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Ati Prashna

Updated on April 2, 2016

Ati Prashna




The Sanskrit word ati means in excess of the optimum and prashna is question. In what follows we propose to use a few narratives from ancient Indian quasi- philosophical texts known as the Upanisads to ask the question, 'Did Gautam Buddha read the Upanisads?' It will not be possible to provide an answer by mere speculation but it is hoped that interested readers will read relevant literature and provide the answer one day.

The Upanisads

The Upanisads are the final part of the Vedas which comprise four parts. The common view of western readers of the Vedas is that Upanisad translates as 'sitting near you'. They allude to the fact that in ancient times students used sit cross-legged in front of a risi, forest dwelling educators, and listen to this guru. There are 12 principal Upanisads some of which are written in prose but others are expressed in the form of terse aphorism. Although not classified as such the principal Upanisads often more than adumbrate philosophical axioms.

Gautam Buddha's name does not appear anywhere in the huge corpus of the Vedas. Krisna is mentioned twice in the first part called the sanhitas. It is fair to conclude that Siddharta Gautam made his appearance on this earth later and it is not unlikely that he read some literature with the object of being enlightened for which he strove single mindedly. We propose to quote two examples one each from Buddhist writings and the Upanisads to demonstrate that Gautam Buddha was familiar with the latter texts.

Example 1.

In Buddhism, it is clearly stated that Bouddha dharma equals the knowledge of how things really are. That is the dharma insists on knowing the objective truth. Truth brings with it enlightenment an absence of which submerges a jiv, sentient being, in dukkha. Dukkha is a precursor of sansar, that cycle of life, death and rebirth. The precursor of dukkha is trisna (greed; craving) which leads to upadan or moha (attachment). Nirvan happens if trisna is extinguished and the jiv respects the precepts of sila (morality).

Buddhist moral goals are:

(a) Alova – non-greed, non-grasping, non-misappropriating.

(b) Adosa- not being involved in actions which harm other beings mentally or physically.

(c) Amoha – refraining from addictive attachment.

Therefore one should aim for the following:

(a) Metta – loving kindness.

(b) Karuna – compassion.

(c) Mudita – pleased to see happiness of others.

(d) Upekkha – equanimity.

Readers may notice similarity between the above and the gist of a discourse from Brihadaranyaka Upanisad, probably the first one written around 1000 – 800 B.C.E.:

Kahola Kaushitakya asked a very senior risi Yajnavalkya , “Tell me about that brahman which is within me.”

Kahola was asking about atma because in the Upanisadic thinking atma= brahman.

Atma is infinitesimally small dwelling in all jivs, whereas brahma(n) is unfathomably large which is the adhar, the receptacle, of the whole universe of ours. The idea is that a molecule of water is water irrespective of the quantity of the liquid one is considering. Constitutionally speaking, a drop of water taken from it equals the whole bulk of the water in the ocean.

Gautam Buddha of course never accepted the concept of atma. He rejected the idea of the Absolute. The vishwa, universe does not need to be manipulated by an absolute power. It is self-sufficent. Gautam Buddha emphasised the importance of the laws of karma which was of course a prevalent thought in India even before his time.

Returning to the Upanisadic discourse above, Yajnavalkya replied,”This brahma(n) within you overcomes hunger and thirst, dukkha, moha, old age and death. When a person acquires this knowledge (vidya) he or she rises above desire and hence greed. Such beings do not covet wealth, position or power in society. They do not cheat nor do they harm anybody. A person of such a disposition treats everyone with equanimity. He is propelled to wander about as if he was a muni, a homeless mendicant, who has detached himself from materialistic society; indeed from the phenomenal world itself. He has transcended dukkha and hence sansar.

Example 2.

Gautam Buddha said once to his cousin, “The great earth Ananda is established on water; the water on air; and the air rests on space.”

In one of the principal Upanisads, a dialogue between Gargi Vachaknavi (G), a female risi, and guru Yajnavalkya (Y) goes as follows:

G. In what is water held?

Y. In air.

G. In what is air held?

Y. In the atmosphere.

G. The atmosphere?

Y. In the region where dwell the non-earthly musicians.

G. Those musicians?

Y. In the vicinity of Aditya, the sun.

G. The sun?

Y. Not far away from chandra, the moon.

G. What does the moon rest on?

Y. The constellations.

G. What supports the constellations?

Y. The world of devatas, the beings with superhuman powers.

G. The world of devatas?

Y. The world of Indra, the chief devata.

G. What is the receptacle for the world of Indra?

Y. The region of Prajapati, the protector of all beings.

G. The region of Prajapati?

Y. Brahman.

G. What supports brahman?

An exasperated Yajnavalkya replied “That is ati-prashna. Do not ask any more or your head will fall off.”

At this Gargi Vachaknavi held her tongue.



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