Was Early Buddhism Influenced by the Upani.sads?
y Pratap Chandra

Philosophy East and West
Vol. 21, No. 3 (July 1971)
pp. 317-324

Copyright 1971 by University of Hawaii Press
Hawaii, USA


Pratap Chandra is an Assistant Professor of Philosophy at the University of Saugar, Saugar, M,P., India. 



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Was early Buddhism a revolt against Brahman ritualism and the Upani.sadic philosophy? Or was its opposition confined to the former, while it accepted its main ideas from the latter? For unspecified reason(s), since the beginning of Paali researches, it has been taken for granted that as far as the relationship between early Buddhism and the Upani.sads was concerned, these were the only possible alternatives. What obliges us thus to limit ourselves has never been adequately discussed. A moment's reflection, however, will convince us that secondary or derivative evidence, its usefulness notwithstanding, is not enough without a corroboration from the primary sources. The main question, therefore, should be: Do we have reliable evidence from the Paali Canon and other early texts which lends support to either alternative?

    This paper proposes to examine the issue of relating early Buddhism to the Upani.sads one way or the other, questioning the fashionable view that early Buddhism was indebted to the Upani.sads for its fundamental tenets.



Let us make it clear at the outset that the term "Upani.sadic philosophy" is not being used to denote the exact words contained in the extant Upani.sadic texts. There is no reason to think that these very texts were available to the Buddha and his followers. Pointing out the absence of references to actual Upani.sadic passages will be at best inconclusive negative evidence. By "Upani.sadic philosophy" we mean only the peculiarly Upani.sadic ideas, values, and modes of thinking. These include: there is a spiritual ultimate reality underlying the phenomenal world, known as Brahman or AAtman; the individual soul is essentially one with this reality; we are in bondage due to the ignorance of our true nature; and, finally, we can, and should, try to win liberation by attaining true insight. The Upani.sads, as the name suggests, are esoteric and mystical in their values and mode of thinking. They subscribe to the doctrine of moral retribution (karman) in the field of ethics. Whether the Paali Canon was in any way in fluenced by the Upani.sads really ought to be determined by evidence concerning its acquaintance with the Upani.sadic tenets mentioned above.

    Another stipulation concerns the anteriority of the Upani.sads and their similarity in certain aspects with early Buddhism. There cannot be much doubt that the oldest and most important Upani.sads -- the B.rhadaara.nyaka, the Chaandogya, and the Aitereya, in particular -- were pre-Buddhistic, though not in their finally redacted form. Similarly, it is quite obvious that both the Upani.sads and early Buddhism believed in the undesirability of worldly exis-



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tence and sought emancipation from it, both shared a faith in moral retribution, and neither had much respect for priestly rites and rituals. These considerations have always strengthened the feeling that early Buddhism was influenced by, or indebted to, the Upani.sads.



The Buddha's (supposed) indebtedness to the Upani.sads is affirmed by some scholars, while other scholars appear keen to establish the "supremacy" of the Upani.sads, using this indebtedness as a supporting argument. Monier Monier Williams believes that "the Buddha, like all Indians, was by nature a metaphysician. He had great sympathy with the philosophy of the Upani.sads." [1] Nevertheless, the Buddha denied the reality of soul because "it is obvious that to believe in the ultimate merging of man's personal spirit in One Impersonal Spirit, is virtually to deny the ultimate existence of any human spirit at all." [2] Albrecht F. Weber is more specific: "This teaching [Buddhism] contains, in itself, absolutely nothing new; on the contrary, it is entirely identical with the corresponding Brahmanical doctrines; only the fashion in which Buddha proclaimed and disseminated it was something novel and unwonted." [3] A. B. Keith has fixed the "lower limit" of the date of the Upani.sads on the basis of his conjecture that "Buddhism accepts from the Upani.sads the doctrines of transmigration and pessimism." [4]

    Coming to the other group, comprising chiefly Indian scholars, we find Ramchandra D. Ranade trying to trace the "sources of Buddhism" in the Upani.sads, asking us to remember "that the end of the Upanishadic period and the beginning of the Buddhistic period are contemporaneous, and that the one gradually and imperceptibly merges into the other." [5] It is his contention that "all the main rudiments of Buddhism are present in embryo the Upanishads." [6] T. M. P. Mahadevan is also of the same opinion: "It is no exaggeration to say that the Upani.sads constitute the basic springs of Indian thought and culture. They have inspired not only the orthodox sys-

1. Buddhism in Its Connexion with Braahmanism and Hinduuism, and Its Contrast with Christianity. 26 ed. (Indian reprint ed., Varanasi: Chowkhamba Sanskrit Series Office, 1964), pp. 104-105.

2. Ibid., p. 106.

3. The History of Indian Literature, trans. John Mann and Theodor Zachariae (London: Kegan Paul, Trench, Trubner and Co., 1904), p. 289.

4. Cambridge History of India, 6 vols., ed. E. J. Rapson (2d Indian reprint ed., Delhi: S. Chand and Co, 1958-64), 1:131.

5. A Constructive Survey of Upanishadic Philosophy: Being an Introduction to the Thought of the Upanisads, 2d ed. (Bombay: Bharatiya Vidya Bhavan, 1968), p. 132.

6. Ibid., p. 133.



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tems of Indian philosophy but also some of the so-called heterodox Schools like those of Buddhism." [7]

    Radhakrishnan is certainly the best representative of this point of view and should be quoted in detail. "Early Buddhism is not an absolutely original doctrine," he declares. "It is no freak in the evolution of Indian thought.... Early Buddhism, we venture to hazard a conjecture, is only a restatement of the thought of the Upani.sads from a new standpoint." [8] He is quite explicit that "for a revelation of the struggle of spirit and the experience of soul, Buddha had ready at hand that supreme work of Indian genius, the Upani.sads." [9] Moreover, "Buddha himself was not aware of any incongruity between his theory and that of the Upani.sads. He felt that he had the support and sympathy of the Upani.sads and their followers." [10] The Upani.sadic influence on the Buddha would logically lead to this conclusion: "Those who tell us that for the Buddha there is religious experience but there is no religious object are violating the texts and needlessly convicting him of selfcontradiction. He implies the reality of what the Upani.sads call Brahman, though he takes the liberty of giving it another name, dharma, to indicate its essentially ethical value for us on the empirical plane." [11]

    In short, it has been uncritically assumed that in ancient India all philosophy and religious ideas flowed from the Upani.sads, and attempts then were made to fit early Buddhism into this picture. Naturally, there was no alternative but to establish somehow that early Buddhism was indebted to the Upani.sads. We now turn to examine evidence from the Paali Canon and elsewhere to see how far this conclusion can be sustained.



The problem can be attacked from many angles. First, there are reasons to think that the early Buddhists, or at least the Buddha, not only were ignorant of the Upani.sadic ideas, but also that they did not have any acquaintance with the Upani.sadic idiom. Hermann von Oldenberg very correctly observes that "of all the texts in which the Brahmanical speculations as to the delivering power of knowledge are contained, perhaps not even one was known

7. History of Philosophy, Eastern and Western, 2 vols., ed. Sarvepalli Radhakrishnan (London: George Alien & Unwin, 1952-53), 1:55.

8. Sarvepalli Radhakrishnan, Indian Philosophy, ed. J. H. Muirhead, 2 vols. (London: George Alien & Unwin, 1923-31), 1:360-361.

9. Ibid., p. 360.

10. Ibid., p. 361.

11. Sarvepalli Radhakrishnan, Gautama the Buddha (1945; reprint ed., Bombay: Hind Kitabs, 1946), p. 49.



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except by hearsay to the founder of the Buddhist community of believers." [12] This is supported by many pertinent considerations.

    Many passages from the Paali Canon feature debates between the Buddha and the inquisitive Brahmans. To cite an example, in the Tevijja-sutta of the Diigha-nikaaya, some young Brahmans are discussing with the Buddha the problem of reaching the god Brahmaa. The Buddha stops after declaring that these Brahmans or even their ancestors were not qualified to speak on this subject, being without any personal knowledge about the Brahmaa-gods. The point to note is the absence of "Brahman" in the neuter in a context where it reasonably should have been expected. Reaching "Brahmaa" (which was, in the Paali Canon, only a class of gods) was never considered to be a problem either by the priests or by the seers of the Upani.sads. What could make the editors of the Canon attach importance to this except ignorance? The Upani.sads always use "Brahman" in the neuter, while the Paali Canon seems to know only of "Brahmaa" in the masculine. "This neuter Brahma is never mentioned by the Buddhists," says Edward T. Thomas, "nor do they ever discuss the Upani.sadic doctrine of attaining to this Brahma or becoming identified with it." [13] He is quite correct in holding that had this doctrine been known to the early Buddhists, it would have been the subject of severest refutation, being, in his opinion, "utterly opposed to Buddhist teaching."

    It should be noted that "brahma-" as a qualifying prefix is certainly not unknown to the Paali Canon. We frequently come across expressions like "brahma-jaala," "brahma-cariya," and "brahma-bhuuta." In all these cases it has been translated as "perfect" or "excellent, " which appears to be warranted by the context. Nevertheless, the champions of the indebtedness theory prefer to break up the conjunction and read metaphysical implications into the prefix. "The Buddha calls himself brahma-bhuuta, he who has become Brahman," says Radhakrishnan. [14] Quite apart from the fact that this rendering is supported neither by the context nor by Paali grammar and usage, the question arises, Is it imaginable that a true follower of the Upani.sads -- and that is what Radhakrishnan believes the Buddha must have been -- would content himself merely with a prefix to denote the highest reality? Do we really deduce metaphysical doctrines from conjunctive usages?

    The nearest that the Paali Canon comes to the Upani.sadic position is per-

12. Buddha: His Life, His Doctrine, His Order, trans. William Hoey (Indian reprint ed., Calcutta: The Book Company, 1927), p. 52.

13. History of Buddhist Thought (London: Kegan Paul, Trench, Trubner Q Co.. 1933). p. 87.

14. Sarvepalli Radhakrishnan, Foreword to 2500 Years of Buddhism; ed. P. V. Bapat (Delhi: Ministry of Information and Broadcasting, The Publication Division, 1956, 1959), p. xi.



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haps in its treatment of one type of "heresy of individuality" (sakkaayadi.t.thi) wherein the self is identified not with one of the five factors of existence (khandhas) but with the whole universe. The belief is described as so loko, so attaa [15]: "the world around me is the Self which I shall hereafter become, eternal and permanent, everlasting and unchangeable, standing fast like heaven and earth." [16] In other words, a person, out of ignorance (avijjaa), can delude himself with the thought that he is essentially one with the whole world. However, this can at best be a naive misrepresentation of the true Upani.sadic position -- in fact, it is indistinguishable from materialism -- and of course it is not quoted with approval. This type of thinking is supposed to be as ill-founded as any other heresy. All we can say on the basis of this passage is that probably the Buddha heard some such idea and felt, without understanding it properly, that it militated against his ideas.

    Second, coupled with this ignorance of the Upani.sadic way of thinking is another significant fact. Brahmans figure in the Paali Canon time and again, but always as priests and never as philosophers or even as propagators of rival creeds. "On the one hand," to quote E. J. Thomas again, "there was the view of the brahmin priests that by due performance of the sacrifices and other duties of life rebirth in heaven might be won, and on the other the secret doctrine of brahmin recluses that freedom from rebirth might be won by attaining a certain knowledge. It is only the first that we find discussed by the Buddhists." [17] The few Brahmans who are shown as being interested in speculative tenets -- for instance, Po.t.thapaada and Jaaliya, both of whom figure in the Diigha -- never talk in the Upani.sadic vein and in fact do not appear to be acquainted with any higher type of thinking. The Paali Canon is certainly not very accurate in reporting rival views, but it never ignores them. We do see Jain and AAjiivika tenets mentioned time and again. Then, why not the views of Brahman recluses?

    A study of the names of religious teachers that figure in the Paali Canon also leads to some interesting results. The Tevijja-sutta, referred to earlier, mentions the names of well-known seers like Vessamitta and Vase.t.tha (Vi'svamitra and Vasi.s.tha). But not once do we come across the names of the seers and sage-philosophers of the Upani.sads. Not that the Paali Canon is averse to mentioning names of other religious teachers, with both approval and disapproval. The Buddha himself is shown referring to Uddaka Raamaputta and AA.laara Kaalaama with great reverence. He repeatedly acknowledges

15. Majjhima-nikaaya, 3 vols., ed. V. Trenckner and Lord Chalmers (London: Pail Text Society. 1888-1902); vol. 1:135-136; cf. A. B. Keith, Buddhist Philosophy in India and Ceylon (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1923), p. 65.

16. Further Dialogues of the Buddha, trans. Lord Chalmers, Sacred Books of the Buddhists (London: H. Milford, 1926-27), I: 97.

17. Op. cit., p.86.



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his debt to them. Six "heretical" teachers -- including the Jain Tiirtha^mkara, the AAjivika leaders, and a materialist -- are mentioned many times, with vehement disapproval. What could prevent the editors of the Paali Canon from mentioning the Upani.sadic sages in one way or another?

    Third, it has been customary to regard the Upani.sads as the orthodox or preponderant philosophy of that day, from which other sects borrowed ideas. This presupposition also seems to have acted as a prop for the indebtedness theory and thus deserves to be examined. Now, have we any evidence, in the Upani.sads themselves or in the Buddhist and Jain scriptures, which lends credence to this view? In fact, a close study of the Paali Canon leads one to believe that Brahmans, that is, the priestly class, were merely one group among many that were active in those days and with whose approach to the religious questions the Buddha did not agree. Their activities and beliefs never seemed to have received any more importance or attention than did those of the other sects. There is every reason to agree with Oldenberg's observation that "the champions of the Veda, the Brahmins, are really not more than one among many parties, and, indeed, to all appearance, by no means an especially powerful one." [18] When the Brahmans, as a class, did not have the important place in the social setup in which the Buddha moved that they acquired in the succeeding centuries, why should it be presumed that their philosophy had a precedence over all other systems? In these circumstances, there is no reason to think that the Buddha was obliged either to agree with and follow the Upani.sadic tradition or to oppose it. The lack of acquaintance with the Upani.sadic ideas and idiom considerably strengthens this feeling.

    In an age quite unaware of copyright laws, the term "borrowing" is not a suitable choice. Every age has its own commonwealth of ideas. These are the ideas which are held by all irrespective of other differences. Such ideas are accepted and inherited in the same manner as linguistic usages are accepted and inherited. Individual freedom is one such idea in Western culture. No one feels obliged to express indebtedness for it to some earlier thinker, simply because it is a common property now. In a similar way, the doctrine of moral retribution was a common property in the day of the Buddha. In any case, it is not held by anyone that the Upani.sadic seers originated it, though it was first mentioned by them. According to the well-known B.rhadaara.nyaka Upani.sad passage, this doctrine was not even known to the B.rahmans. Similarly, as Bimala C. Law has pointed out, the Paali texts dearly indicate that "the doctrine was propounded before the advent of the Buddha by an Indian teacher who was a householder." [19] Thus, both the

18. Op. cit., pp. 170-171.

19. Concepts of Buddhism (Amsterdam: Kern Institute, Leiden, 1937), p. 55 [referring to Majjhima-nikaaya, ed. Trenckner and Chalmers, I: 483].



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Upani.sads and the Paali Canon treat this doctrine as a common property. Where is the question of its being borrowed by one from the other? A closer look will reveal that this doctrine was the outcome of what T. W. Rhys Davids has called "normalism." Since the beginning of philosophizing in India, it has been firmly believed that things happen according to some law (.rta). How could rebirth be possible without such laws? Thus, it is clear that the Buddha's faith in moral retribution in no way makes him indebted to the Upani.sads.

    Fourth, we shall discuss a psychological consideration which is relevant to the present issue, though it has yet to be given due importance. Philosophical differences, as has been well said, are temperamental in the last analysis. Broadly speaking, thinking people are either imaginative or matter-of-fact; the terms "tender-minded" and "tough-minded" have been advisedly used for these types. The tender-minded try to solve all the basic problems speculatively, by positing another plane of existence which is free of the evils faced by us. All idealists and religious teachers accepting a personal godhead come under this class. On the contrary, the tough-minded prefer to deal with the hard facts, to analyze actual experiences. The former hardly take any interest in the mundane world, the ordinary, day-to-day, prosaic life. The latter regard all speculation as a waste of time.

    It would be both difficult and needless to enumerate all the passages from the Upani.sads and the Paali Canon to show that while the former represent the cream of tender-minded thinking in ancient India, the latter were at the other extreme. The Upani.sads seldom care for actual experiences; their aim is to discover a suprasensuous, supraphenomenal reality, entirely free of change and the laws of the world, which could be the basis as well as the goal of all becoming and with which we could identify ourselves in some way and thus win liberation from this existence. Psychological analyses may not be absent in the Upani.sads, but they hardly form any significant part of them. Early Buddhism, on the contrary, uncompromisingly refuses to transcend the empirical; passages featuring the Buddha making fun of those who talk about things not amenable to experience are legion, and his firm opposition to all speculation is well known. The difference of outlook is too clear to escape the notice of any careful observer. Keeping all this in view, any talk of one school influencing the other or being indebted to the other hardly sounds well founded, however emotionally satisfying it may be to some.



Let us now return to the main question. Undoubtedly, the Upani.sads were pre-Buddhistic, and early Buddhism had some similarities with them. But it is equally clear that the Paali Canon hardly gives us any reason to think



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that the early Buddhists were even properly acquainted with the Upani.sads. The Upani.sads were admittedly esoteric and mystical while the Buddha took pride in not having the "closed fist of the teacher." The two were obviously the products of very different types of temperaments. The question is: Can mere anteriority and similarity to some extent, by themselves and unaided by internal evidence, serve as sufficient ground to think in terms of indebtedness! The answer is too obvious.

    If we disabuse our minds of preconceived notions, another possibility emerges in the light of the preceding discussion. The fact that the Paali Canon appears to be ignorant of the philosophy of the Brahmans but not of their ritualistic practices is very suggestive. Probably both the Upani.sads and early Buddhism developed independently of each other as reactions to the same type of situation. Soon after the eclipse of the sacrificial ideas, the need must have been felt for a more philosophical explanation of the value and destiny of human life. The doctrine of moral retribution, the need for liberation from the rounds of rebirths, and such other ideas, were already taking shape, apparently independently of both. They only made use of these ideas in accordance with their different philosophical attitudes, one taking the speculative road and developing a "substance view," while the other dealt with the hard facts on the basis of a "becoming view."