The Opposite of Buddhism §8

The Genocide Issue

“Liquidation of Empire” is stamped over the postage-stamp.

[Reminder: this lecture was written for a Cambodian audience, and intended for translation into Cambodian.]


For the sake of brevity, I am only going to discuss one proponent of Aryan race theory amongst the Theravada interpreters, the pivotal figure of Mr. T.W. Rhys-Davids, the founder of the Pali Text Society, with some comparative reference to his colleague Max Müller.

Today, Müller is both more famous and more infamous than T.W. Rhys-Davids; while Müller didn't invent the Aryan race theory1 he re-defined and promoted it in such a way that he is held responsible for it in innumerable mainstream newspaper articles (especially from Hindu nationalists) and also in the views of some specialists. Putting his name into Google will reveal thousands of attacks on the memory of Max Müller; in looking around for an example from the respectable middle-of-the-road, I found an academic conference (in Toronto, Canada, in 2006) that opened with a keynote speech entitled, “… Max Müller and his Imperialist Fictions”.2 This seems to be the middle of the spectrum of public opinion at the moment, and it extends out to extremes far beyond.

Max Müller's public profile is not my subject here: I mention it in contrast to Mr. Rhys-Davids. The two men published work together (Müller was the masthead editor for several of Rhys-Davids' publications) and each cited the other's findings with approval. Rhys-Davids' sevenfold classification of the Aryan race (T.W. Rhys Davids, 1881a, p. 163 et seq.) has only minor differences in wording from the (un-numbered list) of Aryan languages generally named by Max Müller, but the greater prominence of “race” in Rhys-Davids' writing (as opposed to language-family terminology in Müller) may be a significant change in nuance. The two authors had many differences, but one of the things they clearly had in common was their promotion of the Aryan race theory, and their use of it to flatter the British Empire.

In the current generation, it seems very difficult for Englishmen to sit silently through the mention of England's Aryan race theory without interrupting to assert that this was not quite the same as the German theory that warranted the deaths of millions of people. Obviously, a large part of the British ego is attached to their sense of moral superiority over the German Nazis; however, this should not distract us from stating clearly what the British version of the theory really was; we must be equally blunt about the fact that the English theory was used, likewise, to justify the murder of millions of people, including acts of genocide, throughout the British empire.

For the most concise encapsulation of both what the theory was and why it was so important to the English, I would quote directly from British Parliament (in fact, this is from the voice one of the most powerful statesmen of his century, Stanley Baldwin, who served several times as Prime Minister):

"Far away in time, in the dawn of history, the greatest race of the many races then emerging from prehistoric mists was the great Aryan race. When that race left the country which it occupied in the western part of Central Asia, one great branch moved west, and in the course of their wanderings they founded the cities of Athens and Sparta; they founded Rome; they made Europe, and in the veins of the principal nations of Europe flows the blood of their Aryan forefathers. The speech of the Aryans which they brought with them has spread through out Europe. […] At the same time, one branch went south, and they crossed the Himalayas. They went into the Punjab and they spread through India, and, as an historic fact, ages ago, there stood side by side in their ancestral land the ancestors of the English people and the ancestors of the Rajputs and of the Brahmins. And now, after aeons have passed, the children of the remotest generations from that ancestry have been brought together by the inscrutable decree of Providence to set themselves to solve the most difficult, the most complicated political problem that has ever been set to any people of the world [i.e., the British struggle to govern India!]."3

I selected that quote because it shows both the emphasis and the purpose of England's version of the Aryan race theory in official discourse: while the theory certainly was anti-Semitic, its primary purpose was not anti-Semitism. It offered a justification for the British Empire by linking the racial identity of the ruling elite in England to the Brahmins and other elites in India. It also blatantly appealed to “providence” (meaning the will of the Christian God) to explain how or why the English had ended up conquering India --or why they should continue to do so when their rule was challenged.

This justification was not merely for use within England, but was also taught to their conquered peoples; although some Brahmins in India appropriated the notion, and began to describe themselves as sharing common ethnic origins with the English,4 this remained a foreign innovation --ostensibly derived from the interpretation of Indian sources, but very much created by Europeans (and for Europeans).

While the Aryan race theory was racist (and “white supremacist”) it also created a sort of loophole: scholars like Müller and Rhys-Davids could openly argue that Indian culture deserved a special place within British universities and (perhaps subversively) they could argue against the Christian missionaries that religions like Buddhism and Hinduism should not be eradicated by the empire, but could be allowed to exist (as an “Aryan faith”, see below). To be clear, this did not justify the study of Buddhism because it was important to millions of Buddhists, nor even because it was important to understanding Asia's history and culture in its own terms; on the contrary, in the writing of Mr. Rhys-Davids, Buddhism was made to seem important because of its (so-called) Aryan roots. This associated the origins of Buddhism with the English “race” while, at the same time, disassociating it from millions of people who had actually practiced and preserved the religion (but who were certainly not Aryan). In addressing a “white” audience, he says:

"…Gotama [i.e., the historical Buddha] was the only man of our own race, the only Aryan, who can rank as the founder of a great religion. … Buddhism is the one essentially Aryan faith." (T.W. Rhys-Davids, 1896, p. 185)

On the ludicrous premise of their racial unity with the English, Buddhism was thus valorized as worthy of study, and not merely another heathen religion to be destroyed. Aryan race theory did not grant any similar status to the cultures indigenous to Australia, Canada, Africa, nor the rest of the world that was then in the grip of the British Empire. Although he was never directly anti-Christian, in these comments Rhys-Davids was also inviting a critique of Christianity as a “Semitic” tradition that is insinuated to be inappropriate for “Aryan” peoples, such as the British then pretended to be.5

When we talk about the role of colonialism's influence over Buddhist studies, we're not talking about a literary theme, but a political and bureaucratic reality. Mr. Rhys-Davids was himself an administrator in the British empire before his writing about Buddhism brought him to fame. Max Müller's advice on how to create a “University of the English Empire” was debated in British Parliament,6 and Rhys-Davids was likewise an active presence in British politics,7 partly due to his efforts to secure institutional support for his own area of studies.8 These scholars were active in supporting the British empire, and, reciprocally, they sought support from the empire; Aryan race theory became a major theme in their works because it served both purposes.

My point here is much more simple than a refutation of these ideas (in fact, the theories themselves have largely been discredited by the sheer brutality of those who believed in them); as difficult as these subjects are to discuss in an English-language classroom, how much more difficult are they to convey to a new generation of Cambodians who are looking to these textbooks as definitive statements about Buddhism, and are instead drawn into the quagmire of Aryan race theory? If these problems are not dealt with bluntly in English-language scholarship, how do we expect such distinctions to survive translation into Chinese?

[Footnotes for this section:]

1 Sadasivan, 2000, p. 2-3, argues that we can neither blame William Jones nor Max Müller for this as an invention (nor as a coinage). Nevertheless, these two authors do seem to be stuck with the blame for assembling the theory, even if it was put together from pieces already fashioned by others, and even if each man had a different mix of motives and misgivings in the assembly.

2 The full title of the Keynote address was “The White Man's Burden”: Friedrich Max Müller and his Imperialist Fictions, delivered by Kamakshi P. Murti (Professor and Chair of the German Department of Middlebury College, Vermont, U.S.A.) delivered to a conference titled Mapping Channels between Ganges and Rhine: German-Indian Cross-Cultural Relations held at the University of Toronto, Canada, May 25-26, 2006.

3 The source is Stanley Baldwin addressing the British House of Commons at 4:00 PM, November 7th, 1929, q.v. the Hansard for HC debates vol. 231 cc1307-8. I made use of the digitized record:

4 “… e.g. Keshab Chandra Sen, leader of the reformist movement Brahmo Samaj (mid-19th century), welcomed the British advent as a reunion with his Aryan cousins: 'In the advent of the English nation in India we see a reunion of parted cousins, the descendants of two different families of the ancient Aryan race'.” Koenraad Elst, n.d., §1.1.1.

5 Complaining about the “Semitic” aspects of Christianity was a fairly common tactic in 19th century Europe. For some authors (like the infamous Bruno Bauer) it was an attempt to valorize the distinctively Greco-Roman aspects of Christian tradition in contrast to what was derivative of Judaism. However, for many others, my impression is that it was simply a “safe” way of criticizing Christianity in a Christian context, i.e., avoiding any doubt about the critic's own credentials as a Christian. Max Müller remained a Christian, and, in recognizing his own religion as an “amalgamation of Semitic and Aryan ideas”, he decided to valorize this amalgam as “…an indestructible arch, supported on one side by the Old Testament and on the other by Greek philosophy…”. Max Müller, 1903, p. 27-30. I surmise that Müller remained somewhat detached and sardonic in constructing these theories; his work contains many moments that resemble self-mockery, showing that he hasn't lost the awareness that he was himself the author of the absurdities he struggled to make sense of: “Could the monotheistic instinct of the Semitic race, if an instinct, have been so frequently obscured, or the polytheistic instinct of the Aryan race, if an instinct, so completely annihilated, as to allow the Jews to worship on all the high places round Jerusalem, and the Greeks and Romans to become believers in Christ? Fishes never fly, and cats never catch frogs. These are the difficulties into which we are led; and they arise simply and solely from our using words for their sound rather than for their meaning. We begin by playing with words, but in the end the words will play with us.” Max Müller, 1862, p. 351.

6 This quotation follows soon after Parliament had broken out in laughter in response to the suggestion that Oxford should have a permanent professor of Chinese (i.e., so absurd did this seem to them in 1876!): “Mr. Max Müller goes on to observe-- 'Such a Staff, though it may seem large, exists in almost every University in France, Germany, and even Russia, the Professor being expected not only to teach and prepare pupils for examination, but to inspire them with a love of special subjects, to carry on the work handed down by former generations, and to increase as much as possible the inherited capital of knowledge by means of original research.' Now, I beg the House to consider this statement. It sounds strange to us, but if other great nations act thus, can it be so very unreasonable? Mr. Max Müller proceeds to say— 'Considering the peculiar duties which England has undertaken to fulfil [sic] in India, a Professorship of the Neo-Sanscritic languages (Bengali, Hindustani, Mahratti, &c.), and of the Dravidian languages (Tamil, Telugu, Canarese, &c.), would likewise seem to be required in the first University of the English Empire.' The non-existence at Oxford of any adequate representation of the various branches of knowledge which are specially Indian, is surely one of the very strangest phenomena observable in Europe.” The source is MP Grant Duff addressing the House of Commons on July 6th, 1876, q.v. Hansard vol. 230 cc1102-3. I made use of the digitized record:

7 The close relationship between Rhys-Davids and the then-Prime Minister of England (who had granted him a legally-dubious pension) were debated aloud in parliament on July 30th, 1894 (q.v. the Hansard for House of Commons Debates, vol. 27 cc1291-9; as noted above, I have relied on a digitized record). Both the style and substance of this debate shows how very well-known Mr. Rhys-Davids was in the corridors of power. Note that the Prime Minister at the time was the newly-appointed Archibald Primrose (i.e., not Gladstone, who had resigned earlier in 1894).

8 Mr. Rhys-Davids' campaigns to inspire government support for Buddhist studies, ending in disappointment and failure, are described in the latter chapters of Wickremeratne, 1984, e.g., p. 171-173 et seq.