The earlier book by this Buddhist monk-turned author, Buddhism without Beliefs, published in 1997, aroused with significant controversy, with critics accusing the author of having put forth arguments that could undermine the theological aspects of Buddhism. This new work is equally likely to raise eyebrows. The ‘confession’ part refers to Batchelor’s years at the Buddhist monasteries of India and Europe, and his discomfort over the emphasis on ritualistic rote learning and metaphysical practices.
Here, Batchelor demonstrates tremendous gratitude towards his Buddhist tutors, but also cites their “irrational” belief system as a reason for his subsequent attraction to Korean Zen practices. Eventually, after a decade and a half of spiritual adventure, Batchelor disrobed, became a layman and started to write about Buddhist teachings, mostly from a secular perspective.
Many will cherish Confession of a Buddhist Atheist specifically for this secular treatment of Buddhist teachings, minus the ritual and supernatural imagery. What emerges is a historical Buddha more human than divine, but equally fascinating and with an everlasting powerful message. Even after writing this book, Batchelor seems confident about his commitment to the teachings of the Buddha.
Though largely a scholarly effort, the book does stray from this path in two areas. First, the author erroneously puts Kapilvastu, the principality where the young Prince Siddhartha Gautam grew up, in the town of Piprahwa in modern-day Uttar Pradesh, rather than in the middle plains of what is today Nepal in Tilaurakot – as has been widely agreed upon, though there is some controversy about this. Perhaps to avoid just this debate, Batchelor deliberately omits the marker for Lumbini – the Buddha’s undisputed birthplace in modern-day Nepal – on his map of northern India in ancient times. He could have at least inserted a footnote about the Kapilvastu controversy, as one of Batchelor’s emphases is the geographical background of the Buddha’s journeys. The author travelled across numerous places of importance in Buddhism in the course of writing the book, to capture a sense of place, time and culture.
Before the second scholarly failing is explained, a brief background of Siddhartha Gautam’s life, and Batchelor’s treatment of these, is necessary. The author does a fine job in presenting events, characters and the royal politics of the time to provide a sense of the young prince’s troubled surroundings. We learn that Siddhartha was a skilled mediator, settling disputes both small and big. We also learn that he was quite resourceful, befriending rich merchants, noblemen and kings during the peak years of his teachings, thus raising funds to establish well-endowed monasteries across the northern stretch of the continent Subcontinent.
Clearly the Sakyamuni was giving something ‘new’ to the masses, both poor and the rich. But where did he get such an education, and his obvious powers of persuasion? What inspired him to seek this ‘noble path’? Batchelor presents some speculative possibilities well beyond the historical lore about young Siddhartha’s encounters with the poor, the dead, the elderly and the monkhood. Batchelor speculates that the talented Siddhartha may have received his education at Taxila University, 800 miles west of Kapilvastu on the border of the Persian Empire in modern Punjab. Referring to the Pali Canon, a collection of writings of the Theravada tradition written in the first century BC, Batchelor says that Siddhartha’s friends in noble circles all received their education at Taxila – though the author also admits that the Pali Canon does not say much about Siddhartha’s own travels thither.
Batchelor utilises this conjecture to suggest that the Buddha’s doctrine of dharma might have been a direct result of his experience in the “open-minded” environment of Taxila. He could have incorporated some Greek ideas and secular philosophies into his teachings. Batchelor does not provide much evidence on this point, other than to note that the Buddha was a contemporary of Greek philosophers such as Socrates, and may have been exposed to Greek philosophy at Taxila. This is tenuous at best. Whether or not the young Siddhartha honed his thought processes at Taxila, his teachings would more likely have been influenced by Indian spiritual texts such as the Bhagavad Gita. Batchelor, however, makes no effort even to raise such possibilities, ignoring anything that is even remotely related to the indigenous heritage of the Subcontinent, its Vedanta roots and practices of the time.
It is in light of this gap that Batchelor is accused of cherry-picking his arguments. For example, the author talks about the Buddha’s idea of human struggle with the inner demon Mara as having come from the Zoroastrian religion, again basing this on the possibility that Siddhartha was at Taxila. In fact, had Batchelor been more attentive to the Subcontinental milieu of the time, he would have found that the Gita, written several centuries before the Buddha’s lifetime, certainly contains the notion of struggle, of knowledge versus ignorance, good versus evil. In fact, the entire battle of the Mahabharata – contemplated without all the noises, the incredible feats and the mystical power on show – is just that, a struggle between knowledge and ignorance. The Buddha could well have ‘cherry-picked’ his tenets as a challenge to ritualistic and socially suppressive Brahmins. The Gita even clearly articulates the three types of personalities in a human being, one of them being the Mara-like lustful dark side, termed tamasi, which it urges believers to acknowledge and subdue, including through meditative practices.
This alternate explanation to the shaping of the Buddha’s worldview is equally plausible when one considers that the Siddhartha was well-versed in the Hindu teachings of the time. He would have known that the Gita rejects rituals and temple worship, and values the power of ‘right’ speech, action and thought. The Gita also rejects notions of any higher form charting the human destination, thus emphasising the concept of self-reliance through the act of the karma marga, or path of action. Minus the Krishna godhead, the Gita provides quite a secular middle-of-the-road spiritual philosophy, with an emphasis on non-violence.
Siddhartha Gautam had plenty of material to guide his evolving philosophy right there at home in the Indo-Gangetic plain. One could say he refined what he learnt, making it practical and meticulously methodical, with an emphasis on self-experience without any mystical grandeur and prescriptive social hierarchy. The fact that Batchelor completely ignores the possibility that the Vedic doctrines could have had any influence on the Buddha’s thought process can perhaps be related to a certain Eurocentric attitude on the part of the author.
Scholar vs entertainer
One thing that is abundantly clear in Confessions is the extent to which Batchelor is disenchanted with the ritualistic aspect of Buddhism, the Indian gurus and the spiritual philosophers on the pedestal. The reader senses this even when he talks about powerful personalities such as J Krishnamurthy and the Dalai Lama, and it is this aspect that seems to have left critics particularly upset. Batchelor defends himself by arguing that the various strands of Buddhism have evolved by choosing and adapting to local conditions and traditions, citing Buddhist practice in places such as Tibet, mainland China, Japan, Korea and Thailand. This argument comes back to haunt him later, however, for though Batchelor believes the local context to be important today, he does not acknowledge that the Buddha might have developed his philosophy not only by challenging but by revamping and refining Brahminical traditions. In this way, there are times when the author appears to be trying too hard to create an unadulterated version of the Buddha, to fit his self-confessed anti-theist sensibility.
The most tantalising aspect of the work, however, deals with the circumstance of the Buddha’s death. By analysing various inter- and intra-clan rivalries and royal conspiracies, Batchelor masterfully creates a sense of the troubled times in which Siddhartha Gautam lived. In some instances, he speaks about the less-than-ideal political relationships between Siddhartha and some of the kings and the noblemen, especially towards the end of his life. The author also goes into the power struggle within the Buddhist sangha (order) itself, and looks at the rivalry with the Jain religion, which competed with the Middle Way of the Buddha’s teachings. It is thus that the author speculates that the poisoned pork meat served at the house of a poor blacksmith could have been a part of a grand design to finish off Buddhism itself. The author argues that by taking the meat and discarding the rest, the Buddha may have saved the life of Ananda – purportedly the intended target since he functioned as a memory repository of what became Buddhism – thus paving the way for his own teachings to survive and prosper after his death.
Overall, this work will feed into the growing Western appetite for Buddhism-related writings, while providing something different from the regular spiritual line. Given the conspiracy story about the Buddha’s death that is presented, Confessions even has all the elements of a gripping movie script – and, indeed, an eight-part documentary is currently in the works. From a scholarly point of view, the authenticity of such incredible claims should have come with equally credible evidence. This is where Batchelor slips as a Buddhist scholar, and begins to look more like an aspiring screenwriter.
~ Alok K Bohara is a professor at the University of New Mexico.