Prince Gautama, who came to be known as the Buddha, was born in Kapilavastu, about 2500 years ago. His life of sacrifice and renunciation profoundly influenced the mind of every one. Kapilavastu is situated about 300 miles away from the kingdom of ancient Videha, which was ruled by a succession of kings beginning from Janaka, who were noted for their Brahmanishtha. The modern Darbhanga derives its name from the word Dhanurbhanga and is identified as the place where Sri Rama broke Siva’s bow and obtained the hand of Sri Sita in marriage. (The literal meaning of Dhanurbhanga is breaking the bow).
The life story of the Buddha evokes in us peace, compassion and bliss. The innumerable images of the Buddha found in all parts of the country produce in us the triple effects of saanti (peace), karuna (compassion), and aananda (bliss). Somehow an impression has been gained that Buddhism stood for atheism. We were also told by some historians that this religion was driven out of India. But the numerous Buddhist works in Sanskrit and Pali, and the Asokan edicts have revealed to us the nobility of the Awakened One (the Buddha) and have filled us with pride that this great soul was born in India. Edwin Arnold has sung the glory of the Buddha in his composition, Light of Asia. At one time, this religion had spread in Tamil Nadu also, and, as a result, we find Buddhist doctrines incorporated in several Tamil works of those days. When our hearts are filled with great respect for this religion, we may wonder why such a good religion is said to have been “driven out” of our country.
When we view events in retrospect, we find that so far as Tamil Nadu is concerned, Jainism was much more popular than Buddhism. Tamil literature abounds in works dealing with Jainism and in works by Jain authors. Jainism has also a good hold on people in Gujarat and in certain other parts of North India. Both Buddhism and Jainism proclaimed Ahimsa as their cardinal principle – Ahimsa paramo dharmah, अहिम्सा परमो धर्म: Buddhists were not so uncompromisingly committed to ahimsa as Jains, and had no scruples in eating the flesh of animals killed by others. The good support Jainism had in this country is evidenced by the numerous statues and images pertaining to that religion in several places.
Saankhya is another great and ancient religion of this land. This religion has produced more ascetics and jnanis than either Buddhism or Jainism. Yet, we find neither images in honor of those ascetics and jnanis, nor an abundant literature in the form of songs and stories. However, we find more reference to Saankhya than to either Buddhism or Jainism in philosophical works.
Saiva and Vaishnava Siddhaantaas are two other forms of the Vedic religion which are current among us in the South. Vaishnava Siddhanta expressed itself through the teachings of Sri Madhwa and Sri Ramanuja. The Vaishnavism of Sri Ramanuja and the Saivism of the Saiva Siddhaanta School, have each a large following in Tamil Nadu. In every Vaishnavite temple, we see installed the images of Sri Ramanuja, Nammalwar, Manavala Mamunigal, Vedanta Desikar, and other Alwars. Similarly, in Saivite temples, we have the images of Appar, Sundarar, Manickavasagar, and other saints. The more important Siva temples have the images of all the sixty-three Nayanmars.
Temple inscriptions refer to gifts of landed property for conducting recitations of Vaishnava Prabandhaas and Saiva Tirumurais. Coming to Advaita, we do not find for Sri Adi Sankara even a thousandth of the number of images that exist for Vaishnavite and Saivite saints. There are no images at all for Sri Sureswaracharya and Sri Appayya Dikshitar, two great exponents of Advaita after Sri Sankara Bhagavatpada. A high officer of the Archaeological Department once told me that if history is reconstructed only with the aid of inscriptions, images and other archaeological materials, there may not be any reference either to Sri Sankara or to Advaita.
It is to be noted that the founder of each religion criticized the religion that was in vogue in his time and which he sought to replace by his own religion. Buddhism criticized the Vedic religion; Jainism criticized Buddhism, and so on. Each of these religions, including Vaishnavism of Sri Ramanuja and Saivam of Saiva Siddhaanta, has a distinct feature of its own. There are also points of differences between one religion and another. Even in a matter like idol worship, on which both Vaishnavism and Saivism agree, the former insists on Moorti Upaasana, or worship of the form in which God is conceived, while the latter is satisfied with the worship of a symbol, like the Linga. Christianity and Islam inveigh against idol worship, as also the Arya Samajists. While Hinduism is based on the Vedas, both Buddhism and Jainism revolted against the Vedas. Each of these religious teachers, in his time, gathered around him a huge following.
When we survey the position of religions at the present time, we find that nearly half the world’s population professes Christianity and almost an equal number professes Buddhism. The population not covered by these two religions follow the other religions. Several religions have risen and fallen in this world and some of them have practically disappeared. How did they rise and why did they fall, is an interesting question. Each religion, as it arose, claimed the monopoly of Truth and proclaimed that it alone was the last world in true religion. Truth is only one; there cannot be two Truths. Yet, each religious leader was able to attract to himself a very large following. Is truth to be judged by the number of people claiming allegiance to a particular religious system? If so, how did it come about that a number of religions claiming monopoly for Truth, and which in their time commanded a very large following, ceased to be popular?
This gives rise to a number of other questions. Is a religion popular because it is true, or it is true because it is popular? Did people embrace a religion because it is true, or did a religion disappear because it was not true? When we ponder over these questions, it becomes apparent that the endurance of a movement, or the validity of the views on which that movement is based cannot be judged by the number of its adherents. In our own life time we have seen how Gandhism appealed to thousands of people who were prepared to fast, court imprisonments, or die at his direction. There were also people who rejected Gandhiji’s religious philosophy and were indifferent when he undertook his fasts. We are also seeing that the votaries of Gandhism are now gradually dwindling n number.
A consideration of all these factors leads one to the inevitable conclusion that a religion does not flourish merely on account of the truth it proclaims. The key to the growth of a religion lies in the cause for its subsequent decay. In a farce (prahasana) known as Mattavilaasa, written by King Mahendra Varma, who is responsible for the rock-cut temples at Mahabalipuram and other places, there is a reference to the licentious habits of the Buddhist bhikkus of his day, and to their swerving from the high code of personal conduct laid down for them. The Buddha himself, when admitting women to his order of bhikkhus, foresaw the inherent danger of having both men and women in the order. The decline of Buddhism was, therefore, due to the failure of its adherents, particularly those who have to set an example for others, to rigorously adhere to the precepts of that religion. Conversely, a religion will continue to flourish, if it can continuously claim among its adherents, particularly those who, by their personal example, are charged with the propagation and preservation of that religion, men of high spiritual attainments, with a large heart and without any blemish in their character.
While the initial impetus to any religion is given by its high-souled founder, its subsequent strength and popularity depend on the fervour, devotion, discipline and purity of succeeding religious heads, and the fidelity and character of its followers. Common people are drawn to a religion by the personality of the teacher, rather than by a firm conviction of the truth it teaches. The truth or otherwise of a religion is a matter of academic discussion, confined to the intelligent few. The reason why some religions, though they had a long history, gradually and inevitably lost their hold on the people, and eventually disappeared, can be traced to the decline in the standards of the teachers. In his own life time, Gandhiji had to close down the Sabarmati Aasram, when he found that its inmates deviated from the strict rectitude he had imposed on them.
Therefore, if a religion is to be popular and powerful, its followers should observe its tenets faithfully and well. It is not in numbers or in demonstrations that the vitality of a religion lies. For that matter, Saankhya and Advaita are the least demonstrative of all religions. That in spite of the numerous and trying vicissitudes, the Vedic religion, the date of whose origin is undetermined, survives today, and has such a large following, is due to the fact that in it were born, from time to time, great souls, unselfish, pure and godly, who had deep devotion and earnest fervor, and who unswervingly adhered to the ordinances of its practices. And so, if we desire, as we must, that our religion should continue to influence humanity for all times, we, its followers, must be good and pious, pure in character, and continuously affirm its tenets in our thought and action.
January 2, 1958