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The Dating of the Historical Buddha: A Review Article

L. S. COUSINS

[Contents]


2 The history of research

A valuable and detailed paper by Sieglinde Dietz surveys the history of research (Symp. II, 2, pp. 11-83). It is clear that from 1687 (Couplet) onwards scholars gradually became aware of the main traditionally-espoused dates and by the beginning of the nineteenth century had, not surprisingly, begun to favour the seemingly more reasonable dating found in the pali sources which underlie the Southern Buddhist tradition. As these became better known and as the Greek synchronisms which fix the dates of the Mauryan Emperors Candragupta and Asoka to within a decade or two became more firmly established, problems appeared. Indeed, already in 1836 G. Turnour, the translator of the Mahavamsa recognized that the Pali sources place the Mauryan rulers some sixty years too early.

Subsequently in the course of the nineteenth century a number of dates in the fourth and fifth centuries B.C. were advocated by various scholars, notably a date proposed by T. W. Rhys Davids of ``within a few years of 412 B.C.'' to which we will return. In the last decades of the nineteenth century and at the beginning of the twentieth century, however, a consensus gradually formed that the Buddha died towards the beginning of the fifth century B.C. - the dates most often cited are 483 or 486 B.C. In part this was because it became clear that the longer dating could be supported by data from the Puranas and by Jacobi's evaluation of the Jain evidence.

Also important here was a Chinese source: the so-called ``Dotted Record'' of the fifth century A.D. which seemed to present an independent dating for the Mahaparinibbana around 486 B.C. Already, as is made clear in Hubert Durt's survey of the Japanese and Korean data, some Japanese scholars had from the eighteenth century onwards begun to favour a date based upon the Dotted Record and information about the Record was communicated to Max Müller as early as 1884 by B. Nanjio. Another paper by Erhard Rosner refers to Yü Cheng-hsieh who in 1813 put forward the first century B.C. for the birth of the Buddha, erroneous no doubt but a clear enough indication of the critical trend developing.

At all events the consensus developed above was to remain overwhelmingly dominant in European [note] and South Asian scholarship for the first half of the twentieth century. I exclude from consideration the more fantastic Indian chronological speculations documented in otherwise interesting papers by Jens Uwe Hartmann and Gustav Roth. (There are equally fantastic pseudo-historical works in European literature too - e.g. the entertaining books on Atlantis, Mu, etc. by such writers as Donelly, Churchward, Scott-Elliot and the like - we don't usually treat them in a survey of serious scholarship!) There has been perhaps slightly more variety in Japanese scholarship (surveyed by Hajime Nakamura), there too the dating of the Buddha's death to the first quarter of the fifth century remained fairly standard.

More recently, doubts have gradually increased. Three reasons may be adduced for this: 1) a growing sense that such an early date does not fit well with the archaeological data; 2) a gradual recognition that the Dotted Record may be of Sinhalese origin and hence not fully independent from the Southern tradition; 3) a fuller awareness of the existence of a considerable number of largely Sarvastivadin sources which date the accession of Asoka around one hundred years after the Mahaparinibbana as opposed to the 218 years of the Pali sources. This was first perhaps expressed by Étienne Lamotte who in his highly influential history placed the previous consensus that the Sarvastivadin sources on an almost equal footing, distinguishing between the long chronology (i.e. the corrected version of the Southern Buddhist tradition) which places the death of the Buddha in c. 486 B.C. and the short chronology i.e. the Sarvastivadin which places the same event in c. 368 A.D. In fact, Lamotte does then adopt the long chronology: ``comme hypothèse de travail,'' [note] although he may have favoured a later dating in his last years.



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