Periyar participated in a function to celebrate the 2501 st birth anniversary of the Buddha at Maha Bodhi Sangham at Egmore, Chennai, on 15th May 1957 and made the following observations –
Why do we celebrate Buddha’s birthday? Buddha jayanthi does not mean worshipping a picture or an idol of Buddha with camphor, coconut and eatables. It means that we have decided to learn something from Buddha’s life and teachings and follow them in our own lives. I am taken for an atheist. If nastika means a person who denounces the Vedas, Sastras (Doctrines) and Puranas (Mythologies), I am undoubtedly one. I believe it is right and proper for a person of that description to speak on Buddha. A man who believes in the Vedas, Sastras and Puranas must indeed be very clever to speak on an occasion like this. He must be one who is well – trained in deceiving the people and one who is hypocrite himself. It is not uncommon for such a man to speak of Buddha as some ancient sage or mahatma (Supreme Soul) akin to those he reveres.
Neither rishi or mahatma
Buddha was neither a saint nor a mahatma (Supreme Soul). He was one who actually opposed the Hindu saints (rishis) of old times and that is why we are here to celebrate his day. Just as Buddha is no rishi or mahatma, so is Buddhism not a religion in the accepted sense of the word. Many people wrongly regard Buddhism as a religion. A religion must have a god in its center. It must have also things like heaven (moksha) and hell (naraka) and soul and the lord (paramatma), sin (papa) and virtuous deed (punya). To be a great religion, one god is not enough; there must be many of them. These gods must have wives, concubines and all conceivable human relationships. Indians are familiar only with such a religion.
Rational thinking the greatest attribute
To start with, Buddha declared that it is not at all necessary for man to concern himself with god. He wanted people to be bothered with man alone. He did not speak about moksha (heaven) and (hell) naraka. He laid stress on man’s character and right conduct. Wisdom with rational thinking, he said, was the greatest attribute of man. A thing is not to be believed in just because a rishi (sage) said it or a mahatma wrote it. It is absolutely necessary for every intelligent human being to examine a proposition with his own intellect and arrive at the truth himself.
Buddhism is therefore not a religion and we have pleasure in participating in Buddha’s birthday only for that reason. Buddha’s rationalism called forth a severe reactionary opposition. He lived some 2,500 years ago when barbaric religious practices were the order of the day in India. He stood up boldly against the religion of the day; and the great opposition to his teaching is proof of Buddha’s greatness and the power of his word. The people who wrote and spoke after him to destroy his rationalist platform, tell the tale of the stupendous efforts undertaken to revive the shaken barbaric Hindu religion.
Reference in Ramayana about Buddha
The Ramayana has spoken ill of Buddhism. The Ramayana was rewritten to take its later huge proportions to counter Buddha’s teachings. The Ramayana which existed prior the Buddha was only a small story. The Vaishnavite Nalayira Prabandham, the Saivite Thevaram etc. have taken pains to ridicule and belittle Buddha. The Buddhists and the Jains have been decried as atheists, robbers, murderers, and enemies of vedic sacrifices. The Siva Bhaktas (devotees of Sivan) have prayed to Siva to give them the power to molest the wives of Buddhists.
The meaning of Nastika
Buddha is ordinarily taken to refer to a person. Buddha means buddhi or intelligence. Anyone who uses his intelligence is a Buddha. All people are endowed with intelligence but only those who use it intelligently can be Buddhas. The word Siddha conveys a similar meaning. Siddha is one who controls his sense. God Vishnu is the center for Vaisnavism; but for Buddhism buddhi or intellect is the center. To-day the word ‘nastika’ (atheism) is made to one, who denies the existence of god. But the fact is that one, who denies the existence of god and uses his intellect and logically argues about things is taken for a ‘nastika’ (atheist). People who denounce Brahmanism are also treated as nastikas (atheists).
Twisted to all terrible meaning
Sometime ago a Buddhist conference was conducted at Erode. The Head of the World Buddhist Society, Mr. Mallala Sekhara, very nicely said in his opening address that we were all gathered there as so many Buddhas. The Encyclopedia Britannica has described Buddhism as one which calls for the use of Buddhi or intellect and which denounces blind belief.
To-day intellect is hardly given any place of importance. Schools and colleges do not ask people to use their intelligence and question tradition, reaction, and superstition. If a few do use their intellect, they are immediately branded as ‘nastikas’ (atheists), an appellation that has really no meaning. The rationalist has often to take great trouble to deny that he is a nastika (atheist), for the term has been twisted to mean all terrible things.
Even the Buddha did not ask people to blindly believe what he preached. He called upon them to weigh his words, shift them according to their intelligence and accept that part of them which appeared to them to be reasonable.
Looked at heavens with naked eyes
Gouthama Buddha preached his principles to people 2,500 years ago to suit their illiteracy then. The wisdom of the people had its limits. What was said then cannot all be cent per cent true to-day or cent per cent applicable to-day. To take the Buddha word for word to-day, is, to my mind, another form of ‘asthikam’ (atheism). People looked at the heavens then with naked eyes and could know only broad features. To-day we see through powerful telescopes and examine the black spots on the sun. To believe only in what the ancients knew is to limit human creative intelligence and purposeful progress.
Aryanism made the country barbaric
It would be true to Buddism to assert that knowledge improves with advancing times and that we must adjust our ideas in relation to the progress made. Sticking to old ideas as the final word, is to betray intellectual backwardness and stop all advancement in rationalism.
Buddha arose at a time when Aryanism had made the country a primitive barbaric irrational land. The men who wrote the Sastras and Puranas were intelligent in their own way, to suit their imperialist colonialist tendencies. The good of the masses was never their concern. The Sastras and Puranas prove the point beyond doubt.
Puranas dated after Buddha
When stating that the history written by the Britishers must be disbelieved, the Bharatiya Vidya Bhavan in the North India keeps on writing about the silly Mythologies and the undemocratic Sastras. Mr. Munshi was at the head of it. Dr. Radhakrishnan and millionaire Birla are important members in it. They have produced a book on the “Vedic Age” and Mr. Munshi has a great part in it. Even there it has been said in the foreword: “The ancient days were barbaric. The Puranas and the Itihasas are not history and they do not record the happenings of the period. It is all imagination. The word ‘Vyasa’ means story writer”. The Puranas entered the people’s heads and started to rule them; and that was the cause of our difficulties.
More than 75 per cent of the Puranas are stated to date after the Buddha. To counter the rationalist teaching of the Buddha, the Puranic rishis (sages) wrote the stories about the avatars (incarnations), the chief of which is that of Krishna, to divert the people and attract them to Brahmanism. Miracles of Hindu deities have always excited the special attention of the people and Krishna’s epic is full of sex and obscenity. Having done this much, divinity was also added to it and the Bhagavad Gita was written and added on to the Mahabharata at a much later period.
Buddha for our Revolutionary purpose
On the 23rd January 1954, we conducted a Buddhist Conference at Erode. Why did we do it? Was it to make ourselves Buddhists? Did we call upon the people to desert the Hindu religion and go over to Buddhism? No. For what then was the conference called in the name of the Buddha? It was because we find in the teachings of Gowdhama Buddha full support for all that we want and for all that we want to destroy as degrading to the Hindus. Buddha’s philosophy, his tenets, and his sermons stand by our Self-Respect and Rationalist movements. The gods, creeds, Sastras, Puranas and Ithihasas that enslave our people are the things we want to discard and Buddha’s teachings and principles are of tremendous value to us for our revolutionary purposes.
An authority for our ideals
Some of the things we propagate to-day were taught by Gowdhama Buddha 2,500 years ago. The Buddhism serves as an authority for our ideals. When the Self-Respect ideals are propagated by a mere Ramasami, (Periyar) there are some, who feel that he is not big or important. They think that I could not be bigger than the Gita. For such people at least the authority of the Buddhism is a great encouragement. It will not then be so easy for the traditionalists to brush aside our ideals. They require to be told that rationalism is as old as the Buddhism, and that nothing very much new is being said now.
Accepted and worshipped by Hindus
For historical reasons, Buddha has been accepted by the Hindus. He is even being worshipped. Yet history tells us that the Buddhists were subjected to persecution and torture, their monasteries were burnt down, and their religion very nearly suppressed in India by the Hindu fanatics. Some Buddhists were set adrift on the high seas and left to die. In spite of all that, it has never been possible for the Hindus to erase the memory of the Buddha from the Hindu mind.
Brahmins made him Avatar of Vishnu
Finally the Brahmins were obliged to accept Buddha as the tenth avatar of Mahavishnu, thus making Buddhism a sub division of the all – embracing Hinduism, akin to saivism and vaishnavam. They may or may not have done the right thing in those old days, but the fact remains that Buddhism did not completely disappear from the Indian soil. The government of free India has also found it impossible to forget Buddha. His teachings have been accorded official recognition to the exclusion of those of Saivism and Vaishnavism – the right and the left hands of Brahminic Hinduism.
Dharma Chakra in National Flag
The Buddhist symbol of the Dharma Chakra has found an honoured place in our National Flag. The Asoka pillar at Sarnath consisting of the four lions has been adopted as our national architectural symbol and this has become the emblem which adorns the shoulders of all our military officers, the bonnets of all our ministers, state cars and the post cards of every day use in the remotest villages. Since independence, Buddha’s birth day has been declared a public holiday.
Can our movement belittled
What do all these mean? It means that the government of free India has accepted Buddha and his teachings. It has not been possible for the government to adopt any Hindu symbol, Saivite or Vaishnavite as the national symbol. This means that Hindu symbols are unfit for All – India national purposes. I regard this as a revolutionary turn in our people’s history. If therefore we point out that the Self-Respect Propaganda that we make, was the subject of the Buddha’s teaching 2,500 years ago, it must be possible for the people to realize that we are doing no more than what the government itself has already accepted. It is therefore impossible for the Brahmins, Congressmen, Pandarasannadhis, Sankaracharyas and Matathipathis to belittle our /Reformation movement.
Kural twisted to suit Brahminic teachings
One of the subtle tricks of Brahmins was to accept rationalist teachers as their own and then twist and turn their teachings to suit the undemocratic, authoritarian Brahminic teachings. First they did it with Buddha. Next they did it with Thiruvalluvar. Before the Self-Respect Movement adopted his Kural as its scripture, the Brahmins and their Sudra slaves had also spoken highly of the Kural only to twist its real meaning. Brahmin commentator Parimelazhagar has imported into his commentary most of the Aryan tenets, and almost succeeded in hiding the genuine truths of Thiruvalluvar thoughts. It was only after we took up his Kural and expounded its real truths that it started to shine once again in all its ancient glory and splendour. To-day the whole land is filled with Kural associations and groups. More and more of the Kural is prescribed for study in schools with less and less of the caste and superstition-ridden texts of Aryan translation in Tamil like the Ramayana and the Mahabharatha.
We are now doing a similar thing to Buddhism. The truth about this religion is being propagated, to the dismay of the orthodox, tradition – bound Hindus. Their jealousy anger does not however, bother us.
No wisdom in Saints’ teachings
Buddha gave the first place to rationalism. He refused to find wisdom in the writing of the ancient saints or divine scholars. He wanted the people to search for the truth themselves. Refusing comment on the existence or otherwise of a thing called god, he proceeded to dethrone atma or soul, since atma had been used as the spark of the paramatma or god, thereby bringing in the idea of god in a different way. A spark of god cannot be the instrument to gather sin and virtue, evil and righteous deed, since god has been described to be perfect and all –wise. It was this incorrect inter-relation between the atma and the paramatma (Soul and Supreme god) that came in for severe criticism at the hands of Buddha.
Idolatry in all forms, the worship of personal gods, ritualism and superstition were all condemned by Buddha. Almost everything held divine and sacred by the Aryans received hammer blows in Buddhism.
Gods with murderous weapons
Archaeologists have proved that many Hindu temples of to-day were formerly Buddhist Vihars. It has been asserted that even Srirangam, Kancheepuram, Palani and Thirupathi temples were originally temples of Buddha. Temples that once harboured the beauteous Buddha a full of grace, love and compassion, were made to harbour warlike gods bearing in their hands murderous weapons. There is hardly a Hindu god who does not sport a deadly weapon to prove that these gods have some killing to their credit. Saivites and Vaishnavites are loud in their talk about god being love. This is all hypocrisy. This tall talk is belied by the very murderous appearance of the gods. Where is the connection between love and violence? The strangest thing is that in spite of the worship of the warlike gods, Hindus are by and large the most cowards when compared to all other nations.
Excerpts from Collected Works of Periyar E.V.R., by Dr. K. Veeramani