The Buddha and Muhammad: An impossible comparison?

The personality of the Buddha invites comparison with the founders of the other world-religions. I’ll try to present a comparison between the Buddha and Muhammad, the founder of Islam. Both were seekers after truth: both found what they believed to be the truth only when of mature years, the Buddha when about thirty-six, Muhammad when forty or more: both lived to be elderly men and possessed great authority. But there the analogy ends.

The Great Achievements of Muhammad

Perhaps no single human being has had so great an effect on the world as Muhammad. His achievements are personal and, had he never lived, it is not clear that the circumstances of the age would have caused some one else to play approximately the same part. He more than Cesar or Alexander was individually the author of a movement which transformed part of three continents.

No one else has been able to fuse the two noble instincts of religion and empire in so perfect a manner, perfect because the two do not conflict or jar, as do the teachings of Christ and the pretensions of his Church to temporal power. But it is precisely this fusion of religion and politics which disqualifies Islam as a universal religion and prevents it from satisfying the intellectual and spiritual wants of that part of humanity which is most intellectual and most spiritual.

Law and religion are inextricably mixed in it and a Muslim, more than the most superstitious of Buddhists or Christians, is bound by a vast number of ties and observances which have nothing to do with religion.

A Different Teacher

It is in avoiding these trammels that the superior religious instinct of the Buddha shows itself. He was aided in this by the temper of his times. Though he was of the warrior caste, he was not on that account tempted to play a part in politics, for to the Hindus, then as now, renunciation of the world was indispensable for serious religion and there is no instance of a teacher obtaining a hearing among them without such renunciation as a preliminary.

According to Indian popular ideas a genius might become either an Emperor or a Buddha but not like Muhammad a mixture of the two. But the danger which beset Siddharta Gautama, and which he consistently and consciously avoided, though Muhammad could not, was to give authoritative decisions on unessential points as to both doctrine and practice.

There was clearly a party which wished to make the rule of his order more severe and, had he consented, the religious world of his day would have approved. But by so doing he would have made Buddhism an Indian sect incapable of flourishing in lands with other institutions.

If Buddhism has had little influence outside Asia (until the last century), that is because there are differences of temperament in the world, not because it sanctions anachronisms or prescribes observances of a purely local and temporary value.

In all his teaching the Buddha insists on what is essential only and will not lend his name and authority to what is merely accessory. He will not for instance direct or even recommend his disciples to be hermits. "Whoever wishes may dwell in a wood and whoever wishes may dwell near a village."

Akin to this contrast is another—that between the tolerance of Gautama and the persecuting spirit of Islam. Muhammad and his followers never got rid of the idea that any other form of religion is an insult to the Almighty: that infidels should if possible be converted by compulsion, or, if that were impossible, allowed to exist only on sufferance and in an inferior position.

Such ideas were unknown to Siddharta Gautama. He labored not for his own or his Creator's glory but simply and solely to benefit mankind. Conversion by force had no meaning for him, for what he desired was not a profession of allegiance but a change of disposition.

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