Ananda Kentish Coomaraswamy was the son of a Sri Lankan Tamil father and an English mother, born in Sri Lanka and educated in Great Britain. This twofold cultural citizenship also symbolizes the two major traditions from which this recently re-issued book draws. Coomaraswamy's basic strategy is best seen as proceeding from a long lineage of Hindu thinkers who have sought to appropriate and assimilate the Buddha's teachings, most famously exemplified in the Puranic accounts of the Buddha as merely being another incarnation of the god Vishnu. On the other hand, Coomaraswamy's attempts to argue this point are based on the presuppositions of early-20th century positivist approaches to oriental studies, especially in their concern to uncover the very oldest (and presumably, truest) of doctrines. In this case, that means recovering the true meaning of the Buddha's words by divining his actual intentions, while ignoring completely the ideas and interpretations of later Buddhist thinkers. Although The Living Thoughts of Gotama the Buddha will be deeply misleading to its target audience of readers who are looking for a reliable introduction to Buddhism, it should be of great interest to intellectual historians looking to understand the ideas of the various thinkers like Coomaraswamy who are today often lumped together under the heading of Orientalism.
To establish that the Buddha was a Hindu, Coomaraswamy first denies that the Buddha was in any way a social reformer. For the Buddha's rejection of the caste system was nothing of the sort: "what he actually did was to distinguish the Brahman by mere birth from the true Brahman by gnosis, and to point out that the religious vocation is open to a man of any birth: there was nothing new in that." In one sweeping assertion, Coomaraswamy radically revises the history of caste. Apparently in Coomaraswamy's view, the true system of caste in ancient India was a meritocracy in which any outcaste with a religious vocation could study the Vedas and practice Brahmanical rituals. Needless to say, this attitude conceals and trivializes the terrible inequities of the caste system, both past and present.
Coomaraswamy's greatest concern, however, is to show that the Buddha's teachings were in no way doctrinal innovations. Most notably, Coomaraswamy denies that the Buddha taught the non-existence of the self. To this end he engages in an elaborate series of intellectual gymnastics that should manage to bewilder any reader who is still following along. For instance, he chooses the extremely awkward "un-Selfisness" [sic] as his translation of the Buddhist term more commonly rendered "no-self" (Pali anatta, Sanskrit anatman). Of course, in this denial of the doctrine of no-self he has had a great deal of company; virtually every western scholar of Buddhism in the 19th and early 20th century seemed to try to find some way of making this seemingly nihilistic doctrine more harmonious with the Christian belief in an eternal soul. As a Hindu, Coomaraswamy's unique contribution to this history is his insistence that "the Buddhist point of view is exactly the same as the Brahmanical." To make such a claim required that Coomaraswamy and Horner engage in a great deal of translational mischief in the second part of the book, their presentation of excepts from the Pali canon. So, for instance, a passage normally rendered as "Go along, monks, taking refuge in yourselves" becomes "Go along, monks, having Self as refuge." (For more on the no-self doctrine and specific issues in translating Pali terminology, see Steven Collins's _Selfless Persons_.)
It may sound strange, but Coomaraswamy's book is ultimately not about the Buddhist religion at all, since for him this religion is at its root an enormous misunderstanding. Readers interested in the Buddhist religion should read Walpola Rahula's _What the Buddha Taught_, which remains the best introduction to Buddhism written in English. For Coomaraswamy, the Buddha was a Hindu sage who taught no new doctrines and implemented no new social practices, but agreed with all of the great (non-Buddhist) thinkers in (European) world history, including Plato, Aristotle, Augustine, Aquinas, Eckhart, et al. This position would have appealed especially to 20th century advocates of the "perennial philosophy," thinkers such as Aldous Huxley and Joseph Campbell who sought to combine all of the world's philosophies and religions into one unified, albeit extremely vague, body of wisdom. Yet Coomaraswamy's vision is deeply offensive to contemporary Buddhists, just as a writer would offend Christian believers who claims that Jesus was just another not particularly innovative Pharisaic Jew deeply misunderstood by his followers. Thankfully, however, in the early 21st century dialogue on Buddhism, ideas like Coomaraswamy's have generally fallen out of favor. Today's scholars are more apt to acknowledge that Buddhists themselves, not Hindus or western orientalists, have been the best caretakers of the Buddha's teachings.