HOW DOES BUDDHISM MATTER TODAY?
A VOYAGE THROUGH ITS CULTURAL IMAGERY
p. k. sasidharan
How do we go about when we hear the English expression ‘Buddhism’? It seems to be hardly the case to make sense it in any other way rather than its popular connotations as religion and philosophy. Both are usually taken to be corresponding expressions of the Sanskrit words Dharma and darsana respectively. If so, can we have a different way of signification of ‘Buddhism’ other than in the senseof Buddhadharma (
religiousBuddhism) or Buddhadar sana (philosophical Buddhism)?
This question seems to be pertinent in the context of conceptual ambiguity that prevails in the ways of characterizing Buddhism in relation to Buddha’s own teachings and the cultural traditions inspired by Buddha. The obscurantism of Buddhism becomes so much apparent when it is being subsumed under the so-called Hinduism. Even though religious Buddhism had its very long successful run in India, in the glorified discourse of Hinduism, Buddhism appeared to have only a self-defeatist stature. While what is said to be the tradition of philosophical Buddhism seems to have got its historical and theoretical credentials, estimation of its contemporary viability (arguments for its ideological imperatives) appears to be insignificantly lesser and obscure. Seemingly the cultural space for Buddhism in India today is simply a vacuum. Nevertheless, its disguised presence seems to be so pervasive and vibrant, despite untold mutilations and disfigurements. A two-pronged strategy of appropriation and de-justification of Buddhist practices has hard on its way. Religious and philosophical significations of Buddhism do not seem to make much appeal for seeking justification for its popular inheritances and legacies. This might call for alternative ways of signification of Buddhism. Cultural Buddhism may be historically and politically viable form of signification.
The divergent forms of cultural practices that are considered to bearing traits of some kind of Buddhism appear to have been made frozen in such a way they get assimilated by what they want to challenge. Viewed from the context of cultural history of the Indian sub-continent, the conceptual frames of religion and philosophy seem to be inadequate to accommodate the divergent streams of cultural practices having distinct engagements and challenges. Hence we may propose here a more inclusive characterization of Buddhism, which could be having a more encompassing range of signification for embracing the entire cultural dynamics related to all that what can be termed as Buddhist traditions. All that practices that are categorized as Buddhist Philosophy or Buddhist Religion can consider to be forming part of different aspects of cultural dynamics within the Buddhist traditions. If so, it is plausible to have a more liberal and non-freezing kind of signification of Buddhism, that could be categorized as ‘CulturalBuddhism’.
Buddhist traditions are unique for their heterogeneity and adaptability. The absence of a transcendental principle upon which believers could rely on at the moment of testing-time in their everyday life is attributed to be one of the reasons for the so-called abandoning of Buddhism/s by the majority of people from the subcontinent. That way, the decline of religious Buddhism in India is said to be caused by its internal weakness. Sometimes the exit of Buddhism from India has been trivialized as being only a matter of it getting integrated within the region’s dominant stream of spiritual and cultural heritage represented by Vedas and Upanisads. The outward posture of Buddhism as one of the major heterodox traditions is taken to be a negligible factor. That is done on the basis of seeing its apparent differences with the Vedic practices get vanished when matters are taken in relation to the essential spiritual core. In its core Buddhism has been viewed as having any quarrel with the Vedanta spirituality.
A strategy of de-contextualising seems to be at operative behind such an integrationist argumentation. This way the argument for the internal weakness of Buddhism seems to get set aside. Because when the decline of Buddhism in India is seen only as a matter of self purging of its historical aberrations from the philosophical or spiritual core, the presumed decline turns out to be a process of actualization and accomplishment of what Buddhism is in its core. Such an integrationist argumentation seems to have become frozen so as to provide an institutionalized framework for an ahistorical and apolitical discourse of Buddhism by which Buddhism gets itself neutralized in confronting the cultural challenges that Buddha had thrown open before humanity. This may be the context in which we need to look for alternative ways of signifying Buddhism/s. Further it seems to be the context in which the question ‘how does Buddhism matter today’ becomes more a political imperative rather than theoretical or religious.
A more specific and contextualized analysis of Buddhist traditions needs to begin with the examination of what has happened to Buddhism in its place of origination. When we think about the contemporary significance of Buddhism for the world at large, we may not be able to set aside the arguments and characterizations that prevail in India itself, to the effect of its historical and cultural devaluations. So much of ambivalence and ambiguity seem to typify the ongoing allegiances and dis-loyalties towards Buddhist traditions. The historical and ideational estimations of their rich legacy also seem to be characterized by double-talks and contradictory approaches.
Therefore, to be more precise, the title question may be rephrased as how does Buddhism matter for India today. Perhaps even a counter-question may be put in place. Does Buddhism a matter at all for India today? As we go by the most popular perception,Buddhism as religion is a gone thing in India. The anachronism of talking Buddhism;Buddhist politics so to say, seems to get expressed in the rebuke, ‘is it not a passé in India?’ Yes, it might be so if Buddhism is taken as a following of religious belief community.
Hence a competitive claim for the recalling of Buddhist-India does not fall in the ambit of present study of cultural Buddhism.
Cultural engagements with the thoughts of Buddha have often been construed as religious alone. Even in the guise of non-theistic religion, they might get denuded of its wholesome liberative potential. Buddha’s thoughts on desire seem to have an equal bearing on denominational or theoretical violence, including the idea of religion. However, the cultural dimensions of religious Buddhism seem to have much to offer for drawing ideological or political insights for the contemporary world. Therefore, an emphatic ‘no’ can be an answer to the question ‘is Buddhism a passes in India?’ a discernment of cultural traces of religious Buddhism of India assumes significance in tracking the historical and conceptual trajectories traversed by Buddhism in India.
A reconstruction or reproduction of Buddhism instead of its revival as another religious community is more on the present agenda. That is to say that Buddhisms do matter as cultural ideologies required for the social and political engagements of the time.
The emphatic argument for the death of Buddhism in India seems to be precisely an argument for the death of religious Buddhism. The prevalence of religious Buddhism or a coming back or return of Buddhist religion would be rather a threat to those religions which had replaced for it, even if in its non-theological form. Characterization of Buddhism as essentially a religion is seems to be a prerequisite for other religions.