Reconciling scholarly opinion of date range of Buddha's life

Textual analysis and comparative discussion on early Buddhist sects and texts.
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Chula
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Reconciling scholarly opinion of date range of Buddha's life

Postby Chula » Mon Jul 18, 2016 4:30 am

As you guys probably know, the general consensus among scholars now is that the Buddha lived from 490-480BC to 410-400BC. The early 1900s consensus was 563-483BC afaik. The traditional Theravada date range is 624-544BC (based on the fact that the 2500 years since Parinibbana celebration happened in 1956 in Sri Lanka).

In trying to reconcile the ~480-400BC opinion I tried to line up the known lineage of kings during and after Buddha's time - as far as I know most are suggested in the sanskrit Puranas that kept a chronology.

Focusing on the dynasties associated with the Magadha region (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Magadha#Kings_of_Magadha) and Mauryan empire that succeeded it (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Maurya_Empire), I find dates of reign for:
- Bimbisara (544-493BC)
- Ajatasattu (493-461BC)
- Shisunaga (413-395BC)
- Kakavarna Kalashoka (395-367BC)
- Mahanandin (367-345BC)
- Mahapadma Nanda (345-?BC)
- Dhana Nanda (?-321BC)
- Chandragupta Maurya (321-297BC)
- Bindusara (297-273BC)
- Ashoka (268-232BC)

Now I agree that these dates might have to be taken with the same grain of salt as the traditional accounts of the date range of the lifespan of the Buddha. To rely on a different source, I checked when Alexander the Great reached India. According the Greek sources of Alexander's life which are more widely accepted as accurate, this is during the time of Dhana Nanda (327BC). Also, according to the Pali Canon, the Buddha was a contemporary of King Bimbisara, and Ajatasattu's betrayal and later support for the first council is quite widely chronicled.

By accepting the two assumptions above to be accurate, I'm finding it hard to reconcile a ~480-400BC timeline for the life of Buddha. If Ajatasattu was the king of Magadha during the Buddha's parinibbana and that was in ~400BC, then it leaves less than 80 years for 3 dynasties (Haryanka, Shisunaga, Nanda) of kings of the Magadha empire to reign (since Greek sources confirm Dhana Nanda was king of Magadha in 327BC). A much more plausible chronology would have the Buddha's parinibbana falling on 483BC as early 20th century scholars suggested.

Can anyone shed some light on this? I'm sure I'm missing part of the picture since I'm sure that what I've brought up above must have been reconciled by modern scholars when they came to a general consensus of ~480-400BC for the Buddha's lifetime.

Thanks in advance!

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Chula
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Re: Reconciling scholarly opinion of date range of Buddha's life

Postby Chula » Sun Jul 31, 2016 5:08 pm

I ran across this detailed paper on the chronology of research done on this question:
http://www.ahandfulofleaves.org/documen ... s_1996.pdf

It gives a good background on where the ~483BC parinibbana date consensus came from and why the current ~400BC suggestion has taken root. A summary for those interested:

Reasons for ~563-483BC consensus in late 19th/early 20th century instead of the traditional 624-544BC
- Pali sources seemed to have the Maurya rulers (Chandragupta, Ashoka) 60 years too early (more solid evidence of their years of rule due to Greek sources)
- Purana (sanskrit chronology of kings) supported this later date
- Jain sources supported this later date.
- Supposed independent Chinese source that suggested ~486BC for the parinibbana

Reasons why ~480-400BC became late 20th century-current consensus
- Growing sense that the earlier date does not fit well with the archaeological data which suggests later
- Recognition that the Chinese source might not actually be independent but originates from Sri Lanka, so not additional evidence
- More awareness of Sarvastivadin sources that place the ascension of Ashoka around 100 years after the parinibbana instead of 218 years as the Pali sources state.

There is also a hypothesis on why the Pali source has +218 years for Ashoka as a misinterpretation of the Vinaya head monk lineage ages at their deaths as their years as monks.

I haven't had time to properly process all this and its implications but I wanted to gather all the information I could find for those who might be interested/wanted to correct me if I was misinterpreting anything.

On my conjecture that it was unlikely to have 16 kings in 3 dynasties in 80 years (Ajatasattu to Dhana Nanda), I recently watched a short documentary on the Roman empire right after Julius Caesar in which there was a period of 20+ rulers in ~50 years, so I think it is possible when you have constant civil war/in-fighting where kings don't last more than a year or two.
Last edited by Chula on Sun Jul 31, 2016 8:12 pm, edited 1 time in total.

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Bhikkhu Pesala
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Re: Reconciling scholarly opinion of date range of Buddha's life

Postby Bhikkhu Pesala » Sun Jul 31, 2016 5:56 pm

The topic doesn't interest me, but what is more interesting is the month of the Buddha's demise.

This is traditionally commemorated at Vesak (in May), but the Mahāparinibbāna Sutta suggests that it happened about three months after the end of the Rainy Season, which would be three months from October, in January.
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Chula
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Re: Reconciling scholarly opinion of date range of Buddha's life

Postby Chula » Sun Jul 31, 2016 8:47 pm

Bhikkhu Pesala wrote:The topic doesn't interest me, but what is more interesting is the month of the Buddha's demise.

This is traditionally commemorated at Vesak (in May), but the Mahāparinibbāna Sutta suggests that it happened about three months after the end of the Rainy Season, which would be three months from October, in January.


Interesting point. Wonder where/when the tradition of commemorating the Parinibbana on Vesak started.. I'm guessing it's from the commentaries?


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