Awful pedants of the world, unite!

NPR has an article inspired by Garson O’Toole’s new book, Hemingway Didn’t Say That: The Truth Behind Familiar Quotations, investigating the phenomenon of the torrent of bogus quotations that flow through social media and occasionally make the people quoting them look foolish, as when the Republican National Committee tweeted a picture of the Lincoln Memorial along with the quote, “‘And in the end, it’s not the years in your life that count; it’s the life in your years’ — Abraham Lincoln,” and when the US Postal Service put a misattributed quote on a stamp dedicated to Maya Angelou.

On the whole it’s a nice essay, making the point that the use of quotes has changed: “We do quotation differently now. Time was when it was chiefly a literary device, a way of weaving an essay or speech into an ongoing conversation with the past … Now they’re self-sufficient atoms of wisdom that make their own way in the world — passed along in chain emails, tweeted, posted on Instagram and Pinterest boards, inscribed on bracelets and household items.”

But then for some reason the author of this essay feels the need to throw some shade on Mr. O’Toole by saying “But you’d have to be an awful pedant to spend your time railing at the sloppy scholarship on motivational posters and coffee mugs. As long as they inspire and they console, most people couldn’t care less who actually said them.” It’s a shame to describe Mr O’Toole, who has been kind enough to help with one of the quotations on this site, as an “awful pedant.”

I guess that those of us who care about the accuracy of quotations are not like “most people,” and in that I rejoice. The Buddha’s often quoted as talking about “the manyfolk” as spiritually uninstructed and unwise. The word he used was actually puthujjana, which is a singular rather than a plural term, and is more accurately rendered as something like “ordinary person,” “worldling” or “run-of-the-mill person.”

The puthujjana is not to be despised (it’s a term for any person who has not attained the first stage of enlightenment) but early Buddhism was certainly not democratic and did not see the mass of unawakened individuals as a source of guidance, and instead looked to those who had, through skill and hard work, developed insight and wisdom.

If you’d like to distinguish yourself from most people (and I hope you do) then I hope you’ll get a hold of Garson O’Toole’s new book. Any book that sparks intellectual curiosity and a concern for accuracy is, in my opinion, worthwhile. And you can quote me on that.

Fake Camus quotes

I just stumbled across a paper called “The noble art of misquoting Camus — from its origins to the Internet era,” by philosopher and Société des Études Camusiennes member, Giovanni Gaetani.

Gaetani’s English is not quite broken, but perhaps we could say it’s “dented.” Nevertheless, he makes some good general points about misquotations in the age of the internet, including this:

The real importance of misquotes – and mistranslation as well – is undervalued. Whether they are big or small, hidden or manifest, made in bad or in good faith, they are always compromising because their inevitable destiny is to generate false commonplaces to be used either for or against the author. Indeed, while a specialist can probably detect at first glance the misquote or the mistranslation, the average reader – that is, the vast majority of an author’s audience – is condemned to believe to what he sees, no matter how disappointing it is.

This:

Nonetheless, we underestimate [the] Internet’s impact on literature and philosophy: ever since everyone has the power to say his personal opinion about everything, even when he is a total incompetent about the subject; ever since everyone can quote a writer without feeling the need to report the source and ever since everyone seems to not care at all about sources, believing in everything he sees on Internet, every quote has completely lost reliability.

And this:

During my research I have contacted many bloggers, asking them where Camus should have written/said this or that; their answer was always the same: «check it on Google». Indeed, their reasoning was simple but tremendously naïve: if a quote is reported by so many people – millions of references in some cases – the author of this quote “must” be Albert Camus.

I paraphrase this attitude as “It must be true. I read it on the internet.”

Gaetani also tackles nine common misquotations or misattributed quotes, including one I’ve seen recently:

Don’t walk behind me; I may not lead. Don’t walk in front of me; I may not follow. Just walk beside me and be my friend.

This is actually from a children’s song from a Jewish summer camp.

Groucho glasses on the Mona Lisa: Three tools for being better informed

mona lisaBecause I’ve been steeped in the study of Buddhism for decades, and have a reasonable degree of familiarity with the original texts (mostly in English, although I studied Pali at university too) there aren’t too many Fake Buddha Quotes that have taken me in. There were three or four that I’d come across repeatedly in books on Buddhism, often by respected authors, that had me completely fooled, but most of the fakes circulating on Twitter and Facebook stood out like novelty Groucho glasses on the Mona Lisa.

Once I started researching the more obviously fake Buddha quotes, however, I realized that quotes sites have no quality control whatsoever, and that many publishers apparently don’t either. And so I started to question many of the other quotes I came across and that I’d often used in my teaching. That quote from Anaïs Nin, “And the day came when the risk to remain tight in a bud was more painful than the risk it took to blossom”? Not by her at all! Petit-Senn’s “It’s not what we have that constitutes our abundance, but what we appreciate”? If it’s anywhere in his works, I haven’t been able to find it. Einstein’s thing about fish climbing trees? Ridiculous!

Now I check almost every quote I find before deciding whether or not to pass it on. Many of the quotes ascribed to the Founders of the US turn out to be patent fakes, serving political ends. Most Einstein quotes turn out to be fakes as well.

It’s all too easy to be taken in by fake information. David N. Rapp of the Department of Psychology and School of Education and Social Policy, Northwestern University, who has studied why we succumb to false information, points out that “We’re bombarded with tons of information all day; it’s a nightmare to critically evaluate all of it.”

Rapp says it’s not that we’re lazy, “though that could certainly contribute to the problem. It’s the computational task of evaluating everything that is arduous and difficult, as we attempt to preserve resources for when we really need them.” I’m not sure if I quite get the distinction between being lazy and avoiding doing something that seems arduous, however!

Anyway, Rapp makes three suggestions to avoid falling into the misinformation trap, and I’d like to present those and comment on them in relation to fake quotes, rather than the original context of not memorizing junk info:

Critically evaluate information right away.

That may help prevent your brain from storing the wrong information. “You want to avoid encoding those potentially problematic memories,” Rapp said.

I’d suggest assuming that any quote you see is fake or falsely attributed until proven otherwise. Based on my past experience, 90% of the time you’ll be correct. Of course if you don’t mind the fact that our society is drowning in bogus information, and your sense of personal integrity doesn’t extend to caring about whether what you say (or quote) is true or not, then feel free to ignore this advice!

Consider the source

People are more likely to use inaccurate information from a credible source than from an unreliable source, according to Rapp’s previous research. “At this point, it’s even clear to Donald Trump’s proponents that his words are often nonsensical,” Rapp said. “But his strong supporters who want him to be right will do less work to evaluate his statements.”

I’ve had people tell me that a quote from an unknown source is actually by x. Their source for this information? The internet. Yup, “I read it on the internet, so it must be true,” is a guiding principle for many people. Unfortunately, quotes sites, blogs, Facebook, Twitter, etc., are not bastions of fact-checking. Just because a quote pops up on your social media feed doesn’t mean it’s accurate or correctly attributed.

Beware of truthy falsehoods.

“When the truth is mixed with inaccurate statements, people are persuaded, fooled and less evaluative, which prevents them from noticing and rejecting the inaccurate ideas,” Rapp said.

Why do we reflexly hit the share button when we see a quote? It’s because it pushes an emotional button. Those who pass on fake information are often trying to manipulate you, relying on your emotional responses overruling your rational mind. Perhaps the quote outrages us. Perhaps it generates a gleeful sense that “This will show those right wing gun-nuts/anti-2nd amendment liberal traitors!” In the case of a Fake Buddha Quote it may just be that sense of “I agree with this!” (Subtext: “The Buddha agrees with me! I must be so wise!”)

When you notice your emotions surging upon seeing a quote on social media, pause. This is a danger sign. It’s advance notification that you’re about to be someone else’s tool. Pause, take a breath, and then (maybe) do a little digging around to see if the quote’s actually genuine or not. (Hint: just because you see it on a bunch of webpages doesn’t mean it’s genuine!)

These three steps will help you be a more conscious and conscientious sharer. And that’s important. As Einstein said, “Whoever is careless with the truth in small matters cannot be trusted in important affairs.” Of course Fake Einstein Quotes abound, but as it happens this one is genuine. It comes from the piece of writing he was engaged in at the time of his death.

I can’t believe it’s not Buddha!

The Fake Buddha Quotes blog got a mention on BoingBoing a few days ago, which brought in an extra 11,000 or so visitors in one day (normally we have 2,000 visitors a day). With some hesitation I dipped into the comments on the article, and I was glad I did, so that I could appreciate some of the witty banter.

One of the gems was this image, which I loved 🙂

i can't believe it's not buddha

There was also this one, which unfortunately I couldn’t find in a larger size:

i_can__t_believe_its_not_buddha_by_danboldy

And that led me to a Google image search, where I found this:

Cant_believe_its_not_Buddha

I love them!

25 Mostly Fake Buddha Quotes That May or May Not Change Your Life

Kidrobot-The-Simpsons-Homer-Buddha

An undated blog post by Steven Bancarz, the creator of a website called ‘Spirit Science and Metaphysics’ purports to offer “25 Quotes From Buddha That Will Change Your Life.” Unfortunately, many of the 25 are Fake Buddha Quotes. But which ones?

So far Bancarz’s blog post has been liked or shared over half a million times on Facebook. That means it’s been read by roughly half as many people as visited this entire site last year. Oy, oy, oy! As Mark Twain never said, “A lie can travel halfway around the world before the truth can get its boots on.”

Let’s take a look at the quotes:

1) “However many holy words you read, however many you speak, what good will they do you if you do not act on upon them?”

This one’s more-or-less genuine. Not a bad start for Mr. Bancarz! Go, Steve!

2) “The way is not in the sky. The way is in the heart.”

Damn. This one is totally Fake.

3) “A jug fills drop by drop.”

This one is genuine, although truncated. Not bad going so far! Can Steve keep it up?

4) “Every human being is the author of his own health or disease.”

Sorry, no!

5) “To understand everything is to forgive everything.”

Oh, no! That one’s fake too!

6) “Better than a thousand hollow words, is one word that brings peace.”

Whew! This one’s genuine!

Keep going. There’s more on the other side of this cartoon!

Enlightenment is so close! All you have to do is read the right quotes on Facebook!
Enlightenment is so close! All you have to do is read the right quotes on Facebook!

7) “Whatever words we utter should be chosen with care for people will hear them and be influenced by them for good or ill.”

Oops! That one’s fake as well!!

8) “No one saves us but ourselves. No one can and no one may. We ourselves must walk the path.”

Oh, so close! The middle sentence is kind of fake.

9) “In a controversy the instant we feel anger we have already ceased striving for the truth, and have begun striving for ourselves.”

Oh, dear!

10) “In the sky, there is no distinction of east and west; people create distinctions out of their own minds and then believe them to be true.”

Nope, not the Buddha.

11) “Those who are free of resentful thoughts surely find peace.”

This is more of a paraphrase than a quote.

12) “Hatred does not cease through hatred at any time. Hatred ceases through love. This is an unalterable law.”

Yes! A genuine quote from the Buddha. The original doesn’t mention “love,” but that’s kind of OK.

13) “There has to be evil so that good can prove its purity above it.”

This one’s a stinker!

14) “It is easy to see the faults of others, but difficult to see one’s own faults. One shows the faults of others like chaff winnowed in the wind, but one conceals one’s own faults as a cunning gambler conceals his dice.”

Yay! Another genuine quote! Yay!

15) “I never see what has been done; I only see what remains to be done.”

Ooooo! Not even close. I bet you can’t guess who actually wrote this.

16) “The mind is everything. What you think you become.”

You’re killing me here!

17) “Just as treasures are uncovered from the earth, so virtue appears from good deeds, and wisdom appears from a pure and peaceful mind. To walk safely through the maze of human life, one needs the light of wisdom and the guidance of virtue.”

Oh, boy. Mr. Bancarz isn’t doing very well, is he?

If you need a rest from reading, check out the Facebook Buddha video below.

18) “We are shaped by our thoughts; we become what we think. When the mind is pure, joy follows like a shadow that never leaves.”

This one is problematic in exactly the same way as “The mind is everything. What you think, you become,” above. In fact they’re the same freaking quote!

19) “Work out your own salvation. Do not depend on others.”

Nope. These words are a mangled version of a New Testament quotation, forced into a Buddhist context and then further mangled.

20) “Let us rise up and be thankful, for if we didn’t learn a lot today, at least we learned a little, and if we didn’t learn a little, at least we didn’t get sick, and if we got sick, at least we didn’t die; so, let us all be thankful.”

Nope!

Have a donut. It'll help keep your energy up while you continue reading this article.
These donuts put the OM in “nom.”

21) “You cannot travel the path until you have become the path itself.”

Dear Buddha, no!

22) “You will not be punished for your anger, you will be punished by your anger.”

Punishment? I wonder what kind of rebirth you get for passing around Fake Buddha Quotes? ;).

23) “To conquer oneself is a greater task than conquering others.”

This one’s close to being a quotation, but it’s really a paraphrase.

24) “Three things cannot be long hidden: the sun, the moon, and the truth.”

It’s not a million miles off, but it’s another paraphrase rather than a quotation.

25) “Have compassion for all beings, rich and poor alike; each has their suffering. Some suffer too much, others too little.”

He’s on a roll, but can Mr. Bancarz end on a genuine quote? Can he? Can he? Oh, no! It’s a really, really terrible fake!

Does it matter?

An inspiring quote is inspiring whoever said it. That’s true. But if you believe that factual accuracy is unimportant, then I have to disagree with you. Truth is better than bullshit.

Falsely attributed quotes may be a small matter, but as Einstein said: “Whoever is careless with truth in small matters cannot be trusted in important affairs.”

Summary

So, what’s Mr. Bancarz’s final score? Of his 25 Buddha quotes, three are straight-up genuine, five are paraphrases or thereabouts, and fully 17 are bogus. Even awarded half marks for the paraphrases, he earns a grade of 22% — a solid F.

I think this confirms my long-held suspicion that many people are preferentially drawn to Fake Buddha Quotes. It’s unfortunate that those are the people whose blog posts get shared half a million times on Facebook.

buddha-tweet-www.flickr.com-photos-santos-7514191

Why not share this one instead!

US Postal Service Puts Fake Maya Angelou Quote on a Stamp

10Angelou-superJumbo

Self-described “nerdy lexicographer” Erin McKean (for whom I have an intellectual crush) discusses today in the New York Times how the US Postal Service has included a misattributed quote on a stamp commemorating the poet and author Maya Angelou.

The quote, “A bird doesn’t sing because he has an answer, it sings because he has a song,” has obvious resonances with the title of Angelou’s “I Know Why The Caged Bird Sings,” and it’s a line she herself quoted, but the actual author is the children’s book author Joan Walsh Anglund.

McKean discusses “Churchillian Drift,” which is the phenomenon by which a quotation becomes misattributed from a less to a more well-known source. That perfectly describes the process of formation of many of the Fake Buddha Quotes on this site.

The term comes from the tendency to ascribe witty political sayings to Winston Churchill.

“Churchillian Drift,” McKean says, “is about reinforcing expressions with the comforting bulwark of a familiar authority.”

She describes how one of her own coinages (which I have to say I don’t find particularly memorable) became associated with a fashion editor by the name of Diana Vreeland—apparently she’s famous—to the point where McKean has even been accused of plagiarizing “Vreeland’s” words.

The column’s well worth reading.

Recommended site: Antiviral

A surprising amount of the stuff that’s passed around in social media is fake. Some of it should be obvious, like articles from the satirical publication The Onion that are read as if they were genuine news stories. Some are more difficult to spot, although many of them should by rights have social media users’ bullshit detectors registering 11 on a scale of one to ten.

To help us sift the gold dust from the coal dust is a relatively new feature on Gawker.com called “Antiviral.” That’s “anti–viral images, news stories, etc.” The blog doesn’t just debunk fake stories, but confirms real ones. The site describes its mission like this:

Occasionally, against all odds, you’ll see an interesting or even enjoyable picture on the Internet. But is it worth sharing, or just another Photoshop job that belongs in the digital trash heap? Check in here and find out if that viral photo deserves an enthusiastic “forward” or a pitiless “delete.”

It’s well worth dipping into as a reminder of how many attempts there are to dupe us, and how much gullibility exists in the world. Many people seem to have the motto “It must be true; I read it on the internet.”

Much of the most popular manipulation is political, and is designed to tap into our outrage. What else would explain the many people who believed this crappy photoshop of President Obama to be genuine?

can't breathe

A lot of it is designed to manipulate us through our sense of “cuteness.” Apparently the sight of this supposed “Madagascar monkey” was enough to completely disable the critical faculties of hundreds of thousands of people.

gxvyluzyqkrnvpfqmsmr

There’s a lot of bull crap out there. When you see something that’s too good to be true: check. It usually is.

“Whoever is careless with the truth in small matters cannot be trusted in important affairs.”

einstein quote

These days, when people tell me that it’s nitpicking to discuss whether quotes attributed to the Buddha actually come from the Buddhist scriptures, I often counter with this quote from Einstein:

“Whoever is careless with truth in small matters cannot be trusted in important affairs.”

Of course we could do with a Fake Einstein Quote website, but as it happens this one is genuine. It comes from the piece of writing he was engaged in at the time of his death.

“It doesn’t matter who said it, as long as it’s inspiring.”

live_laugh_love_hitler2

One of the most common comments I receive from people who object to the notion of accurate citations is that it doesn’t matter who said a quote, as long as it’s inspiring.

So there should be no problem with the quote above, then?

This is from Matthew Inman, author of The Oatmeal cartoon, which I generally find hilarious. Of course I rarely take attributions on the web at face value, and so I dug into the origins of the quote. It doesn’t seem to have anything to do with Hitler at all, but is adapted from a prize-winning poem by Bessie Stanley (1879–1952). According to Wikipedia, Stanley wrote the poem in essay form in 1904. Arranged as a poem, it goes like this:

He has achieved success who has lived well, laughed often, and loved much;
Who has enjoyed the trust of pure women, the respect of intelligent men and the love of little children;
Who has filled his niche and accomplished his task;
Who has never lacked appreciation of Earth’s beauty or failed to express it;
Who has left the world better than he found it,
Whether an improved poppy, a perfect poem, or a rescued soul;
Who has always looked for the best in others and given them the best he had;
Whose life was an inspiration;
Whose memory a benediction.

The phrase “lived well, laughed often, and loved much” was very quickly paraphrased as “live well, laugh often, love much. For example, in a speech given in Niagara Falls on June 23, 1908, Mr G. P. Conard, Secretary of the Association of Transportation and Car Account Officers, said:

Paraphrasing Stanley, these men have achieved, and are still achieving, the full measure of success, for they live well, laugh often, and love much; they gain the trust of noble men and women, and the love of little children….” etc., etc., etc.

I like what Ingram is going with his Fake Hitler Quote — lulling people with a “new agey” sort of message and then clobbering them over the head with the name “Hitler” to show them that attributions do in fact matter. No doubt however we’ll now see this quote circulating on the internet and appearing in books, incorrectly attributed.

One more point — if a quote’s source didn’t in fact matter then it’s not likely that people would keep attributing them to respected figures like Gandhi, Einstein, and the Buddha. It’s precisely because people do take quotes more seriously when they come from a well-known and respectable source that these misattributions arise.

The Buddha was not a “Hindu prince”

At least one of the quotes sites that perpetuates Fake Buddha Quotes refers to the Buddha as a “Hindu prince.” This term is doubly misleading, since the Buddha was definitely not a “Hindu” (even in his early life), and neither was he a prince in any real sense.

One of the main religious groupings that the Buddha debated was the hereditary Brahmin caste, who studied the Vedas and Upanishads. They didn’t appear to have a name for their religion, which had a philosophical side but mainly seemed to emphasize ritual and sacrifice—often animal sacrifice—and were very concerned about maintaining the orderliness of society, although there was a more radical wing that may have explored meditation. Needless to say, the Buddha did not regard himself as being part of the Brahminical tradition although he did try at times to subvert the language of Brahminism to say that “true Brahmins” are made—by their ethically skillful actions—and not born.

There’s nothing in the Pali canon that suggests the Buddha was ever a follower of the Brahminical tradition, even in his youth. In fact the area of the Indian subcontinent that he came from (the Sakyan territory), doesn’t seem to have been dominated by Brahminism, although it’s said that there were Brahmin villages there. The very fact that some villages are mentioned as being “brahmin” suggests that Brahminism was not ubiquitous there.

The two teachers he practiced with prior to his Awakening, Alara Kalama and Uddaka Ramaputta, were from roughly the same geographical area as himself. They taught meditation rather than practicing the ritual-based practices of the Brahmins. They would have considered themselves to be “shramanas,” or radical, forest-based religious seekers, rather than “brahmanas,” who were of course home-dwelling, town- and village-based, and religiously conservative. Here’s what Dr. Alexander Berzin says of the shramanas:

The shramanas were wandering mendicant spiritual seekers. They came from castes other than the brahmins and sought liberation by leaving society from the start. They lived together in the forests, with no caste differences, as a spiritual community (Skt. sangha), rather than as solitary ascetics. They organized their autonomous communities on the model of the republics, with decisions made by assemblies. Moreover, all of them rejected a supreme god, such as Brahma, or any other form of a creator. Although the shramana communities had no caste differences within them, the laypeople who followed their teachings to a lesser extent and supported them still lived with the structure of the caste system.

This is the religious tradition that the Buddha practiced in, both before and after his Awakening. His religious community was not part of the Brahmin tradition, but a conscious rejection of its religious conservatism and social rigidity.

Of course now we might lump the shramana and brahmin traditions together under the heading “Hinduism,” but at the time of the Buddha that would have seemed absurd. It would like considering Islam and Christianity to be one religion. The term “Hindu” didn’t exist at the time of the Buddha, and the word wasn’t created until the 19th century. There were many religious traditions being practiced at the time of the Buddha, and they certainly were not unified into anything that could be called Hinduism. There isn’t a term in the Pali canon that corresponds to the word “Hindu.”

As Dr. Berzin notes, there’s no evidence that there was a concept of caste in the Sakyan territory (caste was an important aspect of Brahminical practice) and the Buddha seemed to regard the four-fold caste system of Brahminism as a foreign affair. The Sakyans regarded their warrior caste as being socially superior to the Brahmin caste, while in other parts of the continent the Brahmins had the top spot.

The appellation “prince” is arguable, depending on how you understand that word. Here’s Vishvapani in his Gautama Buddha (Quercus, 2011):

So far as we can tell, Gautama’s father Suddhodana, was a Shakyan aristocrat, and some sources call him a ‘raja’. But despite the version of Gautama’s life made familiar in legendary accounts, this doesn’t mean that he was a king (they were called ‘Maharajas’). It is possible that he was just one aristocrat among many, but according to some sources, Suddhodana was the Shakyans’ chief raja. We know from descriptions of other gana communities that chieftains were elected in a meeting of representatives of aristocratic families at the assembly hall…”

Excavations of the likely candidates for the Buddha’s home town don’t reveal any palaces, and in fact the term the Buddha uses when he does describe his father’s houses as “palaces” is not the same as the term used for the dwelling of a “king” (maharaja). Probably the term “mansion” would be more appropriate. So Suddhodana was more like a “tribal chief” than what we would think of as a king, and Gautama a “chief’s son” rather than a “prince.” The largest houses that have been excavated are of wooden construction, with people living above the animals’ accommodation. The archaeological evidence, in other words, doesn’t point to anything very royal.

The account of the young Gautama slipping into first jhana under the Rose-Apple tree while his father plowed a field was quite possibly nothing to do with the “ritual ground-breaking” of a king, but Suddhodana simply doing a bit of work on his farm.

Trevor Ling in “The Buddha” suggests that the Buddha’s father may have been the elected head of an aristocratic ruling class. We know that the Sakyan territory was governed by a council of some sort. And while Suddhodana may have been the head of this council (although he also may not), he certainly wouldn’t have had kingly powers.

Here’s Richard Gombrich, one of the world’s leading Buddhist scholars, on the Sakyan Republic:

The Buddha came from a community called (in Sanskrit) Shakyas; hence his commonest Sanskrit title, Shakyamuni, ‘the Sage of the Shakyas’. This fact is of great historical importance, because according to the Buddha (or, strictly speaking, according to words attributed to him in the Maha-Parinibbana Sutta) he modelled the organization of his Sangha on that of such communities as his own. Historians usually call these communities ‘tribes’, but I am wary of that term, which corresponds to no word in Sanskrit or Pali. ‘Tribe’ evokes an isolated community with no socially structured inequality. The Shakyas seem not to have had a varna [caste] system but they did have servants. They were isolated to the extent that they were self-governing, and their polity was of a form not envisaged in brahminical theory. We deduce that the heads of households – maybe only those above a certain age or otherwise of a certain standing – met in council to discuss their problems and tried to reach unanimous decisions. Some historians call this an oligarchy, some a republic; certainly it was not a brahminical monarchy, and makes more than dubious the later story [emphasis added] that the future Buddha’s father was the local king. This polity presented the Buddha with a model of how a casteless society could function. In the Sangha he instituted no principle of rank but seniority, counted in that case from ordination; maybe age was the ranking principle in the Shakya council.

(From Theravada Buddhism, page 49–50)

The word “prince” — without reference to all the above — is highly misleading. And to call the Buddha a “Hindu prince” is doubly misleading.

There were kings (maharajas) on the Indian subcontinent at that time. In fact they were expanding their power and territory. Not only were the monarchies competing with each other, but they were busy mopping up the last of the northern republics, of which the Sakyan clan was one. Those kings had real royal powers, lived in palaces, and had large armies. The smaller-scale tribal republics didn’t stand a chance. The monarchies came to dominate, and shortly after the time of the Buddha the republics passed away, and the republican form of government became unthinkable. Quite possibly people couldn’t think of any other way of society being organized, since they’d never known anything different, and when they heard of the Buddha’s father being a “raja” they imagined him to have been something like the “maharajas” they were familiar with.

Of course later tradition also builds the Buddha into a king, because that sounds more impressive. We all want to build up our heroes.