Vedic and Upanishadic Roots of Buddhism

Week 10, Lecture 2

Learning Objectives

  1. Discuss four goals in Upanishadic life
  2. Define atman

During the sixth century BCE a group of nomadic Aryan people crossed the Khyber pass and entered into the Ganges river valley, crossing from Central Asia into the Indian subcontinent. These Aryan people recited and practiced rituals delineated by their ancient hymns, called the Vedas. Theirs was a highly stratified, caste-based society with the hereditary aristocracy, warriors, and priests dominating the people responsible for farming, herding, construction, and commerce. These folks in turn aggressively segregated and exercised domination over the people who butchered animals, made leather, and did the dirty work—these people are still thought to be “untouchable” because they are inherently unclean. This caste arrangement has historically meant that there is no mobility between the castes.

All members of each caste, however, are encouraged to aim for four goals in life:

  1. Artha: material goods and comfort
  2. Kama: sensual or aesthetic enrichment
  3. Dharma: the proper exercise of duty to family, society, and the gods
  4. Moksha: liberation

It was expected that all members of each caste would do the first three. However, only brahmins, the élite caste composed of the hereditary aristocracy, priests, and warriors, could hope to realize complete freedom from the limitations of having an individual existence, merging with the limitless and eternal cosmic principle known as Brahman. Everyone else would have to do their best to satisfy their obligations during this lifetime in hopes that they would accrue enough positive karma to cause their rebirth as a brahmin in their next rebirth.

As the power of the Vedic brahmins began to wane, a new class of people began to exercise tremendous influence on Indian religion and society; these were the sramanas, “strivers.” These strivers came from the non-élite castes and they led an ascetic lifestyle marked by disciplined exercises of reasoning and debate as well as a strict meditative regimen.

There were two poles of the Vedic philosophical perspective. On the orthodox side of the spectrum the general tendency was to believe that each individual exists only provisionally and the true reality of life is that we are all actually emanations of a singular consciousness-existence-bliss called Brahman. When we think that we are individuals we are suffering from the effects of maya (illusion) and karma (weighted moral action).

By releasing ourselves, through diligent training and perseverance, from illusion and the chain of cause and effect that binds us to vicious cycle of rebirth can we restore our true selves (atman) with the infinite absoluteness of Brahman.

At the other end of the spectrum were folks we would today call rational materialists. They argued that there is no immaterial godhead or divine force, nothing we call human survives death, good and evil are manmade constructs, and reality is material. For these folks moksha (liberation) is the result of people making choices and acting in accordance with their self-determination.

In between were a variety of practitioners who developed traditions for realizing liberation by cutting their adherents free from their worldly obligations to their castes, families, and so on. Others were more conservative and observed a philosophy more like what is found in the Bhavagad-Gita, where yoga (union with the divine) is achieved through strict adherence to doing one’s duty without care for whether it is right or wrong.

Buddhism rejects Hinduism
It was into this context that Siddhartha Gautama (the historical Buddha) was born. After rejecting the throne he was born to, he became a sramana and followed a variety of ascetics in his search for an end to the suffering of all beings. After years of skillful practice and determination he achieved his enlightenment and would translate the experience to those who followed him on his “middle way.” Unlike his contemporaries, he did not advocate cutting off ties to the rest of the world, but advocated for the good friend on the path, thus establishing the community of practitioners, or sangha. He opened his practice to anyone of any caste, men and women. Perhaps most radical, however, was his insistence that his patterns of speech and language should not be considered necessary to spreading his teachings.

As Peter Hershock states,
“the Buddha made it clear that great learning and intellectual sophistication were  not necessary for liberation. One did not need the ability to read sacred texts, the talent for reciting and understanding convoluted doctrines, or the means and institutional authority to perform complex rituals [….] One needed only to keenly attend to how things have come to be, just as they are. This alone was needed to see the way of fully and meaningfully resolving suffering.” (Chan Buddhism, 12)