By Venerable Piyadassi Thera
There are some who take delight in making the Buddha a non-human. They quote a passage from the Anguttara Nikâya (II, 37), mistranslate it, and misunderstand it. The story goes thus:
Once the Buddha was seated under a tree in the meditation posture, his senses calmed, his mind quiet, and attained to supreme control and serenity. Then a Brahmin, Dona by name, approached the Buddha and asked:
“Sir, will you be a god, a deva?”
“Sir, will you be a heavenly angel, a gandhabba?”
“Sir, will you be a demon, a yakkha?”
“Sir, will you be a human being, a manussa?”
“Then, sir, what indeed will you be?”
Now understand the Buddha’s reply carefully:
“Brahmin, whatever defilements (âsavas) there be owing to the presence of which a person may be identified as a god or a heavenly angel or a demon or a human being, all these defilements in me are abandoned, cut off at the root, made like a palm-tree stump, done away with, and are no more subject to future arising.
“Just as, brahmin, a blue or red or white lotus born in water, grows in water and stands up above the water untouched by it, so too I, who was born in the world and grew up in the world, have transcended the world, and I live untouched by the world. Remember me as one who is enlightened (Buddhoti mam dhârehi brâhmana).”
What the Buddha said was that he was not a god or a heavenly angel or a demon or a human being full of defilements. From the above it is clear that the Buddha wanted the brahmin to know that he was not a human being with defilements. He did not want the brahmin to put him into any of those categories. The Buddha was in the world but not of the world. This is clear from the simile of the lotus. Hasty critics, however, rush to a wrong conclusion and want others to believe that the Buddha was not a human being.
In the Anguttara Nikâya (I, 22), there is a clear instance in which the Buddha categorically declared that he was a human being:
“Monks, there is one person (puggala) whose birth into this world is for the welfare and happiness of many, out of compassion for the world, for the gain and welfare and happiness of gods (devas) and humanity. Who is this one person (eka puggala)? It is the Tathâgata, who is a Consummate One (arahat), a Supremely Enlightened One (sammâ-sambuddho)….Monks, one person born into the world is an extraordinary man, a marvellous man (acchariya manussa).”
Note the Påli word manussa, a human being. Yes, the Buddha was a human being but not just another man. He was a marvellous man.
The Buddhist texts say that the Bodhisatta (as he is known before he became the Buddha) was in the Tusita heaven (devaloka) but came down to the human world to be born as a human being (manussatta). His parents, King Suddhodana and Queen Mahâmâyâ, were human beings.
The Bodhisatta was born as a man, attained enlightenment (Buddhahood) as a man, and finally passed away into parinibbâna as a man. Even after his Supreme Enlightenment he did not call himself a God or Brahmâ or any “supernatural being,” but an extraordinary man.
Dr. S. Radhakrishnan, a Hindu steeped in the tenets of the Vedas and Vedanta, says that Buddhism is an offshoot of Hinduism, and even goes to the extent of calling the Buddha a Hindu. He writes:
“The Buddha did not feel that he was announcing a new religion. He was born, grew up, and died a Hindu. He was restating with a new emphasis the ancient ideals of the Indo-Aryan civilization.”n14
But the Buddha himself declares that his teaching was a revelation of truths discovered by himself, not known to his contemporaries, not inherited from past tradition. Thus, in his very first sermon, referring to the Four Noble Truths, he says: “Monks, with the thought ‘This is the noble truth of suffering, this is its cause, this is its cessation, this is the way leading to its cessation,’ there arose in me vision, knowledge, wisdom, insight, and light concerning things unheard of before (pubbesu ananussutesu dhammesu).”n15
Again, while making clear to his disciples the difference between a Fully Enlightened One and the arahats, the consummate ones, the Buddha says: “The Tathâgata, O disciples, while being an arahat is fully enlightened. It is he who proclaims a way not proclaimed before, he is the knower of a way, who understands a way, who is skilled in a way (maggaññu, maggavidu, maggakovido). And now his disciples are wayfarers who follow in his footsteps.”n16
The ancient way the Buddha refers to is the Noble Eightfold Path and not any ideals of the Indo-Aryan civilization as Dr. Radhakrishnan imagines.
However, referring to the Buddha, Mahatma Gandhi, the architect of Indian independence, says: “By his immense sacrifice, by his great renunciation and by the immaculate purity of his life, he left an indelible impress upon Hinduism, and Hinduism owes an eternal debt of gratitude to that great teacher.” (Mahâdev Desai, With Gandhiji in Ceylon, Madras, 1928, p.26.)