The Buddha was not the inventor of a new method in the service of a new philosophical goal. He trod into existing footsteps: seeking the goal of Liberation through the method of Meditation. This ideal was already available before he was born and that was what beckoned him into a spiritual career. Even more specifically, he learned meditation techniques from established pre-Buddhist masters and integrated these prominently in the Buddhist meditation curriculum.
Less contemplative religions denounce Buddhists as “navel-gazers”. Indeed Chan/Zen Buddhists even literally focus on the energy centre just below the navel, a point borrowing its special meaning from Daoism, which calls it Dantian, ‘the field of cinnabar’. But the good thing about this focus on the navel is its unintended symbolism: a navel presupposes birth from parents. It proves you are part of a lineage, you have been born as an heir, and with a debt to your ancestry.
So indeed, Buddhist tradition pays a lot of attention to the role of Śākyamuni’s ancestry in his unique life path, particularly his father, also his foster-mother, his wife and concubines and his son. We know more about his family situation than of that of most sannyasins, who tend to keep their pre-initiation lives secret.
2. Anti-ancestry bias: the Buddha as rebel
Every great thinker has numerous studies dedicated to the influences that formed him. For Siddhārtha Gautama, the Buddha, however, this question is now systematically ignored or downplayed. Instead, the claim is propped up that he was a radically different mind from what surrounded or preceded him.
Either he is deemed a rebel against the ambient (partly or predominantly Vedic) culture. This view came about among 19th-century Protestant Orientalists as a conscious projection of Luther rebelling against Popery or of Jesus challenging the Pharisees. Thought up in Germany, today it is taught worldwide to almost everyone through school manuals and introductory books, both abroad and in India; the only exception is Buddhist countries to the extent that they maintain their own centuries-old tradition (e.g. the Buddha biography by Hsinng Yun 2013 used by the Fo Guang, “sunbeams of the Buddha”, school), but not to the extent that they too have absorbed the Western “consensus”. You can find it strongly in Bhimrao Ambedkar’s The Buddha and His Dhamma, less strongly in Jawaharlal Nehru’s Discovery of India (because he contradictorily adds that the Buddha’s contribution is typical for Indian culture).
The most subtle recent variation on this approach is by Richard Gombrich, who admits the Buddha borrowed from both Jainism (whose historical tīrthaṁkara Pārśvanāth lived some 250 years earlier) and the Upaniṣads: the Buddha “was alluding primarily to teachings in the early Upaniṣads, especially the Bṛhadāraṇyaka Upaniṣad, (ĀUP) teachings which are usually known as Vedānta, a term which literally means ‘Conclusions of the Veda’. With some of these teachings the Buddha agreed; others he criticized, though usually he did so obliquely.” (Gombrich 2009:60) However, he only agreed with the words, not the meanings: he used the old words but gave them a new meaning entirely his own. Thus, for the Jainas karma refers to a form of matter, but for the Buddha, this existing term becomes a matter of intention. (Gombrich 2009:75)
So: “On the one hand, the Upaniṣads had a gnostic soteriology: our basic problem is a lack of understanding. (…) On the other hand, Jainism and related sects saw our basic problem as involvement with the world through desire: the answer lies in acquiring total self-control. (…) Though the Upaniṣads also deprecated desire and Jainism also advocated understanding, it was the Buddha who found the perfect combination of the two approaches.” (Gombrich 2009:74) For Gombrich, the Buddha formally walked in the trodden paths of the ambient society, but only to revolutionize it in a very subtle way.
But if true, this reinterpretation does not put Buddhism outside Hinduism, on the contrary. Reinterpretation is already part of the evolving Vedic thought. Thus, Karma as understood in Vedic Karmakāṇḍa (ritual work) differs from what it becomes in the Bhagavad Gītā (in the source text and even more as nowadays interpreted: “the yoga of work”) and in reincarnationist context. The common measure is “action at a distance”: in Vedic ritualism, a fire sacrifice is performed with a chosen goal in mind, say victory on the battlefield, and hopefully causes through action at a distance the desired result, crossing the space and time between the ritual and the battlefield result; in reincarnationist parlance, karma from past actions signifies the causation at a distance of a destiny in the future. The shift is from a ritual causation to a moral causation, but the same term remains in use.
3. The Buddha as fountainhead
An even more daring alternative within the ancestry-denying consensus is the one we might summarize as: “All roads lead to the Buddha.” Since rebellion against something is still a form of relation, a newer school claims that he was not a follower of nor even a rebel against earlier models, but an incredibly creative founder from whom his surroundings borrowed. Here he is the fountainhead of all that not just Buddhist but even Hindu culture has to offer: either it is Buddhist and obviously his, or it is non-Buddhist, and in that case it has been borrowed (or in neo-Ambedkarspeak: “stolen”) from the Buddha. “Hinduism bad, Buddhism good”, seems to be the operative guideline, so anything bad that can be found in Buddhism is a contamination from Hinduism (or “Brahminism”), anything good in Hinduism must be an import from Buddhism.
One core of truth in this view is that we may be mistaken in deducing all spiritual developments in India from the Vedas, too often seen as the source of everything worthwhile. Vedic culture with its hymn recitation and its fire sacrifice, and with an array of sciences growing around it (astronomy, mathematics, grammar) was only one of the tributaries of Hindu culture, viz. the tradition of the Paurava tribe centred on the Sarasvatī basin in present-day Haryāṇā. It was not the mother but the sister of other tributaries, like the devotional culture with its idols and idol-houses (temples), originating in peninsular India; the culture of mother-goddess worship with blood sacrifices, rooted in every village but centred mostly in Bengal and Assam; and the culture of Greater Magadha, roughly Bihar, where asceticism and the belief in reincarnation originate. It is when the Vedic culture expands to the east, where Yājñavalkya wins a debate at king Janaka in Videha (northwestern Bihar) that these elements become central in the youngest layer of the Veda, the major Upaniṣads. So, less than a reaction to the Vedas, the Śramana (renunciate) culture may be a sister tradition developing on its own, with the Buddha as one of its children.
As Shrikant Talageri always emphasizes: “In this Hindu culture, the original religious elements of the Pūru tribes (the Vedic hymns and different types of Vedic yajñas) became just one nominal part of the whole religion, subordinated in actual importance to the elements from the other tribes: the philosophical concepts (Upaniṣads, Buddhism, Jainism, Charvaka’s philosophy etc.) from the Ikṣvāku tribes, Tantrism from tribes further east, idol-worship and temple culture from the tribes in South India, etc.” (Talageri 2019:169)
An academic support of this view is to be found in a Buddhacentric chronology. Johannes Bronkhorst (2000:112-123) has argued that the Upaniṣads actually postdate the Buddha, making the yogic ideas in them a calque on Buddhism. He brings in rather convoluted philological arguments, which have failed to find much approval among specialists in a position to judge this hypothesis. Thus Gombrich cites several Upaniṣadic verses as known to the Buddha (BĀU 1:4:5-6, Gombrich 2009:76; Gombrich 1987). However, the implied conclusion of Upanishadic non-originality has become popular in politically motivated circles in Western and Indian academe and in the Ambedkarite movement.
Gombrich identifies the earliest reference to yogic practice as: “Therefore, knowing this, having become calm, subdued, quiet, patiently enduring, concentrated, one sees the soul [ātman, more usually ‘self’] in oneself.” (Bṛhadāraṇyaka Upaniṣad 4:4:23) Even later is the first formal, self-conscious definition of the term Yoga (‘a yoke, the yoking’ > discipline): “The earliest known definition of yoga comes in the c. third-century BCE Kaṭha Upaniṣad” (Mallinson & Singleton 2017:xv), viz.: “When the 5 senses are silenced, along with the mind, and the intellect stops its activity: that is called the highest state. Strongly restraining the sense is what is called Yoga.” (Kaṭha Up. 2.3.10–11)
Having done a lot of research in Indian chronology, but without presupposing the late Aryan Invasion sequence (Ṛg-Veda in -1200 etc.), we always wonder where people get those dates from, posited with such confidence. The texts themselves don’t give these, and we know these dates are partly determined by the cramped and unhistorical hypothesis of an Aryan invasion ca. 1500 BCE. We find no reason to insist that the Kaṭha Upaniṣad postdates the Buddha. And let this still be a legitimate topic of debate, the Bṛhadāraṇyaka Upaniṣad’s higher antiquity is just too well-established. That it is earlier than the Buddha, follows from the fact that, as per Gombrich, he quotes from it.several times. It is also taken to contain some ideas known through Buddhism but in less systematized form, not because the Brahmin editors were too simple to properly digest ideas borrowed from a prior-existing Buddhism, but because they came earlier and expressed the same ideas in a more spontaneous form.
Unlikely and criticized as it is, the hypothesis of a post-Buddha date for the Upaniṣads deserves to be taken seriously, if only as a thought experiment. Supposing it is true, then the Buddha’s lonely and therefore titanic achievements are impressive, but then this begs the question where the Buddha had it all from: if he did not build on the older tradition, Vedic or Magadhan, did he get is from revelation, or from pure genius?
In Siddhārtha Gautama’s life story, the presence of spiritualism and asceticism in his pre-ascetic years is striking. At birth, he is predicted to either become a great ruler (as had been planned by his father) or a great renunciate,– a category clearly already known. In the classical story of his four meetings at age 29, it is the sight of a renunciant that sets him on his distinctive course. He wants to realize an ideal that others have already pursued and, given the inspiring effect this renunciant had, probably realized.
No mention is made anywhere of his contemporaries being surprised that someone would go and become a forest ascetic. Among the Romans or the Aztecs or most peoples, this would have been considered strange: a healthy young man who spurns a family life with wife and child and, for a prince, even concubines, in order to go to the forest to pursue a bizarre state of mind which he fancies to be Enlightenment. This was, after all, Hindu civilization, already familiar with the lifestyle that the Buddha would make world-famous. It was a long-existing footstep in which Siddhārtha followed. And in a next phase, once in the forest, he does not just go his own way. Famously, for a while, he joins a group of extreme ascetics, perhaps Jainas or a similar sect already in existence: as sons of the same culture, they were on a search for the same thing as he. It is only after sharing with them a part of his spiritual path that finally he leaves them, continuing his search into its more distinctively Buddhist phase.
More than forty years later, in the final years of his life, after having amply developed his own Dharma, he lays down his view of the good society in “the Seven Injunctions of Non-Decline”. (Mahāparinirvāṇa Sūkta 1.1-5, “Chapter of the supreme exctinction”, Sanskrit; and Satta-Aparihāniya-Dhammā: “Seven non-decrease duties”, in Aṅguttara-Nikāya 7:21, Pali, treated by Elst 2018). These relate the sapta śīla, the “seven precepts” of non-decline. Just as in spiritual life, the Buddha’s apple hasn’t fallen far from the tree, so in his social vision: it reproduces the institutions and traditions he has grown up with.
The first principle is unity in decision-making, deliberation till a consensus is reached, as the key to social cohesion and national invincibility. This was the political institution he had grown up with in the Śākya republic, and as a member of the Kṣatriya elite, he had been a full member of the Republic’s Senate, where deliberation and forging a consensus was his way of life. For the rest, a good cohesive spirit in society is furthered by respecting the laws, respecting women, respecting holy men, and preserving the existing religious traditions (sacred places, pilgrimages, festivals). Far from being a rebel, we learn that the Buddha was a conservative. Like his Chinese contemporary Confucius, he did not advocate draconic laws nor “more blue on the street”, but the force of traditional mores and the awe for the sacred to streamline society.
5. The Buddha’s teachers
We know some specifics of his culturally approved search in the footsteps of earlier philosophers and renunciants. According to the Ariyapariyesana Sutta (“syllabus on the noble search”), before reaching his Great Awakening, he had two meditation teachers. The first one was linked with the philosophical school Sāṁkhya, “enumeration”, then having a more general meaning compared to later centuries when it had to compete with an array of other schools, roughly “philosophy”. These were Ālāra Kālāma, a famous expert in breath control and Dhyāna mārga, “the way of meditation”; and Uddaka Rāmaputta, closer to Jainism. They taught him two advanced meditation techniques: “staying in nothingness” (ākiñcaññāyatana), c.q. “entering the dimension of neither perception nor non-perception” (nevasaññānasaññāyatana), also qualified as “the peak of existence”.
The scenario in both cases was the same. He mastered the techniques in months, became equal to his teachers; but then he grew dissatisfied with them because these mental states did not, after the return to ordinary consciousness, eliminate suffering. In the Buddha’s own words: “But the thought occurred to me, ‘This Dhamma leads not to disenchantment, to dispassion, to cessation, to stilling, to direct knowledge, to Awakening, nor to Unbinding, but only to reappearance in the dimension of nothingness.’ So, dissatisfied with that Dhamma, I left.”
Since the beginning, he had had this idiosyncratic concern, not shared with all other aspirants. Indeed, in the critiques of Buddhist meditation (as by Dayānanda 1875), the seeming self-evidence of suffering (duḥkha) as motivating starting-point of the spiritual search is rejected. Human searches for lofty goals including the quest for Awakening can have more positive origins than the attempt to quell suffering. The Upaniṣads strive for Mukti or Mokṣa (liberation), viz. from Avidyā, (ignorance), a very similar goal to Buddhist Nirvāṇa, “extinction”, but don’t start out with declaring that this is a matter of escaping from this Vale of Tears. Only in the Buddhist-influenced Yoga Sūtra of Patañjali do we find a less emphatic but real enough acknowledgment that “to the discerning, everything is painful”, 2:15; Yardi 1996:166).
Sometime in mid-quest, people redefine their goals, and the Buddha’s mature understanding of his spiritual goal could have changed from his juvenile impulse. But no, he remained entirely serious about his original goal, so after learning meditation, he moved on to develop his own variation. In modern introductions, to Buddhism, this is often portrayed as a revolt, even done in disgust. Thus, Bronkhorst breezily dismisses this evidence for the Hindu roots of Buddhism: “…the Bodhisattva’s training under Ālāra Kālāma and Uddaka the son of Rāma, which he then discarded as useless.” (Bronkhorst 1993, emphasis added) This conflicts with the source text, and with Buddhist practice, which has integrated these meditation techniques in its training programme. They received the place of honour in the Buddhist curriculum: as the last two stages before Liberation, the final two of the four Jhānas (“meditations”, Sanskrit Dhyānas). It is not a rejection but rather a case of Friedrich Nietzsche’s remark that “you don’t honour your teacher by remaining his pupil”.
The Buddha went beyond what he had learned, but the information given by the Sutta about the mutual relationship between him and his teachers during and after his apprenticeship is all positive. They remained friends, he called them “my companion in the holy life”. After his discovery of Nirvāṇa, the Buddha sent for them to share it, only to find that they had already died.
6. All this and world peace
That Buddhism is but one of the evolutes of a much older tradition, is a modestly useful insight for world peace. It takes the doctrinal dimension out of the modern anti-Hindu animus in Buddhist countrie, which has led to the expulsion of Hindu populations from Myanmar, Sri Lanka or Bhutan. Inside India, it takes away a similar anti-Hindu animus among the followers of Jawaharlal Nehru, who turned Buddhism into India’s unofficial state religion, (reviving Aśoka’s state symbols). They and the Ambedkarites have started to wield Buddhism as a weapon against Hinduism. The Buddha himself would be surprised to see what has become of his legacy. He himself never had a quarrel with the ambient Brahmin-dominated culture, and the only attempts on his life were by one of his own jealous disciples.
But even without these political benefits, it remains worthwhile for its own sake to raise awareness of Buddhism’s profound rootedness in a much older Hindu culture. Compared to the Western and neo-Buddhist conflict models of the Buddha’s relation with Hindu tradition, it is simply more truthful.
Gautama the Buddha was part of an ancient tradition. Just as it is false to dub Mahatma Gandhi the “father of the nation” (because he considered himself the son of an ancient nation), it would be false to call the Buddha the father of anything. He was the founder of a monastic order, the Saṁgha, but not of a new religion. His Dharma was a variation on the teachings that already existed, perhaps with a few unique touches, just like most other Sampradāyas. Indeed, the differences between them are mirrored by the differences that soon developed between sub-schools of Buddhism. Nobody calls Mahāyāna a break-away from Buddhism, just as nobody calls Advaita a breakaway from Vedānta. Similarly, we should not call Buddhism a breakaway from Hinduism.
Ambedkar, Bhimrao, 1957 (Akash Singh Rathore ed. 2011): The Buddha and His Dhamma, OUP, Delhi.
Bronkhorst, Johannes, 2000 (1993): The Two Traditions of Meditation in Ancient India, Motilal Bannarsidass, Delhi.
Dayānanda Sarasvatī, Svāmī, 1875 (2014): Satyārtha Prakāśa (Light of Truth, Sanskrit text with English trannslation), Vijay Kumar Hasananda, Delhi.
Elst, Koenraad, 2018: “The Buddha as political advisor”, unpublished paper read on 23 January at Jindal University, Sonepat.
Gombrich, Richard, 1987: “Old bodies like carts”, mentioned in Gombrich 2009:63, 213n.
–, 2009: What the Buddha Thought, Equinox, London.
Hsing Yun, 2013 (Chinese original 1998): The Biography of Sakyamuni Buddha, Foguang Publ., Taiwan.
Nehru, Jawaharlal, 1994 (1946): Discovery of India, OUP Delhi.
Sarvepalli Radhakrishnan, ed., 1992 (1953): The Principal Upaniṣads, Humanity Books, New York.
Talageri, Shrikant, 2019: Genetics and the Aryan Debate, Aditya Prakashan, Delhi.
Yardi, MR, 1996 (1979): The Yoga of Patañjali, BORI, Pune
(Paper from Conference on Buddhism & World Peace conducted at Utkal University & KIIPS, Bhubaneshwar, 8 February 2020)