Voltaire was the first in the West to see Buddha as a historic figure

(written by lawrence krubner, however indented passages are often quotes). You can contact lawrence at: lawrence@krubner.com


Voltaire’s assent here to the theology of the crucifixion would seem at odds with his often rude remarks about Christianity. However, what is perhaps of greater interest is Voltaire’s prescience in his comments about the Buddha. It would not be until well into the nineteenth century that European scholars, all sons of the Enlightenment, sought to turn the founders of religions from gods into men, to separate their precepts from church doctrine. For Jesus and the Buddha, this transformation entailed not debasement but exaltation. One thinks immediately of David Strauss’ Das Leben Jesu (1835), Eugène Burnouf’s Introduction à l’histoire du Buddhisme indien (1844), and Hermann Oldenberg’s Buddha: Sein Leben, seine Lehre, seine Gemeinde (1881). Over the course of the nineteenth century, the European portrayal of Buddhism underwent a profound metamorphosis: from a form of idolatry practiced by pagans, to a religion, and a world religion, finally to something beyond the category of religion. Today, scholars of Buddhism are often asked: Is Buddhism a religion, a philosophy, or a way of life? Such a question is impossible without the work of disciples of a different Enlightenment, who believed that the founder could somehow be separated from the faith.