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The Buddha Myth

by JM Robertson

Buddha attaining to Nirvana

(Editor's Note: Although it is widely believed that "the Buddha" was a real person who lived about 2600 years ago, it can be demonstrated that, as he is portrayed within orthodox Buddhism, Buddha is legendary and mythical. As concerns the supposed historicity of Buddha, the following are excerpts from the excellent book Pagan Christs by JM Robertson. Robertson was a true scholar, and he provided invaluable and sound research. More information regarding the mythical nature of Buddha and the solar origins of Buddhism can be found in Suns of God: Buddha, Krishna and Christ Unveiled.)

According to tradition, the founder of Buddhism was a Hindu named Siddhattha, son of the rajah of the Sakyan clan which dwelt in the foothills of the Himalayas. He is sometimes referred to as a Sakyamuni (muni meaning Sage), sometimes as Tathagata (literally "One who has come, or gone, This Far"), more usually as Gotama Buddha. The term Buddha is a title, not a personal name. Gotama is referred to as the Buddha after his Enlightenment, which is reputed to have occurred in 528 B.C. in Bihar. Thereafter he abandoned family life and promulgated his doctrine of deliverance from suffering and attainment of ultimate peace, Nirvana.

His teaching is called the Dhamma (Sanskrit Dharma), and is summed up in the Four Noble Truths and the Noble Eightfold Path....

There were many sects and sages in India 2500 years ago, but their teachings were transmitted orally. The Buddhist Dhamma was not written down for centuries after it had been first enunciated. The various Sanskrit and Pali texts which purport to contain the original teachings are therefore the product of evolution, and it is impossible to say which of the divergent interpretations, if any, represents the pristine form. What is quite certain is that the underlying philosophy had a great deal in common with ideas prevalent at the time. It bears some resemblance to the contemporary Jainist movement.

The breakaway from Hindu ritualism was not a unique innovation; neither was there anything new in the founding of an order of monks. Various sects were already organized as mendicant monks, and it was an established custom for them to meet periodically and proclaim their teaching in public. The early Buddhists followed this familiar pattern. They made modifications, of course, and one feature was the rejection of the severe austerities which were practiced by some of the sects.

The Series of Buddha

The 35 Confession BuddhasNot only have we no six-century record of the rules of the Buddhist Sangha, as the order was called, but it did not claim to be a new teaching. The tradition holds that it had been promulgated many times before—that Gotama was only one of a long series of Buddhas who arise at intervals and who all teach the same doctrine. The names of twenty-four of such Buddhas who appeared before Gotama have been recorded. The number and names may well be late inventions, but there can be no question about the belief in their existence. It was held that after the death of each Buddha, his religion flourishes for a time and then decays. After it is forgotten, a new Buddha emerges and preaches the lost Dhamma, or Truth. In the fourth century A.D., a sect of Buddhists rejected Gotama and venerated instead the three previous Buddhas. They especially reverenced one of them, Kasyapa, and were actually joined in by the orthodox in worship as his tomb.

It seems quite probable in the light of these facts that any number of teachings attributed to "the Buddha" may have been in existence either before or at the time when Gotama was believed to have lived. They might all have been attributed to a sage with the title of "the Blessed One." They might include teachings that were ascribed later to Gotama.

The name Gotama is a common one; it is also full of mythological associations. There was admittedly another Gotama known to the early Buddhists, who founded an order. So what proof is there that the sayings and doings of different Gotamas may not have been ascribed to one person?...

The Documentary Evidence

...Looking then, for a foothold among the shifting sands of Buddhist tradition we note the following clashing records:

(1) The Buddha is represented in ostensibly early and late tradition as speaking of the Gods with full belief in their existence.

(2) He is represented on the one hand as discouraging sacrifices, and on the other as prescribing for a whole tribe a strict adherence to ancient rites.

(3) King Asoka, who figured as a good Buddhist in the early vigor of the movement, about 250 B.C., habitually called himself "the delight of the Gods" as did his contemporary, the pious Buddhist king of Ceylon.

(4) The Buddha is represented as throwing his Order open to all classes and at the same time making the name "Brahmin" a term of honor for his Arahats and saints. Brahmins were among the most distinguished disciples.

(5) On the principle that Buddha delivered the whole cannon, much teaching that certainly did not come from him is ascribed to him.

(6) Much of the philosophy set forth as his teaching is identical with the Sankhya system, germs of which are admittedly pre-Buddhistic.

What doctrines, it must now be asked, were special to Buddhism? Not Karma, that was common property which Buddhism shared. Not in asserting that a right mind was superior to sacrifice, that was a primary doctrine of the Jains, and pre-Buddhistic, both within and without the pale of Brahmanism. Not in seeking a way to salvation independently of the Vedas, that had been done by many teachers in various sects. Not in the doctrine that defilement comes not from unclean meats but from evil deeds and words and thoughts; Buddhist writers themselves say that is derived from previous Buddhas. Not in the search for peace through self-control and renunciation; that was the quest of a myriad recluses and all previous Buddhas. Not in the view that there is a higher wisdom than that attained by austerities; that, too, is pre-Buddhistic. Not in the doctrine that non-Brahmans could join an Order and attain religious blessedness; other orders were open to men of low social status and even to slaves. Indeed, the rigid separation of caste was not yet established in the early days of Buddhism. Brahmin claims were exorbitantly high, but many Brahmins waived them and they did not apply to ascetics. Early Buddhists, like the early Christians, did not admit runaway slaves to the Order.

The admission of women was not an innovation as it was practiced by the Jains, and even the tradition makes the Buddha accept it reluctantly in the twenty-fifth year of his preaching. There seems, in short, to be nothing on the face of the doctrine to account for the expansion of the Buddhist movement....

Buddha as a Secondary God

We can now make a critical assessment of Buddhist origins. The Teaching Buddha, considered as the wondrous sage who established a great Order in his lifetime, shrinks to vanishing point. The suspicion that Sakyamuni is an unreal being is finally justified. The Order probably originated among ascetic Brahmins who may have been led to rationalism as a result of renouncing the Vedas....

Objections Answered

It is reasonable to wonder why so many scholars, while admitting the tissue of fable and unplausible history surrounding the origins of Buddhism, nevertheless still believe that Sakyamuni actually existed. They usually justify their attitude by the argument that every sect must have had a founder. This assumption can be allowed if it is merely taken to mean 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.

As we have seen, there was in all probability a group of heretical Brahmanists for whom a Buddha signified "the enlightened one." Even so, there were many Buddhas before the quasi-historical Buddha had acquired a personality, like the slain Jesus of the Pauline Epistles....

A sufficient nucleus for the Buddha lay in the general Brahmanic concept of "Buddhas." There is even a tradition that at the time when Sakyamuni came, many men ran about saying "I am the Buddha."...

On these grounds it is submitted that the figure of the Buddha, in its most plausibly rationalized form, is as unhistorical as that of the gospel Jesus. Each figure shows how the religious mind manufactured a myth in a period in which the making of primary Gods had given way to the making of Secondary-gods. The mythopoeic process satisfied the craving for a Teacher-god who should originate religious and moral ideas as the earlier gods had been held to originate agriculture, art, medicine, law and civilization.

Buddhism, like Christianity, is a "failure" from the point of view of its traditional origins. In the case of Burma it admittedly did more to mold the life of the whole people towards its highest ethic than Christianity ever did; but in India, where it arose, it collapsed utterly. It was overthrown by Brahmanism which set up in its place a revived polytheism.

On our naturalistic view of the rise of the Teaching-gods, it is sheer human aspiration that has shaped all the Christs and their doctrines. One reason why the original teachings fail is that men persisted in crediting purely human aspiration to supernatural beings. Men who are taught to bow ethically to a divine Teacher are not taught ethically to think. Any aspiration so evoked is factitious, verbal, emotional, not reached by authentic thought and experience. When the wisdom or unwisdom of the nameless thinkers in all ages is recognized for what it is—as human and not divine—the nations may 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.

Further Reading

Did Buddha Exist? Was There a Historical Buddha?
Who Was Buddha? Is Buddhism Atheistic?
Is Buddhism All It's Cracked Up to Be?"

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