Jayarava on Levman on Drewes on the Historical Buddha

Following up my review of Stefan Karpik’s contribution to the interminable argument over the historicity of the Buddha, I’ve just posted a long essay on my blog reviewing Bryan Levman’s (2019) response to David Drewes (2017) The Idea of the Historical Buddha.

While a lot of what I do in this essay is pointing out Levman’s remarkably consistent reliance on a range of informal fallacies, I also try to explain why there are two sides to this argument and what divides them. I think all of us, me included, have tended to see the dispute in ideological terms: traditionalists versus modernists. Ideological clashes are seldom resolved because people seldom change their ideology.

But I don’t think this is really a clash of ideologies. I try to characterise the dispute as methodological. On one side are historians (Drewes, Walters, yours truly, et al.) and on the other are philologists (Levman, Karpik, Wynne, Gombrich, et al). I argue that the two sides both cite “historical facts” but each is using the words “historical” and “fact” differently.

In particular, I argue that philologists are apt to take a different approach to the past than historians because of the success of two endeavours: the reconstruction of proto-languages and the reconstruction of ur-texts. The reconstruction of Proto-Indo-European, for example, is an intellectual triumph.

It seems to me that, apart from taking his historicity as a given, philologists arguing for the historicity of the Buddha want to make arguments that are analogous to reconstructing a proto-language. They confidently treat their inferences about the past as “historical facts”. From Asoka’s mention of the Buddha in the 3rd century, we can infer the existence of the Buddha 200 years earlier in the 5th century BCE. And this inference they treat as a “historical fact”.

Historians are much more parsimonious. A “fact” is a documented fact. History is the story of literate people in literate cultures. To be a fact about the 5th century BCE, historians require the document in question be from the 5th century BCE. And preferably that it be corroborated by another document from the same time.

History begins with writing. Writing began in India in the mid-3rd century BCE. There is and can be no history before this. Prehistory is dealt with by archaeologists and anthropologists. And the Buddha was prehistoric. We can boil it down this way:

Historians do not accept inferences about the past as “historical facts”.
Philologists do accept inferences about the past as “historical facts”.

This difference in how each side defines a “fact” and thinks about history seems to explain why in disputes about the historicity of the Buddha one side is shouting “What about the facts?” and the other side are shouting back “What facts, you don’t have any facts?”.

However, in writing history, the theories and methods of historians should take precedence. There is no reason to think that the methods of proto-language or ur-text reconstruction are applicable to historiography; indeed I show in some detail how and why they are not applicable.

We all know the truism: “those who don’t learn the lessons of history are doomed to repeat the mistakes of the past.” There is a related truism that is less well known: “Historians can’t predict the future.” Knowledge of the past is a poor guide to the future, since historical changes doesn’t generalise or follow objectifiable patterns.

An even less well known corollary is that historians cannot predict the past. This means that, given knowledge of Buddhism in the 3rd century BCE, we still cannot reliably infer knowledge of Buddhism from the 5th century. History does not work like philology or historical linguistics. Historical change is not regular in that way.

I argue that the middle way here is the historians way. And that Drewes point is every bit as trivial as he says it is, in the context of historiography. There is no “historical Buddha” because, even if the Buddha was a real person (which is neither impossible nor implausible), he was still a non-literate person in a non-literate society. Historians accept this as a limitation of their method and don’t see it as a comment on the legitimacy of Buddhism.


Further to this, we can talk about primary versus secondary written sources.

Historians disagree quite wildly on what to do with a source once we have it. But we all broadly agree on what a primary source for historiography is. For historians, a primary source was made/written during the historical period we are studying. Or was made/written by someone who lived through that time and recorded their impressions at a later date. A primary source is a first-hand account by someone who was there.

A secondary source was made afterwards and is second-hand at best.

Primary sources are considered authoritative. Secondary sources, especially those written centuries later are not authoritative. In the absence of primary sources, secondary sources can only be said to reflect the time that they were written down in. Only amateurs and journalists write history based on secondary sources.

For the history of the Heart Sutra, we have such primary sources as an inscription dated to 13 March 661 CE (the oldest dated document associated with the Heart Sutra ). We also have commentaries from the late 7th-early 8th centuries. And we have library catalogues from before, during, and after this period, which don’t mention the Heart Sutra before 664 CE. And so on. It is from these documents that I have constructed a revised history of the Heart Sutra. Certain elements such as the existence of the version attributed to Kumārajīva (early 5th century) are not attested in any primary source until the Kaiyuan Catalogue from 730 CE: so the attribution is not credible. And so we can piece together a history based on primary sources that is very different from the received history, and more authoritative for having been based on primary sources.

There is some debate about how you define the period of study. But let’s say that our period of study is India in the 5th century BCE. Our first step in writing a history of this period, is to gather all the documents from that time and place, that is to say all the documents written by Indians who lived through the fifth century. Up to a point, a document might be written down in the 4th century BCE and still be a first hand account of the previous century. But there’s no possibility that a 3rd century BCE document reflects a first-hand account of the 5th century BCE.

When we think about 5th century BCE in India… there are no documents, so there are no primary sources. So there can be no history. There can be archeology, anthropology, and so on, but no history.

The myth of the Pāli Canon says that it was written down in the late 1st century. So the Pāli Canon is not a primary source for history of the 5th century. It’s a secondary source, at best. No amount of special pleading and drawing inferences can change this.

We might think of the Pāli Canon as a primary source for the history of the 1st century BCE. However, the documents that tell us that the Pāli Canon was written down in the 1st century are not attested until some centuries later and not corroborated by any contemporary (i.e. 1st century) documents. The Mahāvaṃsa and *Dīpavaṃsa" are not a primary sources for the 1st century in Sri Lanka. The oldest Pāli texts are from the 5th-6th centuries and the oldest complete Canon is attested only in the 5th century CE.

As Greg Schopen has pointed out, the first period in which we can consider the Pāli Canon to be a primary source is in relation to the Sri Lanka Aṭṭhakatha tradition of the 5th century CE. That is to say the Sri Lanka commentarial tradition associated with Buddhaghosa and a few other commentators. Of course, Schopen’s stating this basic fact of history has upset Buddhists and they simply shot the messenger (they shot Drewes as well; and they like to take pot shots at me too). But facts being upsetting does not make them false. History is not a methodological free-for-all.

History is not a science, but it is systematic and methodical. History is seldom positivistic, since we are all aware that having established what primary sources exist, the history that we write will involve interpretation. What we cannot rightly do is treat interpretations and inferences, as historical facts; and yet exactly this procedure is de rigueur for Buddhist Studies.

And this is why the dearth of formal theories and methodologies in academic Buddhist Studies is detrimental to progress in the field. We are quite generally confused about what constitutes a viable method for studying the past, about what counts as a primary historical source, what kinds of things our primary sources can tell us, and how to work with primary sources. In Buddhist historiography, its very much the blind leading the blind.

Even the bone fide historians of Buddhism don’t cite historiographical theories and methods. And they make fundamental methodological errors: like being unable to distinguish a primary from a secondary source. Histories of this or that aspect of Buddhism are routinely composed without any mention of historical methodology, without any reference whatever to the secondary literature on historiography. I’ve read book-length histories of Buddhism that don’t cite a single historian or raise a single methodological issue: it’s all just one confident inference after another, each one treated as a “historical fact”. And confirmation bias be damned. It is almost as though historians of Buddhism do not consider Buddhist history to be a subset of history. And Buddhist history often fails to make any meaningful connection with the history of India. As though Buddhism operated in a completely separate sphere of human activity. Our periodisation of Buddhism, for example, has no connection to any periodisation of Indian history more generally. For example the phrase “Early Buddhism” has no relation to India historical periods. We can’t even right say when this period was. It’s incoherent as a way of talking about Buddhist history.

Buddhist history is bunk. Because what passes for Buddhist history is largely someone’s modern interpretation of bowdlerised, prehistoric, Buddhist mythology.


Interesting thoughts here. Thanks. I would also add that in the Mediterranean world, at least, many people falsely attributed their works to famous people to gain credibility for their own ideas which makes even history in the sense of documented questionable. That said, I think the coherence and efficacy of the practice is most important regardless of the uncertainty of the who came up with it.

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I don’t think that’s really true. There’s plenty of Greek personages we only know from later references who are generally accepted as real. Even far into the era of history and documentation, you have remarkable people with otherwise unremarkable ancestors entering them into the historical record posthumously. And entire cities like London enter the historical records with references to being old and pre-existing.

I think what’s more accurate to say is that historical evidence is weighted by a number of factors, including but not limited to proximity, and most of those factors reduce the strength of the evidence for the Buddha.

But a history book will typically feel comfortable including, say, Archon Damasias and the Wise Thales, and just acknowledge the uncertainty around them is greater than that of, say, Augustus Caesar.

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In my essay, which you doubtless read before commenting, I cite several authoritative historians on how historians do history, including some of the most influential authors on historical methodology and epistemology in English, i.e. Carr and Elton. And I think what I’ve said on this topic fairly represents the mainstream view of historical methods and epistemology after Ranke. It is certainly confirmed across numerous authoritative sources that I have consulted and I have yet to see any significant disagreement on, for example, the definition of a primary source (which you seem to want to dispute).

If you feel that not using primary sources or treating primary sources much more casually is “typical” of historians’ methods then it should be easy enough to find some examples of historians describing and justifying such a method. Familiar as you are with discussions of historical methodological and epistemology, no doubt you will already have something in mind and can point me directly to their argument. I have access to a large academic library so can usually obtain any mainstream academic publication.

I look forward to reading about how the historians you are familiar with justify and validate the method you describe as “typical”. And, of course, I will modify my views on historical methodology and epistemology accordingly.

Thanks for your input.

It comes across as though you worded this with the intent to evoke negative emotions as a psychological tactic to deter engagement, relying on sarcasm to evoke a sense of superior status without doing so explicitly. And I imagine you did so not out of some unknown personal grudge, but because my words were in some way offensive and upsetting to you.

I’m sorry. I meant no offense, and if there’s something in particular about the way I wrote which was hurtful, please, let me know, and I will apologize more specifically and endeavor to correct my error. Further, if I misread your tone here, and you actually meant to convey sincerity and welcomeness, I apologize for the misinterpretation.

Now, in this thread you say:

I cite several authoritative historians on how historians do history, including some of the most influential authors on historical methodology and epistemology in English, i.e. Carr and Elton. And I think what I’ve said on this topic fairly represents the mainstream view of historical methods and epistemology after Ranke.

Here’s the section of your blog post where the terms “Carr” and “Elton” appear:

Richard J. Evans (1997: 75) cites Sir Geoffrey Elton’s definition:

A historical fact was something that happened in the past, which had left traces in documents which could be used by historians to reconstruct it in the present.

Evans (1997: 76) notes that this view was expressed in direct contrast to E. H. Carr’s view that “a past event did not become a historical fact until it was accepted as such by historians.” Carr’s view turns out to be untenable since he confuses “fact” with “evidence”.

You don’t seem to actually use Carr to support your argument at all - you just call his position “untenable” and accuse him of confusing terms.

Your Elton line, on the other hand, does support your thesis partially - he does insist on documentation. It’s more narrow than your earlier Vincent quote:

“Historical study requires verbal evidence, with marginal exceptions. And this verbal evidence, with all respect to the fascination of oral history, is nearly all written evidence.”

But still not as narrow as your assertion (from the blog) that:

To be a historical fact about a particular time requires that the document be authored by someone who lived at that time.

Elton leaves room for “traces” and (in the material you provided) makes no such assertion about the requirement of contemporaneousness. Maybe he makes such an assertion elsewhere, but again, you don’t actually use Elton to support your stance.

Regardless, I’ll accept your definitions. Now, using your terminology that:

a fact is something that happened, and evidence is an attempt to use that fact to argue for a particular view of history.

I’d encourage you to consider this paper, which is full of the sort of discussion I referenced, but in particular this section should serve as an example:

From Diogenes we learn that Epimenides visited and purified Athens in Ol. 46 = 596-2 (cf. T 38); Eusebios refers this visit to Ol. 46. 2 = 595/4 (cf T 108), while Plutarch recounts it just before the archonship of Solon.

Diogenes wrote in ~ 3rd Century CE. You might say the only fact is that “In the 3rd century CE, a man named Diogenes believed that an event took place in the 590s BCE”. But that fact he left us is used as evidence to help date an event from, we estimate, ~590s BC.

Now, the disagreement between these sources is an example of how sources from centuries after events took place (all are from the CE) carry uncertainty.

In the blog post, you further say:

The Buddha lived in a pre-literate society and thus in a prehistoric society. A history of a pre-literate society or person is a contradiction in terms.

Similar to the forum post I quoted initially:

History is the story of literate people in literate cultures.

Both times unsupported by a citation, and contradicted by, for example, the History of the Goths covering the pre-literate goths. What’s true is that of course pre-literate societies leave no contemporary documentary evidence of their own, restricting historians to documentary evidence from other times and peoples, which is a limitation on the power of that evidence to establish hypotheses about historical events with clarity or confidence.

I can’t seem to copy & paste text from that book, but as one example on page 44 there’s a discussion using foreign sources followed by the historian making a statement of the form, “it appears.” Absent a document establishing “We the goths enter into a foedus with the Romans” a historian is able to form a hypothesis and advance it in a limited way with appropriate disclaimers.

To use a source which I can copy & paste, consider this PhD Dissertation in History on the Lucani, a people who were non-literate at least in the sense of not passing down documents to us. He says,

In evaluating the literary evidence for the Lucani, a select few authors comprise
the majority of our evidence, about whom it is expedient to say a few words here.
Dionysius of Halicarnassus’s (c. 60-7 BC) Roman Antiquities…

And so on for many other authors of around the same time. Yet the author engages with hypotheses going back as far as the 8th century BCE, and makes important claims about the 5th century BCE. All of this is appropriately disclaimed by statements such as, “The origins of the Lucani seem impossible to reconstruct with confidence.”

Depending on where you are in Europe, these limitations extend more recently. For example in Poland, “Unfortunately, the available historical information is sadly limited to the story recorded in the early 12th century by Gallus Anonymus.” Going back two centuries, to the time of Mieszko I, it’s possible to use other (primary) sources to corroborate some details, which gives credibility for this 12th century source’s account of 10th century events. Beyond that, historians take this low-quality source, together with foreign sources and non-documentary evidence, to make claims like, “research findings corroborate the idea, prevalent in scholarship, of the essential (though not exclusive) role of the Piast dynasty in the Polish state formation, as notably reflected in the dynastic legend recorded by Gallus Anonymous in his Kronika polska (Gesta Principum Polonorum. The Deeds of the Princes of the Poles, I.1-3).” But note that, of course, since this source is of low quality, it does not lend great certainty to the hypotheses of historians who use it. The two linked articles have contradictory hypotheses about events prior to the time of Mieszko I. Historians who only have documentary evidence which is foreign or late will use that foreign or late evidence, but they are neither able to be highly confident in their own hypotheses or establish agreement across the field.

Tangent about personages

There’s even an old debate about the historicity of specific figures from the Kronika polska which could be considered a parallel of the debate over the history of the Buddha, but all the sources seem to be older than the articles you cite, so I leave this not as part of my argument, but just as something for curious people to consider.

Another example comes from the Norse Sagas, an entire genre which is only written down centuries after the events they describe. And yet, from the fact that someone in the 13th-14th centuries wrote down what they thought happened in earlier times, scholars are able to develop new theses about those earlier times.

I could continue this laddering approach, showing cases where historians use sources from centuries later to form hypotheses about the 13th-14th centuries, on and on to groups which were not writing documents in the 1800s, moving further away geographically from the core regions where writing (as we understand it*) was first developed.


*One interesting wrinkle in the Americas at least is record-keeping systems which aren’t quite writing, like Incan Khipu, Wampum Belts, and Ojibwe Petroglyphs / Birch Bark Scrolls. AFAIK there’s nothing like this blurring the line of writing in India, but I think it’s really cool so again leave this note for the curious.

Now, in your forum post addressed to me you say:

It is certainly confirmed across numerous authoritative sources that I have consulted and I have yet to see any significant disagreement on, for example, the definition of a primary source (which you seem to want to dispute).

I don’t actually have any particular interest in disputing the definition of that term*. I just dispute your claim (from the forum post) that:


*there is some potential ambiguity I just want to point out and cede to whatever definition you prefer for the sake of discussion:

First, there’s the question of higher-quality primary sources surviving embedded in surviving secondary sources. It appears to me you’re on the side of not attempting to reconstruct embedded primary sources, and just treating surviving secondary sources as secondary. That’s fine by me. But if that’s not your stance, that’s also fine by me.

Second, there’s the issue of things like the Odyssey, which itself is frequently a textbook example of a primary source, but obviously only with regard to its own content (c.f. most of the Greek epics, about which we only have secondary sources). It seems to me you’re calling source documents which discuss the past, relative to the composer, as secondary sources with regards to that further past, which again is fine.

The PhD thesis on the Lucani I linked to early includes works like Dionysius of Halicarnassus’s (c. 60-7 BC) Roman Antiquities under the heading “primary sources” for his work on much earlier times. I take it you wouldn’t. That’s fine by me. Talking to you I’m calling those “secondary sources.”

Only amateurs and journalists write history based on secondary sources.

Historians use secondary sources. Even ones from centuries later.

I think it’s great to point out that we do not have contemporary eyewitness documentation supporting any aspect of the buddha’s life. The evidence for his existence should be properly classified. It is late, often distant, somewhat foreign, usually hagiographical or at least likely not independent of hagiographical traditions, etc.

An argument for a hypothesis like the assertion, “A mendicant born of the Shakya clan was the founder of the school known today as Buddhism,” will (barring some amazing discovery), be based on evidence with all of those caveats.

When you say:

For the history of the Heart Sutra, we have such primary sources as an inscription dated to 13 March 661 CE (the oldest dated document associated with the Heart Sutra ). We also have commentaries from the late 7th-early 8th centuries. And we have library catalogues from before, during, and after this period, which don’t mention the Heart Sutra before 664 CE. And so on. It is from these documents that I have constructed a revised history of the Heart Sutra

You’re bringing forth sources which provide much stronger evidence for your hypothesis. I think you’d be very justified in disputing anyone who claims an argument for the hypothesis I stated earlier is equally well supported.

But claiming secondary (or otherwise flawed) sources can’t be used to support historical hypotheses, except by “amateurs” is swinging the pendulum too far, from a false equivalence (primary = secondary) to a false nonequivalence (secondary != usable, except by “amateurs”).

History is not sharply divided into areas of perfect illumination and perfect darkness. Rather, there is a large periphery about which we cannot make highly confident direct assertions (like, say, who was president of the United States in 1801), but also we don’t have nothing to say (like, say, who was Chościsko’s father, in relation to the Piast dynasty). About those peripheral spaces, professional Historians do use sources written centuries later to cautiously advance hypotheses about pre-literate* people in pre-literate cultures.


Literate again meaning “wrote down documents about themselves.” When it comes to “people” which I take to mean “persons” (since it’s contrasted to “cultures”), it’s obviously a more complicated question if so-and-so could read or write.

I don’t have much to say about your assertions regarding the nature of our sources on “The time of the Buddha”. But when you make these categorical statements about what historians do, a single example to the contrary disproves your claim.

Making hypotheses about the history of the Buddha should apply the same standards as are used when making hypotheses about other figures & places which do not have contemporary documentation. But that standard is not “stop talking”.


Jayarava, in the linked blog you address my primary question which is ok then, what terminology do we use?

Notwithstanding the possibility of his being based on a real person, the Buddha as presented in Buddhist documents is clearly a mythological figure, who has human traits, but also does miracles and has supernatural powers. The term mythological is not intended to have any pejorative connotation. Myths are how preliterate societies encoded their views about the world and their values before the advent of writing.

Q1: So I would call this figure the mythological Buddha instead, based on the last paragraph of the linked blog?

In the article, you also addressed another pressing question for me re: oral transmission as an historical method. (This is decidedly not my wheelhouse so I’m genuinely asking here.) In that vein, you cite historian John Vincent:

Historical study requires verbal evidence, with marginal exceptions. And this verbal evidence, with all respect to the fascination of oral history, is nearly all written evidence.

Q2: So is this a way of saying (via Vincent) that the oral transmission which almost certainly preceded the pāli writing is not considered a marginal exception? Why not? Or, what would be?

For my last question, in the linked blog you write:

In Christian hermeneutics, unflattering details about Jesus—such as being betrayed to his death by his own followers—are given extra significance because of the principle of embarrassment (c.f. Meier’s Historicity Criteria). Stories about real people would be expected not to include unflattering details unless they were true, so such details can be taken to be more likely to be factual. This is not a criterion that can be applied in isolation and we would want to see documentary corroboration from another source but, still, the inclusion of negative qualities makes a protagonist seem more real, not less.

For years I’ve studied research (journals and books) on the concept of the historical Jesus. As you likely know, large swaths of that academic community switched to this terminology as a result of the research.

Q3: So are you saying that one could confidently say the historical Jesus because of the principle of embarrassment whereas one couldn’t do the same for the historical Buddha because that principle isn’t evident?

Thanks; interested in how you compare the two religions’ use of the terminology.

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It depends on context and purpose. Drewes’ argument is for historians and scholars of Buddhism. It’s not a general argument. BTW keep an eye out for the next issue of JIABS… Drewes and Hinuber go at it again. Though I think Drewes’ argument goes over the heads of his detractors.

The Buddha of the Pāli canon is mythological. But then he’s also singular. If I say “the Buddha” in the context Sutta Central, for example, you know who I mean. No one ever calls Amitābha or Mahāvairocana, “the Buddha”. So adding “historical” is merely an affectation. I would say that it’s a rhetorical device used by proselytisers to make the Buddha seem more attractive in secular milieu. (I think the same probably applies to the “historical Jesus”, especially in light of scientific insistence on the nonexistence of God).

Yes. Oral transmission doesn’t count as “historical”. It’s because you can’t date it. If you can’t date it, you can’t relate it to the rest of history; you can’t weave it into a historical narrative. History has to hang together and the glue is dates. Without dates we can’t formulate causal explanations of the type: “P happened because of XYZ in the period leading up to it.” History is not only about describing the past. Historians also try to explain the past. And these days explanations take this causal form. By contrast, in Pāli, explanations are mostly by analogy rather than causal. I keep meaning to do a blog post on the philosophy of explanation.

Buddhist tradition is undoubtedly much older than writing in India. How much older no one knows and probably no one can know anymore. So we can’t relate it to whatever else was going on in India at the time, because “at the time” has no meaning in the absence of dates. For historians, Buddhist oral tradition is not historical, it is mythological.

This does not mean it didn’t happen. “Historical” is not a synonym for “real” and “mythological” is not a synonym for “unreal”. “Historical” a technical term used by historians to mean “we have corroborated, first-hand, dateble written evidence for it and can fit it into our patterns of causal explanations”. Most of the past is simply not documented and thus History (as a field or discipline) is extremely limited in scope.

It’s worth noting that, despite what his enemies say, Drewes is explicitly not denying that the Buddha existed. He and I both think it is likely that Buddhism had a founder. The argument is that, in the absence of corroborated, first-hand, dateble written evidence, we cannot refer to that founder as “historical” because “historical” means something for historians.

BTW: I’ve seen Buddhist scholars reference Brahmin mnemonic techniques used in memorising the Vedas, but I’ve never seen anything in Pāli to suggest that Buddhists ever used such techniques. There’s loads of videos of kids learning in this way: Kids reciting Rgveda. All the bodily and head movements are part of the technique. It’s distinctive and never mentioned in Pāli (I looked at every reference to the Vedas in the suttas for an unpublished article some years ago).

I’m relatively new to hermeneutics in this sense, but I have made a study of Meier’s criteria of historicity. So I know the territory to some extent.

The principle of embarrassment say that where a fact is recorded that reflects badly on the author of a text, that fact is more likely to reflect an event that happened. It is not a guarantee and must be used in conjunction with other methods, especially corroboration.

For example, the fact that Jesus’ followers betrayed him to his death reflects badly on Christians. The argument is that a Christian author would not include such an embarrassing detail, let alone make a feature of it, if it had not happened. This adds to the impression of Jesus as an historical figure.

As you know, the argument for “historical Jesus” is much more complex than a simple application of one hermeneutic principle. It requires marshalling many kinds of documentary evidence and many different principles. Whole books continue to be written. Meier’s book is in four volumes.

In Buddhism, we can cite the example of the Sakya tribe resorting to sibling incest (Ambaṭṭha Sutta DN I 92). Given the well-attested strength of incest taboos in India (into antiquity), we presume that no one would claim that their male ancestors married their sisters, unless it were true. Bhenchod (sister-f**ker) is a heinous insult in modern Hindi. If it were widely known that the Buddha came from incest, even at some remove, it would dramatically undermine his credibility in India. It seems incredibly unlikely that any Indian would include such a fact unless it were true.

On the other hand, this fact is not recorded anywhere else, so it’s not corroborated. And this undermines the claim to historicity. And it is left out of all subsequent accounts of the Buddha’s biography. Witzel and I have suggested that it may reflect some cultural connection with Iran, where kings sometimes married their sisters to consolidate dynastic power (presumably in imitation of certain Egyptian rulers who did the same). And it’s one of several such isolated indications. That article was a lot of fun to write, nonetheless, I think we can safely say that no other scholar has been persuaded by these arguments.

As an isolated statement, the incest claim is inconclusive. Ultimately, there is no way to date this event, so it’s not “historical”; its “mythological”. And that is not a criticism. That’s just how History, as a discipline, works.

Thanks for taking the time to read and ask relevant questions. I appreciate it.


The term “history” or “historical” certainly has different definitions, and one definition from Wikipedia might be useful: “The period of events before the invention of writing systems is considered prehistory.[4] “History” is an umbrella term comprising past events as well as the memory, discovery, collection, organization, presentation, and interpretation of these events. Historians seek knowledge of the past using historical sources such as written documents, oral accounts, art and material artifacts, and ecological markers.”

It’s not in dispute that the early Buddhist texts were kept by the monastic reciters and only later written down. As I recall, in the Sujato and Brahmali Authenticity book, the case for the historical Buddha, and the credibility of the oral accounts is a strong one, a credible one that meets the tests for reasonable certainty. Nothing I see in the body of the posted text above refutes any of what Authenticity argued and proved, in my view. One might quarrel as to what “history” means, but that argument does little to disprove the historicity of the Buddha and the authenticity of the foundations of the early Suttas.

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This refers to living testimony and audio-visual recordings, not to ancient mythological traditions. Sorry.

I agree that this is not in dispute. What is in dispute is whether we can predict the past across at least 200 years, but actually more like 400-500 years.

Rather than Wikipedia (which is of extremely mixed reliability, which I know because I wrote quite a bit of it), I went directly to the published works of leading historians. The historians that I have consulted, unequivocally agree that one cannot predict the past. Human affairs are wildly unpredictable.

Moreover, historians all seem to agree that history begins with writing. And that writing reflects the time in which the writing occurred - any pre-existing oral tradition notwithstanding. Before writing we are talking about prehistory. Without writing there is no way to accurately interpret artefacts or “ecological markers”.

Another thing that is not in dispute is that writing begins in India in the mid-3rd century BCE. Ergo, Indian history begins in that same time frame.

It’s not that prehistory or mythology is false. Drewes has always said that he thinks it is entirely plausible and likely that Buddhism had a founder. What he argues is that we don’t know about that founder from primary, i.e. first hand, sources. Since, as we all agree, the fifth century is ~200 years before the advent of writing. Thus the phrase “historical Buddha” is incoherent–in the context of academic historiography–because there are no primary sources that fit the widely accepted definition of “historical”. It is not and never has been an argument that the Buddha didn’t exist (though this strawman is often floated).

Drewes is primarily making an argument about historical methodology and epistemology in the context of academic historiography. That’s why he refers to his argument as “trivial”: it ought to be obvious to anyone who completed an high-school History course.

I found another good quote from a real historian today:

I began my career as a young historian interviewing survivors of the pre-1914 Fabian Society about their times and the first lesson I learned was that they were not even worth interviewing unless I had found out more about the subject of the interview than they could remember. The second lesson was that, on any independently verifiable fact, their memory was likely to be wrong. (Eric Hobsbawm. 1997 On History: 307-308).

Witnesses who actually lived through events are unreliable even close to the time of those events. They become less reliable over time. Authors who are writing about events they only know from second-hand testimony at some centuries remove have little hope of saying anything remotely objective. Religious authors are the least reliable of all because they have religious agendas that have nothing to do with History (the field) or history (the past).

For all their sterling qualities, Sujato and Brahmali are not historians and they are not engaged in writing History or in academic research on the past. They are religious leaders, writing apologetics for a religious worldview in which the historicity of the Buddha has been an unquestioned axiom for over 2000 years.


Again, you’re using definitions that I argue are not in common usage. You’re free to do that, but at the end of the day, these are largely academic discussions that don’t really advance the conversations about the historical Buddha much. I accept that Wikipedia is not a perfect source, but it has become over time a decent source. Here, this definition appears: " From Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia:

"Historical source is an original source that contains important historical information. These sources are something that inform us about history at the most basic level, and are used as clues in order to study history.

“Historical sources can include coins, monuments, literary sources, documents, artifacts, archaeological sites, features, oral transmissions, stone inscriptions, paintings, recorded sounds, images and oral history.”

Again, you have your interpretation as to what “oral accounts” means, and I have referred to the definition above. You’re not likely to change your mind on this subject, and I am not likely to change mine. And, I think your description of Vens. Sujato and Brahmali is incorrect, to a significant degree; I’d put either of them up against most academics in the field. But like all of us who posit ideas, these statements only reveal our individual biases. I think you come to Sutta Central time to time carrying some fairly strong biases with sometimes partially founded or argumentative ideas, but at the end of the day, that’s what these forums are sometimes for… an exchange of ideas.

The term ‘energy’ as used by a physicist is also not a common definition, but it has a remarkably specific and important definition that is functionally very useful in its own domain. Often this word gets bandied about in common usage in a way that is mostly divorced from any relevance in the physicist’s domain, but we don’t begrudge the physicist from still employing it do we?

Imagine being told that the job of a mathematician is to find ‘proofs’ of mathematical theorems. Imagine being told that ‘proofs’ are logically sound, consistent and non-contradictory and actually show direct irrefutable evidence of the theorem.

Armed with this knowledge, imagine that you explore a number of mathematical papers and discover that some published proofs contain human errors and are not logically sound. Imagine that based upon this evidence, you go back and argue that, “actually, ‘proofs’ are not logically sound, consistent and non-contradictory and here are examples of published proofs that prove (pun intended) my point.”

I think something similar is going on here. Jayarava has given his definitions and they seem to be workable and functional definitions that are functionally useful in his domain. Arguing against these definitions because you wish to co-opt the words for other purposes in this thread kind of misses the point. How about just agreeing to give your own definitions when using the words you wish to use in your own context.

The definitions of words are only useful when based upon mutual agreement and understanding. The definitions are only useful to enable communication and there exist no set definitions that must universally be agreed upon by all sentient beings. Given this is Jayarava’s thread and he’s put forward seemingly decent definitions why not adopt them provisionally for communication in this thread?


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Only because I feel they run contra to generally accepted definitions. I don’t mind having a discussion, and adopting another’s definition for the sake of a discussion, but as this is an open forum, I feel that it’s more helpful to use generally accepted definitions. That’s just a bias on my part; making these forums as useful and as compatible as possible for all folks interested in the issues discussed here. By way of example, I trust that dinosaurs are an historical fact, despite their being no contemporaneous written evidence of same. We have other evidence that has sufficient scientific weight and probative value that we can accept the existence of dinosaurs as an historical fact. I feel that the Wiki definitions cited above are useful and appropriate, and limiting the term “history” to “that which begins with written proofs” is a very limiting and unhelpful definition that may have its place in the small niches of academia, but it’s not helpful to a general understanding, in my view.

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Your “generally accepted definitions” are from a badly written Wikipedia stub, and the definition you quote cites no sources so the idea that it reflects “generally accepted definitions” is quite obviously false. I’ve added some {{citation needed}} tags to the stub, feel free to provide some.

Ironically, you were just one click away from the Wikipedia entry on “Primary Sources” which is a much better entry on all counts: well written, discusses different approaches, pros and cons, and cites authoritative sources. The definition quoted on this Wikipedia page is:

In the study of history as an academic discipline, a primary source (also called an original source) is an artifact, document, diary, manuscript, autobiography, recording, or any other source of information that was created at the time under study.

This more authoritative entry mentions “oral” twice and clearly refers to living witnesses both times. Wikipedia is wildly inconsistent. That’s why I cited historians as authorities on historical methods rather than a badly written, unsourced, Wikipedia stub that merely confirmed my articles of faith.

I understand that you have fixed view and that nothing I say could ever persuade you to change your mind. I understand that you have zero interest in, or knowledge of, academic historiography, the methods historians use, or the present discussion of how those methods apply or do not apply to Buddhist Studies (which is the topic of this thread). I understand that you have no interest in learning about this topic and that you have done the absolute minimum to find some random “fact” to throw at me by way of contradiction.

What I don’t understand, Michael, is why you insist on being involved at all.

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Of course, the thing about Wikipedia is that most entries are open to being edited by members of the public. And the entry in question does seem to have been improved since you cited it.

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