The Illusion and Reality of Siddhatta Gotama, the Buddha
By Thomas Riggins
Karen Armstrong’s Buddha, published as a Penguin paperback in 2004, is not only a bestseller but has been praised as "invaluable." Armstrong is well known as a popular writer on religious history and this book is one of many she has written for a lay audience. All of her books are well written and enjoyable to read but not always historically reliable. This is, unfortunately, the case with her book on the Buddha. I am afraid that people going away after a reading of this admittedly enjoyable book will have no real understanding of either the Buddha or his religion.
The problem is that she has somewhat indiscriminately mixed up primary and secondary sources as well as credited and discredited theories about religion in general and Buddhism in particular. As an example she gives equal weight to both forms of Buddhism – i.e., the original, or at least the older, Theravada tradition (Sri Lanka, Thailand, Cambodia) based on the Pali texts, [her book is, however,based mostly on the Pali texts] and the much later Mahayana tradition that developed in North India (written in Sanskrit rather than Pali) and spread to China, Korea, Tibet, Vietnam and Japan. This second tradition, influenced by contact with Persia and incorporating Zoroastrian elements, and seeing the Buddha as "an object of worship" is very different from the original teachings of Gotama who was himself inclined towards atheism and was more this worldly than other worldly.
Armstrong is well aware of the difficulties of writing a "biography" of the Buddha. The man Gotama died in the 5th century B.C. and all we know about him has been mixed up with legends and later traditions to such a degree that what we say concerning him "cannot satisfy the standards of modern scientific history." The Buddha that emerges in her book is, as she says, an "archetypal figure" that she has more or less constructed out of the Pali canon which is the earliest and most reliable source available on the life and teachings of the Buddha.
There are two annoying features of her interpretation that will not go down too well with Marxists. First she uses, as a framework for comparisons, the discredited notion of the "Axial Age" put forth by the German existentialist philosopher Karl Jaspers. This is the notion that from around 800 to 200 B.C. the ancient world from Europe, thru Iran and India to China created the "ethos" that "has continued to nourish men and women to the present day." This fantastical "Axial Age" only works by selectively including and excluding, as well as misinterpreting the functions of the individuals who are supposedly the most important thinkers of this period.
She includes Socrates and Plato (but not Aristotle) as well as "the sixth-century Iranian sage Zoroaster." Zoroaster’s dates are notoriously difficult to determine, but the modern consensus places him four or five hundred years earlier than the sixth-century – this messes up the "Axial Age" because Iran drops out of the picture. It should also be noted that Confucius was a thoroughly secular teacher and was not involved in reforming "the religious traditions of China." "People," she writes, "who participated in this great transformation were convinced that they were on the brink of a new era and that nothing would ever be the same again." A period that lasted 600 hundred years can hardly be called a "brink", nor, not having read Jaspers, would people from Europe to China even be aware of a "great transformation" taking place, especially since it was artificially constructed only recently.
Second, she refers to the economic system in Buddha’s day as a "market economy." This is very confusing terminology with relation to the mode of production in ancient India. The ancient economy was based on the exploitation of village agriculturalists in a semi-feudal system that had recently developed in Buddha’s day (in northeast India where he lived) when state structures had evolved out of tribal systems into kingdoms and then empires. There was a large merchant class, as in Rome, but it is a stretch to say the cities and empires were "dominated by a market economy." Ancient India was not a capitalist state.
Buddha, as we know, saw life as a big drag – suffering, etc., and his new religion, was based on the Four Noble Truths (all is suffering, suffering has a cause, suffering can be overcome, the sacred eightfold path is the way to do it.) To escape suffering you needed to follow Buddha’s new rules of life. He founded an order of monks who could follow his path and attain enlightenment and escape from rebirth, and thus another round of suffering, to "nirvana" – a state of being or nonbeing never really spelled out.
Armstrong gives an interesting account of all the trials and tribulations of the Buddha and the founding of his Order – but her explanations are almost exclusively in terms of inner struggles and spiritual development. This is all very well and good but will not satisfy Marxists who want to understand the rise of Buddhism in terms of class struggle and other Marxist categories. None of this is in Armstrong’s book. So Marxists will not get much out of her book. She lacks the necessary jaundiced eye when looking at religion which Marxists regard as an "illusion" and, as Marx said, brings the people only an "illusory happiness."
The question for Marxists is – what were the social and economic conditions prevailing in Buddha’s time that allowed his religion to survive and prosper? The answer to this question is to be found in the works of the great Bengali Marxist philosopher Debiprasad Chattopadhyaya. The short answer is that in Buddha’s time the old democratic tribal associations were being replaced by newly emergent military states. The tribes had been governed by councils who appointed the leaders by democratic methods. Buddha came from such a tribe, the Sakyas. He witnessed the destruction of these tribal organizations by the new states and the consequent enslavement and murder of the tribal peoples. The source of the suffering world.
In his Order he recreated the primitive democracy and interpersonal solidarity of the tribal ethos and thus presented, on a spiritual level, the illusion of freedom and meaning to life that had actually been lost in the real world.
This is the real story behind the rise and development of Buddhism but you won’t find it in Armstrong’s book.
Karen Armstrong, Buddha, Penguin, New York, 2004
Debiprasad Chattopadhyaya, Indian Philosophy: A Popular Introduction People’s Publishing House, Delhi, 1964
Debiprasad Chattopadhyaya, Lokayata: A Study in Ancient Indian Materialism, People’s Publishing House, New Delhi, 1959 (7th ed. 1992)