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Buddha and the Vedas

October 4, 2013

Q: A reader asks: “How did the Buddha view the Vedas? What of Buddha’s teachings are similar or different than in the Vedas?”

The Arahant: That is a very big question. A complete answer is beyond our scope; but we can give a summary and point to some references.

The Buddha was quite familiar with the Vedas. They were the principal spiritual authority of his time. Not only had he been schooled in them in childhood in his father’s palace; he also had realized them in his previous lives. [See for example Santhava-jātaka, 162]

There are numerous references to the Vedas in the Suttas, as well as to similarities of the Buddha’s teaching with the brahminical culture based on them. In Ganakamoggallana-Sutta (MN 107), the Buddha makes a favorable comparison of the brahminical training methods with his own program of gradual training in Dhamma.

However, the Buddha also criticizes the Vedic approach of emphasizing tradition over direct perception in Canki-Sutta (MN 95):

“Now some things are firmly held in conviction and yet vain, empty, & false. Some things are not firmly held in conviction, and yet they are genuine, factual, & unmistaken. Some things are well-liked… truly an unbroken tradition… well-reasoned… Some things are well-pondered and yet vain, empty, & false. Some things are not well-pondered, and yet they are genuine, factual, & unmistaken. In these cases it isn’t proper for a knowledgeable person who safeguards the truth to come to a definite conclusion, ‘Only this is true; anything else is worthless’.”

And in Itivutaka 99, he sings:

“He knows his former lives. He sees heavens & states of woe, has attained the ending of birth, is a sage who has mastered full-knowing. By means of these three knowledges he becomes a three-knowledge brāhmaṇa. He’s what I call a three-knowledge man — not another, citing, reciting.”

The Buddha also criticized the Vedic hereditary caste system (varṇāśrama-dharma), for example in Assalayana-Sutta (MN 93), where the Buddha defeats a young brāhmaṇa, making him admit the superiority of meritocracy.

But what value is this comparative knowledge? We know that the Vedas are very ancient — some say 10,000 years or even more — and that they began as an oral tradition. But at some point they were written down and edited, and given the form they have today. The compiler and editor of the Vedas was Vyāsadeva. He also wrote or edited many of the Purāṇas and the historical epic Mahābhārata.

Now what was the need to edit the Vedas? They had already served as a reliable guide to self-realization for centuries. Vyāsadeva was a relative of Kṛṣṇa, and Vyāsa wrote the Bhāgavata-purāṇa and Mahābhārata to establish that Kṛṣṇa was an incarnation of the absolute god. However, like the Buddha’s teaching, the ancient Vedas had no need for a monotheistic view.

Therefore it is likely that Vyāsa edited them to introduce a religious teaching to support his family’s political aims and compete with Christian and Islamic monotheism. This monotheistic trend has only become stronger over time, until it threatens to eclipse the original Vedic teachings.

A case in point is the Vedānta-sūtra. It was supposedly written by Vyāsa contemporaneously with Kṛṣṇa, about 5,000 years ago. Yet it contains a refutation of Buddhism! That would date it around 2,000 years ago. Interestingly, the ‘Buddhism’ refuted in the Vedānta-sūtra has nothing to do with the actual teaching of the Buddha; it is entirely a fabricated straw-man argument.

All this undermines the credibility of the Vedas — especially the current edited versions. It seems that a little genuine spiritual knowledge was mixed with a great deal of political and religious posturing to justify the horrible maltreatment of Buddhists by the Hindus after the fall of the Ashoka Dynasty.

From → Q&A

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