Bhagavad Gita and Buddhism

As a well spent day brings happy sleep, so life well used brings happy death.”― Leonardo da Vinci

Introducing Buddha is part of a much beloved series by Icon Books, which attempts to presentcomplicated philosophical and art school topics in an easily understandable graphic format. Theparticular book is one of the better ones in the series. On my second reading of the book, I noticeduncanny similarities between many teachings of Buddhism and Bhagavad Gita.

 

Let’s start with the path to enlightenment. According to Gita, path to enlightenment starts when aperson starts feeling dissatisfaction from sensual pleasures (like young Buddha felt as a prince) andthen let go off the emotional attachments of the world (as Buddha did when he left his family). Atthis stage person starts looking inward and cuts off from the world (as Buddha isolated himself in atree). Finally when a person experiences enlightenment he feels duty bound to spread the messageto the world (as Buddha did).

 

Both Bhagavad Gita and Buddhism emphasise yoga or meditation as the way to control senses andmind (mind can be understood as the emotional and impulsive part of the brain as compared to theintellect which is trained and rational). Once the mind is controlled, the person sees the world withmuch more clarity. The concept is not so other worldly as it sounds. Behavioural finance (a modernbranch of economics which probes the irrationality of human mind) also recommends controllingyour impulsive mind to cultivate a more rational temperament. A rational temperament allows oneto see the business world much more objectively and thus increasing the chances for success as an investor.

Both Gita and Buddhism emphasise the dissolving of ego boundaries as a part of the process toachieve higher truth. Buddhism says that as long as a person keeps viewing the world from the prismof I, me, mine; he will remain trapped in the samsara (material world). Gita also says that as long asa person remains attached to his selfish interests he will keep rotating in an endless material circle.Behavioural finance also says that people who are trying to derive their happiness from materialthings will feel like they are running on a hedonic treadmill.

Once they attain a certain material goal,they will feel a temporary surge in happiness but soon they will be chasing a new goal.

Both Gita and Buddhism say that engagement transcends renunciation. Gita says karmayog (practiceof knowledge) is higher than karmasanyas (gaining of knowledge), as karmayoga purifes knowledge.Buddha also says – do not believe my teachings but put them to practice and test. The concept issimilar to scientific ethos of putting knowledge to test. And if the knowledge doesn’t pass the test,the failure will only direct you closer to the truth. Thus one should not be too bothered if somethingdoesn’t fit in his existing mental framework. It will make you anxious temporarily, but ultimately youwill emerge wiser.

The highest school of Buddhism is Vajrayana (other major schools Himayana and Mahayana are thefoundations of Vajrayana), whose goal is to put precise experience of enlightenment into everydayuse. The Vajrayana school, emphasises combining seriousness of purpose (satvik gun from Gita) witha sense of momentary enjoyment (tamsik gun from Gita) but accepts that perfection cannot beachieved. A little anxiety, confusion or conflict is necessary for progress of knowledge.

Gita as well as Buddhism emphasize awareness of death as vital for gaining true knowledge. Gita’sdiscourse started when Arjun was scared of the prospect of killing his cousins and teachers.Buddha’s quest started when he became aware of death. Zen school of Buddhism has many poems to make its disciple confront death. Modern psychology also accepts the tendency to ignore andrationalize death as responsible for many psychological illnesses. Death is the ultimate fear(although many people say that public speaking is the ultimate fear) and Gita emphasisesfearlessness. Fear of death can break down many people’s rationality and only a rational person canget close to the truth.

Death is also one domain where Gita and Buddha seem to disagree. Gita talks about rebirth andexternal saviour while Buddha said that there is no external saviour and his point of view startedwith his birth and ended with his death. Multiple schools of Buddhism also differ on the possibility ofrebirth. However the resolution to this apparent conflict is present within Gita itself.

The central and enigmatic message of Gita is work without attachment to rewards. To live mindfullyin the moment, to be aware of your duty and to engage with the world through action, is the themerunning through Gita and Buddhism. If you live according to these principles the rewards will comeautomatically for you and for the world. You will see the rewards within this lifetime, on yearly orquarterly basis and in fact if you really put the principles to practice you will get the rewardautomatically on a daily basis.

Why should one then be too worried about the reward he will get in the after-life. If there is anexternal saviour he will reward you by sending you on a higher trajectory, if he feels you deserve it. Ifthere is no external saviour you will die happily and peacefully like the Buddha. Either way you donot have a right over the reward (what else is a better after life but a reward), and you will bewasting your energies foolishly by worrying about it.

It’s actually a win-win situation.

– Amaresh

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