Hinduism : In Living Up to the  ​Expectations of the Buddha   ​

Swami Gunottarananda

Buddha’s was a religion of means. He gave no importance to the goal in his philosophy. Although his philosophy led one to freedom, freedom itself was not defined as an essence of some Being. In Hinduism freedom is held to be the real nature of our being called Atman or Brahman which is pre-existing. On the other hand, Buddha did not establish himself to be a God or an avatara of some external divine being. Even his biographers are vocal about his claiming no godhood for himself. One of them says, ‘Among the founders of religions the Buddha was the only teacher who did not claim to be other than the human being, pure and simple … man is his own master and there is no higher being or power that sits in judgement over his own destiny.’1 So, from where was the light to be found that could shatter the spiritual darkness? Buddha said, be your own light unto yourself—atma-dipo-bhava. As for Buddha’s sermons, he asked his disciples to treat them as a raft we use to row the boat. After the journey is over we forsake it. Forsake my words by all means, said Buddha. He was so much in favour of making a system of religion that required no God to look up to. We have certain impurities. We feel insecure and in bondage. That implies we have to act on them. That is all it is. His was the religion of action, and not of devotion or knowledge. He attributed all his realisation, attainments, and achievements to human endeavour and human intelligence. It seems he was bent upon making this world itself, the man itself, the other-God. In his religion the necessary expansion of heart came not from all pervading God but from compassion which could deluge the entire universe under its expansion. Aah! Such was Buddha’s love. Against the oppression by a few, wherever in human civilization there is an impulse of taking charge of the situation in one’s own hand thereby getting on one’s own feet, that can easily be traced back to Buddha. Whether that be electoral democracy, pedestrian economy, or solving the problems of the world with its own inherent and infilling energy and resources with the help of science and technology—all can be traced to the character of Buddha. A certain favourite city of Buddha, then a janapada, which he visited the most was practising democracy long before India became a democratic country. Such was the influence of the Buddha in Vaishali-janapada. In our own times we have seen that ‘Smiling Buddha’ and ‘Buddha smiles again’ were the code words assigned to the operations that made India a nuclear power. Few countries, five to be precise, had frowned on the success of Buddha smiles again. Sometimes coincidences provide a better peep into reality than conscious seeing does. Success of the ‘Buddha smiles again’, nevertheless, had set the tone of India. India is now heard to challenge the hegemony of five permanent members of the United Nations Security Council, asserting, ‘Our question therefore is how much longer will the will of the five members override the collective will of 188 member states. This must change.’

In the Dialogue with

Due to the oppression by the few countries including a few neighbouring ones, India as a new nation was engaged in the dialogue with them. By conducting the nuclear tests India did what she had to in order to prove her strength, make her children secure, and show her stature in the international arena. Disgruntling under the undue authority of a few, that is how we too, quite often find ourselves in such dialogue with them. Buddha was engaged in dialogue with brahmanas of his time. Customs of the then brahmanas had deteriorated into authoritarian tradition. There was no one to question them as they were the custodian of the Vedas. Engaged as he was in the debate, Buddha denied the authority of the Vedas and formed a new religion of the means, in which there was no need to look up to any authority, whether that be the Vedas or God. He called his method upaya-kaushalya, that is, perfecting the means.

A Clue into the Denial of Buddha

Unlike the Gospel of Sri Ramakrishna which is a true record of actual conversation, there is a book called Tevijja Sutta in the traditions of Buddhism. It does not depict an actual conversation of the Buddha. Nevertheless, it is considered an authentic scripture. It comes under Pali Canon. Through its pages one can trace what it means to deny the Vedas. There, Buddha is shown engaged in dialogue with two brahmanas. His arguments are structured in five parables. Two among them are ‘The most beautiful woman in the land’ and ‘The stairway to nowhere’. With the help of these two parables, we will try to figure out what did Buddha mean by denying the Vedas. The first parable suggests: suppose a man says he is in love with the most beautiful woman of the country, one can question, have you seen that woman, or do you know where she lives. If not, what is the point in saying that you are in love with that woman? Why do you say she is your all in all? Through the second parable, religion as a social institution is deemed to be a pompous construction. It argues that someone claims to make a stairway to the mansion which is not erect; the man doesn’t have a plan of the mansion his stairs are leading to. In short the two parables reverberate two inquiries—have you seen God, and, do you have the necessary means to see God. If not, what gives you the authority to uphold Vedas. Clearly, the Buddha did not mean to deny Vedas, but he was in dialogue with the brahmanas of his time, their authoritative traditions that had degraded. From the antiquity of time, these two questions kept reverberating until the soul of Hinduism was stirred to give a suitable response. That too from the mouth of a humble brahmana. Buddha’s expectations had hit the mark. Never again, these questions would go unanswered.

Living up to the Expectation

Since the time of the Buddha until the mid-nineteenth century, many acharyas came to compensate for the new religion of the means that Buddha had founded. They came and gave start to several methods and means. Followed and preceded by other movements, the Bhakti movement was one among them. All of them had repaired the old and prepared the new stairways to reach the goal. Yet, the final stamp of authority was yet to come. That drama was enacted in the precincts of Dakshineshwar.

Sri Ramakrishna was born a brahmana in a humble background. He had no formal exposure to scriptures. He did not undergo formal education. As a result, he was not in debate with any section of society. Most naturally he would approach nature herself and plead to lay open the secret before him. Seeing that so many people offered their worship and oblation to the sun, when it occurred to him that the celestial sun could have a divinity behind it, he directly went to the sun that rises and sets in nature, and asked if it had any. He would give all his attention and eagerness to the celestial sun until the celestial reveals the divinity behind it. And then alone he would be convinced and sure about the divinity by his own direct experience. Same was the method he followed in every other case. As a priest when he found a job in a temple, he approached and asked the earthen image of the Goddess if she had any divinity or not. He offered all his attention, his eagerness to that one end and took them to its logical end until at last he saw the ocean of divinity and consciousness in place of the earthen image. What we understand as material, earthen or metal, was to him an extended vision of the divine in the physical realm. In doing that, he most naturally came to recognize the woman deity to be the most beautiful woman. His biographers and the readers know he knew the woman most intimately as his and the entire world’s mother and came to address her as Bhavatarini. That woman will find references in almost all of his conversations. His constant need for validation, pertaining to the matters of this world, came to be fulfilled by that woman. He offered his experiences, his relationships, his job, his social interaction, his disciples, his church, his religion, and everything else to Bhavatarini—the most beautiful woman of the land. Through Sri Ramakrishna Hinduism has lived up to the expectation of Buddha.

A Change in the Course of History

Swami Vivekananda’s coming into the contact of Sri Ramakrishna, who harnessed him into his discipleship, is something that has caught the imagination of all of their readers so intensely. That one episode is capable of fulfilling a thousand interpretations. Swami Vivekananda was then known as Narnderanath. A passout of Calcutta University. The entire motive behind Narendranath’s meeting with Sri Ramakrishna stood on those two questions that we discussed above. Sir! Have you seen God? Do you have the necessary means to make me see God? At one side, the questioner was the one about whom his biographer would write he had the heart of the Buddha. Not in the sense we compare two great people. It was the case of history repeating itself but with a bend in its course. On the other side, it was Sri Ramakrishna—the least educated but the most authentic of the brahmanas to whom the questions were originally asked but had gone unanswered. Sri Ramakrishna has answered them once and for all. He told Narendra that he had seen God as he saw him and he could make him see God too.

Sri Ramakrishna’s religion was the religion of synthesis between goal and the means. With his heart hooked to the goal, he could stand at any point on the periphery of religion. Making that point another means, he would once again traverse the path to its goal. Thus he validated every possible means. When he adopted one means he would forget all the other means. That is how he was able to connect every means to the goal which he realised was the same in every case. Who could predict for sure all the implications of such synthesis? But even an onlooker can be definitive about one thing. Through Sri Ramakrishna, Hinduism was confident of its achievement and the means it adopted to achieve them. If it is true that no one can hoodwink the law of karma, we can be sure that the forces of Hinduism are determined not to allow a ripple of the rebel. If the other forces of society than religion can make sure that every such ripple is subdued with the force of love they would at once be rallying round the character of Sri Ramakrishna. And for that matter they will partake of his glory and grace. There is no need to rebel. The God of Hinduism is standing with his hands stretched and ready to encompass all into its fold. In fulfilling Buddha’s expectations, through Sri Ramakrishna, Hinduism is once again prepared to embrace all. One sided religion of exclusivity, cannot uplift its area of influence. Severed from God, and in the absence of imagination, corruption became the only religion to follow in the land where most of the Buddhas lived once. Since the religion of means doesn’t believe in God, there is no way to predict how low its area of influence would steep on the downward spiral. Only the next God of the age could pick the thread. Hence the need to synthesize the goal and the means.


In the absence of natural simplicity of mind and the necessary sense of purity we should not be dismissive about the life and teachings of Sri Ramakrishna. Whether we are a student, a scientist in a laboratory, or one in search of a dream-home, dream-job, or dream-love, in every pursuit of life, even if it is mundane, its success depends on giving equal importance to both the goal and the means. True, we must have a certain imagination of the goal, certain idealism must inspire our heart, yet we cannot afford to spend our whole life in a dreamy and frothy world. We must soil our hands. We must be ready to face the hardships of life in perfecting the means. Alongside dreams, we should prepare ourselves to face the fears and terrors of life. Even God is realised often as terror amongst the terrors and as a fear of fear. Before Mira passed into the union with her beloved God, she had to take the poison of so many hardships in life. In passing we would like to conclude this essay with the remarks of Swami Vivekananda (Complete Works, 5.366): ‘What we want are Western science coupled with Vedanta, Brahmacharya as the guiding motto, and also Shraddha and faith in one’s own self.’ Even when we have not realised the highest goal of Vedanta, shraddha hooks us with the goal. Western science, apart from what it teaches through academics and laboratories, has a character of its own. It cultivates in us a certain temperament of dealing the world on facts and figures and minimising the factors responsible for any situation in life so that we can deal with it more efficiently. We learn to take a singular responsibility for our own experiences in life, its success and failure. It gives us freedom to solve the problems bigger than our daily bread and butter. Thirdly, brahmacharya too has a character of its own. It gives us a necessary bend of mind to persevere in achieving our goals in every walk of life. Certain sense of purity is required even in our relationship. When we ignore it, that is when relationships become a stairway to nowhere. Fourthly, faith in our own selves. This universe is a reflection of light that is God. We too are a part of it. It is not possible to have no faith in ourselves and yet have faith in God. Faith in ourselves is paramount, asserts Swami Vivekananda—the Buddha of our own times.            

Notes and References

  1. See, What the Buddha Taught by Dr Walpola Rahula.
  2. Statement issued by India’s permanent representative at the UNSC, Ruchira Kamboj, on 16 February 2024.