Saka, Sakya and Buddhism

Sumit Guha Sumit_Guha at BROWN.EDU
Sat Nov 16 16:35:06 EST 2002

Dear colleagues,
In a previous posting I had posed the issue as follows

<<The relevant question simply is:
The Buddha as a founder of a major religion is located in a religious
milieu and tradition.

What were the geographical boundaries of that tradition at the relevant
time? (By boundaries of the tradition I mean the zone within which schools
of thought regularly contended and communicated.)

If this boundary extended North of Merv, I would be happy to see the evidence.

But as far as I can see the named personages in the tradition appear to
have lived, preached and argued within north India.>>

In his rejoinder, Professor Witzel says no one has denied this. In that
case, of course any DOCTRINAL  connection of Buddhism with Iran obviously

But as Professor Witzel is so anxious that his Thought be carefully
examined, I shall consider why he feels it necessary throw in so much
Central Asian ethnology into the discussion.
 From the beginning of Western studies of cultural change until at least
the mid-twentieth century, the field was dominated by two overlapping
explanatory models:

1. Diffusionism - which argued (or assumed) that significant innovations
occurred once in human history and then diffused to all other areas. Egypt
was at one time a popular center for this model: so if pyramids were found
in Central America it was because Egyptians had sailed (on papyrus boats or
otherwise) to America and instructed the natives.

2. Sometimes independent of, but often overlapping diffusionism, was racism
- one "race" (usually Nordic) was the bearer of the significant
achievements of mankind.

Now, since Professor Witzel has admitted that no doctrinal connection can
be found with Central Asia or the Sakas, then he must be arguing for either
of the following:

A. Saka and Sakya were "ethnically" related, using a "functional" model of

This would imply that at the time of Gautama's birth these several
communities, despite speaking distinct languages, and being separated by
several thousand miles WOULD HAVE RECOGNIZED EACH OTHER as related to each
other AND UNRELATED TO other, linguistically and spatially closer communities.

There no evidence for this, or for the presence of the complex institutions
of social communication that would allow such long-range affiliations to be
socially reproduced in 5th century BCE Asia.

So if that is not likely to be what Professor Witzel meant, then it must be:

B. Sakya were Saka by "racial" descent. Let us frame this in the language
of genetics. (There would obviously be similarities between Saka and Sakya
as they shared our common African ancestry. But this is evidently not what
Professor Witzel's line of argument proposes.)

On the other hand, as only identical twins are genetically identical, he
cannot argue that the two populations were exactly the same. So a rational
version of this hypothesis would state that samples of Saka and Sakya would
be found to be genetically closer to each other than to other populations
among whom each of them lived.

Since genetic distance generally increases with separation in space and in
time, this hypothesis is intrinsically improbable, but not impossible.

BUT EVEN IF the improbable suggestion B turned out to be correct, the only
way it could possibly affect Buddhism as a religious doctrine would be if
the genetic constitution of the Sakya impinged on it via a racial
collective unconscious as postulated by the self-proclaimed Aryan, C.G.
Jung, in the early 20th century. Let us say that there is no evidence for
this either.

So, in his tenacious defense of the Central Asian connection of Buddhism,
Professor Witzel has to depend upon either Model A or Model B, and both are
obviously extremely shaky in presuppositions, logic and evidence.
If he goes further along this path, he is highly liable to find himself up
the creek on a papyrus boat, with Thor Heyerdahl, and without a paddle.

Sumit Guha

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