The MWS Podcast 77: Christopher Beckwith on his book Greek Buddha

The historian Christopher Beckwith discusses his latest book Greek Buddha with the chair of the society Robert M Ellis. The book attempts to show how show how Early Buddhism shaped the philosophy of Pyrrho, the famous founder of Pyrrhonian scepticism in ancient Greece. In Robert’s recent review of the book he talks about Christopher turning Buddhism on its head using rigorous historical scholarship, arguing that the Buddha taught the Middle Way, not the other elements that have become associated with Buddhism such as the 4 Noble Truths, karma or nirvana etc.

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About Barry Daniel

I live in the Lake District in the UK where I run a guesthouse with my partner Kate and my cat Manuel. I enjoy painting, hillwalking, reading, visiting and entertaining friends, T’ai Chi and playing the guitar. I’m engaged to a certain degree in the local community, as a volunteer with Samaritans and I’m a fairly active member of the local Green party. I’ve had a relatively intuitive sense of the Middle Way most of my adult life but it found a greater articulation and a practical direction through joining the society. It’s also been interesting and great fun engaging with other people with a similar outlook. My main contribution to the society is conducting the podcast interviews, something that gives me a lot of satisfaction and that I’ve learnt a lot from.

17 thoughts on “The MWS Podcast 77: Christopher Beckwith on his book Greek Buddha

  1. Chris is not an easy interview subject. He’s deeply immersed in a scholarly world, and many of the things he most likes to discuss will appear as scholarly technicalities to others. He also rambles a good deal, and needs sterner interviewers than Barry or I had the heart to be. However, I’d want to reassure listeners that there are gold nuggets amongst the ramblings here. This podcast will chiefly be of interest to people who have already read the book, I think, but Chris does offer answers to at least some of the questions that his critics and other readers might want to ask. If you haven’t read the book, I’d suggest at least reading my review of it (linked above) first before you listen to the podcast. There might also be some value in skipping the first ten minutes, unless you are interested in the biographical and scholarly background to how the book was written: the more central questions begin after that point.

  2. Thanks for this Robert. I like his articulation and clarity. But this very clarity does cause problems. His method, as he says in Barry’s interview, is to look at the data and conclude Y even when the tradition has for a long time thought X. E.g. he ‘looks at the data’ and concludes that the Buddha was Scythian even though the tradition holds that the Buddha was Indian, from the Śākya tribe of the Himālayan foothills. So, I ask myself, what is his ‘data’? It appears to be simply the name ‘Śākyamūni’, which means ‘sage of the Śākyas’. Beckwith concludes that ‘Śākya’ means ‘member of the Saka people’, i.e. Scythian, but is this a reasonable conclusion? Our early ‘hard’ evidence for Buddhism includes the Pillar Edicts of emperor Aśoka. There is one of these at Lumbinī, the Buddha’s birthplace, near Kapilavastu, the capital of Śākya, which has been put there to mark the Buddha’s birthplace. You would have thought this fact, plus the belief of the Buddhist tradition, would suggest that the Buddha was called ‘Śākyamūni’ because actually he was the sage of the Śākya tribe, with their capital at Kapilavastu, as indicated by the early ‘hard’ evidence of the Aśokan pillar. The Pali canon (late textual evidence) supports this conclusion, even in relatively ‘early’ verse passages. By contrast, there is not any evidence whatever for the idea that the Buddha was born in Gandhāra.

    Beckwith himself does deal with the evidence of the Lumbinī pillar, in his book on pp.245–6. He argues that the Lumbinī pillar is late and spurious and therefore does not count as evidence for the Buddha having been born in Lumbinī. However, in his argument Beckwith appears to have made a mistake. He claims that the pillar is inscribed in Sanskrit, calling the Buddha ‘Śākyamūni’. However, looking at Hultzsch’s version of the edict, p.164 (this is Beckwith’s source), Beckwith has misread Hultzsch. The inscription is clearly in Prakrit and reads ‘Sakyamuni’ and it is not in Sanskrit and does not read ‘Śākyamūni’. (Hultszch has rendered the inscription into Sanskrit in his English translation, but it was not originally in Sanskrit). With this, Beckwith’s argument for the lateness of the edict collapses.

    I am interested to know what Prof Beckwith would make of these points.

  3. Hi Dhivan, I emailed Chris to alert him to your comment, and he responded by email as follows:
    I would like to thank Dhivan Thomas Jones for the critical comments. I think all of them are actually addressed in the book, though it seems not quite obviously enough.

    Yes, the Lumbini Inscription is certainly written in Prakrit. The point is that the name Sakyamuni has the diagnostic “y” of the Sanskrit form; Prakrit is Sakamuni. Also, the late, great Bareau has already thoroughly discredited the Lumbini story, and the archaeology supports him; Lumbini did not exist until hundreds of years after the Buddha’s lifetime.

    I give my reasons for saying the Buddha was probably from Gandhara (also one good reason for the mystery about his birthplace), and why he was evidently Scythian. (I do mention another possibility for the epithet, but it too has to do with Sakas–i.e., Scythians–not Nepalese hill tribes, who are a late invention.) He very clearly reacted against specifically Early Zoroastrian beliefs, and it is extremely unlikely that Zoroastrians would have been found very far from the Persian imperial presence in the Indian NW.

    One problem in doing scholarly work on topics such as mine is that people have traditional beliefs about them, so they tend to think of their beliefs as “hard data” and can’t understand why anyone would question them. But whatever material we are examining, we need to do so carefully, with an open mind and as much attention to details and logic as we can muster. I have tried to do this.

    Two of my colleagues who are professors of Buddhology (and don’t know each other) independently told me that they re-read the book. Maybe, because what I present is so different from the tradition, it would not be a bad idea for Dhivan Thomas Jones to re-read the book, then write to me about any questions that still remain.

    1. Many thanks Robert for passing on my comments to Prof Beckwith. However, his reply leaves me rather mystified. He writes, “Yes, the Lumbini Inscription is certainly written in Prakrit. The point is that the name Sakyamuni has the diagnostic “y” of the Sanskrit form; Prakrit is Sakamuni. Also, the late, great Bareau has already thoroughly discredited the Lumbini story, and the archaeology supports him; Lumbini did not exist until hundreds of years after the Buddha’s lifetime.”

      It seems we agree that the Lumbini inscription is written in Prakrit. However, why does Prof Beckwith think that the “y” in Sakyamuni is diagnostic of the Sanskrit form? The “y” is Sakyamuni is a perfectly normal Prakrit form, and is also found in Pali, which developed from Prakrit. There is nothing necessarily Sanskrit about “Sakyamuni”. I would be curious about Prof Beckwith’s reasoning here. What he writes on p.245 of his book is certainly a little misleading. If Sakyamuni is normal Prakrit, and is not a Sanskritism as he claims, his argument simply collapses.

      As for Bareau, it is hard to see Bareau’s conclusion as other than that the various stories concerning the Buddha’s birthplace are not consistent. As for the archaeology, I wonder if Prof Beckwith is aware of the recent work by Prof Coningham, which was rather sensationalised in the media, but nevertheless did suggest a pre-Aśokan religious site at Lumbinī.

      What perplexes me about Prof Beckwith’s approach is that he does not even discuss the possibility that “Sakyamuni” means “Sage of the Sakyans”, which is the traditional version of what “Sakyamuni” means, and that indeed the Buddha-to-be had been born into a clan or tribe who called themselves “Sakya”, which is to say “Of the Sakas”. It becomes quite interesting at this point to ask if the Sakyans might indeed have originally have come from further west, i.e. they were Scythian, but it is entirely unnecessary to go beyond that. In my review of Prof Beckwith’s book I mention some interesting research on this topic. This seems on the whole more likely than supposing that Sakyamuni was actually not Indian.

      Best wishes

  4. I expect you will pursue the intricacies of the Sanskrit/Prakrit issue with Chris by email, Dhivan, as he doesn’t wish to engage in web discussion. However, I might also point out that you haven’t responded to what he says is his main reason for thinking the Buddha came from Gandhara, i.e. that the Buddha’s teachings were responding to Zoroastrian rather than Brahmanic thought. That part of his argument made total sense to me, because the Zoroastrians emphasise a crude cosmic dualism in a way that the Brahmans do not, and the Middle Way/ Pyrrhonian teachings primarily emphasise challenging dualism. Beckwith also explains how the evidence suggests that Brahmanism evolved alongside Buddhism rather than prior to it.

    There are all sorts of other possible explanations for discrepancies about the Buddha as an individual (as you say, the hill tribe may have migrated previously – or another is that there were two people who got confused with each other, as was the case with Isaiah). However, surely what’s more important is the initial locus of the teachings, and if they were responding to Zoroastrianism then that makes the story about Pyrrho and the priority of the Middle Way teachings more plausible.

    1. Beckwith’s investigation of early Buddhist ideas with early Zoroastrian ideas is really fascinating. However, it seemed to me a complete hash of re-interpretations. To take the obvious example, Beckwith as you know takes up the idea that the Upaniṣads were not actually pre-Buddhist, so that the Buddha was not responding to them, and that in fact the Upaniṣads (what Beckwith calls ‘early’ Brahmanism’) arose later, in response to Buddhism. Beckwith totally relies here on Johannes Bronkhorst, an excellent scholar who has tried to argue that the so-called ‘early Upaniṣads’ are not so early. However, Bronkhorst’s arguments are not at all widely accepted, in fact, many scholars of early Indian religion are not convinced (partly because Bronkhorst’s arguments are tendentious in the same way that Beckwith’s arguments are). So this already makes Beckwith’s arguments about the importance of Zoroastrian ideas rather more speculative. Then there is of course the important issue of whether the Buddha was from Gandhara or India. Then there is the matter of weighing up whether the Buddha’s ideas engage with early Zoroastrian ideas or ideas prevalent in ancient India (assuming he was from there) that include belief in a creator God and belief in rebirth based on karma. There obviously was a belief in Brahmā the creator God in ancient India, but this kind of monotheism appears to have been indigenous despite not being Vedic and does not appear to be connected with Zoroastrian-type dualism.

      Jayarava has written an interesting article I can send you, exploring the possibility that the Buddha was responding to Zoroastrian ideas rather than Brahmanical ones. However, Jayarava rightly I think explores these ideas as conjectural, as the evidence is lacking at the moment. Beckwith’s approach promises to provide more evidence, but in my view ultimately doesn’t deliver it.

      Obviously I’m taking more of the Buddhist studies line of approach here, rather than an broader interest in the middle way as a principle. But I’m right with you in thinking that the middle way teachings are right there in early Buddhism. But the main context in which we see these teachings are not in an engagement with Zoroastrian type metaphysics but with the philosophical debates among śramanas in north India. This would be my interpretation, anyway, going by the old texts like the Aṭṭhakavagga.

  5. OK, I don’t think there’s going to be much ground of agreement on the historical issues here, since your main ground of disagreement with Beckwith does seem to involve reliance on consensus – whether that consensus is scholarly or Buddhist. For me an awareness of the dangers of appeals to authorities and to groups are much more to the fore, and I’m much more impressed by Beckwith’s approach of following the evidence where it seems to go, however unorthodox a place that takes one. That doesn’t make him necessarily right, but I’d probably put the probabilities in a rather different place.

    1. Hi Robert. I wonder why you say that my disagreement with Chris is to do with ‘reliance on consensus’? Once again, you’re getting close to attributing motives to me. I’ve made it perfectly clear that my disagreement concerns the truth of his inferences from evidence. If his inferences are incorrect, which comes down to his interpretations largely, his conclusions don’t follow. This does not relate to appeals to reliance on consensus, appeals to authority or appeals to groups. I’ve never made these kinds of appeals, but you seem to want to make out I do. Why’s that then?

      Chris has kindly replied to my message – the one I posted on the Middle Way blog – explaining his reasoning about the word ‘Sakyamuni’ on the Lumbinī pillar, and he seems happy to carry on the discussion, so that’s good.

      1. Hi Dhivan, My inference that you were relying on consensus comes from the following elements of your post above:
        “Bronkhorst’s arguments are not at all widely accepted, in fact, many scholars of early Indian religion are not convinced (partly because Bronkhorst’s arguments are tendentious in the same way that Beckwith’s arguments are). So this already makes Beckwith’s arguments about the importance of Zoroastrian ideas rather more speculative.” This relies on the consensus amongst scholars of early Indian religion.
        “This would be my interpretation, anyway, going by the old texts like the Aṭṭhakavagga.” It looks here as though you’re relying on the authority of this text as part of the Pali Canon, albeit an older part of it.
        I don’t reject the use of such sources as slight indicators of initial credibility, but I do seem to place much less reliance on them as a basis of final judgement than you do.

        1. Hi Robert, thanks for your explanation. However, it seems to me that I used appeals to consensus and authority merely to illustrate the possibility of alternatives to Prof Beckwith’s inferences, not to make truth claims or even arguments. In questioning Chris’ inferences I’ve provided evidence without recourse to appeals to consensus or authority.

          1. Then the question seems to be one of how we perceive the status of our conclusions. I took it that you were putting forward an argument, even if one with a degree of provisionality. You seemed to be doing more than clarifying alternative possibilities, anyway – after all, the alternatives to Beckwith are pretty clear and well-established in the Buddhist tradition. The reliance on consensus and the authority of texts was, at the very least, justifying the views you were provisionally putting forward.

            Beckwith, on the other hand, seems to manage without any such scaffolding, and I think you might give him a lot more credit than you do for the huge difficulties of erecting a radical alternative and getting people to take it seriously without being able to rely on consensus or past tradition to any extent at all. The principle of charity could also be applied in assuming that he’s being just as provisional as perhaps you aspire to be.

  6. Hi Dhivan
    I hope you don’t mind me jumping in here but what you’re saying appears to pose an interesting question . Do you think we are capable of being completely impartial?

    1. Hello Barry, yes, I do believe we can sometimes be impartial. For instance I am completely impartial about who wins the FA cup final. But that’s probably not what you meant!

      I remember as a teenager, reading Erich von Daniken’s book Chariots of the Gods? Did you read it? It is a book that tries to get the reader to follow a series of inferences leading to some extraordinary conclusions, e.g. aliens visited the earth etc. There came a point, reading this book, that I realised that von Daniken’s argument amounted to the very careful choice of evidence, and the exclusion of any considerations that would count against what he wanted to conclude. So the apparent historical and scholarly method disguised a clever method of rhetoric. I would say, in relation to books like Greek Buddha, that there is a distinct lack of exclusion of considerations that would count against the conclusions made.

      I am not impartial to this kind of rhetorical method. Especially when I happen to know something about the whole area, and can see what kinds of considerations have been excluded. Call me old-fashioned, but I’m interested in the truth. And if we don’t have sufficient evidence to justify our conclusions, let’s admit we don’t know or that our conclusions are necessarily conjectural.

      Do you think it’s possible to be impartial? I’m guessing this is something that you have thought about!

  7. Hi Dhivan
    Good example with the FA Cup. Instead of saying are we capable of being completely impartial, I meant, as you intimated, are we capable of making a completely impartial decision, so I think your FA Cup example is perhaps more to do with indifference or meaninglessness.

    If impartiality means then making a decision that concerns you from a completely rational or “objective” position devoid of any emotional influence, then no, I don’t that is possible. People who have suffered lesions or strokes to the emotional parts of their brains with the rational part still intact live random, chaotic lives, they don’t know what to want, they can’t set goals etc. Neuroscience and psychology are now telling us that reason and emotion appear to be inextricably linked when we make decisions. With this in mind and in order to make a more adequate decision that takes in as many conditions as possible, I think one always needs to be aware not only of the coherence of the beliefs one holds, but also one’s emotional state and what biases may be possibly affecting you. Judges, supposedly paragons of impartiality, are subject to a whole array of cognitive biases that they need to be aware of, for example, sentences tend to be a lot more lenient after them having lunch! Personally, I fell hook, line and sinker for the Chariots of the Gods when I was about 14, with presumably a lot of confirmation bias in play and I only gradually became aware of the flaws of the argument that you mentioned a few years later.

    Could you possibly entertain the idea though that you might to a degree be subject to the ‘sunk cost’ bias in your reaction to Beckwith’s book? (as much as I equally acknowledge that I could be subject to confirmation bias as his ideas resonate with certain views I hold). To put it another way, as a thought experiment, just hypothetically, if the evidence for Beckwith’s arguments became overwhelming, would you be able to change any potential views you hold about Buddhism that Beckwith challenges in a rational instant?

    Because of our embodied, finite natures, I don’t think we have access to the ‘truth’, but we can use it as a regulatory idea and work towards that. At the end of the day, investigations about something so old as what Beckwith is looking at in Greek Buddha, are inevitably always going to be subject to a large degree of ambiguity, so some degree of conjecturing will be part of any evidence gathering process. However, obviously some evidence gathering processes address conditions better than others. To my mind, rather than not coming to a decision because of a degree of uncertainty, if that is taken into account and a recognition of one’s own fallibility too (which Beckwith appears to do), then that arguably is an important part of the decision making process and can only help for a better decision to be made.

  8. Hi all,

    I have been enjoying reading this conversation but have not participated so far, partly because I have not yet read Beckwith’s book and partly because I know very little about the histories being discussed.

    I would like to make a couple of brief points on a few of the issues raised so far.

    I’m not sure that in constructing an historical argument it is possible to avoid making appeals to authority – be that the authority of a text, an object or of other scholars. Of course such ‘authorities’ should be engaged with critically before one makes an assessment of their potential contribution. I am sure that Beckwith must have appealed to authority in order to come to his conclusions – after all, I doubt that he has access to a time machine. I agree that when Buddhists engage in the historical study of the Buddha and his teachings then there are obvious reasons why their work may be heavily biased and that there may be a reluctance to accept evidence that does not corroborate with accepted orthodoxy. However, it should not be assumed that this is the case. I am sure there are many good Buddhist historians who study Buddhist history, just as there are good Jewish, Christian and Muslim historians who study Abrahamic history – but these things must of course be taken into consideration when assessing their work. Similarly, one must also take into consideration the motives of an author who is offering radially novel ideas; this is a great way to generate publicity and sell books!

    It is possible (and highly likely) to have several competing historical assessments of a given period or individual that are all scholarly valid and well researched – in many ways it is merely a case of choosing the one that offers the most compelling case, which can be a highly subjective undertaking. This is why there is no consensus on such things as the motives, desires and actions of Anne Boleyn or if the Industrial Revolution actually took place. This makes the search for truth a difficult issue in the study of history. Nonetheless, the word truth mustn’t always be assumed to be absolute. The nearest one could get to historical truth would be to have a time machine, but in the absence of such technology the historian instead seeks to get as close as they can with the evidence available.

    From what I have read here both Beckwith and Dhivan have made their cases well, and seem to have appealed to authority in an appropriate fashion. Both arguments may well be valid, although only one will be closer to explaining what actually happened. Of course both may well turn out to be way off the mark! Nevertheless, a Buddhist or Middle Way Society observer should maintain some awareness of the natural tendency to be persuaded by the argument that greater supports their own point of view, at the expense of greater critical appraisal of the historical arguments put forward.


  9. Hello Robert, Barry, Richard, many thanks to you all for your wonderfully thoughtful comments. I thought I would just briefly reply, but also I’d like to bow out of this conversation now as well. Robert, I appreciate your commitment to a different way of thinking about Buddhism, but my commitment different again, evidently. Barry, I should hope that I would endeavour to let go of bias if the evidence and argument made it clear I should. Richard, thanks for the clear thinking there. Thanks again guys, and all the best with the philosophising.

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