The return of the exiles to Jerusalem through the eyes of the Buddha

One of the most profound changes in Indian history was the sudden opening up to the outside world that took place after Darius I’s invasion sometime between 520 and 510 b.c.e. Within a few years, [509-493 b.c.e], Persian government records, the “Persepolis Fortification Archives” tell us of Indians present at court in Persepolis and Susa, and travelling along the government highways that connected India with Mesopotamia, Egypt and Europe. Indians bearing tribute to the Persian king and leading the unique humped Brahmi cattle are carved in relief in the royal palace of Persepolis alongside Jews and other nations of the vast Persian empire. In Herodotus we read of Indian soldiers in the Persian army that looted and burnt Athens in 480 b.c.e, and were forced out of Greece the following year.

Jerusalem through Buddha's eyes

At the other end of the “royal roads” there’s a tantalising reference in the commentary on the earliest Buddhist scriptures to “Greek Statues bearing torches” in the assembly hall of the Sakya people located in the Buddha’s hometown, Kapilavastu, following the example of the Persian kings in Persepolis and Susa, where Greek stone statues were also displayed to commemorate the expedition to Greece. At the same time the focus of education in the Buddha’s mid-Ganges valley area seems to have moved west from the older centre at Varanasi to Taxila in Persian territory, where many of the Buddha’s friends, patrons and relatives were educated. A massive change in Indian religious philosophy also took place following Darius’ invasion, with the creation of two of India’s historic faiths, Jainism and Buddhism, and consequent on the compilation of the Upanishads, arguably of Hinduism too. So what, you may ask, has this got to do with the Jews?

Arguably, this was the moment when Jewish religious ideas were experiencing a golden age, stimulated by the bitter experience of defeat and exile to preserve and add to their centuries-old traditions of literature and philosophy, and bequeathing to the world the book which to many of us, Jews and non-Jews alike, contains not only the most inspiring poetry, but the most humane and civilising ideas in the history of humanity, and which stands alone for its influence on the history of mankind. Converts were made and and links forged with the Persian monarchy that led to Jews becoming socially prominent and to the remarkable support given to monotheism by Persian kings from Darius I onwards, and for the return to Jerusalem.

Given the presence of Indians throughout the Persian empire, the controversies generated by the return, the contacts of some of the Buddha’s closest associates with Persia, it is not in the least surprising that news of this event should have come to the Buddha’s attention. The probable lifetime of the Buddha [c480-c400] coincides with the establishment by the Persian government of the province of Yehud and the rebuilding of its capital city, and it is widely believed that the Samyutta Nikaya, the section of the early Buddhist scriptures in which it appears derives from the Buddha’s own teachings. The Buddha preaches many a parable to his followers, and this story comes in the context of an extended explanation of causation in this text, one of the core collections of early Buddhist teachings preserved in the ancient Indian language of Pali. Nonetheless, it is one of the Buddha’s most memorable illustrations of his religious ideas.

“Suppose, bhikkhus [monks], a man wandering through a forest would see an ancient path, an ancient road travelled upon by people in the past. He would follow it and would see an ancient city, an ancient capital that had been inhabited by people in the past, with parks, groves, ponds, and ramparts, a delightful place. Then the man would inform the king or a royal minister: ‘Sire, know that while wandering through the forest I saw an ancient path, an ancient road travelled upon by people in the past. I followed it and saw an ancient city, an ancient capital that had been inhabited by people in the past, with parks, groves, ponds, and ramparts, a delightful place. Renovate that city, sire!’ Then the king or the royal minister would renovate the city, and some time later that city would become successful and prosperous, well populated, filled with people, attained to growth and expansion. So too, bhikkhus, I saw the ancient path, the ancient road travelled by the Perfectly Enlightened Ones of the past.” from Samyutta Nikaya 2.12 tr.Bodhi, p 604.
The Buddha does not explicitly refer to Jerusalem, but what other example can have prompted this image? In the early Buddhist scriptures [the “Pali Canon”], personal visions are explicitly identifiable as such, separate from parable on the one hand, and, commentary on the mundane world on the other. This falls clearly into the latter category, and is too unusual, and contains too much historically-derived data to be wholly disconnected from the world the Buddha knew. Was any abandoned “ancient capital” other than Jerusalem “renovated” at this or any other time before the fifth century b.c.e? Was any other rebuilt at the effective command of the ruler of, as the Buddha implies, a different country? Was any other rebuilt after the petition of an individual to the ruler, as did Nehemiah at around the same time as the Buddha was preaching?
As far as I know, the rebuilding of Jerusalem is the only candidate for a historical reading of the Buddha’s “ancient capital” parable. Was any other city renovated with such a profound involvement by “the king or the royal minister,” in fact by several generations of Persian rulers, rather than, for example, simply reoccupied piecemeal as was Troy VIIb after its destruction? Did any other such city then “become successful and prosperous, well populated, filled with people, attained to growth and expansion.” Why a city to illustrate this? Why not a house rebuilt by its owner? 
Above all, what other example of the renovation of a capital city at the command of the king of another country can explain the religious inferences drawn by the Buddha from this episode, which so closely parallel those of the Torah? Take the idea of an “ancient path,”…
 “So too, bhikkhus, I saw the ancient path, the ancient road travelled by the Perfectly Enlightened Ones of the past.” Samyutta Nikaya 2.12
“Thus said the LORD: Stand by the roads and consider, Inquire about ancient paths: Which is the road to happiness? Travel it, and find tranquillity for yourselves.” Jeremiah 6.16
The Buddha and the Torah also both see this path as leading not only to a restored city, but to individual moral purification sustained by mental awareness…
“And what is that ancient path, that ancient road? It is just this Noble Eightfold Path; that is, right view, right intention, right speech, right action, right livelihood, right effort, right mindfulness, right concentration.” Samyutta Nikaya 2.12
“The highway of the upright avoids evil; He who would preserve his life watches his way.” Proverbs 16.16
Furthermore, this path leads not only to a real restored city, but represents a virtuous life of righteousness that the Buddha is now propagating to others, just as G*d demands His followers do in Isaiah. “I followed that path… Having directly known them [right view, intention, speech, action, livelihood, effort, mindfulness, concentration], I have explained them to the bhikkhus, the bhikkhunis [nuns], the male lay followers, and the female lay followers. This holy life, bhikkhus, has become successful and prosperous, extended, popular, widespread, well proclaimed among devas and humans.” Samyutta Nikaya 2.12

Isaiah echoes this. “For Zion’s sake will I not hold my peace, and for Jerusalem’s sake I will not rest, until the righteousness thereof go forth as brightness, and the salvation thereof as a lamp [that] burneth. And the Gentiles shall see thy righteousness, and all kings thy glory: and thou shalt be called by a new name, which the mouth of the Lord shall name.” “And they shall call them, The holy people, The redeemed of the Lord: and thou shalt be called, Sought out, A city not forsaken.” Isaiah 62:1-2, 12.

As a child the Buddha is believed by Buddhist tradition to have excelled in archery and wrestling, accomplishments appropriate to a member of his military caste, in his teachings he uses military metaphors extensively and demonstrates detailed knowledge of related crafts such as chariot and arrow-making, and his final prophecy before dying was given to the chief minister of a local king about the advisability of invading a neighbouring state.

Apart from his marriage at 16, no other credible information is recorded until he leaves home to become a wandering renunciant aged 29. This covers a period from approximately 465-452 b.c.e., corresponding to the intense military activity in Persia accompanying the Egyptian revolt of 465-454 and the continuing Greco-Persian wars which concluded in 449 b.c.e. The Buddha’s teachings draw a discreet veil over anything that does not edify his followers, including his own previous life, and while he may have remained at home enjoying the luxuries of the Indian elite during this period, it is logical to assume that, at the height of their youthful vigour, either he or his associates from the military caste followed in the footsteps of the soldiers who took part in the invasion of Greece, and who must surely have been responsible, directly or indirectly, for the presence of Greek statues in the Buddha’s national assembly hall in Kapilavastu.

Many aspects of the Torah find their echo in Indian teachings of the era, not to speak of the religious teachings of other parts of the vast Persian empire such as Greece and Persia itself, for whom Darius decreed the monotheistic faith of Zoroastrianism as the royal cult at this time. It was an era of unprecedented physical and intellectual exchange that only broke down after the death of Alexander, whose vision of a world kingdom under Macedonian rule died with him.

Anti-Semitism, which has been of immense significance in the study of ancient history, has prevented a rational view of the respective roles of the Jews and of the peoples with whom they were in contact during this period in the development of ideas, and this is likely to continue given its increasingly strong grip on university campuses worldwide. However, if this is ever loosened, we will perhaps learn of an age where international relationships from Athens to the Ganges were characterised as much by mutual agreement and respect as by warfare and antagonism, and in which much of the intellectual and religious leadership was provided by Jews, to the lasting benefit of mankind.

About the Author
Angus Cargill is a lecturer in research methods who formerly lectured in Tibetology at Minzu Unversity Beijing. His translation of "When Ice Shattered Stone. A Tibetan Childhood" by Naktsang Nulo was published in November 2014 by Duke University press. He has researched extensively into Indian religion, particularly Buddhism. The impact of Buddhism, Indian culture and its reception in the West has given him a clear insight into the development of more dangerous forms ofanti-Semitism in the post-Enlightenment era.
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