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Comparison of Buddhist Simile of the Chariot and Plato’s Chariot Analogy

From its inception, one of philosophy’s most prominent topics has been the discussion of the self. How can one know oneself? What makes your self yours? Questions like these have been ubiquitous throughout philosophy for generations, and for good reason. In discussing the whys and hows of life, it’s almost impossible to avoid questioning the lens you see things through. As a result of this, a multitude of different theories and models have been proposed to explain the mysteries of the self, and while many have become lost to time, a select portion are known still to this day. Two of these enduring models of the self are the Buddhist Simile of the Chariot from the Milinda Panha and Plato’s Chariot Analogy from Phaedrus. Both of these analogies remain relevant in modern times due to their recognition of the self as a complex and multifaceted thing. In spite of their differing origins, a multitude of comparisons can be made between the Buddhist Simile of the Chariot and Plato’s Chariot Analogy.

Like many other texts from its time, the exact origins of the Buddhist Simile of the Chariot are a difficult thing to place. Though the Simile of the Chariot is found in a number of different forms in Buddhist literature, the most accepted and discussed source of the simile is from a work called the Milinda Panha or, Milinda’s Questions, (O’Brien 1). The text of the Milinda Panha dates back to around 100 BC and covers a series of dialogues between Milinda, an Indo-Greek king, and Nagasena, a Buddhist monk from Kashmir (O’Brien 3). The Milinda Panha is the source of numerous Buddhist stories and theories, but its Simile of the Chariot; attributed to Nagasena, is perhaps its most well-known.

Nagasena’s Simile of the Chariot comes about as a result of Milinda’s questioning of the self. When the king asks Nagasena’s name, he replies that Nagasena is indeed what he is called, but that “no permanent individual” named Nagasena existed within him. As a response to this assertion, Milinda questions how it is that Nagasena can exist without having a self: “If, Reverend Nagasena, there is no individuality, who gives you monks your robes and food, lodging and medicines? And who makes use of them? Who lives a life of righteousness, meditates, and reaches Nirvana?” (Chaffee Pg.148-149). In short, Milinda questions how one can be individual or responsible if their self does not exist. Concerning this, Nagasena questions Milinda about what part of a chariot makes it a chariot. After stating that no individual part of the chariot gives it its existence, Nagasena notes that in the same way, the culmination of these parts is no more a “chariot” than the individual parts themselves. With regards to this, Milinda and Nagasena both conclude that names such as “chariot” or “Nagasena” are little more than “practical designations” for circumstantially created things.

Though Nagasena’s simile is conceptually very simple, it does an excellent job of illustrating the flaws with labels. Certainly, it would be, and is, easier to just call something a “chariot” or whatever else, but it undermines the uniqueness and complexity of said object. Furthermore, Nagasena’s model helps to show how difficult it can be to truly define something. If it is not possible to distinguish what part of the chariot makes it one, if such a distinction even exists, then how could we hope to do the same thing with a self? There’s no individual piece of a chariot that makes it a chariot, just as the combination of these pieces does not define its essence. The Buddhist anatta, or “no-self” philosophy hinges on views like what Nagasena puts forth here. In this line of thought, there is no permanent distinction of the self, just a combination of impermanent elements with only a fleeting sense of identity. In this light, Nagasena’s simile helps to illustrate the Buddhist idea of the “five aggregates,” and how they serve to construct a self in Buddhist beliefs. Just as not one individual aggregate makes a consciousness, no individual part of a chariot makes a chariot. Despite its hazy origins, the Milinda Panha’s Simile of the Chariot has a very succinct and thought-provoking message: the names we give things are merely distinctions for the sake of practicality, and in no way define their nature or essence.

Much like Nagasena, Plato also utilized an analogy including a chariot to illustrate his views on the self, though in a much different manner. Plato’s Chariot Analogy is covered in the work Phaedrus, one of Plato’s numerous dialogues. Written in approximately 370 BC, Phaedrus, named after one of the principle speakers in the dialogue,and is often referred to as one of Plato’s most important works. At the time, Plato often discussed a “tripartite” model of the soul or self, consisting of reason, physical appetite, and spirit/passion (Chaffee Pg.96). The Chariot Analogy is often lauded for its explanation of the self as something that requires proper balance between these three factors.

Plato’s analogy describes the soul, or the self, as analogous to a chariot drawn by two winged horses. The first of the horses is described as an “upright and cleanly-made” animal, and is both agreeable and of noble breed. This white horse signifies the first part of Plato’s tripartite view of the soul, representing spirit. In sharp contrast, the second, darker horse is described in a much less flattering manner: “The other is a crooked lumbering animal… the mate of insolence and pride, shag-eared and deaf, hardly yielding to whip and spur.” This horse, the rougher and more disobedient of the two symbolizes appetite. The charioteer in charge of these two horses serves as the final piece of Plato’s model of the soul, reason. In the analogy, the charioteer must control and guide the two horses to reach fulfillment and enlightenment. The charioteers who are unable to keep themselves on the right track are “destined to experience personal, intellectual, and spiritual failure,” (Chaffee Pg. 96).

As can be seen, Plato’s usage of the chariot is quite different from Nagasena’s, but he still paints a very clear picture on his views of the self. Foremost, the white horse symbolizes how our passion, mainly emotions according to Plato, are a core driving force in the journey of our lives. This horse being generally agreeable helps to both fuel and support the charioteer’s courage and ambition. Though passion can lead us astray at times, Plato seems to believe it is most often a force of good. Unlike the white horse, the black horse, representing our appetite, is often obstructive and difficult to maintain. However, while appetite can certainly be a negative force, it drives us forward nonetheless. The temptation of carnal desires is something no one is free from, but the pursuit or resistance of these things helps us to understand ourselves better and become more reasonable in future occurrences. In Plato’s model, by gathering the reason and understanding to maintain balance between the horses, the charioteer is able to gain the greatest understanding of themselves and of the world. To summarize, Plato’s Chariot Analogy illustrates his belief in the importance of utilizing reason to balance desire and spirit to gain the greatest understanding of the self.

The similarities between the two works reach past just the chariot; the analogies of Nagasena and Plato both demonstrate the self as a multifaceted thing. Throughout both analogies, it is made clear that both men feel the self is something with numerous components, though their views on these components certainly differ. In the same vein, Plato’s threefold model of the soul aligns fairly well with the Buddhist belief in the five aggregates as it is represented in the Chariot Simile. In both models, the soul or self would fail, or perhaps not even exist, if the right pieces weren’t in play. Moreover, in both instances, the soul would not be able to reach its “truest” or most enlightened form should these elements not be in balance. In short, both Plato’s analogy and Nagasena’s simile both seek to guide us in further understanding the components of the self.

While both of these metaphors have a multitude of similarities, it wouldn’t be correct to say that they are entirely similar. It’s reasonable to assume that Nagasena and Plato followed very different philosophical paths, and the views they express through their analogies serve to reflect this. The core goal of the charioteer in Plato’s analogy illustrates this point most clearly. To Nagasena or others who share his view, the charioteer’s journey of “ascending” their self would be near pointless if said self did not exist. Moreover, The Buddhist analogy deals more with the physical definition and components of a self, while Plato’s analogy is more concerned with defining the balance necessary between aspects of the self. Another key difference between the two is how they describe balance within the self. The core message of Plato’s allegory is that balance between our internal emotions and desires is something we should strive for in order to be our best self. Nagasena, through his simile, states that a balance between the things that make us is inherent. Unlike Nagasena, Plato has a greater belief in the uniqueness of the self and does not believe that the constant change of life is fueled entirely by things outside of our control. It’s clear that the respective chariot analogies have a multitude of differences, both in terms of message and ideology; both Plato and Nagasena’s ideas are quite different, but equally valid.

As can be seen, both the Buddhist Simile of the Chariot and Plato’s Chariot Analogy, though far off in age and origin, are effective illustrations of the human self. The similarities of the two analogies reach past just the mutual usage of a chariot. The Buddhist Chariot simile helps to show us the inherent issues with labels, or practical designations, while Plato’s analogy demonstrates the difficulty and importance of finding internal balance. Though there are distinct differences between the two metaphors of Nagasena and Plato, both philosophers show an understanding of the self far ahead of their respective times.

Works Cited

Chaffee, John. The Philosopher’s Way: Thinking Critically about Profound Ideas. Pearson, 2014. Jayarava. “The Simile of the Chariot.” Jayarava’s Raves, 2009, jayarava.blogspot.com/2009/05/simile-of-chariot.html.

O’Brien, Barbara. “King Milinda’s Questions and the Chariot Simile.” Learn Religions, Learn Religions, 25 June 2019, www.learnreligions.com/king-milindas-questions-450052.

Taylor, Thomas. “Plato’s Chariot Allegory, with the Commentary of Hermeas.” Universal Theosophy, 11 May 2017, universaltheosophy.com/articles/platos-chariot-allegory-with-the-commentary-of-hermeas/.

Uebersax, John. “Plato’s Chariot Allegory.” Plato’s Chariot Allegory, Feb. 2007, www.john-uebersax.com/plato/plato3.htm.

The Role of Reason in Theology

Theology Assignment Help The Role of Reason in Theology

Theology is “the reasonable study of the Christian faith”. (Albl 2) In Theology, scholars have to use more than just their own beliefs to describe their research. They need to understand what is recognized by the people who are part of the different religions and how their lives are impacted by following their God. Christians use several references when studying Theology. We use the experiences we have had in life. We also look at what traditions were passed down to us from our family, as well as what we learned from the Bible. We also must use reason. In other areas of scientific studies, such as biology, scholars will look under a microscope to figure out how things are impacting our bodies. However, in theology, we have to use more than what we can prove. We also can’t just look at what is written in the bible. We have to use reason. Reason is extremely important when we study Theology and must be used to explain the beliefs of Christians.

To truly understand the divine, you have to have a reasonable amount of faith. Faith and Reason go hand in hand. “Reason itself is a matter of Faith. It is an act of faith to assert that our thoughts have any relation to reality at all” (Albl 31). There are books throughout the Old Testament and the New Testament that we can reference to understand the role that reason plays in Theology.

Old Testament

The books of Genesis, Exodus, and Habakkuk three of the books in the Old Testament. These books stress the importance of having reason. An example of this is how we are taught of creation of man and nature in Genesis. Genesis 1:1 states “God created the heavens and the earth.” Explaining creation to someone who can’t or won’t just rely on faith will need something to prove it or reason to believe in creation. While we do need to have faith to believe to accept and embrace lessons that are taught in the bible, reason is how many people are able to justify it in their minds.

In the book of Exodus, we learn about the plagues that impacted Egypt. Some of the stories about the plagues, including those with frogs, have magicians in them. Magicians are not often thought of as someone with the utmost integrity and honesty. Yet, when you apply reason to these stories, you can conclude that they could in fact happen. Most people, both Christian and non- Christians, have a hard time grasping the differences and relationships between God, Jesus, and the Holy Spirit. Then when you consider the economic Trinity, how the three parts of the Holy Trinity, Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, interact with humans, that adds another layer of confusion for most. Hill stated that “the confrontation between Moses and Pharaoh is actually a cosmic struggle between the true God, Yahweh, and the false gods of the Egyptian religion” (Hill 114). But with reason, one could formulate that struggles between people whom we were are introduced to in the bible are representative of things occurring that would otherwise not be able to see.

Towards the end of the Old Testament we find the book of Habakkuk. In Habakkuk we learn about how God dealt with evil. There nations that God looked down upon with discerning judgement. If the book of Habakkuk was written in 2019, it would be the book that would remind us that there is indeed evil in the world. But also, a reminder that evil deeds do not go unpunished. In this book there is a prophet who is yelling at God questioning why he wasn’t helping him. God’s response in the book was, “Look at the nations and watch—be utterly amazed. For I am going to do something in your days that you would not believe” (Habakkuk 1:5). Even after hearing the Lord’s answer, he responded again, asking “Why are you silent while the wicked swallow up those more righteous than themselves?” (Habakkuk 1:13). Hill states “The book of Habakkuk gives us confidence in God’s sovereign and just control in the world today that often appears on the brink of self-destruction.” (Hill 666) To say that most people, without both faith and reason, would look at what is happening in our world today and say with reason that it will be dealt with could be a stretch.

New Testament

There are also books in the New Testament that combine reason and faith to help us better understand the word of God. The Holy Spirit was proclaimed as being seen by prophets in the Bible, however most of us will never see it. The Trinity “can only be seen through special revelation” (Albl 132) In other words, to fully understand the nature of God, you have to look past reason. For most, reason is best understood and used when we can relate it to things that have happened to us, something that we have experienced, or witnessed in the past. We have seen that one most recognized uses of reason are when we can relate occurrences we read about with things that we have experienced or seen elsewhere. In the beginning of the New Testament, we find the gospels of Matthew, Mark and Luke. All three of these gospels are similar in the story they are telling. They are all telling us the story of Jesus. However, it is believed that the three different books were written by different people. They do not match up word for word. In fact, there are different takes on Jesus’ life in each of them. In Luke’s story of Jesus, he is made out to be a Good Samaritan. In the same book, when Jesus died, there were more females in attendance that there were when the death of Jesus was discussed in Mark and Matthew. Just like any second-hand information, the authors take and tone on a stance can heavily sway the way it is interrupted by the reader. Reading these different gospels is like listing to two different political candidates describe the same situation. Cory describes this as “liberation theology” as it “demonstrates a commitment to the poor and underprivileged that is modeled on God’s commitment.” (Cory 193). While some would say one even could not have happened three different ways, we know that this type of thing can occur. Our own experiences tell us this. We know that different news reporters will report a new story three different ways. One may paint an event as the most tragic thing to ever happen, while another may say it could have been worse. The person listening to the first reporter will likely walk away from the new cast with a somber outlook, while the person listening to the second one would be thankful that something worse didn’t happen. From these types of experiences, it is reasonable that three authors would portray the same even three different ways. With some details left out, some added, and some stretched a bit beyond proportion.

Reason allows to take what is written in the bible and relate it to things we know about from our lives. This is how we determine if we think something could have really happened. Reason may require us to think back to something we know of from the past to really understand the meaning of what is happening now.

Prayer, Baptism, and Communion

There are three significant things that occur in the Christian Faith that do require followers of Christ to have both faith and reason to understand. These two things are prayer and receiving communion. We learn as Christians that Jesus died so that our debts were paid. We are told that at his last supper, he asked his disciples to eat the bread he gave them to symbolize the body of Christ and to drink the wine as if it were his blood. We can use reason to understand why Jesus gave his disciples bread and wine. We can say that he loved those closest to him and wanted them to enjoy the life he was leaving for them. It is with reason, or past experiences, that we can make that connection. If we were sitting at a table with our family and closest friends, we would be sharing any secrets of eternal life with them that we knew of. Without adding faith to that reason, it is difficult to explain why we take communion to someone who did not consider themselves a follower of God. The same is true when we speak of Baptism. There is a mystery that surrounds the ritual. To have water symbolize new life and purity, and to believe that a rebirth occurs upon baptism also takes some faith and reason. It would seem reasonable that water would “wash away” sins. When combining that with the faith of the Holy Spirit amongst the waters, it seems reasonable that the act of baptism allows the Holy Spirit to come and lift one into a new life, or rebirth.

Prayer is also a complicated subject and a mystery to some. At one time or another, even believers ask themselves, “What do I say? Does God know I’m talking to him? If I pray silently, will he hear my prayers? As Mueller explains, “if we imagine prayer as “talking” to God, whether out loud or quietly “in our heads,” we will not be wrong, but our understanding will be limited.” (Mueller 32) If we believe that God is the creator of everything, certainly we can reason that he can hear our prayers all the time, both spoken aloud and silently.

Conclusion

We have to use both reason and faith to truly understand God. When something seems out of reach, or unknown, or just something beyond what we normally see, we see it as something mysterious. There are many times throughout the bible and studying Christianity that we believe what we are reading and what we are told, but only because we can say that they are reasonable actions.

Without reason, Theology would not be complete. Without reason, we would not be able to help someone who is questioning revelation better understand and begin to believe. In Theology, we need to use the bible, experience and faith. But only reason can be used to decipher the mystery of Jesus Christ.

Works Cited:

Albl, Martin C. Reason, Faith, and Tradition: Explorations in Catholic Theology. Winona: Saint Mary’s Press, 2009. Print.

Cory, Catherine. A Voyage Through the New Testament. Upper Saddle River: Pearson, 2008. Print.

Hill, Andrew E. and Walton, John H. A Survey of the Old Testament. Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2009. Print.

Mueller, JJ., ed. Theological Foundations: Concepts and Methods for Understanding the Christian Faith. Winona: Saint Mary’s Press, 2011. Print.

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