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The Dating of the Historical Buddha: A Review Article



4 The conclusion of these volumes on the date of the Buddha

A number of contributors attempt to assess the most likely date for the Buddha by the use of indirect evidence as to Indian cultural history. Bechert has placed thirteen contributions under this section heading and sums up the result as follows:

... the conclusion seems unavoidable that all major sources of indirect evidence point to later dates of the Buddha than those suggested by the corrected long chronology. (Symp. IV, I, p.11)

This seems to slightly overstate the case as not all the contributors propose any dating and others have worded their position very cautiously. It might be better to say that the overall tendency is to conclude that there is at minimum no objection to a later date. Undoubtedly the archaeological evidence as presented here by Herbert Härtel and in part by Hermann Kulke is the major factor tending to support a later date. It is not however clear whether it is as yet overwhelming. The other contributions which seem to support a late date are those by: George von Simson, Oskar von Hinüber, Siegfried Lienhard (around 400 B.C. with a margin of about twenty years). Wilhelm Halbfass and, rather cautiously, Lambert Schmithausen.

Turning to the ten papers which Bechert classes as dealing directly with the evaluation of the Indian tradition, seven seem to present a viable case. At the extremes: Cen'ichi Yamazaki defends the long chronology, while none of the other contributions in this section envisage a date before 420 B.C. to 350 B.C. but a ``somewhat later date is not inconceivable.'' (Symp. IV,I.p.236); no other contributor (except Eggermont) seems to propose a date after 380 B.C. Hajime Nakamura, K.R. Norman, and Richard Gombrich all propose dates within the range suggested by André Bareau: around 400 B.C. with a margin of twenty years on either side. Expressing this in other terms, the Buddha's period of teaching activity was in the second half of the fifth century B.C. perhaps extending into the first quarter of the fourth century.

It is worth noting that this is quite close to being a ``median chronology'' i.e. halfway between the short and the long chronology. Perhaps after all the difference between the short and the long chronology may in origin have simply amounted to whether 150 years was rounded down to a hundred or up to two hundred i.e. a difference in literary conventions.

In a paper read to the Royal Asiatic Society in 1872 and subsequently published in his On the Ancient Coins and Measures of Ceylon, T. W. Rhys Davids put forward an argument on rather different lines, as mentioned above. He interprets some of the information given in the oldest of the Ceylon chronicles in Pali, the Dipavamsain a way different both to the tradition of the chronicles and to the understanding of later scholarship. Partly because of the development of the consensus mentioned above and partly also because his interpretation of the Dipavamsawas based upon manuscript materials and seemed to be superseded by the editions and translations of Wilhlem Geiger, the views of Rhys Davids were subsequently disregarded.

His position depends upon the interpretation of the list of five Vinaya authorities prior to Mahinda in the third century B.C. as giving data on their ages at death rather than on their number of years as a monk. The latter interpretation gives the traditional 218 years down to the accession of Asoka i.e. the long chronology, but contains a number of problems. Indeed it has been generally recognized that a succession of five is too short for the long chronology. The alternative gives a shorter period of about 150 years.

Richard Combrich has now developed a similar theory, based upon the same proposition but with a more detailed and somewhat modified argumentation. In his version the accession of Asoka took place after 136 years. (I have elsewhere suggested some further minor changes. [note]) Gombrich's arguments have undoubtedly shown that the data in the Dipavamsaon the lineage of the teachers is impressively consistent when interpreted in this way. He is certainly right to argue that the lineage is a succession of teachers expert in the Vinaya and not a succession of individuals with some institutional authority. No doubt too he is correct in pointing out the existence of other lists of such teachers with different names, as found in various non-Pali sources, is in no way in contradiction. There would have been many such pedigrees for different pupil-teacher lines.

If the general arguments of the Rhys Davids-Gombrich thesis are correct, and they may well be, then the overall picture must be something like the following: when the creators of the Sinhala chronicle tradition attempted to work out a chronology, they had basically two sources of information for the period prior to Asoka. One was a lineage of teachers with ages at ordination and death. They must also have had some kind of brahmanical kinglist, of the sort preserved for us in various Puranas, perhaps derived from diplomatic links with North India. (We know from Megasthenes that such lists were current in Mauryan governing circles.) The long chronology as we have it is the result of combining the two sources with adjustments to make them fit.

Plausibly, then, the oldest Sinhala tradition is that of the lineage of teachers. How old is that? It may of course go back to the arrival of Buddhism in Ceylon in the third century B.C. and have then been compiled on the basis of information handed down intact from the time of the Buddha. Unfortunately, there is no way of proving that at present. Since the last book of the Vinaya-pitakathe Parivaraor ``Appendix'' already gives the list of the teachers together with a list of subsequent Vinaya authorities in Ceylon which terminates around the first century B.C., it must be relatively early and may well have been current by that date i.e. by the time at which the Pali Canon was set into writing.

Most probably then it represents the oldest attempt at a dating known to us. It seem quite possible that Ceylon which was a major trading area around this period may have been one of the main centres of South Asian Buddhism during some periods after the end of the Mauryan dynasty. Indeed prior to the Kusanas Anuradhapura and the Sunga and Satavahana capital of Vidisa (with which the Buddhism of Ceylon appears to have had some links) were quite possibly the two chief focal points of Buddhist activity for a while. If so, it is not at all surprising that the Sinhala texts should preserve earlier Buddhist traditions linked to the dynasties of North and Central India. Heinz Bechert, however, takes a rather different view.

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