Published on 12th October, 2014, in The Mid-Day.
This is how we are taught Buddhism. There was once a prince of the Sakya clan, who was so unhappy with the world that on the night following the birth of his first child, a son, left the palace and went to the forest in search of wisdom that would liberate him from suffering. When he finally discovered the answer, he came to be known as Buddha, the enlightened one, who decided to spread his message with the world.
But did Buddha discover or re-discover wisdom? Some believe there was only one and only one Buddha, who discovered wisdom for humanity and changed the world forever. Others believe, the world has many Buddhas, and Sakyamuni Buddha was but one of them.
This division is most clearly articulated in Jainism where the wisest of the wise are referred to as Tirthankara. History texts books refer to Mahavira as the ‘founder’ of Jainism, but the Jains themselves see Mahavira as the last in the line of 24 Tirthankaras. The one just before him was called Parsva and the one who was first was called Rishabha. But even Rishabha was not the first; he was first of this world-cycle and the world has many cycles, each cycle with its own set of 24 Tirthankaras. Thus Jain wisdom is constantly re-discovered and shared through the monks who are thinkers (shramanas) to the common folk who are listeners (shravaka).
While most history texts books refer to Muhammad as the ‘founder’ of Islam, Muslims do not see it that way. For in Islamic mythology, Islam is Allah’s way and has always existed for God has always existed. From time to time, men have been chosen to communicate the word of God. These are the prophets. Abraham was a prophet. Moses was a prophet. Jesus was a prophet. Muhammad was the prophet, the last and final one. Each one was re-told God’s way and shared it with the people.
Those who believe in discovery lean towards the linear mindset. Those who believe in re-discovery lean towards the cyclical mindset. In the linear mindset there are heroes who do extra-ordinary things. In the cyclical mindset there are sages who simply rediscover things that humanity has forgotten. For some Buddha is a hero who changed the world; for others Buddha was a sage who re-aligned the world. How we choose to see Buddha reveals not the truth, but our mindset.
We can argue that scientific discoveries and inventions are unique. But there are people who will argue that is not true. America was simply re-discovered by European explorers. Pacific islanders, Vikings and even the Chinese, had discovered it earlier. Calculus was not discovered by European scientists but had been known to ancient Indian mathematicians. These are facts. Many believe modern scientific discoveries are simply re-discoveries of a lost ancient world called Atlantis. There are those who argue that in Vedic times we knew about planes and nuclear fission. These seem from the realm of science fiction.
When Europeans, or Americans, insist that they discovered science, it does irk many Indians and rightly so. But the question is, do the arguments that follow emerge from fact, or from the tension between linear and cyclical psychology, or is it about chauvinism, be it Euro-centricity or Indo-centricity of all wisdom. This question is not easy to answer.