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Richard Gombrich: "Fitting the Buddha into the Early History of Indian Religion"

Thursday April 2nd 2009, 7:30PM
Event Sponsor
The Ho Center for Buddhist Studies at Stanford, Department of Religious Studies
Hartley Conference Center, Mitchell Building, School of Earth Sciences
Richard Gombrich


The standard account of the early history of Indian religion posits several discontinuities and fresh starts. Firstly, it is held that belief in rebirth is not to be found in the Rg Veda, but appears suddenly in about the sixth century BCE, perhaps first in the early Upanishads; one then has to conjecture where it came from. Then the Buddha is thought to have little or nothing to do with the Upanishads; not long ago, leading scholars even claimed that early Buddhist texts showed no awareness of Upanishadic texts or teachings. Jainism is acknowledged to bear some resemblance to Buddhism, but is assumed to have played no part in the main developments of Indian religion. Finally, it is doubted whether Buddhism had any effect on the religion of the Mahābhārata.

I believe all four views to be wrong. Obeyesekere has shown that India need be no exception to the normal development and social logic of rebirth eschatologies; Jurewicz has made important (and in my view indisputable) discoveries about Vedic ideology and its connections to the Buddha's teachings; and my own research has found remarkable coherence in the Buddha's thought as presented in the Pāli Canon, both internally and in its historical position. While one lecture is obviously far too short to present all the arguments, I hope at least to present in outline a more convincing picture, and in particular to cast grave doubt on the dogma, currently hegemonic in American Buddhology, that we cannot know what the Buddha thought.

Evans-Wentz Lecture XXXIV

Speaker's Bio:

Richard Gombrich was the Boden Professor of Sanskrit at the University of Oxford from 1976 to 2004; he is currently Professor Emeritus at Oxford University, the Academic Director of the Oxford Centre for Buddhist Studies, and a Governor of the Oxford Centre for Hindu Studies.

Gombrich's works include Precept and Practice: Traditional Buddhism in the Rural Highlands of Ceylon, Theravāda Buddhism, and How Buddhism Began. Gombrich is a leading scholar of Theravāda Buddhism. His more recent research focuses on Buddhist origins, stressing the importance of relating Buddhist texts and practices to early Hindu and Vedic thought.