Steven Elleman: Did the deification of Buddha represent an ancient process of co-opting?

Srinivas Reddy: I think the rise of worshiping Buddha like a god reflects the move from a strictly monastic tradition to a more popular religion for the general public. Older well-established practices of ritual and praise were hard to eliminate and so they were gradually incorporated into Buddhist practice. Also the idea is that we do not worship the Buddha as a human god but rather an outward manifestation of the internally realized Buddhist truths.

Elleman: In this context, did Buddhism represent a process of opting out of Hinduism, i.e. when Buddhism was starting out did it actively oppose Hinduism or did it just go its own way, avoiding and circumventing Hinduism altogether?

Reddy: There are indeed some aspects of Buddhism that critique Hinduism, or rather elements of brahmanical culture, particularly caste and the Vedas, but the important thing to keep in mind historically is that there were multiple diverse traditions within what we commonly call Hinduism, and also several other “non-Hindu” traditions circulating at that time alongside early Buddhism. It was a rich and diverse religious landscape. Later on one could argue that Hinduism co-opted Buddhism, which is one reason why Buddhism died out in India. In the modern context, Ambedkar did indeed opt out of Hinduism in favor of Buddhism because it did not enshrine a doctrine of caste.

Elleman: Did Buddhism have a typical pattern of social organization, and how did it contrast with Hinduism? Forgive me for the comparison, but Protestantism and Catholicism really come to mind, where Protestantism was a reaction against entrenchment, centralization, and ossification in Catholicism. It feels like one of the ways it “fought back” was to be flat and decentralized compared to Catholicism.

Reddy: As in the previous question, Buddhism did critique the prevailing social structure of Hinduism, particularly in regard to caste divisions, so in that sense it was a movement reacting against the rigidity of brahmanical social norms. But again, this was not Buddhism’s raison d’être. Buddhism opened up previously inaccessible forms of knowledge to various communities, particularly merchants. Like many reform movements however, Buddhism evolved to include many of the hierarchies and structures that it once critiqued.

As you said, I do think we’re in a similar situation these days vis-à-vis capitalist systems, and I think the lesson from Buddhism is two-fold: first, the need to  focus on developing your individual self and reforming your daily practices; and second, to be wary of becoming the thing you want to change.

Steven Elleman’s reflections on Srinivas Reddy’s answers

Professor Reddy, 

Wow, thank you for such a thorough, thoughtful response. 

This definitely helps. To provide a bit more context, I believe we’re in an era framed by a secular religion that we might call “State-Sponsored Objectivity.” Just like religions before it, Objectivity makes universal claims about the world, but unlike Christianity, its sins are of omission instead of commission. It abstains, and in abstaining it pretends to remain neutral, but at its root it establishes a false dichotomy with damning implications. Objective, distanced, neutral, become the new good. Subjective, close, biased, the new bad. And just like in times past, we’ve been gaslit into believing that insight comes externally, rather than internally. 

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In each of these historical periods (Buddhism, Reformation, and the secularized, objectivized present) a broad realization emerges of our collective gaslighting. I suspect one major catalyst of this is the new avenues of diffusion. Perhaps it was trade and merchants with the rise of Buddhism. The printing press during the Reformation. And today’s internet. 

Forgive me for my idealism (delusions of grandeur?), but by looking at history and applying its lessons to the present, perhaps we may detect an opportunity to figure out what’s next, what may be an alternative to State-Sponsored Objectivity? What are philosophies needed for a Post-Truth world, where “Truth is dead” joins “God is dead”?  This is a theme I’ve thought a lot about and would love to develop it in a dialogue. No pressure to join if this feels a bit too idealistic, but I think it would be invaluable to have your particular vantage point. History never repeats itself, but it rhymes, and perhaps Buddhism follows the same rhyme scheme? 

I’m including Atul and Peter in this conversation because I believe Fair Observer is seeking to offer us this kaleidoscopic sense of the world where subjectivity and different vantage points are valued. But we  still tend to express these things   in the language of Objectivity and the trappings of BBC’s supposedly neutral eye. Could we need to develop a different vocabulary? Then again,a different vocabulary requires a different guiding philosophy. 

All the best,

Peter Isackson’s Reply to Steven Elleman’s Response


Many thanks for initiating this back and forth with Srinivas after his unambiguously “enlightening” and supremely enjoyable talk. This supplementary dialogue perhaps highlights the limits of Zoom-style educational endeavors, where questions and even answers are emptied of their human content (i.e. subjective, sensory meaning, or deeper social sense). 

I expect you may not be aware of the fact that my very first article in Fair Observer – which Fair Observer’s founder and CEO, Atul Singh, pushed me to write – was the result of a spontaneous exchange on the Oxford Alumni LinkedIn discussion group. I contested Atul’s representation of religion. Atul pressed me to cogently pen an article in which I might express why I thought he was wrong for publication. 

Thinking back on it today, in the light of what you have just expressed, I was contesting an example of what you call the religion of Objectivity. It was something Atul had gleaned from Neil de Grasse Tyson’s pontifications on his updated version of Carl Sagan’s Cosmos. It sounded like science, so it must be objective (i.e. true)!

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One thing to take away from this dialogue, thanks to Srinivas’s explanations, is something that has always been known across many civilizations, but which is too complex for the religion of Objectivity (which is also the religion of corporate media) to handle. Any and every religious tradition encompasses a spectrum of human activities from the purely mental to the most formally executed and often meticulously controlled physical rituals. At the purely sociological level, all religions incarnate the idea of “religio” (literally tying people together in Latin), but with variations from loose and voluntary to legally constraining. Call it community building. They all include a serious approach to ethics that spans the Buddhist idea of individual mindfulness (that correlates in some ways withChristian or Augustinian conscience… which only in recent centuries became focused on the emotions of guilt and shame) to the acknowledgement of formal laws. Buddhism’s major distinction may be that it refuses to formulate any of its recommendations or even strictures as laws (though perhaps Srinivas will inform us that some Buddhist traditions do precisely that). 

The Judaic and Isamic traditions insist on the primacy of the law enshrined in scripture. St Paul’s formulation of Christianity announced the abolition of “the (Hebrew) Law,” preparing the terrain for Augustinian conscience. But the social vocation of pre-Reformation Christianity, partially compelled by the feudal system that had something of a caste element to it, progressively built up a parallel set of ritualistic imperatives that effectively took on the force of “law” in the Hebraic sense. That is what Luther protested against, spawning a movement that ended up proclaiming there is no collective law (“the priesthood of all believers”). 

This subsequently evolved from a principle to become a doctrine. In that sense, it followed the pattern Srinivas mentioned: “becoming the thing you want to change.” The uncomfortable cohabitation of competing doctrines inevitably led to some seriously violent conflict (130 years of religious wars), decimating the population of entire regions. It was all based on the opposition between competing doctrines, all of which, by the way, had the pretension of being someone’s “law of the land” according to the apparently rational but ultimately explosive compromise of cuius regio, eius religio that left the question of an established religion to the discretion of the local monarch or lord. 

The reaction to that fundamentally unstable status quo was the emergence in 1648 of the nation state as the unique framework for collective identity. The state replaced religion as the ultimate binding force in society. Logically enough, to fill the gap after the marginalization of theology, it produced the Enlightenment, which supposed the possibility of purely rational laws governing not only the functioning of the state but also public morals. These rational laws could only be based on empirical principles uncontaminated by subjectivity. Thus was the ideology out of which todary’s religion of Objectivity was born. tIt’s worth noting that though it relied on grand principles – such as Jefferson’s famous “all men are created equal” – it didn’t exclude largely shared personal feelings about the inferiority of other admittedly “useful” races.

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Interestingly, all societies recognize but apply diversely a wide range of co-existing laws: natural laws (or what are deemed the laws of nature), formal (constitutional) laws, some variations on common law (e.g. case law), religious laws (depending on the religion) and the laws of decorum. PC or the implicit code of “politically correct,” for example, is a new set of prescriptions that some people feel has or must have the “force of law.” The real problem at the core of Objectivity is that the notion of law, which can be organic, has been reduced to the idea of constraint and prohibition. This has always been an implicit but not always dominant factor in the behavioral laws of specific religions (e.g. Judaism, Islam, Mormonism, Jainism…). In any case, the borderline between moral laws and imposed rituals in every society will always be ambiguous.

I may be wrong, but one of the lessons I drew from Srinivas’ talk was the desperate need we have of understanding what religions (including Objectivity!) share and what those common traits tell us about human society itself. Not with the aim of establishing some kind of syncretic truth, but of helping to build what Steven calls “this kaleidoscopic sense of the world.” Beyond that is the other big issue: the individual and the cosmos. Society will always stand somewhere between the two.

Since my very first article in Fair Observer was about religion, I still hope that at Fair Observer we can find a way of building a kind of open think tank (but a tank with no walls) that deals with religion and society, metaphysics, ethics and philosophy in their interaction with geopolitical events and purely social and economic phenomena. Publications like Aeon feature articles on these topics, but they tend to be academic, i.e. knowledgeable and informative, but cold & distant, according to the norms of Objectivity.

Perhaps we could use your reflections on the religion of Objectivity as a starting point. In any case, this discussion is already a model of how dialogue can be productive. Which makes me think of David Bohm, who promoted true dialogue. Though an incontestably “Objective” scientist (an influential theoretical physicist) he was also inspired by Krishnamurti’s version of Buddhism.

Many thanks, Steven, for pushing this forward.

Warm regards,

Srinivas Reddy’s Conclusion

Thank you all…lots to mull over indeed! As the Buddha urged, we must keep questioning and refining our thoughts, just as a goldsmith assays gold by melting, forging and polishing.

The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Fair Observer’s editorial policy.