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A couple weeks ago Shrikant Bahulkar, an Indian scholar I studied Sanskrit with, gave a talk on language in Buddhism. During the questions and answers he said something that struck me: Tibetan Buddhists gave privilege to Sanskrit texts over Tibetan ones because the Sanskrit texts were more authentic.

He’s surely right, in the sense that Tibetans thought Sanskrit s?tras more likely to be the real word of the historical Buddha. But the wording intrigued me. For we use “authentic” as a term of praise all the time now, but in a strikingly different way.

The Tibetans cared that texts were authentically Indian because the Buddha was Indian, so such texts were more likely to have been the authentic word of the Buddha. They wouldn’t have given a toss whether texts were authentically Mongolian or authentically Persian, because the Buddha didn’t come from those places.

For us, by contrast, authenticity is a good in itself. Other things being equal, we treat blues music performed by an authentic Mississippi blues performer as better than the same music performed by some guy from Vancouver; authentic Mexican food made by Mexicans is better than Mexican food made by Bostonians. I once spoke to a friend’s relatives in Cambridge, UK, who were going to be visiting the US and were excited about going to Disneyland. I asked “Why go all the way – why not just go to Euro Disney?” They replied “No, no – we want to see the real Disneyland!” A startling response at the time to my urban geographer’s ears, to which nothing could be more fake than Disneyland – but even there, the original was valued much more highly than the imitation.

Some of this valuing of authenticity per se creeps into religious studies as well. I’ve spoken of the point before in the context of Yavanayāna Buddhism: it’s a recent creation involving Westerners and therefore seems less “authentically Buddhist,” and “less authentic” is equated in our minds with “bad.” I think this is why the “Protestant presuppositions” charge is bandied about so frequently and comes across as such a slur: the Yavanayāna emphasis on texts, on what seems to be the authentic word of the Buddha, is considered “less authentically Buddhist.”

But the Yavanayāna attitude, ironically, seems to me much closer to traditional attitudes than does this scholarly romanticism of authenticity. Scholars or otherwise, we today value a more generalized authenticity, in which everything should “be what it is.” Whereas for most premodern cultures, as I understand it, authenticity was merely a means to an end. The authentic word of the Buddha was better than an imitation because of the value of the Buddha’s word itself, not because of the value of authenticity per se.

So why this change? It seems above all an aesthetic phenomenon. We see beauty in things that are what they are, that don’t imitate. Why is this? I suggested before that it’s because authenticity is scarce under capitalism. Is that it? Is it because, as I added in the comments, so many of us want to take an oppositional posture against society at large, and so much of that society is satisfied with imitations? Or is there more to it still?