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.)