The Buddha and the Upanishads

Timothy Lubin LubinT at WLU.EDU
Mon Dec 11 05:57:33 UTC 2006

When we take account of these two caveats --
Matthew's: the Upani.sads [and the Pali sources] are composite works,
redacted over a period of time, and thus must be approached as "fluid"
and in "dialogue" with one another, not as strictly in linear succession
to one another.
Christian's: the extant forms of the "early" Buddhist sources are
almost certainly not nearly as early as the extant forms of the
Upani.sads; and the Buddha depicted in them may differ greatly from the
actual Siddhattha Gotama, and cannot be offered as concrete evidence for
any biographical details of his life and teachings.
there is very little basis to form a conclusion one way or the other
about which of these sources had the first word.  
The strong form of the critique echoed by Christian here is that
virtually nothing can be asserted with certainty about what Buddhism
taught much prior to Buddhaghosa, and that even the oldest strata (e.g.,
Suttanipaata) may not precede 1st c. BCE.  Yet it seems still to be
irresistable for Buddhologists to reconstruct the historical Buddha on
the basis of the Pali texts, using the logic of "it seems reasonable to
suppose" and "there is nothing to prevent us from accepting" that one or
another detail is essentially based on fact. 
Not all Pali scholars feel constrained to abandon the idea that
certain, identifiable parts are older (on philological grounds).  On
this basis, it has been asserted that the Buddha was indeed no brahmin,
but that his family had the gotra name Gotama (= the Vedic sage
Gautama), which they would have adopted from their purohita (according
to the custom described by Brough).  Which would imply that, in spite of
being Sakyas, they could have been exposed to Vedic learning.
Asoka at least knows of the Buddhavacana, although he knows it only as
an ethical ideal, with a heavenly reward, plus the names of a few texts.
 And we know that sama.nas and braahma.nas were both recipients of his
patronage, and thus potentially rivals, who might well have argued
(indeed, they surely did).
But all those Pali accounts of the Buddha engaging brahmins in debate,
along with all the ingenious appropriation and redefinition of
Brahmanical terminology and ethicization of Brahmanical ideals (see
Norman, Gombrich, Collins' Agga~n~nasutta, etc.) -- as plausible as it
may seem as a feature of the Buddha's time -- may indeed really belong
to a few centuries later.  So how are we to be sure that the Buddha
himself knew or did not know the BAU or ChU, or oral traditions that
would soon be canonized in those works, or anything else?  

Timothy Lubin
Associate Professor, Department of Religion
Director, East Asian Studies Program
Washington and Lee University
Lexington, Virginia  USA
lubint at   |
Tel : (office) 540.458.8146; (home) 540.463.6833
Fax: 540.458.8498

>>> "Christian K. Wedemeyer" <wedemeyer at UCHICAGO.EDU> 12/09/06 10:40 AM

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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