25 July 2008

Dating the Buddha

Almost two years ago now I attended a series of lectures by Prof. Richard Gombrich which I find still resonating around in my psyche. One of the things Prof. Gombrich talked about was his disappointment that his article in which he had discovered the 'true' dates of the Buddha had not attracted any attention from the scholarly community. That oversight has now been corrected in a recent article by Charles Prebish in the Journal of Buddhist Ethics, which he co-founded with Damien Keown.

Prebish reviews the many contributions, including his own, over the years and spells out the conclusions to date which are not unanimous. In fact there are four chronologies:

The long chronology
This puts the death of the Buddha at 544/43 BCE and is accepted only by the Theravada tradition and not by scholars. The main reason for doubting it is that it gives dates for Aśoka that conflict with the evidence from his rock edicts - he was evidently crowned in 268 BCE give or take a year, and therefore a gap of 60 years remains unaccounted for.

The corrected long chronology
Prebish glosses over this date which appears to simply subtract the 60 years and give dates of 484/483 BCE. It seems as though this date became widely accepted

The short chronology
This date relies on texts which state that the coronation of Aśoka was exactly 100 years after the parinibbana, meaning that the Buddha died in 368 BCE. However the problem here is that all ancient texts are not in agreement over the elapsed time. One says 116 years, another 160 years. It is however supported by archaeological evidence and gained some heavy weight supporters.

The Dotted Chronology
The idea here is that when Upāli finished collected the Vinaya immediately after the Buddha's death he placed a dot on the manuscript. Each subsequent year a further dot was added to keep track of the years. The obvious flaw in this theory is that the vinaya was initially memorised and not written down until some centuries later. For at least 300 years there was no manuscript to place dots on.
Gombrich's answer to the problem of dating the Buddha came from a reassessment of the dates conveyed in records of Upāli successors as vinayadharas. The age at which each pupil was ordained, memorised the vinaya and died is recorded in a number of texts. Traditionally ages of monks are counted from their ordination, but Gombrich argues that in this case the ages where counted from birth. For one thing if the traditional chronology is used most of the monks would have lived into their 90's and one to 105. By counting the years from birth Gombrich is able to construct a plausible time frame for the lineage that does not contradict other known dates such as the coronation of Aśoka. This process yields a date of 404 BCE for the parinibbana with a margin of error of plus seven years or minus 5 years. Prebish seems happy to accept 404 BCE as the date.

Though Prebish accepts Gombrich's date for the parinibbana he believes that Gombirch was in error in his dating of the councils which rests on much shakier ground. In fact it involves making an assumption about the traditional date of 100 years between the first and second Buddhist councils that is not supported but only makes sense in the light of traditional historical narratives. After having dealt with the precise lifespans of the vinayadharas Gombrich makes the assumption that the 100 years is a round figure and suggests that it was in fact more like 60 years since that produces a better fit.

Prebish argues for letting the new chronology stand without altering the span between the councils. One of the consequences of this new chronology is that it places Aśoka front and centre in the first major split amongst the Sangha. The historical king is likely to have presided over the unofficial "non-canonical" council (recorded in some texts as occuring between the 2nd and 3rd councils) which resulted in the first Sanghabheda or schism. 18 years later Aśoka may well have convened the 3rd council at Pāṭaliputra (the Aśokan capital city) in order to try to "reaffirm Buddhist orthodoxy" in his new role as Dharmarājā.

An earlier article by Prebish and Jan Nattier makes it seem likely that it was the Sthaviravādins who split first, and the Mahāsaṃghikas who represented the conservative mainstream. The issue seems to have been the number of rules which the Sthaviravādins were seeking to increase. Evidence for this is the number of rules in the various surviving Pratimokṣa Sūtras with the Mahāsaṃghikas having the least.

This is a brief gloss of Prebish's article which is available on the internet (link below) and is recommended if you have an interest in Buddhist history. The original Gombrich article is less easy to get hold of - try an interlibrary loan if you don't have access to a major University library.

  • Gombrich, Richard. 1992. "Dating the Buddha: A Red Herring Revealed." In Die Daiterung des Historischen Buddha Volume 2, edited by Heinz Bechert, Vanden-hoeck & Ruprecht, 237-259.
  • Nattier, J and Prebish, C. "Mahāsāṃghika Origins: The Beginnings of Buddhist Sectarianism." History of Religions, 16, 3 (February, 1977), 237-272.
  • Prebish, Charles. 2008. "Cooking the Buddhist Books: The Implications of the New Dating of the Buddha for the History of Early Indian Buddhism", Journal of Buddhist Ethics, vol.15,


Alan said...

For those who are fond of cross-cultural symmetries: Gombrich's chronology makes the Buddha an almost exact contemporary of Socrates, who died, also at an advanced age, in 399 BCE.

Vinod Moonesinghe said...

The BuddhaNet quotes H. Bechert [ [(Ed.) 'Dating the Historical Buddha'. Gottinger Vol I, 1991; Vol II, 1993. [http://www.buddhanet.net/e-learning/dharmadata/fdd8.htm] as stating:
'The general consensus now is that the Buddha lived his whole life during the 4th century BC and that the exact dates of his birth and death cannot be established. This lack of certainty in no way casts doubt on the Buddha's historicity but merely reflects the ancient Indians lack of concern about chronology.'

Whatever the Indian lack of concern about chronology, the monks of the Mahavihara were obsessed with it.
The Mahawamsa was written about the time of the first Moriya monarchs, in the golden age of Anuradhapura. The first Moriya king, Dhatusena built the Yodha Ela (Giant's Canal), parts of which had a miniscule gradient of 1:10,000. The architecture of the time also indicates a very advanced sense of mathematics. It is unlikely, therefore that mathematical inaccuracy would be tolerated - in fact it is this obsession which appears in the Mahawamsa.

Yet it is precisely the Mahawamsa chronology which is being challenged by the scholars of the Göttingen symposium- eg. "More recently, doubts have gradually increased. Three reasons may be adduced for this... 2) a gradual recognition that the Dotted Record may be of Sinhalese origin and hence not fully independent from the Southern tradition..." [http://indology.info/papers/cousins/node2.shtml]

According to the Mahawamsa, Prince Vijaya landed in Sri Lanka at the same time as the Buddha's mahaparinibbana - calculated by Geiger from the chronology of kings prior to Devanampiya Tissa to be 483 BC. One of his men (Anuradha) is said by the Dipawamsa and Mahawamsa to have founded village of Anuradha-grama (the Anuragrammon of Ptolemy). The earliest examples of Brahmi script in an Indo-Aryan language (including the tell-tale term 'anuradha' have been found at Anuradhapura in contexts carbon dated to c. 500 BCE.

The new Göttingen dating, in order to work, requires the identification of the Emperor Asoka, son of Bindusara, with Kalasoka, son of Susunaga. It is highly unlikely that the Dipawamsa/Mahawamsa, works associated with the Mahavihara founded by Mahinda, son of Asoka, would have not made a distinction between the two, had this been the case.

It appears that the popularity of Tibetan Buddhism in the west is having the effect of causing western scholars to embrace Tibetan chronology as well.

Jayarava said...

Hi Vinod

It is a shame that you haven't read the most up to date research on this subject, as you would see that it is based on close readings of Pāli texts and archaeological evidence. The newest chronology is in no way influenced by Tibetan Buddhism - as you would see if you bothered to read the article by Charles Prebish which I summarise in this post - published in 2008.

The Mahavaṃsa is not a scientific history in the sense that it can be relied on for factual historical information. For instance it says that Mahinda flew to Lanka. Obviously we have to take that with a grain of salt. There is no reliable chronological evidence in either of the so called "histories" invented by the monks of Sri Lanka.

Can you cite a published source for the idea that Brahmi script was in use c 500 BCE in Sri Lanka? Because that major scientific breakthrough seems to have been overlooked by every major scholar of Buddhism and Indian Epigraphy that I have ever read! You can't carbon date stone, and no manuscripts survive in Sri Lanka beyond a few centuries because the palm leaf is not durable. Who is saying this and what is their evidence? What journal was this major breakthrough published in?

The claim that anyone is embracing a Tibetan chronology is completely out of touch with reality. It was suggested by Richard Gombrich for goodness sake! Hardly one to be influenced by Tibetan Buddhism having spent his life studying Sri Lankan Theravada Buddhism and the Pāli Canon!

I'm glad you feel moved to comment but this kind of sectarian criticism based on literal readings of Pāli texts is the antithesis of what I am trying to do on this blog. If you're going to make outrageous claims then you need to back them up with published sources, as I do. That's the deal. I won't publish more comments of this nature. They bore me.


drssdutt said...

This lack of certainty in no way casts doubt on the Buddha's historicity but merely reflects the ancient Indians lack of concern about chronology.'
Yes.. Lack of Concern to Historicity in India,yes,India has a tradition known as Sanatan,which gives secondary status to what may valuable to others, "historical", India values the Ideas, there is no time for Vedas and Upanishads, very few people cared about it to explore, timeless,no authorship, persons become secondary since they do not go, they merely change the body.. belongins of gone ones not preserved..all traces go to ashes...
In the light of this search of correct date of Buddha, a historical Person,might be of academic or historical interest... but the Buddha, the Arhat, had transcended time some 2500 years ago. The timelessness of the Dhamma is Important and important is its practice and realization in our lives.
Rest is mere anthropic history.

Jayarava said...


Thanks for your commment. I don't necessarily disagree with your sentiments. However one must admit that it is just something we believe without any proof. That, as blind faith, it is no better and no worse than a belief in God.

Personally I find the stories about the Buddha inspire me. But I do not make the mistake of claiming something with certainty that I cannot possibly know. My faith does not rest on an abstract belief, but on my own experience.

So I think it is important to make the kinds of distinctions I do. Certainly in the European intellectual tradition (to which I trace my roots) it is important not to be seen to subscribing blindly to an article of faith. We need to be clear what is an inspiring story, and what we know for ourselves. The fact is we know precisely nothing about the Buddha for sure. Taking in that fact however, my study and practice leaves me in no doubt whatsoever that liberation is possible for me, and for anyone who takes on the practice. The door to the deathless is open.

I would add that one of the practices we take on as Buddhists is examining views and giving up those which are not conducive to progress - this includes any belief not able to be confirmed through direct experience. And this must include *any* belief about the life of someone who may have died around 400 BCE.

Best Wishes

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