Historical Buddhist Eras
According to Buddhist belief, the Buddha inaugurated a new epoch in human history. The suttas state quite clearly that the current historical period is degenerative (entropic) in character, and is only “lifted up” by the appearance of dharma. Although three Buddhas have appeared in ancient prehistoric times, all historical memory of them has perished. Therefore, the Buddha of the current era is Siddartha Gautama.
The Buddhist era, referred to as B.E., a.k.a. A.B. (“After the Buddha”), is counted from the date of the parinirvana rather than from his birth or enlightenment. The Buddhist era (B.E.) is used mainly in Cambodia, Laos, Myanmar, Thailand, and Sri Lanka. In Burma, this is calculated as May 13, 544 BCE. In Thailand, however, it is March 11, 545 BCE. The 2,500th anniversary of the parinirvana – the midpoint of the Buddhist 5,000 year era – was celebrated in 1956 CE on this basis. However, contemporary Buddhist scholarship has almost universally abandoned the view that the Buddha died in or about 544 or 545 BCE. Thus, in addition to the aforementioned small discrepancy between the Burmese and Thai calendars, neither of these dates is now accepted by a majority of scholars based on discrepancies that began to be identified as early as 1836. Although the usually quoted date is now 483 or 486 BCE, this date too is disputed and there is no universally accepted date of the parinirvana that could be used as the basis for a universal Buddhist epoch.
The Dates of the Parinirvana of the Buddha
Buddhist traditions concerning the date of the parinirvana vary widely. Some Mahayanists tend to place the parinirvana significantly more recently than the Theravada tradition; for example, 368 BCE. Other proposed dates include 949 BCE or 878 BCE (especially in Korea and Japan), 881 BCE (Tibet, Mongolia), and 686 BCE. Because the Sri Lankan tradition does not preserve any historical memory of disagreement as to the date of the parinirvana, until fairly recently scholars have generally accepted the Sri Lankan evidence as the basis for the calculation while at the same time modifying it, as explained above. However, at a conference held in Göttingen, Germany in 1988, alternative dates were discussed by 52 scholars, resulting in significant progress on the question of the date of the parinirvana of the Buddha.
Since the first discrepancies began to be identified in 1836, scholars have proposed various dates for the parinirvana, including 539 BCE, 485 or 486 BCE, 483 BCE, 415 BCE, 412 BCE, 410 BCE, 400 BCE, 386 BCE, 383 or 384 BCE, 368 BCE, 350 BCE, and 261 BCE, representing a range of opinions covering a span of almost 300 years! However, the median of this range is 405 BCE, very close to the consensus view that the Buddha died with ten or 20 years of 400 BCE and especially the opinion of Dr. Richard Gombrich, who argued that the Buddha died between 422 and 399 BCE.
The foregoing considerations are remarkable in themselves insofar as they point towards a consensus that the Buddha’s parinirvana occurred close to 405 BCE, about 140 years more recently than the traditional date and about 80 years more recently than the “accepted” date. However, the Göttingen meeting did not generate a consensus and thus provides no single necessary basis for a new Buddhist epoch that can be universally accepted. It seems unlikely that we will ever achieve a much greater consensus that the Göttingen conference.
The Ursa Major Cycle is a major cycle of time, which was a central feature of the ancient Vedic system from which both Buddhism and Hinduism originated. Ursa Major refers to an asterism of seven stars known in the West as the Big Dipper or the Plough. In Hindu astronomy, it is identified with the seven sages or rishis who revealed the Vedas to humanity, but the veneration of Ursa Major is a universal human archetype, apparently associated with shamanism, which goes back at least 13,000 years. One reason for the veneration of Ursa Major is that it traces a circuit in the sky that rotates around the North Pole of the earth, similar in fact to the precession of the equinoxes that defines the twelve astrological ages. In Indian astrology, the zodiac is divided into 27 lunar mansions (nakshatras). Ursa Major passes through each of these nakshatras in 100 years, at the rate of 8 minutes of arc per year. Thus, it completes a single rotation in 2,700 years. This is called the Ursa Major cycle. G. Kumar says,
The constellation of Ursa Major (The Saptha Rishis) move backwards along the Zodiac, staying in a constellation for 100 years. To make a circuit of the Zodiac, they take 27*100 = 2700 years. This is known as an Ursa Major Cycle. Remarks Prof Drayson in “Asiatic Researches,” “The Indians thought proper to connect their mythology with an astronomical period of a strange nature. It is that of the Seven Rishis, moving along the Zodiac in a retrograde motion of 2700 years.” Ursa Major was in Regulus at the start of the Mahabharatha War. The first astronomical calendar was erected by the Indian emperor Vaivaswatha Manu (circa 8736 BC) and it was based on the Ursa Major Cycle.
Remarkably, the interval from the advent of the Kali Yoga on January 14, 3102 BCE (February 18, Julian) to 402 BCE is exactly 2,700 years! Thus, this epoch identifies Siddhartha Gautama Buddha as a new rishi, the inaugurator of a new cycle of dharma for humanity.
With respect to the date, the Mahaparinibbana Sutta says that when the Buddha died he lay down between two sala trees, with his head to the north (the axis of Ursa Major), aged 80, at the end of his 81st year of life, and “at that time the twin sala trees broke out in full bloom, though it was not the season of flowering.” We also know that approximately three months later the First Council was held, at the beginning of the rainy season. We know from the story of the birth of the Buddha that the sal or sala tree is in full blossom in May. In fact, it flowers in April and May, which corresponds to Indian summer. The rainy season is July to September. January 14 would place the Buddha’s death in late winter, and the flowering of the sala trees was truly “out of season.” Whether or not this description records an historical event is irrelevant. It clearly alludes to a time that is consistent with our chronology, which is all that is required.
Based on this chronology, we would then say that the Buddha was conceived at the Summer Solstice, June 30, 483 BCE; born at the Vernal Equinox, March 28, 482 BCE; and enlightened on the Full Moon day of Taurus, May 4, 448 BCE, corresponding to various traditions preserved in the Pali Canon.
1. “A. Bareau ‘La Date du Nirvana’ Journal Asiatique (1953), pp. 27-52, tabulates over fifty traditional calculations of the year of the Buddha’s nirvana, ranging from about 2100 BC to 265 BC.” Gyurme Dorje and Matthew Kapstein, The Nyingma School of Tibetan Buddhism: Its Fundamentals and History, Vol. 2: Reference Material (Boston: Wisdom, 1991), n. 1328, p. 93.
2. Cousins (2014, Sept. 30) says 368 AD, but this must be a mistake.
3. It seems that there may be a connection with the seven dharmrajas of Shambhala and the Kalki kings, who reign at intervals of 100 years. Two Ursa Major cycles brings us almost to the time of Shambhala.
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