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The Gospel of the Buddha According to Voltaire


One of the pillars of enlightenment thought dedicated an entire entry to the figure of Gautama.

Between the 16th and 18th centuries, the Jesuit order carried the Christian Gospel to every corner of the planet. At least, that was the intention of missionaries like St. Francis Xavier, who traveled to Japan. Throughout the entire colonialist episode in the Americas, the role of the Jesuits was to advocate for improved treatment of the continent’s indigenous peoples. Often the Jesuits could be construed as the first sociologists or anthropologists, in the sense that, to fulfill their evangelizing mission, they had to understand not only the languages but also the customs of the places they visited. Their documentation often provides the first Western account of the religions of China, Japan and South Asia.

At the time, the world was divided into Christians, Jews, Muslims, and Idolaters. Buddhists of all Asian countries fit into this final category. Though the missionaries didn’t realize at the time, many of the religions described in their letters were actually part of the way of life established by Siddhartha Gautama, and each region observed its own version of Buddhism. These were not regulated by a central institution (like the Vatican), giving order to the doctrine. Each village and each region had its own idiosyncrasies in how to carry out religious practice, daily life and artistic representation. One had to be a highly experienced traveler (or a tremendous reader) to discover the associations amongst them.

An illustration of Valtaire sitting at a desk writing, with angels above him

In addition to Diderot and d’Alembert’s famous Encyclopaedia, the Enlightenment included many ambitious works of human knowledge. One of these, published in 1764 by Voltaire, was titled the Philosophical Dictionary. In speaking of philosophy though, Voltaire also spoke of politics: he criticized all forms of organized religion, including the Catholic Church, Islam, and Judaism. And although Voltaire also criticized Buddhism (although the term was not coined until the 19th century), in his dictionary he dedicated a few words of consideration to the Buddha. Voltaire refers to him by one of his many epithets, “Sammonocodom” referring to the mendicant aspect of Gautama.
In his entry on the Buddha, Voltaire associates the birth of Sammonocodom with that of Jesus and other deities miraculously conceived by virgins. But Voltaire’s interest is in differentiating man from myth. In mentioning that “the religion of the Siamese proves to us that never did a lawmaker teach bad morals,” he associates the Buddha’s precepts to his disciples with those of Saint Benedict.

A recounting of the laws, passed through a sieve of exaggeration, is also offered in Voltaire’s Dictionary. The list of the Buddha’s directives includes:

The avoid[ance of] songs, dances, assemblies, everything that might soften the soul. Do not have gold or silver. Speak only of justice and work only for justice. Sleep little, eat little, and keep only one robe. Never mock and meditate in private, and reflect often on the fragility of human affairs.

One of the most interesting stories told by Voltaire in his entry about Sammonocodom is an account from the French Jesuit, Guy Tachard, who witnessed a curious attempt by the Thais at not adopting the Catholic religion: in the Thai version of Buddhism, Gautama has an evil cousin named Devadatta. He’s a corrupt monk who tries to kill his master several times. As a result, Devadatta is devoured by the earth and then enters into one of the worst hells, where he’s impaled by three iron spears. One runs from head to toe, another across the chest and a final iron spear impales him through the shoulders. The court of Siam, seeing the crucifixes of the Jesuit missionaries, believed them to be worshippers of  Devadatta, and when the monks explained the meaning of the cross, the Thais believed this Christian God must have been rather weak to submit to such brutal human torture.

Voltaire’s account is interesting and abounds in theological questions over this confusion. Ultimately, he builds a history of religions that’s attractive for recounting the teachings of a master or an initiate, but which subsequently repels reasonable people in its doctrines or in the Manichaenism of its disciples. Voltaire, in his own offhand way suggested that one could understand “Siamese relision” thus:  “They shake the yoke, since it had been put on badly; they no longer believe in God, because they see well that Sammonocodom is not God.”


*Images: 1) Pixabay – Creative Commons; 2) Voltaire Philosophy of Newton frontispiece, Public Domain

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