The understanding of Buddhism by Western scholars is in general marked by certain limitations. To begin with, they are inclined to lay too much stress on what may be called the negative aspect of the Buddha’s teaching, as, for example, when they represent that great Teacher as denying the existence of the soul, or the existence of a Divine Principle in the universe. The deeply misleading term, Nihilism, has been applied by certain of these Western students of Pali to the Buddha’s doctrine, and they have described Nirvana as unconditional death.
The view that the Buddha denied the existence of a soul in man turns on the misunderstanding, and therefore the mistranslation, of the Pali word Atta, which is a softened dialect form of the Sanskrit Atma. But besides the change of form, there is also, between Sanskrit and Pali, a profound change of meaning. It is true that in Sanskrit the word Atma covers a wide range, beginning as a simple pronoun, “oneself,” the habitual personality, often including the body, and ranging upward through ascending stages of self-identification, and, in the great Upanishads, signifying the Higher Self, and, finally, the Supreme Self of all beings. A careful study of the Pali records of the Buddha’s discourses indicates that, philosophically, the word Atta had suffered from the downward tendency which affected all India after the great war of the Mahabharata, when Kali Yuga, the Age of Evil, began. As the knowledge of the Divine Mysteries was steadily contracted within a narrowing circle of Initiates, and, it should be added, as able Brahmans, intellectually rather than spiritually developed, gained a steadily increasing influence in the religious life of India, mystical and philosophical conceptions were narrowed, and grand principles were hardened into dogmas. The word Atma shared the general fate, with the result that, in the Buddha’s day, the conception had become intellectualized, and the noble intuitional ideal of the Divine Self had been replaced by an image, firmly rooted in the mind, of a “self” limited and set apart from the great total of Being, with definite boundaries, even when it was described as infinite and everlasting. This steady concentration of thought on a “self” which was in reality only a mental image, gave rise to a type of intellectual egotism that was a far more serious barrier in the way to true spiritual progress than the passional egotism of the man of desire, since this more dynamic egotism may rend itself apart and burn out through its very intensity. Intellectual egotism may, and often does, co-exist with all the outward forms of virtue and purity; it may be the source of characteristics, in appearance seemingly excellent, and yet devoid of true spiritual life, because their root is poisoned; or, to put the matter in another way, these “virtues” can develop only up to a certain point because there is a deep-seated conviction of limitation behind them, which eternally blocks their expansion toward the great Liberation.
Certain of the Buddha’s discourses, as recorded by his disciples, make it clear that this intellectualizing of the “self” prevailed among the Brahmans, both those who lived a worldly life under the protection of the princes, and those who, following the old tradition of renunciation, had abandoned worldly life and had become homeless ascetics, often practicing bodily and mental mortifications of extreme severity, and carrying them on for years, with persevering honesty.
If we grasp this progressive intellectualization and hardening of the idea of “self”, we shall find in it the clue to many different sides of the Buddha’s teaching. To begin with, we shall see clearly that the presence of this obsessing thought in the minds of those who were in other ways fitted to become his disciples, made it necessary for the Buddha, as a preliminary, to break up this mental image once and for all, and, consequently, to over-emphasize and over-state the unreality of “self”, thus lending colour to the view taken by Western scholars, that the Buddha flatly denied the existence of the soul. One is led to believe that the great Teacher clearly saw that, until this inner idol was broken to atoms, there could be no beginning of spiritual life; any seeming beginning would be a false dawn, a danger, not a real progress. He further saw, we may believe, that those who successfully passed through this shattering of the interior image of “self”, would in due course enter the silence beyond the storm, and that the dawn of the true Self within their hearts would supply the positive truth, the supplement of his initial negative teaching.
There are many recorded conversations of the Buddha with learned and distinguished Brahmans, both wealthy landowners and homeless ascetics, which are fully intelligible only when we have grasped this clue of the intellectualization and hardening of the idea of “self”. But in reality the problem is not limited to distorted philosophical views and the need of controverting them. The tendency which carried the Brahman type of intellect so far in this direction, was strongly operative in other ways also. Rightly to understand them, and to see how they affected the life of India then, as they affect it today, we must consider the history of the Brahmans through many millenniums. And it may be said in passing that the contraction of these long millenniums into brief centuries by Western scholars, under the influence of a distorted dogmatic chronology, has immensely complicated the problem of Indian history, including the spiritual history of that ancient land.
While there has been race mixture among the Brahmans, they remain today, as they were millenniums ago, distinctly a white race; Brahmans of pure ethnical type sometimes have blue eyes, showing an ancient connection with the white-skinned, blue-eyed races of more Northern lands. Indeed, both tradition and the evidence of the oldest hymns indicate that the Brahmans, or the white race from which the Brahmans originated, entered India from the North, at a period immensely remote. It seems also certain that they were already in possession of what, for lack of a better name, may be described as a “magical” system, in part embodied in the chanting of the Vedic hymns; and that these hymns, or, rather, their manner of chanting them, represented a knowledge of magical powers, of “occult” forces, depending on the correlations of sounds and tones with forces in Nature which may be described generally as “etheric” or “electrical”. If this be true, then the Vedic “divinities”, the Fire-lord, the Wind-lord, and the rest of the Vedic hierarchies, were personifications of cosmic “electrical” forces, such as the science of today is beginning to reveal; and the “incantations” represent the technical method of controlling these forces.
There are indications that this science of subtler substances, of “celestial” electricity and magnetism, was a part of a more comprehensive science, mystical and spiritual in the fullest sense, possessed by the ancestors of the white Brahmans long ages before they crossed the Himalayas and entered India by the North-western passes; and that much of the deeper and more spiritual part of this ancient wisdom had become obscured, so far as the majority of that white race was concerned, before they crossed the Himalayan snows. The causes of this obscuration are hidden from us in an immensely remote past, but we can trace some of its effects. Indeed, these effects are clearly brought to light and underlined in certain significant passages of the great Upanishads. To make the matter concrete, we may say that the Brahmanical teaching, as represented by the hymns of the Rig Veda, does not contain, or, at any rate, does not reveal, the heart of the Mystery teaching: namely, the twin doctrines of Liberation and Reincarnation. The life beyond death, as set forth in this oldest Brahmanical system, pictures an under-world very like that of Babylonia: a limbo of shades, the wraiths of deceased ancestors, who were in danger of perishing from inanition unless they received yearly offerings of food from their descendants, in the Shraddha sacrifice. At this point, two thoughts suggest themselves: first, that this view of the life after death is a shadowy memory of a fuller version of the Mystery teaching, such as we have supposed the remote trans-Himalayan ancestors of these white Brahmans of Upper India to have possessed millenniums earlier. This is suggested by the fact that these partial and limited beliefs will yield a consistent and much more spiritual meaning, if interpreted according to the principles of symbolism which run through the great Upanishads. To illustrate: the departed “shades” must be nourished by offerings of food made by their children and grand-children; interpreted according to the principles of symbolism, this has at least two meanings. First, the “descendants” are future lives, future incarnations of the individuality; if spiritual progress gained in one life is to be maintained, this can only be done through sacrifice and effort carried forward in life after life. Again, the “descendant”, the personal man, must ceaselessly offer sacrifice, if the higher, spiritual man is to be strengthened and sustained. On the one hand, then, there are perpetual suggestions of an inner, deeply spiritual meaning within the traditional Brahmanical doctrines, a meaning going back to a primeval Mystery doctrine in the fullest import of that term. On the other hand, there are clear indications that, at least for the great majority of the white race of the Brahmans, when they entered India, that meaning had been largely obscured. The technical method of effective “incantation” had been preserved, and a clearly marked type of intelligence, capable of wonderful development, had likewise been preserved, as both technical method and intelligence are preserved among the Brahmans to the present day.
Western scholars have traced with some fulness the meeting of these white invaders with older Indian races, especially with the yellow races now called Kolarian, dwelling mainly in the central belt of mountains, and the Dravidians, so called also in ancient times, who are the very dark races of Southern India, possibly remnants of an older Lemuria, like the Melanesians of the New Guinea region. This concussion of the white race with older yellow or black races has been clearly seen by our scholars; there are records of black Dasyus, and of yellow Dasyus, in the Vedic books. But in the ancient Sanskrit books there are equally clear records of yet another race, namely, the red Rajput race, which is by no means so clearly recognized by Western scholars. Yet the Sanskrit texts are explicit. The Mahabharata says that “the colour of the Brahman is white; the colour of the Kshatriya (Rajput) is red”; and, that there may be no obscurity, no supposition that these words are symbolical, describing moral qualities only, the word “red” is expanded into “red-limbed” (rakta-anga). Besides rakta, a second word for “red” is used, lohita, which means the colour of fresh iron rust. And, lest the matter should still remain in doubt, keen and able observers who know the Rajputs of pure race in their own Rajputana, tell us that these Rajputs are today exactly what the Mahabharata said they were millenniums ago: namely, red-limbed, a red race, distinguished from the white Brahmans by skin-colour and by a series of associated ethnical characteristics.
Once we clearly grasp the ethnical, physical distinction between the white Brahmans and the red Rajputs, we have taken the first step toward unravelling the tangled skein of ancient Indian history; if we follow the clues thus found, we shall be better able, on the one hand, to understand the attitude of the Buddha toward the Brahmans of his day, and also, perhaps, to gain some insight into the account outstanding between the Rajputs and the Brahmans of our own day, with the future possibilities which these differences imply.
There are no indications that the red Rajputs were a part of the Northern race which crossed the Himalayas; for one thing, there are clear indications of white races, but not of red races, in Central Asia, from which these white invaders proximately came. But there were red races in ancient Egypt. The red granite of the Egyptian statues may have been chosen, not only for its excellent lasting qualities, but because it well represented the skin-colour of the ancient Egyptian race, as contrasted with whiter limestone or marble. This likeness of skin-colour may suggest an ethnical kinship between the ancient Egyptians and the remoter ancestors of the great races of Rajputana, whose pure descendants are a red race today. The symbol of the “eye of Osiris” has been found in Mesopotamia, probably carried thither by colonists from Egypt, and there is no difficulty in supposing that another larger colony may have reached the mouth of the Indus, the Western doorway of Rajputana, many millenniums ago.
Whatever their earlier home, the Rajputs as described in the Mahabharata, belong to a red-limbed, fighting race, clearly distinguished from the white Brahmans. But, to gain a full comprehension of the line of demarcation between these two great races, we must go to the far older Upanishads, and, in particular, to a vitally important passage, more than once translated and discussed, which reveals the true relation between Rajput and Brahman at a decisive point in the history of India.
Without repeating that story, we may say that it puts on record three profoundly important truths. The first of these, dramatically and also very humorously set forth, is, that at that immensely remote time, the Brahmans, here represented by a humble father and a conceited son, already possessed the Three Vedas, namely, the Rig Veda of the hymns, the Yajur Veda of the formulae of sacrifice, and the Sama Veda of incantations; the three together constituting the practical method of using the command of cosmic “etheric” forces which was the hereditary treasure of the Brahmans. It seems further clear that the ability to operate these “etheric” forces through the rites which may broadly be described as “sacrificial ceremonies”, gave the Brahmans their power and prestige, and led to their being employed (as “celestial electricians,” if the expression be permitted) by rich princes and landowners, who thereupon bestowed largesse upon the successful operators, gifts of cattle and gold. The Brahmans of that earliest period of the Upanishads were thus in full possession of an ancient literary and ceremonial culture, which conferred definite and valuable powers over what may be called ethereal natural forces; this knowledge being an heirloom, what remained of the far more comprehensive knowledge of the Mysteries which their remote ancestors had possessed in some region of Central Asia, north pf the Himalayas; a land that may then have flowed with milk and honey, but which slowly and steadily deteriorated under the influence of those far-reaching climatic changes that have made an arid desert of so much of Inner Asia, where streams flow down from the snow-clad mountains, to lose themselves in sandy wastes, and never reach the sea. It is altogether likely that this climatic deterioration of a once fertile region was the cause of the southward emigration of the white race, whose arrival on the upper Indus marked the beginning of a new epoch in the history of most ancient India.
The second truth which emerges from the Upanishad story is that, while the Brahmans were in full and effective possession of this hereditary scientific and literary lore, they quite certainly did not possess, as a class or race, the far more vital knowledge of the Great Mysteries, and, in particular, a knowledge of the twin doctrines which are the heart of the Mysteries: the doctrines of Liberation and Reincarnation. When the youth, “conceited, vain of his learning and proud,” was asked five questions by the Rajput King—questions which quite clearly imply these twin doctrines, and which were, in fact, transparent leading questions—he failed completely to answer them; in his own words, “The Rajput asked me five questions; I did not know even one of them.” If, as has been suggested, the remote trans-Himalayan ancestors of these Brahmans had of old possessed a full knowledge of the Mysteries, of necessity including these twin doctrines, then we are compelled to come to the conclusion that, at the time of the earliest and greatest of the Upanishads, the descendants of the white invaders of India, though retaining a partial knowledge of the Mysteries, with the effective mastery of etheric, electrical forces, had so completely forgotten the more spiritual side of that knowledge, that they altogether failed to recognize its central truths, even when laid before them in an almost transparent disguise.
The third of the three truths revealed by this ancient Upanishad story is the most important; it is the clue to the whole subsequent history of India, spiritual and political, through the millenniums down to the Buddha’s day, and onward to the present and the still unrevealed future. It is that, while the Brahmans, father and son, though masters of the “magical” lore of the Three Vedas, yet admitted frankly that they were wholly ignorant of the heart of the Mysteries, on the other hand, the red Rajputs, represented by King Pravahana, were in full possession of that deeper teaching. More than that, the text clearly implies that they had possessed this treasure for ages, and that it had been handed down in regular succession of Teacher and disciple in the Rajput race. This is explicitly brought out in the famous commentary attributed to the great Brahman Shankaracharya, who here uses the term guru-parampara, the technical meaning of which is the chain, or apostolic succession, of Teacher and disciple, through which a spiritual teaching is handed down from century to century.
Finally, we have the practical conclusion of this deeply significant story. On the occasion there described, the elder of the two Brahmans, because of his great humility and aspiration, was initiated into the Mystery teaching hereditary among the Rajputs, but which, as the texts explicitly record, “had never before been given to any Brahman.” Here, then, is the key to all the later history of India, through the period of the Great War, the time of the Buddha’s teaching, the later centuries of conflict between Brahman and Buddhist, and the whole modern period, as well as centuries yet to come.
The Brahman race had a great heredity, and possessed, and still possesses, remarkable gifts. If the supposition be correct, that their remote trans-Himalayan ancestors were in full possession of the Greater Mysteries, a knowledge still testified to, by the probable symbolic meaning of the Rig Veda hymns, then this would mean an hereditary capacity for spiritual learning, which, even after the earlier knowledge of the Mysteries had been obscured, or even completely forgotten, would make it far easier for them to attain this spiritual knowledge, than would be the case with races possessing no such spiritual heredity. Yet it would also seem that the ancient tendency to obscuration would also of necessity be operative, and, in certain circumstances, might once again obscure or deflect the regained treasure of wisdom.
Both tendencies seem to have come into operation. It is certain, on the one hand, that the Brahmans, once the secret wisdom had been imparted to them by the Rajputs, made great efforts to assimilate that secret wisdom, and, on the whole, with remarkable success. The immense development of the philosophical systems of India, and in particular the system of the Vedanta, embodied in the Brahma Sutras and their commentaries, is sufficient evidence of this success. Yet in these highly philosophical systems, and even in the later Vedanta, the second tendency, the darkening of wisdom, is also evident. Intellect gained a remarkable development, but at the expense of intuition; or, to put the matter more definitely, the powers of transcendental reasoning were developed, rather than the far deeper powers of the awakened spiritual will. Brilliant knowledge took the place of real spiritual attainment, and, too often, the possessors of this intellectual brilliance devoted their powers, not to gaining spiritual growth, but to confuting their opponents. It thus comes that so many of the Sanskrit commentaries, whether of the Vedanta, the Sankhya, or the Yoga Sutras, are remarkable examples of intellectual gymnastics, rather than revelations of vital, spiritual realities. But it should be added that at every period there must have been Brahmans who overcame the defects of their qualities, and made a wiser use of their great hereditary gifts, and of the rich spiritual treasure which they had received from the Rajputs through King Pravahana.
This deeply rooted tendency toward intellectualizing and crystallizing spiritual truth marks the whole history of the Brahmans. Something was said at the outset concerning its part in the days of the Buddha. But it is clear that such a fundamental misdirection of spiritual power as is involved in the over-intellectualizing of spiritual truths, would be certain to react strongly upon the moral nature. Perhaps it would be truer to say that the inherent tendency which, on the one hand, expressed itself in this intellectualizing, would be certain to express itself also in the moral nature, both on higher and on lower levels of that nature. On the lower level, its expression would be worldly ambition, the love of power, of wealth, the desire for rich possessions and for distinction, a deep and continued enjoyment of recognition and respect, from prince and peasant alike. This tendency to make spiritual gifts bear material dividends was, in fact, widely in evidence in the Brahmans of the Buddha’s day. It was, indeed, in full play ages earlier, and a number of ironical stories in the great Upanishads turn precisely on this Brahmanical weakness. Yet this worldliness was more or less on the surface of the moral nature. Far deeper, and therefore far more dangerous, was its inner counterpart, a form of spiritual ambition and arrogance, which might easily comport with the possession of great “virtues”, ascetic rigours, bodily and even psychical purity; yet the whole edifice built upon a false and dangerous foundation of spiritual pride, and an exclusiveness which, shutting out other, less gifted human beings, at the same time and by the same tendency shut out any fuller revelation of the Logos, thus barring the way to the true path of Liberation.
If we keep these historical and spiritual considerations clearly in view, we shall be able to understand in detail the recorded relations of the Buddha with the Brahmans of his day, both the rich, worldly possessors of the Three Vedas, and the exceedingly dogmatic ascetics, depicted in so many of the Pali discourses. On the one hand, we shall be able to see why the Buddha devoted so much time and effort to rebuking and diminishing the spiritual pride and arrogance of the Brahmans, and to understand his repeated insistence on the higher rank and more ancient origin of the Kshatriyas (Rajputs); on the other hand, it will be clear that, granted the distinguished spiritual hereditary and inborn gifts of the Brahman race, the Buddha was fully justified, indeed, compelled, to make special efforts to enlist the best of the Brahmans among his disciples. One may say that he had set his heart on “converting” the Brahmans from intellectual brilliance to spiritual attainment; that he strove continuously to induce these Brahmans to become once more the disciples of the great Mysteries that, for long ages, had been the hereditary possession of the Rajputs. If he had fully succeeded in this great effort, we may well believe that the whole future history of India, and of the Eastern world, would have been transformed, in part counteracting the dark influences of Kali Yuga, and bringing a return of the Golden Age.
There were “conversions” among the Brahmans. Distinguished Brahmans sought and gained permission to become disciples, members of the Buddha’s Order. Yet, apart from these individual victories, it must be admitted that, in the larger aspect of his undertaking, the Buddha failed. The evil characteristics of spiritual arrogance and ambition, with their outer counterpart of love of wealth and power, which made the Brahmans a permanent danger to the spiritual and social life of India, remained unconquered; these evil qualities, rousing themselves in fierce opposition to the Buddha’s challenge, became a formidable and steadily increasing barrier in the way of his teaching, and after centuries of covert opposition, finally drove his disciples out of India, to the southern realms of Ceylon, Siam and Java, and northward across the Snowy Mountains to China, Tibet and Japan. The consequences to India were, and still are, deplorable degradation, and the establishment of a Brahmanical despotism, which is today as strong as it was when the Buddha made his mighty effort to transform the Brahmans.
Yet in justice it must be said that the Brahmans must not bear the whole burden of blame and condemnation. A heavy responsibility lies upon the Rajputs also, the warriors of the race to which the Buddha and some of his great disciples belonged. The Rajputs themselves, or many of them, had also suffered deterioration. Their warlike energy had the defects of its qualities, and they were altogether too prone to fratricidal quarrels and rivalries. This had been true for millenniums. The war of the Mahabharata, besides its mystical meaning brought out in the Bhagavad Gita, has its historical side. It was a fratricidal war among the tribes and clans of Rajputs, waged with unrelenting ferocity, and it was precisely the weakening of the Rajputs in this internecine war that gave the Brahmans their opportunity to seize and hold predominant power in India, a power fully in evidence in the Buddha’s time, and not less strongly operative today.
The influence of the Rajputs, weakened in the Great War, was never fully restored, though they always possessed, and still possess, many elements of moral and spiritual greatness. But, in part because of this weakening, the Rajputs were not able to give the Buddha the support which they ought to have given, in his campaign against Brahman arrogance and ambition. And it would further appear that their hold on their great hereditary possession, the sacred Mysteries, had been so restricted and impaired, that they were not able, as a race, to recognize the magnificent opportunity presented to them by the Buddha’s mission, by his incarnation among them as a Rajput.
The available evidence tends to show that the failure of the men of Rajput race adequately to support the Buddha, not less than the spiritual arrogance and ambition of the Brahmans, contributed to hold the Buddha’s mission back from full success, and was, therefore, one of the causes of its ultimate and humiliating failure, so far as India was concerned, a failure which has brought in its train centuries of degradation and spiritual bondage. Such failure is no new experience for the Masters of Wisdom; but, for them, failure is ever an incitement and a challenge, a signal to try again, with renewed effort and immortal valour.