The Buddha's familiarity with upanisadic ideas

Alfred Collins acollins at GCI.NET
Mon Dec 11 22:06:04 UTC 2006

 The Chandogya passage seems to refer to RV X.129, and to agree with that text that in the beginning there was an "eka" although it records a dispute over whether that eka was sat or asat.  (the opposition in Ch 6.2.1 is between sad ekam advitiyam and asad ekam advitiyam.) X.129 says neither sat not asat, Ch says sat.  I published an article on this long ago, J of IndoEuropean Studies 1975 arguing that X.129 means that it is neither asat nor sat because it is in the process of developing, in statu nascendi,  from asat to sat.  Asat in the Ch reference seems to be understood quite differently as a vacuity and sat to have become a sort of avyakta, as in Samkhya.  In X.129 asat meant more or less what sat means in the Ch.

If this is right, what does it say about the Buddha and what he knew (and when he knew it)?  Nothing definite of course, but some speculations seem possible. In particular, I wonder whether the origin of Buddhism might not have something to do with the growing sharpness of the distinction between sat and asat, and could have represented initially an attempt to hold onto the intuition of the indefiniteness of the beginnings and basis of world and self in opposition to a tendency to reify them.  anatman in a primordial Buddhist intuition (Gautama's?) then would have meant something like asat in the X.129 sense (a "full" emptiness of self) and not in the Ch sense ("empty" emptiness?).  At times anatman may have developed (in some Buddhist traditions, specifically the pali canon) toward a sense like that of asat in the Ch reference, perhaps in an attempt to compensate in the other direction for the over assertion of a substantial (sat-full) self. 

And yet there is something strange or paradoxical about this Chandogya asat.  It is characterized as ekam advitiyam, "one without a second." Surely that does not sound like the void that the Ch argument against it seems to assume!  This asad ekam advitiyam seems ambivalent about its fullness versus emptiness, and in this might be quite appropriate as a description of pratityasamutpada.  Conclusion: Buddhism may carry on the vedic tradition just as much as Samkhya and Vedanta, but to opt for one side of a split in thought that the "Hindu" schools took the other side of.  I think both Buddhism and Samkhya etc. tried to regain the older intuition present before the split, but in different ways.  Buddhism moved from a sometimes void interpretation of anatman back to the more "full" origin of the putative "self" in conditioned coorigination, samkhya from an increasingly definite ("marked" in McKim Marriott's terms) prakrti organized around ahamkara to one saying "nasmi na me naha
m" (Samkhya karika 64), which I think also represents a return to origins, in this case a pratiprasava or nivrtti of the gunas toward avyakta.  

Al Collins

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