The Middle Path~I

Only once in his life, said Rabindranath Tagore, did he feel like prostrating himself before an image, and that was when he saw the Buddha at Gaya.

The Middle Path~I

Lord Buddha statue (photo Subrata Dutta)

Only once in his life, said Rabindranath Tagore, did he feel like prostrating himself before an image, and that was when he saw the Buddha at Gaya. Through the mighty pen of Tagore, his homage to the Buddha, the living image of Indian culture in Java, Bali, Siam, Burma, Japan, China and other places abroad, has been eternal undimmed by the lapse of time. The festival of Buddha Purnima falls on the full moon day of the fourth lunar month, in the month of Vaishakha(May).

Though it is celebrated mainly as the birth anniversary of Gautama Buddha, the founder of Buddhism, it is on this particular day that he attained Bodhi (Enlightenment) on the banks of the river Niranjana, Bodh Gaya, Bihar, under a pipal tree which has since been called the Bodhi Tree. He was neither in favour of extreme austerity in religion nor extreme enjoyment of worldly life. His was a Middle Path which could be followed by householders. On the eve of his death, Buddha in his last exhortation to his disciples pointed out that decay was inherent in things and one has to strive for salvation with diligence. Working for salvation requires observance of moralities such as non-violence, continence, non-lying, non-stealing and abandonment of luxury, hankering after wealth, animal sacrifice and similar other practices. Practicing what he preached, he worked incessantly for 45 long years for the good and happiness of all to his last moment. The most notable characteristic of the Buddha was his absolute purity and perfect holiness. He was so pure and so holy that he should be called the ‘Holiest of Holies’.

He was the perfect model of all the virtues he preached. Among religions, Buddhism is the only one that breathes a spirit of unbounded generosity and compassion for all beings. It has always shrunk from inflicting pain, even in self-defence. Not only did it teach that knowledge without benevolence is barren, but it carried out this teaching so consistently in practice as even to endanger its own existence. It has always deprecated war between nation and nation. It has constantly discouraged capital punishment.


It sought everywhere to abolish bloody sacrifices. Without the aid of the sword, Buddhism carried its message of peace and goodwill to barbarous hordes of the most populous parts of Asia and civilized them. “How a religion which taught,” says Max Muller, “the annihilation of all existence, of all individuality and personality as the highest object of all endeavors, could have laid hold of the minds of millions of human beings… is a riddle which no one has been able to solve”. But the riddle is by no means insolvable if due regard is paid to the spirit of tolerance that characterizes the religion of the Blessed Teacher. Of Buddhism alone can it be affirmed that it is free from all fanaticism.

Its aim being to produce in every man a thorough internal transformation by self-culture and self-conquest, how can it have recourse to might or money or even persuasion for effecting conversion? The Tathagata has only shown the way to salvation, and it is left to each individual to decide for himself if he would follow it. Accordingly, the Buddhist kings of the world have been the most tolerant and benign. Emperor Asoka, though an ardent Buddhist himself, showered his gift on the Brahmins, the Jains as well as the Buddhists. The Buddhist kings of Ceylon in the Middle Ages were kind and considerate to the followers of the other faiths that prevailed then in their country. The Pala kings of Bengal, who were zealous Buddhists, bestowed gifts also upon the Brahmins.

A tangible way in which a religion manifests its actual influence upon civilization is art. Wherever Buddhism has prevailed, artistic pagodas, vast viharas and beautiful stupas have come into existence. The finest buildings in Japan are the Buddhist temples. The beauty and charm of the frescoes of Ajanta caves serve as monumental proof of the wonderful inspiration which the religion of the Tathagata imparted to art. Not only for the arts, such as architecture and sculpture, painting and engraving, is India indebted to Buddhism, but also for science and culture in general. The best era of Indian medicine was contemporary with the ascendancy of Buddhism.

The ancient Brahmins might have derived the rudiments of anatomy from the dissection of animals in sacrifices. But the true school of Indian medicine rose in public hospitals established by Asoka and other Buddhist kings in many cities. In the spirit of a true Buddhist,Nagarjuna (the fourteenth patriarch) popularized the science of Ayurveda by teaching it without reserve to all classes without distinction of caste. All sciences and arts were studied in the chief centres of Buddhist civilization, such as the great Buddhist university of Nalanda.

According to the great orientalist Theodore Benfey, the very bloom of the intellectual life of India, whether it found expression in Buddhist or Brahminical works, proceeded substantially from the Dharma, and it was contemporaneous with the period in which Buddhism flourished. When Buddhism took root in China, it started a new development and gave a great impetus to Confucianism. Wherever Buddhism entered the life of a people, it always gave them refinement and embellishment. In his book ‘Things Japanese’ Prof. Basil Hall Chamberlain says “All education was for centuries in Buddhist hands, as was the care of the poor and sick.

Buddhism introduced art, introduced medicine, moulded the folklore of the country, created the dramatic poetry, deeply influenced politics and every sphere of social and intellectual activity. In a word, Buddhism was the teacher under whose instruction the Japanese nation grew up”. Buddha’s will, wisdom, compassion, service, renunciation, perfect purity, exemplary personal life, the blameless methods that were employed to propagate his religious belief – all these factors have contributed to hail the Buddha asa great religious teacher. In this connection the remark of S.N. Dasgupta is worth-noting. Referring to the Buddhist thought he says that it is impossible to overestimate the debt that the philosophy, culture and civilization of India owe to it in all her developments for many succeeding centuries. Although modern Hindu culture has a great many elements of the Buddhist culture, the two are not identical.

The Hindus consider the Buddha as a maker of Hinduism and worship him as an avatar of God. Hinduism has accepted all the great and noble elements of Buddhism. These facts, however, do not alter the historical truth that Buddhism is different from Hinduism and Hinduism is different from Buddhism. The Hindus may worship the Buddha, because their religion is largely based on the teachings of the Buddha. The Buddhists, however, do not worship either Visnu or Siva. The Buddha distinguished his doctrine by disregarding the Vedas, animal sacrifice and caste barriers. He did not belong to the culture of the Indo-Aryans.

The Vedic or Brahmanical strands in Hindu culture have given it the aspect of a national culture. The Buddhist culture, on the other hand, has been throughout an international and universal culture. The Hindu culture, in spite of its modern official version presented by influential men like Swami Vivekananda, Mahatma Gandhi and Radhakrishnan, is still peculiar to India, whereas the Buddhist culture has been widely shared and cherished by a large section of humanity beyond the borders of India. It is true that certain elements of Brahmanical Hinduism had travelled to some south-eastern Asian lands in early medieval centuries. But these elements could not retain their characteristic Brahmanical form and were almost lost in the traditions of those lands.

The Buddhist culture is, however, still flourishing, albeit slowly, in all those countries of Asia where it had penetrated and where it could not be suppressed by the sword of Islam. While it will be absurd to describe the culture of Sri Lanka, Burma, Korea, Tibet and Japan as the Hindu culture, it is quite reasonable to describe the culture of these countries as Buddhistic. The wide rift thus created between Brahmins, who were the custodians of the Vedas, and the later devotees of Buddha turned India intrinsically weak. Swami Vivekananda believed: “This separation is the cause of the downfall of India”. He thought it was the reason “why India has been the slave of conquerors for the last thousand years”.

ASHIM KUMAR GHOSH The writer is a former UGC Teacher Fellow and Head of the Department of Political Science, Maharaja Sris Chandra College, Kolkata. Views expressed are personal