Showing posts with label gods. Show all posts
Showing posts with label gods. Show all posts

24 February 2012

Accountability and Ethics

THE SUBJECT OF ACCOUNTABILITY has come up quite a lot lately. I've come to see gods that oversee our behaviour and karma as part of the same complex of ideas stemming from changes that civilisation brought to human culture. I outlined this view earlier when discussing the plausibility and salience of rebirth, and here I'll expand on it.

My thought is that we evolved to live in small bands of several families all working closely together to ensure our survival. These bands were probably part of larger groupings, but on the whole most of the time was spent in relatively small groups of say 30-50. In contemporary hunter gatherer societies there is typically a division of labour with women gathering food and men hunting. Women stay together as a group while working which takes up a good part of their day. Men tend to hunt alone or in small groups, but spend a lot of time together as well. In a group of 30-50 which is highly dependent on each of its members, there is not much in the way of privacy. We would all know what everyone is doing, and especially we would know if they were following group etiquette and rules. Going against the norm, and keeping it secret, often causes an internal tension that would have observable consequences. If you know someone well and over a long period of time, you know when something is wrong. Infractions are dealt with socially - with shame being an important factor in maintaining cohesion. And cohesion is not just arbitrary it is what helps the group survive in what is probably quite a hostile environment.

We share these patterns with our social primate cousins - especially the apes. Chimpanzee society has many of the same features for instance, and I think provides us some insights into our own distant past. They work together foraging as a group, and rely on each member to contribute and not to deceive. And individuals do on occasions deceive the group over food and sex. We don't just share a common genetic ancestry, I think we probably share a common social ancestry. In any case I think one can learn a lot about basic human drives and behaviours from Jane Goodall's observations on the Chimps of Gombe stream in her book In the Shadow of Man.

Civilisation changed this pattern, and made us different from any of our ancestors or cousins. Civilisation gave us the means to live together in much greater numbers. We were no longer dependent on passing game, or the random distribution of food crops. We domesticated our food - both animal and plant. This allowed for an expansion of group sizes beyond the magic Dunbar number of 150 - the number of relationships we can keep close track of. In a large village we do not know what everyone is up to because we do not observe it for ourselves. We do still keep track using informal information sharing (aka gossip, but this word has far too many negative connotations). It is not less important that everyone consents to live in the same way and follows the same rules, but it is much harder to know. And within any group there are always those who can profit by deception. Civilisation brings with the it a new problem of how to limit the dishonesty of susceptible individuals when personal observation is not sufficient to detect breaches.

Many societies developed a kind of cosmic police force and judiciary. In Indo-Iranian myth for instance it was the function of Mitra/Mithra. The people who propagated the myths of Mitra and preserved it through many centuries believed that the universe itself was ordered and that this macro-cosmic order was reflected in the microcosm of human society and human relationships. By sacrificing to Mitra the Indo-Iranians and their descendants were trying to ensure that Mitra had enough sustenance to do his job. And one of his jobs was to oversee the contracts and bonds that held society together. In fact his name probably originally meant 'contract' (from PIE *√mei 'to tie' + the instrumental suffix -tra: 'the one who ties', or 'that which ties'). I suspect that if you search the myths of all people's you will find this judicial function being carried out. It is possible that the role of enforcing the laws will be separate, but I think they are often combined.

The next step in the development of this idea was its further abstraction. In societies which followed the lead of Zoroaster and adopted monotheistic gods (such as the Abrahamic religions) the functions of overseer and enforcer were combined with other roles into a single "swiss-army-knife" or über god. In the Old testament god these two functions are much more prominent than in the new. In India a curious abstraction took place. Rather than combine all the functions of regulating society into a swiss-army-knife god that could do everything, they went another route altogether. In India the role of overseer became entirely abstract; it simply was part of the fabric of the universe that your actions would have inescapable consequences which were suitable to the action: we usually refer to this role as karma (though of course karma just means 'work or action'). Note that though the mechanism is different the function is identical. This suggests that the problem it was intended to solve was the same.

The development of this idea then stagnated for many centuries amongst our ancestors - and indeed has not changed at all in some sections of the Western world. One minor development was the contracting out of the overseer role to priests. The priest stands between the people and their god. There is no doubt that some people are more apt than others to have the kinds of experiences that can be interpreted as 'divine'. Most of us are rather untalented in the business of visions and mystical attainments, even with the boost of psychedelics. Perhaps it was inevitable that some people who had easier access to such states would act as intermediaries, and be valued as such by their fellows in this role. Somewhere along the way the job ceased to be awarded on the basis of merit and typically became the preserve of a clan - the vast majority of whom had to fake their contact with god which they did by aping their more inspired elders. In Judaism it was the Cohen clan, in North-West India the Brāhmaṇas. With the advent of a celibate clergy other arrangements were made to keep control of this social function in the form of large institutions such as The Church or The Saṅgha. Religion so captured by hereditary groups or hegemonic institutions quickly descends into formalism and empty rituals, and this is more or less the situation with most religions most of the time.

So for most of the Christian era in Europe the church has been a sham. However it did continue to provide oversight of the people. It did this through confession particularly. This is an observation made by Michel Foucault (e.g. in Madness and Civilization). Although God was invoked, it was in fact the clergy who had taken over his role as overseer. Since the role needed doing this was not necessarily a bad thing, but the fact is that it was mostly done under false pretences. Much the same kind of thing happened in India. In both places genuine visionaries would crop up from time to time, though in Europe we would generally torture them and then burn them alive; and in Indian they would set them up as local deities. Now at the same time kings were also still seen as divinely appointed rulers (several kings had wars with popes over this issue). Kings began to make and enforce laws too.

It was not until the Enlightenment that things began to really change however. The European Enlightenment shifted the focus from religion and superstition to the possibilities of reason. The idea of being ruled by reason was pretty attractive after several centuries of dark age - hence the term Enlightenment, and hence also Mr and Mrs Rhys Davids's deliberate identification of the Buddha with the European Enlightenment via the translation of bodhi as Enlightenment (complete with upper-case E). Michel Foucault notes that one consequence was that the oversight of those who simply could not follow any rules (the mad) moved from the church, to the burgeoning medical profession. But in the meantime the mad were locked away in asylums, which were originally lazar houses, because in a society which was beginning to see reason as defining humanity, losing your reason became a crime.

As Europe developed and spread outwards in an orgy of imperialism and colonisation it exported these values around the world. Only Asia proved able to resist, but only temporarily. The power to make laws, to oversee them, and to punish wrong doers moved decisively away from religious and towards secular administrations. This was one of the principles of the French and American Revolutions, though it was no so clear cut in England, so that the United Kingdom does not separate church and state - my Sovereign is also the head of the Church of England. The power to keep tabs on people was abrogated to the government on the one hand, and to the medical profession on the other. But in many places the medical profession became a subsidiary of the government, or at least was governed by government rules and regulations. Confessions continued to be a crucial part of the way the secular judiciary operated. And in some places the name of the judicial god was sometimes still invoked (the power vested in me by almighty God...). Medical priests used our confessions to regulate our bodies and sexuality, and assumed vast authority over us. Government took on a much greater role in attempting to regulate the morals of society. The UK's present Prime Minister for instance understands without question that part of his role is to set and enforce moral guidelines for the people of Britain (See this assessment in the China Post 22 Aug 2011). The medical profession meanwhile has totally taken over the regulating the lives of the mad, and madness is now a disease of the mind, a chemical imbalance, or a genetic defect.

Presently we seem to be in another transition. Surveillance of individuals by government agencies has never been more comprehensive. Our every movement is monitored by video cameras (the UK has more per population than any country in the world!). In fascist states surveillance intruded more deeply and with more devastating effect than peacetime democracies. We cannot cross a national border (most of which are entirely arbitrary) without our finger prints being taken and our movements entered into computers. Yes, some of this is for our own protection because people from countries which our governments (extending their godlike powers to the nations around us) have routinely oppressed and exploited for the last two centuries are now attacking us in very personal ways, exploding bombs on trains and buses for example. But still, we are being watched, have no fear. Elsewhere in the world Muslims, given the chance to vote, are voting for religious governments of the type that have a track record of imposing restrictive laws on their people.

All of this began as a way to ensure the cohesion and therefore survival of small bands of people eking a living out of the environment as best they could. In Buddhist ethics we are enjoined to surveil ourselves, to vigilantly watch our own minds, and not to act on any unskilful impulse. We're not asked to keep track of others, though we might help a friend out of compassion. This is quite an unusual idea in a society with 2000 years of being taught that someone else does the watching for us. We're not really used to taking responsibility for this role. We become our own judiciary. We pre-emptively confess our transgressions not in a context of fear and punishment, but to friends and mentors who wish us well, and help us to make amends (if necessary) and get back on track. This way we attain to the state of avippaṭisāro 'not feeling remorseful' (i.e. having a clear conscience) which feeds into the natural progress of the Spiral Path (e.g. AN 10.1-5).


Note 13-5-12

 Does Thinking About God Improve Our Self-Control? Wired Science.
Yes. It does. 
"The scientists think that faith-based thoughts may increase “self-monitoring” by evoking the idea of an all-knowing, omnipresent God. Previous research, which showed that priming people to think of a vengeful, angry God reduces the likelihood of dishonesty, supports this view. If God is always watching, we better not misbehave—he knows..."

08 October 2010

Brahmā the Cheat

The Brahmanimantanika Sutta (MN 49) has a number of interesting features. The sutta opens with the news that Baka the Brahmā has taken on a wrong view. Baka means 'crane' or 'heron', but it has figurative meaning which is according to Monier-Williams: "hypocrite, cheat, rogue, the crane being regarded as a bird of great cunning and deceit as well as circumspection)". We should immediately be alert therefore that this is a polemic. The animal with the same characteristics in Anglo-European culture is the weasel - so the character's name might be rendered God the Weasel.

The view that Baka has taken up is this:
Idañhi, mārisa, niccaṃ, idaṃ dhuvaṃ, idaṃ sassataṃ, idaṃ kevalaṃ, idaṃ acavanadhammaṃ, idañhi na jāyati na jīyati na mīyati na cavati na upapajjatī’ti; santañca panaññaṃ uttari nissaraṇaṃ ‘natthaññaṃ uttari nissaraṇa’nti vakkhatīti.

This, sir, is permanent, this is enduring, this is eternal, this is everything, this is unending. This is not being born, is not aging, is not dying, is not falling, is not being reborn; and beyond this, there is no escaping.
Our first question is what does Baka mean by 'this', what is he referring to? And because the text moves swiftly on to another tack it is difficult to tell. However there is a clue in the passage I've cited, in the sequence: birth, aging, death, falling, rebirth. This is not a random sequence, nor are death (mīyati) and falling (cavati) simply synonyms as one might easily assume them to be, nor perhaps are birth (jāyati) and rebirth (upapajati).

I need to backtrack for a bit. In 2002 Gananath Obeyesekere published Imagining Karma: Ethical Transformation in Amerindian, Buddhist and Greek Rebirth, which took a broad view of the idea of rebirth. It seems that many cultures develop a theory of rebirth and in its most basic form it involves circulating between this world and another world - usually some form of heaven, often inhabited by one's own ancestors. It has been asserted for a long time that in the early Vedic period there is no evidence of a belief in rebirth, but more recently Joanna Jurewicz showed that the Ṛgvedic mantra 10.16.5 can be interpreted as a request for Agni to send the dead person back again to his descendants (this is discussed in Richard Gombrich's 2010 book What the Buddha Thought). This suggests that early Vedic people had a standard rebirth theory in which the person (actually the man) cycled between this world and the other world.

The 'other world' for the Vedic Brahmin was the world of the fathers (pitaraḥ). This idea is expressed in greater detail in the Bṛhadāranyaka and Chāndogya Upaniṣads which both tell the story of how one precesses through the cycles. However the simple binary persisted for some time and it is referred to in the Pāli texts (in the phrase 'this world and the next world'). The simplest expression of this cycle does not allow for escape.

Let us now reconsider the Brahmanimantanika Sutta. The sequence, again, is: birth, aging, death, falling, rebirth. The cycle involves being born (jāyati) and living in this world (jīyati); dying (mīyati) and arising (upapajti) in the heavenly realms. Having lived a long time in the heavenly realms, one falls (cavati) back down to earth to be once again born (jāyati). And so the cycle goes round.

This cycle is called saṃsāra which is a noun from the the verb sam+√sṛ 'flow' - and means to move about continuously, to come again and again. It is this that Baka is saying is "permanent, enduring, eternal, everything, unending". This is his deceit: the view he adopts is that saṃsāra is forever, and inescapable, that we are doomed to go around and around endlessly. The ethicization of the universe that occurred amongst the samaṇa movements meant that the model had to become more sophisticated, but I will leave that thread for now. But the idea that one could escape from the rounds of rebirth (or redeath as it is sometimes called) must have seemed extremely radical. Indeed the Upaniṣads the idea is introduced to Brahmins by a King or Kṣatriya, and although there is much speculation about what this might mean, at the very least it shows that the idea was new and from outside fold.

Māra steps into the sutta at this point and his contribution at first sight is puzzling. However Māra is sometimes called Namuci, which is a contraction of na muñcati 'does not release'. His role often relates to keeping beings in saṃsāra. Māra as an archetypal figure is often associated with our own doubts, he is the inner voice of doubt. So whereas Baka seems to represent the social pressure exerted on us to doubt the possibility of liberation; Māra represents our own doubts.

One of his warnings to Buddha is:
so... mā tvaṃ brahmano vacanaṃ upātivattittho... evaṃ sampadamidam bhikkhu, tuyham bhavissati
He... do not overstep what Brahmā says... [or various evils] will befall you.
This is reminiscent of the debate scene in BU 3.6 where Gārgī is questioning Yajñavalkya on what the various aspects of the universe are made; and finally asks on what brahman is woven. Yajñavalkya replies
sa hovāca gargī mātiprākṣīḥ
mā te mūrdhā vyapaptat

Don't ask too many questions, Gārgī
your head will split apart.
Gārgī desists, but later in the text another questioner's head does split apart.

Of course Māra also plays the role of Lord of saṃsāra - he thinks of the kāmaloka as his realm, where we dwell at his mercy, which is to say we dwell suffering. Māra is afraid that if the Buddha teaches that beings will go beyond his realm (te me visayaṃ upātivattissanti).

Then the Buddha and Baka have a discussion about the elements. Baka says
Sace kho tvaṃ, bhikkhu, pathaviṃ ajjhosissasi, opasāyiko me bhavissasi vatthusāyiko, yathākāmakaraṇīyo bāhiteyyo

If indeed you, bhikkhu, will be attached to earth, you will be in my domain, in my reach, at my mercy.
This is repeated for a list of elements. Of course the Buddha is aware of this and says that he not attached to the elements. The list of elements is unusual: earth, water, fire, air, beings (bhūta), devas, Prajāpati and Brahmā. Once again I refer the reader to BU 3.6 and the discussion with Gārgī. It goes like this (I'll use Valerie Roebuck's translation, slightly modified)
"Yajñāvalkya, she said, since all this earth (idaṃ sarvaṃ pārthivaṃ) is woven on the waters, as warp and weft, on what are the waters woven?
On air.
On what is air woven?"
And so on. The list begins the same: earth, water, air. Then we get 'the middle realm' (antarikṣaloka) which may well correspond to bhūta in the Pāli list. Then in BU a list of various devalokas - gandharvaloka, adityaloka, candraloka, nakṣatraloka, devaloka, indraloka - then prajāpatiloka and finally brahmaloka. If we collapse the list from gandharva to indraloka into 'devaloka' (which they are all varieties of) then the list from Brahmanimantanika Sutta and BU are very similar indeed. What's more the list makes more sense in the context of BU than it does in a Pāli sutta, because the Buddha was hardly likely to be attached to Prajāpati or Brahmā.

There is one snafu here. And it is that one of the distinctive teachings of the BU, which we meet at the end of book 3 (3.9.28), is the idea of escape from rebirth:
jāta eva na jāyate ko nv enaṃ janayet punaḥ |
vijñānam ānandaṃ brahma rātir dātuḥ parāyaṇaṃ ||

Born, only, not born again; who could beget him?
Consciousness, bliss, Brahman, grace; the gift to the giver.
It seems that in all of these kinds of references to Vedic ideas in Pāli texts, there is always an element of over-simplification, of parody. One gets the sense that the last thing a Buddhist wanted to do was debate a Brahmin on their own terms - and yet again so many of the converts seem to have been, at least nominally Brahmin.

In Brahmanimantanika Sutta we seem to have some quite clear references to Upaniṣadic ideas. However as I noted in Early Buddhists and Ātman/Brahman the references are to cosmology rather than to the more central details of the Upaniṣadic thought. It seems as though the cosmologically notions had been popularised, or perhaps more likely that the cosmology recorded in the Upaniṣads represents a popular tradition rather than a specifically Upaniṣadic tradition - I would make the contrast with the identification of ātman and brahman, which is not found in the Pāli texts.

12 February 2010

Buddhism and God(s)

It is axiomatic for Buddhists that (so-called) Buddhism is an atheistic religion, though many academics will point out that the actions and attitudes of some Buddhists are practically indistinguishable from theism. Buddhism is an English term coined in the 19th century for people who follow the Buddha. The original followers called themselves savaka (the hearers) sakkaputta (Children of the Śakyan - the Buddha being a Śakyan by birth). The modern Indian term would be Bauddha, a collective noun along the lines of Śaiva (a follower of Śiva) and Jaina (a follower of the Jina).

The Buddhist relationship with gods is in fact quite complex. Throughout the Pāli canon gods of various sorts appear and at times are major players. Where would Buddhists be for instance is the Vedic creator god Brahmā (in the form of Brahmāsahampati) had not begged the Buddha to pass on what he learned under the Bodhi Tree? Indra is another Vedic god who plays important roles in many suttas and jātaka stories - though usually under his alias Sakka (Sanskrit Śakra).[1]

Early Buddhism was also cognisant of local deities. Hardly a page of the canon goes by without mention of yakkhas (Sankrit yakṣa) or nāgas for instance. Yakṣas are local chthonic deities who were worshipped in the villages by the ordinary people - such people were sometimes referred to by the Buddha as superstitious (maṅgalika). Then there are the Four Great Kings (Cattāro Mahārājāno) who also appear regularly. Some of them share names with the legendary figures, there is a king Dhṛtarāṣṭra in the Mahābhārata for instance.

All of these gods are shown as paying obeisance to the Buddha, and even his disciples. One of my favourite episodes from the Pāli canon is when Sāriputta goes home to see his orthodox Brahmin mother Sārī (Sāriputta means son of Sārī). She is scathing of him, his lifestyle and his friends and heaps abuse on them. (Nyanaponiika and Hecker, p.34) Later when he is very ill he visits her again and during the night he is visited by the Four Kings, Sakka and Mahābrahmā in turn, all of them wishing to wait on Sāriputta. Sāri is stunned to think that her son is being waited on by the gods she worships. Now she is receptive, Sāriputta gives her a Dhamma lesson and she attains to stream-entry (a state almost always reached by through hearing a dhamma lesson in the Canon [2]).

Sakka goes on to play a prominent role in the Aṣṭasāhasrikā Prajñāpāramitā Sūtra (the 8000 Line Perfection of Wisdom Discourse) where he is also portrayed as a disciple of the Buddha. The Four Kings similarly retain their role and even become important figures in their own right - especially Vaiśravaṇa, king of the north. The Golden Light Sutra (Suvarṇabhāṣottama Sūtra) features a number of other deities who offer dhāraṇī for the protection of the Buddha's followers. Sarasvati an important Vedic goddess appears, as does Lakṣmi who may be related to the goddess of luck Sirī that appears in some Jātaka stories, and who is not mentioned in the Vedas. [3]

The Kāraṇḍavyūha Sūtra introduces a new theme - the conversion of deities. Previously the gods just naturally seemed to pay obeisance to the Buddha, but in this text (from ca. 4th century CE) the god Śiva is converted to Buddhism by Avalokiteśvara. As far as I know there is no definite mention of Śiva in the Pāli texts. Studholme's tentative dating is supported by the appearance of Śiva on the scene since it coincides with the earlier dates suggested for the dominance of the Indian pantheon by Śiva. It is perhaps no coincidence that around this time Avalokiteśvara begins to assimilate Śiva's iconography and his name changes to be more like Śiva as well: from Avalokitasvara to Avalokiteśvara: ie from Avalokita + svara (Regarder of cries); to Avalokita + īśvara (Lord who looks down). Īśvara is an important epithet of Śiva. I have noted before how the former name (Kwan Yin in Chinese) tends to be retained in China because it was quite firmly established in Kumarajīva's translation of the White Lotus Sūtra (Sadharmapuṇḍarikasūtra) in the 4th cent.

However this conversion seems not to have stuck because in the late 7th century the Tantric text Sarvatathāgata-tattvasaṅgraha features a violent confrontation between Vajrapāṇi and Śiva - who here is called Maheśvara (mahā + īśvara; Great Lord). Śiva in this case refuses to submit, and in the end Vajrapāṇi slays him with a mantra, then revives him only to place his foot on Śiva's throat until he converts to Buddhism. Tantric art often shows Vajrapāṇi trampling on Śiva. Tantric Buddhism absorbed many Vedic and Hindu deities into it's pantheon and in particular they reinvigorated the worship of Agni through the various fire rituals (Homa).

So it seems clear that at all stages of it's development Buddhism acknowledged the existence of gods, or at least appears to have acknowledged the belief in gods. Ancient Indian Buddhists did not try to disprove the existence of gods as do today's atheists. However at every turn they are shown as inferior to the Buddha, and to Buddhists. Buddhists also mock the gods as inferior - the Kevaddha Sutta - DN 11 where Brahma is pretending to be an omnipotent god but cannot answer the Buddha's question and begs the Buddha not to show him up in front of the other gods.

If we followed the pattern we would simply acknowledge that Jehovah/Allah is a god, but point out the inconsistencies in the stories about him, and show why he is inferior to the Buddha - which should not be hard: the creator of samsara is clearly a terrible bungler. Design? Perhaps. Intelligent design? Pull the other one! The politics of the time might make this a little more dangerous for us than it was in the past with so many people willing to kill people for the crime of mockery. But mockery is developed to a high art in the UK and no one - not the Queen, the Prime Minister, the Archbishop of Canterbury nor even your best friend, and especially not one's self - is exempt. No one here can afford to take themselves too seriously! Indeed strident atheists are seen as just as reprehensible as strident religious fundamentalists.

  1. The Dictionary of Pāli Names is a very useful source for references to gods. See for instance: Sakka.
  2. Note that Peter Masefield, in his book Divine Revelation in Pali Buddhism, argues that this attainment could only take place in the presence of a Buddha. This is yet another example that the assertion is erroneous. See also my review. It is something to reflect on however, that stream-entry is almost always reached through listening to and reflecting on the dhamma, not through meditation.
  3. On Sirī see Rhys Davids, T.W. 1903. Buddhist India. p.216ff.

  • Nyanaponika and Hecker, Hellmuth. 1997. Great Disciples of the Buddha. Wisdom Publications.
  • Studholme, Alexander. 2002. The Origins of oṃ maṇipadme hūṃ: A Study of the Kāraṇḍavyūha Sūtra. State University of New York Press.

Update 31 Jan 2014
A new study of religion in the USA by Pew Research reports (p.2):
  • 65% of American Buddhists believe in a god of some kind, another 10% are agnostic. 
  • 20% believe in a personal god.
This suggests that we need to revisit the idea that Buddhists do not believe in god. Clearly many Buddhists do believe in god. The problem for Modernist Buddhism is how to square that with our Scientific Rationalism. That Buddhism is a-theist is not a trivial proposition for most Modernist Buddhists in the developed world.