Buddha as human and animal rights activist

Via Ramesh Bjonnes
on May 16, 2010
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Buddha was an animal and human rights activist long before PETA and Amnesty International.

During the time of Buddha, circa 500 BC, the Vedic religion of the Brahmin priesthood  in India had become degenerate and suppressive and engaged in frequent animal sacrifices.

The Buddha is reputed to have denounced the Vedic religion at the time. He especially denounced the religious animal sacrifices so common during those days.

“Immense sacrificial ceremonies, such as the sacrifice of the horse (ashvameda), through which the Brahmans imposed their power, ruined the states financially,” writes Alain Danileou in his book While the Gods Play.

Danileou continues: “Gautama was at first attracted by the antisocial mysticism of the Shaivas (Tantra). For a time, he was also a disciple of Gosala and very close to Mahavira, who was three years younger. For several years he practiced with them the austere and free life of a wandering monk.”

The Buddha was not alone in denouncing these Vedic practices. His friend Mahavira, the now well known founder of the Jain religion in India, also became an ardent follower of ahimsa, or nonviolence.

Although it is commonly accepted that the Buddha spoke out against the ritualistic portions of the Vedas (karmakanda), it is doubtful that he rejected the Vedas outright.

“[Both Buddha and Mahavira] were in open revolt against the karmakanda [prehistoric ritualistic portions] of the Vedas, but they were not so opposed to the the jinanakanda [more recent philosophical portions, including certain Upanishads and Vedanta], because these were quite popular with spiritual aspirants.”

“Both Buddha and Mahavira vehemently opposed the ritualistic sacrifices, especially of animals, and both of them protested against the hostile attitude of the so-called dharma towards morality.”  Quoted from Namami Shiva Shantaya by Shrii Shrii Anandamurti

In other words, Buddha was an animal and human rights activist long before the popularity of PETA , Amnesty International, vegan and vegetarian activism. About 2500 years before PETA, in fact.

Fellow yogis, maybe we should all learn something from Buddha. Maybe we also should protest against those aspects of the Vedas that are not so kind against women, animals, and the lower castes, the untouchable dalits (population 160 million), for example.

Violence against Dalits is commonplace. Hillary Mayell, (2003) sampled some mainstream Indian newspapers and found headlines such as: “Dalit boy beaten to death for plucking flowers”; “Dalit tortured by cops for three days”; “Dalit ‘witch’ paraded naked in Bihar”; “Dalit killed in lock-up at Kurnool”; “7 Dalits burnt alive in caste clash”; “5 Dalits lynched in Haryana”; “Dalit woman gang-raped, paraded naked”; “Police egged on mob to lynch Dalits” (as cited in Hillary Mayen, 2003).

Moreover, the UN and Amnesty International calls the caste system “human rights abuse.”

Next time you hear someone like Deepak Chopra or Georg Feuerstein or David Frawley make blanket statements,

claiming that “yoga came from the Vedas”, you tell them that yoga at least has nothing to do with that portion of the Vedas supporting animal sacrifices and the despicable caste system. At least.

Tell them Buddha told you.

Maybe this is one way we can give something back to India, the country that gave us yoga, these wonderful body-mind-spirit exercises we practice?

What do you think?


About Ramesh Bjonnes

Ramesh Bjonnes is the co-founder of the Prama Institute, a holistic retreat center in the Blue Ridge Mountains of North Carolina and the Director of the Prama Wellness Center, a retreat center specializing in detox by incorporating juice fasting, ayurveda, meditation and yoga to cleanse, relax and rejuvenate. Bjonnes is also a writer, yogi and workshop leader. He lived in India and Nepal in the 1980s learning directly from the traditional teachers of yoga and Tantra. He has taught workshops in many countries and is the author of Sacred Body, Sacred Spirit (InnerWorld) and Tantra: The Yoga of Love and Awakening (Hay House India). He lives and practices in an eco-village in the Blue Ridge Mountains of North Carolina.


15 Responses to “Buddha as human and animal rights activist”

  1. Ramesh says:

    Luke commented on a post you were tagged in:

    "Let's not forget the serious animal rights issues which confront us in this
    quantum age ;-D

  2. Ramesh says:

    Luke, that was indeed why I wrote the article, to remind us not to forget about the current human and animal rights issues by learning from the Buddha!

  3. This from Elephant's facebook:

    Zo commented on a post you were tagged in:

    "Roar: If you're going to cite someone, and I'm delighted that for once you have
    a source, get their name right. It's Danielou. Please enlighten us by citing
    the sections of the Vedas on animal rights, caste and gender which upset you.
    Ranting against Vedic religion because it's been used abusively by some people
    at some times is like denouncing the Bible because American Southern slaveowners
    used it to justify slavery. "

  4. Zo,
    thank you very much for alerting me about my misspelling Alain Danielou's name.

    It is commonly understood, even by Hindus, that certain portions of the Vedas relate to animal sacrifices. It is also commonly understood and amply highlighted in my short article about human rights abuses caused by the Vedic caste system, which is very much still alive today.
    I clearly divided Vedic religion in two portions in my piece above, which is also commonly understood by its followers and scholars, thereby showing that the Buddha mainly criticized the karmakanda, or ritualistic portion of the Vedas, which again is very much alive today. Moreover there are several Vedas, four in all, and five or six if you count the Brahmans and the Upanishads. So comparing my critique to a blanket critique of the Bible is not the same. I made it clear that there are certain portions of the Vedas and of Vedic religion we should denounce, not all. Moreover, slavery in the South has ended while the Vedic caste system is still very much alive.
    I am running out of time but will supply source material later today.
    Thanks again, Zo, for your astute observation and comments.

  5. Machado says:

    Buddham saranam gacchami
    Dhammam saranam gacchami
    Sangham saranam gacchami
    Dutiyam-pi Buddham saranam gacchami
    Dutiyam-pi Dhammam saranam gacchami
    Dutiyam-pi Sangham saranam gacchami
    Tatiyam-pi Buddham saranam gacchami
    Tatiyam-pi Dhammam saranam gacchami
    Tatiyam-pi Sangham saranam gacchami

    I go forth for refuge in the Buddha
    I go forth for refuge in the Dhamma
    I go forth for refuge in the Sangha
    For the second time I go forth for refuge in the Buddha
    For the second time I go forth for refuge in the Dhamma
    For the second time I go forth for refuge in the Sangha
    For the third time I go forth for refuge in the Buddha
    For the third time I go forth for refuge in the Dhamma
    For the third time I go forth for refuge in the Sangha

    Arhat Ariya

  6. I just want to add that it is not common to always supply source material in blogs, magazine articles, newspaper articles, etc. So readers are encouraged to study these complex issues for themselves. However, since Zo personally requested sources, I will do so.

  7. Padma Kadag says:

    Ramesh…If a practicing Buddhist comes upon a human, animal, or even a god in need… do what is right and lovingly relieve the suffering as best you can. Make them comfortable. For the buddhist this action does not end here. If we are starting out upon the path of Buddhism or are already going on the path this is an opportunity to generate merit. There will be no merit if it is tainted with the idea of action in order to gain merit which may lack altruistic compassionate generosity. This altrustic compassionate generosity beyond the dualistic subject/object is what we strive to attain through all of the Buddha's teachings on meditation, Sutra, and Tantra. A complete selfless state where we have exhausted all karmic residue.

  8. Padma Kadag says:

    If we believe and continue to reify samsara with solidity and truth there will never be an end to samsara. If we engage samsara as buddhists with a belief that we can alleviate all suffering through worldly actions then we are no longer buddhists. There was no less suffering in the world at the time Shakyamuni Buddha attained enlightenment and yet without reifying samsara he went beyond samsara ans nirvana. So…ultimately there is nothing in which the Buddha did not liberate. This not only includes all animals and humans but also includes all gods, hell beings, pretas, and all thought. The Buddha never taught nor meditated. It is our perception which gives solidity to the Buddha.

  9. Zo, here are some sources were sacrificial killings of animals are encouraged in the Vedas:

    Manu Smruti ; chapter 5, verse 31: “Eating meat is right for the sacrifice, this is traditionally known as a rule of the gods”

    Manu Smruti chapter 5, verse 39 and 40: “God himself created sacrificial animals for sacrifice… therefore killing in a sacrifice is not killing.”

    Manu Smruti also narrates the supremacy of killing animals in sacrifice in chapter 5 verse 42: “A twice born (a Brahmin) who knows the true meaning of Vedas and injures sacrificial animals for CORRECT PURPOSES cause both himself and the animal to go to the highest level of existence”.

    Among the Hindu scriptures, the Vedas are considered most ancient and most sacred. Non-vegetarian food is mentioned in Rig-Veda, book 10, Hymn 27, verse 2 “Then will I, when I lead my friends to battle against the radiant persons of godless, prepare for thee at home a vigorous bullock, and pour for thee the fifteen fold strong juices”

    In RigVeda, book 10, Hymn 28 verse 3 it says “0 Indra, Bulls they dress for thee, and of these (meat) thou eatest when Maghavan, with food thou art invited”. In Rig veda Book 10 Hymn 86 verse 13 says “Indra will eat thy bulls, thy dear oblation that effecteth much. Supreme is Indra over all”

    These verses indicates that Indra, a God of the Vedic age, used to eat meat.

    Also God Agni is referred to as “flesh-eater’ in the Vedas.

  10. Zo:
    From RigVeda 10.90 Chapter Five
    Ralph T.H. Griffith, The Hymns of the Rg Veda, 1896.

    Here are various verses from the RigVeda and some explanations below explaining the origin of the caste system, originally there were only four castes, but over time these grew to many more castes. It was the Vedic Laws of Manu (circa 40 BCE), however, that truly cemented the caste system and the suppression of women. See list below.

    • From it were horses born, and from it all cattle with two rows of teeth: From it were generated cattle, from it the goats and sheep were born.
    • When they divided Purusha how many portions did they make? What do they call his mouth, his arms? What do they call his thighs and feet?
    • The Brahman was his mouth, of both his arms was the Rajanya made. His thighs became the Vaisya , from his feet the Sudra was produced.
    • The Moon was gendered from his mind, and from his eye the Sun had birth; Indra and Agni from his mouth were born, and Vayu from his breath.
    • Forth from his navel came mid-air; the sky was fashioned from his head; Earth from his feet, and from his ear the regions. Thus formed the worlds.
    • Seven fencing-sticks had he, thrice seven layers of fuel were prepared, when the Gods, offering sacrifice, bound, as their victim, Purusha.
    • Gods, sacrificing, sacrificed the victim: these were the earliest holy ordinances. The Mighty Ones attained the height of heaven, there where the Sadhyas, gods of old, are dwelling.

    Great general sacrifice: In Vedic thought, the entire universe was born of a sacrifice, and furthermore the universe was maintained by proper sacrifice. It was man's responsibility to maintain order by properly performing ritual duty. Compare to Egyptian concept of ma'at.
    Brahman: This passage refers to the divine creation of the caste system, wherein individuals are born to a particular role, and expected to fulfill that role. Brahman refers to the priestly caste, who spoke spells and performed rituals.
    Rajanya: This passage refers to the divine creation of the caste system, wherein individuals are born to a particular role, and expected to fulfill that role. Rajanya refers to the royalty, or kshatriya, warriors who maintained civil order and fought enemies.
    Vaisya: This passage refers to the divine creation of the caste system, wherein individuals are born to a particular role, and expected to fulfill that role. Vaisya refers to the worker caste, merchants, craftsmen, farmers, etc. The producers of society.
    Sudra: This passage refers to the divine creation of the caste system, wherein individuals are born to a particular role, and expected to fulfill that role. Sudra refers to the slave caste, most likely the darker, indigenous people of India conquered by Indo-Aryan invaders. The Sudra who performed hard labor and served other castes.
    Indra: God of War, Soma (inebriating drink used in ritual).
    Agni: God of Fire. Very important in early Vedic ritual.
    Vayu: God of the Wind.
    Worlds: Refers to dimensions, the underworld, the mortal world, the heavenly world. Not a reference to the physical planets per se.

    The Laws of Manu:

    # “In childhood a female must be subject to her father, in youth to her husband, and when her lord is dead, to her sons; a woman must never be independent.”

    # “A father sins unless he marries his daughter off when she reaches puberty.”

    # “Women do not care for beauty, nor is their attention fixed on age; they give themselves to the handsome as well as to the ugly just for the fact that he is a man.”

    # “A husband should be worshiped as a God.”

    # “Even in the home nothing should be done by a child, a young or even an old wife (woman) independently.”

    # “A wife, a son, and a slave, these three are declared to have no property. The wealth which they earn is acquired for him to whom they belong.”

    # “Women, shudra (or sudra, lowest of four castes), dog and crow embody untruth, sin and darkness.”

  11. Machado says:

    No Racism in the Buddha Sangha:

    "Just as, Bhikshus, the great rivers, namely Ganges, Yamuna, Aciravati, Sarabhu, and Mahi, on reaching the mighty ocean renounce their former names and lineage and one and all are reckoned as the mighty ocean, even so, Bhikshus, do the four castes, the Nobles, the Vessas, the Sudras and the Brahmins go forth from home to the homeless life under Tathagata's Dhamma-Vinaya, and they renounce their former names and lineage, and are reckoned just as Bhikshus, sons of The Shakya Gautama Buddha. Inasmuch as this is so, this is the fourth marvel and wonder, Bhikshus, of the Dhamma-Vinaya.'

  12. Here are Shrii Aurobindu's four stages of human history, which roughly corresponds to Gebser's cultural stages of human evolution: archaic, magic, mythic, rational and integral. In other words, the caste system in India, just like slavery in the US, represents a pre-enlightenment, or pre-rational stage of human evolution.

    1. The symbolic stage – basically religious where all life is shaded by a mythical and mystical sense of the divine… ritual, sacrificial, fearful, primitive … the Vedic period in Indian history… the American Indians in America.

    2. The conventional stage – basically ethical and psychological… the caste system in India… the feudal period in the west.

    3. The individualistic stage – a period of reason, revolt, material progress and the search for a certain kind of freedom… the modern day democracy, capitalism, communism and socialism.

    4. The subjective stage – a period when man begins to work within to find deeper meaning and new directions in existence… could end in a more spiritual society.

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