What was the effect of Buddha’s teachings on the old Aryan religion and the popular beliefs that prevailed in India? There can be no doubt that they produced powerful and permanent effects on many aspects of religious and national life. Buddha may not have thought of himself as the founder of a new religion; probably he looked upon himself as a reformer only. But his dynamic personality and his forceful messages attacking many social and religious practices inevitably led to conflict with the entrenched priesthood. He did not claim to be a uprooter of the existing social order or economic system; he accepted their basic premises and only attacked the evils that had grown under them. Nevertheless he functioned, to some extent, as a social revolutionary and it was because of this that he angered the Brahmin class who were interested in the continuance of the existing social practices. There is nothing in Buddha’s teachings that cannot be reconciled with the wide-flung range of Hindu thought. But when Brahmin supremacy was attacked it was a different matter.
It is interesting to note that Buddhism first took root in Magadha, that part of northern India where Brahminism was weak. It spread gradually west and north and many Brahmins also joined it. To begin with, it was essentially a Kshatriya movement but with a popular appeal. Probably it was due to the Brahmins, who later joined it, that it developed more along philosophical and metaphysical lines. It may have been due also chiefly to the Brahmin Buddhists that the Mahayana form developed;for, in some ways, and notably in its catholic variety, this was more akin to the varied form of the existing Aryan faith.
Buddhism influenced Indian life in a hundred ways, as it was bound to, for it must be remembered that it was a living, dynamic,and widespread religion in India for over a thousand years. Even in the long years of its decline in India, and when later it practically ceased to count as a separate religion here, much of it remained as a part of the Hindu faith and in national ways of life and thought.Even though the religion as such was ultimately rejected by the people, the ineffaceable imprint of it remained and powerfully influenced the development of the race. This permanent effect had little to do with dogma or philosophic theory or religious belief. It was the ethical and social and practical idealism of Buddha and his religion that influenced our people and left their imperishable marks upon them, even as the ethical ideals of Christianity affected Europe though it may not pay much attention to its dogmas,and as Islam’s human, social, and practical approach influenced many people who were not attracted by its religious forms and beliefs.
The Aryan faith in India was essentially a national religion restricted to the land, and the social caste structure it was developing emphasized this aspect of it. There were no missionary enterprises, no proselytization, no looking outside the frontiers of India. Within India it proceeded on its own unobtrusive and subconscious way and absorbed new-comers and old, often forming new castes out of them. This attitude to the outside world was natural for those days, for communications were difficult and the need for foreign contacts hardly arose. There were no doubt such contacts for trade and other purposes but they made no difference to India’s life and ways. The ocean of Indian life was a self-contained one, big and diverse enough to allow full play for its many currents, self-conscious and absorbed in itself, caring little for what happened beyond its boundaries. In the very heart of this ocean burst forth a new spring, pouring out a fountain of fresh and limpid water, which ruffled the old surface and overflowed,not caring at all for those old boundaries and barriers that man and nature had erected. In this fountain of Buddha’s teaching the appeal was to the nation but it was also to more than the nation. It was a universal call for the good life and it recognized no barriers of class or caste or nation.
This was a novel approach for the India of his day. Ashoka was the first person to act upon it in a big way with his embassies to, and missionary activities in, foreign countries. India thus began to develop an awareness of the world, and probably it was largely this that led, in the early centuries of the Christian era, to vast colonial enterprises. These expeditions across the seas were organized by Hindu rulers and they carried the Brahminical system and Aryan culture with them. This was an extraordinary development for a self-contained faith and culture which were gradually building up a mutually exclusive caste system. Only a powerful urge and something changing their basic outlook could have brought this about. That urge may have been due to many reasons, and most of all to trade and the needs of an expanding society, but the change of outlook was partly due to Buddhism and the foreign contacts it had brought about. Hinduism was dynamic enough and full of an overflowing energy at the time but it had previously not paid much attention to foreign countries. One of the effects of the universalism of the new faith was to encourage this dynamic energy to flow out to distant countries.
Much of the ritualism and ceremonial associated with the Vedic, as well as more popular forms of religion, disappeared, particularly animal sacrifices. The idea of non-violence, already present in the Vedas and Upanishads, were emphasized by Buddhism and even more so by Jainism. There was a new respect for life and a kindness to animals. And always behind all this was the endeavour to lead the good life, the higher life.
Buddha had denied the moral value of austere asceticism. But the whole effect of his teaching was one of pessimism towards life. This was especially the Hinayana view and even more so that of Jainism. There was an emphasis on other-worldliness, a desire for liberation, of freedom from the burdens of the world. Sexual continence was encouraged and vegetarianism increased. All these ideas were present in India before the Buddha but the emphasis was different. The emphasis of the old Aryan ideal was on a full and all-rounded life. The student stage was one of continence and discipline, the householder participated fully in life’s activities and took sex as part of them. Then came a gradual withdrawal and a greater concentration on public service and individual improvement. Only the last stage of life, when old age had come, was that of sanyasa or full withdrawal from life’s normal work and attachments.
Previously small groups of ascetically inclined people lived in forest settlements, usually attracting students. With the coming of Buddhism huge monasteries and nunneries grew up everywhere and there was a regular flow of population towards them.The very name of the province of Bihar today is derived from Vihara, monastery, which indicates how full that huge area must have been of monasteries. Such monasteries were educational establishments also or were connected with schools and sometimes with universities.
Not only India but the whole of Central Asia had large numbers of huge Buddhist monasteries. There was a famous one in Balkh,accommodating 1,000 monks, of which we have many records.This was called Nava-vihara, the new monastery, which was Persianized into Naubahar.
Why was it that Buddhism resulted in the growth of other worldliness in India far more than in some other countries where it has flourished for long periods—in China, Japan and Burma?I do not know, but I imagine that the national background of each country was strong enough to mould the religion according to its shape. China, for instance, had the powerful traditions derived from Confucius and Lao-tze and other philosophers. Then again,China and Japan adopted the Mahayana form of Buddhism which was less pessimistic in its approach than the Hinayana. India was also influenced by Jainism which was the most otherworldly and life-negating of all these doctrines and philosophies.
Yet another very curious effect of Buddhism in India and on its social structure appears to have been one that was entirely opposed to its whole outlook. This was in relation to caste, which it did not approve of though it accepted its original basis. The caste system in the time of the Buddha was flexible and had not developed the rigidity of later periods. More importance was attached to capacity, character, and occupation, than to birth.Buddha himself often uses the term Brahmin as equivalent to an able, earnest, and disciplined person. There is a famous story in the Chhandogya Upanishad which shows us how caste and sex relations were viewed then.
This is the story of Satyakama whose mother was Jabala. Satyakama wanted to become a student of the sage Gautama(not the Buddha) and, as he was leaving his home, he asked his mother: ‘Of what gotra (family or clan) am I?’ His mother said to him: ‘I do not know, my child, of what family thou art. In my youth when I had to move about much as a servant (waiting on the guests in my father’s house), I conceived thee. I do not know of what family thou art. I was Jabala by name, thou art Satyakama. Say that thou art Satyakama Jabala (that is, Satyakama,the son of Jabala).
Satyakama then went to Gautama and the sage asked him about his family. He replied in the words of his mother. There upon the teacher said: ‘No one but a true Brahmin would thus speak out. Go and fetch fuel, friend. I shall initiate you. You have not swerved from the truth.
Probably at the time of the Buddha the Brahmins were the only more or less rigid caste. The Kshatriyas or the ruling class were proud of their group and family traditions but, as a class, their doors were open for the incorporation of individuals or families who became rulers. For the rest most people were Vaishyas, the agriculturists, an honoured calling. There were other occupational castes also. The so-called caste-less people, the untouchables,appear to have been very few, probably some forest folk and some whose occupation was the disposal of dead bodies, etc.
The emphasis of Jainism and Buddhism on non-violence led to the tilling of the soil being considered a lowly occupation, for it often resulted in the destruction of animal life. This occupation,which had been the pride of the Indo-Aryans, went down in the scale of values in some parts of the country, in spite of its fundamental importance, and those who actually tilled the land descended in the social scale.
Thus Buddhism, which was a revolt against priest-craft and ritualism and against the degradation of any human being and his deprivation of the opportunities of growth and leading a higher life, unconsciously led to the degradation of vast numbers of tillers of the soil. It would be wrong to make Buddhism responsible for this, for it had no such effect elsewhere. There was something inherent in the caste system which took it in this direction.Jainism pushed it along that way because of its passionate attachment to non-violence—Buddhism also inadvertently helped in the process.