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Buddhist Suttas

Translated from Pāli by T. W. Rhys Davids

Oxford, the Clarendon Press
Vol. XI of The Sacred Books of the East
translated by various Oriental scholars and edited by F. Max Müller

Public Domain
This work has been reformatted for presentation on BuddhaDust
Thanks to J.B. Hare's Internet Sacred Text Archives for originally posting this material
Digitized and formatted for Internet Sacred Text Archives by Cristopher M. Weimer

The Book of the Great Decease

to the
Book of the Great Decease

In translating this Sutta I have followed the text published by my friend the late Mr. Childers, first in the journal of the Royal Asiatic Society, and afterwards separately. In the former the text appeared in two instalments, the first two sheets, with many various readings in the footnotes, in the volume for 1874; and the remainder, with much fewer various readings, in the volume for 1876. The reprinted text omits most of the various readings in the first two sheets, and differs therefore slightly in the paging. The letters D, S, Y, and Z, mentioned in the notes, refer to MSS. sent to Mr. Childers from Ceylon by myself, Subhūti Unnānse, Yātramulle Unnānse, and Mudliar de Zoysa respectively. The MS. mentioned as P (in the first two sheets quoted only in the separate edition) is, no doubt, the Dīgha Nikāya MS. of the Phayre collection in the India Office Library. The other four are now I believe in the British Museum.

The Hon. George Turnour of the Ceylon Civil Service published an analysis of this work in the journal of the Bengal Asiatic Society for 1839; but as he unfortunately skips, or only summarises, most of the difficult passages, his work, though a most valuable contribution for the time, now more than half a century ago, has not been of much service for the present purpose. Of much greater value was Buddhaghosa's commentary contained in the Sumaṅgala Vilāsinī[1]; but the great fifth-century commentator [xxxii] wrote of course for Buddhists, and not for foreign scholars; and his edifying notes and long exegetical expansions of the text (quite in the style of Matthew Henry) often fail to throw light on the very points which are most interesting, and most doubtful, to European readers.

The Mālālaṅkāra-vatthu, a late Pāli work by a Burmese author of the eighteenth century[2], is based, in that part of it relating to the last days of the Buddha, almost exclusively on the Book of the Great Decease, and on Buddhaghosa's commentary upon it. Bishop Bigandet's translation into English of a Burmese translation of this work, well known under the title of 'The Life or Legend of Gaudama the Budha of the Burmese,' affords evidence therefore of the traditional explanations of the text. In the course either of the original author's recasting, or of the double translation, so many changes have taken place, that its evidence is frequently ambiguous and not always quite trustworthy: but with due caution, it may be used as a second commentary.



The exact meaning which was originally intended by the title of the book is open to doubt. 'Great-Decease-Book' may as well mean 'the Great Book of the Decease,' as 'the Book of the Great Decease.' This book is in fact longer than any other in the collection, and the epithet 'Great' is often opposed in titles to a 'Short' Sutta of (otherwise) the same name[3]. But the epithet is also frequently intended, without doubt, to qualify the immediately succeeding word in the title[4]; and, though the phrase 'Great Decease,' as applied to the death of the Buddha, has not been found elsewhere, it is, I think, meant to do so here '.

[xxxiii] The division of the Book into chapters, or rather Portions for Recitation, is found in the MSS.; the division of these chapters into sections has been made by myself. It will be noticed that a very large number of the sections have already been traced, chiefly by Dr. Morris and myself, in various other parts of the Pāli Piṭakas: whole paragraphs or episodes, quite independent of the repetitions and stock phrases above referred to, recurring in two or more places. The question then arises whether (1) the Book of the Great Decease is the borrower, whether (2) it is the original source, or whether (3) these passages were taken over, both into it, and into the other places where they recur, from earlier sources. It will readily be understood that, in the present state of our knowledge, or rather ignorance, of the Pāli Piṭakas, this question cannot as yet be answered with any certainty. But a few observations may even now be made.

Generally speaking the third of the above possible explanations is not only more probable in itself, but is confirmed by parallel instances in literatures developed under similar conditions, both in the valley of the Ganges and in the basin of the Mediterranean.

It is quite possible that while some books — such as the Mahā-vagga, the Culla-vagga, and the Dīgha Nikāya-usually owe their resemblances to older sources now lost or absorbed; others — such as the Saɱyutta and the Aṅguttara — are always in such cases simply borrowers from sources still existing.

At the time when our Book of the Great Decease was put into its present shape, and still more so when a Book of the Great Decease was first drawn up, there may well have been some reliable tradition as to the events that took place, and as to the subjects of his various discourses, on the Buddha's last journey. He had then been a public Teacher for forty-five years; and his system of doctrine, which is really, on the whole, a very simple one, had already been long ago elaborated, and applied in numerous discourses to almost every conceivable variety of circumstances. What he then said would most naturally be, as it is represented to have been, a final recapitulation of the most [xxxiv] important and characteristic tenets of his religion. But these are, of course, precisely those subjects which are most fully and most frequently dealt with in other parts of the Pāli Piṭakas. No record of his actual words could have been preserved. It is quite evident that the speeches placed in the Teacher's mouth, though formulated in the first person, in direct narrative, are only intended to be summaries, and very short summaries, of what was said on these occasions. Now if corresponding summaries of his previous teaching had been handed down in the Order, and were in constant use among them, at the time when the Book of the Great Decease was put together, it would be a safe and easy method to insert such previously existing summaries in the historical account as having been spoken at the places where the Teacher was traditionally believed to have spoken on the corresponding doctrines. In the historical book the simple summaries would sufficiently answer every purpose; but when each particular matter became the subject of a separate book or division of a book, the same summaries would be included, but would be amplified and elucidated. And this is in fact the relation in which several of the recurring passages, as found in the Book of the Great Decease, stand to the same passages when found elsewhere.

On the other hand, some of the recurring passages do not consist of such summaries, but are actual episodes in the history. As an instance of these we may take the long extract at the end of the first, and the beginning of the second chapter (I, 20-II, 3, and again II, 16-II, 24), which is found also in the Mahā-vagga. The words are (nearly[5]) identical in both places, but in the Book of the Great Decease the account occurs in its proper place in the middle of a connected narrative, whereas in the Mahā-vagga, a treatise on the Rules and Regulations of the Order, it seems strangely out of place. So the passage, also a long one, with which the Book of the Great [xxxv] Decease commences (on the Seven Conditions of Welfare), seems to have been actually borrowed by the Aṅguttara Nikāya from our work.

The question of these summaries and parallel passages cannot be adequately treated by a discussion of the instances found in any one particular book. It must be considered as a whole, and quite apart from the allied question of the 'stock phrases' above alluded to, in a discussion of all the instances that can be found in the Pāli Piṭakas. For this purpose tabulated statements are essential, and as a mere beginning such a statement is here annexed (including the passages, marked with an asterisk, which have every appearance of belonging to the same category).


Book Of The Great Decease

Other Books

Chap. I

(34 sections)


Aṅguttara (Sutta-nipāta).




Aṅguttara (Cha-nipāta).




Dīgha (Sampasādaniya) and Saɱyutta (Satippaṭṭhāna-vagga).




Mahā-vagga VI, 28.



1, 2, 3

Mahā-vagga VI, 29.

Chap. II

(35 sections)

13,14, 15

Dīgha (Satipaṭṭhāna).
Majjhima (Satipaṭṭhāna).
Saɱyutta (Satipaṭṭhāna).
Vibhaṇga (Satipaṭṭhāna).




Mahā-vagga VI, 30.




Saɱyutta (Satippaṭṭhāna-vagga).

Chap. III

(66 sections)


Saɱyutta (Iddhipāda-vagga).
Aṅguttara (Aṭṭha-nipāta).




Aṅguttara (Aṭṭha-nipāta).




? Eight Assemblies.




Aṅguttara (Aṭṭha-nipāta).




Aṅguttara (Aṭṭha-nipāta).

Chap. IV

(58 sections)

2, 3

Aṅguttara (Kaṭuka-nipāta).





Aṅguttara (Kaṭuka-nipāta).

Chap. V

(69 sections)


Aṅguttara (Duka-nipāta).




Aṅguttara (Catuka-nipāta).




Aṅguttara (Catuka-nipāta).




Saɱyutta (Satippaṭṭhāna-vagga).




Dīgha (Mahā-sudassana-Sutta).




Culla-vagga V, 8, 1.




Mahā-vagga I, 38, 1.




Culla-vagga XI, I, 15.

Chap. VI

(62 sections)


Dīgha (Mahā-sudassana-Sutta).




Culla-vagga XI, I, 1.



No Sanskrit work has yet been discovered giving an account of the last days of Gotama; but there arc several Chinese works. which seem to be related to ours. Of one especially, named the Fo Pan-ni-pan King (apparently Buddha-Parinibbāna-Sutta, but such an expression is unknown in Pāli), Mr. Beal says[6]:

'This appears to be the same as the Sūtra known in the South.... It was translated into Chinese by a Shaman called Fa-tsu, of the Western Tsin dynasty, circa 200 A.D.'

I do not understand this date. The Western Tsin dynasty is placed by Mr. Beal himself on the fly-leaf of the Catalogue at 265-313 A.D. And whether the book referred to is really the same work as the Book of the Great Decease seems to me to be very doubtful. At p. 160 of his 'Catena of Buddhist Scriptures from the Chinese' Mr. Beal says, that another Chinese work 'known as the Mahā Parinirvāṇa Sūtra' 'is evidently the same as the Mahā Parinibbāna Sutta of Ceylon,' but it is quite evident from the extracts which he gives that it is an entirely different and much later work.

On this book there would seem further to be a translated commentary, Ta Pan-ni-pan King Lo, mentioned [xxxvii] at p. 100 of the same Catalogue, and there assigned to Chang-an of the Tsin dynasty (589-619 A.D.).

At pp. 12-13 of the same Catalogue we find no less than seven other works, and an eighth on p. 77, not indeed identified with the Book of the Great Decease, but bearing titles which Mr. Beal represents in Sanskrit as Mahā parinirvāṇa Sūtra. They purport to be translated respectively --




A. D.


By Dharmaraksha of the Northern Liang dynasty



By Dharmaraksha of the Northern Liang dynasty



By Fa Hian and Buddhabhadra of the Eastern Tsin dynasty



By Gñānabhadra and others of the Eastern Tang dynasty



By Dharmagupta and others of the Western Tsin dynasty



By Fa Hian of the Eastern Tsin dynasty






By Dharmabodhi of the Former Wei dynasty
Indian author, Vasubandhu.

circa 200



Whether Nos. 1 and 2, and again 3 and 6 are the same is not stated; and in the Indian Antiquary for 1875 Mr. Beal gives an account of another undated work, as existing in the India Office Collection, bearing a different title from any of the above, but which he also translates as Mahāparinibbāna Sutta. It purports to be the very oldest of the Vaipulya Sūtras, whereas the book quoted in the Catena is there said to be 'one of the latest of the expanded Sūtras.'

'The general outline,' says Mr. Beal[7], 'is this. Buddha, on a certain occasion, proceeded to Kinsinagara (sic), and entering a grove of Sāla trees, there reposed. He received a gift of food from Chanda, an artisan of the neighbouring town. After partaking of the food he was seized with illness. He discoursed through the night with his disciples, and disputed with certain heretical teachers. At early dawn he turned on his right side with his head to the north, and died. The Sāla trees bent down to form a canopy over his head. The account then proceeds to relate [xxxviii] the circumstances of his cremation, and the subsequent disputes, between the Mallas and others, for his ashes.'

There is a curious echo here of some of the sections translated below; though each particular item of the summary is really in contradiction with the corresponding part of the Pāli book. There is perhaps another Chinese work on the death of Buddha, of the existence of which I have been informed, through the kind intervention of Professor Max Müller, by Mr. Kasawara. It was translated by Po-fa-tsu between 290 and 306 A. D. It seems to be the same as the first mentioned above, but it contains a good deal of matter not found in the Mahā-parinibbāna-Sutta (notably an account of the Rāgagaha Council, the mention of which is so conspicuously absent from the Pāli work); and it omits many of the sections found in the Pāli. Mr. Kasawara has been kind enough to send me the following details regarding those omissions, and they are of peculiar interest as compared with the table given above[8]:


Chapters in the Pāli

Sections wanting in Chinese.

1st Chapter


3rd Chapter


4th Chapter


5th Chapter

4-6; 16-23; 27-31; 48-51.

6th Chapter

27; 48-50.



There is no evidence to show that any of the above works are translations of our Sutta, or in any sense the same work. No reliance, in fact, can be placed upon the mere similarity of title in order to show that a Chinese work and an Indian one are really the same: and I regret that attempts should have been made to fix the date of Indian works by the fact that Chinese translations bearing similar titles are said to have been made in a certain period. But the above-mentioned works on the Great Decease will, when published, throw valuable light on the traditions of different, though no doubt later, schools of Buddhist thought; and a detailed comparison would probably throw a very interesting light on the way in which [xxxix] religious legends of this kind vary and grow; and the existence of these Chinese translations affords ground for the hope that we may some day discover an earlier Sanskrit work on the same subject[9].



The cremation ceremonies described in the sixth chapter are not without interest. It would be natural enough that Gotama should have been buried without any of those ritualistic forms the usefulness of which he denied, and without any appeal to gods whose power over men he ignored. But the tone of the narrative makes it at least possible that there was not really anything unusual in the method of his cremation; and that the elaborate rites prescribed in the Brāhmanical books for use at a funeral[10] were not, in practice, observed in the case of the death of any person other than a wealthy Brāhman, or some layman of rank who was a devoted adherent of the Brāhmans.

In the same way we find that in those countries where the more ancient form of Buddhism still prevails, there are a few simple forms to be used in the case of the cremation of a distinguished Bhikkhu or Upāsaka; but in ordinary cases bodies are buried without any ceremony.

So in Ceylon, Robert Knox — whose rare and curious work, one of the most trustworthy books of travels extant, deserves more notice than it has received, and who was a captive there for many years before the natives were influenced by any contact with Europeans — says[11],

'It may not be unacceptable to relate how they burn their dead. As for persons of inferior quality, they are interred in some convenient places in the woods (there being no set places for burial), carried thither by two or three of their friends, and buried without any more ado. They lay them on their backs, with their heads to the West, and their feet to the East, as we do. Then these people go and wash: for they are unclean by handling the dead.

[xl] 'But persons of greater quality are burned, and that with ceremony. When they are dead they lay them out, and put a cloth over their privy parts; and then wash the body, by taking half a dozen pitchers of water and pouring upon it. Then they cover him with a linen cloth, and so carry him forth to burning. This is when they burn the body speedily. But otherwise they cut down a tree that may be proper for their purpose, and hollow it like a hog-trough, and put the body, being disembowelled and embalmed, into it, filling up all about with pepper, and so let it lie in the house until it be the king's command to carry it out to the burning. For that they dare not do without the king's order if the person deceased be a courtier. Sometimes the king gives no order in a great while; it may be not at all: therefore, in such cases, that the body may not take up house-room or annoy them, they dig a hole in the floor of their house, and put hollowed tree and all in, and cover it. If afterwards the king commands to burn the body, they take it up again, in obedience to the king-otherwise there it lies.

'Their order for burning is this: if the body be not thus put into a trough or hollow tree, it is laid upon one of his bedsteads, which is a great honour among them. This bedstead with the body on it, or hollowed tree with the body in it, is fastened with poles, and carried upon men's shoulders unto the place of burning, which is some eminent place in the fields, or highways, or where else they please. There they lay it upon a pile of wood some two or three feet high; — then they pile up more wood upon the corpse, lying thus on the bedstead or in the trough. Over all they have a kind of canopy built (if he be a person of very high quality), covered at top, hung about with painted cloth, and bunches of cocoa-nuts, and green boughs; and so fire is put to it. After all is burnt to ashes, they sweep together the ashes into the manner of a sugar-loaf, and hedge the place round from wild beasts breaking in, and they will sow herbs there. Thus I saw the king's uncle, the chief tirinanx[12] (who was, as it were, the chief primate of all the [xli] nation), burned upon a high place, that the blaze might be seen a great way[13].'

I myself saw an Unnānse burned very much in this way near the Weyangoda Court-house; and there is a long account in the native newspaper, the Lak-riwi-kirana (Ceylon Sunbeam), of the 12th March, 1870, Of the cremation of a Weda-rāla, or native doctor. Bishop Bigandet relates in a note in his 'Life or Legend of Gautama' the corresponding ceremonies still in use in Burma, of which he has been a witness[14]; but cremation is apparently as seldom resorted to in Burma as it is in Ceylon.

The unceremonious mode of burying the dead referred to by Knox is not adopted in the more settled districts on the sea coast. When at Galle I enquired into the funeral customs there prevalent, with the following result[15]:

A few hours after a man has died, the relations wash the corpse, shave it; and, having clothed it with a strip of clean white cloth, place it on a bedstead covered with white cloth, and under a canopy (wiyana) also of white cloth. They then place two lamps, one to burn at the head, and the other at the foot of the corpse, and use perfumes.

A coffin is then prepared, covered with black cloth; and the body is placed on the coffin, and is then sprinkled over with lavender or rose-water. The women meanwhile bow backwards and forwards with their hands behind their heads, uttering loud wailings over the deceased.

Then the male relatives carry the coffin to the grave, which is dug in one of their own cocoa-nut topes near by, and over which is raised a more or less elaborate canopy or arch of cloths and evergreens (geḍi-ge), adorned with the tender leaves and flowers of the cocoa-nut. Along the path also from the house to the grave young cocoa-nut leaves and flowers are sometimes hung, and the pathway itself is often spread with clean white cloths.

The tom-tom beaters go first; and the dull monotonous [xlii] sound of their instruments of music is appropriate enough. Then follow some Buddhist mendicants, in number according to the wealth or influence of the deceased, and walking under a portable canopy of white cloth. Then the coffin is carried by the nearest male relatives, and followed by other male relatives and relations — no females, even the widowed mother of an only son, taking part in this last sad procession.

Three times the coffin is carried round the grave: then it is placed on two sticks placed across the mouth of the pit; and one end of a roll of white cloth is placed on the coffin, the other end being held by all the Unnānses (Bhikkhus) whilst the people repeat three times in Pāli the well-known formula of the Refuges (the simple Nicene Creed of the Buddhists):

'I take my refuge in the Buddha,
I take my refuge in the Dhamma,
I take my refuge in the Order.'[16]

Then the priests respond, thrice repeating in Pāli the well-known verse discussed below:[17]

'How transient are all component things!
Their nature's to be born and die;
Coming, they go; and then is best,
When each has ceased, and all is rest!'

Then the Unnānses let go the roll of white cloth, and whilst water is poured from a goblet into a cup placed on a plate until the cup is full to the brim[18], they again chaunt three times in Pāli the following verses: --

'As rivers, when they fill, must flow,
And reach, and fill the distant main;
[xliii] So surely what is given here
Will reach and bless the spirits there!

If you on earth will gladly give
Departed ghosts will gladly live!

As water poured on mountain tops
Must soon descend, and reach the plain;
So surely what is given here
Will reach and bless the sprits there!'[19]

The relations then place the coffin. in the grave, and each throws in a handful of earth. The Unnānses then go away, taking the roll or rolls of cloth, one end of which was placed upon the coffin. The grave is filled in. Two lights, one at the head of it, and one at the foot, are left burning. And then the friends and relations return to the house.

The funeral now being over, is followed by a feast; for though nothing may be cooked in a house or hut in which there is a corpse, yet plenty of food has been brought in from neighbouring tenements by the relations of the deceased.

There is, however, yet another very curious ceremony to be gone through. Three or seven days — whichever, according to the rules of astrology, is a lucky day — after the deceased person died, an Unnānse is duly invited to the house in which the deceased died. He arrives in the evening; reads bana (that is, the Word, passages from the sacred books) throughout the night; and in the morning is presented with a roll of white cloth, and is asked to partake of food, chiefly of course curries, of those different kinds of which the deceased had been most particularly fond.

[xliv] This ceremony is called Mataka Dānaya, (Gift for the Dead), and the previous feast is called Mataka Bhatta (Feast in honour of the Dead): the two combined taking the place of an ancient rite observed in pagan, pre-Buddhistic, times, and then also called Mataka Bhatta, in which offerings were made to the Petas; that is, to the manes, or departed ghosts, of ancestors and near relations. Such offerings are of course forbidden to Buddhists[20], and it is a very instructive instance of a survival in belief, of the effect of the natural reluctance to make much change in the mode of paying the customary funeral respect to deceased friends, that the kind of food supposed to be most appreciated by the dead should still be used in the Buddhist funeral rites.

Another part of the ceremony, that part where one end of a roll of cloth is placed on the coffin while the other end is held by all the assembled Unnānses[21], is a fragment of ritualistic symbolism which deserves attention. The members of the Buddhist Order of Mendicants were enjoined to avoid all personal decoration of any kind; and to attire themselves in cloths of no value, such as might be gathered from a dust heap (Paɱsu-kūla), or even from a cemetery. This was a principle to be followed, not a literal rule to be observed; and therefore from the first presents of strips of plain white cotton cloth, first torn in pieces to deprive them of any commercial value, then pieced together again and dyed a dull orange colour to call to mind the colour of old worn out linen, were the material from which the mendicants' clothing was actually made. But the duty of contempt for dress (called Paɱsu-kūlikaṅga, from the dust heap) was never lost sight of, and advantage was taken of the gifts given by the faithful at funerals to impress this duty upon the minds of the assembled Bhikkhus.

Nothing is known of any religious ceremony having been performed by the early Buddhists in India, whether the person deceased was a layman, or even a member of the [xlv] Order. The Vinaya Piṭaka, which enters at so great length into all the details of the daily life of the recluses, has no rules regarding the mode of treating the body of a deceased Bhikkhu. It was probably burnt, and very much in the manner described in the last chapter of our Sutta — that is to say, it was reverently carried out to some convenient spot, and there simply cremated on a funeral pyre without any religious ritual, a small tope being more often than not erected over the ashes. Though funerals are, naturally, not unfrequently mentioned in the historical books, and in the Birth Stories, there is nowhere any reference to a recognised mode of performing any religious ceremony[22].



The date of the Great Decease is not quite certain. The dwellers in the valley of the Ganges, for many generations after Gotama's death, were a happy people, who had no need of dates; and it was only long afterwards, and in Ceylon, that the great event became used as the starting-point for chronological calculations, as the Buddhist era.

The earliest use of the Buddha's Parinibbāna as such an era is in an Inscription of King Nissanka Malla's, of the twelfth century A.D., published by me in the journal of the Royal Asiatic Society for 1875. Both in the historical records of Ceylon, and in those passages of the Purāṇas which are the nearest approach to historical records in India, the chronology is usually based on the lists of kings, just as it is in the Old Testament. Only by adding together the lengths of the reigns of the intermediate kings is it possible to calculate the length of the time that is said to have elapsed between any two given events.

If these lists of kings had been accurately kept from [xlvi] Gotama's time to the time when the existing chronicles were compiled, we should be able, if we could fix the date of any one of the kings, to calculate the date of the Buddha's death. This last we can do; for the date of Kandragupta, and the date of his grandson Asoka, can be independently fixed within a few years by the aid of the Greek historians. But unfortunately the earlier parts of the otherwise reliable Ceylon chronicles are, like the earlier parts of Livy's otherwise reliable history of Rome, full of inconsistencies, and impossibilities.

According to the Rāja-paramparā, or line of kings, in the Ceylon chronicles, the date of the Great Decease would be 543 B.C., which is arrived at by adding to the date 161 B.C. (from which the reliable portion of the history begins) two periods of 146 and 236 years. The first purports to give the time which elapsed between 161 B.C. and the great Buddhist church Council held under Asoka, and in the eighteenth year of his reign, at Patna; and the second to give the interval between that Council and the Buddha's death.

It would result from the first calculation that the date of Asoka's coronation would be 325 B.C. (146 + 161 + 18). But we know that this must contain a blunder or blunders, as the date of Asoka's coronation can be fixed, as above stated, with absolute certainty within a year or two either way of 267 B.C.

Would it then be sound criticism to accept the other, earlier, period of 236 years found in those chronicles — a period which we cannot test by Greek chronology — and by simply adding the Ceylon calculation of 236 years to the European date for the eighteenth year of Asoka (that in circa 249 B.C.) to conclude that the Buddha died in or about 485 B.C.?

I cannot think so. The further we go back the greater does the probability of error become, not less. The most superficial examination of the details of this earlier period shows too, that they are unreliable; and what reliance would it be wise to place upon the total, apart from the details, when we find it mentioned for the first time in [xlvii] a work, the Dīpavaɱsa, written eight centuries after the date it is proposed to fix?

If further proof were needed, we have it in the fact that the Dīpavaɱsa actually contains the details of another calculation — based not on the lists of kings (Rāja-paramparā), but on a list of Theras (Thera-paramparā) stretching back from Asoka's time to the time of the great Teacher — which contradicts this calculation of 236 years.

The Thera-paramparā gives the name of the member of the Buddhist Order of Mendicants, that is, the Thera, who ordained Mahinda (the son of Asoka), then the name of the Thera who ordained that Thera, and so on. There are only five of them from Upāli, who was ordained sixteen years after Buddha's death, down to Mahinda inclusive. This would account not for 236, but only for about 150 years.

For let the reader take the case of any clergyman in the present day. The Bishop who ordains him would have been ordained thirty or forty years before; and four such intervals would fill out, not 236 years, but about a century and a half; and a similar argument applies with reasonable certainty to the case in point.

An examination of the details of the List of Theras confirms this conclusion strongly on every essential point. An examination also of the List of Kings shows that the period of 236 years is wrong by being too long. The shorter period of 150 years between Asoka and the Great Decease agrees much better with what we know of the literary history of Buddhism during that interval. And it also agrees with the tradition of the northern Buddhists as preserved by Hiouen Thsang, and in Kashmir and Tibet[23]. In the 'Questions of Milinda' also — a work of unknown date, preserved only in its Pāli form, but [xlviii] possibly derived from a northern Buddhist Sanskrit work — the date of the Buddha's death is fixed at five hundred years before the time of Milinda[24], who certainly reigned about a century after Christ. I am, therefore, of opinion that the hitherto accepted date of the Buddha's death should be modified accordingly.

This would make the date of the Great Decease about 420-400 B.C. (very possibly a year or two later), and the date of Gotama's birth therefore eighty years earlier, or in round numbers about 500 B.C.

I have discussed the whole question at full length in my 'Ancient Coins and Measures of Ceylon,' written in amplification of a paper read in 1874 before the Royal Asiatic Society; and to that work I must refer any reader, who may take interest in these chronological discussions, for ampler details. I have been able here to present only a summary of an argument which is in so far of little importance, inasmuch as the rectification which I have ventured to propose only differs by a little more than half a century from the earliest date which can in any case be suggested as approximately correct (that is about 485 B.C.). The date 543 B.C., still unfortunately accepted outside the circle of students of Buddhism[25], is now acknowledged to be too early by all scholars who have seriously considered the subject.


NOTE: There are one or two instances in the notes where two or more notes seem to have been run in together (or there has been some omission in the digitization of this work). I do not have a hard copy of this work and cannot check to determine what exactly is supposed to be going on here.

[1]I have used the copy made for Turnour, and now in the India Office Collection.

[2]See 'The Life or Legend,' &c., third edition, vol. ii. p. 149. The date there given (1134 of the Burmese era = 1773 A.D.) is evidently the date of the original work, and not of the translation. Nothing is said in the book itself or in Bishop Bigandet's notes of the name of the author, or of the name or date of the Burmese translator.

[3]There are several such pairs in the Majjhimā Nikāya; and the Mahā-Satippaiṭṭhāna-Sutta in the Dīgha is the same as the Satipaṭṭhāna-Sutta in the Majjhima.

[4]Childers seems to have been of the same opinion, vide Dict. I, 268.

[5] On the difference see the note at II, 16. It affects only a few localising phrases in a narrative occupying (in the translation) thirteen pages.

[6]1. Omitted by Po-fa-tsu. See below, p. xxxviii.
2. Catalogue of Buddhist Chinese Books in the India Office Library, p. 95.

[7]Indian Antiquary, vol. iv. p. 90.

[8]On p. xxxvi.

[9]I have not been able to trace any reference to either of these Chinese works in Mr. Edkins's 'Chinese Buddhism.'

[10]See Max Müller in Z. D. M. G., vol. ix.

[11]'Knox's 'Historical Relation of Ceylon,' Part III, Chap. xi.]

[12]Knox's way of spelling Terunnānse, that is, Thera.]

[13]In the older editions of Knox there is a curious engraving of a body being thus burnt.

[14]Third edition, vol. ii. pp. 78, 79.

[15]See the Ceylon Friend for 1870, pp. 109 and following.

[16]Buddhaɱ saraṇaɱ gakkhāmi
Dhammaɱ saraṇaɱ gakkhāmi
Saɱghaɱ saraṇaɱ gakkhāmi.

[17]Aniccā vata saɱkhārā uppādavaya-dhammino
Uppajjitvā nirujjhanti tesaɱ vūpasamo sukho.
See 'Book of the Great Decease,' VI, 16, and the 'Legend of the Great King of Glory,' II, 42.

[18]This ceremony is called Paeɱ wadanawā.

[19]Yathā vārivahā pūrā paripūrenti sāgaraɱ
Evam eva ito dinnaɱ petānam upakappati.
Ito dinnena yāpenti petā kālakatā tahiɱ.
Unname udakaɱ vaṭṭaɱ yathā ninnaɱ pavattati
Evam, eva ito dinnaɱ petānaɱ upakappati.
These verses occur in the Tirokuḍḍa-Sutta of the Khuddaka-Pāṭha, but in a different order.]

[20]Compare the Mataka-Bhatta-Jātaka (No. 18), translated in 'Buddhist Birth Stories,' vol. i. pp. 226 and following.

[21]See p. xlii.]

[22] Compare Mahāvamsa, pp. 4, 125; 129,199, 223-225, and Chap. 39, verse 28; Jātaka I, 166, 181, 402; II, 6; Dasaratha Jātaka, pp. 1, 21, 22, 26, &c.; Dhammapada Commentary, pp. 94, 205, 206, 222, 359; Hatthavana-galla-vihāra-vaɱsa, Chap. IX; Hardy, 'Eastern Monachism,' pp. 322-324.
The words Saddhaɱ, Uddhadehikaɱ, and Nivāpo, given in Childers, refer to pagan rites.
On funerals among Buddhists in Japan, see Miss Bird's 'Unbeaten Tracks,' vol. i.]

[23]Julien's translation of Hiouen Thsang, 'Mémoires sur les contrées occidentales,' vol. i. p. 172; Kahlaṇa's Rāga-taraṅginī, Book I; and Csoma Körösi in 'Asiatic Researches; vol. xx. pp. 92, 297. They place the Great Decease 400 years before Kanishka, whose Council was held shortly after the commencement of our era.]

[24]Trenckner, p. 3. Mr. Trenckner says in his preface that Buddhaghosa quotes this work, but unfortunately he does not give any reference. See the note below on our Sutta, Chap. VI, § 3.

[25]See, for instance, Max Duncker, 'History of Antiquity,' vol. iv. p. 364. On the dated Edict, ascribed by some to Asoka, see my note loc. cit., and Oldenberg, 'Introd. to the Mahā-vagga,' p. xxxviii.]


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