Mythology is a body of traditional stories involving supernatural persons and events and expressing the moral and cultural beliefs of a people. It is the result of the primitive man’s encounter with the universe and of his efforts to come to terms with it. As such, a study of mythology is of the utmost importance for understanding the religion, culture and history of the society producing them.
The focus in this book is on Buddhist mythology or rather the early or Hinayana mythology as depicted in Pali literature and also its links with the later Mahayana mythology.
The Buddha based his teachings on reason but a careful examination of the Pali works shows that early Buddhism was not free from mythology. This mythology does not acknowledge any creator-god. Still Pali literature contains the early Buddhists’ speculation about the cycles of destruction and renovation of the universe, which according to the author, remind us of some of theories of modern science.
The author then goes on to deal with the Buddhist ideas of heavens and hells as the ethical consequences of the aforesaid notions of creation and destruction. Thereafter he describes the Buddhist myths about higher beings including gods and goddesses, spirits and semi-divine beings. But the primacy is given to the Buddha who is regarded as omnipresent, omniscient and omnipotent. This belief gave rise to the deification of the Buddha in the later period. Lastly the author shows how the later Mahayana mythology is indebted to Hinayana.
Dr Haldar’s research will be found invaluable by all those interested in the study of Buddhism and mythology.
Jnanranjan Haldar (1942) did his M.A. and Ph.D. from the University of Calcutta. He was a Senior Research Fellow at the Centre of Advanced Study in Ancient Indian History and Culture, Calcutta University, from 1972 to 1975.
The present work embodies Dr. J. R. Haldar's thesis which earned for him the degree of Ph.D. of the University of Calcutta. Four years ago I introduced to the public a small part of it entitled Links Between Early and Later Buddhist Mythology, reprinted from the proceedings of a seminar on 'Religious Life of Ancient India' held under my chairmanship at the Centre of Advanced Study in Ancient History and Culture, Calcutta University, in Feburary 1971. In my foreword to that tiny work, I expressed the hope that students interested in the subject may find the author's exposition interesting and useful. The said expectation seems to have come true since I find that a reputed periodical of one of the foremost oriental societies of the West says as follows about it in its review : "Dr. Haldar has produced a useful monograph which can suggest many topics for further exploration."
I shall be glad if Dr. Haldar's bigger work, now published, gets the same kind of favourable reception from the students of Indian religious life as the small part of it, referred to above, has been tasting for sometime.
It is difficult to define mythology in a way that would satisfy all. It is a cultural complex which can be approached from various and complementary viewpoints. However, we may say that mythology records the primitive peoples' accounts of supernatural beings and their activities associated with the moral and cultural beliefs of a people concerned. It also speaks of primitive beliefs regarding creation and destruction of the universe. Mythology may be regarded as the background of religions, and Buddhism is no exception to this. Although the Buddha based his teachings upon reason, the Pali works dealing mainly with the ethical doctrines of early Buddhism also give us mythological details from its own sources and from sources often borrowed from earlier traditions-Vedic, anti-Vedic or pre-Vedic.
A careful examination of Pali works does not support the contention that early Buddhism is free from mythology. Buddhism changed its course in different ages, though the fundamental mythological ideas, as found in Pali literature, continue in Sanskrit Buddhist works. The present work deals with early or Hinayana Buddhist mythology as depicted in Pali literature and also as it is reflected in later (Mahayana) literature in certain respects.
Here I have dealt with early Buddhist mythology in seven chapters. It begins with cosmological speculations of the early Buddhists, which have not been adequately treated so far. The importance of the subject lies in the fact that the early Buddhist mythology does not acknowledge any creator-god. Another point of interest is that the Buddhist theory of destruction and renovation of the universe remind us of some of the theories of modern science. The theory of the decay and reorientation of the universe as found in early Buddhist literature resembles the myths regarding cosmic cataclysms extremely widespread among the primitive peoples.
The Buddhist ideas of heavens and hells, forming the subject matter of the second and the third chapters, are the ethical consequences of the aforesaid notions of creation and destruction. Since the nature of individual virtue and vice varied, the number of heavens and hells eventually increased. In describing the heavens and hells, Buddhist mythology has evidently followed the existing traditions which were however influenced by the Buddhist goal of escape from the cosmic cycle.
The myths about higher beings including gods and goddesses, spirits and semi-divine beings, are relatively simple. By far the most complex and dramatic category of myths includes those that are concerned with the cosmic changes which took place at a certain time in the primordial past.
However, the celestial beings of the higher category were never active. According to the early Buddhists, the gods and Brahma are neither supreme deities nor are they creators of the universe. They are inferior to the Buddha (see Chapter V) who is regarded as omnipresent, omniscient and omnipotent. This conception of the early Buddhists was the forerunner of the deification of the Buddha in the later period. Likewise, Lakkhi of the earlier mythology, the symbol of the earned merit to the way to nibbdna tends to become eventually the female principle of the Adi-Buddha in later Buddhism.
The concluding chapter entitled "Links Between Early and Later Buddhist Mythology" is meant to throw significant light on the origin of Mahayana mythology from a source which has not been broached before. It shows that Mahayana mythology is indebted to Hinayana because supernatural characteristics of the Buddha mentioned in the Pali texts point out that the Buddha was considered a supreme God even by the Hnayanists. Both Pali and Sanskrit Buddhist texts regard the Buddha as superior to all gods and goddesses of the Deva and Brahma-lokas. Apart from this, as regards the constitution of the universe, its destruction and renovation, gods and goddesses, spirits and semi-divine beings, Devasurasangrama, heaven and hell, etc., there is a link between Brahmanical and Hinayana mythologies, and it has also a conspicuous connection with the mythological ideas of the Mahayanists.
So far as the question of methodology is concerned, I have followed the policy of textual documentation in order to present things as they really are. I have intentionally avoided the temptation of speculating on different aspects of early Buddhist mythology or of making a comparative study of Brahmanical, Buddhist and Jain mythology, which could, however, create a different appeal. But since early Buddhist mythology is not yet fully explored, I have given wholesale emphasis on this point.
I am grateful to Dr. D.C. Sircar for his kind and valuable guidance that has enabled me to complete my thesis for the Ph.D. degree of the University of Calcutta. I am extending my thanks to Dr. Nalinaksha Dutt who kindly allowed me to consult the valuable books in his library.
**Contents and Sample Pages**
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