Brahmanism, Jainism and Buddhism are traditions indigenous to ancient India; while they share common origins, they developed distinct worldviews and methodologies. The purpose of this research is to explore their historical, semantic and doctrinal development and demonstrate links between their meditation systems. This second part of the series is centred around the exchange and divergence of the concept of liberation, and its corresponding beliefs and practices.
Around two and a half thousand years ago, new social, economic, political, and scientific developments posed a direct challenge to the Brahmanical hegemony of Vedic India. In due course, they served as a catalyst for new monastic traditions. Their leaders, Mahāvīra and Gautama Buddha, propagated new ideas concerned with the pursuit of liberation, thereby increasing the scope of Indic doctrines. They ranged from the Vedic salvation of heaven (amṛtatvam) to non-Vedic release (mokṣa, nirvāṇa) from the cycle of rebirth (saṃsāra). This research demonstrates how the non-Vedic śramaṇa opposition to the society resulted in the absorption of some of their beliefs and practices back into (Vedantic) Brahmanism.
The new inspiring means for liberation
As stated already, the fundamental changes in society gave rise to new doctrines. One of the new teachings, absent from the Vedic material, was the pursuit of liberation from rebirth—mokṣa, nirvāṇa, kaivalya or bodhi (Samuel 2008:119). This new aspiration, initially attainable only at death, was in contrast with the mainstream Vedic ritual – worldly merits, amṛtatvam, and rebirth.
For the Buddhists, freedom from rebirths, and nirvāṇa, became attainable within the same life—thus altering the importance of Vedic austerities (Bronkhorst 1993:71). The origin of the new doctrine was an unspecified ‘liberating insight’ which became a forerunner for the Four Noble Truths (Bronkhorst 1993:85), “the medicine for the disease of suffering” (Gethin 1998:64):
[A] bhikkhu understands as it actually is: ‘This is suffering’; (...) ‘This is the origin of suffering’; (...) ‘This is the cessation of suffering’; (...) ‘This is the way leading to the cessation of suffering.’
(Satipaṭṭhāna Sutta in Ñāṇamoli and Bodhi 2005:154)
Such a template was novel for Brahmins. Their liberating insight emerged as the knowledge of Brahman (Samuel 2008:164) which omitted psychological transformation.
Meanwhile, for Jains and Buddhists, individual transformation, and consequent actions, were central to the attainment of freedom. They shared the belief that deeds have consequences in this or future existence.
Nonetheless, these growing monastic traditions differed in their view of the permanence of elements. In Jainism, (non)actions were concrete and physical. In Buddhism, due to the notion of impermanence, the key factor was the intention: “Monks, I say that intention is action. It is with a certain intention that one acts, whether with body, speech, or mind.” (Aṅguttara Nikāya in Bronkhorst 2009:20).
In light of these auspiciously developing doctrines, the societal unease towards ‘re-death’ and rebirth exacerbated. In due course, it reformulated the “not-dying-anymore-ness” into the release from all form (Kaelber 1989:75-76)—as demonstrated in the work constituting the end of the Vedas:
Not by refraining from action does man attain freedom from action. (...) Action is greater than inaction: perform therefore thy task in life. (...) Let thy actions (...) be pure, free from the bonds of desire.
(Bhagavad Gītā in Mascaró 2003:17-18)
Thus, Vedanta illustrates mokṣa not only as ‘going to Brahman’ (Gombrich 2006:46) but, additionally, as attainable through pure unselfish actions. These have to be detached from desire and fruits of action, as well as “vain hopes and selfish thoughts” (Mascaró 2003:20). Such an approach is contrary to the Jaina inaction. However, it is correlatable to the Buddhist emphasis on the inner world and signifies a departure from the Vedic predominantly outer action.
The interest in the restraint of senses
Additionally, Brahmanism, Jainism and Buddhism cultivated the brahmavihārās virtues of friendliness, compassion, sympathy and equanimity. Moreover, they valued the harnessing of the senses on the path to liberation—as seen in chariot metaphors across the traditions (Wynne 2017:26):
[A] chariot on even ground at the crossroads, harnessed to thoroughbreds, waiting with goad lying ready, so that a skilled trainer, a charioteer of horses to be tamed, might mount it, and (...) might drive out and back by any road whenever he likes. So too, bhikkhus, when anyone has developed and cultivated mindfulness of the body...he attains the ability to witness any aspect therein
(Kāyagatāsati Sutta in Ñāṇamoli and Bodhi 2005:956)
The Vedantic material presents parallels to the above early Buddhism metaphor:
Know the Atman as Lord of a chariot; and the body as the chariot itself (...) The horses, they say, are the senses; and their paths are the objects of sense. (...) He who has not right understanding and whose mind is never steady is not the ruler of his life, like a bad driver with wild horses. (...) [He] is careless and never pure, reaches not the End of the journey [the supreme everlasting Spirit]; but wanders on from death to death.
(Katha Upaniṣad in Mascaró 1981:60)
Therefore, the Upaniṣads favour those who understand the eternal ātman as both the oneness with Brahman and the essence of individual being, and who, in addition, control their senses. Such worshippers attain the highest state of “the indwelling person” (Mallinson and Singleton 2017:xv) and cease to be reborn, despite operating within the Brahmanic framework.
The controversy around the 'self'
Additionally to Brahmanism, the notion of the enduring substantial self, pending liberation from impurity, figured in early Jainism. Nevertheless, the Jaina ātman, or jīva, signified an eternally separate soul. Its mokṣa in heaven was hindered by karma which (i) was instigated by desire, hatred, violence, and attachment, (ii) led to rebirths in saṃsāra, and (iii) was destructible exclusively by tapas (Tan 2019; Mallinson and Singleton 2017:288; Chapple 1993:11-14).
The Buddha did not directly oppose nor accept the concept of self. Analogously to the ten ‘undetermined questions’, he responded with silence to enquiries concerned with the existence and non-existence of ātman. Hence, he reaffirmed the middle way – between ‘eternalism’ and ‘annihilationism’ (Gethin 1998:161). However, as Abe states, “[h]is understanding of the self implied in his silence was later formulated in the doctrine of anātman, that is, 'no-self.'" (1997:67-68), the absence of transmigrating self. Therefore, the Buddha’s liberation was attainable not only through the application of cognition. He also encouraged the diversion from the self, contrary to Mahāvīra and Brahmin priests. Such exposition framed the Jains’ and Brahmins’ enduring selves as illusory – formed by a constantly changing ‘bundle of formations’. Noteworthy, however, Buddhism intermittently affirmed the existence of ātman – in the learning progression (Gregory 1983:239).
As demonstrated, Jainism, Buddhism and Vedantic Brahmanism, despite individual approaches to the self, share fundamental virtues and impediments to liberation – desire, attachment, and ignorance of the nature of reality. The study briefly evidenced scriptural parallels occurring across the traditions as a result of their interaction. Although Jains and Buddhists lacked allegiance to the Vedas, they constructed a powerful new framework. Its wide adoption led to the reaction of the Brahmanical tradition reflected in their ‘end of the Veda’ and later texts.
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