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

§ 8. The Problem of Buddhist Origins.

At the first critical glance into Buddhistic origins, the student becomes aware of a dilemma. The Buddha, we are told, delivered a teaching which, though it did not directly repudiate, yet ignored and treated as valueless the belief in deities; and the movement he set up was thus practically atheistic; yet the legends of his own birth, and many of the narratives concerning his life, are in terms of the supernaturalist beliefs of both earlier and later times. As regards the birth legends, they are found to quadrate in large measure with those of the God Krishna, and at the same time to point to many of the myths of the Vedas; 1 so that, whatever may have been

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the origin of the Buddhist movement, it must have been heavily overgrown with supernaturalism when the life of the Founder was thus written.

The conservative student naturally answers that, though such overlaying and perversion of the Master's teaching did take place, he remains none the less a real person; and that the proof lies in the many narratives which represent him as speaking like any other mortal teacher. A critical study of the teaching, however, only doubles the dilemma. The accomplished and devoted English scholar who has done so much during the past thirty years to make known the documents of Buddhism to the western world, has no misgivings as to either the historicity of Gotama or his personal establishment of the Buddhist movement in the fashion set forth by the narratives; but the expositor's own scholarly candour puts before us a dozen grounds for doubt. Every cause for scepticism that exists in the cases of Jesus and Moses exists here, with differences of degree. Firstly, the Buddha wrote nothing. Secondly, none of his disciples or contemporaries wrote of him. Thirdly, some of the documents that seem nearest in time to the alleged period of Gotama, such as the Dialogues, are thoroughly factitious, and strike a student as the reverse of trustworthy; while others are admittedly literary creations, ascribing to the Buddha extemporaneous verses of a highly finished quality. Fourthly, much of the teaching put in his mouth is of a nature known to be current before his period.

As to the nature of his teachings the obscurity is equally great. It is not merely that they contain inconsistencies such as may be fallen into by any teacher: they are so disparate, so discursive, so various in their tone, purpose, and point of view, that a very short critical study reveals difference of source, time, and aim; and when we contemplate their metaphysic, their minuteness, their demand for leisurely attention and assimilation, we are at a loss to conceive how they could have set up a far-reaching popular movement in any country at any time. As little do we realise why they should have set up any religious society whatever. And the ordinary histories make the assertion without explaining the case.

On the other hand, much of the earliest literature exhibits all the marks of doctrinary myth—this by the implicit admission of the scholars who stand critically but confidently for the historicity of the teaching Buddha:

"The books [of the Sutta Pitaka] profess to give, not merely the belief itself, but the belief as the Buddha uttered it, with an account of the time when, and the place at which, he uttered it.

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[paragraph continues] The Buddha's new method of salvation, his new doctrine of what salvation was, did not present itself to the consciousness of the early Buddhist community as an idea, a doctrine, standing alone, and merely on its own merits. In their minds it was indissolubly bound up with the memory of the revered and striking personality of him who had proclaimed it." 1

[paragraph continues] Thus it lies on the face of the case that any narrative could find acceptance which was put in circumstantial form; and that for any doctrine whatever a narrative frame was invented as a matter of course. After the Dhamma, or collection of short scriptures in verse, had come into vogue,

"The members of the Order were no longer contented to learn, and to understand the meaning of, the various Rules of the Pâtimokkha [part of the Vinaya or Rules of the Order]. A desire sprang up to have, for each of them also, a historical basis; to know the story of how the Buddha himself came to lay down the Rule to his disciples. And it was only the Brother who was properly acquainted with all this, who was accounted a real 'Doctor of the Law.'" 2

[paragraph continues] Now, the Dhamma-pada is believed to be wholly compiled from previous books; and some of its best doctrines are avowedly ancient, as thus: "Hatred does not cease by hatred at any time: hatred ceases by love: this is an old rule." 3 Here, then, we have the cult making its Teaching-God on the ordinary lines, describing him as supernaturally born, calling him the "Blessed One," and visibly creating for the traditional Teacher a flatly fictitious biography. At this early stage, then, Buddhism is seen making its Buddha; and in the act, instead of yielding support by analogy to the belief in the historic Jesus, it vividly suggests a similar process of construction in the case of Christism. We are thus far merely left asking what primitive Buddhism really was.


239:1 See E. Senart, Essai sur la légende de Buddha, 2e édit. 1882; Prof. Kern, Histoire du Bouddhisme dans l’Inde, Fr. tr. 1901, vol. i, liv. i, ch. ii.

241:1 Rhys Davids and Oldenberg, Vinaya Texts, Part I, Introd. p. xvii ("Sacred Books of the East," vol. xiii).

241:2 Ib. p. xviii, proceeding on the Kullavagga, ix, 5, 1.

241:3 Dhamma-pada i, 5. Max Müller's trans. S.B.E. x. Professor Rhys Davids indeed translates the last clause "this is always its nature" (Buddhism, p. 128); but he notes (p. 126) other cases of avowed quotation; and the collection is visibly a far-reaching compilation. See p. 20, note.

Next: § 9. Buddhism and Buddhas