Greek Buddha

Pyrrho's Encounter with Early Buddhism in Central Asia

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Christopher I. Beckwith
  • Princeton, NJ: 
    Princeton University Press
    , June
     304 pages.
     For other formats: Link to Publisher's Website.


Greek Buddha is beyond doubt thought provoking. And it is highly provocative in its intrepid and sometimes–one hardly dares to say–ruthless positioning regarding or against well-known and often (too) commonly accepted facts on the history of Buddhism. If all of the presuppositions of this interesting publication were accepted, the story of Buddhism’s evolution and development had to be rewritten. Greek Buddha is not only, as the title would suggest, a reappraisal of the idea that a specific development within Greek philosophy was “influenced” by or copied  “Asian” forerunners, but it includes a totally new reading of the origin of Buddhism and the story of its founder. Major arguments evolving in this publication include a new interpretation of the term śramaṇa—only referring to Buddhists, the biography of the Buddha—contextualizing him in the area of Gandhāra and interpreting his teachings as opposed to developments within Iranian religions, that is Zoroastrianism, and not specifically India and the Gangetic plain; the life of the early Buddhists—they were not monks living in vihāra and practicing the vinaya as a saṅgha; the idea that Upaniṣadic Brahmanism is younger than Buddhism and was influenced by it—thereby following the suggestions by Johannes Bronkhorst; that Jainism originated centuries after Buddhism; that Greek histories of early Buddhism—if there are any—are more reliable than Indian sources because of the latter being written centuries later; that king Aśoka did not inscribe all of his famous rock and pillar inscriptions—but some of them derive from Devānāṃpriya Priyadarśi, who is no other than Aśoka’s father, Bindusāra; and, if that were not enough, introducing the name of the founder of Daoism in China, Laozi, as another designation of the Buddha and the crucial term dao as a translation of (Buddhist) dharma, thereby suggesting—almost in passing—a reevaluation of this “Chinese” religious tradition as well. Many of these arguments are based on an essential distinction between early Buddhism and later, “Normative” Buddhism which provided the scriptural basis for all of our knowledge on the Buddha and his history, but should be evaluated totally anew. All of the book’s suggested ideas are based on an in-depth knowledge of the various traditions, and particularly excellent language skills which are necessary for dealing with the West/Central/South/East Asian cultural contexts author Christopher I. Beckwith is referring to. It is particularly this aspect which makes this book so interesting and fascinating, placing it highly above many comparable attempts.

The title argument of this rich book, which is only a part of its presentation, evolves around the founder of the so-called skeptical school of “Pyrrhonism,” Pyrrho of Elis—commonly dated ca. 362 BC–270/275 AD—who, according to rather scanty biographical information, accompanied Alexander-the-Great in his campaign throughout Persia and India, met the famous “gymnosophists,” and being inspired by them, taught a new lesson of Greek philosophy. An often-repeated argument in favor of this innovative look on Pyrrho refers to his specific position within the philosophical tradition given that his system is said to be incompatible with other positions known thus far. The same has been said already regarding a couple of authors of Greek and Roman antiquity without providing any connection based on hard facts. Plato and Pythagoras had been candidates, and an interesting parallel would also be the writings of the “Neoplatonic” philosopher Plotin which refer to patterns of thought regarding an inner self and the way that one can get access to this inmost essence of oneself which, allegedly, has no counterpart in Greek philosophical tradition. This led to the idea that the whole concept is a borrowing from Indian philosophy prominently put forth by an eminent interpreter of Neoplatonic philosophy—the French Emile Brehier.

Beckwith’s main source, and the starting point for his presentation, is a rather recent book with comparable suggestions, Adrian Kuzminski’s Pyrrhonism: How the Ancient Greeks Reinvented Buddhism (Lexington Books, 2008 [and not 2010 as listed in Beckwith’s bibliography]), thereby dismissing a couple of authors who prepared this specific interpretation, including the Romanian scholar A. M. Frenkian in 1958, J. M. Sedlar in 1980, and E. Flintoff also in 1980). Beckwith’s main source of information on the usual framing of Pyrrho within the context of Greek philosophy is Richard Bett’s recent monograph (Pyrrho. His Antecedents and his Legacy, Oxford University Press, 2000) wherein the various attempts to prove a connection to Asia are introduced but dismissed. One of the most intriguing arguments in Beckwith’s book is his interpretation of the trias of Pyrrhonian characteristics of the pragmata—testified by his disciple, Timon of Phlius [ca 320–ca. 230BC]—namely being adiaphora, asthathmeta, and anepikrita, as a “Greek” rendering of the Buddhist trilakṣaṇa (anitya, duḥkha, anātma). This interpretation is based upon an intrinsic etymological re-interpretation of these terms—and particularly of duḥkha—which has to be followed.

Once again many questions arise: If there was such an extreme exchange of knowledge, ideas, and patterns of thought then why isn’t there any trace of translation material? Why–so-to-say–disguising the allegedly “Asian” origin of the thoughts? Another general problem when dealing with these matters is the scarcity of material which—in the end—can be made relevant for the description of Pyrrho’s thoughts and philosophy. This opens a path for a very speculative approach where caution should prevail. And this might also be a few of the many arguments against this thoughtful and provoking book, written by its author with a highly suggestive tenor, but which also, every now and then, conveys the impression that some of its results, first and foremost, are intended to be provocative. And that they are, beyond doubt.

About the Reviewer(s): 

Franz Winter is associate professor of religious studies at the University of Graz, Austria.

Date of Review: 
April 20, 2017
About the Author(s)/Editor(s)/Translator(s): 

Christopher I. Beckwith is professor of Central Eurasian studies at Indiana University, Bloomington. His books include Warriors of the CloistersEmpires of the Silk Road, and The Tibetan Empire in Central Asia (all Princeton). He is the recipient of a MacArthur Award.


Mark Caponigro

Here are some thoughts on the Greek vocabulary in the penultimate paragraph. Prágmata are literally "things," but in a developed sense these are "things that matter, things that engage us," and so thence in a more technical sense, "topics, issues," especially in ethics. The first of the three predicates, adiáphora, is "not distinguished or differentiated"; whether one wishes to add, "by logical differentia" is not clear. The second predicate, astáthmêta (beware the misspelling in Franz Winter's text), is "unable to be measured by rule, or weighed." Státhmê is a ruler by which one measures length, and stathmón is a weight, used in weighing in a balance; which image here is to prevail is unclear, and also whether it matters. The third predicate, anepíkrita, is "unable to be judged or decided."

I am unfamiliar with Buddhist vocabulary, and with the three Pali terms to which the Greek predicate adjectives are supposed to correspond. But from the translations of those words that I have seen, it looks difficult indeed to argue that the Greek words are intended as translations of them. If Christopher Beckwith succeeds in making that argument (I don't know, I haven't seen his book), then it would be a breathtaking achievement indeed. 


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