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University of Basel

Buddha and the early Christians.

Text: Stephan Peter Bumbacher

Did Indian Buddhism influence early Christians in the Middle East? There is evidence that suggests so.

illustrated portrait of Stephan Peter Bumbacher
Prof. Dr. Stephan Peter Bumbacher (Illustration: Studio Nippoldt)

In 1938, a perfectly preserved Indian ivory female figurine, presumably of the goddess Lakshmi, was discovered in Pompeii, a city that was destroyed by an eruption of Mount Vesuvius in 79 AD. How did this figurine come to be in Italy? Roman coins continue to be found all over southern India and even in Kashmir. Who brought them to India? Long-distance trade and cultural links are not a modern phenomenon. For instance, the Romans in their heyday controlled trade around and across the Mediterranean, maintained scheduled sea links with India from the 1st to 4th centuries AD and even kept a number of local trading posts, for instance in Muziris (presentday Cranganore), Poduke (Arikamedu) and Comari (Kumari). As early as the 1st century AD, the historian Strabo mentions South East Asian goods being imported to Rome via what is now Sri Lanka.

Cultural exchange can, however, also be brought about by war. As early as 325 BC, roughly a century after the Buddha’s death, Alexander the Great with his army and accompanying scientists reached the River Indus. Arrian notes that Alexander, who had been tutored by the philosopher Aristotle, engaged in a debate with Brahman gymnosophistai, or naked philosophers, who were considered akin to the Greek Cynics. Greek influence is also visible in Gandharan art, and the Indo-Greek king Menander (c. 130–100 BC), under his Indian name of Milinda, takes center stage in the Buddhist text Milindapañha.

It is a legitimate question to ask whether, by the same token, religious concepts could have come to the West in the mental luggage of merchants and caravaneers or the kitbags of soldiers returning home. After all, the Philosophoumenos, a work written around 230 AD by the Father of the Church Hippolytus, contains specific information about the Brahmans’ religious beliefs that implies knowledge of the Indian Upanishads (or possibly a Greek translation thereof). Around that time, Church Father Clement of Alexandria mentions Brahmans and Sarmans (i.e. shramanas, or ascetics) in his work Stromateis: “Some, too, of the Indians obey the precepts of Boutta (Buddha), whom, on account of his extraordinary sanctity, they have raised to divine honors.” This means that by the beginning of the 3rd century at the very latest, Christian intellectuals had some knowledge of Indian religions. That knowledge could have reached the West not only by sea, but also via the Silk Road, which ran from Luoyang in China to Antioch near the Mediterranean Sea and on to the port of Tyre. It was along this route that Buddhism spread eastward into China in the 1st century AD or earlier.

Is it possible that Buddhist beliefs or themes were orally relayed across language barriers, traveled as far as Palestine and found their way into the New Testament? Some researchers think so. The following discusses two examples chosen from various relevant texts.

Among the world’s known religions, Buddhism and Christianity are unique in possessing narratives that talk about their respective founders being tested by a seductive evil power: In the early Hīnayāna scriptures, Māra, the evil one, makes an appearance, endeavoring to lead Gautama (Buddha) astray. First, Māra tries to steer Buddha away from asceticism. Later, he does everything in his might to prevent Buddha from attaining enlightenment. Finally, the demon tries to persuade Buddha, by now an old man, to enter Nirvāna prematurely, which Buddha declines. The later Mahāyāna scriptures give a more elaborate account of the temptation: Māra makes three attempts to keep Gautama from achieving enlightenment through meditation. He begins by assailing Gautama with a demonic army; next, he mobilizes the forces of nature; and, finally, his three daughters use all their powers of seduction. Gautama, of course, resists all these temptations.

A parallel in substance is found in the New Testament, where the devil tempts Jesus. Mark the Evangelist devotes only one sentence to the temptation of Christ and John does not mention it at all; whereas in both Matthew’s and Luke’s accounts Jesus is tempted in the desert after a long fast, with the devil challenging him to turn stones into bread. Two more episodes follow: Jesus is taken to the highest point of the Temple and told to throw himself down from it; since, as the Son of God, angels would break his fall. Later, on a very high mountain, he is shown and offered all the kingdoms of the world on condition that he submit to the devil and worship him. Jesus resists these temptations, too.

For all the dissimilarities between the Buddhist and Christian stories, they have some elements in common: Both religions’ founders are led into temptation in remote places and enter into dialogue with their tempters. In both cases, the tempter is the “ruler” of the world. Also, both Buddha and Jesus have yet to step into public life. While neither text is directly based on the other, there is a thematic analogy: If Gautama had yielded to temptation, he would have been cheated out of enlightenment and ultimately his teaching. If Jesus had given in, he would not have fulfilled his mission.

Another parallel can be drawn between the miracle stories of Buddha and Jesus walking on water. An ancient text, the Mahāvagga section of the Vinaya Pitaka, talks about a flood: Buddha is walking on the water, alone and in meditation. Kassapa, an adherent of a different religious tradition, worries about Buddha and, together with a like-minded group, sets out in a boat to reach him. When he does, he asks: “Is it you, great ascetic?” Buddha answers in the affirmative and enters the boat. Kassapa is said to have converted to Buddha’s teachings on account of this miracle. In the Gospel of Matthew, Jesus is praying by himself on the mountain when his disciples, who are in a boat on the Sea of Galilee, run into trouble. They suddenly see a figure walking on the water, but fail to recognize Jesus and take him for a ghost. Jesus addresses them, identifies himself and steps into the boat. Then the wind dies down. Here the doubting disciples’ faith is strengthened.

There are obvious differences between the Buddhist and Christian stories: Buddha is only seemingly in distress, whereas Jesus’ disciples are in actual danger. The boat is carrying adherents of another tradition in the former case and Jesus’ own followers in the latter. Yet, there are clear commonalities, too: Both protagonists are in a remote place and engrossed in some form of mental activity (meditation or prayer); both are walking on turbulent waters. Both stories switch their point of view from the master to the disciples in the boat, who are astonished or afraid. Both Buddha and Jesus reveal their identities and board the boat. Also, in both cases, the faith of the followers is transformed.

It is conceivable that the Buddhist versions served as a model for the Christian one, but was modified in accordance with Christian requirements and incorporated into the context of the New Testament in such a way that its origin was obscured. We may therefore assume that religions have typically evolved not in isolation, but through an interplay of mutual interpretation, appropriation and rejection, shaped by religious imagery, historical events and changing economic and political conditions.

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