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Buddhism, Ethnicity and Identity: A Problem of Buddhist History. Professor Gananath Obeyesekere. Introduction: an Unscholarly Pre-statement. I this paper I . Buddhism, Nationhood and Cultural Identity: The Premodern and Pre-Colonial Formations. Lecture delivered by. Gananath Obeyesekere at the. Medusa's Hair: An Essay on Personal Symbols and Religious Experience. Gananath Obeyesekere. Roger Joseph. California State University, Fullerton.
The Presocratic Greek material was especially difficult for me owing to its fragmentary nature, and this difficulty was compounded by the fact that classical scholars sometimes address their own circles with little serious comparative or theoretical thinking. The task was rendered even more difficult because two writers, H. Long and M. Peris, who dealt with this topic explicitly, did not always render the Greek into English. In this scheme Plato is a key figure, the epitome of the Western speculative philosopher, whose thinking has come down through the Neoplatonists into later Christian theology.
Yet Europe as we now understand it scarcely existed in Plato's time or in the time of the Pythagoreans that are the foci of my study. Although European thinkers see the Greeks as their intellectual forebears, the Greeks themselves looked toward the East for the sources of true wisdom—to Egypt, Persia, and, during the early centuries of the common era, India.
Thus tradition has it that early Greek thinkers traveled East in their quest for knowledge. Pythagoras, for example, is said to have wandered into Egypt and later to have sat at the feet of Zoroaster. These traditions might not be based on fact, but they do illustrate the reality that Greeks saw the East as the source of knowledge, in much the same way that modern Europeans relate to the ancient Greeks.
This should not surprise those of us who believe that the ancient world, not just Eurasia, was an open one. Along trade and caravan routes and in military campaigns ideas traveled vast distances, borne by merchants, soldiers, early voyagers in flimsy ships, and itinerant religious specialists and wanderers. Recent studies by scholars such as M. West, W. Burkert, and P. Kingsley have shown that the idea of Greeks looking to the East is not pure fantasy and that they were influenced by a multitude of ideas stemming from those regions.
Kingsley's work, which I read only after this book was nearly completed, is especially interesting because he shows that Pythagoreanism, and this includes Plato's cosmology, was directly influenced by West Asian and Near Eastern thought and ritual structures and that forms of Pythagoreanism filtered into later hermeticism and alchemy in Europe.
Nevertheless, I think that Kingsley's own work, contrary to his avowed intention, generates a more or less uniform stream of Pythagoreanism instead of multiple life-forms exhibiting epistemic breaks and differences beneath family resemblances. Although classical scholars do recognize the importance of rebirth doctrines among the Presocratics such as Pythagoras and Empedocles, they rarely do for Plato.
But to me Plato's thinking must be seen not in terms of a then-nonexistent European tradition but of existing thinkers in the then-known philosophic world, not just in the Greek world but the known contemporary world of which Greece was a part.
In this work I am not primarily interested in the classicists' version of Plato as a philosopher or as a political and ethical thinker. I am concerned rather with Plato as a rebirth theorist and soteriologist who had a spiritual affinity with those of the Indian subcontinent, especially the Buddha.
Those who have read the dialogues of the Buddha must surely be aware of their stylistic resemblance to Plato's dialogues, even though the Buddha was not interested in secular polity as Plato was. One does not have to posit actual contact between early Greece and India, although this was both possible and likely.
Methodologically, however, given the mode of analysis employed in this book, one has only to recognize that Plato and the Buddha made sense in respect to their times and, given the power of their thought, affected human thought in general. Adopting this perspective I began to see Plato's rebirth eschatology as central to his cosmology and soteriology, not external or peripheral to it.
The overwhelming majority of classical scholars, however, tend to treat Plato's rebirth theories as an allegorizing tendency or to simply ignore them.
Yet it is interesting to note that Plato's disciple Plotinus treated his master's rebirth theories as literally true and imputes to Plato that same belief. Therefore I am in rather distinguished company in thinking that Plato himself probably believed in the truth of rebirth!
However, I should not have been surprised that scholars have more or less ignored this aspect of Plato's thought because such myopia characterizes the work of ethnographers who have barely noticed rebirth eschatologies among the many groups they studied in the last century. So it is with Plotinus: most contemporary scholars who have written on Plotinus recently barely refer to his reincarnation theory, even though they agree that both Plotinus and his fellow Neoplatonists personally believed in it.
Lloyd Gerson puts the matter somewhat equivocally: "I have argued that decline from a discarnate state has no meaning for Plotinus. This is not to say, however, that reincarnation is an essential part of his eschatology. Nevertheless, the evidence strongly suggests that Plotinus did in fact believe in reincarnation. Even more surprising is that the same lacuna exists in contemporary ethnographic accounts of Bali. I, as a native Buddhist, can go to Bali and find no difficulty whatever in carrying on a serious conversation about rebirth in English with educated Balinese, but little information on Balinese rebirth is available in the ethnographic literature by Western scholars.
As I show in this book, this is because ethnographers are often not attuned to seeing and responding to views that are thoroughly alien to their own traditions. Indeed, Buddhists and Hindus find it difficult to converse on such matters with European intellectuals unfamiliar with the subcontinent. For example, for a human being to be reborn as a monkey or a bird or even as an insect or worm is something flagrantly outrageous or funny.
Hence Walter Burkert could say that for the Greeks the doctrine of reincarnation is in essence "not theologia but anthropology, fantastic and yet recalling alleged experiences and predicting future ones. Hence the cynical comment of Marcel Detienne: "the Greeks aren't like the others. Reincarnation beliefs not only enlink the Greeks in a larger chain of being but they were also not "fantastic" for those Greeks who believed in their reality.
Hence, like Plotinus, I take seriously Plato's view that hardworking bourgeoisie could be reborn as industrious creatures such as ants and bees. Plato could be as ironic as the Buddha was about such matters, but irony did not exclude commitment to the truth of these beliefs.
The fact that thinkers such as the Buddha and Plato allegorized some myths and deconstructed others did not mean that they did not believe in some and invent new ones, just as present-day deconstructionists do.
In any case looking at Plato through the models constructed in this work might throw a different perspective on that great thinker's soteriology. If, with the Presocratics, I rely heavily on the interpretations of classical scholars writing in English, such is not the case with Plato.
There was no way that I could master the voluminous research and commentaries on Plato's work. I therefore took the bold and perhaps foolish step of reading Plato in my own fashion, giving my own slant to his eschatological and soteriological vision. This orientation further implies that whether one is dealing with Platonic myths or Buddhist ones or those of small-scale societies, the analytical strategy should remain consistent. Even so, much of my presentation of Plato's thought might seem obvious to Greek scholars but not to my primary readership.
Yet Greek scholars ought to recognize, I think, the importance of focusing on the neglected area of Greek rebirth seen within a larger cross-cultural context.
The problem I have with Greek thought is true to a lesser degree with the other rebirth eschatologies I discuss in this work, with the exception of Theravada Buddhism. I can relate to Buddhism both from the inside, as someone socialized in it albeit very imperfectly , and from the outside, as a scholar looking at texts, contexts, and practices.
Once more I have to rely on the work of ethnographers who most certainly will disagree with some of my interpretations. Ethnographic prejudice virtually takes for granted that one cannot understand another culture unless one has done fieldwork in it. I do not buy this argument at all, but I am acutely aware of the shortcomings in my knowledge of these ethnographic areas.
I ask ethnographers to withhold judgment until they have read the book in its totality because I hope that, in hermeneutical fashion, the exploration of one area will circle into another in a back-and-forth fashion. This book is not meant for someone primarily interested in area studies; it must be read as a totality to be properly appreciated.
Breaking down areal barriers also meant breaking down barriers that separate scholarly disciplines and area studies from one another. These barriers, as we all well know, can be jealously guarded.
Areal barriers can be broken only by comparative analyses and theoretical thinking, and comparison is possible only if one moves away from the purely substantive domain to delineating structures, ideal types, or topographical models and their transformations.
It is true that this book deals systematically for the first time with theories of rebirth cross-culturally; but "systematicity" is strictly methodological, geared to structural transformations and not toward a complete or exhaustive description of the world's rebirth eschatologies or, for that matter, of the eschatologies of any particular region or religion. Such exhaustiveness is impossible for several reasons.
First, as mentioned earlier, rebirth theories have been poorly documented. Second, even where they have been well documented, one has to employ some delimiting principles to write a manageable book.
Third, there is no way that any human being could, without spending a lifetime of research, produce an exhaustive study of rebirth in any of the areas that appear in this book.
And some likely rebirth eschatologies, for example that of the Australian "aborigines" or the ancient and present-day religions of Siberia and Inner Asia, hardly appear in this work. My study is substantively incomplete in this sense.
This is true even in respect to Buddhism, the religion I know best. I have focused almost exclusively on Theravada rebirth, ignoring for the most part the many fascinating Mahayana karmic eschatologies. Greek scholars will complain that I have neglected the mystery religions and Orphic tablets. Although these sources do contain references to rebirth, I cannot but heed the cautionary voices that tell me that Orphic mysteries "did not include a 'theory of transmigration' but instead consisted of a journey of the soul to another world from its prison-house in the body.
West, however, has boldly and speculatively done so, and my very brief references to Orphism are based on his work. For example, my discussion of Indic and Greek rebirth focuses on thinkers or systems of thought given to understanding life and the world, existence and the universe, in terms of abstract concepts. I give the unsatisfactory label "conceptualism" borrowed from European medieval philosophy to designate this mode of thinking.
I believe that Theravada Buddhism is ideally suited for this larger purpose, and it fits nicely with the broad stream of "Pythagoreanism" that I delimit, this being the tradition of thought that stems from Pythagoras and the Pythagoreans to Empedocles, Plato, and Plotinus—all driven by "conceptualism. I now want to acquaint the reader very briefly with some stylistic devices I employ.
I begin the book with the old problem of origins of Indic rebirth and karma doctrines. An early American Indologist, W. Whitney, says that the origin of rebirth is "one of the most difficult questions in the religious history of India," and this view is shared by many modern scholars.
To put it differently: the pre-Buddhist and Presocratic data do not permit reasonably accurate reconstructions of the past, only informed guesswork. Perhaps a structural argument might bring to bear on old texts a certain level of methodological and argumentative rigor.
It should not surprise the reader that as my argument proceeds, the issue of origins drops out of the picture and the larger thesis of ethical transformation begins to emerge. I take the reader along with me to a developing argument, not a finished one.
Second, I fully agree with Li that the anthropological idea of culture and this includes Sahlins's notion of structure has a rigidity because, among other things, it has no place for agency.
This is true even of Clifford Geertz's idea of culture because even though he shows webs of significance everywhere, he rarely shows the spider at work!
Obeyesekere , This idea is quite unlike that of Max Weber, for whom culture has to be mediated through the consciousnesses of special agents, such as prophets, magicians, and charismatic leaders, such that understanding cultural genesis and change was less a problem for him than for his Geertzian followers. Indeed, Talcott Parsons, one of Geertz's formative influences at Harvard, claims rightly, I think that Weber implicitly recognized a human drive toward meaning Parsons, xlvii.
Sahlins also inherits the French structuralist bias against agency that ironically might link him with for him the detestable Foucault. Sure, power might constitute a special form of agency for Foucault, but while he brilliantly exposes the discourses of power underlying the emergence and persistence of epistemes in Western thought, he also, at times, reifies power to such an extent that it loses interpretive or explanatory significance.
That "apotheosis of power" is very much in the spirit of Durkheim's apotheosis of society. Yet, unlike Foucault, Durkheim can link society with agency even when he uses such dubious notions as "collective consciousness" that in turn have agential significance in producing "collective representations," an idea that roughly approximates the ethnographic notion of culture.
For me reified Power can be as empty of significance as reified Culture.