Some years ago, I met an American from Seattle, who studied Sanskrit at the university there. He had come to India to meet his guru and had even taken an Indian name. He told me that westerners, including professors, at his university who had accepted Buddhism had no hesitation to openly identify as Buddhists, yet those, who felt close to Hinduism, would not identify as Hindus. He summed it up: to be a Buddhist makes you look intellectual in the eyes of others, but to be a Hindu makes you look somewhat suspect.
A few months after I had met this American, Julia Roberts openly declared that she is a practising Hindu and I wondered, whether those Americans now also have more courage to stand by their conviction.
In India, the English educated elite seem to have taken a cue from the west, as they do so often. They also seem to feel that Buddhism is intellectual and Hinduism is suspect. Several years ago, Thich Nhat Hanh, a Buddhist monk from Vietnam, who lives in France since decades, came to India to give workshops. I signed up and was amazed that many of the elite in town were present – people who would never listen to a Hindu Swami. The most reputed school in town, and maybe in the whole of India, hosted the event. A big hotel catered food. The hall was packed on the first evening. The Kendra Vidyalayas, schools run by the central government, had dispatched two teachers each to attend. Thich Nhat Tanh had come with a group of monks and nuns, dressed in dark, long robes who chanted before his lecture standing behind him. It surely was impressive.
What the Buddhist monk said was good advice, but common knowledge and more attuned to western societies, like “If you have misunderstandings with your father, clear them before he dies.”
The attendance thinned out over the 3 days of the workshop, in spite of the good food, yet the teachers of the Kendrya Vidyalayas were stuck. I talked to some of them and they were of the view that any Hindu Swami could do the same, if not a better job. They had a point, as Thich Nhat Tanh made a few blunders, like when he mentioned, “A French philosopher said that there is no death”. This French philosopher probably got his knowledge from the Bhagavad Gita…
Recently a question was asked on Quora, why not more Indians are aware of Buddhism, though Buddha was born in India.
I replied that Hinduism has many sages and Buddha was one of them. Many of those sages could have started an ‘–ism’ in their names. Luckily they did not. It is doubtful whether Buddha had approved of Buddh-ism. It was Emperor Ashoka a few hundred years after Buddha, who was intent to make people follow what Buddha had preached.
A nice story is usually taught about Ashoka, that he was moved by the terrible violence in a war and then followed Buddha’s non-violent teaching. It may not be fully true, as it is hardly possible to push a whole people to change its ancient ways of worshipping the Divine without violence. And there are indications that he forced his conviction on his countrymen. They, however, fell back to their old ways some centuries later.
Adi Shankara did his bit on the intellectual and spiritual level to restore trust in the Vedas by challenging Buddhist scholars for debates and coming out of them convincingly.
A physical, deadly blow was given by Muslim invaders under Khilji around 1200 AD, who ransacked the Nalanda University which housed thousands of Buddhist monks from all over Asia. Monks were killed and the huge library was burned. It is said that it burned for three months. Imagine the wealth of knowledge that went up in flames, at a time, when the west just started to establish universities.
Hinduism is a new term, introduced by the British, and does not do justice to the great variety of views, of philosophies, of gods, of rituals and to the huge body of knowledge that is contained in the Vedas, which includes ‘worldly’ subjects like medicine, economy, astronomy, mathematics, architecture, arts and so on. In fact, Hindus don’t see a dichotomy between worldly and sacred. All is a manifestation of the one great, invisible Brahman or Ishwara.
Hindus don’t feel the need to pledge that they only follow one particular human being. They are free to choose what suits them best to connect with the Divine, which the Vedas claim is one’s innermost essence. No need to identify with only one strand of the many possible helpful strands, which have emerged over many millennia.
An example from my own experience: In my early years in India some 35 years ago, most of the foreigners I met identified as Buddhists. Most of them also felt that Buddhism was superior to Hinduism. They were attending teachings by their root lama. I met several of those lamas. Once, a French girl wanted me to join her and take an initiation from a high Tibetan lama. It was clear that if one wanted to take the initiation, one had to become Buddhist by ‘taking refuge’. So I told her that I don’t want to limit myself and keep my freedom. She felt I was missing a great chance and a few days later, she said, she had talked to the lama and I could take part without taking refuge. I did. Next time, I visited another lama and his first words were: “Oh Maria, you are now a Buddhist.” My spontaneous reaction: “No, I am not…”
In 1985, I had a chance together with two German friends to spend over an hour with HH the Dalai Lama. I mentioned that I had met several Hindu sages and was greatly impressed by Indian philosophy. The Dalai Lama asked whether I think that the concept of Atman in Hinduism makes any difference to Buddhism. I was sure that it does not and quoted from the Upanishads “Ayam Atma Brahman” (This Atman is Brahman). I was however not sure, whether the Dalai Lama saw it also like this.
A few weeks later, I met Sakia Trizin, the head of the Sakya sect of Tibetan Buddhism, and asked him, “What is the difference between Buddhism and Hinduism?” Immediately, he replied: “The concept of Atman”.
Buddhist monks have to study plenty of Buddhist texts, and I guess, to mark a basically non-existent border to Hinduism, they learn that Atman signifies a kind of separate entity. Some philosophers may see it like this, but Advaita Vedanta does not.
Hindus respect Buddha. Buddha is even seen as an avatar. He is one of their own. Hindus do not feel the need for a demarcation to other views. They are the least dogmatic of all and have the most profound philosophy as a solid basis for the manifold ways of connecting with the all-pervading Divinity for which (though formless and nameless) they have varied names.
By Maria Wirth