Beckwith on the lateness, corruption, and lack of scholarly editions of Indian sources on early Buddhism

GUEST POST* BY: Monte Ransome Johnson, Philosophy Department, UC, San Diego
I’d like to thank the editors of this blog for inviting me to post here, and for allowing me to introduce myself. I work in the Philosophy Department at UC, San Diego. My teaching and research focuses on Greco-Roman Philosophy, specifically Early Greek Philosophy, Aristotle Studies, and Hellenistic Philosophy. I am currently involved in a project to reconstruct a lost dialogue of Aristotle, the Protrepticus (Exhortation to Philosophy). I was introduced to Indian Philosophy by Professor James Duerlinger at the University of Iowa, and I then went on to study with Professors John Bussanich and John Taber at the University of New Mexico. Although I did not specialize in Indian Philosophy, these teachers sparked my interest in Comparative Philosophy, especially Comparative Ancient Philosophy.

Recently, I taught a graduate seminar on Pyrrhonian Scepticism, and I am currently supervising a doctoral thesis on Sextus Empiricus. In the context of this research I encountered a new publication by Christopher I. Beckwith entitled Greek Buddha: Pyrrho’s encounter with early Buddhism in Central Asia (Princeton University Press, 2015). I have found the book thought-provoking and also fascinating, but also baffling in parts, frequently making very striking claims about the history and hermeneutics of Indian, Greek, and Chinese Philosophy. Nevertheless, I agreed to write a review of the book for the journal Ancient Philosophy.
Already three useful, and fairly positive, reviews have appeared (and please let us know in the comments section if you know of others).

(1) Matthew Neale’s review in Bulletin of SOAS 79/1 (2016)
(2) Jerker Blomqvist’s review in BMCR 2016.02.32 (2016)
(3) Robert M. Ellis’ review at the Middle Way Society (2015)
There is a lot to discuss with respect to Beckwith’s myriad claims and arguments, for example about his methods of interpreting and comparing Greek and Indian philosophical texts. Each of the reviews listed above gives a nice synopsis of Beckwith’s extraordinary claims. But I would like in this post to focus on some specific claims that Beckwith makes about the chronology and value of the Indian sources on Buddhism. Since this falls outside of my area of competence, I am very interested to hear what Sanskrit and Pāli scholars make of some of Beckwith’s claims.
One striking claim arises in the context of a discussion of the value of Megasthenes (350-290 BC) as a source of information on early Buddhism. Megasthenes’ Indica is a lost work, some fragments of which are preserved in the Geography of Strabo (64 BC-AD 24). Beckwith explains that Strabo’s version of Indica “had been interpolated and expanded by others”, that Strabo’s method of selection was compromised by the period’s preference for “light, chatty, titillating stories”, and that the process of transmission through medieval scribes was imperfect, being especially corrupt when it comes to foreign names. Nevertheless, “it preserves part of the earliest dated eyewitness account of Indian philosophical-religious practices and ideas by far. It is therefore incalculably more important than any of the other texts traditionally considered to represent or reflect Early Buddhism” (Greek Buddha, p.68, emphasis in original).
Beckwith remarks in a footnote to the above passage: “It must be noted that Indologists in particular are wont to discount Greek sources on early India, referring to all the above-noted problems. However, the same problems, and much worse ones, affect Indian sources, which are mostly a millennium or more younger, have never been properly edited, and consist largely of fantasy” (Greek Buddha, p.68, n.23).
Again, I would like to hear what Indologists make of these claims. I am less interested at present in hearing about the perceived value of Megasthenes as a source, or about the relative value of the Indian and Greek sources. What I am eager to learn is what readers of this blog think of Beckwith’s low estimation of the value of the Indian sources themselves, which seems to be based on three issues:
(1) the remoteness and lateness of the Indian sources;
(2) the lack of properly edited critical editions of the texts; and
(3) the later contamination and corruption of the ideas expressed in the texts.
Since it seems like the most tangible issue, perhaps we can begin by focusing on the claim about the lack of properly edited critical editions, since this is presented as a matter of empirical fact. Is it true that the Indian sources on early Buddhism have never been properly edited? Beckwith makes an even more striking claim about Chinese texts, stating: “unfortunately, there are no true critical editions of any Chinese texts” (p.xix, emphasis in original). — but that is an issue for another discussion (or another blog). But feel free also to comment, or point us to research, that bears on the lateness or corruption of the Indian sources on early Buddhism.
*(for further information on guest-blogging, please check this page.)

About elisa freschi

My long-term program is to make "Indian Philosophy" part of "Philosophy". You can follow me also on my personal blog: elisafreschi.com, on Academia, on Amazon, etc.

17 thoughts on “Beckwith on the lateness, corruption, and lack of scholarly editions of Indian sources on early Buddhism

    • Thanks to all for the many interesting comments (and to Johannes for generously sharing his Appendix). I have been intending to read the book for weeks and failed to even reach to the library, thus let me take advantage of your expertise once more: Is the situation with the datation of Megasthenes’ fragments as we have them so solid? Are they recorded in papyri?

  1. Thank you, Monte, for the guest post!

    I also found Beckwith’s book to be baffling in a lot of ways (I hope to post a mini-review of it soon). I don’t work with Early Buddhist (Pali) sources directly, so I can’t comment on Beckwith’s claims about a lack of critical editions. I do take Beckwith’s provocation seriously, though: Early Buddhism probably was a bit different than we think for some of the reasons he cites (the relative lateness of the texts, etc.). Exactly how different, of course, is a matter of debate.

    One of the most baffling things about Beckwith’s book in my opinion is that, for a book about skepticism, he seems to make a lot of bold, dogmatic claims and to cling dogmatically to his method of using only datable (non-Indian) texts. Surely a lot of interesting things happened in Central and South Asia in the middle of the first millennium BCE, but just as surely we don’t have much evidence to go on. As Carl Sagan and others are fond of saying, the absence of evidence is not evidence of absence: just because we have no datable textual evidence that x happened doesn’t mean that x didn’t happen.

    So, while I find Beckwith’s book to be provocative and interesting, it hasn’t done much to change my general opinion of historical studies of Buddhist-Pyrrhonian interaction (e.g., Flintoff, McEvilley, Kuzminski, etc.): it’s entirely possible and maybe even likely that there was some sort of interaction, but the historical evidence doesn’t give us much of an idea of what shape that influence took. Appropriately enough, we may have to follow Pyrrhonian advice and suspend judgment on the matter.

    • Yes, it is part of his methodology to insist on using only datable texts. This policy certainly gives the appearance of rigor in the use of sources, but I am trying to figure out if it really does do so. If a result of the policy is to license ignoring a whole corpus of texts that has traditionally been considered key to answering the questions, then one might think this reduces rigor.

      As for the claims about Greek-Indian interaction, I will address that in my review, and possibly in a follow-up guest post to the blog. One issue that I want to raise is that Beckwith seems not to consider the possibility of earlier Greek-Indian interactions that could account for the similarities in doctrine that he sees between Buddhists and Pyrrhonists– I am thinking here mainly of the influence of Democritus and the Atomist or Abderite school.

  2. Let me mention, because it is relevant to this discussion, CB’s provocative claims about the internal relationship of the Indo-European languages in Empires of the Silk Road: he says that Avestan isn’t an Iranian language, that there was no such thing as Indo-Iranian, that the idea of the Avesta and Ṛgveda being preserved orally for thousands of years is a “fantasy,” and so on. He presents no good evidence for any of these claims, and doesn’t mention, or doesn’t know, the mountains of evidence against them. (Although I appreciate his attempt to unsettle the dogmas of Indo-European philology.) Now we have a claim that European sources are good, because they’re at least dateable, and Indian sources are bad, because they’re (a) not dateable, (b) not as old as people generally claim they are, (c) transmitted orally, (d) intermixed with legend, and so on. I think this is a huge step backwards, and simply reprises the attitude of early European scholars who just couldn’t believe (e.g.) that the Vedas have been transmitted orally for thousands of years. This attitude says that the only kinds of textual sources that can be put into evidence in a historical argument are those that reflect familiar, that is to say, European, norms of authorship, attribution, dating, manuscript transmission, and so on, because those are the kinds of textual sources that our philological methods “work” on. (Hence CB’s fetishism of critical editions: but what would a critical edition of a polyglot, oral, fluid, tradition of teaching even look like?) To discount everything that doesn’t quite fit with those norms, rather than adjusting or expanding or supplementing our philological methods, is just crazy to me, as is the claim that the fragments of Megasthenes preserved in Strabo are “incalculably more important than any of the other texts.” Well, I’ll believe it when I see it. I think, for example, that Johannes Bronkhorst has made good use of Megasthenes, but that’s because Bronkhorst has used Indian sources to reconstruct a world of cultural and religious practices that Megasthenes occasionally confirms. I don’t quite appreciate the way that CB thinks that specialists in Indo-European, or in Buddhism, are hopelessly caught in the grip of fantastic dogmas that he alone can clear away. Hasn’t it occurred to him that these specialists have, over the past hundred and fifty years or so, found ways of dealing with Indian sources that doesn’t dismiss them outright, and also doesn’t credulously accept everything they say as historical fact?

    • This is a helpful comment, and it relates to my concern that having a policy about only “datable” texts merely gives the appearance of increased rigor in the use of sources, while actually licensing ignoring a huge part of the relevant evidence base (see my comment on Ethan Mills, above).
      Andrew, could you point us to an overview or synopsis critiquing the “attitude says that the only kinds of textual sources that can be put into evidence in a historical argument are those that reflect familiar, that is to say, European, norms of authorship, attribution, dating, manuscript transmission, and so on, because those are the kinds of textual sources that our philological methods “work” on”. I mean, who would be a good person to look to to explain how these standards have been revised, and what we should instead expect to see (perhaps you can point to some editions, etc. that you think employ a more realistic and appropriate methodology).

      As for your question “what would a critical edition of a polyglot, oral, fluid, tradition of teaching even look like?”– one answer to that question is available in the article mentioned above by Phillip Maas on the prospects for a true critical edition of the Pali canon. That is exactly what Wynne seems to be calling for. Would you agree that what he is calling for is reasonable?

        • Of course what Wynne is calling for is reasonable, but this is my point: by the time that we enter the world of a manuscript tradition that our philological methods work on, we’re already a thousand years into the history of Buddhism. Even if the project successfully meets its goal of reconstructing Buddhaghosa’s text of the fifth century CE (which is likely enough), it won’t satisfy Beckwith. The Jain canon is perhaps a better example, because it’s more extreme: the surviving manuscripts also probably date from a fifth-century council at Valabhi, if we credit the legend, but at that council certain groups of Jain monks couldn’t be convinced that the transmitted texts were sufficiently faithful to the original teaching. We can likewise imagine a critical edition of the Śvetāmbara Jain canon (which remains far off in the future), but my point is that Beckwith could easily and justifiably say that such editions represent a particular version of the scriptural tradition, intercepted a thousand years into its history, after many of the interesting doctrinal debates have already happened, and after centuries of revision, expansion, and interpolation. (A summary of these processes can be found in Ludwig Alsdorf’s Jain Studies: Their Present State and Future Tasks, originally published in 1965, and since you asked for a general reference about how Indian textual traditions might differ in important ways from their European counterparts, see Pollock’s review of Écrire et transmettre en Inde classique in Journal asiatique 299 [2011].)

          • Thanks a lot for those suggestions Andrew, and I think you make several good points. Please also the paper referred to by Johannes Bronkhorst, which makes some related points. I think that scholars working in Greek philosophy could learn a thing or two from this way of looking at texts and textual traditions– at least I think I should.

  3. Readers of this blog may like to know that Appendix X of my book “How the Brahmins Won” (Brill 2016) is essentially a review of Beckwith’s “Greek Buddha”.
    Johannes Bronkhorst

    • Thank you– this looks extremely relevant. I’ve just requested the book through interlibrary loan– it is so new that no UC campus has received it yet! I was very intrigued by the preview of the appendix that I could access, where you comared Beckwith’s method to “a drunk who, having lost his keys, will only search for them under the street light”, and even worse, one who insists that keys found there must be HIS keys. Unfortunately, I couldn’t continue to read the appendix. Is there any way that you could excerpt it for us here? Or even just state your main line of argument. I am very interested to hear it.

  4. Thanks for your post, Monte. It’s good to see a scholar of Greek and Hellenistic Philosophy reach out to Indologists, and it will be even better to see more Indologists assist your efforts to assess Greek Buddha.

    The claim that Buddhist tilakkhaṇa teachings known from Pāli texts can be attested to an early period, from Greek sources, is to me one of the most important claims in Greek Buddha. I hope this aspect of Beckwith’s work will attract the serious scrutiny that it deserves. For in one sense Beckwith is absolutely right: nobody really knows that much about early Buddhism, and therefore each little piece of the great puzzle that can be placed securely –if it can be placed securely– ought to be greatly prized. The problem is in how Beckwith goes about putting the puzzle together. As others have noted, Beckwith fits out his arguments with reckless provocations –needlessly, it seems to me– which detract attention from his important line of investigation into early Buddhism and Greek philosophy.

    But then again, in some ways Greek Buddha is not really about early Buddhism and Greek philosophy per se. As you point out, the book is very much about method and the use of evidence in the study of antiquity. Are Beckwith’s methods superior? I doubt it. I invite you and other readers of the blog to read my article “A Note on Śramaṇa in Vedic Texts,” prompted by Greek Buddha and just published in the Journal of the Oxford Centre for Buddhist Studies, vol. 10. Comments are welcome.

    Brett Shults

      • Thank you. I found it very useful, level-headed, and convincing. I’d encourage others to read it:

        https://www.academia.edu/25308643/Appendix_X_Was_there_Buddhism_in_Gandh%C4%81ra_at_the_time_of_Alexander

        The conclusion goes to the heart of one of the matters we have been discussing:

        “A fundamental general weakness of Beckwith’s arguments is that he is not willing to consider that there can be undated sources that yet contain historical information. As pointed out earlier, this is like maintaining that the lost keys must be under the streetlight, because if they were anywhere else one would not see them. This may make some sense to scholars who are used to working with Chinese or other non-Indian materials. Indologists have learned to work with non- dated materials (i.e., to look for keys in the dark), and not all of their work is for this reason worthless. Exclusive insistence on dated material would not just undermine all we think we know about historical Buddhism, it would bring down much else in its destructive élan. Fortunately there is no justification for imposing this limitation.”

        In fact, I think that scholars of early Greek philosophy and Hellenistic philosophy have also had to learn “to look for keys in the dark” and we deal with undatable material all the time (e.g. the fragments of Thales or Democritus; The Aristotelian Problemata, Pseudo-Aristotle’s On the Cosmos, the Pythagorean Pseudepigrapha, the Anonymous Iamblichi, etc., etc.). This is why I said above that I think the policy of using only “datable” material merely gives the appearance of rigor– to ignore this evidence is not to solve a problem but to operate without a complete basis of evidence.

        Perhaps it is outside the realm of this discussion, but I’d like to learn more about what Indian Philosophy scholars have learned about working with non-datable materials. I’m sure scholars of Greek philosophy could learn a lot from them– and this might help resolve some otherwise intractable problems in Greek Philosophy.

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