When an open-minded scholar has an opportunity, because of a very wide and rich education, to study not only one great religion right from its original scriptures and sources but many such religions, it is inevitable that the spiritual tenets of one will be found to complement favorably and even to increase the value of similar tenets in those other religions, because Truth is One. Is not this even so with the individual expression of different human hearts, for are not hearts the fountains of Reality, of infinite wisdom? This is beautifully expressed by the poet Lysaght as follows:
For the meaning that dwells in all things,
The story of every heart,
Is the same — the infinite story of all
Whereof each telleth a part: —
Tidings mightier, graver.
Than a single voice can utter,
Too deep and solemn a secret
To sleep in a single breast,
But the voice of each makes truer
The voices of all the rest;
And each repeats of the story
The part that it loves the best.
Ananda K. Coomaraswamy has proved to be just such a scholar, and in his book Hinduism and Buddhism (1) we have some of the fruits of his vast field of study and knowledge. Herein we find religious concepts of ancient India, supported by others from China, Egypt, Greece and Rome, and of the Christian world — all reiterating fundamental beliefs and ideals. Herein he has proved that Hinduism is one of the facets of the Philosophia Perennis, and that its essential truths are therefore in accord with those of other great religions. Due to a lack of a true understanding of the religious concepts of ancient India there have grown up many false suppositions and interpretations which have unfortunately been accepted by many philosophical students trained in Western methods of thought.
The author, in a most scholarly way, with detailed references, has resurrected the fundamental truths of Hinduism, thus making this work a valuable reference-book for serious students of Sanskrit texts. From the Vedic Suktas, Brahmanas, Aranyakas, and Upanishads, and from the Bhagavad-Gita, he has culled jewels of wisdom, those truths that will ever inspire, and that will enable the perceiver of their profundity to recognise that same heart-life in other great religions. Truths that never grow old, but which are not often fully realized by either Orientalists or modern Hindus are brought to light, and fallacies and misunderstandings are cleared up. In the notes that are appended to the text similar ideas to be found in Greek, Roman, and Christian philosophy are cited. This adds highly to the value of the book.
In the first half of this work which is devoted to Hinduism we find that the ever recurring myth is spoken of as "a penultimate truth," as a symbolic expression of universal experiences that are timeless, and therefore applicable to all beings, to worlds or men, to their birth, growth, struggles, conquests, and final reabsorption. In other words, the myth is shown to be an embodiment of eternal truths, not the result of childish fancy, as many think.
Wisdom-teachings such as the following are excellently portrayed here with their Hindu poetic figures and charm: the unity behind polarity; the god-essence latent in everything; how the One manifests itself through the Many; the hierarchical wheels within wheels, all with the same infinite center; Karma as the character inherent in everything; Agni as the divine guest in every form, the radiant source of life; the Adversary but our personal self or the Outer Man; altruism as the key to becoming Self; the surrender of the personal self makes the man whole; self-control is the submission of the Outer to the Inner Man; to know one's Self is to become All; the soul's journey through the Seven Worlds to the Sun; and that beautiful answer, so well known to deeper students of Theosophy, to the question asked at the Sun-door, "Who art thou?"
Sacrifice in its original sense is grandly portrayed: to sacrifice is to act sacredly, is to give oneself to the Imperishable God. "God gives as much as we can take of him, and that depends on how much of "ourselves" we have given up." . . . "Whatever is done perfectly must have been done lovingly, and whatever ill done, done carelessly." True sacrifice is silent and invisible, it takes place within. The great sacrifice is a conscious dying, the "final katharsis." The Soma-sacrifice is explained in its true meaning. King Soma is shown to be the moon-element or body-aspect of our being, which must be purified and its evil cast off before we find the sun-part of ourselves. This devouring of the Moon by the Sun outwardly or inwardly is depicted as the "Divine Marriage." The Soma juice, that elixir of life, quaffed only by god-men is given its original mystic representation. Somapas or Soma-drinkers are those who are infilled with the essence of the divinity within, illuminated.
In a chapter on "The Social Order," ethical living is shown to depend on awareness, on a conscious obedience to the laws of nature. Yoga is here succinctly defined as "skill in works." The author uniquely depicts the caste system of India as patterned after the hierarchical system of man's own nature: the spiritual or sacerdotal, the royal, the administrative, and the physical. And just as the higher must be master in the sacrificial life so must it follow in the hierarchy of a worldly kingdom.
Furthermore the value of the system of the Four Stages in Hindu life is clearly brought out. The chance for a higher realization of what life is for, an opportunity of living in a higher state nearer to the source of All, of changing one's attention from the outer to the inner, was offered to any Hindu, whatever his caste, in the last two stages of his life.
Annihilation is shown as impossible. Coomaraswamy writes:
We are told that the perfected self becomes a ray of the Sun, and a mover-at-will up and down these worlds, assuming what shape and eating what food he will; just as in John, the saved "shall go in and out, and find pasture."
How the "dew-drop slips into the shining sea" of infinitude, and yet continues to be, is compared to what is meant by Master Eckhart's phrase "fused but not confused." When the dewdrop or ray reappears in the world we have one of those grand Avataras. To quote the author:
There is then a "descent" (avatarana) of the Light of Lights as a Light, but not as "another" light. Such a "descent" as that of Krishna or Rama differs essentially from the fatally determined incarnations of mortal natures that have forgotten Who they are; it is, indeed, their need that now determines the descent, and not any lack on his part who descends.
This section of the book closes with that lofty Wisdom-Key of the Upanishads: "That art thou."
The second section is devoted to Buddhism. The author points out from the start that a profound study of both Brahmanism and Buddhism reveals them as one in their religious content, and that Buddha was a reformer only in the sense of restoring an older form of truth — Brahmanism — to its purity, and that he declared what he taught was the "Ancient Way" followed by all "Knowers of Brahman." Buddha, of the royal caste, did not oppose true Brahmanism or a true "Brahmana," but only the degraded ritualistic and corrupted forms of Brahmanism and the self-seeking so-called Brahmanas of his day.
The life of the Buddha is portrayed as another of those eternal myths; in this case representing the Solar divinity in its heavenly descent, as well as that wondrous awakening of the Solar Self in man that has occurred continuously from the beginning of time. The ethical precepts of the Buddha are compared with those of the Upanishads, and also with Platonic teachings. For instance the Buddhist injunction "to be ever mindful of every act" is the Platonic way of saying "to be aware, to be a Master of self," and the Upanishadic teaching "to recover one's latent omniscience."
All philosophic mysticism presents the idea that to be truly born in the spirit, in the Kingdom of God, the mortal man must die; the little self, the soul must give itself up to the Great Self, the One in All Things. The Brahmanical doctrine teaches that Brahman is the God within all beings, the only reality. The lesser self corresponds to the chariot or the raft which carries a man to his destination. The Buddhist doctrine of the Anatman (non-self) refers to this unreal personality, not to the Maha-Atman or Great Self to which the Buddha refers when he says "Take refuge in the Self!"
Though men are the heirs of their acts, Buddhism declares that they are not the very same persons when experiencing the fruits of good or evil actions, for they are ever changing, never the same from one moment to another. However, their continuity may be recognised in the same way that we may discern the same person going through childhood, youth, and old age, and yet how very different the old man is from the baby boy. Though a being may continue to be into eternity, he will never be the self-same entity through any period of time. As the Bhagavad-Gita (II, 22, 23) states:
Verily never was I not, nor thou, nor these rulers of men;
Nor shall any of us ever hereafter cease to be.
As the embodied one experienceth in the body childhood, youth and old age,
So are there other body-gettings, therefore one who is wise is not disturbed.
The Buddhist ethics and teachings as presented in this book are from the Pali texts of the Hinayana or the Lesser Vehicle. Therefore we find Nirvana given here as the final goal. The deeper teachings of the Mahayana or the Greater Vehicle concerning the call of compassion which leads to the great sacrifice of Nirvana in order to help unenlightened humanity are not treated herein.
The Buddha is shown as endeavoring to free men from that non-wisdom (avidya) which causes misery, from identifying themselves with the transient parts of their natures which lead them astray, and which turn them away from the One Self. This transient Self, the personality, the Buddha compared to a chariot, a temporary vehicle, while the Atman or True Self is the charioteer. This very same simile we find in the Upanishads.
Why not call that Inner One Buddha, or Brahman, Christ, or Agni? These names and the myths surrounding them imply the same divine experience, that of Divine Awareness or At-one-ment. Is not universality one of the tests of Truth?
Hinduism and Buddhism is a book to be highly commended to all students of comparative religion. Is it not significant that it should be an Oriental scholar who has performed this service for the world? It is a pointing to the rich harvest that may come from the fusing of the best in the East with the best in the West.
1. Philosophical Library, New York. (return to text)