On these grounds, then, it is here submitted that the traditional figure of the Buddha, in its most plausibly rationalized form, is as unhistoric as the figure of the Gospel Jesus has been separately shown to be. Each figure simply stands for the mythopœic action of the religious mind in a period in which Primary-God-making had given way to Secondary-God-making, and in particular to the craving for a Teaching God who should originate religious and moral ideas as the other Gods had been held to originate agriculture, art, medicine, normal law, and civilisation.
Most Buddhologists concede that Gautama Buddha was a historical person, someone of flesh and blood who trod this earth, in the Ganges Plain in North India in the fifth-fourth century BCE. Unfortunately, there is no rock-solid evidence to corroborate this view; as in all matters regarding religion, we have to take it on faith. Do Buddhologists, when examining the historicity of Buddha, use the same exacting standards a historian would bring to examining the historicity of Alexander the Great, for example? If we compare Buddha with Alexander, who flourished at roughly the same time, we have so much more evidence for the latter, who founded several cities bearing his name (including Alexandria, Egypt); fought numerous battles and wars but was defeated only once, by his own troops; conquered a huge empire; contemporary historians wrote about him; contemporary coins exist which bear his image; his generals divided up his empire among themselves and claimed to be his heirs; and so forth.
And of course, if Alexander hadn't been a historical person, Greek history of the Hellenistic period would have to be rewritten entirely. In the case of the Buddha, whether he was a historical person or just a myth would make no difference to ancient Indian history. Even his supposed bodily relics, when held up to scrutiny, turn out to be non-human bones or teeth. The towns and cities supposedly associated with events in his life were determined by European scholars in the nineteenth century, with the help of travelogues left by Chinese pilgrims who had traveled in India more than a millenium before, centuries after he was supposed to have lived. Then we have stories written down four centuries and more after he was supposed to have flourished by disciples who were penning myths that had been handed down orally for centuries. The claim is made that Buddha was a prince, but historians say he couldn't have been because his father wasn't a king, the country he ruled being a republic; so obviously later disciples, or the people who were promoting Buddhism, embellished the story. Thus when Buddha comes to renunciate the household life, his sacrifice is seen as not merely the giving up of house and home, but the renunciation of palace and kingdom, and forfeiting the certainty of becoming a chakravartin king, or great wheel-turning monarch. Thus the greater the sacrifice, the greater the merit gained.
If we strip away all the myths and legends of the Buddha, we're left with the minimalist Buddha: an ascetic who meditated under a tree and came up with the four noble truths. Everything else he was supposed to have said were probably put into his mouth by later disciples who were intent in founding a religion. It has been said that the Buddha didn't make the Buddhists but that the Buddhists made Buddha.
The basic methodological principle that certain Buddhologists follow in trying to retrieve the historical Buddha from a thick overlay of mythology, to paraphrase Hermann Detering, who was writing about St. Paul, is simple: everything that somehow seems miraculous or imaginary is deemed unhistorical; and everything, on the contrary, that proceeds in a rational and natural way is historical. This method, however, has fatal similarity with a man who, at any cost, wanted to hold on to a historical kernel in the story about Little Red Riding Hood and, to this end, removed all the mythic components (the wolf who speaks, red riding hood and grandmother in the stomach of the wolf) in order to hold fast to the historical existence of a little girl named Red Ridinghood who visited her grandmother in the forest sometime long ago and met a wolf on her way.
There is in fact no single detail in the legend that has any claim to critical acceptance; and the position of the latest conservatives, as Oldenberg, is finally only a general petitio principii. India, admits that candid scholar, always was, as it is, "a land of types," wherein the lack of freedom stunts the free growth of individuality; and in the portraits of the Buddha and all his leading disciples we have simply the same type repeated. Yet, he contends, "a figure such as his certainly has not been fundamentally misconceived." Critical logic will not permit such an a priori reinstatement of a conception in which every element has given way before analysis. It is but an unconscious resort to the old fallacy of meeting the indictment of a spurious document with the formula, "Who else could have written it?"
We recur to the old issue—the thesis that "every sect must have had a founder." Such was the unhesitating assumption of Minayeff, who did so much to bring historic clearness into early Buddhist history. "It is beyond doubt that at the origin of great historic movements always and everywhere appear important and historic personalities. It was so, certainly, in the history of Buddhism, and its development unquestionably commenced in the work of the founder." Here we have something more than the proposition of M. Senart—we have a doctrine which would ascribe to definite founders the cults of Heracles and Dionysos and Aphroditê, the worship of fire, and the institution of human sacrifice. Dismissing such a generalisation as the extravagance of a scholar without sociology, we bring the issue to a point in the formula of M. Senart. Plainly that is significant in the sense only that someone must have begun the formation of any given group. It is clearly not true in the sense that every sect originates in the new teaching of a remarkable personage. And we have seen reason to infer that there was a group of heretical or deviating Brahmanists, for whom "a Buddha" was "an enlightened one," one of many, before the quasi-historical Buddha had even so far emerged into personality as the slain Jesus of the Pauline epistles. Brahmanic doctrine, Brahmanic asceticism and vows, and Brahmanic mendicancy—these are the foundations of the Order: the personal giver of that rule and teaching, the Teaching God, comes later, even as the Jesus who institutes the Holy Supper comes after the eucharist is an established rite. Every critical scholar, without exception, admits that a vast amount of doctrine ascribed to Buddha was concocted long after his alleged period. It cannot then be proved that any part of the doctrine is not a fictitious ascription; and there is not a single tenable test whereby any can be discriminated as genuine. In the words of Kuenen, "we are not free to explain Buddhism from the person of the founder." Nor is there any more psychological difficulty in supposing the whole to be doctrinal myth than in conceiving how the later Brahmanists could put their discourses in the mouth of Krishna.
The recent attempts to establish the historicity of Gotama Buddha by excavated tomb-remains —a kind of evidence which obviously could prove nothing as to the achievements or teaching of the person interred—have broken down on their merits. Dr. Fleet's claim to date an inscribed vase before Asoka's time on the strength of its letter-forms is peremptorily rejected; and Professor Davids’ theory that the remains found under one stupa are those of Buddha has to compete with the theory of Dr. Fleet that they are those of massacred Buddhana Sakiya = "kinsmen of Buddha," which in turn is rejected by M. Barth as an impossible interpretation. On such lines there can be no establishment of any relevant historic facts; and we are left to the decision that "No extant inscription, either in the north or south, can be referred with confidence to a date earlier than that of Asoka.
Professor Kern, coming to conclusions substantially identical with those of M. Senart, posits for us finally an ancient Order of monks, absorbing an ancient popular religion, and developing for people of the middle and lower classes the ideals of a spiritual life current in the schools of the Brahmans and the ascetics. "It is very possible," he goes on, "that the Order had been founded—whatever be the precise sense which we attach to that word—by a single man peculiarly gifted, even as, for example, it is possible that Freemasonry may have been so founded. We may even, by an effort of imagination, adorn this founder with all sorts of good qualities; but we have no right to say that the amiability of the Buddha of the legend has any other origin than the antique belief according to which the Buddha, in his quality of cherishing sun, is manno miltisto" —the kindest of men, in the words applied by an old German prayer-chant to the deity.
This is the warranted attitude of scientific criticism; and the mere "may-be" as to the possible Founder is exclusive of any Evemeristic solution. M. Senart's necessary founder, and Professor Kern's possible founder, are wholly remote from the Buddha alike of the Buddhist and of the rationalising scholar, bent on saving a personality out of a myth. On the face of the case, there is a presumption that, while there may easily have been, "about 500 BCE, a man who by his wisdom and his devotion to the spiritual interests of his kind made such an impression that contemporaries compared him to a pre-existing ideal of wisdom and goodness, and that posterity completely identified him with this ideal," the Order was not founded by any such person. No Buddha made the Buddhists—the Buddhists made the Buddha.
An obviously sufficient conceptual nucleus for "the" Buddha lay in the admittedly general Brahmanic notion of "Buddhas." There is even a tradition that at the time when Sakyamuni came many men ran through the world saying "I am Buddha! I am Buddha!" This may be either a Buddhist way of putting aside the claims of other Buddhas or a simple avowal of their commonness. But a real Buddha would be a much less likely "founder" than one found solely in tradition. Any fabulous Buddha as such could figure for any group as its founder to begin with: to him would be ascribed the common ethical code and rules of the group: the clothing of the phantom with the mythic history of Vishnu-Purusha or Krishna, the "Bhagavat" of earlier creeds, followed as a matter of course, on the usual lines. M. Senart "holds it for established that the legend as a whole was fixed as early as the time of Asoka." Some of the latest surveys of the problem end in an inference that the oldest elements in the legend consist of fragments of an ancient poem or poems embedded in the Pitakas. The quasi-biographical colour further given to mythical details is on all fours with that of the legends of Joseph, Moses, Joshua, and Jesus, all late products of secondary mythology, in periods which systematically reduced God-legends to the biographic level. As we have seen, the fabrication of narrative-frames for the teachings ascribed to the Buddha was early an established Buddhist exercise. And this accumulation of quasi-biographical detail, as we have also seen, goes on long after the whole cycle of prior supernaturalist myth has been embodied. It is after Jesus has been deified that he is provided with a mother and a putative father and brothers; and it is in the latest gospel of all that we have some of the most circumstantial details of his life and deportment. There is even a case for the thesis that some of the characteristics of the Buddha are derived from sculptures which followed Greek models.
On these grounds, then, it is here submitted that the traditional figure of the Buddha, in its most plausibly rationalized form, is as unhistoric as the figure of the Gospel Jesus has been separately shown to be. Each figure simply stands for the mythopœic action of the religious mind in a period in which Primary-God-making had given way to Secondary-God-making, and in particular to the craving for a Teaching God who should originate religious and moral ideas as the other Gods had been held to originate agriculture, art, medicine, normal law, and civilisation. And if by many the thought be still found disenchanting, they might do well to reflect that there is a side to the conception that is not devoid of comfort. Buddhism, like Christianity, is from the point of view of its traditional origins a "failure." Buddhism, indeed, notably in the case of Burmah, has done more to mould the life of a whole people towards its ostensibly highest ethic than Christianity ever did; but Buddhism, being at best a gospel of monasticism, quietism, and mechanical routine, collapsed utterly in India, the land of its rise; and its normal practice savors little of moral or intellectual superiority to any of the creeds around it. Brahmanism, which seems to have ultimately wrought its overthrow, set up in its place a revived and developed popular polytheism, on the plane of the most ignorant demotic life. Christianity, in turn, professedly the religion of peace and love, is as a system utterly without influence in suppressing war, or inter-racial malignity, or even social division. The vital curative forces as against those evils are visibly independent of Christianity. And here emerges the element of comfort.
On our Naturalistic view of the rise of the religions of the Secondary or Teaching Gods, it is sheer human aspiration that has shaped all the Christs and all their doctrines; and one of the very causes of the total miscarriage is just that persistence in crediting the human aspiration to Gods and Demigods, and representing as superhuman oracles the words of human reason. Unobtrusive men took that course hoping for the best, seeking a short cut to moral influence; but they erred grievously. So to disguise and denaturalise wise thoughts and humane principles was to keep undeveloped the very reasoning faculty which could best appreciate them. Men taught to bow ethically to a Divine Teacher are not taught ethically to think: any aspiration so evoked in them is factitious, vestural, verbal, or at best emotionally superinduced, not reached by authentic thought and experience. When, haply, the nameless thinkers who in all ages have realised and distilled the wisdom or unwisdom given out as divine are recognized in their work for what they were, and their successors succeed in persuading the many to realise for themselves the humanness of all doctrine, the nations may perchance become capable of working out for themselves better gospels than the best of those which turned to naught in their hands while they held them as revelations from the skies.
The following quote, which could equally well apply to Buddha, is taken from the final two paragraphs of The Historicized Jesus? by Robert M. Price:
Traditionally, Christ-Myth theorists have argued that one finds a purely mythic conception of Jesus in the epistles and that the life of Jesus the historical teacher and healer as we read it in the gospels is a later historicization. This may indeed be so, but it is important to recognize the obvious: The gospel story of Jesus is itself apparently mythic from first to last. In the gospels the degree of historicization is actually quite minimal, mainly consisting of the addition of the layer derived from contemporary messiahs and prophets, as outlined above. One does not need to repair to the epistles to find a mythic Jesus. The gospel story itself is already pure legend. What can we say of a supposed historical figure whose life story conforms virtually in every detail to the Mythic Hero Archetype, with nothing, no "secular" or mundane information, left over? As Dundes is careful to point out, it doesn't prove there was no historical Jesus, for it is not implausible that a genuine, historical individual might become so lionized, even so deified, that his life and career would be completely assimilated to the Mythic Hero Archetype. But if that happened, we could no longer be sure there had ever been a real person at the root of the whole thing. The stained glass would have become just too thick to peer through.Alexander the Great, Caesar Augustus, Cyrus, King Arthur, and others have nearly suffered this fate. What keeps historians from dismissing them as mere myths, like Paul Bunyan, is that there is some residue. We know at least a bit of mundane information about them, perhaps quite a bit, that does not form part of any legend cycle. Or they are so intricately woven into the history of the time that it is impossible to make sense of that history without them. But is this the case with Jesus? I fear it is not. The apparent links with Roman and Herodian figures is too loose, too doubtful for reasons I have already tried to explain. Thus it seems to me that Jesus must be categorized with other legendary founder figures including the Buddha, Krishna, and Lao-tzu. There may have been a real figure there, but there is simply no longer any way of being sure."