Friday, 24 April 2015

The Age of the Lord Buddha

Scholars acquiesce in the convention established by modern Greek scholarship, which is that an articulate and technical understanding of the idea of Being was first broached by the Greeks in the middle of the 1st Millennium BCE. It follows therefore that all references to the divine in the ancient near east before that date are not articulate and technical references, but notional and inchoate. The consequence must be that we can learn nothing useful about ancient intellectual processes and concerns from these notions, since they are beliefs entirely unsupported by rational argument.

This would come as a surprise to many ancient cultures, if they were still around. It should come as a big surprise to us to, since, if various cultural patterns in the past share a degree of congruence with one another, at a deep level, as they do, it is hard to explain this phenomenon without concluding that the cultural patterns are the outcome of some form of rational discussion.

I'm thinking here of the way kings referred to each other as 'brothers' in the near eastern bronze age, since they were united by their status. As kings they were 'complete' and not in want of things. They also shared some of the characteristics attributed to the gods, and sometimes styled themselves as actual gods, or otherwise deemed themselves to be the very image of the divine. Underneath the huge variety of deities, the meaning of divinity itself seems to have been a shared and agreed concept. This is in addition to the normal characterisation of the bronze age in the near east as a cultural continuum, in terms of the power of the king, patterns of trade and exchange, the making of treaties, the paying of tribute, and so on.

These congruences are explained away in terms of other aspects of the function and nature of the human mind which we all hold in common, such as feeling, awe, terror, separation, commonality, purity, taboo, notions of sacred and profane space, and so on (I'm thinking here particularly of French anthropology).

The way to establish whether or not rational argument might have been involved in the creation of these ancient models is to create the hypothesis that it was so involved, and to explore the ramifications of the idea. If the hypothesis explains more than other explanations do, and creates fewer problems within the parameters of the evidence, then the hypothesis has a probability of being correct. If the exploration of the hypothesis allows us to propose further questions which we can ask of the evidence in order to test the hypothesis, and the hypothesis is supported by the answers to these new questions, then the probability that it represents a viable interpretative model is increased.

The scholarly compact in the west which, in support of the idea of progress and cultural evolution, is in agreement with the view of classical scholarship that the Greeks invented articulate discussion of the idea of Being as a proper subject for philosophy, also supports the idea that they were also the first to deal rationally with abstract ideas, such as universals and absolutes – ideas beyond physical instances. This includes the development of mathematics. 

There was shock therefore when evidence came along which appeared to suggest that the Babylonians had mastered algebra to the point where they were working with quadratic equations. This interpretation is now deprecated. *1

The compact has poisoned a lot of wells, since the imposition of ideas of progress and cultural evolution within a period of relatively recent time, means that we know that certain things were impossible before the Greeks came along. Where references suggestive of abstract thought or an interest in universals cannot be written off as inchoate, the dating of the evidence is challenged.

The date of the Buddha's floruit for western scholars is much closer to our own time than it is for scholars in the east. We place him around the 5th century BCE, since there is clearly an interest in universals in the texts.

The Puranas provide a chronology of the Magadha rulers from the supposed time of the Mahabharata war, and Buddha is supposed to have become enlightened during the reign of Bimbisara, the 5th Shishunaga ruler, who, according to this chronology, ruled between 1852-1814 BCE. His birth date may have been 1887 BCE.  Chinese scholarship has long maintained that Buddhism came to China from India around 1200-1100BCE.

Indian philosophy in general, which is awash with abstract ideas and universals, and is clearly very old, has similarly been down-dated to a production date around the middle of the 1st millennium BCE. The principal exception to this general down-dating is the older parts of the Rig Veda, which show clear signs of having been composed in the middle of the second millennium BCE. 

Chinese philosophy is similarly constricted to the middle of the 1st millennium, which preserves the integrity of the Greek achievement. 

Egypt, which the Greeks themselves thought of as the home of philosophical thought, has been downgraded by us, so that we regard the Egyptians as a people dealing in concrete rather than abstract concepts.  What this means is that the simplest possible meaning that can be ascribed to a sign or a symbol, is the right one. A picture of a hand most likely signifies a hand; a bull's head represents a bull's head; an image of an axe represents an axe; an image of a bowl is a bowl. 

However the image of an axe is associated in Egyptian texts with the power of decision, and the image of a bowl is associated with lordship, through the ideas of completeness and plenitude, so these images often appear in connection with gods and kings. But these images are not understood by us to represent abstract concepts. Just concrete images which connote power and status. Egyptian interest in magic is deemed 'pragmatic' and it is assumed that it was not connected in any way with a philosophical understanding of the world..

Just to be clear, there is much more riding on the argument that the idea of Being is key to the early development of sophisticated human thought than just whether it is true or not, and whether a useful interpretative model can be generated from looking at the evidence from this point of view. Much of our historical frame may be in need of some adjustment.  


1  Discussed and despatched by Otto Neugebauer, who once declared that he did not believe that synthetic thought (as opposed to analytic thought) was possible. This might be taken to mean that he would be a harsh critic of anything that looked like synthetic (or inductive) thought.

 Age of Milinda, Buddha, Amtiyoka & Yugapurana, by Sri Kota Venkatachalam, first published in 1956, discusses the earlier chronology for the Buddha, and the problems created by western scholarship on the subject. It's in PDF format.

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