Vanity thought #1325. History dilemma

Sometimes history is favorable to our narrative and sometimes it isn’t. Should we embrace every finding that goes our way or should we stay out of this business altogether? Or should we find some balanced approach?

Yesterday a very respected devotee included me in his e-mail blast and I got a link to an old article promoting the idea that modern history got some Bhāgavatam dates completely wrong.

I remember writing about it a while ago but here’s the recap – modern dating of Buddha refers to some particularly enlightened person and not the Lord Buddha who lived over a thousand years earlier.

This fact is not very well known even in the vaiṣṇava community and Śrīla Prabhupāda himself was apparently unaware of it. There’s a quote from Śrīla Bhaktisiddhānta Sarasvatī and an explanation from one of GM authorities that these two are indeed different persons and the confusion was started by Śaṅkarācāyrya himself. It wouldn’t the first one by him but we accept it as necessary to satisfy demoniac people of Kali Yuga.

This time it’s the timing of Cāṇakya Paṇḍita, who appears in SB 12.1.11, and then Candragupta and Aśoka who are explicitly mentioned in the next verse. All three are historically well known personalities and this time we are not saying they are “impostors”, as the historical “Buddha” is, but real character intersection between both Purāṇic and modern history. That’s where the danger lies.

It’s possible to calculate the date of their birth from the time of the Kurukṣetra war, adding up all the intermediate kings and durations of their reigns. This gives us about 1500 BC, 1200 years earlier than what is taught in every history book. That’s what the problem is.

This devotee explained it by blaming everything on certain William Jones, a British scholar who tried to fit Purāṇic history into Biblical timeframe and so needed to put our events as close to modernity as possible. Cāṅakya and Candragupta provided a convenient “linch pin” tying them to Alexander The Great who went to India roughly 300 BC. At around that time Greeks also sent their ambassador to India, Megastenes, who left extensive notes describing Indian kings and dynasties, among other things. This is the time from which we count everything else backwards and forwards.

If Candragupta and then Aśoka lived 1200 earlier than that then the entire history of India as it is known today goes to dogs, and it would confirm that historical Buddha was not the real Buddha, too, because Aśoka was the one who promoted Buddhism far and wide. Candragupta himself tuned Jain so that tradition and its founder, Mahāvīra, need to be moved by over a thousand years back, too.

The stakes are incredibly high. If it all goes south our credibility would be at stake, too. So far no one paid any attention to appearances of Cāṅakya, Candragupta, and Aśoka in the Bhāgavatam but if we go public with it then we’d have one big inconsistency on our hands. People can actually calculate the time of Kurukṣetra war back from Candragupta and tell us that we are totally wrong and Kṛṣṇa didn’t live 5000 years ago. What will we say then?

If we insist that Candragupta lived in 1500 BC they’d accuse of basing our faith on bad science. Nothing good will come out of it unless we can prove it beyond any doubt.

That’s where the problem lies. Megastenes was sent to the court of king “Sandrocottus”. which is as close as Greeks could be to Candragupta. Our version here is that it was a different Candragupta, not Candragupta Maurya.

It would be easy to argue this if modern history didn’t move forward from the days of William Jones but it did. Nowadays there’s plenty of evidence to suggest that it was really Candragupta Maurya and not the other Candragupta that lived during the time of Alexander the Great. To make it more complicated, most of the evidence can be interpreted in different ways and so we still have a shot but at this time it looks very unlikely that we are right and they are wrong.

Aśoka wasn’t mentioned in Greek records, good, but there’s one Aśokan edict that tells the names of four contemporary kings: “param ca tena Atiyokena cature rajani Turamaye nama Antikini nama Maka nama Alikasudaro nama” (“And beyond Antiochus, four kings by the name of Ptolemy, Antigonos, Magas and Alexander”). This is not the same Alexander but there was a Greek king by that name who ruled until 240 BC. Maybe it wasn’t him and there was another Alexander who lived sometime around 1400 BC but the onus to prove it is on us, and I don’t think we are up to the task, and there would still be three others to repeat the procedure on – Antigonos, Magas, and “Turamaye”, for whatever reason translated as Ptolemy, who lived way after Aśoka himself.

But then there is nothing in Greek sources about Buddhism, too, and both Aśoka and Buddhism were a really big thing back then. Aśoka’s empire was even bigger than Candragupta’s. To counter this historians cite Greek knowledge of “Sramanas”, a tradition they identify as Buddhist in this case. I don’t know why, perhaps we can counter them on that.

Once, already around the time of Christ, Indians sent a party of these Śramaṇas to Athens with a message tattooed on one of the emissaries’ skin. By Greek standards they were naked, wearing only a “girdle”, which is probably how the Greeks saw kaupīnas. They also brought very strange gifts – an armless man, a long snake, a big tortoise and a partridge larger than a vulture. What was the significance of that is unknown.

What put these guys in history books is that their chief Zarmanochegas, possibly “Śramaṇācārya”, self immolated himself before Athenian public to “demonstrate the strength of his faith”. Greeks saw them as barbarians, not as renounced ascetics of the highest order as they were perceived in India. I think self-immolation was a Śramaṇa’s reaction to the scenes of the Greek life around him. Ordinarily one would have to jump into Ganges if he saw degradation like that and short of that killing yourself was probably the second best option.

Why they made this Śramaṇa a Buddhist is beyond me. Some interpret his full name, as recorded by Greeks, Zarmanochēgas indos apo Bargosēs, as that he was a disciple of Bhṛgu Muni. Śramaṇa was an old, certainly pre-Buddhist tradition of complete renunciation. The word appears quite a few times in Śrīmad Bhāgavatam and once Śrīla Prabhupāda translated it simply as a vānprastha. It was prominent among Buddhists and Buddha (the historical one) was a śramaṇa himself, but that is not enough to use presence of a śramaṇa as proof of Greek familiarity with Buddhism, meaning their Candragupta wasn’t Candragupta Maurya and they really knew nothing of Aśoka who actually lived over a thousand years earlier.

Here’s a story of Alexander the Great’s encounter with a group of śramaṇas (source):

    He (Alexander) captured ten of the Gymnosophists who had done most to get Sabbas to revolt, and had made the most trouble for the Macedonians. These philosophers were reputed to be clever and concise in answering questions, and Alexander therefore put difficult questions to them, declaring that he would put to death him who first made an incorrect answer, and then the rest, in an order determined in like manner; and he commanded one of them, the oldest, to be the judge in the contest. The first one, accordingly, being asked which, in his opinion, were more numerous, the living or the dead, said that the living were, since the dead no longer existed. The second, being asked whether the earth or the sea produced larger animals, said the earth did, since the sea was but a part of the earth. The third, being asked what animal was the most cunning, said: “That which up to this time man has not discovered.” The fourth, when asked why he had induced Sabbas to revolt, replied: “Because I wished him either to live nobly or to die nobly.” The fifth, being asked which, in his opinion, was older, day or night, replied: “Day, by one day”; and he added, upon the king expressing amazement, that hard questions must have hard answers. Passing on, then, to the sixth, Alexander asked how a man could be most loved; “If,” said the philosopher, “he is most powerful, and yet does not inspire fear.” Of the three remaining, he who was asked how one might become a god instead of man, replied: “By doing something which a man cannot do”; the one who was asked which was the stronger, life or death, answered: “Life, since it supports so many ills.” And the last, asked how long it were well for a man to live, answered: “Until he does not regard death as better than life.” So, then, turning to the judge, Alexander bade him give his opinion. The judge declared that they had answered one worse than another. “Well, then,” said Alexander, “thou shalt die first for giving such a verdict.” “That cannot be, O King,” said the judge, “unless thou falsely saidst that thou wouldst put to death first him who answered worst.” These philosophers, then, he dismissed with gifts…

Isn’t this fascinating? It also proves nothing about śramaṇas being Buddhist at that time.

This is getting too long and my thoughts are scattered, time to put the subject to rest for a while.

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