by Acharya S/D.M. Murdock
“The Buddhists of different parts of the East differ widely in their chronology. The Northern Division of the faith place the birth of Buddha in 1030 B.C., the Southern fix his death in 543 B.C., a discrepancy of five centuries. Other accounts reveal disagreements of still further magnitude. Upon this absence of even an approach to chronological accuracy, Professor Wilson has broached the idea that probably the existence of Buddha is a myth. ‘There are various considerations which throw suspicion upon the narrative and render it very problematical whether any such person as Sakiya Sinha, or Sakiya Muni, or Sramana Gautama ever actually existed.'”
Rev. Simpson, Moor’s Hindu Pantheon
There is much confusion as to the identity of “the Buddha,” the main figure of the Eastern religion of Buddhism. First of all, there are different forms of Buddhism, including the two main branches of Theravada and Mahayana, in the latter of which we find the familiar Zen and Tibetan traditions, among others. Secondly, as we shall see in this excerpt from my book Suns of God: Krishna, Buddha and Christ Unveiled, there have also been many different Buddhas, including the figure also known as Siddhartha Gautama and Sakyamuni, who is frequently considered a “historical” personage. In this excerpt I provide many reasons to doubt the tradition of historicity for “the Buddha.” Indeed, all factors combined, the evidence points to Buddha as a mythical, not historical, figure.
(In Suns of God and this adaptation, I relate the fascinating debate among scholars over the past several centuries concerning the nature and dating of “the Buddha.” For a more updated discussion, please refer to my forthcoming work The Christ Myth Anthology.)
Who is “the Buddha?”
As the Hindu god Krishna was said to be an avatar of the solar deity Vishnu, so too was Buddha, who, according to common belief, was the founder of Buddhism in the 6th century BCE. However, the tradition represented by “Buddhism” is in fact much older than the period attributed to “the Buddha,” or Gautama, as there have been several sects of Buddhism, some dating back hundreds if not thousands of years before the “historical” Buddha. A number of researchers and scholars have evinced that what is termed “Buddhism,” i.e., asceticism, is found around the globe, thousands of years prior to the common era. Some Buddhists themselves have maintained that their religion goes back 15,000 or more years, and the Buddhistic Jains of India claim to possess the oldest religion in the world. As Sir William Jones says, “The Buddhists insist that the religion of Buddha existed from the beginning.”
In actuality, Buddha’s “name” is a title that does not represent a single individual, and there were, according to Buddhist tradition, countless Buddhas prior to the purported advent of Gautama, he himself having myriad previous incarnations. Because of this fact of plurality, it is impossible and virtually pointless to attempt to create a “biography” of a “real person” named Buddha. Even the godman’s title itself changes from country to country, era to era and writer to writer. As Doane observes:
“It is said that there have been several Buddhas… We speak of Gautama. Buddha is variously pronounced and expressed Boudh, Bod, Bot, But, Bud, Badd, Buddou, Bouttu, Bota, Budso, Pot, Pout, Pots, Poti and Pouti. The Siamese make the final t or d quiescent, and sound the word Po; whence the Chinese still further vary it to Pho or Fo. Buddha – which means awakened or enlightened…is the proper way in which to spell the name.”
In discussing “the same god, who reigns under different names in the nations of the East,” Count Volney remarks:
“The Chinese adore him in Fot, the Japanese in Budso, the Ceylonese in Bedhou, the people of Laos in Chekia, of Pegu in Phta, of Siam in Sommona-Kodom, of Thibet in Budd and in La.”
In his studies of Buddhism, published in the 1850’s in a number of books, including A Manual of Budhism, the pious Christian R. Spence Hardy used some 465 texts from Ceylon/Sri Lanka, in the original Sanskrit, Pali, et al. These texts were collected during Hardy’s many years as a missionary in Sri Lanka, much of which time was spent with “Sramana priests,” Sramana being a title for Buddha that means “tamer of the senses.” Sramana also refers to priests who perform “hard penances” and are not allowed to speak falsehoods. In any event, as concerns “Buddha,” Hardy, a respected authority on the subject, relates:
“The name of the founder of Budhism has been spelled by European authors in the following modes, and probably in many others that have not come under my notice: Fo, Fod, Foe, Fohe, Fohi, Fho, Fuh, Futh, Pot, Pott, Poot, Poota, Pootah, Poth, Poti, Pout, Phuta, Wud, Bod, Bot, Bud, But, Buth, Budh, Buddh, Bood, Boodh, Boudh, Bhood, Baoth, Bauth, Budo, Buto, Budud, Booda, Bodda, Budda, Butta, Budha, Buddha, Budhu, Buddhu, Budho, Buddho, Buddow, Bodhow, Budhoo, Budso, Budha, Boudha, Boudhu, Boudhoo, Bouddha, Bouddhu, Boutta, and Bouddho.”
These copious variants are not only transliterations limited to Western writers; indeed, not a few of them are the result of the culture in which the ideology was developed. Moreover, as we shall see, this “founder” of which Hardy speaks is not a person at all but a mishmash of myths and sayings that go back centuries and millennia prior to the alleged advent of “the Buddha,” i.e., Siddhartha, Gautama, Sakyamuni or other name.
Hardy’s Manual is a comprehensive look at the profuse Buddha legends, which include stories of many “Buddhas” and “Bodhisattvas.” As stated, some of these Buddhas represent previous lives of “the Buddha” as well. The many stories related by Hardy are abundant in fantasy and magic, and, although there may be the sayings and exploits of “real people” intertwined in them, they cannot serve as “biographies” of “historical” individuals. Concerning these various tales, Hardy states:
“The attentive reader will observe numerous discrepancies. These occur, in some instances, between one author and another; and in others between one statement and another of the same author.”
In his exhaustive research, Hardy says he was unable to find “any eastern work that is exclusively confined to the biography of Gotama [Gautama], or that professes to present it in its completeness.”
In his chapter attempting to trace the ancestry of “the Buddha,” regarding the numerous legends he encountered Hardy remarks:
“Several of the names, and some of the events, are met with in the Puranas of the Brahmans, but it is not possible to reconcile one order of statement with the other; and it would appear that the Budhist historians have introduced races, and invented names, that they may invest their venerated sage with all the honors of heraldry, in addition to the attributes of divinity.”
Hardy also states that his sources are Tibetan, Nepalese, Chinese, Indian, Burmese, Siamese and Sri Lankan (Ceylonese), of which the sacred books of Burma, Siam and Ceylon are “identically the same.” Nevertheless, he continues:
“The ancient literature of the Budhists, in all the regions where this system is professed, appears to have had its origin in one common source; but in the observances of the present day there is less uniformity; and many of the customs now followed, and of the doctrines now taught, would be regarded by the earlier professors as perilous innovations.”
In reality, there have been identified at least 60 “translations, versions, or paraphrases” of Buddha’s life. Hence, his “life” has changed from era to era and place to place.
The Dating of Buddha
As was the case with Krishna, the era in which “the Buddha” was supposedly born has been variously placed. While it is currently held that “the Buddha” or Gautama lived in the 6th century BCE, other writers, including eastern ones, have placed it in a number of different eras: “Professor Wilson…quotes no less than eleven authorities, every one of which establishes the era of Budha more than 1000 years B.C., and five other authorities make it above 800 years B.C.”
Moreover, in Asiatic Researches Jones relates that the Arab traveler Abul Fazel placed Buddha “in the 1366th year before that of our Saviour,” while the Chinese put the birth of Buddha, or Fo, the “son of Maya,” in 1036 or 1027 BCE. The Catholic missionary Georgius/Giorgi reported that the Tibetans claimed Buddha’s birth occurred in the year 959 BCE. Basing his estimations on the Chronology of the Hindus, Jones himself set the birth of Buddha, “or the ninth great avatar of Vishnu,” in 1014 BCE, while Krishna, the “Indian Apollo,” he established more than 1200 years before the common era.
As concerns Buddha’s death, the Ceylonese/Singhalese or Sri Lankan account puts it at 543 BCE, while the chronology of the Greeks, based on the king “Sandracyptus,” “Sandracottos” or “Chandragupta,” places it at 477 BCE. According to Inman, the date of Buddha’s death or nirvana in Chinese accounts is circa 770 BCE.
As Prof. Wilson discerned, the lack of consensus bespeaks the mythical and unhistorical nature of “the Buddha.” Recounting Wilson’s arguments, Rev. Simpson gives other reasons to suspect that Buddha is mythical:
“The tribe of Sakiya, from which the sage sprung is not mentioned in Hindu writings as a distinct people. The names introduced into the narrative are all symbolical. Buddha’s father was Suddhodana; ‘he whose food is pure.’ His mother’s name is Maya or Mayadevi, ‘illusion, divine delusion;’ as a prince, he was called Siddhartha, ‘he, by whom the end is accomplished’ and ‘Buddha’ signifies ‘he, by whom all is known.'”
Simpson also explains at least some of these dating discrepancies as a “back-reckoning” from a particular historical event of the various nations into which Buddhism spread.
As demonstrated, neither the story itself nor the sixth century date for the life of Buddha is conclusive, and we are left with a lack of historicity in the tale. It must be emphasized that, when discussing the legends of ancient gods, godmen and heroes, we are generally dealing with myths that change constantly in order to incorporate new information, adapt to a specific era, or reflect a particular culture. It should also be kept in mind that information is suppressed and expunged, for a variety of reasons and agendas.
It is obvious that the “biography” of Buddhism’s alleged founder is not set in stone, and that following the ancient path of the religion’s development is difficult. In light of such information, one can readily understand how Western scholars would “identify Buddha with a variety of personages, imaginary or real.”
The Many Buddhas
To reiterate, despite the hundreds of Buddhist texts he studied, Hardy himself admits the difficulty in discovering reliable information and sorting it all out:
“We have little information of the innumerable Budhas who have appeared in the past ages, until we come to the twenty-four who immediately preceded Gotama; and even their history consists of little more than names and correlative incidents….
“‘…There is a verse in the Aparanita Dharani…purporting that ‘the Budhas who have been, are, and will be, more numerous than the grains of sand on the banks of the Ganges.’… These are evident nonentities, in regard to chronology and history, yet it is often difficult to distinguish them from their more substantial compeers.'”
The 24 Buddhas are the same as the “Teerthankaras” of Jainism, another Indian faith that is essentially the same as Buddhism but is considered by its adherents to be the oldest religion in the world.
In addition to these 24, in long ages outlined in Buddhists texts are said to have appeared some 387,000 Buddhas. Several of these Buddhas are depicted as living tens to hundreds of thousands of years. We are also told that during the long epochs after the pre-existent Gautama “wished to become a Buddha, 125,000 Buddhas appeared; and during this period he was born many hundreds of times, either as a dewa [deva] or as a man.” (A deva is “a divinity,” i.e., a divine being or an “angel.”) Concerning these many lives of “the Buddha,” Hardy says:
“A great part of the respect paid to Gotama Budha arises from the supposition that he voluntarily endured, throughout myriad of ages, and in numberless births, the most severe deprivations and afflictions, that he might thereby gain the power to free sentient beings from the misery to which they are exposed under every possible form of existence.”
Simpson puts a number to these “numberless births”:
“Sakiya [Buddha] is supposed to have had a prior existence of indefinite length, during which he assumed five hundred and fifty births.”
Concerning the Chinese version of Buddha, Fo, Bell enumerates his lives at 8,000:
“FO, or FOE, an idol of the Chinese: he was originally worshipped in the Indies… His disciples after his death published a great number of fables concerning him, and easily persuaded the people that Fo had been born eight thousand times; that his soul had successively passed through several different animals…”
Some of these numerous lives of Buddha are as follows:
“An ascetic 83 times; a monarch 58; the deva of a tree 43; a religious teacher 26; a courtier 24; a prohita brahman 24; a prince 24; a nobleman 23; a learned man 22; the deva Sekra 20; an ape 18; a merchant 13; a man of wealth 12; a deer 10; a lion 10; the bird hansa 8; a snipe 6; an elephant 6; a fowl 5; a slave 5; a golden eagle 5; a horse 4; a bull 4; the brahma Maha Brahma 4; a peacock 4; a serpent 4; a potter 3; an outcaste 3; a guana 3; twice each a fish, an elephant driver, a rat, a jackal, a crow, a woodpecker, a thief, and a pig; and once each a dog, a curer of snake-bites, a gambler, a mason, a smith, a devil dancer, a scholar, a silversmith, a carpenter, a water-fowl, a frog, a hare, a cock, a kite, a jungle-fowl, and a kindura.”
Considering this overwhelming and bizarre list, it cannot be possible to write a “biography” of a “real person.” As stated by Buddhist and Sanskrit scholar Dr. Christian Lindtner:
“In my paper on Buddhist Bhagavatism I show that even in early Pâli sources there is a clear concept of the double nature of a Bhagavat (nominative: Bhagavân). Already in the earliest sources the same person is man and god (descending from Brahmaloka) at the same time. He has conversations with Indra, Brahma etc. He can fly, make himself invisible etc. He can also descend to Naraka (“Hell”), just as he can go to heaven. This is clearly a mythical figure. And the Pâli texts also list our Buddha (Siddhârtha) as # 7 in a row.
“So, how can [anyone] deny that the Buddha is a mythical being?’
The Mythical Buddha
In studying the various texts, the divine, supernatural nature of Buddhism and the Buddhas becomes evident. Nevertheless, amid all the wild and miraculous tales concerning the countless Buddhas and assorted incarnations, an “orthodox” life of “the Buddha” has been created.
To begin with, Buddha’s conception is portrayed as coming to his mother, Maya, in a dream, like the conflicting gospel tales of Joseph’s dream or the angel appearing to Mary. Maya is represented as telling her husband, the king, about the dream “in the morning”; yet, the conception was said to have been accompanied by “32 great wonders,” including the trembling of “100,000 sakwalas” (“solar systems”) and the roaring of bulls and buffaloes, which surely would have woken up not only the king but also the entire town! In addition, Maya’s pregnancy was attended by 40,000 devas keeping guard. She was “transparent,” and the child could be seen in her womb. Certainly, these events- which historicizers would place only six centuries before the common era, when historians and travelers were abundant enough to have noticed- are not “historical” but mythical.
Buddha’s birth is further depicted thus:
“During the period of pregnancy Maya was carefully guarded by 40,000 deities, while numberless divine personages stood watch over the royal palace and the royal city. As her time drew near its close, she wished to visit her parents in the city of Koli. The road was levelled; trees were planted; all the luxuries required for an eastern journey were provided, a cushioned litter of gold was her conveyance, and a thousand nobles were her bearers. Attended by a host of followers, she came to a garden of sal trees in bloom. She rested awhile to enjoy the fragrance of the flowers and the songs of the birds, she raised her hand to catch a bough of a tree; it bent of its own will; and without pain, or pollution, Buddha was born. Maha Brahma received the child in a golden net; from him, the guardian deities and nobles who wrapped it in folds of the finest and softest cloth. But Buddha was independent of their aid and leapt on the ground and where he touched it, a lotus bloomed. He looked to the four points and the four half points, above and below, and saw all deities and men acknowledge his supremacy. He stepped seven steps northward and a lotus marked each foot fall. He exclaimed, ‘I am the most exalted in the world; I am chief in the world; I am the most excellent in the world, hereafter there is to me no other birth.'”
This story is beautiful and magical, but it cannot be considered as biography. If it were “history,” and if Buddha were a “real person,” the author of such miracles and divine wonders, we would be compelled to pronounce him “God of gods,” because his bio is much more impressive than that of Christ. However, it is obvious we are not dealing with the biography of any historical human being. And these fabulous tales are just a few of the many regarding “the Buddha,” Bodhisat, etc., in his numerous incarnations.
As another example, in one story Buddha is depicted as pre-existing in the mystical land of Tusita, where he “had a crown four miles high.” In this fable, he also possessed “sixty wagon-loads of gems and jewels, all other kinds of treasures and a kela of [numberless] beautiful attendants.”
Once he finally took incarnation, as an infant Buddha was brought by wise men to the temple, amid a tremendous precession graced by music, showered by flowers and attended by 100,000 deities who pulled the Divine Child’s cart. The arrival at the temple was announced by an earthquake, as well as the flower-shower, and the temple idols representing gods came alive and welcomed the latest avatar.
As he grew older, Prince Siddhartha, who would become Buddha, had 40,000 queens, princesses, “dancing women” or “inferior wives” with him in his palace. This motif could hardly be an historical fact, and the number is identical to the amount of deities attending his birth. Moreover, when Siddhartha, rejecting the temptation of the Prince of Darkness, left his native city, he was preceded by 60,000 devas holding “torches of jewels.”
In testing whether or not he would become Buddha, the prince threw his hair into the air, saying, “If I am to become Buddha, my hair will remain in the sky…” The hair not only stayed airborne but also attained a height of 16 miles!
During a reception of Buddha by his royal father in his hometown, the other Sakya princes were instructed to worship him, which they were reluctant to do. Having read their thoughts, Buddha contrived to convince them:
“Accordingly, he rose up from the throne, ascended into the air, and in their presence sent forth the six-coloured rays, and caused a stream of fire to proceed from his shoulders, ears, nostrils, eyes, hands, and feet, from the 99 joints and the 99,000 pores of his body; and this was followed by the issuing forth of a stream of water from the same places.”
In addition, while visiting the island of Ceylon, Gautama fought in the air with demons, appearing to them as the moon, and creating pillars of fire, after which an island approached the demons, who took refuge upon it.
In another example of the fabulous “life of Buddha,” one of the sage’s followers, a woman named Yasodhara-devi, who had attained to the status of rahat (“one entirely free from evil desire”), was depicted as follows:
“She…related the history of her former births, then rose into the air and worshipped Budha; in this manner she rose and descended many times; and performed many other wonders, in the presence of men, devas and brahmas.”
Again, if these fantastic events are to be considered the biography of a real person, we can only conclude that Buddha is a much more powerful figure than Christ! Furthermore, anyone trying to make a modern biography from this impossible mishmash, which includes talking animals and copious other miracles, would be spinning (dharma) wheels endlessly.
The physical description of Buddha is no less fantastic and likewise impossible as “biography.” He is depicted as having feet like golden sandals, with chakras (wheels) in the center of the soles. His palms and soles were as soft as “cotton dipped in oil” and “appeared like richly ornamented windows.” He possessed antelope-like legs and long, straight arms that reached to his knees. “His secret parts were concealed, as the pedicle of the flower is hid by the pollen,” and his body was impervious to dirt and dust. Buddha also had magical hair and nerves, as well as perfectly sized and white-colored teeth, which looked like a “row of diamonds” and which “shone like the stars of a constellation.” He had a neck “like a golden drum” and the strength of a lion, etc. Obviously, this description reflects a very strange-looking “person.”
Also, whereas Buddha is said to have had red hair, in ancient statuary Buddhas are depicted as negroid in feature. As Jones says:
“…the ancient Hindus, according to Strabo, differed in nothing from the Africans, but in the straitness and smoothness of their hair, while that of the others was crisp and wooly; a difference proceeding chiefly, if not entirely, from their respective humidity or dryness of their atmospheres; hence the people who received the first light of the rising sun, according to the limited knowledge of the ancients, are said by Apuleius to be the Arü and Ethiopians, by which he clearly meant certain nations of India; where we frequently see figures of Buddha with curled hair apparently designed for a representation of it in its natural state.”
Moor also relates that certain statues of Buddha “exhibit thick Ethiopian lips” and “wooly hair.”
In reality, Buddha’s bizarre, amorphous appearance further demonstrates that his story is myth. Again, the understanding of myth is both important and entertaining, not to be dismissed as mere, worthless fabrication. Without creative and imaginative myth, human beings would be far less colorful and rich. It is only when the esoteric meaning of the myth is lost, and the myth becomes misapprehended as “historical fact,” that it becomes insidious and harmful.
For more information, including relevant citations, see my book Suns of God: Krishna, Buddha and Christ Unveiled, as well as my forthcoming work The Christ Myth Anthology.
“Search Suns of God: Krishna, Buddha and Christ Unveiled!”