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Buddha Purnima: Enduring Significance of Buddha for upholding Enlightenment, Equality and Science

By Satya Narayana Sahu | PUBLISHED: 07, May 2020, 17:39 pm IST | UPDATED: 07, May 2020, 17:49 pm IST

Buddha Purnima: Enduring Significance of Buddha for upholding Enlightenment, Equality and Science
Today is sacred Buddha Purnima, birth anniversary of Lord Buddha. Apart from his  hallowed place in the domain of spirituality Lord Buddha's life and work has been interpreted by great minds to take forward the cause of enlightenment, equality, science, human development and many other realms of human endeavour. 
Lord Buddha"s teachings have been  creatively interpreted in the context of development, particularly human development. His sacred name has been invoked by numerous liberation movements to unchain humanity from bondage and suffering. 
Buddha and Gospel of Equality and Social Raising Up 
Swami Vivekananda said that Lord Buddha, for the first time in human history,  gave to humanity the gospel social raising up and the ideals of social sympathy. He described Him as the chief destroyer of privileges based on caste. The "gospel of social raising up" coined by Swami Vivekananda in the context of Lord Buddha  remains at the heart of what is now considered as Human Development which is anchored on the practical public policy measures to educate people, ensure their access to health care and create conditions for developing their capabilities and guaranteeing their entitlements. While Buddhism became a powerful spiritual and social force in ancient India for upholding the ideal of non-violence and equality of all human beings irrespective of caste,  in the modern period of 1920s the historic Dravidan movement in Tamilnadu headed by Periyar and other great leaders derived inspiration from Buddhism and successfully strove for equality and equal opportunity for people riddled with caste discriminations and oppression. The leaders of that movement frequently cited the teachings of Lord Buddha centered around Samata, the ideal of equality. 
A.Ramaswami Mudaliar,  Editor of Justice, the mouth piece of Justice Party in 1920,  wrote in one of his editorials in 1920 that "Buddha's one constant preaching has been the idea of equality. It is this idea of privilege of superiority, that has led to the troubles of the modern world. Race privilege, colour privilege, and caste privilege have torn the bonds of union, have made men animals, have turned into seething cauldron of hate, what ought to be the blissful state of love and amity." 
Buddhism and Science 
Apart from upholding the ideal of equality Buddhism has advanced the cause of science.  Albert Einstein wrote in his article "Science and Religion" that a cosmic religion could be a motive force for promotion of science and he described Buddhism as the only cosmic religion which can be used for taking forward the cause of science and scientific research. Late Professor Raja Ramanna, then Chairman of the Atomic Energy Commission, authored  a wonderful foreword to the volume on "Science and Technology in Ancient India" brought out by Ramakrishna Mission Institute of Culture and wrote that the pragmatic spirit associated with science remained integral to Buddhism and with the banishment of Buddhism from India the tradition of science and technology declined in our country and development was arrested. 
Kenneth Zysk in his book "Asceticism and Healing in Ancient India: Medicine in the Buddhist Monastery" attributed the decline of research in medicine in ancient India to the decline of Buddhism in  our country. 

Ambedkar and Buddhism 
Dr. B R Ambedkar declared that he was a born Hindu and born untouchable and would never die a Hindu and an untouchable. While he described Hinduism as religion based on graded social inequality,  he hailed Buddhism as a religion based on Pragyan (Enlightenment), Karuna (Compassion) and Samata (Equality). Therefore he left Hinduism and  embraced Buddhism.  Dr. Ambedkar's conversion to Buddhism was a bold step to revive Buddhism and celebrate the ideals of Enlightenment, Compassion and Equality. 

It is instructive to invoke Buddha in the context of corona pandemic causing havoc across the world. Dr. Ambedkar  in his book "The Buddha and His Dhamma" wrote by recalling preachings of Buddha that self control would protect people from epidemics and self indulgence and reckless pursuit of sense based pleasure and life would make us victims of epidemics. It is worthwhile to juxtapose this  interpretation of Ambedkar with the observations of Jeffery Sachs who in his book "Economics for a Crowded Planet" wrote in 2008, " As humanity pushes against ecological limits, we are bound to be surprised by the consequences, including abrupt ones....Another likelihood is that we will be confronted with a continuing explosion of new infectious diseases that seemingly come out of nowhere and suddenly pose phenomenal risks for the entire world". 
Amartya Sen attributed idea of human development to  Buddha
Professor Amartya Sen after getting Nobel prize in economics gave an interview to a journalist and said that he wrote Buddhism as his religion while applying for admission to Shantiniketan as a young student. He explained that he did not fill the column on religion in the admission form as he never subscribed to any religion. The official in the counter cautioned him that his form would be rejected as it would be treated as an incomplete form with the column on religion kept unfilled. So Amartya Sen wrote Buddhism as his religion. When asked to explain as to why he preferred to write Buddhism he said that Buddha was a powerful advocate of human development in 6th century BC. Elaborating it further he said that when Buddha as a young prince was riding a chariot he saw a corpse, an old and sick man and finally a monk with a clam face. He then linked those incidents to human development indices- corpse to  greater life expectancy, old and sick man to better health and enlightenment of monk with education and awakening. The idea of human development based on greater life expectancy, better health and access to education can be derived from such interpretations of Lord Buddha's life. 
Professor Sen in his book "The Idea of Justice" invoked Buddha's reasoned analysis of the plight of the people of society of his time and used it in the context of his response to Rawls theory of justice. He argued that Lord Buddha wanted to see justice in the lives of people and that approach of justice linked to the day to day lived experience assumes centrality in contrast to the institution based appraoch to justice advocated by Rawals. Professor Sen elaborated in his book "The Idea of Justice" that,   "Twenty-five hundred years ago, when young Gautama, later known as Buddha, left his princely home in the foothills of the Himalayas in search of enlightenment, he was moved specifically by the sight of mortality, morbidity and disability around him, and it agitated him greatly. He was also distressed by the ignorance he encountered. It is easy to understand the sources of Gautama Buddha’s agony, particularly the deprivations and insecurities of human life, even if we may have to ponder more about his subsequent analysis of the ultimate nature of the universe. It is not difficult to appreciate the centrality of human lives in reasoned assessments of the world in which we live..... Indeed, the nature of the lives people can lead has been the object of attention of social analysts over the ages. Even though the much-used economic criteria of advancement, reflected in a mass of readily produced statistics, have tended to focus specifically on the enhancement of inanimate objects of convenience (for example, in the gross national product (GNP), and the gross domestic product (GDP), which have been the focus of a myriad of economic studies of progress), that concentration could be ultimately justified – to the extent it could be – only through what these objects do to the human lives they can directly or indirectly influence. " 
In fact professor Amartya Sen in his book "Identity and Violence" wrote that there is better human development indices in all those countries where Buddhism is the predominant religion. 
We need to understand Buddha Purnima from this wider developmental perspective which includes in its scope science, technology, human development and ideals of ompassion, equality and enlightenment. 

#The author served as Officer on Special Duty and Press Secretary to President of India late Shri K R Narayanan and had a tenure in Prime Minister’s Office and Joint Secretary in Rajya Sabha Secretariat. Views expressed in the article are in his personal capacity.