“The Buddhists, the Gnostics and the Antinomistic Societies, or the Arabian Sea in the first-second century AD” (Giovanni Verardi)

Annali dell’Istituto Orientale di Napoli 57, 1997, 323–46.

THIRTY YEARS AGO, at the Colloquium on the origins of Gnosticism held in Messina, Edward Conze palced in evidence the numerous phenomenological aspectos common to Gnosticism and Buddhism, and more precisely, accepting the methodological and chronological limits established by Ugo Bianchi, to Buddhism and Gnosis. He cautiously associated only Mahayana Buddhism with gnosticism, understood as a historically defined phenomenon of the first-second century AD. Conze noted that the common aspects were not chance, but derived from the very essence of the two systems, stressing, however, that the means of transmission of the loans from one system to the other remained obscure (Conze 1967: 665). Earlier Giuseppe Tucci had drawn attention to the similarities between the most ancient of the Tantric texts, the Guhyasamaja, and the Manichaean doctrines, in particular to the importance of the luminous elements in the process of cosmic emanations and mystic salvation as well as to the identification of the divine that is in us with the male seed — a point in which Tucci (1935) saw a direct influence of Manichaeism on Buddhism. The debate was joined by Gherardo Gnoli (1962: esp. 126-27) and, in particular in the second of his essays on the symbolism of light, by Mircea Eliade, whi specified how the identification of light (and of the light-seed) with mystic knowledge was earlier than the relationships between Buddhism and the luminous gnosis of the Manicheaeans, going back perhaps to a common Indo-Iranian tradition

Differently to what Conze maintaned, I believe that, on the phenomenology level, it is early Buddhism (to the extent we are able to say), more than the Great Vehicle, that shows clearly the characteristics of a Gnostic system — although the emphasis put on the precise correspondences between Gnosticism and Mahayana observable in the first centuries of our era remains perfectly right. In recalling that today there is a favourable orientation towards accepting the low chronology of the Buddha, who would have died in the fourth century BC, and, despite some disagreements, towards considering the Mahayana not so much as a late antique development of Buddhism but the form that its northern tradition assumed in very early times, the following characteristics can be observed in Buddhism very early, often ab origine:

Anticosmism. For Buddhism the phenomenal world is sorrow, and the causal chain risks keeping, and in fact keeps, men bound to it even in their future lives.

Dualism. To samsara, the becoming (i.e. the world) is in sharp contrast with nirvana, identified as a state of emptiness (not an ontological reality, which does not exist in Buddhism) experiencing which means the exit from the cosmos during lifetime.

Degradation of the divine. The gods exist, but do not count. Even the greatest gods of Brahmanism, Indra and Brahma, are forced to recognise the superiority of the Elightened One; it is they who solicit the first sermon from him. Without gods and a true ontology, Buddhism can effectively be considered a non-religion or, as is often asserted, an ‘atheist religion’… [PDF]