Primary and Secondary Religions
Jan Assmann, a preeminent Egyptologist who has spent (at least) the last 20 years writing extensively on the history of religions, has proposed that there are two kinds of religions: primary and secondary. The prototypical secondary religions, according to Assmann, are the monotheistic “Abrahamic” faiths: Judaism, Christianity and Islam. In addition, Assmann also classifies the monotheistic cult of Aten, promulgated (briefly) by the Pharaoh Akhenaten during the Amarma Period of the mid-fourteenth century BC, as a secondary religion (the first one ever in fact).
The other kind of religion, according to Assmann, are those “primary” religions that secondary religions seek to replace. Primary religions existed long before there were any secondary religions, as the names imply. But these primary religions are not limited to the “traditional” religions of “primitive” peoples. In fact, Assmann holds up the polytheistic religions of the great civilizations of Sumer, Babylon, Egypt, Greece and Rome as the, if you will, “prime” examples of “primary” religions.
Jan Assmann argued for this theory of primary and secondary religions in his book Moses the Egyptian, published in 1998. In 2003 he published Die Mosaiche Unterscheidung Oder Der Preis des Monotheismus, which has now been translated into English and published in the Fall of 2009 under the title The Price of Monotheism. In The Price of Monotheism Assmann defends and further elaborates on the main thesis of Moses the Egyptian.
Assmann’s Claim that Buddhism is a Secondary Religion
In The Price of Monotheism, Jan Assmann mentions Buddhism four times. Each time it is to state that Buddhism must be categorized along with the monotheistic faiths as a “secondary religion”.
Assmann claims no expertise with respect to Buddhism. Nevertheless, he obviously, and rightly, feels that the analysis of religion that he is trying to defend must be general, and certainly any general theory of religion that cannot account for Buddhism has a serious problem.
Another term that Assmann uses almost interchangeably with “secondary religion” is “counterreligion”. This is because secondary religions, according to Assmann, are only capable of defining themselves by their rejection and exclusion of other religions (whether those other religions are primary religions or competing secondary religions).
In my opinion Assmann’s theory of “counterrelgion” clearly disqualifies Buddhism as a secondary religion. It is quite puzzling that Assmann acknowledges that secondary religions must be inherently intolerant and yet he never bothers to investigate whether or not Buddhism meets this criterion, which is so crucial for objectively distinguishing primary from secondary religions.
To clarify, according to Assmann, the following sets of labels correspond to distinct groups of religions that do not overlap (at most the equal signs only slightly overstate the equivalence of the terms and characteristics within each group):
Primary religion = Polytheism = Inherently tolerant
Secondary religion = Monotheism = Inherently intolerant = Counterreligion
Assmann claims that Buddhism belongs in the second group. He is wrong. Buddhism must be categorized as a primary religion.
“One should listen to and respect the doctrines professed by others”
It bears repeating that Assmann has repeatedly pointed out that secondary religions must define themselves by rejecting other religions, and they must not only reject other religions, but seek to extirpate them. But Buddhism does not do this. In the following I will try to speak only of Buddhism, and avoid referring directly to the Buddha, except where I explicitly refer to traditional stories about the Buddha. I will speak of Buddhism as it is, and as it objectively exists in the historical record, without speculating about “original” Buddhism or the putative “historical” Buddha — that is, beyond what is clearly documented.
From it’s beginning, the Buddhism of the historical record accepted two important religious concepts that were already current prior to the first appearance of Buddhism as a religion: karma and rebirth. More generally, Buddhism adopted much of the same basic Sanskrit/Prakrit terminology (and corresponding conceptions) as that found in other major Indian religions, including especially all of the major branches of Hinduism, as well as the Jain religion: “dharma”, “dukkha”, “karma’, “mantra”, “maya”, “prajna”, “puja”, “samadhi”, “samsara”, “tantra”, “yoga” are all terms common to Buddhism, Hinduism and Jainism (many other terms could be listed as well).
Of course different groups use the same terms differently — but this is also the case within Buddhism, Hinduism and Jainism. And although the Theravada sect of Buddhism adopted Pali as it’s liturgical and scriptural language, while the Mahayanists adopted Sanskrit, these languages are closely related, and neither language was the “original” language of the Buddhist scriptures. In addition, all of the Indian religions, including Buddhism, make use of the same basic “spiritual technology” of Yoga/meditation. Buddhism also uses many of the same symbols as other Indian religions: the lotus, the swastika, the seed syllable OM, the Wheel of the Dharma (which adorns the Indian flag), and others.
Far from defining itself as a counterreligion in opposition to all competitors, Buddhism, then, has from the beginning been an active participant in the rich, varied and constantly evolving spiritual culture of the Indian subcontinent. There is simply nothing in Buddhism that resembles Jan Assmann’s description of counterreligions: “For these religions, and for these religions alone, the truth to be proclaimed comes with an enemy to be fought.” To be sure, debates between Buddhists and non-Buddhists can be vigorous and even rancorous but (1) the same has always been true of debates among Buddhists, and (2) the same is true of any intellectually active culture where the virtue that the ancient Pagan Greeks praised as parrhesia (“speaking freely”) is cultivated.
And as far as Deities go, according to all of the traditional accounts in all of the major sects of Buddhism, the Buddha himself prayed to the Earth Goddess as his final act before attaining his Great Awakening. Also, all of the earliest Buddhist structures (temples and stupas) that have been discovered by archaeologists bear images of the Goddess Lakshmi. B.R. Ambedkar, author of the modern Indian constitution and outspoken convert to Buddhism, even went so far as to claim that Lakshmi was originally a Buddhist Goddess who was stolen by the Hindus!
Miranda Shaw’s big beautiful book Buddhist Goddesses of India is a treasure trove of thoroughly documented information on Prthivi (the Earth Goddess), Lakshmi, and other Goddesses associated with Buddhism in the land of its birth. Nowhere in Shaw’s work, or anywhere else, will one find Buddhism associated with the exclusionary, rejectionist language of Akhentaten, or Second Isaiah, or Eusebius, or Muhammad. That exclusionary rejectionist language is a precondition for considering any religion as a secondary religion. But rather than rejecting the religious ideas and Deities that preceded it, Buddhism not only accepted them, but embraced them.
What one finds, instead of the language of rejection and exclusion, is, and this literally written in stone, the language of King Asoka. Before even mentioning the substance of his famous Rock Edicts, written in the third century BC, there is the matter of how Asoka refers to himself. Like any good king, Asoka has his own preferred epithet, Devanampiya, which literally means “beloved of the Gods”. That tells us a lot right there!!
But when we look at the content of the Rock Edicts, the case becomes even more clear cut against any consideration of Buddhism as a counterreligion. The complete texts of all the edicts, with background material, is available online here. Below are some extended excerpts:
In the past there were no Dhamma Mahamatras but such officers were appointed by me thirteen years after my coronation. Now they work among all religions for the establishment of Dhamma, for the promotion of Dhamma, and for the welfare and happiness of all who are devoted to Dhamma. They work among the Greeks, the Kambojas, the Gandharas, the Rastrikas, the Pitinikas and other peoples on the western borders. They work among soldiers, chiefs, Brahmans, householders, the poor, the aged and those devoted to Dhamma — for their welfare and happiness — so that they may be free from harassment. They (Dhamma Mahamatras) work for the proper treatment of prisoners, towards their unfettering, and if the Mahamatras think, “This one has a family to support,” “That one has been bewitched,” “This one is old,” then they work for the release of such prisoners. They work here, in outlying towns, in the women’s quarters belonging to my brothers and sisters, and among my other relatives. They are occupied everywhere. These Dhamma Mahamatras are occupied in my domain among people devoted to Dhamma to determine who is devoted to Dhamma, who is established in Dhamma, and who is generous.
Beloved-of-the-Gods, King Piyadasi, desires that all religions should reside everywhere, for all of them desire self-control and purity of heart. But people have various desires and various passions, and they may practice all of what they should or only a part of it. But one who receives great gifts yet is lacking in self-control, purity of heart, gratitude and firm devotion, such a person is mean.
Beloved-of-the-Gods, King Piyadasi, honors both ascetics and the householders of all religions, and he honors them with gifts and honors of various kinds. But Beloved-of-the-Gods, King Piyadasi, does not value gifts and honors as much as he values this — that there should be growth in the essentials of all religions. Growth in essentials can be done in different ways, but all of them have as their root restraint in speech, that is, not praising one’s own religion, or condemning the religion of others without good cause. And if there is cause for criticism, it should be done in a mild way. But it is better to honor other religions for this reason. By so doing, one’s own religion benefits, and so do other religions, while doing otherwise harms one’s own religion and the religions of others. Whoever praises his own religion, due to excessive devotion, and condemns others with the thought “Let me glorify my own religion,” only harms his own religion. Therefore contact (between religions) is good. One should listen to and respect the doctrines professed by others. Beloved-of-the-Gods, King Piyadasi, desires that all should be well-learned in the good doctrines of other religions.
Those who are content with their own religion should be told this: Beloved-of-the-Gods, King Piyadasi, does not value gifts and honors as much as he values that there should be growth in the essentials of all religions. And to this end many are working — Dhamma Mahamatras, Mahamatras in charge of the women’s quarters, officers in charge of outlying areas, and other such officers. And the fruit of this is that one’s own religion grows and the Dhamma is illuminated also.
Beloved-of-the-Gods speaks thus: Twelve years after my coronation I started to have Dhamma edicts written for the welfare and happiness of the people, and so that not transgressing them they might grow in the Dhamma. Thinking: “How can the welfare and happiness of the people be secured?” I give attention to my relatives, to those dwelling near and those dwelling far, so I can lead them to happiness and then I act accordingly. I do the same for all groups. I have honored all religions with various honors. But I consider it best to meet with people personally.
Beloved-of-the-Gods, King Piyadasi, speaks thus: My Dhamma Mahamatras too are occupied with various good works among the ascetics and householders of all religions. I have ordered that they should be occupied with the affairs of the Sangha. I have also ordered that they should be occupied with the affairs of the Brahmans and the Ajivikas. I have ordered that they be occupied with the Niganthas. In fact, I have ordered that different Mahamatras be occupied with the particular affairs of all different religions. And my Dhamma Mahamatras likewise are occupied with these and other religions.