It has been said that Buddhism came as a reaction to the corruption of the Vedic ideals that were governing the Indian society. The Vedic ideals which were governing society till then had become conventional and lost their inner force. As we have seen in the earlier chapter, the caste system had a high and noble goal; but now it tended to become hereditary, rigid and inelastic. At the same time the teachings of the Vedic Rishis were being applied in a more and more ritualistic and mechanical manner.
As already seen, Indian society was graded in such a way that all men could participate in a full life according to their stage of evolution under the control of Dharma. As and when one was ready, one could take up the full spiritual life at the appropriate time. Life was not divided into the “spiritual life and the ordinary life” for it was a gradual ascension into spirituality. But now with the weakening of the Vedic ideals, spirituality waned and the fulfilment of life became an excuse for the uncontrolled indulgence of desires and worldly satisfactions.
A temporary period of negation was therefore necessary. Buddhism with its exaggerated stress on the unreality of this world and worldly desires seemed to satisfy this need. In sum, Buddhism came as a reaction to the lowering of the Vedic ideals. However, Buddhism by its exaggerated emphasis on quiescence and self-abnegation, unwisely created a division in society; it created two distinct classes – the monk and the layman, the man of the world and the spiritual man. This division implied that the man of the world was inferior to the monk and thus relegated worldly action to the lowest importance.
This division of society into two classes, namely the spiritual seekers and the ordinary man created a disharmony and became the author of confusion in society. As a result, under its influence half the nation moved in the direction of spiritual passivity and negation, the other by a natural reaction plunged deep into a splendid but enervating materialism. The Indian race lost three parts of its ancient heroic manhood, its grasp on the world, its magnificently ordered polity and its noble social fabric. Thus Buddhism weakened Indian society although Buddha himself contributed greatly to Indian spirituality.
Buddhism never really took firm root in India; it was outside India, in China and Japan and Tibet that it got established. But the Buddha himself was recognised by Indian religion as one of the Avatars. However, it must be added that the Buddhist influence on art was considerable and it inspired for centuries Indian sculpture and painting. Indeed some of the finest pieces of Indian art have been the direct result of Buddhistic influence; one such example is the painting and sculptures in Ajanta and Ellora. It will not be out of place to note the differences between Hinduism and Buddhism.
1. Hinduism is based on the Veda while Buddhism rejects the Veda. Veda means revealed knowledge, which one accepts in order to grow in knowledge. Buddhism accepts nothing on trust, but asks to test everything by one’s reason and experience.
2. The first principle that Vedic Knowledge posits is Sat, Being, Pure Existence, Reality. The first principle Buddhism posits is Asat, Non-Being, Non-Reality.
3. This metaphysical position is faithfully translated in the respective logical positions of the two. Buddhist logic considers negation as a simple contrary to affirmation. It is not an entity; it is the lack of entity. Hindu logic makes of negation a positive statement but on the minus side, just as Hindu mathematics did not consider zero as valueless but gave a special position to it.
4. The Vedic Rishis declared that all existence is built upon delight, all things are born out of delight and move from delight to delight, and delight is their final culmination. Buddhism said misery is the hallmark of things created; sorrow is the marrow and pith and the great secret of existence. In sum, while Buddha was a great spiritual personality, an embodiment of compassion, the religion of Buddhism could not take complete hold of the Indian people.