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

§ 12. Buddhism and Asoka.

When Buddhism first emerges in what may be termed the light of history, it is as an established system highly favoured by the great king Asoka, about 250 B.C. It is made clear by his edicts that only a small number of scriptures, whose titles are only partially identifiable with known extant writings, were then recognised as preserving the spoken discourses of the Buddha. 2 And among those named is "The Terrors of the Future," which "seems to be a description of the different worlds of purgatory, one of which is described in the Pettavatthu, the 7th Book of the 5th Division of the 2nd Pitaka." So that thus early in the known history of the Order it figures as holding in Buddha's name one of the common superstitions which Buddha is supposed to have repudiated. And Asoka, as we have seen, called himself "the delight of the Gods," as did his friend the contemporary Buddhist king of Ceylon.

The first sociological problem is to account for the favour shown by such kings to such an Order. Constantine, we know, raised up Christianity to be the State cultus because of its obvious political uses as a far-reaching organisation, easily attachable to his interest. Had the kings of Magadha a similar motive? Chandragupta, according to both Greek and Hindu accounts, 3 began his career as a robber-chief in the time of Alexander, whose camp he had visited on the banks of the Hyphasis, as a defeated rebel; and after seizing the throne of Nanda, the murdered rajah of Magadha, about 315 B.C., he defeated Seleukos, the Greek governor of the Indus provinces, driving the Greek power out of India. If then "it is clear that it was just when Chandragupta and his low-caste followers from the Punjab came into power that the Buddhists, the party of reform, the party who made light of caste distinctions, began to rise rapidly in numbers and influence," 4 it is quite intelligible that the upstart

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dynasty found in the moral and didactic influence of such an Order a useful political support, as Ajâtasatru may have done earlier, supposing him to have attained power by killing his father. The record that Ajâtasatru, after favouring the Buddhists, captured Srâvasti, their headquarters, and totally destroyed Kapilavastu, their sacred place, 1 tells further of friction and complications, all presumably of a political character. Usurpers in such cases would be apt to have arrayed against them the influence of the Brahmans; and the midway position of the Buddhists, who at once paid respect to Brahmanism and departed from its caste principles, would place them in a certain imperfect measure of harmony with the illegitimate monarch. 2

But there is a further reason for ascribing to Chandragupta a decisive influence on Buddhism in its relation to Brahmanism. If Weber is right, the peoples of the Punjab "never submitted to the Brahmanical order of things, but always retained their ancient Vedic standpoint, free and independent, without either priestly domination or system of caste. For this reason, too, they were the objects of a cordial hatred on the part of their kinsmen, who had wandered further on; and on this account also Buddhism gained an easy entrance among them." 3 But if Chandragupta with his Punjabis accepted Buddhism they would be strengthening the tendency existent in Buddhism to ignore caste; and, again, we have it from the same authority that "Buddha's teaching was mainly fostered in the district of Magadha, which, as an extreme border province, was perhaps never completely Brahmanised; 4 so that the native inhabitants always retained a kind of influence, and now gladly seized the opportunity to rid themselves of the Brahmanical hierarchy and the system of caste." 5 This view, it will be observed, diverges essentially from the other proposition, above cited, that Buddha in person undermined the principle of caste in a fashion "altogether novel and unwonted." If caste had never at all been recognised in the Punjab, and had never triumphed in Magadha, there would be nothing very

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novel there in the teaching that personal salvation did not depend on it. For such a teaching, Oldenberg avows, there was not only no necessity in that age and environment, but there was no inclination. "Any thought of any reformation of social conditions (Staatsleben), any notion of the founding of an earthly ideal kingdom, a pious Utopia, was wholly alien to these [early Buddhistic] circles. Anything like a movement of social change was unknown in India." In short, the conception of Buddha as a kind of popular liberator is rejected by one of the leading scholars who still stand for the historicity of Buddha. 1 And though Brahmanists of Sankhya leanings were presumably not great sticklers for caste to begin with, it may well have been the anti-caste bias of the Punjabis that first gave the Buddhist Order a marked leaning of that kind, and supplied the basis for the belief that the Founder had been a Kshatriya. Such a state of things, too, would perfectly account for the fact that the Buddhist scriptures were, and remain, composed not in Sanskrit but in the popular idiom. 2 It only needed that a beginning should be made, to stamp a given language as the sacred tongue of Buddhism.

What Ajâtasatru presumably began and Chandragupta some generations later carried further, the grandson of the latter, Asoka, consummated. He found the Buddhist Order flourishing, and fully established it through his extensive kingdom; not, however, in direct opposition to Brahmanism, with which the now firmly seated dynasty would naturally make terms of mutual accommodation. For him, it seems clear, Buddhism was an organisation rather than a religion. It was compatible with Brahmanism while capable of being used to keep Brahmanism in check; and the "delight of the Gods" was not concerned with its atheistic philosophy. 3 "Reverence towards Brahmans and members of the Order" was impartially prescribed in his edicts; and he repeatedly stipulates for an equal toleration of all sects, and an abstention all round from detraction of others. 4 He was thus a Buddhist only in the sense that he made use of all organisations alike, and it is even doubtful whether he assimilated with more than a section of the Buddhists of his time. 5 Nor is there any clear warrant for the conclusion that "Buddhism in the time of Asoka was still comparatively pure" because in the edicts "we hear nothing of metaphysical beings or hypothetical deities, nothing of ritual, or ceremonies, or charms." 6 Edicts were not the natural

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place for such allusions; but the mention of the treatise on "The Terrors of the Future" is surely significant enough. 1 The Mahâvansa tells that under the sun of royal favour "heretics assumed the yellow robe in order to share in its advantages: whenever they had opinions of their own they gave them forth as doctrines of the Buddha." 2 In that case they were doing what other Buddhists had done before them; and it is certain that most of what Buddhists accept as Buddha's teaching was penned long after Asoka's time.

We thus reach a critical conception of Buddhist origins. The Teaching Buddha, considered as the wondrous sage who in his lifetime creates by his own influence a great movement and establishes a great Order, shrinks in the light of criticism to the vanishing point. The early suspicion of a keen scholar 3 that "after all, Sakya Muni is an unreal being," is justified on the closest scrutiny. The Order, probably originating among ascetic Brahmans, who may have been led to rationalism as a result of their primary renunciation of the Vedas, 4 becomes intelligible simply as a monastic or mendicant sect on the ordinary Brahmanical bases, but tolerant on the subject of caste to start with, and tending to diverge from Brahmanism in doctrine and practice in the ratio of its numerical success, especially as regards its rejection of caste distinctions—a course obviously conducive to its expansion. On these lines, however, it could take many Brahmans with it; and inasmuch as it was primarily an Order living under rules, rather than a school of doctrine, it could all along include ordinary believers in the Gods as well as rationalists who turned their backs on official and popular Brahmanism because of its systematic exploitation of superstition.

But to an energetic rationalism in such an Order there was a fatal obstacle in the central principle or datum of the cult—the obtrusion of the supernatural Buddha as the source of all true wisdom. The very thinkers who framed the dialogues and discourses in which the Buddha most rationally teaches by argument were there building up the belief in a supernatural being in whom they themselves cannot have believed. To change the familiar phrase, they literally builded worse than they knew. On the popular craving for a Teaching God they relied for securing the popularity of their Order; and they thus frustrated the higher aims

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of their doctrine, inasmuch as superstition always drives out judgment. By the admission of Professor Rhys Davids, the Northern Buddhists took a step "far removed from Gotama's doctrines," "the step from polytheism to monotheism." But, on the other hand, they built up, on Brahmanic lines, a new Buddhistic polytheism, according to which there are five Dhyâni Buddhas, mystical and divine beings, living in bliss; with five Bodhisatvas, or Buddhas Elect, destined to be born; and five Mânushi or human Buddhas, of whom Gotama is the fourth: the fifth, Maitreya, the Buddha of love, being still to come; and for all such creations we have the sufficient explanation that the dreamers "craved after Buddhist gods to fill the place of the dead gods of the Hindu pantheon." And the northern Buddhism, finally, is as completely given over to polytheistic superstition as the southern. 1

It may, indeed, have been the higher intelligence of the rationalising Buddhists that secured the special success of their Order, as compared with that of the Jainas, whose bias to systematic self-mortification, as well as their greater superstition, accounts for the unintellectual character of their literature. The less ascetic Buddhists would at once be better able to propitiate kings and better able to attract recruits. Among them would circulate such maxims as that in the Dhamma-pada:—

Not nakedness, not platted hair, not dirt, not fasting, or lying on the earth, not rubbing with dust, not sitting motionless, can purify a mortal who has not overcome desires. He who, though dressed in fine apparel, exercises tranquillity, is quiet, subdued, restrained, chaste, and has ceased to find fault with all other beings, he indeed is a Brahmana, an ascetic, a friar (bhikshu). 2

But behind such sane maxims stood forever the fabulous figure of the Buddha, the giver of all the wisdom in his Order, and the imposer of all its artificial rules. Instead of the mass of myths concerning him being a late accretion to a body of high ethical teaching purporting to come from a normal human being, it is now seen to be probable that, as is contended by M. Senart, the mythical figure was there first, 3 and the ethical teaching grew up fortuitously around it, even as the gospel teachings in all likelihood grew up round the name of a sacrificed Jesus who for his earlier worshippers was merely a name. To this, our initial problem, we now finally return, prepared to appreciate aright the issues.


253:2 Cp. Rhys Davids, Buddhism, pp. 224-6. [In his last ed., 1910, Professor Davids modifies this passage, and protests against the inference that Asoka's list represents all the canonical writings known in his time.]

253:3 Cp. Elphinstone, History of India, Cowell's ed. 1889, pp. 152-4; Rhys Davids, Buddhism, pp. 220-1.

253:4 Rhys Davids, Buddhism, pp. 221. Cp. Jacobi, as cited, p. xiv: "With the extension p. 254 of the limits of the empire of Magadha a new field was opened to both religions [Jainism and Buddhism], over which they spread with great activity. It was probably this auspicious political conjunction to which Jainism and Buddhism chiefly owed their success, while many similar sects attained only a local and temporary importance."

254:1 Id. p. 77.

254:2 Mr. Lillie, while recognising the success of Buddhism before Asoka (Buddhism in Christendom, p. 188), raises a needless difficulty by supposing it to have "struggled on in obscurity and perhaps in secrecy" till his advent (Id. p. 215). The latter view is excluded by the former.

254:3 History of Indian Literature, p. 4.

254:4 This view of the matter is not considered by Mr. Lillie, who insists (Buddhism in Christendom, pp. 187-8) that Asoka's stones declare Brahmanism to have been the official creed all over India before his reign.

254:5 Weber, History, pp. 286-7. Cp. Davids, Early Buddhism (1908), p. 10.

255:1 Oldenberg, Der Buddha, pp. 173-5. Cp. Kuenen, Hibb. Lect. p. 246.

255:2 Weber, Ind. Lit., p. 179.

255:3 But cp. Kern, Hist. du Bouddhisme, i, 274.

255:4 Cp. Max Müller. Introd. to Sc. of Religion, ed. 1882, pp. 5-6 23; Davids, Buddhism, p. 223.

255:5 Cp. Kern, i, 261., Cp. T. Bloch, "Zur Asoka-Inschrift von Bairat," in Z. D. M. G. lxiii, 2 (1909), p. 325.

255:6 Davids, last cit.

256:1 One of the other treatise-titles in Asoka's list appears in Max Müller's version as "The Supernatural Powers of the Masters," where Prof. Davids reads it "The State of the Just."

256:2 Cited by Davids, p. 224.

256:3 H. H. Wilson, Essays and Lectures, ii, 346. Cp. pp. 8-9.

256:4 Cp. Barth, The Religions of India, Eng. tr. 1882, p. 81; Max Müller, Hib. Lect. p. 357: Kuenen, Hib. Lect. p. 252; Wilson, Essays and Lectures, ii, 347.

257:1 Buddhism, pp. 199-211; Wilson, Essays and Lectures, ii, 25-39.

257:2 Dhamma-pada, x, 141, 142, Max Müller's trans. Cp. Rhys Davids, Buddhism, p. 155.

257:3 Cp. Kern, Histoire du Bouddhisme dans l’Inde, i, passim.

Next: § 13. The Buddha Myth