Uniqueness of Buddhism in the Ancient India Context

The time when Buddhism appeared at the religious stage of ancient India (6th-5th century B.C.E.) is known in history as a time of great social, economic and spiritual changes and innovations. From the point of view of history of religions, one of the main characteristics of that period was existence and fierce competition of the multitude of religious schools and traditions, advocating the whole spectrum of philosophical positions. In India, the main divide led between Brahmanism, a religion of Aryans based on the Vedic hymns, and the disparate group of thinkers called samanas, who opposed the allegedly revealed truth of the Vedas and were trying to find their own answers to traditional religious and philosophical questions. As a prominent sect of the samaṇas, Buddhism arose and had to find its proper place amongst Brahmins, Jains, Ājīvakas, agnostics, Lokayatas or materialists, and many others, as with time these main schools would often split into a multitude of sub-schools. To make this goal easier, the Buddha’s Dhamma was marked by several quite unique features, which made it stand out among the other traditions and gradually became very well established at the Indian soil. Thus, by the time of Asoka and some two hundred years after the Buddha’s parinibbāna, Buddhism turned out to be by far the most successful among the samaṇa schools.

Trying to understand what was so unique about the Buddha’s Dhamma, we can start with something that actually makes Buddhism unique in the whole history of religions and that is the notion of anattā. The Buddha very consequently denied the existence of a permanent self or soul, which is a shared fundamental tenet in all the other great religions. Based on his experiential insight, the Buddha understood that the man is just a complex construction of five constantly changing aggregates (khandha), without anything else that would be possible to designate as an unchanging core of a being. On the other hand, the doctrine of the self, ātman found its classical formulation in the early Upanishads1 and remained the topic of philosophical exploration, but also heated debates among various schools of Indian thought until today.

Thus Jains, for example, posited an existence of jīva or life principle, an immaterial and sentient type of substance, with multiple qualities. The main ones are consciousness, energy and bliss (satchitānanda). It is trapped by and therefore has to adapt to the dimensions of various physical bodies, but is able to attain liberation from bodily existence by harsh practice of a Jain ascetic. Once liberated, this entity rise to the top of the cosmos and stay there eternally in an immobile and perfected state.2

Buddhist answer to the idea of beings’ wondering from one to another life through the round of rebirth, until the final liberation, relies on the well known formula of dependent origination (paticca-samuppāda). The theory of an intermediate, fixed and eternal soul is replaced by the sequence of mental events constituting a being as a process, which doesn’t stop at the moment of death, but by the force of the law of causality extends uninterrupted into a new existence.

Because we crave, we implement strategies to satisfy the craving; because of these strategies, we tend to live in a certain way; because we live in a certain way, our consciousness gets established in that way and we are reborn accordingly; because we are reborn, we suffer, grow old and die in line with that new existence. This core driver is the mechanism that perpetuates saṁsāra.3

As the notion of soul is central for all other religions, in the same way is this schema central for the understanding of the Buddha’s Teachings. Therefore, only after fully comprehending dependent origination, says the Buddha, beings are able to stop their wondering through the otherwise endless sequence of births and deaths.4

Another unique Buddhist feature among religions would be that the Buddha was not at all concerned with the existence of some universal force or almighty God-creator and his alleged role in the salvation of humans from earthly existence.5 Instead, all the gods were considered just a new category of mortal beings, subject to the law of impermanence. Like with all other creatures, the way for them too from this repeating of the eternal same leads through following the path of personal deliverance, through investing one’s own effort and persistence. This view often puts modern researchers in a trouble of not being quite clear if Buddhism at all belong to the category of religion or not. Compared to other religions of its time, Buddhism was always more interested in practical questions of human life, than in theoretical ones, more in how than in what:

In contrast to the religion of the Brahmans, where salvation is the realization that the self of the individual is in fact identical with the very stuff of God, in the Buddha’s teachings there is no suggestion that samsāra and Nirvana are considered in ontological terms. They are, rather, described in terms of the continuity or cessation of experience, and the underlying cause and characteristics of that experience. So the emphasis on howthings are underlies the fundamental doctrinal teachings of Buddhism.6

Therefore, the Buddha was quite consistent in refusing to be involved in the debates and answer any metaphysical questions so enthusiastically entertained by the followers of other samana sects and traveling polemicists. One of the most well know of such cases includes actually one of his disciples, Venerable Malunkyaputta and his inquiry if the cosmos is eternal or not, does a Tathagata exist after death etc. The Buddha vehemently refuses to answer these questions, using this opportunity instead to elaborate on one of his most well known metaphors, the on of the man wounded bz the poisoned arrow.7

Another characteristic of the Buddha and his method of expounding the Teachings is that he would often take some term from the general Indian philosophical heritage and assign it a peculiar, characteristically Buddhist meaning. One of such examples is the notion of kamma, which was a widely discussed topic at the time of the Buddha, no matter if it was accepted or rejected. As part of the perennial Indian philosophical discourse, this notion in essence implied that our actions have their clear consequences. But this understanding as far as Vedic Brahmanism is concerned was related mainly to verbal and physical actions during multitude of religious rites, which supposedly bring coveted results. Based on such ideas, Brahmans had built up an elaborate edifice of sacrificial ritual, aimed at pleasing gods and achieving material and spiritual gains in this life, as well as favorite place in heaven in the next one for those who were initiating the sacrifice.

The Buddha made a radical departure from all these ideas, bringing a strong ethical element into the notion of kamma and positing our will, intention, as its main generator: “It is volition, bhikkhus, that I call kamma. For having willed, one acts by body, speech, or mind”.8 In dependence on the ethical quality of that will, its fruits were supposed to be pleasant or painful. Traces of such ethicization, hinted probably for the first time in Indian thought by this passage from the Bṛhadāraṇyaka Upaniṣad,9 but fully developed by the Buddha, are visible throughout the whole of his teachings.

On the completely opposite side to the Buddha’s view of a man as an agent who works on his own liberation from the round of suffering stands Ājīvakas’ fatalistic position. Namely, they saw universe and the process of transmigration of beings as an unavoidable, deterministic sequence of innumerable lives passing through progressively higher stages of existence, irrespective of their actions. Surely, at the end, they will be reborn as an Ājīvaka wanderer, which is the last stage od their development before final liberation.

Finally, the uniqueness of Buddhism compared to other competing traditions of ancient India is its vitality, capability to adapt to new historical, social and cultural environments as it had been expanding across Asia and recently throughout the whole world. Thus, Buddhism first became a pan-Asian and finally world religion. This enormous capacity to thrive in various conditions actually boils down to the universality of the Buddha’s message, its realism and reaching right to the core of any human being. On the other hand, majority of other competing traditions remained exclusively or predominantly Indian in its core and were significantly less successful in accommodating to the spiritual demands of the modern world.

Bhikkhu Brahmali (2013), Dependent Origination, transcript of the talk held given at the Buddhist Society of W.A. on April 17, 2009.
Bodhi, Bhikkhu (2012), The Numerical Discourses of the Buddha. Boston: Wisdom Publications.
Hamilton, Sue (1995), “Anattā: A Different Approach”, The Middle Way, Vol. 70, No. 1, May 1995, pp. 47-60.
Lamotte, Etienne (1988), History of Indian Buddhism from the origin to the Ṣaka era. Louvan: Universit Catholique de Lowain.
Olivelle, Patrick (1998), The Early Upaniṣads: Annotated Text and Translation. New York: Oxford University Press.
Sarao, K.T.S; Long, Jeffrey (2017), Buddhism and Jainism. Dordrecht: Springer.
Warder, A:K. (2015), Indian Buddhism. Delhi: Motilal Banarsidass.

1 E.g. Chandogya Upanishad 6.8 ff (Olivelle, 1998). The Upanishads teach that self/atman and cosmos/Brahman are one, inferring that one’s ātman is not possible to separate from all that there is around us. This view is expressed by the well known dictum: “Tat tvam asi” (You are [all] that).
2 Sarao (2017), p. 594.
3 Bhikkhu Brahmali (2013), p. 15.
4 See Mahānidāna Sutta (DN II.55).
5 For the Buddha’s critique of the idea of a supreme, eternal and omnipotent being, see e.g. Mūlapariyāya Sutta (MN 1), Sandaka Sutta (MN 76), Cūla-Sakuludāyi Sutta (MN 79), Titthāyatanādi Sutta (AN 3:62), Kosala Sutta (AN 10:29) etc.
6 Hamilton (1995), p. 53.
7 Cūla-Malunkyaputta Sutta (MN 63).
8 Nibbedhika Sutta, AN 6:63 [Bodhi (2012), p. 963].
9 “A man turns into something good by good action and into something bad by bad action.” Olivelle (1998), p. 81.

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