Chaitanya Movement | History | I - 3


The Influence of Buddhism

Beyond the tantric contribution of Buddhism already treated, there should be noted the more general absorption of Buddhist adherents and ideas into the new sect.

This was more marked in Orissa, where Buddhism continued longer than in Bengal:

It had possessed a great centre at Purī long before the Hindu shrine arose there, and the whole countryside was full of Buddhism.

It was probably the prevailing religious influence among the common people until Chaitanya's time.

At any rate, it seems clear that when the Vaiṣṇava preachers, a generation after Chaitanya, swept the countryside with their proselytizing, many of their adherents came out of Buddhism.

These people evidently brought much of their old thought with them into the new fold.

The principal Vaishnava poets of Orissa, for instance, who are known as the six Dāses, and whose songs are household property, were still much under Buddhist influence.

They became followers of Chaitanya when his movement swept that area, and created much of the Vaishnava literature of Orissa, but their thought, while cast in Vaishnava forms, still retained much that was distinctively Buddhist.

Too much has been made of the debt of Vaishnavism to Buddhism:

While there was an undoubted kinship of spirit in many ways between them, and therefore the possibility of more or less borrowing, it is too much to claim that most of the characteristic features of the Vaishnava sects were copied from Buddhism.

These features have their roots in pre-Buddhist Hindu practice, and derive from thence whatever may have been the process of development.

In one particular, however, the Chaitanya movement received from Buddhism a distinct legacy which it could well have done without:

This consisted of the remnants of its monastic orders.

There were in Bengal at the time a considerable number of these wandering ascetics, of both sexes, and a questionable society of low order composed of their offspring.

These degraded bhikshus and bhikkhunīs of decayed Buddhism had no standing in the Hindu community, and their own moral condition was not such as to make them welcome in any orderly society.

They were products of Tantrism at its worst. They lived in promiscuity, and were looked upon as outcastes. Their religious origin and their utter lack of rooted social tradition made them peculiarly susceptible to absorption in a new religious movement;

while to a new sect, full of propagandist zeal, this considerable body of detached and destitute religionists offered at once a temptation and an appeal.

As we shall have occasion to see, the acceptance of this last gift of Buddhism entailed degrading influences that have not been surmounted to this day.