The Buddha and the Upanishads

Christian K. Wedemeyer wedemeyer at UCHICAGO.EDU
Sat Dec 9 15:40:38 UTC 2006

>Here is a list of some of my publications which show the  Buddha 
>referring to passages in the Upanishads. . .
>It is of course perfectly possible that the texts we now have of the 
>Upanishads were compiled over a long period; I don't see how that 
>hypothesis could ever be conclusively disproved.  However, unless we 
>subscribe to the view that the Buddha was omniscient and could 
>therefore respond to texts which would be composed in the future, I 
>do not understand how his references to important passages in the 
>BAU  etc. can fail to be interpreted as showing that they already 
>existed  when he preached.

Whoa, slow down!  Yes, "the Buddha" (qua literary character) may 
refer to Upanisadic passages in some suttas, but that "Buddha" (or 
variants thereof) appear in literary works composed in India up 
through (at least) the 15th century AD.  As, presumably, the works 
Prof. Gombrich is referring to are from the Pali, this still puts 
them at no more (for sure) than pre-4th century, with the possibility 
that they were redacted ca. 1st cent. BC, with the further possiblity 
that parts of them date a few centuries earlier. There is no solid 
(i.e. non-confessional) evidence that I know of to link them to 
Gotama (the man who started the ball rolling in whatever unknown way 
he did).

So, as far as I can tell, to claim (comme "les palisans") that the 
Upanisads in question (or the relevant passages therein) must date 
from a period prior to when Gotama "preached" merely because they are 
alluded to in Pali sources (which do tend to be centered around the 
literary conceit of Gotama "preaching") is rather to outrun the 
evidence at our disposal.

This is, of course, not a novel objection on my part--and one I know 
Prof. Gombrich is well-aware of--so I was surprised to see it so 
glossed over in his post (and in the subsequent posts of Profs. 
Houben and Cahill). Have we become so unskeptical, then, that we can 
speak so blithely about what the Buddha (as opposed to the various 
literary representations of "the Buddha") knew and didn't know with 
such specificity? Or about his father and family teacher?!

All the best,


Christian K. Wedemeyer
Assistant Professor of the History of Religions
The University of Chicago Divinity School
1025 East 58th Street
Chicago, Illinois  60637  USA

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