bhagavad giitA, evolution of bhAgavata system and buddha


The evolution of philosophical and theological ideas in ancient India is a matter of great interest and use to those who chalk out the movement of thought process in any pagan society.

On one hand, we have a direct lineage from the Vedic r.s.i-s to modern AcArya-s of various sampradAya-s. On the other hand, we have the s’raman.ic traditions which were given definite shape by Buddha ad mahAviira. Their ideas evolved further and have given rise to several shoots and branches as well.

We have to keep in mind that none of the sampradAya-s have grown in a vacuum. They have been constantly influenced by the other theologies and philosophies. The ancient Vaidika system has been influenced by the para-vedic worship systems involving mUrti pUjA, various local deities, bhAgavata system etc and has given rise to the present strand of hindu dharma over a period of several millennia.

Our current post is about the origin of bhAgavata sect’s impact on vaidika traditions as well as its subsequent effect on the nAstika philosophies. One common statement made by many so called ‘indologists’ is that giitA is a post-buddha innovation. Some enthusiasts go to the extent of stating that giitA is anti-varn.As’rama system as it opens the door of moks.a to everyone. Elst feels that the text supports the varn.As’rama system as ‘varn.asan~kara’ is considered as the main point of argument by both kr.s.n.a and arjuna. Some, like Aravindan, make much of the fact that krs.n.a had used only the word ‘san~kara’ and not ‘varn.a san~kara’ – thus, in their opinion, the bhagavAn was not enamored with varn.a divisions. Trouble arises when these people begin to use the so-called ‘anti-varn.a’ statements of the giitA as an evidence for giitA post dating buddha. Evidence in support of this low date of giitA is given as follows – the use of nirvAn.a in giitA and the supposedly more egalitarian approach of the giitA.

Let us analyze the two evidences – one by one:

  1. The use of ‘nirvAn.a’ means nothing. The word is found throughout mahAbhArata. The ‘mainstream Indologists’ are bound by the problem of trying to compress the vast vaidika and itihAsa-purAn.a literature into a short time frame. As such, they place the in 6th century BCE and thus, buddha is just a century away from the upanis.adic age. But the change in language is too vast between early and buddha’s pAli-prAkr.t-s. Moreover, these indologists tend to place mahAbhArata as post-buddha literature or at least a major portion of it is considered as post-buddha. But there is not a single mention of buddha or hisphilosophy anywhere in mahAbhArata text. The text seems to have been written down before the age of buddha. The only clear post-buddha references in mahAbhArata are the names of various tribes who invaded India after the time of buddha, cities from later date etc (e.g. name of Antioch) found in some of the verses. But the mention of tribes and cities of later period could have easily been the result of addition by copying scribes – they are simply found in the list of the countries/tribes/cities. These post-buddha items are found very rarely and mostly in lists. Whereas, the word ‘nirvAn.a’ is found throughout the mahAbhArata. The word is very much a part of the language of the text.  As’valAyana gr.hya sUtra (3-4-4) mentions both bhArata (24000 verses epic) and mahAbhArata (100000 verses ‘expanded’ epic). The sUtra literature predates buddha. Sethna has pointed out that the Sutra literature reflects the material culture of the Mature Harappan times. Also, they mention about the presence of a pole star – which gives the date of 3rd millennium BCE as established by RN Iyengar (see Thus, the sUtra literature predates buddha and we can place the mahAbhArata prior to buddha. Dharma (dhamma) was very much an essential part of the language of buddha and he had not coined the term. Rather, he had simply borrowed the term from vaidikas. Similarly, we can conclude that ‘nirvAn.a’ was another term which was borrowed by buddha (we place the origin of the term ‘nirvAn.a’ in the post-early upanis.adic period but before buddha’s arrival).


    The second ‘evidence’ is more a fantasy than evidence. We can even question whether buddha had a purely universal outlook. Elst seems to say otherwise (see Weber has opposed it as well (see ). Buddha had even stated that a buddha can be born only in brAhman.a or ks.atriya clans. A few statements about how anyone can attain nirvAn.a or moks.a do not make a person anti-varn.a. mahAbhArata has the famous story about dharmavyAdha wherein a butcher teaches the subtle truths about dharma to a brAhman.a. vyAsa himself was born to a fisherwoman. Vedic literature has a dAsiiputra (kavas.a ailUs.a) among its r.s.i-s. But it does not mean that varn.a system was opposed or discarded by these generations. There are s’Udra and pan~cama saints among the Tamil bhakti saints (AzhvAr-s and nAyanmAr-s) but these traditions were not anti-varn.a either. Rather, they simply accepted exceptional persons of the lower castes as venerable AcArya-s. Moreover, buddha was a staunch supporter of gender based differentiation and a huge supporter of patriarchal system (look at the eight garudhammas for the bhikkuni-s). In majjhima nikAya (bahudhatukasutta – see, buddha says that it is impossible for a woman to become a cakravartin, attain buddhahood, be the king of Gods, the king of death or brahmA. Thus, to paint buddha as an egalitarian modern liberal is certainly not correct.


In the ghat.a jAtaka, buddha claims that he was born as ghat.a pan.d.ita, a brother of vAsudeva. The jAtaka mentions ten brothers and a sister – an~janAdevii (ekAnAMs’A), vAsudeva, baladeva, candadeva (candra), suriyadeva (sUrya), aggideva (agni), varun.adeva (varun.a), ajjuna (arjuna), pajjuna (pradyumna), ghat.apand.ita (buddha’s previous birth) and an~kura (akrUra). The jAtaka also states that vAsudeva taught a vijja (vidyA) before his death. Thus, it is clear that buddha knew about a highly developed bhAgavata pantheon which included vAsudeva, his vyUha-s and also ekAnAMs’A. GiitA must have been popular by his time – which explains why he states that vAsudeva taught a vidyA. To claim giitA as a post-buddha Vedic reaction is unwarranted. GiitA clearly preceded buddha and it is not a vaidika but a bhAgavata-sAttvata text with clear sectarian marks which shall be seen below.

Bhagavad giitA, unlike the brahma sUtra-s, opens the door of moks.a to all castes and genders. GiitA is a bhAgavata text. Its sectarian orientation can be clearly seen from statements in 7.17, 7.19-20, 11.43, 18.62, 18.66 etc. where the exclusive worship of vAsudeva as well as the supremacy of vAsudeva are enunciated. The biija of bhAgavata dharma is found in nArAyan.iiya section of mahAbhArata. The development of sAttvata-bhAgavata dharma is seen in this section. The oldest upAkhyAna of this section is that of uparicaravasu (12.322-324). The story does not even mention the word vAsudeva. It calls vis.n.u by various names such as nArAyan.a, vis.n.u, hari etc. vAsudeva and his vyUha-s are not mentioned in this story. It is mentioned in the upAkhyAna (12.324) that there was a dispute between brAhman.a-s and the deva-s regarding the oblations to be used in yajn~a-s. brAhman.a-s maintained that only grains shall be offered in sacrifice whereas deva-s maintained that meat must be offered (pAn~carAtra system advocates use of pis.t.a pas’u in the place of animals for yajn~as – thus, the avoidance of animal sacrifice seems to have been an ancient innovation of bhAgavata tradition and it predated the advent of nAstika AcArya-s like mahAviira and buddha). uparicaravasu, a king who followed sAttvata dharma, was asked to mediate. Due to his partiality towards deva-s, he declared that meat must be offered in sacrifice. But the brAhman.a-s got angry and cursed him to fall into a deep pit. There, uparicaravasu prayed to nArAyan.a (only to nArAyan.a – beginning of ekanti dharma). It is stated that only purus.a hari (vis.n.u) was worshipped by the king by means of which he succeeded in attaining liberation from the curse and attained brahmaloka.

The succeeding chapters mention the various vyUha-s as well as vAsudeva. Thus, we can see that sAttvata tradition begun as exclusive worship of vis.n.u-nArAyan.a. It considered vis.n.u as the supreme deity, the paramAtman. Later, the vAsudeva cult was absorbed into this sect and vAsudeva was identified with vis.n.u (it is also possible that vAsudeva cult of yAdava-s was itself an evolution of vis.n.u worship where vAsudeva is a developed form of vis.n.u-nArAyan.a). But at this time, rudra worship had begun to gain popularity among the masses – pAs’upata mata was born. As a subversive method to co-opt and coalesce this path into their own system, bhAgavata-s used a form of hari-hara sAmyavAda but still keeping hari as the source of hara and thus, ultimately hari alone being the supreme being (though rudra was seen as an emanation of this supreme being). mahAbhArata (12.330.44-49) mention how nara-nArAyan.a and rudra fought each other in the aftermath of daks.ayajn~a. the verses show that they were in a stalemate – the s’Ula of rudra was wasted by nArAyan.a (it caused a mark on nArAyan.a’s chest and turned his hair green) while the paras’u hurled by nara was broken. nArAyan.a held the throat of rudra and his throat became blue as a consequence. In mahAbhArata (12.330.59), brahmA says that nArAyan.a created him as well as rudra (rudra was born from the anger of nArAyan.a). He entreats rudra to calm down. On hearing brahmA’s request, rudra calms down and begins to propitiate nArAyan.a. In mahAbhArata (12.330.64), nArAyan.a tells rudra that there is no difference between rudra and himself. Thus, a form of harihara sAmyavAda had begun here. But typical of any vais.n.ava literature, rudra is still shown as being born from vis.n.u and he also worships vis.n.u.

In mahAbhArata (12.337.59), the five major philosophical systems are identified as sAn~khya, yoga, pAn~carAtra, veda and pAs’upata. mahAbhArata (12.337.64-66) state that all these systems identify nArAyan.a alone as the supreme being and the sole being worthy of worship. It also states that there is no other being like nArAyan.a.

But ekAnAMs’A is not mentioned anywhere in the nArAyan.iiya section. She is first mentioned as a goddess and sister of vAsudeva in harivaMs’a where she is developed as a mighty devii on her own.

Thus, we can see three stages of bhAgavata dharma:

(a)    ekAnti dharma – where exclusive worship of nArAyan.a as the supreme being is the most important directive


(b)   caturvyUha system – a system of caturvyUha mUrti-s came up with vAsudeva, pradyumna, aniruddha and being the four vyUha-s


(c)    addition of ekAnAMs’A – ekAnAMs’A , the sister of vAsudeva. She is the bhAgavata adaption of vaidika lunar goddess, kuhU (new moon goddess)


Ghat.a jAtaka belongs to an age which is posterior to above three stages. Thus, by the time of buddha, the evolution of the above three stages of bhAgavata system was complete. nArAyan.iiya section of mahAbhArata belongs to the completion of second stage. But the upAkhyAna of uparicara vasu is older than the second stage. Bhagavad giitA belongs to the period of early second stage. ekAnti dharma is found in giitA. But caturvyUha system was not well developed yet. And ekAnAMs’a was non-existent.

On the basis of the above analysis, we conclude that giitA predated buddha. bhAgavata tradition begun as exclusive worship of vis.n.u and developed into a mighty philosophical system which freely borrowed from vedAnta and molded itself into an Astika tradition. Its greatest philosophical text, bhagavad giitA, attempted to bring about a synthesis between sAn~khya, yoga and vedAnta traditions with a definite sectarian theistic leaning towards vAsudeva-vis.n.u-nArAyan.a. The text was successful in achieving its goal and with its popularity came to be included as one of the three pillars of vedAnta – the prasthAnatrayii (other two being and brahma sutra-s).



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