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.

2 bizzy 2 blog

This was a busy busy week! 

Last Saturday I did the film shoot for “Hey, Sailor” — six hours, sundress, cold drizzly SF night.  Ah, the glamour of the acting life!

On Sunday I worked about 10 hours on my page proofs.  (This, after a 12-hour day on Friday.)  A couple more hours Monday morning, then I was done!  This was the very last set of changes I get to make on my book before it goes to press. 

George came over Monday morning and we went to the shipping store together.  We watched our “baby” get weighed on the scale, and I made the guy box it up and tape it in front of me before leaving the store.  Sigh!  Then we went to Burma Superstar to celebrate.  I had the veg samusa soup which sounds ridiculous (lentils PLUS falafel PLUS broken-up samusas??), but is delicious.  (Hey lookie, I made a rhyme.) 

We strolled over to Green Apple Books to look for a copy of BKS Iyengar‘s Light On Yoga book, because it’s a required text for her yoga class this fall at SJSU, but they didn’t have it.  So we gave up and went home to take a three-hour nap.  (“A three-hour nap….”)

On Tuesday, Wednesday, and Thursday I worked at my magazine gig (Turning Wheel: A Journal of Socially Engaged Buddhism) and we got the pages out to the printers Thursday afternoon.  Hoorah!   Another project nearly wrapped up; we get the blue-lines back this coming week, and then that’s it.  The magazine looks gorgeous, it’s a 92-page special anniversary issue, and it’s a bit sad that it’s only going out to members of the organization rather than newsstands.  Such is the economy of small magazines, though!  (The org, by the way, is the Buddhist Peace Fellowship, a totally great, progressive, and diverse organization, very worth joining if you’re interested.) 

Also on Wednesday and Thursday nights I had rehearsal.  I’d sort of forgotten how physical the work of performance can be.  It seems like I’m just standing around saying lines, but somehow I’m a sweaty exhausted heap by the end of the evening!  I am absolutely loving the work, though, and starting to get a deeper sense of my character, bond with the other cast & crew members, and get comfortable being in my performance body again.  To do list: This week, memorize Act I.  Next week, memorize Act II.  Whew!  Another rehearsal this afternoon.

After all that, yesterday I went to the Kabuki Springs with Zombie Mom.  We had been trying to plan this excursion since her birthday back in February, but with both of our crazy schedules, here it is August!  The timing couldn’t have been better for me, though, after this week.  She’s a Pisces and I’m a Cancer so of course we both find it the absolutely most perfect way to spend a few hours — soak, steam, nap, soak, steam.  There is something very satisfying about the kind of nap that happens in a steam room, or just outside it, when your body is all warm and relaxed and your brain is on vacation and you just kind of float away. 


Then we went up into the Japantown Center for lunch.  I love that there’s awesome vegan sushi available pretty much all over this city!  I had a caterpillar roll — asparagus tempura & cucumber inside, avocado draped outside — as well as an ume roll (salty pickled plum!) and miso soup.  Yummm. 

And THEN we went shopping for the cutest of cute office supplies at the Kinokinuya Stationary store and Ichiban Kan, which is quite possibly my favorite little shop in the city.  When I was writing the book, I used to go there for my ‘treat’ at least every few weeks — an awesome place to do some quick retail reward therapy for under five bucks. I got very cute folders, a notebook (cuz I always need notebooks) with little dots instead of lines in it, sticker tabs shaped like ducklings, and a set of half-sized index cards on a ring, which I’m going to use to help me memorize my lines. 

Zombie Mom had to go back to work, but I had decided to take the day off (yay!), so I sat in the cutest little tea place and drank hot honey ginger tea.  I am trying to drink soup and herbal tea as much as possible because all the rehearsing is getting to my throat, and it needs soothing.  I also had some kind of delicious little sweet red bean bun thingie.  All refreshed, I then had more shopping energy, so I went into the downstairs manga section of the Kinokinuya bookstore. 

I browsed around for a while and then bought the first volume of the Buddha series by Osamu Tezuka, which I’ve been wanting to read!  I decided that’s going to be my treat over the next few months… every time I do a big task, I get to buy a new volume.  There are 8 total, so that should carry me for a while!

Came home, took 2nd nap until my cat woke me, jonesing for his dinner.  Read Volume 1, it was beautiful and moving and funny and made me happy.  Got back in bed, drew and wrote in my journal for a while, and went to sleep very satisfied with myself.

Today:  Back to work!  Class this morning (working on my business plan) — actually I’m late! — and rehearsal this afternoon. 

Tomorrow, George and I are going to my god-daughter’s 2nd birthday party.  Balloons, bubbles, and toddlers, oh my.