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The Life of Buddha as Legend and History

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About the Book: This is an authoritative account of all that is known of the life of the great teacher by the late Edward J. Thomas, who is highly regarded as a Buddhist scholar. He is the author of Early Buddhist Scriptures and The History of Buddhist Thought. Utilizing information that has never been presented in a Western form, Dr Thomas's treatment of his subject is as thorough as one could wish. His knowledge of the sources, his historical sense, and the soundness of his judgm...

About the Book:

This is an authoritative account of all that is known of the life of the great teacher by the late Edward J. Thomas, who is highly regarded as a Buddhist scholar. He is the author of Early Buddhist Scriptures and The History of Buddhist Thought.

Utilizing information that has never been presented in a Western form, Dr Thomas's treatment of his subject is as thorough as one could wish. His knowledge of the sources, his historical sense, and the soundness of his judgment make him a reliable guide in a complex field.


Since the appearance of the epoch-making works of Rhys Davids, Kern, and Oldenberg, the sources for the history of Buddha and Buddhism have been greatly increased. The accessions to our knowledge of the Pali texts are indeed chiefly due to Rhys Davids, but these new data have never been incorporated with previous results, nor has an estimate been made of the extent to which they modify earlier conclusions.

The present work attempts to set forth what is known from the records, and to utilize information that has never yet been presented in a Western form. Even now much of the material is accessible only in works published in Burma, Siam, and Ceylon, but the great work begun by Rhys Davids in establishing the Pall Text Society is still vivified by his spirit, and continues in the fruitful labors of his successors. Not the least of his achievements is the Pall Text Society’s Dictionary, now completed by Dr. W. Stede. All the Pall passages quoted in the course of this work have been either translated or retranslated by me in the light of the evidence accumulated by these scholars.

There has been a tendency in Germany and England to depend almost entirely on the Pali sources, neglecting the works of schools preserved in Sanskrit, and in Tibetan and Chinese translations from the Sanskrit, which although often later than the Pall, yet are parallel and more or less independent traditions, and cannot safely be ignored. The PMT itself is no primitive record, but the growth of a long tradition in one school. The Sanskrit needs to be equally closely analyzed; and if the result tends to show the historical weakness of a narrative based on one set of records, the final conclusions are all the more reliable.

All the traditions are subordinate to the fact of the establishing of a system of doctrine and a religious order. The earliest form of the doctrine is still a matter of controversy, but it is possible to separate off much that is agreed to be the development of later centuries. One important fact brought out by the comparison of Sanskrit sources is the fundamental doctrinal agreement in the earlier schools, a result which makes it impossible to treat the Pãli tradition as a truncated or perverted form of a nobler teaching. Mahayana doctrines are doubtless older than the works in which we find them expounded, but they do not belong to the oldest schools.

How far Buddhism now possesses validity as a religion is a further question, on which opinions diverge greatly. A recent writer has said that “all that has hitherto been held to be the ancient Buddha doctrine is false, inasmuch as its root idea, with the passage of time, has no longer been understood, nay has actually been perverted into its very opposite “1 For this writer Buddhism is “ not one religion among many others, but as the most perfect reflection of the highest actuality, the Absolute Religion “. It may be that this writer is not so exclusively in possession of the truth as his words seem to imply, but while such views are held, it is surely of the first importance to know what our documents actually say, and what the earliest interpreters thought they meant.

What lies before us, as well as behind us, has been well put by Mrs. Rhys Davids : “When believers in the East and historians in the West will come out of the traditional attitude—when we shall not hear church-editing called Buddha-vacanam, and thought of as Gotama-vacanam— when we shall no more read: ‘The Buddha laid down this and denied that ‘, hut ‘the Buddhist church did so ‘—then we shall at last be fit to try to pull down superstructure and seek for the man…

My greatest thanks are due to Miss C.M. Ridding of Girton College who has read and criticized much of the work in manuscript and to Miss O.G. Farmer Mary Bateson Fellow of Newnham College for reading and criticizing the proofs. To Professor Sir William Ridgeway Sc.D. F.B.A. who helped and encouraged me at all stages of the work I am no longer able to express my thanks and gratitude. I am also greatly indebted for valuable discussions and information on special points to Prof. S.N. Dasgupta Ph.D., Dr. G.S. Ghurye Reader in Sociology in Bombay University and professor K. Rama Pisharoti, M.A. Principal of the Sanskrit college Tripunittura.




ASIA is the grave as well as the cradle of religions. They have disappeared not merely with the crumbling of ancient civilizations, but have been swept away before the victorious progress of new forms of belief. One of the most widely spread of these spiritual conquerors has been Buddhism, extending form India over great portions of southern and central Asia and permeating the ancient religious of China and Japan.

Yet until modern times nothing of the real nature of Buddhism was known. The scientific investigators who followed in the train of Alexander the Great describe various Indian religious sects, but do not specifically mention Buddhism. The first Christian writer to mention Buddha Buddhism. The first Christian writer to mention Buddha is Clement of Alexandria at the end of the second century, who speaks of "those of the Indians that obey the percepts of Boutta, whom through exaggeration of his dignity they honour as a god." Buddha was also known to the Manichaeans. AI Biruni quotes a work by Mani (c. 216-276 A.D.), the Shaburkan, in which the great heretic claims as three of his predecessors Buddha, Zoroaster, and Jesus. The Acts of Archelaus (early fourth century), which purport to be the record of a debate between Mani and a bishop Archelaus, speak of a predecessor of Mani, Terebinthus, who spread a report about himself, saying that he was filled with all the wisdom of the Egyptians, and was now called not Terebinthus but Buddha. He pretended that he had been born of a virgin and brought up by an angel on the mountains. This work was known to St. Jerome, and from it he may have got his statement that Buddha was born of a virgin. The Acts do not say that Buddha was of virgin birth, but only that Terebinthus, who called himself Buddha, made that claim. St. Jerome attributes to the gymnosophists the belief that "a virgin gave birth from her side to Buddha, the chief person of their teaching." His statement about the virgin birth may be as much a confusion as his view that Buddha's followers were the gymnosophists. There were gymnosophists or naked ascetics in India, but they were Buddhists.

In the thirteenth century MARCO POLO had heard of Buddha in Ceylon, whom he named by his Mongolian title of Sagamoni Barcan, a fact which makes it probable that some of this information came from Mongolia. He describes him as the son of the king of Ceylon and the first great idol-founder, though he knew of his greatness as a moral teacher, and declared that if he had been a Christian, he would have been a great saint of our Lord Jesus Christ, so good and pure was the life he led.

In 1660 ROBERT KNOX, an English seaman, was taken prisoner by the Singhalese, and remained in captivity nineteen years. He mentions Buddha as "a great God, whom they call Buddou, to whom the Salvation of Souls belongs. Him they believe once to have come upon the earth. And when he was here, that he did usually sit under a large shady Tree, called Bogahah." But a much more circumstantial account was given by SIMON DE LA LOUBERE, envoy from Louis XIV to the king of Siam in 1687-8. He had passages from Pali books translated, which give some of the Buddha legend in an intelligible form. He too thought that Buddha was the son of a king of Ceylon. The Indian missionaries of the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries were much more astray. The Carmelite PAULINUS A S. BARTHOLOMAEO (1790) confused Buddha with the Hindu God Buddha (the planet Mercury), and also tried to identify him with the Egyptian god Thout (Thoth).

Real knowledge could come only from an actual acquaintance with the Buddhist writings, and in the first half of the nineteenth century two names stand out beyond all others. These are ALEXANDER CSOMA DE KOROS, the Hungarian scholar, and BRIAN HOUGHTON HODGSON, who spent over twenty years in Nepal and for ten years was British Resident there (1833-43). Csoma set out in 1820 in the hope of finding the origin of his nation, and spent four years in a Buddhist monastery in Tibet. He failed in the object of his search, but at Calcutta he found a copy of the Tibetan Buddhist Scriptures, the Kanjur (Bkah hgyur), and the collection of commentaries and other works forming the Tanjur (Bstan hgyur). His analyses of both these collections, which are mainly translations from the Sanskrit, were published in 1836 and 1839, together with Notices on the life of Shakya, extracted from the Tibetan authorities.

Hodgson's work in its results was even more important. During his residence in Nepal he collected over 400 Sanskrit MSS., which he presented to the Asiatic Society of Bengal, the Royal Asiatic Society, the Society Asiatique, and other libraries, and besides, these many works in modern languages and in Tibetan. Those MSS. Presented to Paris libraries came into the hands of the first Sanskrit scholar of Europe, EUGENE BURNOUF, and it was on the basis of these and on the arrangement of the Scriptures as given in Csoma's Analysis that he wrote his Introduction a l'histoire du Buddhisme indien (1844). He also translated one of the works sent by Hodgson, the Saddharmapundarika, as Le Lotus de la bonne Loi (1852).

Other investigators in this field were not in general directly concerned with the history of Buddhism, but there were two scholars whose work, drawn from Tibetan sources, contributed the most important historical material before the discovery of Pali works. FRANZ ANTON VON SCHIEFNER published in 1845 a life of Buddha from the Tibetan, and in 1847 PHILIPPE EDOUARD FOUCAUZ issued the Tibetan text with a French translation of the Lalita-vistara, a life of Buddha down to the beginning of his preaching. The Sanskrit text of the latter began to be published by the Asiatic Society of Bengal in 1853. this is the work that became to the scholars of the time the chief source for the legend of Buddha's life.

But investigations of Buddhism had already begun from a very different source. GEORGE TURNOUR of the Ceylon Civil Service in 1836 brought out the Mahavamsa, an ancient history of Buddhism in India and Ceylon, and the first important Pali work to be published. He also edited and translated several discourses of Buddha from the Pali. A controversy at once arose as to whether Pali or Sanskrit was the language of Buddha, but neither party saw that they were begging the main question. How do we know that this language was either Pali or Sanskrit? We have no right to take for granted that either language was the primary one, nor can we assume that because a certain work is in Sanskrit, it is later than any in Pali. But what is certain about the works discovered by Hodgson is that they belong to a very late, and in some cases to a very corrupt state of Buddhism. All Burnouf's Sanskrit sources were much later than the Pali, except so far as earlier passages were embedded in them. In one branch of these Sanskrit writings the compliers actually claim to have received new revelations from Maitreya, the great being now waiting in heaven to become the future Buddha. It is not surprising that scholars failed to find any historical basis in this material, or even to reach any general agreement or conclusions. H. H. Wilson writing with the results of Burnouf's work before him held it "not impossible, after all, that Sakya Muni is an unreal being, and that all that is related of him is as much a fiction as is that of his preceding migrations." The Russian scholar Vasiliev in the same year declared that "Russian, French, English, and German scholars have in fact written much on this subject. I have read through most of their works in my time, but through them I have not learnt to know Buddhism."

It became clear that, whatever value the Pali Scriptures might have, it would be necessary to investigate them. The investigation is yet far from being completed, but it is chiefly due to three scholars that the texts have now been printed and made accessible. VICTOR FAUSBOLL, the Danish schoar, in 1854, published the Dhammapada, a collection of religious verses and the first text of the Pali Scriptures to be edited in Europe. From 1877 to 1896 the edited the Jataka with a long Pali commentary which contains a biography of the earlier life of Buddha. HERMANN OLDENBERG edited the Vinaya (1879-83), the 'Discipline', and in 1881 THOMAS WILLIAM RHYS DAVIDS founded the Pali Text Society. For over forty year this scholar devoted himself to the editing of all the unpublished texts, and through his own devotion and enthusiasm, which inspired a large number of fellow workers, the Sutta and Abhidhamma divisions of the Scriptures are now practically complete in more than fifty volumes. These with Oldenberg's Vinaya form the Pali Canon. The first tendency of Pali scholars was naturally to ignore everything but the Pali tradition, but we have later learned much about other forms of the Buddhist Canon as existing in Chinese and Tibetan translations. These, although they warn us against trusting exclusively to Pali, only emphasise the relative important and antiquity of the Pali against the late and degenerate forms that have survived in Nepal and Tibet. It is no longer possible to pit the Lalita-vistara against the Pali as a source of history, and to base theories on documents that can be proved to be accretions and inventions of later centuries.

It is undeniable that in the story of Buddha there has been a growth, and even in the oldest documents we can trace records of varying antiquity. In the following pages an attempt will be made to distinguish the earliest accounts, but this dose not touch the fundamental question. Is there a historical basis at all? It must be remembered that some recognized scholars have denied and still deny that the story of Buddha contains any record of historical events. We further have the undoubted fact that various well-known characters once accepted as historical are now consigned to legendary fiction, such as Dido of Carthage, Prester John, Pope Joan, and Sir John Mandeville. The reply to those who would treat Buddha in the same way is not to offer a series of syllogisms, and say, therefore the historical character is provided. The opponents must be challenged to produce a theory more credible.

The matter stands just as in the case of any historical person, say Socrates, Muhammad, or Bonaparte. We have many records, many related facts, dates, and archaeological remains, as well as the actually existing Buddhistic peoples with their systems. Do these data point to an origin in the growth and spread of a myth, in which the religious belief in a god has been gradually converted into an apparently historical event, or is the basis a historical person who lived in the sixth century B.C.? An indolent scepticism which will not take the trouble to offer some hypothesis come credible than the view which it discards does not come within the range of serious discussion. The first step however is not to debate these view, but to present the positive evidence.




  Preface v
  Introduction - the sources xiii
I. The ancestry of Buddha 1
  Note on the geography of early Buddhism 13
II. The home and family of Buddha 16
III. The Birth of Buddha 27
IV. Infancy and youth 38
V. The Great Renunciation 51
VI. Austerities and Enlightenment 61
VII. The First Preaching 81
VIII. Spread of the Doctrine 97
IX. Legends of the twenty years wandering 113
X. Ritual Schools. Devadatta and Ajatasattu 124
XI. The Last days 143
XII. The Order 165
XIII. Buddhism as a religion 173
XIV. Buddhism as a Philosophy 192
XV. Buddha and myth 211
XVI. Buddha and history 227
XVII. Buddhism and Christianity 237
Appendix. The Buddhist Scriptures 249
  The Theravada (Pali) Canon 257
  Canonical works of other schools 278
Bibliography 279
Index 289

Sample Pages

Item Code: IDD970 Author: Edward J. Thomas Cover: Hardcover Edition: 2018 Publisher: Munshiram Manoharlal Publishers Pvt. Ltd. ISBN: 812150581X Language: English Size: 9.0 inch X 6.0 inch Pages: 223 (B & W Illus: 4) Other Details: weight of the book: 500 gms
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