Esoterica: Manga, Buddha, Brahmanism, Shramanism

I’ve now devoured and loved Volume 1 of the Buddha series by Osamu Tezuka.  The manga is gorgeous of course, the story moves beautifully, and he incorporates an interesting critique of the Hindu caste system during the time of the Buddha.  These days the four castes are sometimes described as priest, warrior, merchant, and laborer.  But Tezuka is less euphemistic; he describes the Shudra caste as slaves, and the story depicts them being sold and treated like property, etc. 

Coincidentally, I’m also reading a little book called Brahmanism, Buddhism, & Hinduism by Lal Mani Joshi. It’s more a pamphlet than a book, actually one longish essay, and sort of esoteric in one sense, but also deeply political and relevant in another sense.  Let’s see if I can convey how so!

In brief:  Conventional wisdom is that Buddhism arose as a reformist movement or reaction against/within Hinduism (Tezuka repeats this idea in the graphic novel version, by the way).  Furthermore, mainstream Hindus tend to believe that Hinduism comes directly from the Vedas, a set of scriptures, and that these Vedas were brought to India by the Aryans of the north (lighter skinned, with written culture), who eventually subdued the “tribal” peoples (darker skinned, with oral cultures) that existed in a non-unified way across India.

OK.  So Joshi argues against this.  Instead, he lays out evidence that the roots of Buddhism are in indigenous, pre-Vedic practices in India. He puts these indigenous practices under the label “Shramanism,” which he contrasts with Vedic “Brahmanism.” He claims that Buddhism arose out of this Shramanism strand of Indian thought and belief.  And he goes even further, saying that modern Hinduism owes just as much to Shramanism in general and Buddhism in particular as it does to the Vedas. 

It’s a complicated debate and I can’t repeat all the textual and archeological evidence he cites here, but it’s definitely very interesting in its modern implications.  That’s because basically, right-wing Hindus today are claiming that their version of religion, which is to say Brahmanism (aka “orthodox” Hinduism, which in my opinion is an oxymoron anyway, but that’s another story), arose directly out of Vedic culture and is the one true strand of Indian belief, with other religions such as Buddhism being merely reactions to Hinduism, and not containing much in the way of original philosophy.  Muni’s argument directly goes against this hegemonic approach. 

He argues that many of the elements of what is considered Hinduism today did not come from Aryan Vedic culture, but came from the indigenous Shramanism strand. He’s not here talking about rituals, esoteric tantric practices, etc., but about basic elements of Hinduism like the philosophy of transcendent liberation (moksha/nirvana); the practices of yoga and meditation; the idea of renunciation of worldly goods as a way or stage of life; etc.  Anyway, by placing Buddhism within an alternate tradition that is just as old as anything in Hinduism, he’s really challenging the dominant view.

And this, in turn, is relevant to today’s caste system.  (Which, legally, is supposed to not exist in India, but clearly does.)  Although Buddhism started in India, it was absorbed by Hinduism to the point where there were almost no Buddhists left in India.  It was during the pre-independence period that a freedom fighter named Dr. Ambedkar, who came from a so-called Untouchable (also known as Dalit, or Scheduled Caste) community, decided to convert to Buddhism because of its egalitarianism and anti-caste stance.  Thousands of his people also converted en masse, and today most Buddhists in India come from these traditionally outcaste communities.  

So, an argument that holds that Buddhism is original, indigenous, and deeply influential in mainstream Indian thought is also, almost de facto, an argument for the worth of these communities and a validation of their spiritual path.

That’s how I read it, anyway.  And if you made it this far, you deserve a cookie.  Or some good karma for your next lifetime.