The “virgin birth” of Buddha

apologetics Philosophy of Religion Theology / Biblical Studies

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Did the story of the virgin birth of Jesus have its origin in older religious beliefs, like Buddhism?

A while ago I started chipping away at a blog entry on the claim that the virgin birth of Jesus is just a copy cat tale used by the early Christian church, borrowing this fictional element of the life of Christ from countless other myths. The view, although not well attested in scholarly literature, gained some popularity with online sceptics with the release of the sensationalist but error-ridden documentary Zeitgeist. You will not find this claim in serious scholarly critiques of religious belief, but the sad fact is, sceptics with an online platform and lots of anger to spend  often gain influence among a credulous audience that simply doesn’t know any better. I’ve decided not to put it all into one blog entry. Every now and then I’ll blog on one of the figures that the virgin birth Jesus was supposedly copied from.

(For that reason, please do not waste your time replying by saying “sure, THAT connection might not be correct, but what about this OTHER myth that Jesus was copied from?” Like I said, I’ll do them one at a time.)

Candidate #1: Gotama (Gautama) Buddha

Siddhartha Gautama was his name. His mother was Queen Maha Maya, and his father was, surprise surprise, Queen Maha Maya’s husband, King Suddhodana. Here’s a link to a forum where a confused person had heard that Buddha was said to be born of a virgin, so wanted to ask some people who might know.

No evidence was provided. The closest that anyone got was saying: “Yes, there are myths of a virgin birth.” Where are these myths and how old are they? We’ll have to hunt for ourselves, it seems. In the Wikipedia page on Maya (mother of Buddha), here’s what we find:

Some interpretations of the life story of the Buddha attribute his birth to a virgin birth. This is likely due to a specific interpretation of the prophetic dream Queen Maya is said to have had prior to conception and is not a widely held view amongst Buddhists.

This refers to a dream that Queen Maya had after trying for many years to have a baby with her husband. In the dream, an elephant passed into the side of her body, and then shortly after, she was pregnant with Siddhartha Gautama.

If the writer or writers of the life of Buddha had really wanted to say that he was born of a virgin, it would not have been difficult. The reality is, they wrote that he was born to a woman who had been married for twenty years, without so much as a hint that she and her husband were abstaining from sex.

Head over to the sacred texts website and read about the birth of Gautama Buddha. Do you see any reference to a virgin birth?

If there is any parallel between the birth of Gautama and anything in the Bible, the closest thing would probably be the story of Abraham and Sarah and their son Isaac, which is not a virgin birth story at all. Abraham and Sarah, like Maya and Suddhodana, had been trying for years to have a child, and then due to a miracle, they succeed. We can’t use this example as a transference from Buddhism to Judaism or Christianity, however, simply because of the great age of the account of Abraham and Sarah. It is older than the story of Buddha, and geographically very far removed.

As an intellectually honest sceptic, the next time you see the claim repeated that the virgin birth of Jesus is a fictional element borrowed from mythological stories including the birth of Gautama, please stop the claimant in his/her tracks and ask for documentation of the claim about Buddha. If the source is a book or website that makes the claim, then follow up with the question, “and what is their evidence?”

One by one let’s wipe this meme out.

(If you found this blog post interesting, you will probably enjoy this podcast episode on the supposed connection between Jesus and Osiris.)

Glenn Peoples

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{ 10 comments… add one }
  • T Crosthwaite October 30, 2009, 12:42 pm

    You may find these articles on virgin birth of interest and coming from an unusual angle

    http://www.wallsofjericho.info/index.php?option=com_content&task=view&id=14&Itemid=26

    and, similarly TheologyWeb:

    Forum — General Theistics 101
    Thread — Does the Bible teach that Mary was a virgin when Jesus was conceived?

    http://www.theologyweb.com/campus/forumdisplay.php?f=160

    Best to click on arrow on the right which will take you to the last post.

  • George Maharage January 24, 2014, 8:40 pm

    I discovered this site by accident. However this gives me the opportunity to research in to some “facts” that I read in, of all things, Western Classical Culture. Came across this Greek Script that went on to explain Buddha’s Birth to a virgin. The story goes to suggest that King Suddhodana was impotent and worried about the inability to bear a son to take over the throne. Queen Maha Maya was frustrated and suddenly announced that she has conceived a son, fathered by her husband. Buddhist history records this announcement as the Queen described the conception as a white baby elephant entered her body. She may have said exactly that but it was in fact a “decent” way of explaining the entry of the husbands semen in to her body. The king apparently had a large ejaculation after a long period of drought. That she was virgin was suggested because of the King’s impotence. There was a hint to suggest that the father was some one else. It was popular knowledge that the queen has been away visiting her relatives with her maids for sometime before she was conceived.
    I wanted to bring up these findings in this forum because so far no one else has brought up these facts. I read this 45 years ago in some rare books with limited access to ordinary folks. It was taboo to discuss this in Buddhist circles. Attempts to discus this with even the highest of Buddhist scholars was quickly terminated, often ridiculing the story and even dismissing it as Blasphemy. Such is the strength of 2500 years systematic brain washing that keeps the truth hidden for ever!
    Any Comments?

  • WB Hansard February 9, 2018, 4:40 am

    The Mahavastu claims a virgin birth. It claims Queen Maya was a virgin (not only in body, but in mind) and the Buddha didn’t truly descend into his mother’s womb when she conceived him. Rather, a transformation being (nirmanakaya) descended. It explains that the Buddha came into the world leaving his mother’s right side without injuring her because his body was purely spiritual / mind-made (manomaya). The Skill in Means Sutra (Upayakausalya-Sutra) also makes the claim that Prince Siddhartha was merely a transformation being and the Buddha did not truly descend from Tushita Heaven until the renunciant prince was sitting under the Bodhi Tree.

    This is similar to the Gnostic docetic claim that Christ descended upon Jesus in the form of a dove during his baptism in the Jordan River. This can be found in the Pistis Sophia text, which claims that Christ formed Jesus’s mind from the light of the Great Sabaoth and his body from the light of the Barbelo. Christ, still in spirit-form, guided Jesus as a child and was called “similar to Jesus” or “brother of Jesus” before finally uniting with him during the baptism. For instance, Wikipedia states this about the Gnostic Ophites’ belief: “So it was that Jesus did no miracles, either before his baptism, when he was first united to Christ…”

    All Mahayanists have faith in the Mahavastu and in the Skill in Means Sutra and in all other Mahayana sutras, which claim the Buddha’s body was purely mind-made, a nirmanakaya, and therefore required no sperm. The Mahayana Buddhists and Gnostics share the same view that their saviors were utterly transcendent and not involved with corporeality. The Buddha’s spirit descended at the Bodhi tree and Christ’s descended at his baptism.

  • Glenn Peoples February 16, 2018, 12:02 am

    WB Hansard, the Mahavastu was completed in the fourth century CE, so is too late to be a relevant source here.

    However out of interest, can you provide the source (ie quote the full passage and give the citation) in the Mahavastu that says Maha Maya had never known her husband physically? Thanks.

  • Tim Knapp February 16, 2018, 2:26 pm

    Thanks for the blog on this topic. I just ran into this same argument with someone about the virgin birth being borrowed from Buddhism and was looking for some information about it. It looks like no one has refuted your article to date.

  • WB Hansard March 7, 2018, 5:01 am

    Hi Glenn,

    The Mahavastu was a text from the Mahasanghika, which was around immediately after the Buddha’s nirvana. Only 70 years after the Buddha’s nirvana the Sthaviras split from the Mahasanghika at the Second Buddhist council. So the source of the Mahavastu was an ancient one.

    Here is one quote from the Mahavastu of several that refer to Queen Maya’s chastity: “In that conception, my pious friend, in which the mothers of Bodhisattvas conceive a Bodhisattva for his last existence, those best of women live a pure, completely perfect and chaste life.”

    The Mahavastu goes on to say this in regards to Queen Maya dying 10 months after the Bodhisattva was born: “For he must descend into the womb of a woman who has only seven nights and ten months of her life remaining. And why so? Because, says he, it is not seemly that she who bears a peerless one like me should afterwards indulge in love. But if, on the other hand, the mother of the Sugata should indulge in the pleasures of love, the hosts of devas would say that the king was violating his duty. The Exalted One, indeed, at all times, proclaims the depravity of sensual desires. Shall then the mother of the savior of the world indulge in love? To take an illustration from the jewel-caskets which are found in the palaces of princes, the Best of Men is the jewel, his mother the casket.”

    If the “jewel-casket” should not be contaminated after giving birth, how much the more so should it not be contanimated before giving birth.

  • Glenn March 9, 2018, 3:54 pm

    “The Mahavastu was a text from the Mahasanghika, which was around immediately after the Buddha’s nirvana”

    Can you help with some dependable information about this, WB Hansard? Wikipedia says “The Mahāvastu contains prose and verse written in mixed Sanskrit, Pali and Prakrit.[2] It is believed to have been compiled between the 2nd century BCE and 4th century CE.”

    Thanks.

  • WB Hansard March 17, 2018, 3:41 am

    The Mahavastu might have been written in the 2nd century BC, but that doesn’t mean it originated at that time, as the texts were originally passed down orally, not through written form:

    “Buddhist texts were initially passed on orally by monks, but were later written down and composed as manuscripts in various Indo-Aryan languages which were then translated into other local languages as Buddhism spread.” (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Buddhist_texts)

    The Mahavastu was likely originally been passed down orally, and then finally put into writing in the 2nd century BC.

    The Mahavastu was written by a Mahasanghika subgroup known as the Lokottaravadin:

    “Lokottaravādin views are known from the Mahāvastu, which is a rare surviving Mahāsāṃghika text in Sanskrit. The Mahāvastu is a biography of the Buddha which attributes itself to the Lokottaravādins, and appears to have been an extended section of their vinaya recension. ” (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Lokottarav%C4%81da#Mah%C4%81vastu)

    “The 6th century CE Indian monk Paramārtha wrote that 200 years after the parinirvāṇa of the Buddha, much of the Mahāsāṃghika school moved north of Rājagṛha, and were divided over whether the Mahayana teachings should be incorporated formally into their Tripiṭaka.[3] According to this account, they split into three groups based upon the relative manner and degree to which they accepted the authority of these Mahayana texts.[4] According to Paramārtha, the Lokottaravādins accepted the Mahāyāna sūtras as the words of the Buddha (buddhavacana).[5]” (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Lokottarav%C4%81da#Early_history)

    “The Mahāsāṃghikas advocated the transcendental and supramundane nature of the buddhas and bodhisattvas, and the fallibility of arhats.[14]…For the Mahāsāṃghikas, the historical Gautama Buddha was merely one of these transformation bodies (Skt. nirmāṇakāya), while the essential real Buddha was equated with the Dharmakāya.[21] (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Mah%C4%81s%C4%81%E1%B9%83ghika#Buddhas_and_bodhisattvas)

    Because the Mahasanghikas believed the historical Buddha was no more than a transformation body (nirmanakaya), they believed there was no need for the union of a sperm and egg for the Buddha’s conception. A completely pure and chaste queen was capable of conceiving a being that only appeared to be physical but was actually mind-made (manomaya kaya). Moreover, in their view, by engaging in intercourse, the queen would have become too defiled to be the mother of a pure being like a Buddha. This is all explicitly revealed in the Mahavastu.

  • Glenn March 17, 2018, 5:45 pm

    Between the 2nd century BC and the fourth AD.

    If I discern your answer correctly, you can’t say with any reliable source when the story took this form. OK, that’s what I was looking for.

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