Chronology in ancient India is extremely difficult until we get to King Asoka. “The dates of King Asoka’s reign,” writes Hiralawa Akira, “usually given as 268-232 B.C.E., are based on Rock Edict XIII” (95). These edicts were inscribed on conveniently located rock surfaces and were distributed throughout his kingdom. These have been found and studied.
Romila Thapar gives similar dates for the reign of Ashoka, saying that he ruled from “268-231” (xiv). The dating of the Buddha is not as clear or certain.
As Piya Tan explains, “Traditionally—according to the Theravāda monastics and teachers, represented by the ethnic Buddhisms of Sri Lanka, Myanmar, Thailand, Cambodia and Laos—the Buddha was born in 623 BCE and died in 543 BCE.” These are based on the Sri Lankan chronicles (Dipavamsa and Mahavamsa).
Hiralawa Akira mentions a number “difficulties of accepting the traditional Sri Lankan account of the early Buddhist order” (91). This begins with the dating of the Buddha’s passing away. Most scholar agree that the traditional date is wrong.
Contemporary Western scholars generally accept the Buddha’s final passing away,” writes Piya Tan “as being between 410 and 400 BCE, probably 404 BCE, which then gives his dates as 484-404 BCE.”
Vishvapani Blomfield sums up our situation, we “cannot be certain when he lived. Buddhist traditions agree that Gautama gained Enlightenment aged thirty-five and lived to eighty” (8).
Richard Gombrich believes he has solved this problem, and most scholars seem to agree. As Peter Harvey states, “Gombrich sees Gotama’s death as between 422 and 399 BCE, with c. 404 as most likely, giving his dates as c. 484-404 BCE” (8).
Having looked at the evidence, I follow Vishvapani Blomfield in placing the Buddha’s “birth around 484 BCE, his Enlightenment in 449 BCE and his death in 404 BCE” (8). This will be the dates I use in my writings.
Those who are interested in delving deeper into the subject are encouraged to read the articles by L.S. Cousins and Charles S. Prebish and check out the references below.
- Akira, Hiralawa. A History of Indian Buddhism: From Sakyamuni to Early Mahayana. Translated and Edited by Paul Groner. Delhi: Motilal Banarsidass Publishers Private Limited, 2007.
- Blomfield, Vishvapani. Gautama Buddha: The Life and Teachings of the Awakened One. London: Querus, 2012.
- Cousins, L.S. “The Dating of the Historical Buddha: A Review Article.” Journal of the Royal Asiatic Society 6, 1 (1996) pp. 57 – 63.
- Harvey, Peter. An Introduction to Buddhism: Teachings, History and Practices, 2nd ed. New York: Cambridge University Press, 2013.
- Prebish, Charles S. “Cooking the Buddhist Books: The Implications of the New Dating of the Buddha for the History of Early Indian Buddhism.” Journal of Buddhist Ethics (ISSN 1076-9005).
- Tan, Piya. “The Oral Tradition of the Early Buddhists.” The Dharmafarers. PDF file. 2021.
- Thapar, Romila. The Penguin History of Early India: From the Origins to AD 1300. Haryana, India: Penguin Random House India, 2021.