What are the Vedas? And why do we talk About them in a Buddhist site?

If we really want to understand Buddhism (theoretically, not in a Zen-like style), we must learn about the history of India. We must learn about a particular kind of history, the religious history. If there is something that defines Indian religion, it is the influence of the Vedas. The Vedas are the oldest surviving religious texts in India.

Modern historians say the earliest hymns in the Vedas are from about 1500 to 1000 B.C. According to Hindu tradition, the wisdom embodied in the Vedas is timeless because it has no origin. It existed prior to this world and embodies an eternal law that transcends even the gods. The words of the Vedas, according to traditional conviction, were revealed to ancient sages called Rishis in a distant past.
The Vedas form a rather unusual collection of literature. It is not narrative like the Bible. It tells no grand story of gods and humans. The Vedas are more like a liturgy manual. It includes hundreds of hymns addressed to various deities, as well as myths, some spells and a bit of philosophical speculation. (Honestly, quite boring to read for the most part).

Some Hindus even maintain that the Vedas contains all knowledge, even the principles of nuclear physics and the distance between heavenly bodies (try to deduce that from the hymns). A few even claim that the reason the West attained such rapid technological and scientific progress is because Westerners appropriated Vedic knowledge when its contents where revealed in the 18th and 19th centuries.

The Vedas, Sanskrit, Iran and Ireland. What?

These hymns were composed, or heard, if that is the correct verb to use, in an early form of the Sanskrit language. This is a language that is closely related to Latin and Greek and to many of the languages in Europe.

The people who spoke Sanskrit called themselves the Aryans. The word Aryan in classical Sanskrit means simply a noble person, and it is found in the names of two countries in the modern world. You might ask yourselves whether you can think of them before I say them.

One of the countries is Iran. The other one is Ireland. Many people say I’m crazy because I say this, but believe me. If you aren’t so sure, ask your local Sanskrit teacher.

Much of European civilization, like the civilization of India, is derived from the traditions of these ancient people, who might had migrated out of central Asia in the middle of the second millennium BCE and settled as far West as Ireland and far South as India.

The Familiar Gods of the Vedas

The hymns of the Vedas were sung in ritual actions to invoke and to praise the gods, or devas. The word deva is related to the word divine and Theos.

Many of these gods are also closely related as individuals to the gods of classical Greek and Latin mythology. The Vedic god Dyaus, for example, who is a great god of the heavens, is related to Zeus. The god of rain, known as Indra, is related to Thor, the god of thunder in Norse mythology. The god of fire called Agni is related with our word ignite.

How These Hymns Were Used

The hymns of the Vedas were sung by the priests and the Brahmin as part of a complex sacrificial ritual (because of that, there is no need to explain it in detail here).

These sacrifices still go on today in India, as the Vedas are still chanted and they are in some sense the core identity of the Brahmin cast in India. The Brahmin are the ancient priestly cast that was in one time and in many respects still today the custodians of the great religious traditions of ancient India.

By now, you may a have some knowledge of what the Vedas are and what they represent for India, but how are they related to Buddhism? Is it its sacred book? Like the Bible? No! Buddhism actually rejects the notions of the Vedas. The vedas, however, influenced the Buddha in his thinking and manners. This is why we need to know this information, to understand better the Buddha. How the Buddha was influenced we will see in another article.

Buddhist Politics

This may be surprising to many of you, but Buddhism has also a political aspect. Well, not so like a global Buddhist party, but it actually took part in Asian political life throughout its history.

Ashoka, an emperor from the Maurya dynasty who reigned in the third century BCE converted to Buddhism and became a protector of the Buddhist tradition. He established an idea that is known as the Dharma-raja, the “righteous king". This is a promoter and a defender of the Buddhist tradition.

Ashoka The Great was Hindu by birth but later converted to Buddhism after the battle of Kalinga. His conversion reminds me of St. Paul's. He had been killing a lot of people like bugs (like St. Paul did with Christians), and suddenly he wakes up.

According to the legend, after the battle was over, Ashoka ventured out to roam the eastern city and all he could see were burnt houses and scattered corpses. This sight made him sick and he cried "What have I done?". Upon his return to his home, he could get no sleep and was constantly haunted by his deeds in Kalinga. The brutality of the conquest led him to adopt Buddhism under the guidance of the Brahmin Buddhist sages Radhaswami and Manjushri.

From that point, Ashoka, who had been described as "the cruel Ashoka", started to be described as "the pious Ashoka". Quite a change. He propagated Buddhism and preached it within his domain and worldwide from about 250 BC. Emperor Ashoka undoubtedly has to be credited with the first serious attempt to develop a Buddhist policy.

Ashoka’s ideas has been imitated in traditional Buddhist societies as different as Thailand, Indonesia, China and Japan. This policy was in fact very important for Buddhism to reach those countries.

In a more recent time, Buddhist politics had been represented in the figure of Aung San Suu Ky, who is a politician, a political leader and a leader of the democratic protest movement in Myanmar, formally known by the name of Burma. We’ll discuss some of her life. She is a recipient of the Nobel Peace Price and is a remarkable embodiment of what you might call modern contemporary Buddhist political values.

So a full description of Buddhist society will not just include monks, nuns and devotees, but also... it is hard to say this: politicians.

Do you need to worship the Buddha if you are Buddhist?

This is a normal, and honestly, difficult to answer question. The Buddha said that he came to this world to point out the way. He said not to look at the finger, but at the way. So, why all these images of the Buddha? Do Buddhists worship him? Is he a god for them? What the heck those Buddhists think anyway? Here in the West we have presuppositions about what is Buddhism that we acquired thanks to Hollywood. Buddhism, however, is much more complex than that image that we have.

The scriptures say that the Buddha didn't want people to worship him. Anyway, after his Parinirvana(passing), his followers cremated his body and took some relics. Many of these followers (specially the lay ones) started to worship these artifacts that had a relationship to the Buddha. They could be the relics of his cremation or simply objects that the Buddha touched during his life, like his begging ball. Eventually, they built great and beautiful shrines to hold and worship these objects.

Why do they do that? What is the meaning of this worship? Are these objects idols? Do they represent the Buddha, and therefore, they worship the Buddha? Is he a God?

Well, according to Buddhism, the Buddha isn't a god (he is a god according to Hinduism, ironic, eh?). He isn't present in this world anymore. After his Parinirvana, he passed from the cycle of death and rebirth. He doesn't exist anymore like us. He can't influence this world, at least directly. That is exactly what these worshipers believed.

They believed that the Buddha wasn't present anymore, but he left a sustaining power in these objects. What is this sustaining power? Is this superstition? Well, something like it. This sustaining power could affect their karma. That is, by worshiping these objects that have the power of the Buddha, they will have a better rebirth in a future life. Remember that Buddhist believe that, to achieve Nirvana, you need to go through a great number of lives. So, it is better for you to have a good rebirth, having a better chance to advance in your path to enlightenment in a future life, and for the fun of it also, of course.

Lay followers are the ones who generally engaged in this kind of worship. Monks and nuns also worshiped these objects, but with a different goal in mind. They worshiped these objects in a kind of meditation, to be reminded of the Buddha's teaching.

What I talked about until now could be applied to what is considered traditional Buddhism, that is, the tradition practiced by the early community of followers after the death of the Buddha. Today, the school of Buddhism that tries to imitate this traditional ideal is the Theravada. Theravada Buddhism is practiced in South East Asia: Sri Lanka, Thailand and Burma. It could be considered the conservative branch of Buddhism.

When we talk about worship in Buddhism, inevitably we have to talk about the Mahayana school. The Mahayana is a reform movement that emerged in India around the beginning of the A.D. era. It changes the style, the tone and the content of Buddhist practice in profound ways.

With the Mahayana, Buddhism becomes less individualist and more compassionate (and more worshipful). In many varieties of the Mahayana, you need to rely not in your own capabilities, but in the power of a bodhisattva (something like a god), to achieve enlightenment or salvation. If this sounds like anything but Buddhism, you don't really know Buddhism.

Buddhism is so complex that I think is impossible to answer with a yes or no to the question that is the title of this article. It is also this way with any question regarding Buddhism. Like a Zen monk would say, it is better just to see it and not to talk about it (in some aspects).

Buddhism Was Invented by the Greeks

I know this is a provocative title, but here I’m presenting a thesis that may have been overlooked due to assumptions we have in our minds about Buddhism. I don’t claim this is final proof, but this is an idea I had in my mind for some time. Buddhism has been always an example of Asian thought devoid of any European influence. But now, I’m crazy enough to say that it was invented by Europeans?! How could that be? Well, it was the Greek invaders who gave India the Buddha.

It is commonly said that the Buddha lived around the year 500 B.C. If you have studied Buddhist art, you know that there isn’t any image of the Buddha until the first century A.D. There isn’t neither any written record. The Pali Canon, the mother of all Buddhist scriptures, is usually asserted as being first century B.C. in origin, but reflecting hundreds of years of oral tradition. However, that is a legend. The older manuscripts that we have are from the 18th and 19th century.

There was a Greek writer, Megasthenes, who lived for ten years where the Buddha did, around the year 300 B.C. He makes no mention of Buddhism when writing about the religious practices of India.

So, when was the Buddha’s first appearance in history? Not until the first century A.D. At that time appears for the first time a fully evolved image of the Buddha.

There is no evidence of the existence of the Buddha in the B.C. era. People may mention king Ashoka, but there is no mention in his edicts of the Buddha or specially Buddhist practices, only concepts that were part of Indian culture.

After Alexander’s conquests, the Greeks set up kingdoms in Asia, along the so-called Silk Road. Their presence is established by the archeological record. The Greeks built distinctive cities, leaving their art and architecture.

It is among this Greek culture in Asia that we find the first appearance of the Buddha. Before the Greco-Buddhist art there is nothing Buddhist. We have the so called aniconic images, but they don’t have nothing distinctively Buddhist.

The history of art isn’t the only proof of the Greek origin of Buddhism. Guess when Buddhism starts to spread across Asia. First century A.D! It supposedly existed for half a thousand years, but after the first century A.D. it expanded throughout Central Asia and even China in less than a hundred years.

Maybe the Greeks didn’t invent Buddhism from scratch. It is probable that many local practices and beliefs where adapted and rationalized by the Greeks to form this new ideal.

Another interesting question is whether Christianity had any influence in this process. Mahayana Buddhism always has been compared to Christianity for its devotional practices, so, this isn’t a crazy bet.

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