Countercults of the Buddha
1500 BCE Aryan or
Vedic period begins in
Chariots are for fools
"Come, look at this glittering world as a royal chariot: the fool is drawn in it, but not the wise" (Dhammapada 171). Buddha's chariot is not the chariot of the Gita or Iliad. It is not the royal chariot of any of the Indo-European heroes of old. The wise, the enlightened, the awakened are not like the multitudes that are attracted by earthly power, fame, the praise of bards or the thanks of their community. In Buddha's view, the heroic life is an unhappy one, based on futility. According to Buddhist teaching, desire for power, wealth, worship must be avoided, because the heroic or traditional aristocratic goals are illusory. Militarism and materialism come to sad endings, and so they should not focus the attention of anyone who wants to be happy. In rejecting these traditions, Buddha thus helped to lay the conceptual groundwork for anti-heroic elements in later literature, such as encounters of Alexander the Great and King Dusyanta with ascetics living free of aristocratic rule in the forest.
Asceticism in the subcontinent has many sources and was well developed by the time of the Upanishads, but to the broader world outside India it is most familiarly associated with the figure of Siddhartha Gotama Shakyamuni (cir. 563 BCE to 483 BCE). Buddha's teachings are centered on related doctrines called the Four Noble Truths:
The eightfold path is a text designed to make culture (as defined in lesson 1), but the culture it prescribes is an alternative one, defined by its opposition to prevalent cultures already in existence by virtue of older texts, namely the priestly Vedas and heroic literature of the type represented by the Mahabharata. The Buddhist way is personal where the Vedic and heroic are social. It is private where the Vedic and heroic are public. It is devoted to happiness where the Vedic and heroic celebrate sacrifice. Perhaps most important in the rigidly stratified society of early India, Buddhism is open to the common people, where heroic culture is aristocratic and Vedic culture is priestly. Buddhism finds the Vedic religion and rituals to be unnecessary to salvation, much as a generation or two later in Greece Platonism would discard the religion and rituals of Zeus and the Olympian gods.
As the catastrophe of the Bronze Age gradually receded from memory, mass migrations and religious fanaticism declined, but the traditional culture and the literature on which it was based never disappeared. Buddhism eventually was driven from its homeland on the Indian subcontinent, probably because it was so radically subversive, but variant strains of Buddhism spread north and east through parts of Asia where it still flourishes in an interesting variety of forms. Despite the numerous array of cultures in the world today, it is commonly estimated that as many as a third of the world's population now identifies as Buddhist.
In his ambitious book The Way to Wisdom (1951), Karl Jaspers, the existentialist philosopher, describes an awakening of the human spirit that seems to have occurred across the ancient world from about 800 BC to 200 BC. This was the time of Confucius and Lao Tse in China, the time of the Buddha and Jainism following the Upanishads in India, the time of Zoroaster or Zarathustra in Persia, a time of major prophets in Israelite communities, and the time of the rise of philosophers and scientists in Greece, including Socrates, Plato, Aristotle, Hippocrates, Euclid and many others. Jaspers calls this formative time the "Axial Period" in human history, because all thought since that time seems to revolve around it.
Jaspers and other thinkers speculate that perhaps in the future another enlightenment will occur, similar to the awakening of the Axial Period, and humanity then will embark on a whole new set of spiritual or intellectual projects.
Will it happen again? Well, it did happen once, and the development of rationalism and science in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries CE indicates that general re-awakenings can happen from time to time, just as recurring dark ages can happen. But the Axial Period that Jaspers describes took place for a simple technological reason that he apparently did not see and that is still not well appreciated, despite its obviousness.
Although philosophers may dream about the Second Coming of the wise men and the prophets, what happened in the original Axial Period in all probability had nothing to do with evolution of the brain, sudden development of thought, visitations from the gods, or any spurt of progress in wisdom. The Axial Period was a result of the invention and widespread distribution of writing. It's the literary record of wisdom-seeking, rather than wisdom itself, that exploded at that time. The wise men finally gained the leverage of print. They got publicity and vast numbers of followers. If a new axial period is to come, it likely will be due to a similarly monumental break-through in technology: the computer, perhaps, or the internet, or artificial intelligence, or re-engineering of the genetic makeup of human beings.
Writing had become widespread enough in the axial period so that even wise men finally had caught on to using it. For better or worse, communication no longer was restricted to what's musical and memorable. It became almost as complicated and entangled as thought itself. Prose came in, and to a large degree verse went out. Even in cases where the sages did not leave written texts which survived (e,g., Buddha, Socrates), their numerous disciples had an advanced technology that allowed them to communicate more fully and clearly than their masters the complex and subtle goings-on of the mind.
It's natural that the philosopher, the lonely thinker, comes into being as soon as the technology is available to give a sharp focus on the detached, inner life of the mind. As Jaspers says about his profession, or withdrawn people like himself:
The philosopher is independent, first because he is without needs, free from the world of possessions and the rule of passions, he is an ascetic; second, because he is without fear, for he has seen through the illusory terrors of the religions; third, because he takes no part in government and politics and lives without ties, in peaceful retirement, a citizen of the world.
Much as science fiction often portrays a future in which intelligent machines will take over and transform the human race, history often shows how we already have been taken over by our past inventions. Life in the inward lane, the life of solitude or Jaspers' life of "peaceful retirement," was produced by writing. It was expressed first by the retreat into thought of the ancient philosopher and later by the contemplative life of the medieval monk. The radical "church and state" dichotomy of the Middle Ages, the parting of the spiritual and temporal ways of life, was the ultimate social separation of the inner world of consciousness and the outer world of action, and it was a consequence of the division of humanity into literates and illiterates.
Writing scripts academic life and all of the learned professions today. Take writing away, lose it again somehow in another dark age, and academic culture will collapse in the same hour. Schools (if any) in post-literate society immediately will return to the kind maintained by Buddha and Socrates, with a teacher and a few amateur disciples talking in very general terms about the nature of things while life bustles around them and takes little note.
Left: There are no early representations of Buddha. Some of the earliest carvings show Greek influence, like the bust (left) from the Gandhara Museum.
Left: Starving Buddha, 2nd or 3rd century CE from Gandhara, now in British Museum: Buddha dissented from asceticism, giving up fasting because it merely confuses the mind. In the end he advocated moderation or "the middle way."
The Buddha did not seek to win praise but nonetheless he became an object of veneration and worship by devotees.
Brief background for Asvaghosha's
Buddhism and Christianity developed in strikingly similar ways. They developed as counter-cultures and generally were not welcomed in the cultures from which they dissented. During the first century CE, however, missionaries spread these cults far from their points of origin. The membership grew dramatically in numbers with the distance from home and translations into foreign languages. New texts introduced new supernatural elements, focused on assertion of the divinity of the cult leader. Texts multiplied, along with varieties of belief that presented the cult with confusions about its identity. Attempts were made to freeze literary creativity within the cult by establishing an orthodox set of books. Authorities gathered to decide what was good and bad to read, and they made canons or approved reading lists to reassert control over the literary brain-building of the members.
Buddhism came first. It already was centuries old in the first century, based on Dhammapada and other early Pali language sources from north India. In this Pali canon, which consists of sayings, rules and doctrines of belief, Buddha rarely is quoted or shown referring to himself as a divine being. Indeed these sources tend to portray him as skeptical about gods and anxious to avoid reincarnation, so it is as unlikely that he was worshipped by many followers in his native India as it is improbable that Jesus was worshipped by many Jews or that Alexander or Socrates was worshipped by many Greeks. Deification of rulers and cult figures became the norm by the first century, however. Caesar became a god, Gotama became the Buddha while Jesus became Christ at this time. The early humanist form of Buddhism, prior to deification, is known generally today as Theravada ("teaching of the elders").
Hundreds of years later, probably in the first century, the distinctly separate brand of Buddhism known as Mahayana arose in Nepal, China, Japan and southeast Asia based on a Sanskrit canon in which the Buddha is an object of devotion. Asvaghosha's Buddhakarita ("path of the Buddha"), the earliest remaining account of Gotama's life, is a part of this revisionist movement in Buddhism. This is a story with strong supernatural elements, the old gods reappearing to bless and approve Gotama's acts. Although it is not clear that this work influenced the Christian gospels, or vice versa, they are contemporaneous and markedly similar.
Later Buddhist canons, including the Tibetan canon and the Chinese canon, are medieval in origin. Like Christianity in the west, Buddhism received a boost in territorial expansion from missionary travels during hundreds of years following the sixth century dark age.
Mahayana in general emphasizes not only the supernatural but the compassionate Buddha who returned from his blissful meditation to teach human beings how to achieve happiness. The good life that this Buddha teaches is a life lived with full awareness of dharma, and practice of the golden rule. In Asvaghosha's narrative the ethical instruction is imaged in the mirror of rebirth that Buddha sees while seated under the Bodhi tree, after he has driven off the temptations of Mara (worldliness). Here he sees evil-doers reborn to suffer appropriate retributions. Some of these visions, such as the presentation of the greedy in Book 14, anticipate Dante's Inferno:
He also saw misers and covetous people of every kind reborn now as hungry ghosts, with vast bodies like towering mountains, but mouths as small as needle holes, so they were always hungry and thirsty, with nothing to eat but fire and poisoned flame which cooked their guts within. They had not given to those in need, or they had duped those who were charitable, so now they had been reborn among these famished ghosts desperate for food but unable to find any. They would eat the garbage that they see being discarded in the filth, but it disappears in front of their eyes before it can be eaten. Anyone who can see see that covetousness is thus repaid will give his very flesh in charity, even as Sivi râga did!
Mahayana thus has a social element
which transformed Buddhism from the Indian counter-culture of Theravada
to a working mainstream culture.
Asvaghosha's work should remind readers of various other readings covered so far in the course, especially Homer, Luke, Plato, Mahabharata, Ramayana and Sakuntala.
Standing Buddha sculpture, ancient region of Gandhara, northern Pakistan, 1st century CE, Musée Guimet.
1. China and the Nepal problem: are Buddhist counter-cultures dangerous politically or religiously or socially? Why does the suppression of Buddhism continue in the world today? Consider the case of Tibet or any other instances that you know.
2. Anti-feminist elements in Asvaghosha and birth control: "The Life of the Buddha" is anti-aristocratic and anti-materialistic and anti-priestly, but it is also misogynistic. It presents women from a decidedly male point of view as superficially charming but ultimately silly and disgusting. To what extent are monastic ideals a response to over-population or scarcity of natural resources? That is, are monastic cultures responses to environments that are stressed with too many mouths to feed in relation to the carrying capacity of the land? Are these cultures less successful where there is plenty, do to the fertility of the land itself or to advanced agriculture?
If we look at monastic counter-cultures as means of population control, then are militaristic cultures also designed for the same end, to keep populations down in total numbers so that survivors can have more food and affluence? In Indian, Egyptian, Irish, Greek and Italian history we may detect a historical pattern of cultural development where the warrior (bringing death) and monk (bring birth control) are complementary.
Will modern birth control (supposing that it will become widespread across the planet) really spell the end for the need of both types of traditional culture?
3. Buddhist territory: why should Buddhism find special favor in Asia, as opposed to other places in the world?
4. Literary effects: what kinds of literature might you expect to be produced by writers who are Buddhist or who have been influenced by the Four Noble Truths of Buddhism? For instance, what do you think a Buddhist novel might look like? You can check your prediction later, as we will read two Buddhist-influenced novels later in the course: Murasaki Shikibu's The Tale of Genji in Lesson 19 (Damrosch B146 and following) and Wu Cheng’en, Journey to the West in Lesson 25 (Damrosch C30-C107).
5. Buddha and Jesus: compare and contrast Asvaghosha's narrative with the gospels in the New Testament. Do the differences tell us anything about the east-west or Asian-European divide in literature? Do you think the spread of Buddhist and Christian cultures probably had more to do with geography or politics?
Christians in the Middle Ages attempted to assimilate the story of Buddha and make him into a Christian martyr: see the story of Barlaam and Josephat.
6. Genres of early Buddhist literature: classical and medieval scholars fixed canons of Buddhist literature and also categorized Buddhist works under genre headings. The latter practice predated similar efforts at literary classification in the west. The essential Pali canon was divided into "three baskets," the Tripitaka: sayings, doctrines, and monastic rules. A broader division identified nine types: Suttas, Geyya (mixed prose and verse), Gatha (verse), Udana (impassioned speech), Veyyakarana (explanation), Itivuttaka (sayings of Buddha), Jataka (stories of former lives of the Buddha), Abbhutadhamma (miracles) and Vedalla (questions and answers). Some of these forms are universal, appearing in many if not all literate cultures, but Jataka are distinctively Buddhist. See Jataka tales at Sacred-Texts.
7. Internet Resources: