MAN is never reconciled to death. He is ever in search of a happy life. But has he found one? Not yet. Here are some thoughts on where we went wrong.
The Vedic Aryans were fond of life-of a long, healthy life. Ayushman bhava-they greeted each other. And they were also fond of sex, gambling and drinks. They little thought of death, certainly not of life after death.
To illustrate, Yayati wanted his youth restored to him after a millennia of sexual indulgence. The Pandavas gambled away their kingdom and their wife too. And the Aryans were so alcoholic that they broke up their family into two. Reminds one of the Hedonists and the Epicureans. The Vedic Aryans were extremists.
Vatsyayana was perhaps the last word in the search for sexual pleasures. He says: Let one enjoy sex till his desire is satiated and exhausted.
The Vedic Aryans were not indifferent to their gods. The patriarch of the family lighted the sacrificial fire, invoked the gods and prayed for their blessing. It was as simple as that. The priests were yet to take over the prayers and make them into nightmares of rituals.
Again extremism? Yes. No wonder, by the middle of the 1st millennium BC a new class of reformers emerged – Kapila, Mahavira and Buddha, who opposed the hedonism of the Vedic Aryans and the ritualism of the priestly class.
The Vedic Aryans may be hedonists. But they were also constructive. They invented Ayur Veda (to promote long life) and Yoga ( to promote a healthy life). And Atharva Veda contributed many prescriptions for a long and healthy life.
But was Buddhism a real alternative? No. It was not. It was not a life-affirming doctrine. It was a life-denying one. Like Hinduism, it has, of course, a majestic philosophy. But the social accretions of both were a scandal. They were deeply anti-thetical to life. The Buddha saw nothing in life but dukha (sorrow). His prescriptions? Reduce desires. Take to the life of a monk. Free yourself from the cycle of birth and death. Seek nirvana.
According to Buddhism, a man is driven by fear of death. Not by the love of life. Naturally to conquer death was the most important objective of Buddhism.
Buddhism is not a religion. It is a way of life. Buddhists went to extremes when they declared that life was all dukha. Life is not all sorrow. It can be happy. One has to make it happy. But after having made a fundamental statement that life is all dukha, there was nothing to be done in life. It is this irreversible stand which led to the conflict between Hinduism and Buddhism. They called each other “natural enemies”.
In a talk to his disciples, the Buddha said, “This O Bikhus, is the noble truth of suffering. Birth is suffering. Death is suffering. Presence of objects we hate is suffering. Not to obtain what we want is suffering.”
Death is thus liberation from painful life. Naturally, to a Buddhist death is desirable. But does Buddhism make the path to death less painful? No. It was not even thinking of service to mankind.
But Ashoka made it his central doctrine. The idea was, of course, implied in what the Buddha said to a congregation. He said: “Brethren, he who would wait on me, let him wait on the sick.” Buddhism never took it seriously. It could have made it into a grand vocation and eased the life of the old.
Allow me a digression at this stage. It is said that there were 76,000 registered monks in the Chinese province of Wei in the 15th c AD. The Chinese were alarmed at this growing number of monks, a burden on society. They conspired with the Emperor to ban Buddhism.
If Buddhists had their way, India would have been a country of monks. Thank God, Manu came to the rescue of the country. He introduced the four ashramas, which gave meaning and purpose to life and death. What is more, Manu accepted the reforms of Buddhism. In fact, for violation of his reforms, he introduced severe punishments. But Manu went extremes when he introduced the caste system.
Dear Reader, isn’t there an element of extremism in the life of the Hindu? Let us admit it. But we can take comfort in the fact that Manu was the greatest moderate!