What if one of the philosophers who travelled to India with Alexander the Great had encountered Buddhism, become a monastic practitioner and then returned to Greece, where he taught Buddhism but was remembered only as a Greek philosopher? Greek Buddha argues that this is exactly what happened in the case of Pyrrho. Even more radically, it suggests that this offers dramatic new evidence of the true character of Early Buddhism. But do its claims stack up?

This is a highly ambitious book on the Greek philosopher Pyrrho and his relationship to Early Buddhism, and more significantly on Early Buddhism itself. But it is also very problematic. I would encourage anyone interested in the elusive question of the nature of the historical Buddha’s teaching, and the early connections of Buddhism to the western world to read this book. But it is far from proving its bold claims, which include fundamental reinterpretations of not only of Buddhism and Pyrrho, but also of Jainism, Taoism and Hinduism. In most cases Beckwith draws on prior scholarship, but he frequently draws novel and sometimes quite unwarranted conclusions.

Lets start with Buddhism. Beckwith’s approach is to reject information about Buddhism in the first centuries after the Buddha that does not come from dateable sources. That means discarding the Discourses (i.e. the Pali Canon and the Agamas), which have long been used as the main source. For Beckwith (and for others like Schopen) this material merely tells us about the ‘Normative Buddhism’ that developed only several centuries after the Buddha’s lifetime (I assume the name references the distinction between Biblical and Talmudic Normative Judaism in a roughly equivalent period).

This means that Beckwith largely sets aside the putative conclusions of the higher criticism that aims to distinguish, from internal textual evidence, earlier from later strata. He also rejects the approach (followed by Gombrich, for example) of pegging Buddhist material by showing its relationship to Brahmanical sources such as the Upanishads because he argues that these actually postdate Buddhism by several centuries. That’s a radical revision of Indian history, but it follows the argument Johannes Bronkhorst’s ‘Greater Magadha’ (while profoundly differing from Bronkhorst’s conclusions about Buddhism). Beckwith also argues that Jainism postdates Buddhism – which is a novelty, so far as I am aware.

The portrait of Early Buddhism he paints is one that focuses on attaining a state of balance in this life, with no reference to rebirth or a state of Buddhahood that takes an individual beyond ‘samsara’. We have wandering forest renunciates rather than bhikkhus (this much is well-founded) and urban-based renunciates, who seek to live in accordance with the nature of existence described in the Trilakshana through ethical exertion, endurance and meditative practices. All the rest is the province of Normative Buddhism and therefore invalid.

The only sources on which we can rely in forming such a picture, Beckwith suggests, are the archaeological and epigraphic evidence that has been highlighted by Schopen and other scholars, and dateable Greek sources. In particular this means Pyrrho, who travelled to Gandhara with Alexander the Great and became a renowned philosopher in his own right on his return to Greece; and Megasthenes, a Greek ambassador to Candragupta’s court some decades after Alexander, who left descriptions of Indian culture and customs.

Archaeological evidence doesn’t play a large role in Beckwith’s argument – its main contribution is to show that the cities where the Buddha is said to have lived only developed much later, if at all. This means that we can’t take the Nikayas’ accounts of him in large cities such as Varanasi, Rajagriha and Shravasti at face value. We need more archaeology and better accounts of it, but it’s true that this conclusively shows the need to treat the Nikayas with caution. They also show that Buddhist monasteries also only developed around the turn of the millennium, much later than the Vinaya claims. The chief epigraphic evidence is the ‘Ashokan’ inscriptions, and here, too, Beckwith offers a radical reinterpretation.

Beckwith’s reconstruction of Early Buddhism therefore relies heavily on Pyrrho, who is claimed as a Buddhist himself, and Megasthenes. The picture that emerges is clear, vivid and in some ways compelling, but the nature of Beckwith’s textual sources means that it can hardly be authoritative. Megasthenes’ texts have survived as quotations in the works of Strabo. But Beckwith himself argues that they have been corrupted or misinterpreted in Strabo to some extent. Pyrrho, meanwhile, wrote nothing and, like Socrates, we know of his thought through the accounts of his pupil, Timon; and Timon’s works survive in quotations and fragments in various sources.

I was not previously familiar with this material, but from what I can see, Beckwith makes a strong case that Pyrrho’s thought mirrors Buddhist teachings, especially in his account of the nature of existence, which in Beckwith’s account parallels the trilakshana; and the appropriate response – the cultivation of dispassion, equanimity and the abandonment of views. However, this is hardly sufficient to define our understanding of Early Buddhism, and if elaborate textual criticism is permitted in these sources it is hard to see why it is not permissible for Buddhist canonical texts.

Finding a Buddhist sramana at the heart of Greek philosophy is a considerable coup (if it withstands scrutiny) and it would have been enough for a whole book. It also allows Beckwith to suggest that a Buddhist influence has been at work in later philosophy through the influence of Pyronnhism, which was especially important for David Hume. However, it is surely going too far to reverse the direction of the argument, and claim this reconstruction of Pyrrho as decisive evidence of the nature of Early Buddhism.

Megasthenes is a more familiar source for Indian historians, and his account of the behaviour of the sramanas – who Beckwith identifies as being exclusively Buddhist practitioners – really does deserve closer attention. Megasthenes’ testimony suggests the importance of practice in the wilderness in the early Buddhist tradition and the distinct role of town-based sramanas. It gives a few, sparse indications of their beliefs. But, once again, the nature of the text makes it unreliable; and even if we have the author’s exact words we can’t be sure that he reported accurately on Early Buddhist practice or understood what he saw. In fact, some elements of Megasthenes’ account would seem to contradict the rationalist tenor of Beckwith’s Early Buddhism. The forest dwelling sramanas, he tells us, ‘worship the divine’. That seems to indicate a devotional element and perhaps a focus on something beyond ordinary existence; and the town-dwelling sramanas he mentions offer teachings on karma and rebirth to the laity. Beckwith skips over this evidence, even though it marries with elements in the Buddhist canon and what we know of pre-modern societies in general.

Having limited the valid evidence so drastically, Beckwith summarily proposes entirely new interpretations of almost everything he touches: only some of the Ashokan pillars are genuine; Lao Tzu is actually Gautama; the Buddha was a Scythian – you get the picture. The irony in Beckwith’s approach is that he wishes to advocate Pyrrhonian scepticism and rejection of dogma, but is in fact arrogant and dogmatic in his definitive insistence on his conclusions. The version of Buddhism he proposes uncannily mirrors his own character as a Humean sceptic and an authority on early Central Asia.

I commend Beckwith for the clarity of his prose and his arguments. These are considerable gifts when allied to his breadth of learning. But we need accounts of this history that marries such virtues with a deeper presentation of the archaeological evidence and makes an effort to integrate that with higher textual criticism. Above all, we need to approach this material with a sympathetic interest in what Buddhists themselves believed and practiced, albeit in later times. That might allow scholars to follow up his many provocations and draw conclusions in which we could have a little more confidence.