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Buddhism and the Brahma concept

Ven. Bellanwila Wimalaratana Thera

The term Brahma occurs fairly frequently in Buddhist literature. There are many terms that are prefixed with the word Brahma. Some of the well-known are Brahma-cariya, Brahma-vihara, Brahma-kaya, Brahma-danda, Brahma-jala, Brahma-cakka and Brahma-sara. Even the Brahma world as well as denizens of such worlds known as Maha-brahma, Brahma-sahampati, Brahma-sanankumara are also mentioned.

In phrases such as 'Brahmati matapitaro', the term Brahma is used to give it a special ethical connotation. What we propose here is to examine how this pre-Buddhist word came to be used in Buddhist literature and to discuss the changes it has undergone in this process of adaptation.

The 6th century B. C., the period to which the Buddha belongs is a period in which Indian religious and philosophical scene underwent a radical change. By this time the Brahmanic religious tradition had reached a very high stage of development. It began with the Vedas and developed through the Brahmanas, Aranyakas and reached its climax in the Upanishads.

It was at such a time that the Buddha appeared on the religious scene of India. During this period there were two distinct groups of religious thinkers: one group advocating the belief that salvation had to be attained through Karma marga or Yajan marga, i. e. through the path of sacrifice; and the other holding that salvation is possible only through the path of wisdom or Jnana-marga.

Besides these two religious paths, both put forward by the Brahmins, there was the path to salvation through ascetic practices put forward mainly by such groups as Ajivakas, Paribbajakas, and Niganthas. The latter group belonged mainly to the Sramana tradition which was opposed to the Brahmana tradition. Even the Buddha belongs to this Sramana tradition.

The Buddha who had mastered all the religious traditions of the time not only rejected the prevalent views on salvation, but presented a novel philosophy of emancipation. He discarded such views as divine creation, belief in a permanent self, determinism and annihilationism, and presented his teaching basing it on the fundamental doctrine of paticcasamuppada or dependent co-origination.

This fundamental doctrine formed the foundation for his other basic teachings such as karma, rebirth and freedom. Even the theory and practice of Buddhist ethics is founded on this doctrine of paticcasamuppada, which is the central philosophy of Buddhism.

The oldest scriptures that record the teachings of the Buddha are referred to as the Tripitaka (Three Baskets) written in the Pali language. When one examines the Tripitaka, it becomes quite clear that the Buddha's teaching is basically different from Vedic and Brahmanic teachings.

Yet, it becomes also clear that in spite of this difference, the Buddha himself had to adapt and use certain cherished beliefs, concepts and terms that were in vogue among the Brahmins, in order to put across his own teachings. Among such pre-Buddhistic concepts, the Buddha adopted the concept of Brahma occupies an important place. As mentioned before, the word Brahmao ccurs frequently in pre-Buddhist as well as in Buddhist literature indicating a wide variety of senses and context.

(1) The technical terms used in Buddhist literature can be classified into three groups.
(2) The terms that are common in form as well as in meaning in both Brahmanic and Buddhist literature.
(3) The terms that are common in form, but different in meaning.

Terms that denote completely a Buddhist meaning.

According to this classification the term Brahma falls into the second group. In Buddhism it is used in a sense quite different from the sense in which it is used in Brahmanism. Both Brahma and Brahman connote the idea of the Highest. In the earliest stages the term Brahman meant the universe. Hence the first beginning of the Brahma ideal could be traced to the Purusa Sukta which occurs in the 10th Mandala of the Rgveda.

It alludes to some kind of primordial universal matter. Gradually this idea developed and finally it came to be accepted that the Brahman or Brahma is the source of the whole universe. In the early Brahmana period Prajapati is considered more important and he is considered the primordial being and Brahma occupies a secondary place.

In the Satapatha Brahman it is clearly mentioned that Prajapati created the Brahma. But in later Brahmana texts their positions were reversed, Brahma superseding Prajapati, with Brahma being considered as the foundation as well as the source of the universe.

This idea reached its culmination in the Upanishad literature, where reference is made to the undifferentiated unity of Brahman and Atman, that is the Universal Soul and the Individual Soul, in other words, the macrocosm and the microcosm.

Brahman as the Cosmic Soul is universal, permanent, indestructible, unique; it is the primordial essence, the ultimate ground of existence. The final goal came to be considered as the realization of the unity between Brahman and Atman; the realization of "oneness" between the universal soul and the individual soul.

The attainment of this undifferentiated unity is considered in the Upanishads as the goal and ideal of all Brahmins. It was said that there are two paths open to this goal. One is the path of Sacrifice (Yajna or Karma-marga) and the other the Path of Knowledge (Jnana-marga). The latter was followed by the Upanishad sages, the munis who practised severe ascetic practices.

The Buddha's attitude towards this long-cherished concept of Brahmais two-fold.

- Complete rejection of the Brahma concept.
- Giving new meanings to certain ideas connected with the Brahma concept.

Both as religion and philosophy, Buddhism is based on the "no soul" view. Therefore, the Buddhist attitude to the Upanishadic view of reality needs no examination. In the Vasettha-sutta of the Dighanikaya, the attempt to reach the Brahma that no one has seen is compared to the effort of a line of blind men. The Buddhist teaching that everything is impermanent rejects the belief in a permanent substance that underlines everything in the universe.

The Buddhist theory of causality shows that if there is a Brahma, he cannot be uncaused and similarly cannot be eternal. According to the Buddhist doctrine of paticasamuppada the universe is not the creation of a personal God or impersonal Godhead, but the outcome of causes and conditions.

Though the Buddha rejected this Brahma concept which was prevalent in pre-Buddhistc times, it is clearly seen that he used some aspects of this concept to put across his own philosophy.

Buddhism does not deny the existence of Brahma. It speaks of Brahma-lokas, refers to Maha Brahama as the Lord of the Brahama-lokas. In many suttas this supreme Brahma is referred to as Sahampati. He is represented as one who has cultivated his mind and as one who honours and pays reverence to the Buddha.

This shows that Buddhahood is higher than Brahmahood. The Buddhist texts also refer to many instances when Brahma came to meet the Buddha. Among these Brahmas are Sanamkumara, Ghatikara, Narada.

Reference is also made to the path leading to the Brahma World. The Tevijja Sutta says that the path to the Brahma World is through the development of jhanas pertaining to the five material spheres. The Brahma Worlds are known as Suddhavasas, the Pure Abodes.

It is said that the attainment of the First jhana leads to the Brahma Worlds called "Brahama-parisajja", "Brahma-purohita" and "Maha Brahma"; the Second Jhana to Parittabha, Appamanabha and Abhassara; the Third Jhana to Parittasubha, Appamanasubha and Subhakinna.

The Fourth Jhana is said to lead the non-Anagamins to Vehapphala and Asannasatta Brahma-lokas and the Anagamns to Aviha, Atappa, Sudassi and Akanittha Brahma-loka. This shows that Buddhism too has a parallel concept of the attainment of companionship with Brahma. But this, however, does not mean that Buddhism, like Brahmanism, admits the possibility of eternal companionship with Brahma.

What is meant by this jhanic attainment is the experiencing of a very high level of mental development through the jhanic process.

The teaching on the four Brahma-Viharas (four Sublimes States) is another instance which shows how the Buddha adopted another important aspect of the pre-Buddhist Brahma concept. Many scholars are of the opinion that the teaching on Brahma-Vihara is purely Buddhist. Perhaps this is more likely to be an adaptation of a pre-Buddhist concept to suit the Buddhist point of view. This becomes clear from Buddhaghosa's definition of Brahma-vihara:

"Why are these called Brahma-viharas? It is because they are supreme and faultless. These states constitute the best mode of conduct towards others. The Brahmas live with their minds freed of the five hindrances. The Yogins who are endowed with these states also live with faultless minds like the Brahmas".

As the parents have these mental attitudes towards their children, they too can be called Brahmas. In fact in comparing the parents to the Brahmas, the Buddha appears to have added a new dimension to the Brahma concept.

The Buddhist path leading to Nibbana is called the "Brahma-faring" (Brahmacariya). The Buddha addressing the first disciples who grasped his teaching said, "Come O! monk, the doctrine is well taught. Practise this Brahma faring for the perfect ending of suffering".

The five ascetics who were the first disciples of the Buddha were already following some kind of a restrained noble life. By inviting them to lead "Brahmacariya" a new Buddha seems to have made clear that his interpretation of the Brahma faring meant something different from what they were already engaged in. The Varnasrama dharma followed by the Brahmins divides the life into four stages.

These four stages are studentship (brahamacriya), householder (grhastha), forest entry (vanaprastha) and renunciation (sannyasi). Here, Brahmacariya meant merely the studentship, limited to the student days of one's life. But Brahmacariya in Buddhism is not limited to any particular period of life. It is valid for all stages of life and can be commenced by renunciation of the worldly life.

It is somewhat parallel to the sannyasi stage in the "varnasrama dharma" of the Brahmins. From this it becomes clear that the Brahmacariya in Buddhism, which developed from a pre-Buddhist idea, was identified as the path leading to the ending of defilement resulting in the destruction of suffering.

In general the term Brahma is used in the sense of Supreme, Noble, Highest, Holy and so on. This shows how important the idea of Brahma had been to the Brahmins and how much influence it exerted on Buddhism. It is also seen that in the canonical texts, the two terms Brahma and Dhamma are at time used co-terminously.

Terms such as Brahma-cakka, Dhamma-cakka, Brahma-bhuta, Dhamma-bhuta, Brahma-kaya, Dhamma-kaya, illustrate such synonymity of the two terms. This clearly shows that the Buddha used the pre-Buddhistic Brahma concept to give a new dimension to certain important Buddhist concepts.

* From: Essays in Honour of Professor Y. Karunadasa.


Source: Buddhist Spectrum, Sri Lanka Daily News, 31-08-2005, https://www.dailynews.lk 

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last updated: 01-05-2006