In chapter 3 of Buddhism, A Concise Introduction, Huston Smith and Philip Novak give a list of characteristics present in Hinduism at the time of the Buddha:
- Authority: "talent and sustained attention will lift some people above others in matters of spirit"
- Speculation: "Whence do we come, whither do we go, why are we here? People want answers to these questions."
- Grace: "In the last resort the universe is friendly; we can feel at home in it."
- Mystery: "Being finite, the human mind cannot begin to fathom the Infinite, which it is drawn to."
The authors described Buddhism as "(at the start) a religion almost entirely devoid of each of the above mentioned ingredients without which we would suppose that religion could not take root."
In particular, "Buddha preached a religion that skirted speculation." The authors quote from Sutta 63 of the Majjhima Nikāya, wherein one of the Buddha's disciples says,
Whether the world is eternal or not eternal, whether the world is finite or not, whether the soul is the same as the body or whether the soul is one thing and the body another, whether a Buddha exists after death or does not exist after death—these things the Lord does not explain to me.
Near the end of the chapter Smith and Novak write,
After his death all the accoutrements the Buddha labored to protect his religion from came tumbling into it, but as long as he lived, he kept them at bay. As a consequence, original Buddhism presents us with a version of religion that is unique and therefore historically invaluable
This is how Buddhism is often presented in the west, but my impression was that there were no extant texts to support it. For example, via Wikipedia, here is a seemingly contradictory claim from Andrew Skilton's A Concise History of Buddhism.
It is important to stress that, despite modern Theravada teachings to the contrary (often a sop to skeptical Western pupils), [the Buddha] was never seen as being merely human. For instance, he is often described as having the thirty-two major and eighty minor marks or signs of a mahāpuruṣa, "superman"; the Buddha himself denied that he was either a man or a god; and in the Mahāparinibbāna Sutta he states that he could live for an aeon were he asked to do so.
The Mahāparinibbāna Sutta is part of the Pāli Canon so AFAIK is as old as any record we have. Is Huston and Novak's view at odds with Skilton's? Or am I missing something? And if they are at odds, can Huston and Novak's view be supported?