Sri Krishna was the first Incarnation of God properly so recognized. (Some say there was another before him, named Rama, the son of a king; yet I think Krishna was really earlier than Rama. And although Rama is worshipped by millions in India, particularly in northern India, as an Incarnation, he did not leave many teachings and we will not discuss him here.) Sri Krishna no doubt brought to the world a tremendous spiritual power, and if the stories are to be believed, he left a deep impression on his contemporaries all over India. But as I said, he is more or less a mythical figure and we haven’t much historical information about him; therefore we cannot say how great his influence was in his own time. Yet it is true to say that his influence through the centuries about thirty-five hundred years has grown, not decreased. And in modern times he has become better known than ever, both in India and outside India, through the many translations of the Bhagavad-Gita. Everybody wants to translate the Gita, and of course those who read it cannot escape thinking about the personality of Sri Krishna and of his manifold activity. His way of being tremendously active while representing the highest ideal appeals particularly to the modern mind, because modern people are caught in the complexities of action and yet want to feel detached, free of these things, not dragged on by them; so we find the teaching and the example of Sri Krishna a great stimulus.
After Sri Krishna we come to Buddha, who lived about the sixth century B.C. Of course, Buddha is not thought of today as a Vedantist. But he himself felt he was part of the community of the Hindus and that he was teaching some of the essential things taught by Hindu saints. For centuries afterwards the Hindus did not think of the followers of Buddha as separate from themselves. You see, the idea of many religions, one separate from the other, is a modern and essentially a Semitic idea: you add ism’ or ity, and you classify all people and put them in watertight compartments, and there you are. That which should be the basis of unity becomes the source of difference and separation. That idea is certainly the brainchild of Western man; it has nothing to do with the Orientals. A Chinese could be a Confucian and a Buddhist at the same time; he could also be a Christian. You would not know where he stops being a Christian and starts being a Confucian or a Taoist or a Buddhist. He gets mixed up there. In India there are Christians who worship in Hindu shrines and Mohammedans who worship at Hindu shrines, and Hindus who worship in Mohammedan shrines. It is very difficult to keep them separate; we have never tried to. And we have looked upon Buddha as a Vedantic prophet. As a matter of fact, in one of the old books he is sometimes called Advaya-vadin, the teacher of monism, teacher of
Advaita. And that he really was, only his approach was different.
He took the Vedantic teachings and spread them broadcast for the benefit of all. Previously only a handful of people could study the Vedas; Vedic Sanskrit itself took years to learn. So he gave the same teachings in the language of the people. And he used a simple approach; he said quiet the mind, get rid of things. Well, if you get rid of things, what remains is Brahman. Vedanta also says that. But since Buddha wanted to speak to the multitudes, who didn’t have much learning or know much philosophy, he dispensed with all the complexities of philosophical argument; he simplified everything. If Sri Krishna extracted the essence of the Upanishads or Vedanta for the benefit of all, Buddha democratized the same teachings so that they could be given even to those who were not of Aryan culture, who had no philosophical knowledge, who didn’t know Sanskrit, who were not even educated. You see, these moral teachings, the teachings of nonself, appeal to all. Of course, the teachings of contemplation are always difficult for people everywhere; not many are willing to sit down and meditate. But the rest of Vedanta he made very easy.
And not only did he present the teaching of Vedanta in a slightly different and popular form, but he was the first amongst all religious teachers to become ? missionary. The word missionary has a bad odour about it, but take it in the right spirit. Buddha said to his monks, Go, go to the east, go to the north, go to the south, go to the west and spread this wonderful message of nirvana or enlightenment to all. He wanted his disciples to give everyone this good information. Just as amongst the early Christians the idea was to spread the Gospel, the good news that the Saviour had come, so amongst the early Buddhists, about six centuries before Christ, there was the same tendency. This, then, was the contribution of Buddha: His own personality was tremendous; he simplified the teachings of the Upanishads, and he made Vedanta a missionary religion for the first time, spreading it beyond the borders of India to all peoples. Even if you don’t accept the idea that Buddha was really a Vedantist and that all he taught was Vedanta, the astonishing thing was that although his missionaries went in the name of Buddhism, very soon they began to teach all kinds of Indian philosophical systems, and today, because so much was lost when northern India was ravaged by foreign invasion, we can recover ancient Sanskrit texts, to which we have references but no manuscripts, from their translations in Tibetan and Chinese. You see, the Buddhist monks spread Vedanta everywhere they went.