Your intention in performing an action was therefore fundamentally important in the ethical assessment of it. A non-virtuous act in other words done for an appropriately right reason would not lead to Karmic negation. The real question for Buddhism was whether the person concerned was attempting to follow the correct path, the dharma, the path of Buddha.
The Vedic position related to the action, action being karma whereas Buddha’s position related to the psychology behind that action.
Buddha’s rejected the passivity involved in simply awaiting the intervention of the gods. He believed that salvation resided firmly in one’s own hands. The gods may indeed assist as they apparently did Buddha on numerous occasions but their primacy was definitely in question.
One of the great attractions for Western followers of Buddhism is that it is touted often as being a godless religion. This appeals to the pragmatism and faithlessness of a contemporary society which sees this as even greater evidence of Buddha’s prescience. The one small difficulty with this view however is the fact that Buddhist scripture is in fact strewn with the involvement of gods at almost every step outlined in the development of Buddhism generally and Buddha in particular. Many Buddhists still pray. In Zen Buddhism for instance it is commonplace for the monks to pray. The obvious question then seems to be to whom do they pray? Is it Buddha himself? Buddha stated definitively that he was simply a man and should not be prayed to as a god. So has Buddha been converted into a god? It is often forgotten that Buddha was born and brought up as part of a society filled with devout followers of a religion that had innumerable gods. It would have been easy for the vast majority of his followers to see him as one.
Devotion to a god or gods was one way that the people who surrounded him saw as escape from samsara, the never-ending cycle of rebirth. He himself would have believed this prior to his period of leaving his father’s home in Shakya. It would have influenced him during his seven years in the wilderness prior to his awakening. Buddha appears to have downplayed the importance of gods but there is no absolute evidence that he himself denied belief in them. In fact the opposite may be true. The evidence that he did not believe in god comes primarily from the fact that when asked directly about the gods he apparently fell silent knowing that what he said would most likely be misinterpreted and itself reified. The establishment of a god-less religion seems to many an attractive proposition. The evidence for this in Buddhism seems in truth to be less than compelling. This is more especially the case when the Buddhist discourses are consulted. The sensual heavenly realms of Buddha’s karmic cycle as mentioned in the discourses includes talk about many devas (gods) inhabiting the Brahma state.
What does seem true is that Buddha introduced a psychological perspective to the world of Indian spirituality two thousand five hundred years ago. This has led people to say that Buddhism is based on psychology. Buddha himself said that nothing should be accepted without questioning, forethought and critical evaluation. Buddha was supremely interested in a neo-scientific method so as to ascertain what rationally could be believed to have caused an effect. The reason why karma, reincarnation and ethical intention became pre-eminent in Buddhism was that to Buddha the idea of predeterminism, the concept of cause and effect was the fundamental aspect of his philosophy. Buddha reinterpreted karma to be one of the basic tenets of Buddha’s teachings. This Buddhists themselves call this interdependent origination. Put simply this means “when this happens that follows”, in other words every action has a causative factor, a precursor which is necessary for it to occur. The corollary to this is that if the causative action is removed then the subsequent action will not occur. At first sight this appears to the contemporary mind remarkable only in its obviousness. This is because we have been exposed to more than a hundred years of psychoanalysis. The fact that Buddha predated Freud in this theorisation by some two thousand four hundred years might be seen by some as being remarkable in its prescience.
In appraising all this one has to insinuate oneself into the context of life two thousand five hundred years ago. As paradoxical as it now seems the Vedic-Bramanic spiritual aethos was tied implicitly to material action. One can perceive this to be a remarkably “mindless” operation. The essence of life lay in actions which were driven by the gods and overseen by the priests. The people in India in Buddha’s time were inconceivably unsophisticated in comparison to people today. There was no writing, little education and local superstition ran rife. Gods, spirits and demons were everywhere ready to strike.
Cognition in any logical sense would have been nowhere to be found not just in the mundane but certainly not in the spiritual either. This essential minimisation of psychological interactions led to a highly materialised form of life where only physical action was seen as relevant even when associated with symbolic significance. Thoughts, intentions and feelings were considered irrelevant if they were considered at all. There was no concept or acceptance whatsoever of an internal psychology. There was only external action and this was deified. The only influence possible lay in the level of sacrifice that one made. This required wealth. If your material circumstances did not allow you to make the appropriate contribution your fate was sealed. This unfortunately was the position of most. Brahmanism required the status quo to be maintained. Putative spiritualism was transfromed into uncompromising materialism in a completely ingenious manner.
Buddha introduced into this society an entirely novel concept. He suggested to what must have been an incredulous audience that action was predetermined not by the gods but by one's own sense of self or in other words one's own psyche or mind. Buddha’s belief was that one had the power to change one’s world by changing one’s views about one’s self. He believed that thoughts in the sense of intentions were as powerful as actions, and feelings were separately related to the experiences of the acting person. This was a radical and entirely new psychology completely alien to the Indian mind which was under the spell of a thousand years of Vedism. Such people would be extremely loathe to accept that emotions thoughts and actions were not entirely enmeshed within the category of experiences controlled by the gods.
Buddha though, radically believed that thoughts intentions and feelings were as independently valid as actions. At the time this was naturally a revolutionary concept to most Indian minds which would have struggled to comprehend it. For Buddha the individual had far more power over his life than most of his fellow Indians could ever envisage or appreciate.