The Unmaking of Gotama Buddha

1.1. Was Gotama, an Aryan Rebel?

The assertion of Tarinicharan that Gotama Buddha was a rebel from within the Aryan-Brahmanical fold need consideration first. In this connection it is worth pointing out that his contemporary Bankimchandra also argued: ‘The Vedic religion was there before Sakyasingha (Lion of the Sakyans (Sk; Pali. Sakka); Buddhism is but only a version (sanskaran) of the Hindu religion.’ [B.C. Chattopadhyay 1999ii: 734]

It is worth remembering that although seventeenth and eighteenth century Jesuit missionaries to Tibet, China and Japan had made record of an obscure cult of a ‘false god called Bod’ [C. Wessels 1992] and in the early nineteenth century Friedrich Schlegel (1772-1829) and Arthur Schopenhauer (1788-1860) introduced Buddhist philosophy and ethics among German artists and academics, it was French philologist Eugene Burnouf’s (1801-52) Introduction a l’histoire du Buddhisme indien (1844) which suddenly generated interest in the translation and study of Buddhist texts throughout the universities in Europe and became an Orientalist speciality, concerned mainly with its philosophy and ethics.

Although there were discussions as to which texts were the earlier, the Pali or the Sanskrit, it was not until the 1870s that the Pali versions were regarded as the earliest[D. Burnett 1996: 250]. Although by the mid-nineteenth century, British discovery of material evidence of past Buddhist presence in South Asia started to create the impression that it’s following may have been far wider than hitherto recognised, [ C. Allen 2002; P.C. Almond 1988] instead of re-examining India’s ancient past in the light of this new discoveries, both Brahamanical and Orientalist scholars quickly followed the likes of Tarinicharan in assigning Buddhism the status of a rebel cult within the Aryan-Brahman ethno-religious complex.

This was done on the strength of post-Gotama Brahmanical texts, which had classed him and his Sakkas ‘fallen Katriyas’ and even made the Buddha one of the avatars of their principal god Vishnu. This new late nineteenth century wisdom was restated with vigorous certainty by the likes of Swami Vivekananda (1863-1902). [Vivekananda 1970iii: 274] In the first quarter of the twentieth century Sarvepalli Radhakrishanan (1888-1975) reinvigorated the claim by asserting that since the Upanisads preceded them, not only Buddhism but Jainism as well had followed and/or reacted in the light of the Upanisadic thoughts[ Radhakrishnan 1983i: 360-62]

Another argument in support of Buddhism being a rebel religion has come, in the main, from latter-day high Hindu Marxist scholars. They surmised that not only Buddhism, but also other anti-jajana faiths like Jainism and Ajivikism had encapsulated a general rebellion against the cult of Brahmanical sacrifices of animals, especially the draught animals like the cows, the shortage of which was threatening to the growing body of cultivators, hence the centrality of ahingsa (Pali; Sk ahimsa) in these religions.

1.2. Problem with the Claim

The oldest Upanisads are dated only from the sixth century BCE [ J. Gonda cited in K.K. Klostermaier 2000: 9] and some of these are demonstrably post-date Gotama Buddha. For instance, the one attached to the Sathapath Brahman mentions Ajatsatru, the king of Kasi, who was a younger contemporary of Gotama. [ D.D. Kosambi 1991: 103] In the light of this, it is difficult to see how the Upanisadic thoughts could have caused such a quick stir-up. After all, the forest-dwelling hermits, most of whom were concentrated in the Northwest, composed the Upanisads in the Vedic language and passed them secretively on to their students. Besides, they were not entirely complimentary to Brahmans or their ritualism for the Brahmans and the Katriyas to enthusiastically spread them.

Not surprisingly, only in the fifth century BCE we find Yaska in his Nirukta to make reference to the prevalence of a mystical interpretation in parallel to the ritualistic one. What was more, the mystical, spiritual and philosophical interpretations of the authors of Upanisad did not have a discernible influence on Brahmanical thought until Uttar Mimangsa or Vedanta at a much later date. [K.K. Klostermaier 2000: 48-49] During the sixth century BCE Purva Mimangsa, the philosophical school defending the cult of Brahmanical sacrifice was at its commanding height. Given these facts, it is difficult to see how the non-Vedic Magadhans had the averred scale of access to the Upanisadic thoughts.

Hypothetically speaking, if on the other hand, some Brahman and Katriya literati were instrumental in propagating them then their impact should have been felt more keenly in the Northwest and the North rather than in Magadh in the Northeast. As Ganapath (Panini’s geographical appendix to his Astadhyayi) indicates, even in the late fourth century BCE Vedic authors were in the main at home in the Punjab, Haryana and the Ganga-Jamuna doab and their culture was only one among several in these regions. [D. Ludden 2002: 19-20]

From the later part of the sixth century BCE Magadh was already a powerful and prosperous expanding state. Apart from the ambience of confidence generated by the economic and political success of Magadh, there was, moreover, no Brahmanical proselytising onslaught to stir the Magadhan minds into defensive action. Had there been any visible sign of defensiveness, it was found among the adherents of Brahmanism, as is evinced by the marked pessimism of the Upanisads and the subsequent efforts of Panini at fortifying Sanskrit, the sacred language of Brahmanism, from alien intrusion. Indeed, the followers of Jaimini (sixth century BCE), the most influential exponent of Purva Mimangsa, were known to have been reactive against the threat of anti-jajana religions, and remained hostile to Buddhism in particular for centuries. [ Radhakrishnan 1983i: 583]

If the Marxists’ argument is to have any credence, one expects to see the anti-sacrificial reaction and the rise of ahingsa philosophy in the Brahmanical Aryabarta rather than in the non-Brahmanical Magadh, where, in addition to the absence of the cult of jajana requiring large scale slaughtering of cows, the buffalo, [ It is not without significance that the later Purans denounced Asok as Mahishasur (buffalo demon) and the high Hindu Goddess Durga was given the epithet of Mahishmardani  (Annihilator of buffalo) and under Brahmanical sway the use of buffalo as a draught animal came to be disliked.] not so much the cows, were the main work animals.

Moreover, the falsity of this interpretation of the genesis of ahingsa is not difficult to see. Whereas both Jainism and Buddhism were fundamentally preoccupied with the consequences of kamma (Pali; Sk karma) or individual actions and the suffering individuals endure through rebirths and how to attain nibban (Pali; Sk nirvan) or liberation from the cycle of repeated births, the Veds and Upanisads lacked the doctrines of karma and punarjanma. [D.D. Kosambi 1991: 107]

The doctrine of ahingsa, on the other hand, was a logical corollary of the doctrines of kamma and punarjanma as the example of the Greek scholar Pythagoras (6th century BCE) and his disciples’ belief in rebirth producing their dietary ideas illustrates. [ N. Davies 1997: 109] The fact that the Mahavir, the supposed founder of Jainism, did neither invent or borrow the doctrine of ahingsa from his contemporaries but had it from his ninth century BCE predecessor Parswanath [D.D. Kosambi 1991: 105] does indeed points to its ancient ethical origin. It has been in vogue since about 3,000 BCE. [ E. Conze 1988: 12]

1.3. Jain-Buddhist Tradition and History

Readers may have noticed that the above claims have been made without any reference to the Jain and the Buddhist tradition and history. This would have been excusable had these been unavailable. This being not the case, one is bound to ask: why this omission? While keeping this question in mind, let us see what the Jains and the Buddhists had to say about the origin and originator of their faith.

In the Jain tradition, Bardhaman, the Mahavir (c.599-527 B.C) was only the last in a chain of twenty-four TirthankarsBhagavat Puran (c. fourth century CE) has referred to Risabh as the founder of the cult. Centuries before Bhagavat Puran, Yajur Ved had mentioned Risabh, along with two other Tirthankars: Ajitnath and Aristanemi. [ Radhakrishnan 1983i: 287] According to the Jain tradition, the last two were the second and the eighteenth Tirthankar[ S.N. Sen 1988: 55] Although the historicity of these earliest Tirthankars cannot be ascertained, that of the Mahavir’s immediate predecessor Parswanath, who flourished during the last quarter of the ninth and the first quarter of the eighth century BCE, can be.

According to the early Jain texts, he had thousands of both lay and monastic followers. The Mahavir’s parents had followed his creed. [ A.N. Upadhye in A.L. Basham 1984: 101] ‘There is no doubt that Jainism prevailed even before Bardhamana or Parsvanatha’ and the Mahavir had pointedly ‘called himself the expounder of tenets held by a succession of twenty-three earlier sages or tirthankaras’. [ Radhakrishnan 1983i: 287]

By Yajur Ved’s testimony, if not Parswanath, certainly all his predecessors had lived before the advent of Vedic Brahmanism and far from being a rebel the Mahavir had stood by their tenets. But one need not rely on textual evidence alone. Throughout their history the Jains have worshipped the statues of their various Tirthankars as the archaeological finds of their temples and icons show. [S. Chattopadhyay 1992ii: 147-50]

Satrunjay in Gujarat, the biggest Jain holy site in present-day South Asia, is indeed dedicated not to the Mahavir, but to one of his predecessors.  [ F. Fernandez-Armesto 2000: 406] According to the Jain tradition, twenty out the twenty-four Tirthankars had attained their nibban at the Parswanath Hills in Hazaribag of Bihar. Parswanath Hills boasted many Jain temples where the footprints of many of these early Tirthankars had been worshipped. [P.C. Nahar cited in D.C. Sen 1935: 134-35]

Interestingly enough, five centuries after the Mahavir the author of Manav Dharmasastra, one of the key guiding texts of the resurgent Brahmanism, could only class the Lichchhavis, from whom the Mahavir came, along with their confederate Mallas, as ‘fallen Katriyas’[ S. Chattopadhyay 1992i: 114] This tacit admission that the Mahavir came from outside the Aryan-Brahman cultural ambit does not also allow him to be considered as a rebel from within the Aryan, not to speak of the Brahmanical, fold.

Similarly, according to the Buddhist tradition, Gotama Buddha (c.566-483 BCE) was not the first to gain enlightenment; he had rediscovered a very ancient and long-standing wisdom. [E. Conze 1988: 11] In the Pali canon, the earliest listing refers to six previous Buddhas, [ M. Walshe 1987: 199-221] while the ancient Buddhist text Buddhavangsa mentions twenty-seven. The latter shows Gotama, as the ascetic Sumedh (Megha in Mahavastu of the 1st century CE), had vowed to work towards becoming a Buddha under Dipankar, the fourth Buddha. Gotama and his immediate predecessors were moreover frequently represented in art – in Bharhut and Sanchi by their thups (in Pali; Sk stupa) and by bodhi (‘awakening’) trees in Gandhara, Mathura and Ajanta. [E. Conze 1988: 26]

Asok’s Nigliva pillar edict paid tribute to some of the previous Buddhas such as Konakaman, Krakuchandra and Kassapa and mentions that he repaired the thup of Konakaman for a second time. [V.A. Smith 1919: 29] This reveals unmistakable belief in ‘series of Buddhas’[ Radhakrisnan 1982i: 583] Moreover, ancient Buddhist texts maintained that like Gotama all these previous Buddhas had practised and preached abhidhamma (Pali; Sk. Abhidharma) or ‘higher or further’ dhamma[E.W. Burlingame 1969iii: 35-36]

Most probably, Gotama was of Mongoloid stock, and the claim that he was a Katriya of Aryan descent was a later invention based on the fallen-Katriya asseveration of the latter day  Dharmasastras  and  Purans. According to Digha Nikaya, he was even opposed to rendering his message in Vaidik language and refused monks from Ayoydha permission to do so. [ B. Sangharakshita in A.L. Basham 1984: 88] The Sakkas, from whom he came, lived on present Nepalese territory along Basti and Gurakhpur districts of India.

Despite being described as Katriyas in the latter-day Brahmanical and Mahayanist texts, they were agriculturists and traders, not warriors. They had no Brahmans or caste-class division. Nor was any Vedic observances ever reported among them. They had a system of rotating chieftainship, but politically they were part of the non-Aryan Kosal state.

Their immediate neighbours, the Koliyas, who later followed Gotama and were among those who received his relics after his death, held serpents and bulls in reverence and were counted as Nagas. In the Brahmanical literature, Naga was a generic term for the people from forested areas, not necessarily connected or interrelated. They worshiped, among others, the nag (cobra), which — as the latter-day assimilated Hindu iconography shows — was believed to bear the earth on its head and act as khetrapal (guardian of fields). [ D.D. Kosambi 1991: 93-94]

Gotama himself was born in a sala grove sacred to the mother goddess Lumbini after his mother Maya had a ritual bath in the adjoining sacred pushkara or lotus pond. [Ibid: 108-9] According to the Jatakas, he was a Naga in some of his previous births. [Ibid: 118] That the Buddha arose among a people and a region that were beyond the Vedic social and cultural ambit, about this there is hardly any doubt.

Indeed, not only by putting Tibet at the epicentre of the humanity but also by distinguishing the people of the southern ‘Rose-Apple Continent’ of Jambu dip, the land of Buddhas, where humans live no more than 100 years from the Aryan northern ‘Continent’ of Uttarkuru’, where no village or town exist and people live for 2,000 years, [ C. Lamb in P. Harvey 2001: 263] the Buddhist cosmography have underlined the Northeast’s peoples deep-seated sense of being ethnically different, socially and culturally advanced and spiritually superior and blessed.

In fact, the early Buddhist texts present the Buddha essentially as a saman (Pali; Sk. sramana), that is, a wandering ascetic who practised severe austerities, contemplated deeply and strived for deeper knowledge and experience of the nature of the world. Some of these texts mention six teachers of other schools of the same tradition, while others give ten types of Samans. Significantly, both the Ajivaks and the Jains, but not the Brahmans, find a place in both these ancient Buddhist lists[ Digha Nikaya i: 51-59; Anguttara Nikaya iii: 276]

In keeping with this, the early Buddhist Sanghas appear to have received considerable support from householders who were not Buddhist upasaks. Likewise, those who became upasaks did not necessarily have to have an exclusive commitment to the Buddhist Sangha[ R. Gombrich 1988: 74-76; G. Schopen 1997: 80] Characteristically, Gotama Buddha himself not only suggested to one of his Jain disciple that he should honour the traditions of his family and need not withdraw all his support from Jainism [ Vinaya-Pitaka i: 236-38; Majjhima Nikaya i: 379-80] but also approved his followers worshipping at non-Buddhist shrines. [ Digha Nikaya ii: 74-75]

The Saman tradition that the Buddhists, the Jains and the Ajivaks shared probably arose from the yoga tradition, which had its origin in ancient native cult, perhaps rooted in the Indus valley culture. [ S.K. Biswas 1995: 115-26, 141-51; M. Eliade 1969] Yoga was absorbed in Brahmanism much later[ F. Watson 2002: 37]

1.4. Behind the new Claims


Clearly, instead of falling for the latter-day English educated high Hindu canards, historians will profit and at the same time do justice to their discipline by examining the context and motive behind the claim. It has been suggested that it was an expedient device for saving the tripartite division of South Asian history into Hindu, Muslim and British periods that was introduced by British scholars. ‘Otherwise, in accordance with the criterion of periodization, the period of the Buddhist rulers would have had to be classified as a separate period of ancient Indian history.’ [ P. Chatterjee 1993: 97]

But why they were so opposed to admitting a distinct Buddhist period when yielding to facts and bringing about needful revision are the prime academic duties?  The answer lies in the fact that there was no suitable theoretical paradigm other than that of the Orientalist to keep in wraps what Mrityunjay had, in the idiom of his familiar Sanskrit literature, called the struggle between Brahmanical dharmics and Buddhist adharmics and at the same time advance the cause of Indian nationalism and high Hindu supremacy.

After all, Tarinicharan’s vision of a restored Hindu nation in Bharatvarsa required it not only to conquer more countries but also to hold all the conquered — past, present and future — in contempt. Likewise Bankimchandra may not have agreed to every conjecture of his contemporary Hindu supremacist, but sharing his hegemonic agenda he too argued that they should not forego their interests and aspirations even if these were injurious to others. [B.C. Chattopadhyay 1999ii: 209]

It was this basic Brahmanical outlook which stood (and still stands) in utter contrast to South Asia’s ancient core value restated by Siddhattha Gotama when he espoused the philosophy of ahingsa and in its light not only counselled avoidance of violence against any living being, whether human or animal, but also opposed ‘the intellectual coercion of those who think otherwise’ [ E. Conze 1988: 11].


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B.C. Chattopadhyay, Bankim Racanabali (writings of Bankim) (ed. J.C. Bagal), 2 vols, Kolkata, 1999

C. Allen, The Buddha and the Sahibs: The Men Who Discovered India’s Lost Religion, London, 2002

C. Wessels, Early Jesuit Travellers in Central Asia 1603-1721, New Delhi, 1992

D. Burnett, The Spirit of Buddhism: A Christian perspective on Buddhist thought, Ware, 1996

D.C. Sen, Brihat Bango (greater Bengal), Kolkata, 1935

E. Conze, A short History of Buddhism, London, 1988

E.W. Burlingame, Buddist Legends Translated from the Original Pali Text of the Dhammapada Commentary, 3 vols. London 1969

F. Fernandez-Armesto, Civilizations, London, 2000

G. Schopen, Bones, Stones and Buddhist Monks, Honolulu, 1997

Kosambi, D.D. The Culture and Civilisation of Ancient India in Historical Outline, Lahore, 1991

K.K. Klostermaier, Hinduism: A short History, Oxford, 2000

Ludden, David, India and South Asia: A Short History, Oxford, 2002

M. Eliade, Yoga: Immortality and Freedom, Princeton, 1969

M. Walshe, Thus Have I Heard: The Long Discourses of the Buddha, London, 1987

N. Davies, Europe: A History, 1997

P. Chatterjee, The Nation and its Fragments: Colonial and Post-Colonial Histories, Princeton, 1993

P. Harvey, Buddhism, London, 2001

P.C. Almond, British Discovery of Buddhism, Cambridge, 1988

Radhakrishnan, Indian Philosophy, 2 vols, Mumbai, 1983

R. Gombrich, Theravada Buddhism: A Social History from Ancient Benares to Modern Colombo, London, 1988

S. Chattopadhyay, Prachin Bharater Itihash (History of Ancient India), 2 vols. Kolkata, 1992

S.K. Biswas, Autochthon of India and the Aryan Invasion, New Delhi, 1995

Sen, S.N. Ancient Indian History and Civilisation, Kolkata, 1988

V.A. Smith, The Oxford History of India, Oxford, 1919

Vivekananda, Complete works of Swami Vivekananda, 8 vols.,Kolkata, 1970

Watson, Francis India: A Concise History, London, 2002

Further Reading

Chowdhury, M. Abdul Mu’min, The Rise and Fall of Buddhism in South Asia: A Study in History, London, 2008

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Dr. M. Abdul Mu’min Chowdhury

Dr. M. Abdul Mu’min Chowdhury

Dr. M. Abdul Mu’min Chowdhurywas born in 1945 in Sylhet, Bangladesh. He is a Graduate of the University of Dhaka and Obtained PhD degree from University of Exeter, UK.

He held academic appointments at the Agricultural University, Mymenshing, University of Dhaka and University College London. He was teaching Sociology at the Dhaka University between 1969 and 1973.He was house tutor of Iqbal Hall during 1971.

His PhDwas on Anthropology and research topic covered "Household, Kin and Community in Bangladesh Village". His other works include 'Behind the Myth of Three Million', 'Operation Bangladesh' 'The Rise and Fall of Buddhism in South Asia-a study in History'. His article published in National and International media outlet. He is currently working on History of Bangladesh.

DrChowdhury currently lives in UK.
Dr. M. Abdul Mu’min Chowdhury