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For thousands of years, societies have aspired to find a balance between right and wrong, giving rise to ethical issues, dilemmas, and moral principles. Ethical differences have withstood the test of time since the birth of Jewish ethics to modern 20th century moral philosophy (De Nicolás). There are two principal questions lying in the center of these differences: the supreme objective of life and gauging what is good and bad, right and wrong. Bhagavad Gita and Theravada are two schools of ethical views which sharply differ in some of their published sentiments. The former, simply identified as the Gita, refers to an authoritative Hindu scripture believed to have surfaced in the third or fourth millennium (Sivananda). The later draws its spiritual relevance from Pali canon. In this school of thought, which rules Southeast Asia, it is believed that everyone should shun deviant behaviour to have a society that is equal (King). This paper critiques the Bhagavad Gita from a Buddhist perspective and the Theravada from a Hindu perspective and further explains why the Theravada is more rational and more stable in comparison to the Bhagavad Gita.
Criticism of Bhagavad Gita from a Buddhist Perspective
The Gita proponents have always argued that through 20 centuries of its existence, it has been the guiding torch of society. It contains noble thoughts and has successfully preserved societal norms. Thus, it would be completely unfounded to assert that everything contained in this school of thought is immoral. For instance, in chapter six Arijuna inquires about a man who has faith but fails to conquer perfection because his mind is not submissive (Fasching, DeChant and Lantigua). According to Krishna, both in this world and the afterlife the person won’t face destruction. This scripture offers a great sense of hope for every struggling human being (45). Elsewhere in chapter nine Krishna affirms that if the most sinful person bows to His way of life with a devoted heart they will be forgiven. This scripture explains that the true source of righteousness only lies in Krishna’s teachings (56). Many other excerpts from the scriptures are filled with messages of hope, however, Buddhist critiques focus on the general philosophies and not individual excerpts.
The basic critique of the Gita from a Buddhist point of view as stated in the earliest philosophical works is its dualistic concept. This concept separates matter from the spirit making them two opposing entities (Sivananda). The Gita regards life as painful and asserts that man’s happiness dwells in the afterlife after cutting ties with the world (29). Full renunciation, which is defined as leaving the world together with all its evil, marks the highest ideal and thus people don’t strive to achieve much in life. Life is not an end in itself but a mere mean towards the afterlife. Buddhists argue this sentiment is wrong as it detaches the meaning of life making this ethical views irrational (De Nicolás).
In the Gita, eating, sleeping, and earning are the only sole responsibilities attached to human life. Any other activity that goes beyond this scope is regarded as luxurious and, consequently, treated as a sinful act. Everything should be conducted neither with desire nor attachment, or so teaches the Gita. Sadly, this has transformed marriages into the new business of society. Just like buying and selling rice, marriages in societies that embrace this document are materialistic. Passion, which should be the basis of a husband and wife exchanging vows in matrimony, is a sin in itself (De Nicolás). According to Buddhist beliefs, this phenomenon of discerning right from wrong is hypocritical. The Buddhists insist on leaving a self-fulfilling life according to their five principles that shape the society.
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In contrast, Buddhists disapprove of the non-attachment ethical view of the Gita which, in part, recommends that no one should be attached to any ‘matter’ and thus no love should be shown to one’s home, wife, and sons. This teaching has been followed to the letter in Indian societies practicing this ethical view (Sivananda). Wives are treated as objects and means to bear children. They don’t own any property and live in harsh conditions. As for homes, they are characterized by rules to shun from loving material things, one’s wife, and children. Buddhists distaste the Gita because the principles mentioned above are the building blocks of any home unit, and stripping all this freedom from the masses means creating a home that is a mere place where one rests, eats, and sleeps. Stripping the family of its social mandate leads to increased chances of deviant behavior (66).
Social Groups and Their Moral Obligations
Buddhism proponents argue that this teaching favours the high and mighty in society. Different social groups have different moral obligations and are free to look down upon the poor. Although general moral codes are followed, each individual has a duty in respect to his or her own nature. This system is principally known as sva-dharma. Social classes called Varnas divide the society into Shudras, Vaishyas, Kshatriyas, and Brahmins. The Shudras (artists and labourers) are the crudest people in society characterized by eating, sleeping, and making merry. This class is destined to serve the high in society and follow general moral principles imposed on them. The Vaishyas represent the business class the main goal of which is to trade ethically, create prosperity, and pay taxes. The Kshatriyas are those responsible for protecting the society and deal with crime. Lastly, the Brahmins provide spiritual nourishment and determine societal values and visions. This system has given life to moral dilemmas. A person born as a Brahmin retains this status even when they engage in wicked activities. Similarly, a shudra engaging in protecting the society will forever be condemned to belong to his original low class no matter his achievements. The Varnas, therefore, advance societal stratification by splitting warriors, the poor, business owners, and religious leaders into different social stratas. Additionally, this structure raises moral dilemmas. For instance, those trusted to give moral directions have the luxury to engage in wicked acts and still retain their respectable Brahmin place in society (Fasching, DeChant and Lantigua).
Lastly, Buddhists argue that this ethical view advances the senseless theory which is the cornerstone in upholding non-attachment and actions out of duty. The mind is viewed as a quality of matter, while the self is distinct from the body. This theory condemns the self to nothing. Without the mind, nothing remains of the self and it can never make its existence felt. Buddhism proponents denounce Gita by proclaiming it condemns people, women in particular, to act as slaves and, thus, their ability to express good will is not independent (Sivananda).
Criticism of Theravada Buddhism from the Hinduism Perspective
The Theravada Buddhism views differ in several aspects from the Gita. Theravada text is an ethical view that stems from an earlier Buddhist teaching the Pali Canon. The theory of causality and epistemology marks the foundation of Buddhism (Griffiths).
The Buddhism opponents advocate against act consequentialism. Wherein, the elite and all those who hold high social status have the mandate to not only recommend, but also pass rules to be followed by the less mature, who are considered to be children. Since children cannot perform most tasks while making the correct judgment, special instructors, monks and nuns, have to direct them. Thus, a lot of teachings depend on acts of these ‘role models’ who can mislead the society. Opponents of this ethical view affirm that children get to choose sets of behavior according to their own abilities and inclinations (Tater and Agarwal). Thus, the consequence of individual actions towards the welfare of all beings cannot be clearly ascertained, since norms that guide Buddhists could be interpreted differently from one agent to another.
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Secondly, although this view emphasizes equality, Bhagavad opponents argue, only those rules that are less demanding can be picked by rule-consequential agents leading to a monastic community. Notably, these agents are human and might incline themselves towards some ethical lessons as well as shun others. Since no rules or punishments are attached to picking less demanding rules, these agents can settle on anything they find easier. According to King, in a society governed by this school of thought the most advanced agents and individuals alike might act spontaneously toeing the line of the laid down social rules without necessarily following them in their lives (24).
Buddhism opponents also counter this ethical view arguing that Buddhists highly recognize disciples who have faith in the Buddha. These individuals are said to have passed all moral evaluations and attained Nibbana. To reach that end, people show all manner of good ethical behaviour while in public. In other words, this system of ethics leads people to simply show off a good side they don’t actually possess in a bid to woo the public into considering them ‘praiseworthy people’. This situation can culminate into a disaster especially if a person migrates to a new geographical location where they can’t falsify their deeds (Griffiths).
In conclusion, neither of these two ethical views is perfect. However, on weighing both options the Theravada ethical views are, without doubt, more plausible. Unlike the Gita, Theravada text answers the two philosophical questions on ethics: the meaning of life and discerning good from bad in a human centric manner (Sivananda). It identifies moral equality in society and only places the nuns and monks in a different social stratum. Compared to the Gita, this ethical view recognizes social attachment and doesn’t condemn people to a downtrodden way of life. The proponents of Buddhism encourage love, passion, brotherhood, and family. As a result, societies embracing this ethical view enjoy a profound societal relationship (Tater and Agarwal). This happens due to the fact that the society’s building block, the family, is built on love, dependency, and positive synergy. Lastly, compared to the Gita, it doesn’t discern the mind from one’s body, but rather advocates for learning the social system, and living to perfect these skills (King). To that end, it eradicates non-attachment, gives life a meaning, and focuses on life’s will as an end in itself.
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