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The Bhagavadgita and Buddhism

The Bhagavadgita and Buddhism
Item Code: IDL127
Author: O. N. Krishnan
Publisher: UBSPD Publisher’s Distributors Pvt. Ltd.
Edition: 2008
ISBN: 9788174765611
Pages: 370
Cover: Paperback
Other Details: 8.4" X 5.5"

Since there is already a lethora of voluminous works, commentaries, treatises and books on the Bhagavadgita, one more work on the same may be looked at with some cynicism and doubt. But the present one is justified on the ground that not many books have so far been written comparing the much acclaimed and venerated teachings of the Bhagavadgita with those of Buddhism, the religion of Dhamma, that had its birth in the Indian sub-continent, but vanished from this land due to some quirk of history and fate. Whatever comparisons are available, they are mostly cursory in nature and have come as half-hearted stray attempts, lacking objectivity and depth particularly from the thinkers in the Hindu fold.

The present work is intended to give a systematic comparative study of the teachings of the Bhagavadgita and Buddhism in an objective and comprehensive manner. This is an age of reasoning and new awakening. Times are changing calling for fresh evaluations and redefinition of the guiding values on rational basis. The teachings of the Bhagavadgita and Buddhism are seen here in the new light.

It is undeniable that the Bhagavadgita, in the form that it has come down to us with Lord Krishna as the central dominant Godhead, has arisen much later (probably some three hundred to four hundred years later) than the advent of the Buddha and his missionary life as Dharma-Kaya dedicated for the welfare of the world-Bahujan Hitay, Bahujan Sukhay. The source of inspiration for conceiving and casting Lord Krishna as the self of selflessness in the Bhagavadgita acting for lokasamgraha can be traced to the ideal model of life that the Buddha led and to the Buddhist teachings. As Vivekananda avers, Buddha lived as the true karma-yogin. The parallel between the two concepts of Bahujan Hitay, Bahujan Sukhay and lokasamgraha cannot be missed. Probably the phrase lokasamgraha appears for the first time in the Bhagavadgita among the scriptures of Hindusim.

The moral teachings based on the principle of selflessness that abound in the Bhagavadgita unlike the Brahmanical scriptures and the Upanisads and also its identification of the ultimate goal with Brahma-Nirvana show clearly the syncretizing attitude it adopts and speak volumes about the Buddhist influence.

It will be appreciated that a comparative study of this nature cannot arise in a vacuum. It relies on many sources for development. The sources that were of great help to me are listed in the bibliography. I am deeply grateful to these scholars for the deep insights provided by them. The exposition of the Buddhist teachings given here is to some extent based on the extracts from my earlier work in Search of Reality published by Motilal Banarsidass. Additions and improvements have been made as necessary for the present study. I am grateful to Motilal Banarsidass for their kind permission to publish this work.

I wish to acknowledge with a deep sense of gratitude the valuable help rendered by my erstwhile colleagues Ms. Parimala, Venkataswamy, Krishna Mohan, Kiran Kumar and Raghuram in connection with this work.

I should also thank UBS Publishers’ Distributors Pvt. Ltd. (UBSPD) for coming forward to publish this work.


Buddhism, like Jainism, was the off-shoot of the non-Vedic non-Aryan Sramanic tradition prevalent in India which, with its world-negating and world-transcending attitude, was radically opposed to the sacrifices and rituals-oriented Vedic religion. As opposed to the gross mundane Brahmanic goals of “prosperity and longevity in this life and heavenly enjoyments thereafter”, the ultimate goal in the Sramanic culture was total liberation from the cycle of birth and death and freedom from all forms of suffering. Buddhism, as a religion, was originally known as the Buddha Dhamma. The word Dhamma (Pali; Dharma: Sanskrit) meant the ‘ultimate truth’, the truth of the way things actually are, the way the world is constituted and, by extension, it came to stand for the teachings of Buddha based on his enlightenment to the ultimate truth. These teachings of Buddha became a world religion.

Buddha showed to mankind by his example the hidden potentialities and creative power within man and proved that the supreme goal of liberation from the cycle of birth and death and recurrent sufferings is within the reach of everybody provided one strives devoutly and makes strenuous single-pointed and concentrated efforts to purify and transform his consciousness or the ‘will to become’ and attain the highest possible state of perfection and purity in life. This purification and transformation of the ‘will to become’ alone is the key to salvation and not any grace of God or other supernatural agencies. Buddha taught that man can gain salvation and freedom from sufferings only by his own exertions and efforts and not by seeking the assistance of the mediating priests and taking recourse to any rituals or sacrifices to the Gods. His religion with its unrelenting opposition to the obnoxious animal sacrifices, degrading caste system and exploitation of the lower castes and women as chattels rather than as human beings, became a serious threat to the Brahmanical religion which was bound to the Vedic practices of rituals and sacrifices without paying due-regard to the moral and ethical conduct and which was being exploited by the priestly class to further their own vested interests.

Much of what we nowadays call ‘Hinduism’ including the philosophical ideas of the middle and later Upanisads, the themes of the Bhagavadgita, and the principles of Sankara’s Advaita Vedanta developed after the time of Buddha. Hinduism became a nobler religion under the benign influence of Buddhism by absorbing and assimilating the noble teachings of Buddha, particularly on the ethical and moral aspects. The shift from the violence-ridden soulless rituals and sacrifices may be discerned in the Upanisads; but the emphasis in these Upanisadic teachings had been mainly on the apprehension of the innermost core and essence of man’s being which they called atman and which they came to identify as the same as Brahman, the ultimate ground, base and support of the universe. The moral and ethical aspects in life might have been taken by them as granted and as prerequisites for spiritual perfection and for the search and realisation of atman within, but emphasis on these aspects is minimal in the voluminous corpus of the Upanisadic scripture. The sages of the Upanisads had not revolted against the; practices of the sacrificial religion of the priestly class as Buddha had done, but had remained loyal to the Vedic tradition.

A wealth of philosophical ideas and suggestions and contained in the Upanisads, but they do not present a coherent and unified religious or philosophical system as these have been composed by many different sages at different points in time and are even mutually conflicting and contradictory on crucial points. The philosophical ideas towards which some of the earlier Upanisads were groping their way found their logical formulation and culmination in Buddhism which came to be established on firm logical and rational foundation in fact, Buddhism is more a rational philosophy than a religion. The middle and later Upanisads were undoubtedly influenced by Buddhist ideas.

It was left to the Bhagavadgita to counter the growing influence of Buddhism by synthesizing the quintessence of the Upanisads with the ethical and moral teachings of Buddhism and providing the much needed philosophical basis for Hinduism and for the Brahmanical tradition of world-affirmation and world-engagement (pravrtti) The tension between the individual renouncer-ethic of non-violence and non-engagement (nivrtti) and the world-affirming Brahmanical ethic of engagement (pravrtti), which the Bhagavadgita addresses as its main concern, is dramatically highlighted in its very opening chapter in the form of a moral dilemma Arjuna faces when he surveys the opposing armies arrayed against each other in the battlefield and when the gravity of the situation, where he has to kill his own beloved grand-father, revered guru and other close relatives, impinges on him with full force. Arjuna laments:

I would rather be a monk and live by begging than slay these honourable elders and enjoy wealth and pleasures of the kingdom-all stained with their blood,(2.5).

Lord Krsna expounds his philosophy of niskamakarma (desireless action) as the only route to salvation and resolves Arjuna’s dilemma. Krsna teaches that what is required for attaining liberation from samsara is tyaga, i.e. sacrificing the fruits of one’s actions, renunciation of the desire for the fruits of one’s actions and not renunciation of the actions themselves, actions have to be carried out for establishing dharma and justice and for upholding the world order. One should adhere to his inherent duty (svadharma) and fulfill his predefined social responsibility in a spirit of detachment without any desire or hankering for the fruits of action. Thus, internal renunciation is proposed as the route to liberation and this is internally a very radical solution but, externally and socially conservative, conforming to the Brahmanical doctrine of Varnasrama dharma.

With its profound philosophy, the Gita for the Hindu is now the one book of books… The Gita is an fresh as ever, and just as to the Christian is the Bible….the Gita is to the Hindu, (Rai Bahadur Lala Baijnath).

Its place as one of the three foundational texts of Hinduism (i.e. the three prasthanas or the three foundational scriptures leading to the highest goal) along with the Upanisads and the Brahmasutras is well established. It propounds what it considers the most rational solutions to the fundamental philosophical problems faced by mankind.

The Gita provides a religious justification for continuing an approximately normal human life. Therein lies its strength. It does not ask the impossible and yet it furnishes religious inspiration. It holds out the hope of salvation on terms which are not out of the reach of the great mass of mankind. And it provides for its scheme of salvation a philosophic background, based on commonly accepted Hindu postulates.

(F. Edgerton, 1944, The Bhagavadgita, Vol. II. P.57; The Bhagavadgita For Our Times; edited by Julius J. Lipner, p.37).

The best and the noblest thoughts in the Upanisads have been extracted, synthesized and presented as a new philosophy and new art of life in the Gita. A well-known Sanskrit verse compares and Upanisads to milch-cows from which the divine cowherd, Lord Krsna, is said to have drawn the nectar-like milk of Gita.

Hinduism, represented by the Bhagavadgita, and Buddhism are undoubtedly the two most outstanding philosophical and religious traditions of India. They are vibrant, living religious traditions which have played and continue to play the most significant roles in the lives not only of countless individuals but also of a great many communities. They are the objects of study not only for the respective religious communities, professionals and researchers but also for any seeker of truth. These traditions have not grown in a cultural vacuum or in separate independent water-tight compartments. They have interacted and impinged on each other, each in the process affecting the other and itself getting affected, Hinduism was enriched by its interaction with Buddhism and got transformed from a basically materialistic religion to one of high ethical ideas.

Buddhism evolved into Mahayana Buddhism with the devotional (bhakti) element drawn from Hinduism and the Bhagavadgita. The decline of Buddhism in India and the circumstances leading to its extinction in the land of its birth are subject matters for scholars and researchers. But what is of interest and relevance to any seeker of truth is the study of their teachings and what they offer as philosophical solutions for application to our problems in modern times. It is a pity that the study of Buddhist teachings, which are a unique contribution to the collective wisdom of mankind, is not encouraged in the land of its birth as it should be.

The Bhagavadgita is a religio-philosophical work of multilayered composition with different strands of philosophical Thought interwoven together. Its teachings on the various metaphysical, philosophical and ethical subjects have been presented in different discourses in different perspectives. They lend themselves to a variety of differing interpretations. It is very difficult to get a cogent and coherent view of its philosophical position. This work is a modest attempt to understand its teachings in a systematic manner in juxtaposition to the Buddhist teachings and present a comparative analysis and assessment of the two philosophical systems. This work will be deemed to have served its purpose if it evokes interest in the subject and succeeds in generating further works from more able and learned hands in the scholastic community as a counter to this one or as ones providing more insight on the points analysed and discussed here.

Back of the Book

The influence of Buddhist teachings on the philosophical traditions of Hinduism is invariably brushed aside as inconsequential. Buddha’s theory of anatta (selflessness) in the sixth century be negating self in any form came as a complete antithesis to the Upanishadic teachings revolutionizing the field of philosophical enquiry and upsetting the conventionally held beliefs. Buddha rejects the concept of Atman or Brahman in the Upanishads as the ultimate reality. For him, truth is not in ‘what exists’. Selflessness and mutual dependency is the only truth and law of life, and love, compassion and non-violence become the guiding principles in life’s journey. This is the essence of Buddha Dhamma. Shorn of all metaphysical superimpositions and constructions, nirvana is nothing but eradicating all defilements and becoming an incarnation of selflessness. The ultimate goal is also described in the Bhagavadgita as Brahmanirvana.

The Bhagavadgita arose some three to four centuries after the birth of Buddha. The attempt in the Bhagavadgita has been to provide the much-needed philosophical basis for the revival of Brahmanical Vedic religion by absorbing and assimilating the best in Buddhism and by synthesizing them with the core ideas of its own tradition. This book shows how the source of inspiration for Bhagavadgita’s teachings on selfless actions and Karma-Yoga as well as its other ethical and moral precepts can be traced to the dominant themes and ideals held sacred in Buddhism.

O.N. Krishnan is an electrical engineer by profession and a technocrat. He worked as Chief Engineer for MECON Limited, Ranchi, under the Ministry of Steel, Government of India. After retiring from MECON, he served in Visakhapatnam Steel Plant and other private sector companies in various capacities.

During the formative years of his life after graduation, the search for ultimate truth and sound philosophical basis for ethics and morality led him to the study of Spinoza’s Ethics. Coming under the spell of Spinoza, he became a rationalist and a Spinozist, Since then he has been an ardent student of philosophy. He is committed to research and comparative studies of Buddhists and Hindu scriptures

. He has two books to his credit-In Search of Reality and Hindutva or Dhammatva. He is presently working on a book in Tamil on Buddha Dhamma and is also engaged in translation of Buddhist scriptures in Tamil. He has plans to bring out a work comparing Spinoza’s Ethics and Buddhist Vipassana Meditation.


Preface vii
List of Figuresix
1The Ultimate Reality1
I. The Bhagavadgita1
Theory of Evolution in the Gita2
The Two Amsas of the Supreme Being10
Dehin/Saririn-Second Discourse11
Higher Prakrti/Jiva-Bhutam-Seventh
Adhyatma-Eighth Discourse13
Ksetrajna-Thirteenth Discourse14
Purusa-Fifteenth Discourse15
Krsna, the Supreme Godhead18
He is All19
Isvara Rupam/Visva Rupam20
He is the Real Actor23
How He Acts?25
He is Adhiyajna26
He is the Exemplary Role Model for Action33
His Divine Maya35
Early Buddhism36
The Four Noble Truths38
Theory of Anatha (No-Self)54
Mind and Matter-Forms of Energy in a Flux61
Sunyata (Emptiness)72
Two-Fold Truth76
Emptiness in Yogacara School78
Evolving of Consciousness (Vijnana-Parinama)80
’There-Nature’ Theory85
III.Comparative Analysis92
Purusa (Self) and Vijnana92
The Three Gunas and the Seven Anusayas94
What is Consciousness?100
Evolution-Is it of Prakrti or Vijnana?110
Avyakta (Bhagavadgita) and Becoming (Buddhism)112
Supreme God121
Selflessness (Buddhism) Versus Self of
Selflessness (Bhagavadgita)129
2.Sunya and Maya134
I.Sunya in Buddhism134
From is Emptiness and Emptiness is Form138
Sunya in Madhyamaka and Yogacara141
Representation Only142
Expositions of Candrakirti and Sthiramati143
II.Concept of Maya in the Gita147
Divine Maya as a Wonder, a Mystery149
Yogamaya of the Supreme151
Yogamaya of (Bhagavadgita) and
Maya-Sakti (Sankara)154
3.Varna Dharma and Class Distinction158
I.The Bhagavadgita158
Fourfold Division of Society159
Sva dharma159
Karma Theory and Caste Distinction167
II.Buddha’s Views on Caste173
I.Vedic Tradition178
II.Dharma-Kaya/Selflessness-the Buddha180
III.Dharma in the (Bhagavadgita)187
IV.Dharma in Buddhism209
5.The Ultimate Goal216
Nirvana of NO-fixed Abode/Buddhahood226
Is Nibbana Same as Eternal Self?230
II.The Bhagavadgita236
Negations to Reach the Ultimate Goal241
6.Renunciation and Action248
Buddhist Position Contrasted with
True Religious Spirit254
Fundamental Relationships and Obligatory
Householder or Monk?256
Ahimsa (non-injury)258
7.Meditative Practices265
I.Early Buddhism265
Calming Meditation267
Removal of Hindrances267
Attainment of One-Pointed Concentration270
Insight Meditation271
Model of Seven Purifications273
Purification by Proper Moral Conduct273
Purification of Mind273
Purification of View273
Purification by Overcoming Doubt274
Purification by Distinguishing between
The Right Path and the Wrong Path275
Purification through Knowing and Seeing the Path276
Final Purification-Purity of Knowledge and Vision280
II.Mahayana Buddhism282
Meditation on Sunya282
Nirvikalpa-Jnana and Emptiness284
Bodhisattva Model285
Equalizing Self and Others286
Repayment for Kindness Received286
Meditation on Death287
III.The Bhagavadgita287
Sixth Discourse287
Eighth Discourse291
IV.The Highest State-Different Conceptions293
Merger in Emptiness-Buddhism293
Merger in the Self (Atman or Brahmam)295
Coming To or Entering Krsna300
VSole Refuge303
8.Dharma-Yuddha and Dharma-Ksetra306
I.Righteous War306
II.Dharmaksetra in the (Bhagavadgita) and Dharma-dhatu in Buddhism314
9.Fatalism Versus Free-Will320
I.Fatalism in the Bhagavadgita320
II.Buddhist Position325
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