Polytheism in media (part 2): Gautama Buddha 2007 and Confucius 2010

Spoilers below. If you haven’t seen the films yet, I recommend them greatly. They might well be the first Indian and Chinese films respectively you have ever seen. Links are provided. Another warning: although I enjoyed these films greatly, I have something to say against Buddha and Confucius themselves. Pardon the intensity, but do correct me and engage if you have cause!

Gautama Buddha, 2007—set in North India around 550-450 BCE

Visual: Immediately I loved the attractive sets and colorful costumes. An older camera must have been deliberately used to make the film seem older and I think this had pretty good effect in the storytelling.

Verbal: The script was serious and literary, with much to analyze. Buddha is obviously given the largest share of speech, and he is always teaching and reflecting with success. There are also beautiful folk songs that are meant to adorn the story.  

Portrayal: The character of Buddha seemed too withdrawn and self-centered to invite a sympathetic 220px-Tathagatha_Buddha_film_DVD_coverconnection, at least from my position. He leaves his wife on a whim and treats everyone with a sense of superiority and grandeur, and then when he returns to see her and his son after many years, he is without any emotion at all—a mere piece of wood. Indeed, if one looks closely enough, some of Buddha’s behavior and speech resembles that of a psychopath! Since the film was quite successful, the depiction and performance offered must have been very acceptable to the viewer and even admired as such.This implies that the film was not only meant to celebrate Buddha, but also in effect to deify him. He is often called “bhagwan” (god-man) by his followers and others who meet him, including former enemies. The question that the film (and indeed the story itself) raised but did not answer for me was, what did Buddha preach that was really new and why is he so admired for his erratic individualism?

Thematic/Moral: The main moral and theme was the promotion of peace and happiness by the limitation of desire. I admire the film for this purpose, but not so much the story itself. One thing I disliked is that women (in the form of the wife and later the courtesan) are placed on the side of desire and serve as obstacles to tempt the Buddha from transcendent salvation, but certainly he overcomes them because he is transcendent. Women are included in Buddha’s school at the very end, but we still don’t see any of the feminine power and agency of the traditional Hindu religion, where women serve as priestesses and oracles, for example. Moreover, regarding desire, even though Buddha merely organized a few ideas already known, Buddha must have desired excessively to be known, otherwise he would have conformed a little to what others were doing (including other sages-note the melodrama with the Hindu priest who hates Buddha). Moderation is a noble idea and Buddha should be admired for promoting it, but (this in reference to the film) he must not allow others to call him a “god-man” while declaring himself an agnostic, nor should he be so immoderately spiritual. But perhaps that is an inherent problem with individualism and the Axial Age “philosophy” that go along with it. It is said that the followers of Epicurus (who also invented nothing, but unlike Buddha preached absolute nonsense), who did not care for traditional worship or believe the Gods influenced life, erected a shrine for him.


Confucius, 2010—set in Eastern China around 500 BCE

Visual: Quite satisfactory and noble

Verbal: The script was somewhat Western in its brevity, but still there is some complexity and room for analysis between the lines.

Portrayal: Confucius reminds me very much of Buddha in his individualism and egotism, but at least he seems to care for tradition and other people. He weeps for one of his scholars who died trying to save texts, but at the end of the film he is shown surrounded by thousands of copies of his texts, directing one of his students to send copies to such and such a prince. I am not sure whether his humanization rather than deification is something the Chinese state would prefer, but in any case there isn’t much to deify about him, when all is studied historically. I know that he is a folk Hero in China, which I respect as far 220px-Confucius_film_postas local tradition and ancestral worship is concerned, but I question that one should go beyond. In the Analects, he alleges that Tian (Heaven) spoke to him, but not in words, and I don’t see how this is different from what any traditional Chinese shaman would experience. But Confucius’ concentration on Tian, the transcendent supreme Deity or Spirit, parallels his high-flown spirituality and ambition in the film. He is in the company of kings and nobles, and there are hints of Chinese unification and imperialism in his thought, or at least this is what the film depicts. The character of Confucius does not seem to fit his time at all, but fits the modern age quite well, which annoys me, although it isn’t his fault alone. The nobles had their share of wrongdoing in an unstable period and Confucius reminded people of some old traditions such as filial piety. His exhortation against the human sacrifice of retainers was also noble, but there was no need for the violent depiction to prove the point.    

Thematic/Moral: Transcendence, avoidance of temptation (we see another courtesan, but at least Confucius doesn’t disrespect his wife), asceticism, self-righteousness, and other Axial Age pomp as before. I can’t help the criticism! I wish Buddha and Confucius weren’t such individualists who constantly subverted their own humility and thus weakened their lessons!

4 thoughts on “Polytheism in media (part 2): Gautama Buddha 2007 and Confucius 2010

  1. SoundEagle 🦅ೋღஜஇ

    Dear Melas,

    I have savoured your reviews of the movies Gautama Buddha (2007) and Confucius (2010), delivered with personal insights imbued with your own brand of intensity and suaveness.

    As usual, there are many ways to depict and deliver the stories of great historical figures and events. And these two are no exceptions. Whether womanhood and familyhood can ever have a significant place (or plan) in the attainment of Buddhist enlightenment has been a great source of debate for a long time.

    I am unsure as to whether Chow Yun-Fat is the best choice for playing the lead role, regardless of the fact that he has starred in many movies, and is very well-known.

    Apart from Buddha (佛佗 or 菩薩) and Confucius (孔子), perhaps you might also consider and include Laozi (老子), Mozi (墨子), Zhuangzi (莊子), Liezi (列子) and the like in your “Polytheism in media” series in the future.

    The Axial Age from the 8th to the 3rd century BCE has certainly produced many schools of religion and philosophy in China, India, Persia and the Greco-Roman world. It is indeed “The Great Leap of Being”, as the philosopher Eric Voegelin put it. However, the validity of the Axial Age as a concept or thesis as propounded by the German philosopher Karl Theodor Jaspers and later adopted by other scholars and academics has been questioned by Diarmaid MacCulloch, a British historian and academic; and critiqued by Iain Provan’s 2013 monogram entitled “Convenient Myths: The Axial Age, Dark Green Religion, and the World That Never Was.”

    In addition, the paper entitled “Increased Affluence Explains the Emergence of Ascetic Wisdoms and Moralizing Religions” by Nicolas Baumard, Alexandre Hyafil, Ian Morris and Pascal Boyer concludes as follows:

    We discussed several possible causal pathways, including the development of literacy and urban life, and put forward the idea, inspired by life history theory, that absolute affluence would have impacted human motivation and reward systems, nudging people away from short-term strategies (resource acquisition and coercive interactions) and promoting long-term strategies (self-control techniques and cooperative interactions).

    The results support our initial hypothesis that economic development rather than political complexity explains the emergence of axial religions. This is congruent with the qualitative description of some religious historians, who, following Jaspers, noted that Axial Age movements did not appear in the largest archaic states (i.e., Assyria, Babylon, Egypt, Persia) but rather in smaller prosperous polities, such as the Greek city-states, the richest Mahājanapada, and the most developed of the Chinese warring states…..

    I have touched on many issues in my multipronged discussions on process philosophy (also known as processism, philosophy of organism, or ontology of becoming) in relation to change, causality, (in)determinism, metaphysical reality, stoic philosophy as well as the philosophy of space and time, in the concluding section of an extensive post entitled “Conclusion: Change Rules and Moment Matters” at https://soundeagle.wordpress.com/2013/03/18/soundeagle-in-best-moment-award-from-moment-matters/#Conclusion

    Near the end of the very long and detailed discussion, I concluded that “The ontological shift from substance (being) to process (becoming) brings the Western conception of metaphysical reality much closer to the Eastern counterparts, particularly those of Zen and Mahayana philosophy as well as various schools of Hinduism and Jainism with respect to their acceptance and contemplation of the imperfection, constant flux and impermanence of all things…”

    You are welcome to join the discussion at the said post and offer your insight, doubt, opinion or the like.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Melas the Hellene Post author

      Thanks for your valuable remarks. I must certainly learn more before I can form accurate opinions about these two personages (as well as the other Chinese sages you mention). My reactions above were natural and cursory, like a drink you prepare on a hot day! There’s much more I could have written and in detail but in the case of films, you know it is better to leave the viewer to enjoy, study and observe closer points.

      The Axial Age is quite a convenient term, although it may be somewhat overstretched and too generalized, as argued by those you cite. And one doubts whether the 8th century should be included, as with the works of Homer (which I adore), which don’t seem to present anything new but only perfect an epic form. Hesiod of the next century should certainly be on the list, and should occupy an important position equal to that of the better known Thales and Pythagoras.

      The other study about affluence you cite (I thank you for that) seems to hit the nail on the head. I remember to have come by it before and found it to be quite reasonable. I will need to examine it more closely. But generally speaking, affluence causes two important things that lead to Axial “reforming” ideas: 1) A growing population with subsequent pressure and conflicts that demand resolution and new changes. A perfect example is the early 6th century of Athens and the changes under Solon. 2) As part of point 1, there occurs a shift in class structure, with the lower class feeling greater pressure from the warring upper classes, and at the same time, a rising middle class, consisting of merchants, petty nobles and other “individuals” (in the modern sense of the word) who make a name for themselves by their ideas and work. The Axial Age figures belong to this group and while I do acknowledge some of their contributions to restraining the excesses of the nobles, I find that in many cases they were merely attempting to replace the power of the nobility with their own (see the tyrannical populism of Archaic Greece or even Buddha as examples), which sort of ambition is the main reason for my criticism towards them. And the irony is, some of their new”reforming” ideas only led to even more conflict than before and indeed new problems; the rise of Hesiod and Solon/Peisistratus mark the rise of misogyny and “Pan-Hellenism” (another word for nationalism) respectively. Then we see Zoroaster associated closely with the Persian Empire, Aristotle with the Macedonian, Chanakya with the Mauryan and Shan Yang with the Qin in China. It all fits quite neatly, to be honest and you could extend the associations beyond the end of the Axial Age. In fact, we can thank this ambivalent, shrewd and ambitious “middle class” for modernism and the Enlightenment, which I have complained enough about already in my previous comment!

      Liked by 1 person

  2. K

    Confucius and Gautama were opposites in most respects. Confucius was not spiritual in any ascetic or mystical sense. There is little of that in his writings or those of those following his line of thought. His entire focus was on repairing his society via the proper order of relationships. Heaven ordains an order to the world, or rather is the order, the king represents heaven in human society, and the people organize on the basis of family, affection, occupation, age, and social position. The Confucian Five Relationships sum this up. Confucius wanted neglected rites to be kept up. He wanted old songs to be remembered. Rites are vital to keeping social order, as they link people together and society as a whole to heaven and the ancestors.The family and its rites were the model of the social order and the state(with its aristocratic and royal rites) to Confucius. Ancestor worship, filial piety toward living parents, social harmony, and education were all important to him. One of the key duties in East Asia(as in other societies) that a person has is to continue their family line so that their ancestors may continue to receive offerings. There is not really an idea of mystical communion or individual enlightenment up in the clouds. There is nothing even otherworldly about it. There is quite a bit of Confucian criticism of Buddhism for being antisocial and not conducive to filial piety.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Melas the Hellene Post author

      Thanks for explaining this. I have long thought better of Confucius than all the other Axial sages for the reasons you mention. He was most concerned for the preservation of tradition. Not everything in the Chinese society at that time was perfect, and empire was soon to follow, but at least Confucius hoped to keep things balanced. We can’t compare him to Chanakya (as a kingmaker) and even with that Indian sage, empire was inevitable because the Hellenistic empires had already reached the region, after the Persian. On the other hand, Laozi is more like Buddha and that’s the reason for the later opposition between Confucianism and Taoism. I would guess many elements of Taoism joined with Buddhism in the course of time. So, in conclusion, while Confucianism may be more suitable for imperial systems, I hope China embraces it again because it is probably the best philosophy of its kind for such a purpose. It is far better than the American Epicureanism, to be sure.



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