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The Buddha & Yoga

For many people, yoga and Buddhism are virtually synonymous. Those who practice yoga often find themselves drawn towards Buddhist teachings and vice versa. Yoga and Buddhism are sister traditions that evolved in the same spiritual culture of ancient India. Swami Vivekananda, the first prominent figure to bring Yoga to the West, examined the Buddhist Mahayana scriptures (Sutras) and concluded that Buddhist teachings and his own beliefs in traditional Hinduism were in harmony. This blog outlines some of the history of the Life of the Buddha, and how he is perceived from a Hindu and Buddhist perspective. Judge for yourself whether it is correct to consider The Buddha as one of the world's great yogis.

Buddha in the Hindu Tradition

In the Hindu tradition, Gautama Buddha is understood to be the 9th and final incarnation of Lord Vishnu. Buddha is often described as a yogi or yogācārya and as a sannyāsi (renunciate).

His manifestation on earth was predicted in the scriptures:

"In Kali, in order to delude those hostile to the learned, there will be an avatara called Buddha" - Srimad Bhagavatam.

Hindu belief asserts that Vishnu would appear on earth in the form of the Buddha in order to save the world from suffering: “When the world order, the dharma or righteousness, has become disturbed, Vishnu leaves the heaven (vaikuntha), [and comes] into the world as a welfare-bringing God incarnate. He descends as a savior called by the Indians 'avatar', Gautama Buddha” - Bhagavata Purana.

Vishnu’s appearance as Buddha, and his concern with suffering in the world, has a special focus on animal suffering. Bhaktivedanta Swami writes: “God came thus as Buddha into this world, to spread as lord and protector of the animals ahimsa, non-violence.”

"To reestablish the principles of religion, I Myself appear, millennium after millennium.” - Bhagavad Gita

The time of The Buddha, approximately 2500 years ago, was a particularly difficult period in the history of India. People (especially the higher classes) were killing animals under the pretext of performing Vedic fire sacrifices, and it was felt by many believers that this practice was contrary to Hindu principles, so this mass slaughter had to be stopped.

The so-called scholars of Vedic literature were arguing that the scriptures, in fact, required ritualistic animal slaughter. In response, The Buddha argued that this was a gross misrepresentation of the Vedas and made several apparently anti-Vedic statements in order to divert those who supported animal slaughter. “Lord Buddha superficially denied the authority of the Vedas...Lord Buddha’s intention was to stop atheists from committing the sin of killing animals. Atheists cannot understand God; therefore, Lord Buddha appeared and spread the philosophy of nonviolence to keep the atheists from killing animals. Unless one is free from the sin of animal killing, he cannot understand religion or God. Although Lord Buddha was an incarnation of Krishna, he did not speak about God, for the people were unable to understand. He simply wanted to stop animal killing.” - Shrimad Bhagavatam

It's a fascinating insight into the role and authority of scripture in Hinduism. It seems that the Buddha preferred to refute the literal 'truth' of the Vedas, in order to preserve the integrity of the core beliefs and values that underpin these same scriptures. The belief that Brahman, the Ultimate Reality, is present in the atman of all creatures, and so all life is intrinsically worthy of respect, is such a central idea, nothing can diminish its authority. Since the Buddha is seen as an incarnation of Vishnu, his teaching carries greater authority than even the Vedas.

Buddhist Beliefs

Buddhists believe that The Buddha was a man, named Siddhartha Gautama. He was born in Lumbini, in present-day Nepal around 560 BCE (scholarship differs on the date). In 2015, 40 archaeologists discovered a tree shrine that predates all known Buddhist sites by at least 300 years.

Buddha's birthday is called Buddha Purnima as he is believed to have been born on a full moon day, which is considered most auspicious. He was born a prince, seemingly destined for the perfect life, inheriting wealth and power from his father, Suddhodana. However, from the very beginning of his life, there were portents that his future might take a remarkable turn. At his birth, a number of Brahmin scholars visited and predicted his future; either the child would become a great king or a great holy man.

Siddhartha's father had no aspiration for him to become a holy man. His plan was to shield him from any sort of mental pain or worry at all costs. He was not to be allowed to develop sympathy for others by experiencing suffering of any kind. Suddhodana did not want his son turning soft! Rather, he was to experience a life of splendor and ease, in preparation for a regal future. Henceforth, Siddhartha was deliberately kept aloof from the outside world. He spent his childhood in comfort and pleasure.

However, no one can avoid suffering forever. On a rare sojourn from his perfect palace, he saw four sights that rocked his world. Firstly a sick man, secondly an old man, thirdly a dead body. He was shocked by this suffering and was at a loss to know how to respond. The fourth sight unsettled him even more. He saw a holy man who, despite being surrounded by the grim reality of suffering, managed to remain calm and composed in meditation. This made Siddhartha thoughtful and he began to think of a way to remove sorrow and pain from the world and to bring about peace and comfort.

Siddartha came home to the palace unable to articulate fully what he had experienced, but the change that appeared in him was noticeable and worried his father enormously. His ambitions for his son looked as if they might be thwarted. Luckily, he had a plan! Distract him with a beautiful woman!

At the age of sixteen, he made Siddhartha marry Yosodhara. A son was born to them and there was much rejoicing in the palace at the great blessing. Siddhartha loved his wife and son a great deal, nevertheless, his mind remained restless, distressed, and agitated. The realization that he, like anyone else, could be subject to different forms of human suffering (disease, old age, and death) drove Siddhartha into an intense personal crisis. By the time he was 29, he abandoned his home and disappeared to live as a homeless ascetic. With 21st-century eyes, it looks like Siddhartha had a breakdown. We can imagine the soul searching he must have gone through to give up his wife and child and surrender his home and his security, in the certain knowledge that this would leave his zealous but loving father devastated beyond words.

Siddhartha wandered from place to place, learning from various teachers, but he did not find peace. He prayed and fasted until he became so weak he was almost on the brink of death. We can only speculate as to his state of mind at this point in his life.

He had left everything he knew and loved in order to find the answer to suffering, yet all he had discovered was yet more suffering. Was his sacrifice entirely to be in vain?

On a full-moon day, he sat down in meditation under the now famous Bodhi tree in Bodh Gaya, India, with the determination that, “Unless the ultimate happens to me, I will not move. Either I will get up as an enlightened being or I will die in this posture.” Siddhartha's other companions, believing that he had abandoned his search and become undisciplined, left him. His search for truth had all but broken him. He was entirely alone. After a reputed 49 days of meditation, at the age of 35, he is said to have attained full enlightenment and got "Budoh” (insight or conviction) as the full moon was just rising. He sat there for a few hours and from that day onwards he began to be known by the name ‘Buddha’. His search for answers was complete. He was enlightened.

According to a story in the Āyācana Sutta (Samyutta Nikaya VI.1) — a scripture found in the Pāli — immediately after his awakening, the Buddha debated whether or not he should teach the Dharma (righteousness) to others. He was concerned that humans were so overpowered by ignorance, greed, and hatred that they could never recognize the path, which is subtle, deep, and hard to grasp. After much deliberation and convincing, Buddha finally agreed to teach and spread the message about enlightenment with his followers.

The Buddha's teaching and the traditions of his community of followers would become the core of Buddhism. After his death at some point between 410 and 370 BCE, the community he founded slowly evolved into an influential movement. Whether or not Buddhism can properly be described as a religion is a matter for debate. Some say since Buddhists do not worship a God but follow the teachings of a man, who, they venerate but not worship, it's not really a religion. There's no evidence to suggest Buddha did not believe in the gods. However, it is true to say that he believed that the primary question of life is, 'How do we overcome suffering?' and he believed that the gods cannot help you with that. Prayer won't take suffering away from your life, but suffering instead can be overcome through human effort, by us changing the attitudes of our minds towards suffering, through our thoughts, words, and deeds.

In this regard, we can see why yoga and Buddhism are so complementary.

Buddha said that the reason for pain and sorrow in the world was desire and that sorrow could be exterminated only by controlling and overcoming that desire. To attain external bliss one should be true and righteous in thought, deed and word. How to achieve this truth is outlined in the Eight fold path and in the precepts of Buddhism. To return to those animal sacrifices we discussed above, not causing harm to living creatures or 'ahimsa' was the foundation of righteousness, and became a central precept of Buddhist teaching.

Was The Buddha a Yogi?

The Buddha did not practice physical asana, as modern yogis do. The only asana we can associate with The Buddha is sitting in meditation. However, as a 21st-century yogi, the ultimate aim of my physical practice is to quieten the mind from self-doubt, fear, and anguish, and find a still point, where I can overcome physical discomfort initially, but mental and spiritual discomfort also. This echoes the Buddha's aim to control his mind to see the world in a new way and overcome suffering.

The first Yoga Sutra of Patanjali from the Hindu tradition says this:

"Now, I am going to present the disciplined code of ethical conduct which is yoga."

The second says this:

"Yoga is the process of stilling the movements and fluctuations of the mind that disturb our consciousness.”

Everything we practice in yoga is preoccupied with achieving these difficult objectives. The life and teachings of The Buddha concur with these objectives.

What we know of The Buddha has been merged with many legendary accounts and myths. Modern scholarship disagrees on a number of key facts regarding Gautama's life. We know Gautama did not write anything, our evidence stems from oral tradition and writings that scholars date around 400 years after his death.

Some from the Hindu tradition say that Buddha is an incarnation of the deity Vishnu. From a Buddhist perspective, the Buddha was a man: Siddhartha Gautama. They are depicted in different ways and perhaps are even two different people. There is so much we do not know about The Buddha, but what we do know is that he was a remarkable individual, who, as Sadhguru says, "In his own silent way, changed the world forever."


"The Fusion of Cultures: Alexander's Influence on Buddhist Imagery"

The way Buddha is shown in art, especially in the Gandhara region's Greco-Buddhist art (Gandhara is an ancient region located in what is today the northern part of Pakistan and eastern Afghanistan), is really interesting. Some people think that these images of Buddha might have been influenced by how Alexander "the Great" looked. This idea comes from the time after Alexander the Great conquered many places, including parts of today's Pakistan and Afghanistan. His conquests didn't just change the map; they also mixed different cultures and art styles together.

In the area of Gandhara, where this mix of Greek and Buddhist art was most visible, the statues and pictures of Buddha started to look slightly different. Before this, Buddha wasn't usually shown as a person in art. Instead, artists would use symbols like a tree or footprints to represent him. But after Alexander's time, the art started to show Buddha as a human being, in the physical form of what Alexander looked like.

For example, in these Gandhara artworks, Buddha's hair might look curly or wavy, kind of like the styles in Greek art. The Buddha statues also had a peaceful and calm face and wore robes that flowed nicely around the body, similar to how Greek statues were made. This change wasn't just about how Buddha was shown; it was about bringing together Greek and Buddhist ways of making art.

Some experts think that seeing a lot of Greek art and ideas in the area, maybe even pictures of Alexander the Great himself, could have inspired local artists when they were making these new Buddha images. It's like when you meet someone from a different place and share your ideas and styles - something new and interesting comes out of it.

It's important to remember that not everyone agrees that the Buddha's images were directly inspired by Alexander "the Great". But what's clear is that Alexander's conquests brought Greek art to new places, and this art definitely influenced how Buddha was shown in the Gandhara region.

Zahir Akram - eternal seeker

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