Please note that I while I cite a few figures below, I am in no way suggesting that these figures singlehandedly 'cause' any effects. I cite them because they were significant voices in the circulation of Buddhist knowledge of the time. While some of their views may be questionable, I am not demonizing them or attributing their views to their 'innate' personality or anything like that. These figures, like you and I, are products of their place and time; their views are influenced by wider historical effects. The discourses they produced may in turn interweave with these effects...
Much of the following is from Donald Lopez's Buddhism and Science
, particularly the chapter 'Buddhism and the science of race'.
To pick up on my previous post. By the mid nineteenth century, the word Aryan (rearticulated by Western knowledge) had taken on racial connotations and had made its way back to South Asia. So for example, the inhabitants of the colony of Ceylon, the Sinhalese and Tamils, were categorised as Aryans and Dravidian respectively. Such a view was adopted by the great Ceylonese Buddhist reformer Anagarika Dharmapala, who proudly declared in 1902 that the Sinhalese were the true Aryans because they descended from an Aryan prince. He also claimed that the Tamil Hindus and the Muslim inhabitants of Ceylon were not true Sinhalese because they were not Aryan in language, race, and religion. (Without pointing a finger at Dharmapala as the 'cause', I wonder if the effects of this distinction between the Sinhalese and the Tamils as the rightful inhabitants of the island still reverberate through the ethnic conflicts in Sri Lankan society today, conflicts which to my understanding are sometimes supported by 'Buddhist' politicians
It should be noted that Dharmapala's attempt to reform Buddhism was associated with his attempt to resist colonial hegemony and to restore national pride. One way of doing this was to turn the notion of 'Aryan' (produced in Europe) against the West. For example, in 1855 the renowned Max Muller had declared that no authority could 'convince the English soldier that the same blood was running in his veins, as in the veins of the dark Bengalese. And yet there is not an English Jury nowadays which, after examining the hoary documents of language, would reject the claim of a common descent and legitimate relationship between Hindu, Greek, and Teuton.' But being a colonial subject, Dharmapala was not interested in sharing this brotherhood. In 1924, he said:
The British people take pride in calling themselves Aryans. There is a spiritualized Aryanism and an anthropological Aryanism. The Brahmans by enunciating a system of Griha Sutras called those people only Aryans who lived in the territory known as Bharatvarsha [ancient Sanskrit name for India]. Those who did not conform to the sacred laws were treated as Mlechas [barbarians].
Buddhism is a spiritualized Aryanism. The ethics of the Bible are opposed to the sublime principles of the Aryan Doctrine promulgated by the Aryan teacher. We condemn Christianity as a system utterly unsuited to the gentle spirit of the Aryan race.
What Dharmpala is implying is that the British are not Aryan because they are not native to the soil of India. They are also not Aryan because their religious background is contrary to the ennobling teachings of the Buddha. It is understandable why Dharmapala would react in this manner. After all, such comments by Europeans about the Sinhalese were not uncommon at the time: 'in intellectual acquirements, and proficiency in arts and sciences, they are not advanced beyond the darkest period of the middle ages. Their character, I believe, on the whole, is low, tame and undecided: with few strong lights or shades in it, with few prominent virtues of vices.'
This reflects what I've said previously about the condescending attitudes shown by Europeans towards South Asians during colonialism. Such an arrogant attitude can also be detected in Max Muller's views about Buddhism. Apparently, Henry Olcott had visited Max Muller and saw a statue of the Buddha sitting on the hearth. Olcott suggested in a letter to Muller that he place the statue elsewhere because 'the Buddhists are very sensitive about such things, and a painful impression would be made upon the mind of any sincere person of that faith, if he should call at your house and see them in your fireplace.' Muller apparently replied that for the Greeks the hearth was a sacred spot, and hence the statue which was taken from the great Temple of Rangoon ought to be placed there.One wonders if the statue had simply been 'taken' from the great Temple in Rangoon (possibly Shwedagon) or pillaged during one of the Anglo-Burmese Wars.
In any case this is what Lopez writes about Muller's attitude:
My point in highlighting these examples is not to accuse anyone as such, but simply to point to the need to be aware of how the notion of Aryanism has been deployed in relation to Buddhism and whether this way of talking about Buddhism has generated kusala or akusala effects. More importantly, I suppose, is to reflect on whether these effects are still reverberating through contemporary times and whether we are unwittingly adding to these reverberations or not.
For Muller, the Buddha, removed from Asia and transported to England, is not Asian and therefore need not be bounded by Asian custom. The Buddha is a figure of European culture, like a Greek god; and as the newest member of this ancient pantheon from which Western civilization emerged, he should be worshipped accordingly.
To conclude with one last example of how such effects can sometimes exceed even good intentions, consider the following excerpt of a letter by the renowned Buddhist reformer from China, Taixu:
Kuling, 11 August 1937
To the Leader of the German People,
Mr Adolf Hitler
The scientific civilization of our time is borne by the Aryan race, but the religious culture of the past has its culmination in Buddhism, whose founder, Buddha Shakyamuni, was also of Aryan origin.
[Taixu goes on to highlight certain Buddhist virtues]
I believe that the Germanic people, now united under the Fuhrer, have wondrously developed three characteristics: knowledge, conformity, and courage. Thus only Buddhist religion, in which these three characteristics are primary virtues, can be the religion of the Germanic people. And only that most excellent scion of ancient Aryan stock, Shakyamuni, the Holy, can be the religious people of the Germanic people, that most excellent scion of ancient Aryan stock.
[NOTE: Judging from the date of the letter, it is likely that Taixu was not yet aware of the full political implications of the Third Reich. Moreover, it is very likely that this letter was prompted by the crisis facing China at the time: namely, the invasion by Japan on 7 July 1937.]