing to note here is that Buddhism is more a religion of reason than its other Indian counterparts - unlike the saints of Shaivism or Vaishnavism the majority of whom are poets who gained their popularity through devotional poetry (even Shankara is popular among the masses only for his highly inspired devotional hymns) - every Bauddha aachaarya was an intellectual. Buddhism sustained itself on its philosophical subtleties attracting the intelligensia in the society - naturally it caused a heavy brain drain from the braahmanical ranks.

But the rise of Advaita Vedaanta which "completes the full picture", by cooly reconciling Buddhist epistemology and psychology with Upanishadic metaphysics, with its historical prestige rooted in scripture and powered by as inspiring a figure as Shankara must have heavily stemmed the intellectual flow thus sapping the interest in Buddhist philosphy over a period of time.

Buddhist philosophy had helped the Indian mind to climb to a certain level - without doubt the concepts of maayaa and its implication - advaya or non-duality - are Buddhist contributions without which there would be no Advaita at all - but after a certain stage it was helpless to prevent itself from being assimilated into/by Advaita Vedaanta.

Losing its strong point - philosophy (though in the negative sense) - it failed to attract new talent and gradually died out.

But again please note that I'm not saying that Adavita and Buddhism are the same - both have different set of ideals and practices - just that the differences themselves weren't enough for Buddhism to sustain its individual identity in India.

It is also to be noted that a couple of centuries after the fall of Buddhism, the Indian intellect had rejected most of the other philosophies and turned it attention towards interpreting the scriptures - numerous schools of Vedaanta has arisen.

In conclusion, I've to assert that Buddhism never died in India, but survives in the form of Advaita Vedaanta, which represents the best of both the great traditions - Buddhism as well as the Vedic religion.

Minh Quang posted April 11, 2002

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