Among the supporters and critics of Buddhism, there is no unity in opinion whether it can be considered a polytheistic or monotheistic religion. When comparing this teaching to the traditional well-known monotheistic worldviews of Islam or Christianity, both common and distinctive features can be revealed. However, the nature of the Buddha’s teaching goes far beyond the limits of the traditional philosophy concepts. The reason is that Buddhism is an old teaching of how to reach happiness and overcome problems, which people in different parts of the world can easily face but which are very difficult to solve. That is why, Buddhism suggests how to find solutions by means of going out of the real world to the depth of the human soul that is hidden from the common view, but is the part of reality, unlike material things that are destined to the dissolution. This teaching had been shaped long before Buddha came to earth. One can find the first traces of similar spiritual experiences and worldviews in the early Vedas. For example, the first knowledge of the Eastern spiritual experiences finds its place in the Rig Veda (“Knowledge of Verses”) from the Northwest India (1500 BCE). Nowadays, it is considered the first written artifact to be created even earlier than the old texts of Sanskrit. The question whether the views of people in the times of the Rig Veda and thereafter were rather monotheistic or polytheistic remains open.
The Verses of the Rig Veda
In the verses of the Rig Veda, one can learn about many gods that were worshiped by contemporary people. Indra was considered the king of gods, similar to Zeus or Jupiter in Greek and Roman mythology respectively. All power was granted to this god as he was the cause of the universe, the one who could rule it. Varuna was worshipped as the god of the moral law, similar to Uranus in ancient Greece. Agni was the god of fire; therefore, when people made sacrifices, they worshipped him. However, in case of a war, they glorified Indra as the most powerful of all gods. In any case, such a tradition has later developed to some other views. For example, in the Bengali tradition, Krishna or Radha was considered the only god. The multiplicity of gods was later interpreted as different embodiments of the only God. Therefore, Doniger studied the later verses of the Rig Veda, which presented some rather monotheistic ideas, He asserted, “They call it Indra, Mitra, Varuna, Agni, and it is the heavenly bird that flies. The wise speak of what is One in many ways; they call it Agm, Yama, Matarishvan” (n.p.). Some of the later worshippers mentioned the monotheism intentionally, even incorporating such ideas into the context of monogamy. “You, Vishnu, are the only god I’ve ever worshipped; you are the only one”; “You, Rosaline, are the only woman I’ve ever loved; you are the only one” (Doniger n.p.) Such a statement was developing in the context of other religions that encouraged people to simplify Buddhism.
The New Monotheistic Religion
For example, after the British invasion of India, many Christian missioners came there to preach the teaching of Jesus Christ. Some of the Buddhist traditionalists denied the new monotheistic religion. On the other hands, however, many wealthy people were ready to accept the mix of Christianity and Buddhism, as they did not want to sacrifice their money, property, and influence. In their striving to preserve wealth, they forgot the teaching of their ancestors or modified it greatly. Although, the material happiness is unstable, “the desire for wealth can never be fraught with happiness. If acquired great is the anxiety that the acquirer feels. If lost after acquisition that is felt like death” (Radhakrishnan and Moore 169) However, for many rich people, it is more difficult to sacrifice their wealth than religion, faith, and moral dignity.
The Brahmans as the powerful social group felt like they were the only ones to keep the sacral knowledge of Brahma that was considered the true reality. In reaction to such a view and powerful Brahmans’ influence, the new version of the sacral book was composed a few centuries after the Rig Veda. It was named Upanishads. This book presents a dialogue between a teacher and a pupil who asks about the number of gods in the Universe. Finally, the teacher states that there is the only God proving the monotheistic nature of the Buddhist religion. Such a view became known as the Upanishadic monism: multiple gods were gathered under the umbrella of the one supreme and omnipotent God, who could reveal Himself in different incarnations. The doctrine of the Upanishadic monism declares, “All living things are elements of a single, universal being (often called Brahman) reached by individual meditation” (Doniger n.p.). This doctrine opposes the polytheistic view of the spiritual nature of the world. Additionally, in some cases, monism evolves to pantheism, when other gods are regarded as embodiments of the greater God. He is believed to create the universe and interpenetrate; nevertheless, he always but exists independently from it, so He cannot be cognized in any other way except with deep meditation. In meditation, people can come close to him and experience euphoria from the communication with the Divine.
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Two substances form one being, and both coexist in a harmony. The divinity and spirituality are the real substances that the humans should open up on the way of truth. On the contrary, anything that is visible is destined to dissolution; therefore, the humans should give up trying to preserve the material goods. When it comes to the spirituality, the way of truth goes to reality that is of the divine nature and may be opened by everyone only by means of different spiritual practices, such as Yoga. Since “one becomes cleaned of all sins by means of knowledge alone, living the while in [the] Supreme Brahma [deity]” (Radhakrishnan and Moore 168), Yoga helps to reach this state of body and mind in practice.
The notion of yoga as the divine knowledge can be traced back to the Bhagavad Gita, where this practice is regarded the most essential one on the human’s way to the truth and salvation. “The power of God is with you at all times: through the activities of mind, senses, breathing, and emotions; and is constantly doing all the work using you as a mere instrument” (Bhagavad Gita 23). The God calls every person to salvation; people, in turn, can comprehend such a calling in understanding the symphony of the Bhagavad Gita that goes along with the thoroughly organized Yoga practices. Yoga is the “path of the Eternal and freedom from bondage” (Bhagavad Gita 13). In some other passages of the book, Yoga is also called the holy work, as it comprises both physical and voice exercises in its practices. Practically, Yoga can be combined with meditation, so as to reach the Deity while opening the new horizons for the spirit.
The Bhagavad Gita explains Yoga in two different ways, subdividing it to Jnana and Karma Yoga. Jnana Yoga opens people the way to the heavenly-based experiences where sweet melodies are heard. In the realm of eternity, the humans can spiritually touch the incarnation of the Divine. On the contrary, Karma Yoga predetermines the call to actions in the highest state of the human body and mind that the yogis reach after a deep prayer.
The Hindu Prayer
Of course, the Hindu prayer goes in combination with the holy words, which people can speak even unconsciously. However, the significance of the prayer lyrics should not be underestimated, as it is the way of coming closer to the divine experience. Many yogis who practice spiritual exercises are sure that every person has a part of God, which is their soul. By means of spiritual practices that include both physical and voice actions, it is possible to touch the divinity. The inner depth of the human soul keeps the traces of the Deity that people can reveal through meditation and yoga.
Yoga and Meditation
However, the problem of materialism and spiritualism and their interrelations have been the subject of the great interest for many generations of the Hindu philosophers. The theorists and practitioners have been trying to find the proper explanation for the natural world and the nature of spiritual experiences and experiments. Trungpa, the master of meditation and a prominent scholar delivers a great example of interrelation of materialism and spirituality in their vivid opposition to each other, “We may be sitting in meditation in our New York apartment, feeling very “high” and “euphoric,” very “spiritual.” But then we get up and walk into the streets and someone steps on our toe, and we have to deal with that. It brings us down to earth, back to the world” (285). Being down-to-earth is a very important part of life in the frames of the given reality, but people in their search for the truth target the high substance; therefore, they use different spiritual practices. Chogyam Trungpa calls this problem of dualism in a human being a spiritual materialism. The researcher and spiritual practitioner points out that, although wealthy people are trying to reach some spiritual enlightenment spending money on visiting the holy places, sooner or later, they return to the real world with all of its advantages and drawbacks. In this regard, yoga and meditation may be considered a way to escape from the so-called real world to the depth of their souls, beyond the limits of the consciousness, where the real truth lies beneath the well-established borders of stereotypes and norms of the common reality.
One can distinctively trace the perception of reality by Hindus to the Vedic doctrine of Atman-Brahman. The Brahman is considered “the unchanging reality amidst and beyond the world” (Chappell 132). Although one cannot give an exact definition to the Brahman, it is the absolute reality, the broad, extended, enlarged existence. On the contrary, the Atman is a personal/impersonal existence. It is a self-existence, which is often considered a soul of a person according to the Vedic doctrine. When everything turns to dissolution, the Atman may unite with the Brahman, which is the absolute reality, in the spiritual context. The Brahman is a universal substrate that is used to create concrete things. Material issues and things in general and the human body in particular are considered a prison to a soul. Therefore, by means of spiritual practices, the humans can reach the absolute through getting their souls free and opened to Brahma.
Sometimes the word Brahma is misused because of being confused with the notion of the Brahmans (the priests). As these priests were trying to possess the divine experience and knowledge, common people protested against such confusion. In the case of gaining power in the Indian society, Brahmans would treat the holy books in a comfortable for them way.
In the early Buddhist doctrine, the Atman meant I am. However, Buddha argued that no permanent self existed. In the later teachings, the Brahman-Atman doctrine developed to explaining the Atman as the consciousness in a human being while the Brahman was interpreted as a transcendental level of reality.
Conditioned and Unconditioned Groups
The features of the Brahman in the spiritual practices of Hindus are subdivided to the conditioned and unconditioned groups. On the other hand, the Brahman is considered the creator of the universe, the omnipotent substance, as well as its preserver and possible destroyer. The Brahman is the cause of the universe, as it was declared by the ancient Maya. That is why, from this point of view, the Brahman is conditioned. On the other hand, in the deep meditation, it appears to be unconditioned, as it is considered to be so by people in a deep prayer, for whom the world does not exist.
As the world in the deep meditation does not exist, the leader should try to make himself invisible, so people may not notice his existence. According to Lao Tzu, “A Taoist ruler does not do anything to push people or show off his existence, thus people only know he is there without feeling his existence” (221). According to the philosopher, people should lead their life naturally that means obeying the laws of nature. For example, if a farmer wakes up early, goes to the field, then comes home for a dinner, then goes back to the field so that to come back in the evening, it is naturally. Nevertheless, when the ruler makes this farmer go to the war, he acts not naturally; therefore, such action turns out to a mistake with bad consequences.
In this relation, and in the context of the Vedic doctrine and the old Hindu manuscripts, the religion and the philosophy of the East encourage people to develop their spirituality, moral values, and keep peace on earth, so that every person can reach the Absolute in his/her soul.