08 June 2018

Asoka's Dates and Historicity

I recently had the pleasure of meeting Joe Cribb at the Ancient India and Iran Trust (25 May 2018). Joe was keeper of coins at the British Museum and is an expert on early coins in the area of what is now Afghanistan and Pakistan. However, his main interest is in what coins and other physical objects can tell us about chronology. The gist of his lecture for the AIIT was a revised chronology of the Kushan period of Gandhāra, ca. 1-500 CE. The lecture covered much the same ground as a recent paper: Numismatic evidence and the date of Kaniṣka I. This is an important result for anyone interested in, for example, early Buddhist art in Gandhāra. Some of the earliest images of the Buddha appear on Kushan coins. 

Much of my pleasure at meeting Joe was that, just the day before, I had downloaded and read his 2017 article on the dates of Asoka. He was spurred to reconsider the dates of Asoka by our mutual friend Richard Gombrich, former Professor of Sanskrit at Oxford University, though it took him some time to get around to publishing his findings.

Dating the Buddha

In 1992, Gombrich had argued for a revised reading of the ordination lineages found in the Dīpavaṃsa, a history composed in Sri Lanka. Gombrich's most relevant conclusion is that:
...the Buddha died 136 years before Asoka’s inauguration, which means in 404 B.C. So, taking the margin of error into account, he died between 411 and 399 B.C., probably towards the middle of that period. (1992: 20)
This revised date for the parinibbāṇa has become widely accepted amongst scholars, though it is approximately a century later than the traditional dates (of which there are more than one). However, note that Gombrich's date relies on the only fixed point in early South Asian ancient history, the dates of Asoka.

Dating Asoka

The tale of the rediscovery of Asoka by Military and Civil officers of the British East India Company acting as amateur archaeologists is engagingly retold by Charles Allen in his book Ashoka (2012). I won't go over this ground, but I want to make the comparison with the Buddha as a legendary figure and Asoka as an historical figure.

We know about the Buddha from living Buddhist traditions and from the extant texts of both living and dead Buddhist traditions. The story of the Buddha as the founder of our religion has been told and retold for centuries. How many centuries we are not sure, but at least 20 and as many as 25. The old literary strata of our texts had to have been composed after the so-called "second urbanisation" which occured in the Ganges Valley after about 700-600 CE. The first urbanisation was the enigmatic Indus Valley Civilisation, which ended ca. 1700 BCE due to climate change. However, survivors of that prolonged drought moved north and blended with the populations there, so the people themselves lived on. The second urbanisation was a rather extended process, and some sources place the emergence of the key city of Sravasti as late as ca 400 CE. I need to look more closely at this as  Sravasti (Pāli Sāvatthī) is a key location for the Buddhist stories and its dates can help us to narrow down when the production of such stories began. 

Since the Nikāya and Āgama texts don't mention Asoka or his Grandfather, we may infer that they were composed before his time. I think Cribb makes this argument all the more plausible. This means that the earliest texts were composed between ca. 700 and 300 BCE.

The modern discussion about Asoka's dates is quite vague, partly because the basic facts became established in the 19th Century. For a few decades references were made to the original observations, but after a while everyone just takes it all for granted and says that Asoka reigned in the mid 3rd Century BCE and leaves it at that. His dates are sometimes given more precisely. The Wikipedia entry on Asoka, for example, citing the first edition of Romila Thapar's excellent History of India, says that he "ruled almost all of the Indian subcontinent from c. 268 to 232 BCE," the latter date also being the date of his death. These dates are widely accepted as being accurate, if not very precise.

Cribb notes that the dating of Asoka is based on a number of different sources of evidence:
Our knowledge of Mauryan chronology comes from five main sources: Buddhist texts like the Dīpavaṃsa, Jain and Purāṇic texts, references to the Mauryan kings in Classical Greek and Latin texts and the inscriptions of the reign of the third Mauryan king Ashoka. (2017: 5)
All of these sources, except for the inscriptions, were composed long after the life of Asoka. The inscriptions themselves are the single most important historical source, not only for Buddhists, but for all of ancient history in India. Rock Edict no. 13 mentions five Greco-Bactrian kings:
"Of the five Greek kings three are of chronological significance: Antikini must represent Antigonus Gonatus (276-239 BC); Maka must be Magas king of Cyrene (c 283- 250 BC); Alikasundra is most likely Alexander II of Epirus (272-255). The other two cannot be used to create any direct chronological evidence: they are Antiyoki, i.e., Antiochus, and Turamaya, i.e., Ptolemy." (2017: 8)
This edict is not dated, but by combining inferences drawn from other edicts, we may conjecture that it was created in the 13th or 14th year of Asoka's reign. Knowledge of these kings reflects the period 272-255 BCE and, allowing a year for the news of them to travel, suggests that the edict was made in 271-254, making his coronation dates 285/4-268/7 BCE. Sri Lankan sources suggest a delay of four years between accession and coronation.

Greek and Latin sources do not mention Asoka, but they do seem to mention his grandfather, Chandragupta:
"The Classical historians Diodorus (16.93-4) and Curtius (IX.2.1–7) referred to the Indian king ruling at the time of Alexander the Great's invasion of north-western India, 326-5 BCE, in terms which correspond to the descriptions in Indian texts of one of the Nanda predecessor of the Mauryan kings (low born, śūdra origin and the descendant of a barber, Singh 2012, 272–3), who the same sources state immediately preceded Chandragupta. Diodorus called him Xandrames; Curtius called him Agrammes. These texts can be seen as evidence that Chandragupta was not yet king in 325 BCE." (2017: 6)
Chandragupta is also apparently referred to by Pompeius Trogus, Strabo, Appian, Hegesandrus. All of these European classical authors were writing long after the time, and their observations have to be treated with caution. Cribbs notes that all previous treatments of them have taken these sources at face value, but they have also misinterpreted these texts to fit a preconceived idea about Indian chronology.

The Greek and Roman sources put the beginning of Chandragupta's reign "at about 321 BCE, with the range proposed being c. 324–320 BCE." (2017: 9). Cribb discusses the various accounts of the length of the reigns of Chandragupta, Bindusara, and Asoka, including summaries of the Purāṇīc and Jain texts. He concludes that "the Greek and Roman sources are pointing to the accession of Chandragupta during the period c. 311 (unlikely to be earlier than 316) to 303 BCE." (2017: 11).

As it turns out, in order to make the highest number of the various dates match up, it is necessary to adopt Richard Gombrich's revised reading of the Dīpavaṃsa. This gives the date of Asoka year 1 based on his accession (with coronation four years later) as no earlier than 285/4 BCE and no later than 270/1 BCE.

Based on the Dipavaṃsa sources, anchored by the revised dates for Asoka, this places the Buddha's parinibbāṇa no earlier than 423 BCE and no later than 389 BCE, i.e., less precise than Gombrich's dates (411-399 BCE), but centred on roughly the period, i.e., beginning of the 4th Century BCE. As I noted above, Sravasti might have emerged as a city around this time or only a little earlier. Sravasti is the established capital of Kosala in Buddhist and Jain texts, as well as in Pāṇini's grammar.

Cribb sounds a final note of caution that we do not actually know that the edicts of Asoka were composed and/or inscribed by him or during his lifetime. We need to constantly question the accepted wisdom of our time, because it is often simply based on assumptions that have become hidden over time.

A Historical Figure?

Some time ago I linked to David Drewes (2017) article, in which he starts out by saying:
We are thus left with the rather strange proposition that Buddhism was founded by a historical figure who has not been linked to any historical facts, an idea that would seem decidedly unempirical, and only dubiously coherent. (Drewes 2017: 1)
This, unsurprisingly, proved to be a provocative statement for many Buddhists and members of the Triratna Buddhist Order. For many of us the historicity of the Buddha is not only beyond doubt but to doubt it seems a little perverse. I bring it up again because Cribb's article draws together all the research which makes Asoka seem to very definitely be a historical figure and this highlighted for me what a historical figure is.

Over and above the inscriptions in stone which purport to have have been erected by Asoka, the stories of Asoka were preserved by Buddhists, Jains, and Hindus in India, and by Greeks and Romans outside of India. Of course, we must keep in mind that the Greek Herodotus was not only called the Father of History, but also the Father of Lies. Like other writers of his age, he never let the truth get in the way of a good story (there is nothing new about "fake news"). All of these sources, particularly those composed centuries after the facts they recount, taken individually must be treated with caution, even the inscriptions themselves. However, taken together they make a compelling case. Asoka may well be a figure of legends and myths, but he also has a good claim to be the first genuinely historical figure in Indian history (Pāṇīni is another claimant to the title, but his dates are based on Asoka's).

In contrast, the Buddha is a figure only of Buddhist stories. No account of him is found in Jain or Hindu texts, let alone in Latin or Greek. It might be argued that they could not be expected to record someone outside of their own communities, except that the Buddhist texts record many encounters between the Buddha and non-Buddhists. Of course, there are no written records until some centuries later, but if we preserved stories from that time, why would others not? Would the Brahmins not have been keen to denounce Buddhists as heretics for denying both ātman and Brahman?

Recall that, by the time of Roman and Greek contact with the Mauryans, the Buddha was nearly a century dead and his followers could be found throughout the Empire. Did other groups really not meet any or hear news of them?

One of the arguments for the historicity of the Buddha (i.e., for his being a historical figure) is that we all tell the same story, more or less, about him. I'm not the first to point out that actually the received story is contradicted in many details in the Ariyapariyesanā Sutta account of his life. In an unpublished article (Attwood 2013), I've argued that we know his name was not Siddhārtha and there is reason to doubt that his name was even Gotama. With respect to this, if Buddhism began with a small group of people and expanded out, at the end of the process all Buddhists would have a version of the original story of founding that the small group told. In a published article (2012) I argued that, based on the preserved stories, the small group in question, the Śākya tribe, might have arrived in Central Ganges Valley having ultimately come from Iran. That idea was first put forward informally by Michael Witzel and I simply formalised it. The same year Witzel (2012) published a masterly account of the origins of world mythology in the small group who left Africa ca. 100,000 years ago (incidentally allowing us to set aside Jung's fantasy about a "collective unconscious").

The historicity of Asoka is not in doubt because there is a range of evidence for his having lived. Some of the details of his life may be vague or in doubt, but he himself is beyond any reasonable doubt. Asoka was a man who lived in India in the 3rd Century BCE. He inherited an Empire, which collapsed not long after his death. Accepting the historicity of Asoka is a simple matter of rationality. It would be irrational to argue that the evidence amounts to nothing.

Whether or not any reader accepts the historicity of the Buddha depends entirely on how much credence they give to the Buddhist stories about the Buddha. One of the arguments is that it is the simplest way to account for the stories - all those stories must be based on a man. I think this is doubtful for two reasons. The texts themselves are full of stories that are unequivocally myths (stories about gods and fairies) and legends (stories about past Buddhas). We know that the authors of these stories had good imaginations, they used a wealth of similes, metaphors, imagery, and humour to convey their message. They clearly did make up stories (e.g., the Jātakas) in order to communicate their values. And such stories are also common to all of Buddhism. So why not the founder figure also?

The other objection to this is that the preference for simple answers is a known cognitive bias and it turns out that things are almost never simple. We tend to think of evolution in terms of the tree metaphor - things getting more complex over time, and therefore simpler as we look back in time. History, in this view, is simpler, the further back we go. This bias makes a single founder figure, uninfluenced by his family or culture, seem much more likely than it otherwise would. It's common, for example, for naive historians to say that WWI was started by the assassination of Archduke Ferdinand, ignoring the vast number of factors which had to have accumulated beforehand for this spark to give rise to a global war.

This may also be an artefact of what is sometimes called The Great Man Theory of History. In this view, a handful of men (not women), are responsible for history. Therefore, when we study history, we give precedence to studying the lives of great men and trying to understand their psychology. The ways in which this is wrong are so numerous as to require a book to refute them all. Most of how we think about individual psychology is bunk, based on fantasies composed by Freud and his bastards. Social factors are much more likely to influence behaviour than individual psychology, including in the case of powerful men. Women are as much a part of history. And those men who are powerful are often involved in the mass manipulation of societies that have to bend to their will instead of rebelling in order for the man to wield power (i.e., societies make individuals great, not the other way around). 

It is more accurate to say that everything influences everything else and that any one person seen in isolation is very unlikely to be significant. Founders do occur. But if we take the example of Christianity, it has long been acknowledged by scholars that the shape of Christianity as a religion had a lot more to do with people down the ages than it does to do with Jesus. Buddhism is much the same. Whenever the founder became inconvenient, followers simply changed the story or made up a new bit, just as they made up his forgotten name.

The Buddha's final death was seen as extremely inconvenient by all Buddhists by the beginning of the Common Era. For most Buddhists, the knowledge that the Buddha was gone and never coming back was a catastrophe. They started to invent new stories: this included Buddhas from parallel universes (and we mock the Scientologists for their beliefs). Best of all, we invented a class of beings (with both mythic and human representatives) who were able to get enlightened without disappearing from the world - i.e., awakening without the ending of rebirth, when to that point the whole raison d'être of Buddhism was to end rebirth. These beings would stay to help out, the way that the Buddha had not. There was even a suggestion (played up by some modern Buddhists) that Gotama had been selfish to get enlightened and end rebirth for himself, leaving the rest of us on the carousel.

In any case, I hope the contrast between the Buddha and Asoka is clear with respect to the kind of evidence that makes a person a "historical person". For Asoka, there is a wealth of evidence both textual and physical. For the Buddha, only stories told by Buddhists.

The last time I bought this up within the Triratna Buddhist Order, some people argued that it didn't matter to them whether or not the Buddha was historical. I think this attitude is probably quite widespread. But as some people in our community still struggle with this issue or reject any suggestion that the founder myth is not true, or at least based on a true story, it is problematic for all of us. We agree, to some extent, on the role of faith in our Order, but are not in harmony on the issue of articles of faith. For example, on the issues of karma and rebirth, even those of us who believe in the Buddhist versions of the twin myths of the just world and the afterlife, disagree on the details of how they work. 

Some years ago Dharmacārin Subhūti expressed his fear that we might drift into doctrinal incoherence and therefore needed to impose limits on the Order. I would argue that we long ago passed that point, if, indeed, we ever had such coherence. Discussions about articles of faith such as the founder, the just world, and afterlife are apt to be emotionally charged and divisive. Not believing (and there are many of us who don't) is seen as deeply problematic: more so, for example, than the gap between those who favour incompatible Buddhists views on such issues as those who draw fairly exclusively on Theravāda, Madhyamaka, or Yogācāra ideology, for example. These are three incompatible views.

Non-sectarian scholarship inevitably steps on people's sacred cows. Which is why most of us ignore it in favour of sectarian scholarship, I suppose.


Sources Cited

Allen, C. (2012). Ashoka: The Search for India's Lost Emperor. Abacus

Attwood, J. (2012). Possible Iranian Origins for Sākyas and Aspects of Buddhism. Journal of the Oxford Centre for Buddhist Studies, 3, 47-69. Online

Attwood, J. (2013) Siddhārtha Gautama: What‘s in a Name?. Unpublished. https://www.academia.edu/4866512/Siddhārtha_Gautama_Whats_in_a_Name

Cribb, J. (2017). 'The Greek Contacts of Chandragupta Maurya and Ashoka and their Relevance to Mauryan and Buddhist Chronology' in Kamal Sheel, Charles Willemen and Kenneth Zysk (eds.) From Local to Global, Prof. A.K. Narain Commemoration Volume, Papers in Asian History and Culture (3 vol.). Delhi: Buddhist World Press. Vol. I: 3–27. Online.

Drewes, D. (2017). The Idea of the Historical Buddha. JIABS. 40: 1–25. Online.

Gombrich, R. (1992). 'Dating the Buddha: A Red Herring Revealed' in Heinz Bechert (ed.), The Dating of the Historical Buddha/Die Datierung des historischen Buddha, Part 2 (Symposien zur Buddhismusforschung, IV, 2). Göttigen: venderhoeck & Ruprect, pp.237-59. Online.

Witzel, E. J. M. (2012). The Origins of the World's Mythologies. Oxford University Press.

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