published on 02 May 2013
Buddhism is one of the most influential traditions of the Eastern world, with about two and a half thousand years of development. It has touched and adorned virtually every single aspect of Asian society: its lore, mythology, morals, art and even metaphysics and religion, despite the fact the Buddha, its founder, does not seem to have had any kind of metaphysical or religious concerns.
There are still areas in which there is no agreement among scholars and these include disputes over translations of different key doctrinal terms, reliability of different sources, even the date in which the Buddha was born and died is uncertain. As research increases and becomes more specific in different areas, we come across the paradox of scholars knowing more and more about less and less.
The Controversy on Dates of the Buddha
Reading “The Cambridge History of India”, vol. 1 (1922), we find the following statement:
There is now a general agreement among scholars that Buddha died within a few years of 480 B.C.
Statements like this are found in many books of world history, Indian history and history of religions. If this claim were correct, then it would be the earliest accurate date known in Indian history.
The reality is that there is not a unanimously accepted date for the historical Buddha’s life amongst scholars. In 1988 CE a symposium named “The Dating of the Historical Buddha” took place in Gottingen, Germany. The dates proposed by a group of experts who attended goes from 486 BCE to 261 BCE for the decease of the Buddha.
The sequence of events in these centuries is somehow obscure and complex, which is why dating the Buddha’s life is not so simple. On top of this, there are two different chronologies used to date the life of the Buddha: the so-called short chronology (attested by Indian sources and their Chinese and Tibetan translations) and the long chronology (based on the testimony of the Sinhalese chronicles). This first one is sometimes referred to as the Indian chronology and the second one as the Ceylonese chronology.
Indian Emperor Ashoka the Great (304–232 BCE), who ruled India from 268 to 232 BCE, seems to have turned Buddhism into a state religion and encouraged Buddhist missionary activity. He also provided a favourable climate for the acceptance of Buddhist ideas, and generated among Buddhist monks certain expectations of patronage and influence on the machinery of political decision making. Prior to Ashoka Buddhism was a relatively minor tradition in India and some scholars have proposed that the impact of the Buddha in his own day was relatively limited. Archaeological evidence for Buddhism between the death of the Buddha and the time of Ashoka is scarce; after the time of Ashoka it is abundant.
The Theravada tradition claims that the death of the Buddha occurred in 544 or 543 BCE: this calculation is based on the long chronology (Ceylonese). When scholars came to know the exact dates for Emperor Ashoka, it turned out to be obvious that this chronology had some errors and the dating of the Buddha based on this chronology was no longer acceptable. Essentially, the dates for Emperor Ashoka in the long chronology are miscalculated by around 60-70 years. Therefore, the dates of the Buddha had to be recalculated and most Western Indian scholars moved the date of the Buddha’s death to 487 or 486 BCE. This last date continued to hold consensus among scholars for many decades and the long chronology came to be known as the “Corrected long chronology” or “Corrected Ceylonese chronology”.
Early Buddhist texts from mainland India, as well as references in the earliest historiographic work of the Theravada tradition date the death of the Buddha a hundred years before the reign of Emperor Ashoka. This is based on the short chronology (Indian) and it suggests the Buddha died on 370-368 BCE. There is a lot that favours this later date, since it would mean only a hundred years between the death of the Buddha and the reign of Ashoka and would increase the value of the abundant Ashokan and post-Ashokan evidence in understanding early Buddhism.
The disagreement we find in non-scholar Buddhist tradition is even stronger: the decease of the Buddha ranges widely from 2420 BCE to 290 BCE and most of them have no support on evidence.
Another method to date the life of the Buddha is to consider the list of the so-called patriarchs. All early Buddhist accounts agree that there were only five patriarchs between the death of the Buddha and the reign of Emperor Ashoka. Dating the Buddha’s life based on the succession of patriarchs seems to be a much more reliable method of calculation than basing it on any dates which are often inaccurate and contradictory. This view favours a date closer to a hundred years before the time of Ashoka’s reign: a nearly 220 year gap (which is the amount of time suggested by the corrected long chronology) seems to be too much time for only five patriarchs.
To sum-up, the death of the Buddha according to different sources are as follows:
- Long chronology (Ceylonese): 544-543 BCE
- Corrected long chronology: 487-486 BCE
- Short chronology (Indian chronology): 368 BCE
- Buddhist tradition (non-scholar): ranges from 2420 to 290 BCE
- Succession of the five patriarchs: Five succession of teachers before Ashoka
Based on all the information available, it does not seem to be possible to date the life of the Buddha in an exact and reliable way. What seems to be certain is that the Buddha died approximately at the age of eighty some time between 410 and 370 BCE. Any date between these two means that the Buddha passed away about 140-100 years before the reign of Emperor Ashoka.
While scholars might be concerned with the dating of the Buddha’s life, the issue is of very little importance within the Buddhist community. Some Buddhists believe that those who wish to understand Buddhism and are interested in the life of the historical Buddha are as mistaken as a person who wishes to study mathematics and ends up studying the biography of Pythagoras or Newton. In some exercises performed in Chinese and Japanese Buddhist monasteries, the monks go even further: they are requested to doubt the existence of the Buddha. This is because the core of Buddhism is not the Buddha himself: it is the doctrine. By imagining the Buddha never existed they avoid focusing on the idol so that they can embrace the ideal.