Did the Buddha Have Blue Eyes?
…He has lion jaws. He has forty teeth. He has even teeth. He has teeth without gaps. He has very bright canine teeth. He has an extensive tongue. He has a godlike voice like the karavika bird. He has intensely blue eyes…. —from the Lakkhana Sutta of the Dīgha Nikāya
Ever since Buddhist philosophy became known to people of the modern west, there have been westerners who have taken an interest in it not only because of its profundity, but also because Buddhism is evidently one of the last Indo-European or “Aryan” religious or spiritual systems still in existence. The advent of Christianity in the west, with its phases of intolerant hysteria, wiped out virtually all indigenous religions in Europe, so the closest we have to an authentic “Aryan” religious system at present, with an unbroken initiatory lineage, is probably to be found in the east, especially in India. This consideration of Indo-European origins is of course of very secondary importance to Buddhism’s profundity, but it has been a real consideration for many. This could be partly due to the perception or the fact, assuming that it is indeed a fact, that Dhamma was developed by people of a more or less European race, which may help to explain why early Indian Buddhism resonates so well with people of European ancestry today—it may just “fit” our Indo-European character or spirit better than more ancestrally exotic systems.
Partly because of this interest in Buddhism for its indigenous Indo-European origins, some emphasis has been placed on the idea that Gotama Buddha had blue eyes like an “Aryan” northern European. Even some Buddha images from the far east show the Buddha with blue eyes. Consequently the purpose of this little essay is to investigate the validity of this idea: Did the founder of Buddhism really have blue eyes? It has zero influence on the profundity and beneficial qualities of Dhamma, but still it could be interesting to know.
A sensible way of going about answering this question would be first to see what the oldest extant corpus of Buddhist texts, the Pali Tipitaka, has to say. As far as I know, the only mention of the Buddha’s eye color is with regard to the list of the 32 marks of a mahāpurisa or great man, which is mentioned several times in passing and is set out in detail in the thirtieth discourse of the Dīgha Nikāya, the Lakkhana Sutta. In the original Pali the statement with which we are concerned, which is quoted in translation in the prefatory quote above, reads: Abhinīlanetto hoti.
The prefix abhi- is an intensifier, and in this case pretty clearly means “intensely,” “deeply,” or just “very.” Nīla usually means blue, but we will get back to that because it is the key word in the passage. Netta means “eye,” and ending with an o indicates that it is singular, and refers to the Buddha himself (or to any great man destined to become either king of the world or else a fully enlightened Buddha). And hoti is a verb which means “happens” or “becomes” or, in this case, “is,” as in “happens to be.” So a literal translation of the sentence could read, “He is a deeply blue-eyed one.”
One possible complication with this is that nīla in a few cases can also mean blue-black, or jet black with bluish highlights, like the hair of some Asian people or Veronica's hair in Archie comics. This does seem unlikely as an eye color however, since black-eyed people (again like many Asian people) really have brown-black eyes the color of black coffee; the color is really a very dark brown and not bluish at all. So in all likelihood the most ancient references to the Buddha’s eye color really do say that he had very blue eyes.
That should be enough evidence to settle the issue for any scriptural fundamentalists; although the same list of 32 characteristics also includes such unlikely traits as thousand-spoked wheel symbols on the soles of his feet, and forty teeth in his mouth. In fact a few of the traits in the list are mutually contradictory and could hardly be found on the same person. For example, one of the traits on the list, number nine, is that the Buddha (or any mahāpurisa) can rest the palms of his hands on his knees while standing upright; but trait number nineteen claims that the same person has dimensions like a banyan tree, that is that the distance between his middle fingertips when his arms are outstretched to the sides is the same as his height. So if we assume that the length of one arm extends from shoulder to below the knee (since his fingers will extend below his palms when hanging down), then the height of his neck and head, plus his lower shins, ankles, and feet, would be equivalent to the extent of his whole other arm plus the width of his shoulders—which needless to say is extremely unlikely. The only way this could be realized would be if the Buddha's knees were around where the average person’s palms would rest when hanging down, causing his thighs to be freakishly short and his lower legs below the knees to be extremely long. Complicating this further is trait number four, stating that his fingers and toes are longer than that of an average person, and thus they would hang down past his knees even farther, resulting in less body equaling his whole other arm and shoulders. So in other words, the list of characteristics of the Great Man is evidently not reliable information.
Some Buddhistic scholars are of the opinion that the entire list of marks of the great man, being associated with a certain Bāvarī (“the Babylonian”) in the introductory verses of the Pārāyana Vagga of the Sutta Nipāta, is apocryphal and a foreign import into India dating from after the Buddha’s time anyway, so it would become doubly doubtable (as though the practical impossibility of all the traits on the list even being on one person were not enough). So of course the mere mention of intensely blue eyes, assuming that we can rule out blue-black eyes, is no guarantee of anything.
But even setting aside the strange and ancient list of physical characteristics of the Buddha, there are other factors to be considered. For example there is the evident fact that Gotama Buddha was ethnically Aryan, like literally Indo-Aryan, and spoke an Indo-Aryan language. In ancient northern India blue-eyed people of Aryan ancestry, especially among the upper classes, were much more common than nowadays, as is evidenced by old texts referring to red-haired, blue-eyed Brahmins. (I think I remember reading that the Yoga Sutras of Patanjali, who lived a few hundred years after the Buddha’s time, mentions these rather European-looking holy men.)
This presence of blue eyes in ancient northern India is a natural consequence of the demographics of the Ganges Valley during the Iron Age. According to most of the “experts” concerned with the matter, around roughly 1500BCE tribes of Indo-Aryans speaking Vedic Sanskrit and worshiping the Vedic pantheon invaded northwest India via what is now Afghanistan and Pakistan, conquering the remnants of the great prehistoric Indus Valley Civilization (which itself was populated mainly with Mediterranean-type Dravidian caucasians, more easterly Asian types, and proto-Australoids), and becoming the area’s new ruling class—and of course the Buddha is traditionally considered to have been a member of that ruling class.
It may be true that the ancestral cultural roots of the Buddhist philosophy itself in particular, and of the ancient Indian yogic/ascetic tradition in general, are not of Aryan origin but rather arose in the aforementioned prehistoric and non-Aryan Indus Valley Civilization. But even the ancestral origins of the primordial Proto-Indo-European (“Aryan”) religion itself, with worship of a polytheistic pantheon including an important sky god with a name like Dyeus Pater, may be ultimately pre-Aryan or else originates outside of the Aryan homeland, which is presumably somewhere in the neighborhood of the Black Sea. So the Buddha was probably an Aryan aristocrat who adopted and modified an older, non-Aryan tradition.
I have seen an argument or two by western Buddhistic scholars to the effect that the Buddha may not have been Indo-European at all because he grew up on the frontier of Vedic culture, in what is now Nepal, and saw Vedic Brahmanism (there being no actual Hinduism as we know it at that time) largely as an outsider would see it. This presumably facilitated his development of a new yogic system instead of simply reforming or conforming to the already established Vedic culture. His non-Aryan ethnicity based on such an argument, however, is just conjecture, and is not really supported by the evidence. It may simply be some liberal western Buddhist politically correct anti-Aryan “all races are the same” propagandizing.
There is one interesting possibility that the Buddha’s ancestry was not Indic, however. It is well known that the historical Buddha was a member of the Sakya or Shakya clan (one of his epithets is Shakyamuni, or Sage of the Shakyas); and it may be that “Sakya” has the same etymology as the names “Scythia” and “Saka.” The Scythians and the Sakas were nations in ancient times consisting of nomadic herdsmen living in the general area of the Caspian Sea, and both spoke Iranian languages, not Indic ones. (And the Sakas, incidentally, invaded northwestern India and set up a kingdom there which lasted from around CE 200 to 400. They were also called Indo-Scythians.) This similarity of names may be flimsy evidence, but if the idea is true, then the Buddha’s ancestry could be more Iranian than Indian, possibly the result of an invasion of Persian tribes into India before the speakers of Vedic Sanskrit arrived, though with the inevitable intermixture of his ancestral blood with Indo-Aryans, and with the adoption of Indian language and culture after north India became Vedic. But even if this were the case, the ancient Iranians were also Aryan and just as likely to have blue eyes; in fact the national name Iran, formerly Persia, is literally a corruption of the word “Aryan.”
The word “Arya,” or Ariya in Pali, is used liberally in Buddhism, largely due no doubt to the Buddha’s own influence and choice of words. The term came to mean “noble” in ancient India, since the Aryans had become the nobles and aristocracy of the culture after they conquered it—and again, the Buddha himself was reportedly a noble in the social as well as in the spiritual sense. The four Noble Truths of Buddhism are literally the four Ariyan Truths; a Buddhist saint is called an Ariya; and the term is used to describe noble and praiseworthy conduct in general:
Whatever person, even unasked,
Speaks to others of his own morality and observances,
Whoever even of his own accord speaks of himself—
Adept ones say his is an un-Ariyan way [anariyadhammam].
(—from the Dutthatthaka Sutta of the Sutta Nipāta, an extremely early text)
Then again, just being Aryan is no guarantee of having blue eyes, as some Aryans (especially but not exclusively if their ancestry is mixed) have brown eyes. So even if Gotama Buddha were demonstrably a pure-blooded Aryan of Indic or Persian ancestry, still that is no proof that his eyes were blue.
One way of being more certain on this issue would be to test the DNA in some of the Buddha’s least controversial bone relics; the Peshawar Relics enshrined near Mandalay Hill in Burma may be a good candidate for this, for reasons we need not go into here. But the bone fragments were thoroughly burned at the Buddha’s cremation, as have all of his extant bodily remains, so I would guess that the DNA has been destroyed and is unreadable. That is too bad, because with modern technology we might have been able to clone him.
So, as with just about anything that happened in very ancient times, we probably will never be sure what color eyes the Buddha had—although the ancient texts apparently indicate that they were blue, and his ancestry certainly should have allowed it. So it is definitely plausible, and possible, and I have no skeptical doubts about it…partly because ultimately it doesn’t matter anyway. What does matter is the value of the philosophy and the method, not physical attributes of someone who is now long dead anyway.