01 September 2023

Myth vs History

I recently came across the text of a talk by Elizabeth Wilson, an academic historian. Her academic website says: "I work on the religions of South Asia; my main specialization is in Buddhist Gupta-era narrative literatures". So we might expect Wilson to have a fairly sophisticated approach to narratives and the historicity of religious narratives. And yet, I find her saying:

The historical Buddha lost his mother when he was just a baby. Legends describe the awakened Buddha ascending to the heaven where his mother had taken birth as a goddess due to her good karma. He gave her the greatest gift that he could offer: the gift of how to transcend death, the path that he discovered sitting under the foot of a tree on the day that he awakened to the truths of Buddhism.

What draws my attention here are two phrases: "historical Buddha" and "Legends describe". Are we talking about history or are we talking about legend? Wilson seems to conflate the two. For example, the source for the fact that "the historical Buddha lost his mother as a baby", is exactly the same source as the legend that describes Māyā Gotamī ascending to the Tuṣita devaloka. It is not that we turn to Buddhist history texts for one kind of information and to Buddhist legendary texts for the other. The same sources are cited for both kinds of fact. How does that even work?

Now Wilson's talk is quite light in tone, which suggests that I should not take it too seriously. On the other hand, it was uploaded to academia.edu, which suggests that she wanted her academic colleagues to know about it and take it seriously. In what follows, I take Wilson somewhat seriously and (fair or not) as a representative of a particular approach to academic Buddhist history.

Before going further, I need to say a few words about how I understand myth.


Generally speaking, myths are a collection of stories told by a pre-modern people, culture, or society. The myths of a people express their views about the universe and their place in it. Characters and events in myths are often interpreted as having symbolic rather than realistic value. For example, the characters in myths are often considered to be personifications of certain valuable qualities. Another way of saying this is that values are conveyed in the form of stories about a person whose behaviour exemplifies those values. Myth covers the origins of the world (cosmogony) and the content of it (cosmology). It may include accounts of where people came from and more specifically the origin story of the audience. As such, myths express the identity and values of the culture. Most myths contain substantial references to the supernatural, often in the form of "minimally counterintuitive" elements, such as animals or other non-human beings that have human characteristics such as speech.

The stories in myths contribute to a larger scale narrative. Each story contributes to a "story arc" that describes the history of the universe. In fact, Michael Witzel (2012) has proposed that myths, which vary considerably from culture to culture, follow one of two story arcs. One is prevalent amongst aboriginals in Australia, New Guinea, the Andaman Islands, and sub-Saharan Africa. This is by far the older tradition, since the people who share it cannot have been in contact more recently than about 50,000-70,000 years before the present. The other story arc is prevalent in Europe, Asia, the Americas, and pretty much everywhere else, but still goes back at least before the peopling of the Americas (so around 20,000-30,000 years). In this essay, I'll focus on the latter story.

An outline of this story arc that I previously cited in 2013, goes like this:

In the beginning there is nothing, chaos, non-being. Sometimes there are primordial waters. The universe is created from an egg or sometimes from a cosmic man.
The earth is retrieved from the waters by a diver or fisherman. (Father) heaven and (mother) earth are in perpetual embrace and their children, the gods, are born in between them. They push their parents apart and often hold them apart with an enormous tree. The light of the sun is revealed for the first time.
Several generations of gods are born and there is infighting. The younger generation defeat and kill the elder. One of the gods kills a dragon and this fertilises the earth. Slaying the dragon is often associated with an intoxicating drink.
The sun fathers the human race (sometimes only the chieftains of humans). Humans flourish but begin to commit evil deeds. Humans also begin to die. A great flood nearly wipes out humanity which is re-seeded by the survivors.
There is a period of heroic humans and particularly the bringing of culture in the form of fire, food. The benefactor is a hero or sometimes a shaman. Having survived and now equipped with culture, humans spread out. Local histories and local nobility begin to emerge and then dominate. Consistent with their being four ages of the world, everything ends in the destruction of the world, humans and gods. In some stories this destruction is the prelude for cyclic renewal.

I grew up with both Polynesian and European myth, and have subsequently become familiar with myths from India and Iran. Witzel's story rings true to me. Despite considerable diversity, the collections of myths across Asia, Europe, and the Americas generally follow this same story arc, but the characters and events may vary. The conserved feature is the plot: creation, first-generation gods, second-generation gods, heroes (demigods), ordinary humans.

Of course, Witzel is not the first to notice broad thematic consistency in world mythology. Carl G. Jung also noticed this and conjectured that all of our minds are supernaturally connected via a "collective unconscious". Jung's bullshit was eclectic and was probably influenced by his reading of the Vedanta and/or Neoplatonism. In any case, Witzel's conjecture is more parsimonious and I think Occam's razor applies: if we can explain something like global commonalities in myth without invoking the supernatural or inventing entities such as the "collective unconscious", then that explanation should be preferred.

We can distinguish myth, which is ahistorical, from legend, which is thought (even if only apocryphally) to have some basis in history. An example of an edge case might be the stories of King Arthur. Arthur is clearly an heroic human being who has considerable supernatural assistance from Merlin. Many believe that Arthur was based on some historical figure, although they don't necessarily agree on which. The foundations of this belief are far from solid. Much the same can be said about the Buddha. Many people believe that the stories in Buddhist suttas are based on the real adventures of a man in the early Iron Age in India, that is, around the middle of the first millennium BCE.

For reference, I now live in an area that was dotted with Iron Age settlements, which are clear in the archaeological record. That said, not one single character or event has come down to the present from that period in Britain. We know a little about how such people lived from archaeology, but nothing at all about individuals. We certainly do not have any religious teachings from that period.

Buddhist myth is strange in that the story arcs don't apply. The Buddhist cosmogonic story, for example, is not particularly Buddhist. Rather it appears to mainly be fragments of Brahmanical myth and some elements of what I take to be chthonic or aboriginal myth (the stories of the original inhabitants of the central Ganges valley prior to the arrival of Indo-European speakers). Scholars such as Richard Gombrich have pointed out that in some cases, such as the Tevijjā Sutta (DN 13), Buddhist myth is presented as a parody of Brahmanical belief. In any case, the standard Buddhist cosmogony and cosmology is not Buddhist per se. It has been assimilated, with minor changes, from a Brahmanical community.

Gods and other supernatural figures are an important part of Buddhist myth. Many stories feature devas, asuras, or Brahmās which come from Vedic myth. They also feature animistic gods such as yakkha, nāga, and kiṃnāra that seem to be chthonic. But as far as I can see, there is no story arc of the universe in the Buddhist mythos. The myths of Buddhism tend to focus on the career of the Buddha within a Brahmanical cosmos. This suggests that, despite appearing to come from one ethnic group (i.e. Sakya or Sakka "the Strong"), Buddhists did not adopt the mythology of that group.

With this in mind let us consider some elements of Buddhist myth that Elizabeth Wilson invokes.

The Myth of the Buddha's Mother

The main sources for Wilson's stories are early Mahāyāna texts like the Lalitavistara or the Mahāvastu. Here the stories of the Buddha are considerably more elaborate and contain more supernatural elements compared to the same stories in earlier literature.

The early death of Māyā Gautamī is part of this story. It includes such supernatural events as the Buddha emerging from his mother's side, taking seven steps, and then delivering a Buddhist sermon immediately after his birth. No part of this story is "historical". All of this material is of the same type, on the same level, and has the same level of historicity. Which is to say, it is ahistorical, (i.e. not historical)

On the other hand, elements of this myth are noticeably absent in an earlier version of the Buddha's biography, found in the Ariyapariyesanā Sutta (MN 26). There, the Buddha's mother is still alive when he leaves home as an unmarried youth. The Buddha myth developed over time and in a particular direction. I think there is some teleology here as the myth of the Buddha seems to have developed to appeal more to Brahmins, by assimilating more and more of their mythos. This was so broadly accepted that no one now questions the name Gautama, an ostentatiously Brahmin name associated with raising cattle, applied to a man from an agrarian society.

A lot of the myth of the Buddha's birth for example seems to involve avoidance of what anthropologists call "pollution". Ritual pollution can be incurred by contact with whatever causes pollution. The opposite, ritual purity, is maintained by avoiding contact with pollutants. Having been polluted, one can be restored to purity by public ritual acts.The particular kinds of ritual pollution in the Buddha myth again suggest Brahmin sensibilities.

For example, the Buddhist myth references Brahmanical taboos around bodily fluids, especially when it comes to women's bodies. In these patriarchal myths, women's bodies are an inherent a source of ritual pollution. Arguably, for example, the Buddha is born "through his mother's side" in order to avoid mentioning the word vagina, but more importantly it enables the magical Buddha to avoid the pollution inherent in contact with the associated bodily fluids. That kind of thinking is not evident in, say, early Buddhist suttas. It gradually crept into Buddhism, and it clearly invokes the mores of Brahmins. The apotheosis of this negative emotion towards bodies can be found in Śāntideva's quasi-Buddhist Bodhicāryāvatāra, in which he rages against "the body" in extremely crude terms; what we might call the "body-is-a-sack-of-shit" doctrine. It's quite important for the buddha myth that the Buddha bring no baggage with him into this life, because otherwise he could not attain liberation.

As I noted, in the Ariyapariyesanā Sutta, the Buddha's mother is alive and well when he leaves home. We can see this fact in two ways. It's quite typical to see this portrayed as earlier on the grounds that it is less sophisticated. I've made this case myself. However, I now think it equally plausible that it represents a contemporaneous minority opinion. Either way, despite the later universality of the story, some Buddhists, at some time, did not share the myth of Māyā dying following the birth of the buddha-to-be.

This part of the Buddha myth has parallels in Christianity. The mother of Jesus was a "virgin". Scholars have long noted that the word translated as "virgin" really just meant "a young woman". Still, the idea that Mary was a virgin is so entrenched that it is now an indispensable part of Christian mythology. If Mary was a virgin then no polluting sex, or sexual fluids, were involved in the conception of Jesus. Rather his conception was "immaculate" or ritually pure. The purity of the mother guarantees the purity of the son.

The myth of Māyā was shaped to fit the myth of the Buddha, and it was apparently modified as time went on and the ideas about the Buddha changed. Let's now look at some aspects of the Buddha myth.


I want to draw attention to a part of Witzel's outline of the mythic arc.

There is a period of heroic humans and particularly the bringing of culture in the form of fire, food. The benefactor is a hero or sometimes a shaman.

I want to consider the Buddha qua benefactor of humanity as a "hero" and as a "shaman".

Buddha as Hero

In the mythic story arc, following creation we see two generations of gods, with the second generation creating humanity and at times interbreeding with them to create demigods (e.g. Herakles). This first generation of humans directly interact with the gods and are envious of them. Heroic figures arise to take something from the gods to benefit humanity.

The paradigmatic human hero of Greek myth is Prometheus. In Māori myth it is Māui. Both Prometheus and Māui stole fire from the gods. In Indian myth it is Yama, who found the way to rebirth amongst one's ancestors. Heroes benefit all humanity, although often at great personal cost: Prometheus is chained to a rock for eternity, where an eagle tears out his liver everyday. Maui is crushed in the vagina of Hinenui-te-po (the great lady of the night), the Māori psychopomp, while trying to steal the secret of immortality from her.

Stealing fire from the gods is a common theme. Fire-using amongst genus homo starts millions of years before the emergence of modern humans, so there is no question of this being a legend. Neither Prometheus nor Māui are based on some guy who "invented fire". And note the gender bias here, the hero is always a man, which suggests to me that these stories were invented and transmitted amongst men. Did women have their own stories about their own heroes?

Yama is interesting in this context because he did not steal fire. Yama was a human being who discovered the way to being reborn amongst one's male ancestors (the pitāraḥ "fathers") after death. That is to say, Yama discovered rebirth. Again, this is not to suggest that some guy called Yama, was literally the first man to undergo rebirth. Rather, this probably reflects the assimilation of rebirth from the remnants of the Indus valley civilisation by the Vedics as they settled into their new home. I've rather speculatively referred to this as a meeting of the water tribe (Indus) and the fire nation (Vedic).

Buddhists made Yama into the King of Hell. As the man who discovered and inaugurated rebirth, Yama is responsible for untold suffering. The principal goal of Buddhism is to end rebirth, so the man who started it deserves special attention. Even though his role in rebirth is never mentioned by Buddhists, their treatment of him is consistent with such knowledge being possessed in the past.

The contrast between Buddha and Yama is interesting since no one has ever, to my knowledge, argued that Yama was a real person. Of course, the stories about Yama are relatively crude in Buddhism, and he never attained the level of interest and focus that Buddha did for Buddhists.

The Buddha as hero, discovers the way to end rebirth, the opposite of immortality. So the Buddhist myth is kind of strange in wanting to end the kind of immortality associated with rebirth.

Buddha as Shaman

It's some time since I explored the literature of shamanism, but what stands out in my memory is that the shaman is always a liminal figure. They stand between this world and the supernatural world. Unlike ordinary people, they can move from one world to the other. This means that they are not entirely part of the tribe, but nor are they an outsider.

The Buddha notably has numerous supernatural powers: clairvoyance, clairaudience, the ability to travel to the devaloka and brahmaloka, the ability to fly, and many more. And as time goes on, Buddhist descriptions of the Buddha become more and more magical.

It's quite common for the Buddha's followers to ask where someone was reborn after death and the Buddha was said to have the supernatural ability to see this. And of course, he can also see when someone is not reborn anywhere, when they have attained liberation from rebirth. As such the Buddha has at least some of the functions of a shaman. For many Buddhists, the point of Buddhism is to provide access to the supernatural or at least to supernatural knowledge of "reality".

Early Buddhists portray the Buddha as dying and not being reborn, which was the main goal of Buddhism at first. After some generations, it is apparent that new generations of Buddhists were not reconciled with the disappearance of the Buddha from our world. One can almost hear the cries of "O Buddha, why have you abandoned us?" In any case, Buddhists began to invent many new ways of meeting a Buddha. One could meet a Buddha in a meditation-induced vision for example. Buddhists also invented other universes with living Buddhas that could communicate with us. Other Buddhists conjectured that the living Buddha was just an avatara of a supernatural being beyond time and space, the Dharmakāya Buddha. Some allowed for past Buddhas to manifest in the present. Some invented a new class of supernatural being, the bodhisatva, who could be enlightened but also choose to be reborn so as to be available to help all sentient beings escape from rebirth (some wags have noted that this is logically equivalent to the elimination of sentient life on earth).


In a 2017 article for JIABS, David Drewes argued that academic historians should not talk about "the historical Buddha" because the term "historical" is meaningless when we cannot link the character in Buddhist stories to any historical events, so he is not "historical" in the usual sense of that word. Even the widely-cited dates for the Buddha are guesses based on vague information in normative religious texts. In fact, no character from the early Buddhist texts can be considered "historical" since none of them can be linked to any facts or events. The first truly historical person in Indian history is the Emperor Asoka, and even his dates have an element of uncertainty.

The naive use of normative texts as historical sources is rife and ongoing in Buddhist Studies. When scholars use texts like the Lalitavistara as sources of historical "facts", they have left the academic reservation and ventured into the realm of religious apologetics. The Lalitavistara is an explicitly religious text, full of magic and miracles. It has little or no historical value. To use this as a source of information about the "historical Buddha" is nonsensical. It can tell us something about the religious values and aspirations of the authors, but then we don't really know where or when or by whom it was composed. The idea that we can pick and choose, separating our historical facts and leaving the myth behind is naive. In the end such distinctions are subjective.

If the source says that the Buddha was born through his mother's side, took seven steps, and then delivered a Buddhist sermon, we can't validly conclude "the Buddha was born" and then some mythic elements were added, and therefore the Buddha is historical. If the source says that, then we are clearly in the realm of myth, of the symbolic representation and personification of values. Other details about the Buddha's life—e.g. his wife and child—are from the same source and exist on the same level. It's all myth. There is nothing wrong with myth, but it's not history.

Moreover, Buddhist normative sources are not univocal on these issues. As noted, the idea that the Buddha had a wife and child is not included in the biography in the Ariyaperiyesanā Sutta. Moreover, his mother is very much alive in that version. This means we have to consider the relations between conflicting religious narratives, something that is rarely if ever done. The Ariyapariyesanā biography is simpler, and this is interpreted as meaning that it is more primitive and thus earlier, and thus more authentic (more historical). The assumption here is that stories always get more complex over time and that a simpler version of a story must predate the more elaborate version. But we don't know this because there is no way to corroborate such a conjecture.

The Buddha, like Yama, is a mythic figure. He is a god in all but name. The earliest texts do portray him as a man, but for every human encounter with the Buddha we also see encounters in which he is clearly supernatural or in command of supernatural powers. Stories about the supernatural can be seen in the context of the history of supernatural storytelling, but they are not historical per se. If the Buddha is portrayed as flying around, historians cannot conclude that once upon a time a human being could fly. In reality some animals or objects do fly, but we can explain this in terms of power to weight ratios and the generation of lift. We don't need a supernatural explanation to explain the flight of a bumble bee or a 747. A human being flying without any physical aids is not possible.

The argument here is that we have to take these texts in the round, rather than assuming we are competent to extract the historical from the mythic. The texts are not composed in such a way as to make this a viable procedure. Buddhist texts are full of magic, miracles, and other supernatural phenomena, mostly associated with the character of the Buddha. You wouldn't know it from reading popular accounts of Buddhism in English, but magic is inherent in the Buddhist worldview as we meet it in Iron Age texts. Magic is built into the stories; built into the character of the Buddha as hero and as shaman. Magic can't easily be extracted to leave only the non-magical elements, especially when they occur in the same passages.

To be an historical character, the Buddha would have to stand apart from religious, magical stories, but he can't. All the sources that supposedly describe his life are explicitly magical, explicitly supernatural, i.e. explicitly ahistorical.


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