Buddha, Jesus and Muhammad,
Paul Gwynne is Lecturer in Comparative Religion in the General Education Program at the University of New South Wales, Australia, where he is also affiliated to the Law School. He has taught theology and religious studies in Jogjakarta, Indonesia, and Melbourne, Australia. Dr Gwynne is the author of World Religions in Practice: A Comparative Introduction (Wiley-Blackwell, 2009), and Special Divine Action (1996).
Buddha, Jesus and Muhammad,
Toward the end of the popular 1971 musical Jesus Christ Superstar , there is a song in which Judas interrogates a condemned Jesus about his personal motives and self-understanding. In the second verse Judas asks:
Tell me what you think about your friends at the top.
Now who d'you think besides yourself was the pick of the crop?
Buddha was he where it's at, is he where you are?
Could Muhammad move a mountain or was that just PR?
Lyricist Tim Rice's choice of Buddha and Muhammad as peers of Jesus "at the top" is instructive. In the popular imagination, these three are commonly seen to be the most prominent figures in religious history, and this perception is not without reason or solid grounding. In terms of hard statistics, they stand at the head of three major religious traditions, which together boast approximately 3.5 billion adherents - approximately half of the entire human race today. Moreover, it is not only about sheer numbers but also about extent in space and time. Buddhism, Christianity and Islam have been missionary movements from the very beginning and, consequently, their membership is now spread across the continents and islands of the world. They are truly global religions, having penetrated and changed thousands of local and regional cultures. In addition, the influence of Buddha, Jesus and Muhammad stretches back centuries, indeed millennia, to the times in which they lived. Countless generations of human beings have found their inspiration, shaped their behavior, and oriented their lives according to the words and deeds of these three men. Their powerful and widespread influence cuts across both geography and history. Therefore, it is no coincidence that they are often also included in more general lists (covering all domains of human enterprise and activity) of the most influential persons who have ever lived.
This book is an attempt to look at these three crucial lives, not in splendid isolation, but in a comparative manner. Needless to say, there already exists an enormous volume of biographical studies on Buddha, Jesus and Muhammad, dating from the earliest times to the current day. In the past century alone, hundreds of attempts have been made to revisit, reexamine and reinterpret their stories, often inspired by fresh discoveries in the fields of archaeology and ancient history or new developments in philosophy and theology. The sheer number of these biographies makes genuinely original contributions more and more difficult. Yet somewhat surprisingly, there have been very few works of an explicitly comparative nature. While the individual stories of Buddha, Jesus and Muhammad have been told and retold innumerable times, on very few occasions have they been told side-by-side. When a comparative study of the founders has been produced, invariably it involves a comparison of Jesus with either Buddha or Muhammad but rarely all three. 1 Some focus on their teachings or spirituality rather than the full life story. 2 Others are tendentious in nature, intent on demonstrating the superiority of Christianity and its founder over the main rivals. 3 Exceptions to the twofold comparison are F.H. Hilliard's 1956 book entitled The Buddha, the Prophet and the Christ , and the more recent publication, Rivers of Paradise , which featured five key religious figures: Moses, Confucius, Buddha, Jesus and Muhammad. 4 While Hilliard explicitly acknowledged his Christian bias, the Rivers of Paradise project was more objective, involving multiple authors from respective religious traditions. However, it was inherently restricted by its highly specific theme: namely, the extent to which each of the five figures conformed to Max Weber's definition of a "prophet". Such a dearth of literature in this area suggests that there is a serious scholarly gap that needs to be fi