Gotama, the Historical Buddha
- LAST MODIFIED: 26 September 2022
- DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780195393521-0278
- LAST MODIFIED: 26 September 2022
- DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780195393521-0278
Gotama, the historical Buddha, is thought to have lived in northern India in the fifth century BCE. Traditional accounts state that Gotama renounced the world at the age of twenty-nine to become a peripatetic spiritual seeker, before attaining an “awakening,” or “enlightenment” (bodhi), at the age of thirty-five. Henceforth regarded as an enlightened master, the “Sage of the Sakyas” (Pāli: sakya-muni; Sanskrit: śākya-muni), Gotama spent the remainder of his life wandering, teaching, and establishing the early Buddhist community. The problem of understanding the historical Buddha is concerned with the role Gotama played in the formation of the Buddhist movement. Was there even an historical figure who inspired the movement, or was “Gotama” a convenient fiction, a myth created to draw together and codify certain strands of ascetic thought and practice? Academic opinion ranges from complete skepticism—Gotama never existed—to a faithful acceptance of traditional beliefs. The general consensus lies somewhere in between: while Gotama’s historicity is mostly accepted, considerable skepticism exists about the possibility of knowing the exact details of his life and teaching. The problem has two central concerns: Do the oldest Buddhist sources date from a time when the memory of Gotama was still relatively fresh? And do these sources depict Gotama realistically, as a creator of a unique set of teachings?
Scholarly estimations of the Buddha’s historicity were initially negative. This changed toward the end of the nineteenth century, largely because of the editions and translations produced by the Pali Text Society (De Jong 1974) and the positive historical estimations of them in Oldenberg 1882 and Rhys Davids 1908. Although a simplistic version of this position was still influential in the late twentieth century (e.g., Rahula 1959 and Schuman 2004), a turn back toward skepticism is evident already in Thomas 1927. The work of Étienne Lamotte is even more skeptical: even if Lamotte 1988 admits that Buddhism is inexplicable in the absence of a historical founder, Lamotte 1947 argues that it is more or less impossible to extract historical facts from the Buddha myth. Gombrich 1988a is critical of Lamotte’s skepticism, but this has not altered general scholarly opinion. The papers collected in Ruegg and Schmithausen 1990 show that the problem of the historical Buddha was still important in the 1980s, but few scholars now study the problem.
De Jong, J. W. “A Brief History of Buddhist Studies in Europe and America.” The Eastern Buddhist 7.1 (1974): 55–106.
An overview of the early phases of modern Buddhist Studies, covering the different scholarly opinions on the historicity of the Buddha. Available online by subscription. Republished, Tokyo: Kōsei, 1997.
Gombrich, Richard. “The History of Early Buddhism: Major Advances since 1950.” In Indological Studies and South Asian Bibliography: A Conference. Edited by A. Das, 12–30. Calcutta: National Library, 1988a.
An overview of the institutional history of pre-Aśokan Buddhism, which claims that the Pāli Suttas and Vinaya record developments in the Buddha’s life and during the first generations of his followers.
Lamotte, Étienne. “La légende du Buddha.” Revue de l’Histoire des Religions 134.1–3 (1947): 37–71.
Lamotte argues that the separation of the supernatural from what appears reasonable is arbitrary and beyond reconstruction. But he also reconstructs different textual layers in the development of the Buddha myth.
Lamotte, Étienne. History of Indian Buddhism: From the Origins to the Śaka Era. Translated by Sara Webb-Boin. Publications de l’Institut orientaliste de Louvain 36. Louvain-la-Neuve, Belgium: Université Catholique de Louvain, Institut Orientaliste, 1988.
Lamotte is generally cautious with regard to the historical Buddha. Chapter 1.2 maintains that Buddhism cannot be explained without a founder figure, but chapter 7.2 regards the life of the Buddha as an unsolvable historical problem.
Oldenberg, Herman. Buddha: His Life, His Doctrine, His Order. London: Williams and Norgate, 1882.
A foundational text of modern Buddhist studies but still useful and with valuable insights. Part 2 argues against skepticism, maintaining that a legendary biography was imposed onto older realistic accounts of the Buddha’s life and teachings.
Rahula, Walpola. What the Buddha Taught. New York: Grove Press, 1959.
An influential overview of Buddhist doctrine, based on the assumption that the Pāli canon is the oldest record of the Buddha’s teaching and so contains the Buddha’s words.
Rhys Davids, T. W. Early Buddhism. London: Archibald Constable, 1908.
A historical overview of early Buddhism that explains the facts of the Buddha’s life and teaching according to their social, political, and intellectual circumstances.
Ruegg, David Seyfort, and Lambert Schmithausen, eds. Earliest Buddhism and Madhyamaka. Panels of the VIIth World Sanskrit Conference 2. Leiden, The Netherlands: E. J. Brill, 1990.
The papers in the first part of this collection adopt varying approaches to the study of early Buddhism and the problem of the Buddha’s historicity.
Schuman, H. W. The Historical Buddha: The Times, Life and Teachings of the Founder of Buddhism. Translated by M. O’C. Walshe. Delhi: Motilal Banarsidass, 2004.
A reading of the Buddha’s life which goes into great detail, regarding apparently legendary events as historical facts. First published as Der Historische Buddha (Cologne: Eugen Diederichs, 1982).
Thomas, E. J. The Life of Buddha as Legend and History. London: Kegan Paul, 1927.
A critical study of the life story of the Buddha notable for an epistemic approach that criticizes the “indolent scepticism” (p. xviii) that offers no thesis about the Buddha but refuses to admit any.
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