As Karen Armstrong points out in the introduction to this concise but admirably comprehensive study, even to write a biography of the Buddha is a very un–Buddhist thing to do. According to the Buddhist teachings, no authority should be revered, no matter how august; Buddhists are expected to motivate themselves and rely on their own efforts, not on a charismatic leader. Nor does Buddhism have much truck with what we might call the cult of the personality, teaching rather that our concept of ‘personality’ is essentially illusory.
Matters are complicated further by the fact that there is so little documentary evidence about the Buddha’s life. While most scholars accept that Siddhatta Gotama, the Buddha, was born towards the end of the sixth century BCE in northern India, there is no Buddhist equivalent of the Christian Gospels of Matthew, Mark, Luke or John. His teachings were passed down orally, in a manner that precluded individual authorship. The first Pali texts about Buddhist philosophy were not composed until some three hundred years after his death, and the first biographies of his life did not emerge until some five hundred years later. Even these tended to be sketchy. The details of the Buddha’s life were considered important only in so far as they served to illustrate his teachings. Thus there are accounts — often fancifully embroidered — about his birth, his renunciation of normal life, his enlightenment and his death, but next to nothing is known about his childhood or the forty–five years of his mission on becoming enlightened. The Buddha emerged, Armstrong writes, from a culture suffering a spiritual crisis, an age of war, conflict and social turbulence, and a declining belief in the efficacy of the old gods.
This sense of existential uncertainty was dawning in other regions of the civilised world. What scholars now call the ‘ Axial Age’, dating roughly between 800 and 200 BC, saw the emergence of Confucius and Lao Tzu in China, Zoroaster in Persia, and Socrates and Plato in Greece. It was