This one crops up with tedious frequency on Twitter, and is in many books as well — mostly those published since 2005. Here are just a few:
- The Healthy Green Drink Diet: Advice and Recipes for Happy Juicing, by Jason Manheim (2012).
- Physical Activity & Health: An Interactive Approach, by Jerome E. Kotecki (2100).
- Teachers of Wisdom, by Igor and Irene Kononenko (2010).
- Zero Trends: Health as a Serious Economic Strategy, by D W Eddington (2009).
- Elevate and Transform Your Life, by Manuel A. Ortiz Cordero (2008).
- Pray It Forward: Daily Meditations, by Rowena Holloway and Joyce Bullion (2007).
- Cracking the Cancer Code: The Secret to Transforming Your Health, by Matthew J. Loop (2006).
- Autoimmunity: It’s Time for Truth; It’s Time to Heal, by Kathy Browning (2005).
There are dozens more, all attributed to the Buddha. Or, if the author wants a bit more credibility, “Siddhartha Gautama.” And in some cases the attribution goes to “Gautama Siddhartha. Hindu prince and founder of Buddhism (563-483 B.C.).” This is in fact how the Buddha is described on at least one famous quotes site, so we can tell where these authors source their quotes. Of course “Hindu” is an anachronistic term, since “Hinduism” didn’t have any meaning at the time of the Buddha. He certainly didn’t regard himself as being of the same religious tradition as the pantheistic, sacrificing Brahmins of his time, who would not have described themselves as “Hindu.” The Buddha also wasn’t a prince, since he came from one of the last-remaining republics in north-eastern India.
Anyway, the quote struck me as obviously fake. The Buddha didn’t use language like this at all. And it didn’t take much to track down the source as Swami Sivananda (1887 – 1963), who was indeed a Hindu, although he wasn’t a prince. He was, Wikipedia tells us, the founder of The Divine Life Society, Yoga-Vedanta Forest Academy, and author of over 200 books on yoga, vedanta and a variety of other subjects.
In page 202 of Swamiji’s Bliss Divine, we read:
“Every human being is the author of his own health or disease. Disease is the result of disobedience to the immutable laws of health that govern life.”
There are passages where the Buddha is quoted as talking about the role of karma in health. For example:
But here some woman or man is not one who harms beings with his hands, or with clods, or with sticks, or with knives. Due to having performed and completed such kammas, on the dissolution of the body, after death, he reappears in a happy destination… If instead he comes to the human state, he is healthy wherever he is reborn. This is the way that leads to health, that is to say, not to be one who harms beings with his hands or with clods or with sticks or with knives.
He also pointed out, though, that health is elusive, and that we should not pin our sense of well-being on our being healthy:
The body is afflicted, weak, & encumbered. For who, looking after this body, would claim even a moment of true health, except through sheer foolishness? So you should train yourself: ‘Even though I may be afflicted in body, my mind will be unafflicted.’ That is how you should train yourself.
And in fact we should reflect on our predisposition to ill-health:
Now, based on what line of reasoning should one often reflect… that ‘I am subject to illness, have not gone beyond illness’? There are beings who are intoxicated with a [typical] healthy person’s intoxication with health. Because of that intoxication with health, they conduct themselves in a bad way in body… in speech… and in mind. But when they often reflect on that fact, that healthy person’s intoxication with health will either be entirely abandoned or grow weaker…
So the Buddha’s claim that illness is the result of karma doesn’t mean that we should expect perfect health as a result of meditating and living ethically. It may, on the whole, be better for us (and in fact studies have shown numerous health benefits from meditating), but we’re still going to get sick and the really important thing is to accept that fact with equanimity.