Brahmavihara, Hinduism & Tagore - A Note


Tagore is the only modern Hindu thinker to have integrated the concept of Brahmavihāra into his vision. Brahmavihāra is loving meditation on ‘divine states of mind’ called mettā, karuṇā, muditā and upekkhā – Pāli words that are purged of all taint of egoism, presumably to help universalise consciousness.

Although it appears to contrast with Bhāgavad Gita, parts of Brahmavihāra may have entered Hinduism through Patanjali yoga. The method appears to find ṛgvedic sanction through Vaiśvāmitra (Ṛg-i.6.4).

Gauḍapāda also advocates renunciation of egoism, but differs in two ways from Buddha. For him renunciation follows realisation and it is wholly negative. In Buddha, renunciation of egoism is a preparation for realisation and is filled with universal love.

Tagore argues that Buddha’s approach is integral to the Upaniśadic vision. He sees Buddha’s universal love as a practical tool to enable renunciation and realisation. Renunciation propelled by love heals the species-specific flaw of mankind, fulfilling it. It also converts the disinterested action of Gitā into an act of freedom and perfection.

For Tagore, Brahmavihāra is complementary to the Hindu vision.


Tagore is the only major Hindu thinker to have inducted the Buddhist concept of Brahmavihāra into analysis. This concept is a part of Buddhist techniques of meditation and is known as ‘the four-fold meditation’ (Dasgupta 1952, p 501). In this paper, we trace some connections between Brahmavihāra, Hinduism and Tagore's own understanding.

Brahmavihāra – loving meditation on the four divine states of mind

Brahmavihāra is a buddhist technique in which one meditates on four divine states of mind: mettā, karuṇā, muditāand upekkhā. These are Pāli words whose Sanskṛtcounterparts are maitrī, karuṇā, muditāand upekṣā. In Buddhist usage, they are understood as ‘universal friendship, universal pity, happiness in the prosperity and happiness of all, and indifference to any kind of preferment for himself, his friend, his enemy or a third party’ (Dasgupta 1952, p 501).

Why are they considered to be divine states of mind in Buddhist usage?

The clue lies in their redefinition in Buddhist usage. The Sanskṛtcounterparts, with the exception of karua (pity or compassion), have meanings that indicate an intrusion of egoism and sense of Self. The Pāli terms however seem to be redefined in order to purge egoism and sense of Self from them.

Thus, maitrī means both friendliness and benevolence according to Monier Williams and Cappellar. Benevolence connotes a degree of aloofness and patronage. Friendship, although weak in social distance and hierarchy, can develop in circles that reflect one’s own likes, dislikes, and one’s own personality. Both involve egoism. In contrast, the Buddhist mettāis ‘universal friendship’ – friendship that excludes none, and therefore is free from all egoism.

Muditā, muditam,in Sanskṛtindicate pleasure, joy, delight and happiness, all of which connect with the body, egoism, or sense of Self. The Buddhist usage however exclude all joys that are rooted in the self, and understands it as the "happiness in the prosperity and happiness of all".

Finally, the Sanskṛt upekṣāhas the meanings ofcontempt/disdain, endurance or patience, overlooking/neglect, abandonment, and indifference. Contempt reflects a superiority complex, endurance or patience is required when one encounters an ‘inimical other’. Both indicate the intrusion of egoism. Overlooking, neglect and abandonment are consequences of indifference. Indifference to others shores up egoism. Hence, in Buddhist usage upekkhāis indifference to oneself and to all matters connected to one’s self. Technically put, it is defined as -

indifference to the prospects and state of one's own Self, as well as of any other, whether friend or foe (Dasgupta 1952, p 501).

The reason for the changes in the meanings of the Sanskṛt originals is to be located in the purpose of Buddhist technique, which is to fix the practitioner in meditation to such an extent ‘that he should not find any difference between the happiness or safety of himself and that of others.’ (ibid., p 462). The effect of Brahmavihāra, therefore is to purge all egoism.

Whereas Brahmavihāra generally provides support for ‘insight practice’ (Goodman 2013, p 566), if and when successful, it can pave the way for universalising individual consciousness. This is possibly why these four attitudes are called the ‘divine states of mind or divine abidings’.  

A fifth component of Brahmavihāra which has been stressed by Tagore, that enables the transition from egolessness to a universalisation of consciousness, is ‘unlimited love’.

A peculiarity of Brahmavihāra technique of meditation, according to Tagore, is that it is not devoid of emotion, but is permeated with selfless love. (1) He says that "... going back to Brahma, to the infinite love, [is] ... Brahmavihāra, the joy of living in Brahma," (Tagore 1915, p 59). He also cites Buddha as saying:
"... thou shalt preserve a relation of unlimited love ... To live in such a consciousness while standing or walking, sitting or lying down till you are asleep, is Brahma vihāra, or, ... having your joy in the spirit of Brahma.” (ibid. p.14) (2)

Brahmavihāra and Hinduism

In his comparative analysis of Brahmavihāra, Dasgupta draws a sharp distinction of the concept with Gitā. He says:

“The Gitā does not enter into any of these disciplinary measures. It does not make a program of universal altruism or hold that one should live only for others, as is done in Mahāyana ethics ... [it] tries to show how one can lead a normal life of duties and responsibilities and yet be in peace and contentment in a state of equanimity and in communion with God." (op. cit., p 501)

In spite of this contrast, Dasgupta notes that some of these attitudes entered into Hinduism through Patanjali yoga:

Patanjali's yoga is under a deep debt of obligation to this Buddhist yoga .... The ideas of universal friendship, etc. were also taken over by Patanjali and later on passed into Hindu works. (ibid., p 460) 

Given the contrast that Dasgupta draws between Gitā and the Buddhist ethics, one can wonder whether the confluence of the Buddhist technique with latter day Hinduism was natural and organic or whether it was alien and mechanistic.

It is argued in the subsequent sections of this paper that Brahmavihāra did not enter Hinduism as an alien practice - from outside as it were. This is because, this Buddhist technique itself can be seen as framed within the older Vedic attitude towards svadhā.

Svadhā in Vaiśvāmitra's hymns
There are ten hymns consisting of a hundred verses coming through Vaiśvāmitra (son of the reputed sage Viśvāmitra), that are placed at the beginning of the Ṛgveda samhita by Vedavyāsa. The word svadhāoccurs only in one verse (i.6.4).

Svadhāhas five classes of meanings  
i) own pleasure, pleasure (A,Mc,Mw,C),
ii) own will/own nature (A,Mw,C,Mc),
iii) own place/home (Mc,Mw,C). *
*Monier Williams (Mw) also gives the meanings of self-position, self-power

Since these reflect aspects of the ego, they can be covered by the word ‘egoism’.

Svadhā also has the meanings of Māyā (A,Mw,W) and oblation to manes (A,Mw,C). It can be argued that idea of māyā is connected with the philosophical-spiritual understanding of ‘egoism’ that mistakes the narrow grosser Self for the true universal Self. Oblations to manes are part of karmakāṇḍa that compensates for egoism and tries to integrate the narrow Self into a wider gamut of relations. Hence, these two meanings of svadhā can be called ‘derivative’ meanings, and ‘egoism’ can be considered to be the primary meaning of svadhā. Giving up of egoism, the primary meaning of svadhā, is the essence of the Brahma-vihārā. The Ṛgvedic attitude to svadhārevealed in the verse through Vaiśvāmitra, helps us to understand Buddha's innovation within in its temporal context.

The sanction for Brahmavihāra in Vaiśvāmitra 
Verse i.6.4 of Ṛgveda coming through Vaiśvāmitra reads (3):
ādaha svadhāmanu punargarbhatvamerire | dadhānā nāma yajñiyam ||
Padapāṭḥam: ā-daha svadhāḥ-manu punar-garbhatvam-erire dadha-anā nāma yajñiyam
Translation: Burn own will, pleasure, nature, burn Māyā, wisely, once more to womb-state [they] have caused to obtain. Resolve upon hereby, a name [and] that worthy of  sacrifice, of worship.

Word meanings and grammar 
ādaha burn! [2nd p. sg. impv. √dah = to burn, prefix ā intensifies verb];
svadhāḥ ac./nm. pl. svadhā [name of māyā A,W, nature or material universe Mw; own will or pleasure, own nature];
manu wisely [adv. manu = wise A, Mw];
punar once more;
garbhatvam to womb-state [ac. sg. garbhatva = womb-state];
erire  [they] have caused to obtain [3rd p. pl. perf. mid. √er = cause to obtain Mw];
dadha resolve upon [2nd p. sg. impv. act. √dhā with ac. = to resolve upon A,Mw,C]; anā hereby [A,Mw]; *
nāma on a name [ac. sg. nāman n. = name];
yajñiyam on that which is worthy of sacrifice, on that which is worthy of worship [ac. sg. yajñiya = worthy of worship, worthy of sacrifice],

* Note: Although dadhānāḥ is viable by sandhi rules, the parsed form of dadha+ana is favoured for compatibility in mood with ‘ādaha’ which is in 2nd p. sg. impv.

This verse shows that the gveda is also opposed to svadhāḥ or the different manifestations of  ‘egoism’ since they have led to the state of rebirth. Presumably this happens because karma attaches when one acts as agent of one's own will, pleasure, position or nature, i.e., under the influence of svadhāḥ. Hence, they have to be 'burnt'. 

The alternative to egoism, ambiguously proposed through Vaiśvāmitra, is to ‘fix upon’ or ‘resolve upon’ a name and that which is ‘worthy of sacrifice or of worship’. This ambiguity in formulation is deliberate and syncretising.

‘Fixing upon’ can imply either meditation, devotion or even contemplation. A ‘name’ or ‘that worthy of worship’ allows even japa. It allows objects of form as well as formless notions to become objects of devotion or of meditation. A whole range of choice is available to the seeker who wishes to avoid rebirth.

Indeed, even meditation on states of mind that are worthy of reverence, or the ‘four divine states of mind’ is not precluded. This is exactly what Brahmavihāra consists of. Thus, Buddha's fourfold meditation on divine states of mind seems to have gvedic sanction.

Renunciation of svadhā in Gauḍapāda vs. Brahmavihāraof Buddha

Sri Gauḍapāda, the guru of the preceptor Ādi Śankara, also advocates complete renunciation of svadhā. So extreme is his advocacy, that he says that one who has realised Advaita or the oneness of essence, who has realised that all divisions of form are illusory, should give up svadhā even in matter of form, salutation, praise, place etc,(4) to the point of walking about like ‘dead or insensible matter’ (jaḍavallokam ācaret). He says in verses ii.35-36:

By the wise ... this (Ātman) has been verily realised as totally ... free from the illusion of the manifold, and non-dual. Therefore knowing the Ātman to be such, fix your attention on non-duality. Having realised non-duality behave in the world like an insensible object.” (Nikhilānanda 1949, p.138-9).

The purpose of renouncing svadhā after realising the oneness of essence is to establish the practitioner’s consciousness in the realisation

“Having known the truth ... he becomes one with Reality, derives his pleasure from It and never deviates from the Real.” (ibid, p. 142)

Thus, in Sri Gauḍapāda's system of Advaita, svadhā is renounced after realisation of truth, in order to consolidate it. In sharp contrast, Brahmavihāra gives up svadhā in preparation of realisation, as a part of the meditation that leads up to it.

Further, the renunciation of svadhāin Gauḍapāda is wholly negative - neither embracing the wider humanity nor the joys and delights of human existence and achievement. The realised one walks around as ‘dead or insensible matter’.

In contrast, Buddha's Brahmavihāra is positive, permeated with loving kindness, universal compassion, and joy in the achievements of others. Thus, Tagore points out:

"The path Buddha pointed out was not merely the practice of self-abnegation, but the widening of love. And therein lies the true meaning of Buddha's preaching." (Tagore 1915)

Brahmavihāra& Hinduism in Tagore

Tagore is the only major Hindu thinker to have utilised the Buddhist concept of Brahmavihāra. In his "Sādhana - The Realisation of Life", he concedes the possibility of complete negativity of some Hindus, but asserts that such an attitude is contrary to the spirit of Hinduism. Citing the Īśa Upaniṣad in his support, he says:

“It may be, that such a doctrine has been and still is prevalent with a section of our countrymen. But this is certainly not in accord with the pervading spirit of the Indian mind. Instead, it is the practice of realising and affirming the presence of the infinite in all things which has been its constant inspiration.
Iśāvāsyamidam sarvam yat kiñca jagatyām jagat ...
We are enjoined to see whatever there is in the world as being enveloped by God." (ibid., p. 13)

Immanence of God and realisation : Tagore argues that this immanence of God logically implies an immanence of realisation - leading to knowledge of God within the world. Identifying the universal spirit Brahman with puruṣa of the Upaniṣad,(5) he says:

"The being who is in his essence the light and life of all, who is world-conscious, is Brahma. To feel all, to be conscious of everything, is his spirit. We are immersed in his consciousness body and soul .... " (ibid, p. 14)

The knowledge of the immanent ‘within-world’ God automatically calls for devotion and adoration within the world. Says Tagore:

"Can this be God abstracted from the world? Instead, it signifies not merely seeing him in all things, but saluting him in all the objects of the world. The attitude of the God-conscious man of the Upanishad towards the universe is one of a deep feeling of adoration. His object of worship is present everywhere. It is the one living truth that makes all realities true. This truth is not only of knowledge but of devotion...." (ibid, p. 14)

The price of renunciationIn order to gain a knowledge of this universal immanent spirit, one has to renounce svadhā. Recalling Īśa Up., Tagore says:

"We have, however, to pay a price for this .... What is the price? It is to give one's self away. ... The Upanishad says, 
tyaktena bhuñjīthāh
Thou shalt gain by giving away,... " (ibid, p. 15)

Is it possible to renounce one's own nature, will and pleasure? 

Love as an instrument of renunciation and realisation
Many may find the Upaniṣadic teaching of renunciation to be impractical. Buddha, according to Tagore, developed the ‘practical side of the teaching of Upanishads’. In his interpretation, the universal love proposed by Buddha comes through as an instrument, an engine, a practical method that leads from self-abnegation to realisation. In Buddha, he says:

the extinction of selfishness - which is the function of love, ... does not lead to darkness but to illumination.” (ibid, p. 48)

Explaining how Buddha's Brahmavihāra furthers the realisation of Brahman, he observes:

“... we do not comprehend because we do not love. ... to be one with this sarvānubhūh, ... who is in the external sky, as well as in our inner soul, we must attain to that summit of consciousness, which is love...” (ibid, p. 59)

Love, he says, is superior to understanding since it dissolves difference and leads to comprehension:

The ‘... relation of understanding is partial, but the relation of love is complete. In love the sense of difference is obliterated and the human soul fulfils its purpose in perfection, transcending the limits of itself and reaching across the threshold of the infinite. (ibid, p. 19)

Thus, love is an instrument by which man attains one-ness with the Supreme, a fact that leads Tagore to place love at the centre of the human quest for the Supreme. He says:

“Essentially man ... is a lover. His freedom and fulfillment is in love, which is another name for perfect comprehension. By this power of comprehension, this permeation of his being, he is united with the all-pervading Spirit, who is also the breath of his soul.” (ibid, p. 12)

In Tagore's mind, love is the instrument that fulfills the Upaniṣadic vision.

Universal love and Hindu wisdomThere are two other ways in which Buddha's doctrine of universal love connects with Hindu wisdom, although the argument is not fully or explicitly developed in Tagore. 

According to the Bṛhadāraṇyaka Upaniṣad, Brahma gave species-specific advice when approached by devas, asuras and human beings. To devas - the advice was to have self control, to asuras to be compassionate, and to man the injunction was 'to give' (all dātta) (Mādhavānanda 1950, pp 814-16).

Reflection suggests that these injunctions were aimed to correct a flaw in each species. The flaw in the human species apparently was selfishness.

Tagore observes that even though a selfish man may give away things on compulsion or for ulterior motives, the action scars him, and therefore does not achieve its purpose of transforming his consciousness. In other words, 'giving' that is spawned by selfishness is imperfect and unfulfilling to man. In contrast, love acts as a force in a direction opposite to selfishness, so that giving becomes an act of joy. This heals the flaw in the nature of human kind, fulfilling it (op. cit., pp. 44-45). 

In this way, love becomes an effective instrument for following the injunction of Brahma and for perfecting human consciousness.

Tagore also argues that pure or perfect love inspires self-lessness that converts Gitā's ‘disinterested action’ into an act of freedom and perfection. He says, 

"Thus we find in perfect love the freedom of our self. That only which is done for love is done freely, however much pain it may cause. Therefore working for love is freedom in action. This is the meaning of the teaching of disinterested work in the Gīta." (ibid, p. 45)

Thus, the universal love that propels self abnegation in Buddha's Brahmavihāra is seen by Tagore as a practical and perfect way of realising the injunctions of the Upanishads as well as of Gitā. For him, Brahmavihāra is complementary to the Hindu vision.

keywords: Brahmavihāra, Tagore, Gauḍapāda, Ṛgveda, svadhā, mettā, karuṇā, muditā, upekkhā, universal love, renunciation, upaniśads

1. Dasgupta, S.N. (1952) The Philosophy of Bhagavat-Gitā, in A History of Indian Philosophy, vol. 2, University Press, Cambridge.
2. Goodman, C. (2013) Buddhist Meditation: Theory and Practice, in A Companion to Buddhist Philosophy, ed. Steven Emmanuell, Wiley Blackwell.
3. Mādhavānanda Swāmi (1950) Brhadāranyaka Upaniṣad with Commentary by Śankarāchārya, Advaita Ashrama, Mayavati, Almora, Himalayas.
4. Nikhilananda Swami (1949), The Mānḍūkyopanishad with Gauḍapāda’s Kārikā, Sri Ramakrishna Ashrama, Mysore.
5. Tagore, R. (1915) Sadhana-The Realisation of Life, Macmillan, New York.
Lexical References: A Apte; Mc Macdonell; Mw Monier Williams; C Capellar; W Wilson.

Abbreviations:  p. person; sg. singular; pl. plural; n. neuter gender; adv. adverbial form; nm. nominative; ac. accusative; impv. imperative; perf. perfect; mid. middle; act. active voice;

(1) Goodman also notes that "... in Theravāda tradition, loving kindness is most commonly used ..." (Goodman 2013, p 566).
(2) Tagore also says elsewhere: 
“He who wants to reach this stage, according to Buddha, "... shall have measureless love for all creatures ... standing, sitting, walking, lying down, ...he shall keep his mind active in this exercise of universal goodwill." (Tagore 1915, p 59).
(3) Since the above is an independent translation of the Ṛgvedic verse based solely on word-meanings and rules of grammar and uninfluenced by convention and tradition, the relevant information is given immediately under the translation – word by word.
(4) Verse ii.37 reads:
nistutirnirnamaskāro niḥsvadhākāra eva cha ...
without praise, without salutation, without forms relating to svadhā ... ,
i.e., without forms that conform to own will, own pleasure, etc. It may be noted here that influenced by convention, all translations translate svadhā merely as the ritual of offering oblations to manes, and not in the natural meaning of ‘own will, pleasure, will’ (eg. Nikhilānanda 1949, p. 140) .
(5) ‘Yaśchāyamasminnākāśā tejomayā'mritamayah purushah sarvānubhūh’ (Tagore 1915, p. 14).

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