Hinduism and Buddhism are two of the main religions and philosophies that we studied in class, and in the world. At the heart of these two philosophies are figures that helped define them. For Hinduism, this was Arjuna, the Pandava prince accompanied by Krishna in the Bhagavad Gita. The main figure in Buddhism is Siddhartha Gautama, who would become later define Buddhism and become Buddha. Billy and Suzy have differing perspectives on these two figures. Bill is most intrigued by how alike the two are, while Suzy thinks their differences tell us more than their similarities. In this debate, I agree with Suzy in that the differences between the two are more important than the similarities. More specifically, the difference between Arjuna and Buddha allude to the differences between Hinduism and Buddhism.
Before he was the Buddha, he was called Siddhartha Guatama, and was a minor prince born into privilege. Similarly, Arjuna was a Pandavan prince, the son of King Pandu. Both princes lived comfortably until they each experienced a moment that questioned everything they thought about the world. For Arjuna, this was when Krishna tasked him with leading the Pandavas into war against his cousins the Kauravas. His initial hesitation to fight opened up a dialogue between him and Krishna, which is the focal point of the Baghavad Gita. The experiential moment that redefined Buddha’s life was the “four passing sights”, in which he witnessed an old man, a sick man, a corpse, and a renunciate. Like Arjuna’s experience on the battlefield, the four sights the Buddha saw challenged his life and beliefs up to that point. Up to these points, the two princes lived similar lives, but it is how they handled these experiences that set the two figures and philosophies apart.
The hesitation of Arjuna to fight his cousins started a dogmatic dialogue between himself and Krishna, an avatar of Vishnu. Krishna’s duty on Earth was to restore Dharma. Because of this, the dialogue is largely based on Krishna explaining why it is Arjuna’s dharmic duty to fight his cousins. Krishna goes on to discuss the path of enlightenment, and how selfless service, raja yoga, and renunciation can lead us there. Arjuna is still not completely convinced and has to see the divine form of Vishnu to fall in line and complete his dharmic duty of fighting in the war. This is the complete opposite of how the Buddha used his experience to re-shape his beliefs. The passing of the four sights allowed Buddha to see how impermanence and suffering are core to the human experience. Instead of falling in line with the Hindu beliefs and customs, Buddha broke his caste-duty and embarked on a very different path than that of Arjuna. He then performed a comprehensive overview of Hinduism and determined elements that he would incorporate in Buddhism, like the move beyond the illusion of the separate self, certain yogic practices, and belief in karma and reincarnation. However, the Buddha turned away from many of the religious elements of Hinduism like the caste system, certain rituals and sacrifices, the authority of the Vedas, supernatural powers and Gods, and theological and metaphysical speculation. He then, unlike Arjuna, chose to follow his heart and start the philosophy of Buddhism. The way that Arjuna handled the battle and dialogue with Krishna in the Mahabharata, differs from the way that Buddha handled the four passing sights, highlighting differences in Buddhism and Hinduism, and more specifically, how Buddhism evolved from Hinduism.
The stories of the two figures signify the differences between the two religions and philosophies that they adhere to. Arjuna’s moral crisis on the battlefield gives Krishna a chance to reinforce the Hindu beliefs that want Arjuna to go to war with his cousins. Even though Arjuna knows in his heart that he should not, he follows his dharmic duty and fights. Conversely, the four passing sights experienced by Buddha gave him a chance to first look at with Hindu beliefs in mind, then he did the opposite of Arjuna and broke from his caste duty and the principles of Hinduism he did not agree with, to formulate Buddhism. These differences foreshadow what makes Buddhism different from Hinduism, and why Buddha decided to reject certain Hindu practices. For these reasons, I believe that the differences between Arjuna and Buddha are more significant than their similarities. Their similarities show how they come from similar backgrounds and belief systems. Their differences show how the Buddha used his moral crisis to formulate new ideas and develop Buddhism out of the impermanence and suffering he saw in the world, while Arjuna used his crisis to have his faith reaffirmed by a higher power and fall back into his caste system.
2. The conversation between Bill and Suzy, discussing their thoughts on Buddhism, made me think about an alternate perspective than I previously had; that Buddhism is a pessimistic and life-denying philosophy. The pessimism can be perceived in several of the main Buddhist concepts like the Four Noble Truths, Anicca, Interbeing, and Anatta. To broadly summarize how all these collaborate to give off a pessimistic perspective, the four concepts illustrate the Buddhist viewpoint of a meaningless world with irrelevant things and connections. For this reason, I side with Billy in the argument: Buddhism is a pessimistic and life-denying philosophy that strives to alienate people from the things that I believe make us human.
The first Buddhist concept that relays this message are the Four Noble Truths. The truths start out with the fact that life is filled with suffering and dissatisfaction, which is caused by tanha (self-centered craving). Tanha can be extinguished, yielding nirvana. This can be accomplished by extinguishing the ego-self through the eightfold path developed by Buddha. From this perspective, life is a cycle of suffering caused by attachments to the material world, and the desire for success. I perceive this notion as instructions to turn our backs on everything that has been taught to us as children from our parents and other parental figures. As kids, we learn that hard work, dedication, and ambition will make us successful in life; not only for ourselves, but for those closest to us. Buddhism teaches us to relinquish this ambition to attain nirvana. But if that means turning our backs on our loved ones and those we are responsible for taking care of physically and financially, achieving nirvana seems like a life-denying belief. In my opinion, the Four Noble Truths present an extremely pessimistic view of the world and our purpose here, suggesting that our purpose is to realize that the success that virtually everyone in the world wants and needs to live comfortably is pointless.
Bill’s argument can also be supported by the interwoven Buddhist concepts of Anicca, Interbeing, and Anatta. Anicca is the Buddhist doctrine of impermanence, stating that all things in the world are impermanent. We perceive and speak of “things” when there is enough continuity of form to hold together some aspects of structure for a period of time. I can see where one would perceive this as plausible. However, I believe that at its core, the doctrine seeks to isolate ourselves from World and the things that make us “human” (people, things, connections). The doctrine appears to be a condescending perception of humanity, depicting that there is no point in investing in the “illusion” of humanity and other people because they are impermanent. The notion of interbeing, developed by Thich Nhat Hanh captures the idea of dependent co-origination, meaning that there are ultimately no separate “things” or “individuals”, adding on to the pessimism of Anicca. If there are no separate things or individuals, what is the point of trying to better ourselves. The “flowers and garbage” teaching of Thich Nhat Hanh goes on to describe that flowers and garbage are essentially the same thing, the flowers will turn to garbage and the garbage was once a flower. The impermanence of these two things that Thich Nhat Hanh describes, gives me the idea that if good and bad; beautiful and ugly are the same thing, what is the point of striving to be your best person. Lastly, the idea of Anatta (no-self) coincides with both Anicca and Interbeing. It states that nothing truly has a permanent or separate self, and in fighting to keep this “self” permanent and secure, we battle against the nature of the universe. Realizing this leads us to nirvana, a place of ease and bliss. However, in my opinion, the nirvana illustrated above seems like it leads us to an isolated, de-humanized state, suggesting the nature of our purpose in the universe is the same.
Later interpretations of Buddhism, like the Theravada and Mahayana interpretations, support my claims of pessimism that goes along with Buddhism. The Theravadins add on to isolated nature of Buddhism that I have discussed above, by stating that the only way to attain nirvana is to become a monk and renounce all previous aspects of your life. The Mahayanists focus on the life of Buddha, not his teachings. They describe Buddha as a model for universal love and compassion, however, his doctrine of Anicca would suggest that the connections, time and effort Buddha spent trying to help others was in vain due to the impermanence of the universe. These later interpretations intertwine with the Buddhist notions of the Four Noble Truths, Anicca, Interbeing, and Anatta to give the perception that Buddhism is a pessimistic and life-denying philosophy. To conclude, I agree with Bill in the argument because I perceive the result of the above doctrines and the Buddhist practices as leaving a person in an isolated state, separate from the things and connections that I believe make us human and unique.