By Yoginder Sikand for New Age Islam
From the late nineteenth century, efforts began to revive Buddhism in the land of its birth. Much has been written about this, particularly focusing on Babasaheb Ambedkar’s conversion to Buddhism and that of vast numbers of his followers. Relatively little, however, is known about the key role in this process of certain Indians who became Buddhist monks or bhikkhus and, in that capacity, played a major part in the spread of Buddhism in modern India. One reason for this is that hardly any such bhikkhus were writers and left any written or published records about their lives. But one of the few to do so was the late Bhadant Anand Kausalyayan (1905-88), a Punjabi convert to Buddhism, who went on to become one of the most prolific Buddhist scholars in twentieth century India.
Born in a village in the Ambala district (now in Haryana), Harnam Das, as Bhadant Anand Kausalyayan was known before he became a Buddhist, graduated from the National College, Lahore. He became a companion of the noted scholar Rahul Sankrityayan, and, like him, was an intrepid traveller. He penned numerous books on Buddhism, mainly in Hindi. Among his many notable literary achievements was his Hindi translation of Dr. Ambedkar’s work The Buddha and His Dhamma.
Recently, I procured and read Bhadant Anand Kausalyayan’s absorbing Bhikhsu ke Patra (‘Letters of a Bhikkhu’), a slim text in Hindi, and I decided to translate key portions of it into English. These are portions of the text that I found very relevant to my own effort to make sense of my life, particularly with regard to the truth claims of various religions. In this sense, then, much of what Bhadant Anand Kausalyayan says here has relevance to non-Buddhists, too.
Bhikshu ke Patra is, as far as I know, one of the few texts written by a modern-day Indian bhikkhu, and certainly one of the only such texts that also deal with aspects of the author’s personal life. It was first published in 1940 by Chhatra Hitkari Pustak Mala, Prayag. The version I have used for this translation was published from Nagpur in 1994 by Kashi Ram Meshram. It runs into 87 pages and consists of eighteen letters written over 1935 to 1938 by Bhadant Anand Kausalayayan to a certain ‘Yogendra’. The book does not mention who Yogendra was, but it is clear from the contents of the letters that he was a recent Hindu convert to Buddhism and looked upon Bhadant Anand Kausalyayan as a guide on the Buddhist path. The letters touch upon a range of topics, indicating that Yogendra had numerous questions to ask about the path that he had adopted and for which he sought Bhadant Anand Kausalyayan’s clarifications.
In what follows below, I have translated only certain portions of the letters that I personally found interesting, leaving out much else, such as details of Buddhist philosophy, logic and cosmology, which are treated in considerably more detail in books specifically devoted to such subjects.
In order to make for smooth reading, I have not done a word for word translation, although I have tried to be as faithful as I could to my understanding of the text. Yoginder Sikand
On Buddhist Literature
Sarnath (June, 1935)
[…] In your letter you expressed the desire to know something about Buddhism (Bauddha Dharma). I am glad that you have been so far able to save yourself from being swept away by the modern wave that causes people to curl up their noses in the face of religion, that [leads them to think] that there is nothing in the religious literature of the world that modern people can learn from and that our […] religious curiosity is not worth being discussed seriously. You have rightly mentioned that the most serious questions of life are those that we often dismiss by terming them as ‘merely religious questions’. Our behavior in this world depends, to a very great extent, on our decisions with regard to precisely these questions.
Now, if you hope that I will be able to answer all your questions about Buddhism you will be disappointed. For one thing, you have asked many questions, and, for another, some of them are really deep and complicated. I feel that I will be able to answer only your first question in this letter […]
Your first question is […]: In which books are the basic materials about the life of the Lord Buddha available?[…] I have been asked many times, and by many people, if the Lord Buddha wrote and left behind any book which can be taken as a reliable source about himself and his views. My answer […] is that the Lord Buddha neither wrote a book about himself and nor did he have such a book to be written [by someone else]. When, six hundred years before the birth of Jesus, he preached, for the sake of our welfare, he would sometimes talk about his personal life. At least some of his revered disciples used to be with him most of the time. Blessed are they who heard the nectar-like wisdom from the Lord. After the parinirvan of the Lord, these disciples, whom we now collectively refer to as the Sangha, collected details about the incidents in the life of the Lord and His teachings […] For some time, these teachings of the Lord, which he gave to His disciples, were preserved and transmitted orally. However, later, when the need arose, they were written down. The collection of teachings of the Lord that we have was written down in the first century (CE) in Sri Lanka […]
You must certainly have heard of the Sanskrit work Buddhacharita, by Ashaghosha, which is a great epic poem. Have you read it? It is so simple […] Besides the great poet Kalidasa, no one can compete with Ashvaghosha. And, brother, the truth is that in some places the great poet [Kalidasa] appears to fall behind [Ashvaghosha] […] I don’t think you are among those […] students who cannot read with concentration a serious text or a big book and complete it within a week or two. But if that isn’t the case, then don’t touch [Buddhacharita]—read a small book instead […]
On Shabd Praman [Scriptural Sources of Knowledge]
Patna (July 1935)
[…] I am pleased to learn that you have ordered a copy of [Buddhacharita] and have finished reading a portion of it. Undoubtedly, it contains some fanciful ‘Puranic tales’ (pauranic guppen)! You want to know if all of this is to be believed in by a Buddhist.
It appears that you have not fully thought about what I had mentioned in my previous letter with regard to the compilation of the Tripitaka, or else you would not have asked this question. A special feature of [Buddhacharita] is that all its contents have been taken from theTripitaka or commentaries on them and that the author has not added written anything that is fanciful from his side. And as for the Tripitaka, I have already mentioned that the collection of the teachings of Lord Buddha and His disciples that we presently have, and which was written down in Sri Lanka by the Bhikkhu Sangha five hundred years after the parinirvan of the Tathagata, is what is called the Tripitaka. Now, is it impossible that in those five hundred years some things may have entered into that corpus of literature which today you consider as ‘fanciful Puranic tales’ and which you curl up your nose at?
You may ask, “Why, should one not curl up one’s nose at such literature? Should not such literature that contains fanciful stories be consigned to the flames?”
Let me ask you something. Suppose your mother prepares rice-pudding (kheer) and you start eating it. But then you notice that the pudding contains one or two white stones. Now, what will you do? Will you, with your eyes open and despite noticing the stones, eat the pudding up, thinking, “My mother has made it, she would never want her Yogendra to eat stones”? Or, will you fling the dish containing the pudding against the wall just because it contains two stones? I think you would do neither of these. At the very most, you will remove the stones and eat up the rest of the pudding. And this is precisely the principle that one must adopt not only with regard to [the Buddhacharita] but, indeed, vis-à-vis all books—throw away what you realize are stones, and adopt whatever doesn’t appear as stones.
Once, I explained this to a student, and, in turn, he asked me, “How can we understand what is a stone and what is not?” I replied, “If you have doubts about something, leave it aside for a while. Adopt what undoubtedly proves to be kheer!”
So, according to Buddhism is it necessary for a Buddhist to regard every letter of the Tripitakain the same way as a Muslim believes in the Quran, irrespective of whether he has read and understood it or not, or as a Christian believes in the Bible and a […] Hindu believes in the Vedas? This is a very serious question, and I will answer it not in my own words but in the words of Lord Buddha himself.
Once, while on his travels, Lord Buddha arrived in the city of the Kalama Kshatriyas. After the Kalamas had paid their respects to him, they mentioned to him about some Shramans and Brahmins who visited their town. Each of them preached their own different doctrines while castigating the doctrines of the others. How, they asked him, could they learn whose doctrines were true and whose were false? Who, they asked, was on the right path and who on the wrong?
In reply, the Lord told the Kalamas that it was natural for doubt to arise when one sets out to search for the truth of any matter. Then, he advised them not to accept anything simply because it was uttered by someone whom they revered, or because it was believed in by many people or because it was mentioned in what they regarded as their sacred scriptures.
If today the people of our country understand this point—that our religious scriptures […] are meant for human beings, rather than human beings being meant for the religious scriptures, the roots of many of our social ills, including many of the forms of oppression in the name of religion, will be easily cut off and they will cease to exist.
Once, the Lord Buddha instructed his disciples not to accept anything that he said simply because it was uttered by him. Rather, he said, just as a goldsmith tests his gold in the furnace, so, too, must they test every word of his through their own experience.
So, is it that we should not think there is any difference between the Vedas, the Bible, the Quran and other books that are said to be ‘revealed’, on the one hand, and ordinary books, on the other? […] We have no right to deal with any text in such a way as to conform to our preconceived opinions about it without fully examining it […] We should keep all the books, such as the Vedas, the Bible, the Quran, the Tripitakas and books about Botany on the same table and read them, and then accept whatever thing from whichever text that we find acceptable.
Now, some people think—and they undoubtedly think wrongly—that to do this would be to disrespect their own religious texts. In this regard, I remember an incident from my student days. One of our teachers mentioned that the Vedas are historical texts and that they were written by our ancestors. When another teacher heard about this, he flew into a rage. “[This is] anti-Arya Samaj propaganda! A text which has no author (apaurusheya) is being said to have been written by our rishis!” he said. […] To this [accusation], our teacher answered, “There is just one thing in which we [Hindus] can take pride—and that is the composition of our rishis. But even that you do not say were written by them!”
To enter into the philosophical debate on ‘authored’ versus ‘un-authored’ texts here would be to [unnecessarily lengthen?] this letter. I don’t want to do this. I would think it more than enough if, after reading this letter, you [realise?] in your heart that the first stage in the path of Lord Buddha is freedom from the shackles of mental slavery.
Sarnath (August, 1936)
[…] I am busy for a day or two, and so you will have to wait for my letter. Till then, I am sending you a letter sent to me by a brother of mine. He is a scholar of Sanskrit grammar and of philosophy [and…] studied for many years at a gurukul in Bihar run by the Arya Samaj. He spent roughly two years in Sri Lanka seriously studying Pali literature. He returned from there a few days ago. His name is Bhikkhu Shri Gyan, and this letter is his. Because I have to answer this letter I cannot send it to you, but I am copying and sending you some important portions of it [below].
He [Bhikkhu Shri Gyan] writes:
“Before leaving for Ceylon, I used to consider the Upanishads and Vedanta as reliable sources of knowledge (praman). I used to think that they were […] the highest truth. However, now I think that the Upanishads are the views of some knowledgeable people, whose appropriateness or otherwise [?] can be discussed using the intellect. In the same way, I used to believe that the Vedas were divine wisdom, and considered them the final source of knowledge, unsurpassed throughout the world. However, I now regard the Vedas to have been written by human beings, and to be a collection of the true and false views of some people.
“To understand the reality of something, one should not rely on the preconceived views of other people. Rather, one should come into contact with that thing directly and try to understand it as it is. The Indian youth must remove from their minds the idea that just because a certain rishi has said something, there is no need to doubt it. I have often noticed that in Sanskrit schools students and teachers of Sanskrit grammar place Panini, Katyayan and Patanjali on such an exalted pedestal that there is no possibility whatsoever [for them to] doubt. They simply cannot gather the courage to imagine that there can be a flaw in Panini’s grammar […] or to ask if the understanding of Panini’s grammar as given by Patanjali and Katyayan is entirely true.
“I consider Lord Buddha to have been the foremost teacher of rationalism. In the Angutar Nikaya, he says that nothing should be accepted simply because it is written in a particular text or because somebody says it. Rather, it should be accepted if one’s heart accepts it.
“[…] In India today there is a dire need for rationalism. Those who believe in the Vedas think that whatever is written in them must be blindly accepted. If in the Vedas it is written that ‘God is He with a thousand heads, a thousand eyes, and a thousand feet’, [they think] that one should blindly accept this and consider it to be irrefutable. In the Apastambha Dharma Sutra it is written that if a Shudra reads the Vedas, his tongue should be cut off. Shankararcharya opposed [granting] Shudras the right to study the Vedas. So [believers in the Vedas] blindly believe, and without thinking at all, that the Shudras’s right to study the Vedas must be snatched away from them. And they think that because our [Hindu] religious texts call the Chamars and other [such] castes as ‘Untouchables’, so, even if the country lands in the dumps, they can in no case ever touch [members of] the Chamar and other [such] castes! […]
“For a very long time, this tendency to regard the scriptural word as the ultimate source of knowledge [?] has completely blocked the intellectual development of our innocent masses. It is deeply-rooted in the minds of people that whatever is written in the Vedas and whatever is said in our [Hindu] Dharma Shastras and Dharma Sutras we must unquestionably accept, like a faithful horse that accepts whatever its master orders.
“The Arya Samaj, which used to be considered a formidable enemy of superstitions, has now become a slave to them. Whatever Swami Dayananada or any other great person has said is what they [themselves] accepted as true in their hearts. We also must do the same as these great people by accepting only that which our hearts agree with.
“You will say that not everyone has the same sort of intelligence [and that] if everyone thinks and does as he pleases, many people will go astray. […][I]f you cease to use your intellect and want to blindly follow whatever a ‘great soul’ (mahatma) says, then there are so many ‘great souls’ and, moreover, on many issues they contradict each other, so, whose teachings will you follow? Shankaracharya, proponent of non-dualism, was an unusual intellectual and a ‘great soul’ […] He says that Shudras do not have the right to study the Vedas. Swami Dayananda was also a rare intellectual and a ‘great soul’. He says that Shudras can indeed read the Vedas. Shankaracharya was a non-dualist. Swami Dayananda was a dualist. And both were ‘greater souls’ than each other! Now, if you stop using your mind and, instead, blindly follow whatever the ‘great souls’ say, then which ‘great soul’ are you going to follow?
“You will say that according to Swami Dayanand and our Manu Smriti and other Dharmashastras, whenever there is a contradiction in what different ‘great souls’ say we should accept whatever the Vedas say about the subject. But, then, there are so many disputes about the actual meaning of the Vedas! Sayanacharya [?] interprets them in one way and Swami Dayananada in another way. Then, to understand which interpretation is true you will finally have to take refuge in your own intellect.
“How did you come to ‘know’ that whatever is written in the Vedas is correct? You will reply, ‘Our grandfathers and their fathers before them have been saying this all along.’ But, then, the same is said by Christians, Muslims, Sikhs and members of all other religious communities about their own religious books! Given this, how will someone who is searching for truth understands what is true and what is false? That is why even to ‘prove’ the claim that the Vedas are the highest source of knowledge one will have to take shelter under one’s own intellect and test whatever is written in the Vedas by employing one’s intellect.
As for those folks who argue, ‘Our intellect is not such that we can rely on it to decide about truth’—well, this means that they have no faith in themselves. If you and I have no faith in our intellect, then it is tantamount to death [?] […] If we were to abandon faith in our eyes we would not be able to take even a step further—we might mistake the ground for the sea! Just as our work in the external world would cease if we have no faith in our eyes, nose, ears and other such sense organs, so, too, if we have no faith in our internal organ—the intellect—our internal work would stop and we would never be able to find the truth. That is why one should not accept anything as true just because it was said by Kabir Sahib or by Swami Dayananda or by the Lord Buddha or by Mohammed or by Christ, or has been written in the Vedas, the Quran or the Bible. Everything you hear and learn must be tested by your intelligence in order to discern what is appropriate and what is not, what is true and what is false.
“By thinking, ‘Our intellect is incapable of deciding between truth and falsehood and so we should, instead, rely on other people’s minds’, many people have stopped using their own intelligence. Just as if an instrument, if not used or cleaned, will gather rust, so, too, has capacity of these people to think been destroyed. These days, our pundits fill the minds of their students with [absurd] thoughts […], [telling them], ‘You are of low intelligence. You can’t compete with the rishis and maharishis [of the past]. That is why you must blindly believe, without thinking, whatever the rishis and maharishis have said.’ By drilling such thoughts into the minds of children, the intellectual development of the latter is stopped. They begin to imagine that no matter how much they try, they can never become rishis andmaharishis. And so they come to fear that to doubt or critique or disprove what the rishis andmaharishis have said is a sin. This intellectual slavery is playing havoc with the moral strength of the youth of our country.
“I hope you will show this letter to that friend of yours about whom you had once written to me [a reference perhaps to Yogendra]”
Why I Became a Bhikkhu
Chhapra (March, 1938)
In replying to personal questions, people generally hesitate, and that is natural. I feel that it was this hesitation that made me delay in giving you a reply to this question. But I see that you will not let go till you learn why I became a bhikkhu.
Now, your question is very appropriate. There is nothing inappropriate about it. Like you, many others have asked me this question[...] And I have had to tell them something in reply. But now, ten years later, it is not easy to say exactly why I decided to become a bhikkhu. I must honestly tell you what the state of my mind and my external conditions were then. But is it possible to be really exact about all of this [after such a long period of time]? That is why, today, when I have sat down to write why I became a bhikkhu, I fear that I might focus more on the present than on the past [when I became a bhikkhu].
A person does something impelled by several factors. He takes any step after considering several issues. There is never a single cause for a single issue or action. So, then, what were the reasons for my becoming a bhikkhu?
I recall that when I was a student I read a book titled ‘Thoughts on Education’, written by the famous nationalist Lala Hardayal, MA. It contained a section on ‘Choice of Profession’. While choosing a profession, should one think of which profession pays more? Should one think of which profession affords more comfort? Should one think of which profession lets one boss over others the most? Should one look for a profession that entails the least work? Thinking about questions like this, Lala Hardayal argued that a person should adopt that profession through which he can serve society the most and which entails the least possible burden on society in terms of one’s [cost of] survival, such as [expense on] food and clothing. He used this as a criterion for deciding if any occupation is good or bad. The profession that enables one to render the most service to society and which [at the same time] entails the least burden to society is the best possible one.
When I completed my studies, I began to search for a profession. I used to think of the lives of the thousands of youths around me who were studying in colleges. I would think, ‘After our studies, we will become clerks in some office or the other, or take up any [other] job and then remain stuck in it, day and night, doing the same task like an oil-presser’s bullock. Then, we will marry, have children, [get involved with mundane issues] like [buying] salt and oil, and then, one day, we will leave the world. This will be the history of thousands of young people. Will any of us ever think of going abroad to popularize the Nagari script, which is a scientific script? Will any of us learn other [Indian] regional languages and make efforts to promote knowledge of our national language Hindi among the speakers of these languages? Will any of us think of travelling, if not to other countries, then at least to unknown parts of own country to acquire knowledge about them? Just as Shivaji thought of opposing Mughal imperialism, will any of us think of revolting against British imperialism?’
I thought all this with regard to other people, but also, and especially so, with regard to myself. Sometimes, I used to think of going to the independent Hindu kingdom of Nepal and to do something [there]. It was easy to go to Nepal only on [the festival of] Shivaratri. My final examinations were due to be held after Shivaratri. So enthused was I with the thought of going to Nepal that I was even willing to drop my examinations!
Yes, I wanted to do something courageous.
I recall that the claim of the Arya Samaj that the Vedas were without any author created a very strange turmoil in my mind. Our history teacher, Jaychandra Vidyalankar, had told us that the Vedas were such a creation of our ancestors that we could take pride in them. However, great Arya Samaj scholars insisted that the Vedas had no author and that they were the storehouse of all knowledge. Now, for the sake of argument, one could have taken either side in this debate. But I was very serious to know the truth so as to decide between the two sides. This had deep meaning for me. I thought to myself, ‘If the Vedas contain all knowledge, I should leave everything and the first thing I should do is to learn Vedic Sanskrit.’ I used to ask Arya Samaj pundits what the exact meaning of the word ‘Veda’ is, because I noted that sometimes they would use it to mean the four Vedas, and, at other times, to connote ‘knowledge’. All the answers I got to this question only increased my dissatisfaction. This question had become […] [very] important for me […]
Because Swami Dayanand passed away in Ajmer, this town had a particular attraction for me. Once, while roaming around, I arrived in Ajmer. There, I expressed the desire to live in anashram for sadhus and learn Sanskrit. A certain swami ji [whom I met there] asked me, ‘Where have you come from?’ I replied to him, and then he said, ‘You’ve come from so far! Couldn’t you find a place somewhere along the way where you could have learnt Sanskrit?’ I said to him, ‘I couldn’t find a place where I could learn Sanskrit and also get food. In some places, it would have been possible to get food but there was no facility for learning Sanskrit there. In other places, I could have studied but I couldn’t get food.’
After a couple of days I realized that almost all the sadhus in the ashram in were such ‘pundits’ that if they need to write on a postcard they would first write the matter on a slate, then correct it and then copy the matter on the postcard! What would I have done in thatashram for sadhus if I had stayed there for a long period?
I remember, and simply cannot forget, some experiences from the first one or two years of my public life. These are not sweet memories, and so that is why I will not talk about them here now. They led me to realize that in the name of ‘serving the nation’ the same sort of corruption exists as in other spheres. There are people who have spent their lives in the lap of luxury, and have filled their houses with enormous wealth earned from exploiting the labour of others, and when they are near their deaths they give a small portion of their money to public institutions and suddenly become ‘models of sacrifice’! And in front of such people, others, who could have earned a lot of money had they wanted to but, instead, vowed to walk on the difficult path of national service and made numerous sacrifices for the country, are considered to be of little value, just like stars in front of the moon […]
There is another aspect of this tragedy. If people from wealthy families, who earn fat salaries from the public exchequer, go about comfortably seated in their motor cars seeking donations, [other] people donate very liberally to them. If they misuse public funds, very often people turn a blind eye to this. But if someone who is born in a poor family, manages to satisfy his needs from public funds, tries to reduce his needs as much as he can and is a soldier of the country in the true sense, goes out soliciting funds for the most noble purpose, he gets but little. And, moreover, if a paisa or two of this money is spent [in an unplanned manner] he has to face great insult.
At that time, certain cases of corruption [involving people who claimed to have been engaged in national service] had such an impact on my mind that I began to think that this field of national service was meant only for the rich, for those with fat salaries. As a result, I developed, in the first year of my public life, a silent but strong determination that I would never become a paid ‘servant of the nation’ of any organization.
At a time when I had not decided what profession to take up, and when, in the love of a life of courage, I travelled across almost the whole of India without any money, my heart was troubled with the question of whether or not the Vedas or any other scripture could be taken as final sources of knowledge. At that time, it was the inspiration and invitation of Baba Ramodar Das [the noted Buddhist scholar Rahul Sankrityayan] that drew me to Ceylon. In the course of my travels in India I had visited all the Buddhist places of pilgrimage, [such as] Lumbini, Bodh Gaya, Sarnath, Kushinagar etc.. But, so what? I was as ignorant of the basic principles of Buddhism as any [other] ordinary Indian. On reaching Ceylon, I learned that Buddhism accepts only direct and inferential proof sources and that it has no space for scripture as an authoritative source of knowledge (shabd praman). When I learned this, I was elated! I had found an immense support! Today, the question of accepting or not accepting scripture as a source of knowledge is not so important [for me], but it really was at that time. It was after a massive mental struggle that I attained freedom from the slavery of texts!
Those days [in Sri Lanka] I spent most of my time learning Sanskrit from Rahul-ji—this time, learning with my eyes open. I no longer had any expectations from the Upanishads that one day, all of a sudden, something would appear from out of them that would finally open my ‘wisdom eye’ (gyan chakshu)! I now began viewing the Upanishads to be a collection of true and false views, like other religious texts. That is what happened to my [earlier concern] with scripture as a source of knowledge […]
I had decided to remain unmarried and serve the country. For my survival I did not want to take anything from any particular person or organization. I had to live up to my ideals and also needed to engage in action. I felt that the life of a bhikkhu was the only answer to this question. When the heart inclines to a certain ideal, the mind has no shortage of arguments [against it]. But wherever I turned I saw in front of me the life of a bhikkhu. And so, on 10thFebruary 1928, I was initiated at the hands of the Revered Guru Dhammanand. A year later, the Bhikkhu Sangha gave me upasampada (higher ordination as a bhikkhu) as per the rules. In my life I have not yet received such valuable wealth as this.
If I were to say that my life as a bhikkhu turned out to be exactly what I had felt it would be, it would not be true. The path of spiritual practice (sadhana) is never always uniform. I, too, had to see a many ups and downs. But I have the satisfaction that my faith in sadhana remains intact.
The Vinaya Pitaka contains numerous rules meant for the bhikkhus. You might ask, ‘Do you really observe all those rules?’ The rules of the Vinaya Pitaka are one thousand five hundred years old […] There are some rules which, if I could follow them, I would consider my satisfaction to increase. But life, too, has its rules. How far do they abide just by the rules of the Vinaya Pitaka? […] The inspiration provided by the ideal of the bhikkhu life that lies behind these rules and minor rules [of the Vinaya Pitaka] have remained the lights on my path. And they will remain so in future, too.
A regular columnist for NewAgeIslam.com, Yoginder Sikand works with the Centre for the Study of Social Exclusion at the National Law School, Bangalore.