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Pagan Christs, by John M. Robertson, [1911], at

p. 258

§ 13. The Buddha Myth.

In the introduction to M. Senart's Essai sur la légende de Buddha, the most comprehensive and scientific attempt of the kind yet made, the central problem is thus posited:—

"Either the historical data are the primary nucleus and as it were the central source, the legendary elements representing an ulterior action, in part accessory, without necessary cohesion; or, inversely, the mythological traits form a whole connected by a higher and anterior unity with the personage on whom they are here grafted, the historical data, if there are really any, being associated with them only in virtue of a secondary adaptation. It is at the first point of view that the inquiry has stood up to the present time. There has been drawn the practical conclusion that it suffices to suppress all the incredible details, what is left being taken for accredited history. I seek to show that for this first point of view we ought decidedly to substitute the second." 1

The conclusion to which the present argument points is exactly this, adhered to, however, more strictly than is the case in M. Senart's admirably learned treatise. For while he thus seems to imply that the supernatural element is the beginning of Buddhism as such, he finally assumes that there actually was a "founder." Certainly he sufficiently attenuates his conception:—

"A sect has a founder, Buddhism like every other. I do not pretend to demonstrate that Sakyamuni never existed. The question is perfectly distinct from the object of this treatise, It follows, certainly, from the foregoing researches that hitherto the sacred personage has been given too much historical consistence, that the tissue of fables grouped around his name has been too facilely transformed, by arbitrary piecings, into a species of more or less unplausible history. Scepticism acquires from our analyses, in some regards, a greater precision: still, it does not follow that we should indefinitely extend its limits. In this epic and dogmatic biography, indeed, there remain very few elements which sustain a close examination; but to say this is not to say that among them there has not entered some authentic reminiscence. The distinction is certainly very difficult. Where we are not in a position to show for a tradition its exact counterpart in other cycles, a decision is an extremely delicate process. All that is suspicious ought not necessarily to be eliminated: it is right that whatever is rigorously admissible ought to be retained. There is no alleged deity—not Vishnu, or Krishna, or Herakles—for whom we might not

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construct a sufficiently reasonable biography by proceeding as has hitherto been done in regard to the legend of Buddha.

"Under these reserves, I willingly recognise that there remain a certain number of elements which we have no absolute reason for thinking apocryphal: they may represent real historical reminiscences: to that, for my part, I have no objection. It is possible that the founder of Buddhism may have come from a tribe of Sakyas, though the pretended history of that race is certainly quite fictitious. It is possible that he may have come of a royal line, that he may have been born in a city called Kapilavastu, though this name arouses grave suspicions, opening the door to either mythological or allegorical interpretations, and the existence of such a town is very feebly certified. The name Gotama is certainly historic and well-known, but it is a borrowed name which tells us little. Much trouble has been taken to explain how this strictly Brahmanic patronymic might have passed to a family of Kshatriyas [the warrior caste] . Apart from Buddha, it is above all closely associated with his supposed aunt, the legendary Prajápati......I do not speak of his genealogy: it has certainly no value, being borrowed whole from epic heroes, in particular from Rama. On the other hand, it may well be that the teacher of the Buddhists entered on his religious career at the age of thirty-nine 1......"

[paragraph continues] And so on. Let us pause at the last clause to remember how the Jesus of the gospels "began to be about thirty years of age" when he began his teaching career, and to ask on what rational ground we can suppose such a detail to have been biographically preserved when the surrounding narrative yields no sign of biography whatever? There is in fact no single detail in the legend that has any claim to critical acceptance; and the position of the latest conservatives, as Oldenberg, is finally only a general petitio principii. India, admits that candid scholar, always was, as it is, "a land of types," wherein the lack of freedom stunts the free growth of individuality; and in the portraits of the Buddha and all his leading disciples we have simply the same type repeated. Yet, he contends, "a figure such as his certainly has not been fundamentally misconceived (fundamental missverstanden worden ist eine Gestalt wie die seine gewiss nicht)." 2 Critical logic will not permit such an A, priori reinstatement of a conception in which every element has given way before analysis. It is but an unconscious resort to the old fallacy of meeting the indictment of a spurious document with the formula, "Who else could have written it?" 3

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We recur to the old issue—the thesis that "every sect must have had a founder." Such was the unhesitating assumption of Minayeff, who did so much to bring historic clearness into early Buddhist history. "It is beyond doubt that at the origin of great historic movements always and everywhere appear important and historic personalities. It was so, certainly, in the history of Buddhism, and its development unquestionably commenced in the work of the founder." 1 Here we have something more than the proposition of M. Senart—we have a doctrine which would ascribe to definite founders the cults of Herakles and Dionysos and Aphroditê, the worship of fire, and the institution of human sacrifice. Dismissing such a generalisation as the extravagance of a scholar without sociology, 2 we bring the issue to a point in the formula of M. Senart. Plainly that is significant in the sense only that someone must have begun the formation of any given group. It is clearly not true in the sense that every sect originates in the new teaching of a remarkable personage. And we have seen reason to infer that there was a group of heretical or deviating Brahmanists, for whom "a Buddha" was "an enlightened one," one of many, before the quasi-historical Buddha had even so far emerged into personality as the slain Jesus of the Pauline epistles. Brahmanic doctrine, Brahmanic asceticism and vows, and Brahmanic mendicancy—these are the foundations of the Order: the personal giver of that rule and teaching, the Teaching God, comes later, even as the Jesus who institutes the Holy Supper comes after the eucharist is an established rite. Every critical scholar, without exception, admits that a vast amount of doctrine ascribed to Buddha was concocted long after his alleged period. It cannot then be proved that any part of the doctrine is not a fictitious ascription; and there is not a single tenable test whereby any can be discriminated as genuine. In the words of Kuenen, "we are not free to explain Buddhism from the person of the founder." 3 Nor is there any more psychological difficulty in supposing the whole to be doctrinal myth than in conceiving how the later Brahmanists could put their discourses in the mouth of Krishna.

The recent attempts to establish the historicity of Gotama Buddha by excavated tomb-remains 4—a kind of evidence which obviously could prove nothing as to the achievements or teaching

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of the person interred—have broken down on their merits. Dr. Fleet's claim to date an inscribed vase before Asoka's time on the strength of its letter-forms is peremptorily rejected; 1 and Professor Davids’ theory that the remains found under one stupa are those of Buddha has to compete with the theory of Dr. Fleet that they are those of massacred Buddhana Sakiya = "kinsmen of Buddha," which in turn is rejected by M. Barth as an impossible interpretation. On such lines there can be no establishment of any relevant historic facts; and we are left to the decision that "No extant inscription, either in the north or south, can be referred with confidence to a date earlier than that of Asoka. 2

Professor Kern, coming to conclusions substantially identical with those of M. Senart, posits for us finally an ancient Order of monks, absorbing an ancient popular religion, and developing for people of the middle and lower classes the ideals of a spiritual life current in the schools of the Brahmans and the ascetics. "It is very possible," he goes on, "that the Order had been founded—whatever be the precise sense which we attach to that word—by a single man peculiarly gifted, even as, for example, it is possible that Freemasonry may have been so founded. We may even, by an effort of imagination, adorn this founder with all sorts of good qualities; but we have no right to say that the amiability of the Buddha of the legend has any other origin than the antique belief according to which the Buddha, in his quality of cherishing sun, is manno miltisto3—the kindest of men, in the words applied by an old German prayer-chant to the deity.

This is the warranted attitude of scientific criticism; and the mere "may-be" as to the possible Founder is exclusive of any Evemeristic solution. M. Senart's necessary founder, and Professor Kern's possible founder, are wholly remote from the Buddha alike of the Buddhist and of the rationalising scholar, bent on saving a personality out of a myth. On the face of the case, there is a presumption that, while there may easily have been, "about 500 B.C., a man who by his wisdom and his devotion to the spiritual interests of his kind made such an impression that contemporaries compared him to a pre-existing ideal of wisdom and goodness, and that posterity completely identified him with this ideal," 4 the Order was not founded by any such person. No Buddha made the Buddhists—the Buddhists made the Buddha. 5

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An obviously sufficient conceptual nucleus for "the" Buddha lay in the admittedly general Brahmanic notion of "Buddhas." There is even a tradition that at the time when Sakyamuni came many men ran through the world saying "I am Buddha! I am Buddha!" 1 This may be either a Buddhist way of putting aside the claims of other Buddhas or a simple avowal of their commonness. But a real Buddha would be a much less likely "founder" than one found solely in tradition. Any fabulous Buddha as such could figure for any group as its founder to begin with: to him would be ascribed the common ethical code and rules of the group: the clothing of the phantom with the mythic history of Vishnu-Purusha or Krishna, the "Bhagavat" of earlier creeds, followed as a matter of course, on the usual lines. M. Senart "holds it for established that the legend as a whole was fixed as early as the time of Asoka." 2 Some of the latest surveys of the problem end in an inference that the oldest elements in the legend consist of fragments of an ancient poem or poems embedded in the Pitakas. 3 The quasi-biographical colour further given to mythical details is on all fours with that of the legends of Joseph, Moses, Joshua, and Jesus, all late products of secondary mythology, in periods which systematically reduced God-legends to the biographic level. As we have seen, the fabrication of narrative-frames for the teachings ascribed to the Buddha was early an established Buddhist exercise. And this accumulation of quasi-biographical detail, as we have also seen, goes on long after the whole cycle of prior supernaturalist myth has been embodied. It is after Jesus has been deified that he is provided with a mother and a putative father and brothers; and it is in the latest gospel of all that we have some of the most circumstantial details of his life and deportment. There is even a case for the thesis that some of the characteristics of the Buddha are derived from sculptures which followed Greek models. 4

On these grounds, then, it is here submitted that the traditional figure of the Buddha, in its most plausibly rationalised form, is as unhistoric as the figure of the Gospel Jesus has been separately shown to be. Each figure simply stands for the mythopœic action of the religious mind in a period in which Primary-God-making had given way to Secondary-God-making, and in particular to the craving for a Teaching God who should originate religious and moral ideas

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as the other Gods had been held to originate agriculture, art, medicine, normal law, and civilisation. And if by many the thought be still found disenchanting, they might do well to reflect that there is a side to the conception that is not devoid of comfort.

Buddhism, like Christianity, is from the point of view of its traditional origins a "failure." Buddhism, indeed, notably in the case of Burmah, has done more to mould the life of a whole people towards its ostensibly highest ethic than Christianity ever did; but Buddhism, being at best a gospel of monasticism, quietism, and mechanical routine, collapsed utterly in India, the land of its rise; and its normal practice savours little of moral or intellectual superiority to any of the creeds around it. 1 Brahmanism, which seems to have ultimately wrought its overthrow, set up in its place a revived and developed popular polytheism, on the plane of the most ignorant demotic life. Christianity, in turn, professedly the religion of peace and love, is as a system utterly without influence in suppressing war, or inter-racial malignity, or even social division. The vital curative forces as against those evils are visibly independent of Christianity. And here emerges the element of comfort.

On our Naturalistic view of the rise of the religions of the Secondary or Teaching Gods, it is sheer human aspiration that has shaped all the Christs and all their doctrines; and one of the very causes of the total miscarriage is just that persistence in crediting the human aspiration to Gods and Demigods, and representing as superhuman oracles the words of human reason. Unobtrusive men took that course hoping for the best, seeking a short cut to moral influence; but they erred grievously. So to disguise and denaturalise wise thoughts and humane principles was to keep undeveloped the very reasoning faculty which could best appreciate them. Men taught to bow ethically to a Divine Teacher are not taught ethically to think: any aspiration so evoked in them is factitious, vestural, verbal, or at best emotionally superinduced, not reached by authentic thought and experience. When, haply, the nameless thinkers who in all ages have realised and distilled the wisdom or unwisdom given out as divine are recognised in their work for what they were, and their successors succeed in persuading the many to realise for them- selves the humanness of all doctrine, the nations may perchance become capable of working out for themselves better gospels than the best of those which turned to naught in their hands while they held them as revelations from the skies.


258:1 É. Senart, Essai sur la légende de Buddha, 2e édit. 1882, pp. xi-xii.

259:1 Id. pp. 441-3.

259:2 Der Buddha, 3te Aufl. pp. 159-160, 180.

259:3 Cp. Baur's answer to Rückert, Paulus, Kap. iv, note 2 (p. 417). And now Baur's own assumptions as to Paul are rejected by the school of van Manen.

260:1 I. p. Minayeff, Recherches sur le Bouddhisme, trad. fr. 1894, p. 2.

260:2 Cp. Oldenberg's strictures on Minayeff, "Buddhistische Studien," in Z. D. M. G.. vol. lii, 1898.

260:3 Hib. Lect. p. 264.

260:4 Davids, Early Buddhism, 1908, pp. 29, 49; Buddhist India, p. 17; H. Hackmann, Buddhism as a Religion, 1909; Dr. Fleet, Journ. Roy. Asiat. Soc., 1906.

261:1 By M. Barth in the Journ. des Savants, October, 1906.

261:2 Vincent Smith, Early History of India, 1908, p. 14.

261:3 Histoire du Bouddhisme dans l’Inde, 1901, i, 263-4; cp. p. 241.

261:4 Kern, i, 264.

261:5 Cp. I. p. Minayeff, Recherches sur le Bouddhisme, trad. fr. 1894, pp. 157-180.

262:1 Senart, Essai, p. 448.

262:2 Essai, Introd. pp. xxii-xxiii and p. 451.

262:3 Bishop Copleston, Buddhism Primitive and Present, ed. 1905, p. 53; Geiger, Dipavamsa and Mahavamsa, 1905, p. 11.

262:4 Bloch, "Einfluss der altbuddhistischen Kunst auf die Buddha-Legende." in Z. D. M. G., 1908, Heft 2, pp. 370-1.

263:1 Cp. Koeppen, Die Religion des Buddha, i, 565; Davids, Buddhism, pp. 210, 246-250.

Next: § 14. The Problem of Manichæus