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Book review: Greek Buddha, by Christopher I. Beckwith

This book challenges many or even most of the ideas about the origin of Buddhism that I have had for a long time. According to the conventional picture, Siddartha Gautama, known as the Buddha, was an upper-class Indian who lived in the fifth or possibly fourth century BCE. He was born at Lumbini, in modern-day Nepal. He had a luxurious upbringing and was married, but he renounced all this to become a wandering ascetic in search of enlightenment. At first he was unsuccessful but eventually he found his own path (the Middle Way) and became Awakened; the epithet 'Buddha' refers to this. Following his Awakening he began to teach and founded the monastic system which still exists today. The central doctrines he taught are known as the Four Noble Truths and the Eightfold Path.

While there has long been much debate about all the details of the Buddha's life, Beckwith goes a lot further than most and challenges almost every accepted feature of the story. So it's important to say at the outset that he is well qualified for his contentious role, being a professor in the Department of Central Eurasian Studies at Indiana University in Bloomington, Indiana. He has academic qualifications in Chinese and Tibetan and teaches Old Tibetan, Central Eurasian languages, and Central Eurasian history; his research interests include a number of other languages.

Beckwith makes an important distinction between Early Buddhism (the ideas of the Buddha himself and his immediate followers) and 'Normative Buddhism'—the Buddhism largely based on the collection of scriptures known as the Pali Canon, which was compiled 500 years after the Buddha's death and is still the foundation of Theravada Buddhism. Beckwith believes that this contains a lot of material that is later than what was taught by the Buddha.

The doctrines of karma and rebirth, for example, were not part of the Buddha's message and reflect ideas that were included in Buddhism as late as the first century CE. (Incidentally the 'rebirth' which appeared at this time was thought of as occurring in Heaven or Hell, which were temporary states.) Monasticism, the development of a monastic rule, and the building of monasteries were all features of Normative Buddhism.

Much of this is admitted by many scholars of Buddhism. But Beckwith goes considerably beyond the general consensus in what he asserts, starting with the Buddha himself. Probably his most startling suggestion is that Gautama was not Indian but Scythian. (The Scythians were a people who lived in the western and central Eurasian steppes and probably spoke a form of Iranian language.) Another name that is applied to the Buddha, Shakyamuni, refers to this, meaning he was a 'Saka', a type of Scythian.

Beckwith also revises the background against which Buddhism arose. It is usually thought to have been a reaction against Brahmanism, but Beckwith suggests that Buddhism is older than Brahmanism. It is also older than Jainism. If anything, Buddhism was a reaction to Zoroastrianism (which implies a later date for Zoroastrianism than is usually quoted). And Beckwith finds evidence that Taoism in China was closely connected with Buddhism; the concept of the 'tao', he thinks, is practically the same as the Indian 'dharma'.

The reference to Greece in the title is a little misleading. It doesn't imply that Buddhism came from Greece (as is sometimes claimed); in fact, rather the reverse. It has often been remarked that Buddhist artwork was influenced by Greek forms and this is supposed to reflect the arrival of Alexander, but Beckwith is concerned with currents flowing in the opposite direction. Among the Greek scholars accompanying Alexander was Pyrrho, who is usually credited with founding the sceptical school of Greek philosophy known as Pyrrhonism. His ideas were radically different from the general trends of Greek philosophy but were virtually identical with those found in 'the earliest known bit of doctrinal Buddhist text. [Author's emphasis].

And it wasn't only philosophy that Pyrrho seems to have taken from Buddhism; he also learned the characteristic Buddhist type of meditation known as 'insight meditation', although Beckwith approaches this from a intellectual rather than any kind of mystical angle.

The Buddha says that in meditation he reached the fourth and highest state in which he abandoned both bliss and pain. He describes this in the Mahasacca Sutta.

What the Buddha is abandoning here is the distinction between the opposite qualities or antilogies that are mentioned [in the text]. This is Pyrrho's adiaphora state of being 'undifferentiated, without (an intrinsic) self-identity, which is identical to the Buddha's state of being anatman without (an intrinsic) self-identity. It is equated with nirvana…'extinguishing (of the burning of the passions)' and the peace that results from it. [Author's emphasis]

As others have done, Beckwith finds important parallels between Buddhism and the philosophy of David Hume, who was strongly influenced by Late Pyrrhonism.

These revolutionary ideas have not been welcomed by most scholars of Buddhism. But they are not idle speculation; Beckwith supports them with abundant references to the earliest available documents and inscriptions. This is a scholarly work that seems to be aimed at a professional audience; almost every page has footnotes, which are often quite lengthy and may include quotations from Chinese and Greek texts in the original. So it is by no means light reading. Still, the actual writing is informal and quite readable, with occasional flashes of dry humour.

For example, in discussing the date of certain inscriptions that are supposed to provide evidence for the Buddha's date, Beckwith writes: 'However, as Härtel has effectively shown—with extreme care not to make the significance of his points easily grasped—the inscriptions…cited by nearly everyone as crucial data are at best much later than [others of known date] and at worst forgeries.'

Some have objected that the Greek scholars accompanying Alexander would not have been able to communicate effectively with the people they met and so could not have formed a clear idea of their beliefs. But Beckwith dismisses this claim.

It is entertaining to imagine Alexander the Great and his men as mental weaklings who bumbled their way around Asia conquering a huge empire largely by accident, like Inspector Clouseau solving a case, but the Court was in the territory of the Persian Empire for ten years, five of them in Central Asia and India, and the ancient Greeks were hardly mental weaklings. After years of exposure they must have learned Persian at least, and some undoubtedly picked up other local languages, while the local people would have been powerfully motivated to learn Greek, the language of the invaders, and many local people in formerly Persian-ruled "India" knew at least some Persian.

There is in fact plenty of documentary evidence to show that communication would not have been a problem.

Beckwith is careful to say that the ideas he discusses in this book in no way detract from the value of Buddhism as we know it today. And it is true that Buddhism does not attach the weight to the historical events of the Buddha's life that Christianity, say, does to the life of Christ. Even so, this is an important book for anyone with a serious interest in the development of early Buddhism.

%T Greek Buddha
%S Pyrrho's Encounter with Early Buddhism
%A Beckwith, Christopher I.
%I Princeton University Press
%C Princeton and Oxford
%D 2015
%G ISBN 978-0-16644-5
%P xx+275pp
%K religion
%O three appendices


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John Floyd on :

Thank you for the in-depth analysis of this book. I borrowed it through an inter-library loan, but quickly learned that I had neither the background nor time to benefit from reading it thoroughly.

I am predisposed to accept the apparent conclusion of this book that Buddhism, like Christianity, has suffered from the propagation of highly evolved legend. As Mahatma Gandhi said — 'I like your Christ, I do not like your Christians. Your Christians are so unlike your Christ.'

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