How about an Early Buddhism timeline?

I’m not sure how to cite my sources for this timeline, so I’ll put the relevant hodgepodge of books in a post after this one to keep the two bits of chaos apart.

And anyway, maybe there’s no use for this sort of thing, and it’s only an idle pet project of mine. I’ll give it a go here, trying to see if it has potential use.

ca. 455-400 BCE
Buddha’s teaching career
initial patimokkha configuration
cemetery/park/Rains 'monasteries’
relic/stupa veneration by layfolk
preliminary interaction with spirit cults

ca. 400-250 BCE
local consolidations of textual canons
oral ‘encoding’ of textual canons
some new Suttas are edited together/generated
increasing development of Abhidhammas
ongoing development of & additions to various Vinayas
increasingly urban, year-round Buddhist monasteries
continuing efforts to secure lay support
preliminary references to Metteya
relic/stupa veneration by lay & monastic folk
growing monastic roles in funerary rituals & spirit cults

ca. 250-150 BCE
inter-regional consolidation of textual canons into proto-Agamas/Nikayas
Asokan benefaction supports concerted missionizing (Sri Lanka, Nepal, Gandhara…)
burgeoning ideas about merit transfer based on filial piety
established references to past Buddhas

ca. 100 BCE
proto-Mahayana sentiments (merit transfer “to all beings”, book cults, proto-Prajnaparamita, etc.)
increasing glorification of the Buddha (aggrandized omniscience, stupa cults, etc.)
growing Buddhist traffic along the Silk Road
first edition of the Milindapanha

ca. 50 BCE
Nikayas written down in Sri Lanka

ca. 100 CE
first anthropomorphic sculptures of the Buddha

ca. 200-250 CE
China is collecting Buddhist texts of all sorts

ca. 250 CE
An Shigao / An Xuan / Lokakṣema arrive in China


These are the resources I had piled up next to my final papers as this came together:

Bailey & Mabbitt
The sociology of early Buddhism

Greater Magadha: Studies in the Culture of Early India
Two Traditions of Meditation in Ancient India
Buddhism in the Shadow of Brahmanism

Women in Early Indian Buddhism

"The Dating of the Historical Buddha: A Review Article" in Journal of the Royal Asiatic Society

Haunting the Buddha : Indian popular religions and the formation of Buddhism

Cross currents in early Buddhism

Buddhist Monks and Monasteries of India

Faith And Knowledge In Early Buddhism

Early Buddhist Transmission and Trade Networks: Mobility and Exchange Within and Beyond the Northwestern Borderlands of South Asia

Studies in the origins of Buddhism

Early Buddhist Metaphysics: The Making of a Philosophical Tradition

Bones, Stones, and Buddhist Monks: Collected Papers on the Archaeology, Epigraphy, and Texts of Monastic Buddhism in India
Buddhist Monks and Business Matters: Still More Papers on Monastic Buddhism in India
Figments and Fragments of Mahayana Buddhism in India: More Collected Papers

Sects and Sectarianism

Sujato & Brahmali
Authenticity of the Early Buddhist Texts

Mahayana Buddhism: The Doctrinal Foundations

The Origin of Buddhist Meditation
The Historical Authenticity of Early Buddhist Literature: A Critical Evaluation

I had a few thoughts about unpacking some of the time brackets. For example, we know that the Rains residences were set up after the Sangha had been in existence for some time, so in some minor respects at least the 455-400 bracket can be split up into a front and back half, perhaps.

Then of course, some whole Suttas fall into that 455-400 bracket & others into the 400-250 bracket, which can be interesting to note.

EDIT: correcting number dyslexia


Great work!

Interesting, thanks.

I was curious as to why you included “relic veneration at cetiyas”. The notion that relic veneration was significant at all in the early period sounds like one of Schopen’s fever dreams. And when it did start to become prominent, I don’t know of any evidence that it was ever carried out at cetiyas. The cetiya, or tree shrine as it was then, is a symbol of life and fertility, and relics from the time of the Mahaparinibbana are associated with the stupa, i.e. rock, earth, “dust to dust” and all that.

Here’s a Markdown version of the timeline from Authenticity if it’s of any use.

  • 480 BCE: Birth of the Buddha.
  • 400: Parinibbāna.
  • 399: First Council.
  • 397+: Ctesias writes his Indika.
  • c. 350: Sutta with King Muṇḍa (AN 5.50, EA 32.7); may mark final date acknowledged in EBTs.
  • ?–322: Nanda dynasty. First “historical” dynasty in India. Mentioned in Greek writings.
  • 326: Alexander the Great in India.
  • 322–298: Candagutta reigns as first pan-Indian emperor.
  • 305: Seleucus I defeated by Candagutta.
  • 300: Second Council.
  • c. 300: The Greek ambassador Megasthenes in Candagutta’s court.
  • c. 360–c. 290: Onesicritus makes the first mention of Sri Lanka.
  • 269–232: Reign of Asoka.

In the back of my head, I’m using the relic references to look at the Mahaparinibbana Sutta as well as what the average layperson was going to be thinking about at that time. This timeline is an attempt to tie together the early Sangha & the urbanizing Iron Age in which they sought alms. My knowledge here is skeletal.

Alongside such early ritual changes, I’m also interested in the contexts which surround the rise of Abhidhammas & the concomitant reactions of proto-Mahayanas. This seemed like a decent place to end the timeline, right as this pile of texts hits the Silk Road en masse.

So, in the meantime, I was going to refine this as much as possible; I’m not happy with certain of Schopen’s flights of fancy either, but he makes a good foil for a certain creeping idealism on my part, and helped inform DeCaroli’s book, a work which I thought was quite interesting.

Here’s another timeline, with good context.

Can anyone please name the sources for dating the Buddha’s birth and death dates? The asian historiographies are just so shaky… Archaeology isn’t helpful either as Fogelin argues in his “An Archaeological History of Indian Buddhism”. I read an article that shows the influence of buddhist thought on Democritus, the only pre-Socratic philosopher who travelled to India and started philosophy after his travels, showing buddhist influences. Apparently he travelled young, using his inheritance. He was born around 460 BCE and if we assume he travelled when 30, he might have gotten in contact with buddhist thought in 430 BCE. It makes sense to assume that the Buddha at the time has already passed away (it’s more probable that Democritus stumbled upon an established religion rather than accidentally talking to Buddhists of the first hour). This is just guesswork of course but if he was in India, say 50 years after the parinibbana - probably enough time for buddhism to spread - that would be around 480 BCE for the passing and 560 BCE for the birth. Quite close to the more traditional date…

Another question I don’t know about: When do Indian sources start to speak about four vedas?

Late 2nd century CE: An Shigao comes to China from Parthia and translates works related to the āgamas, including foundational teachings such as the Four Noble Truths, Five Skandhas, Noble Eightfold Path, Four Bases of Mindfulness, Mindfulness of Breathing, Four Dhyānas, Four Formless Samādhis, etc. He also lectured on Buddhism and translated Yogācārabhūmi materials. His long text on Mindfulness of Breathing became the most important Buddhist meditation manual in China until the 5th century. Paul Harrison believes he also may have done T. 101, an incomplete Saṃyukta Āgama.

Late 2nd century CE: An Xuan, a Parthian layman, comes to China and translates a Mahāyāna sūtra into Chinese (Ugraparipṛcchā Sūtra).

Late 2nd century CE: Lokakṣema comes to China from Da Yuezhi (Kushan Empire?), and translates around a dozen Mahāyāna sūtras including the 8000-line Prajñāpāramitā, Mahāyāna samādhi sūtras, texts about Amitābha and Akṣobhya, etc.


Well, that’s actually a paper by Hagens:

Although it now well known that an exchange of novel concepts played a significant role in the emergence of Western and South Asian philosophies, the mechanism by which that process occurred remains poorly understood. This problem is here addressed by a re-examination of the chronology of early Greek philosophy and a number of South Asian religious movements. It is argued that various similarities between pre-Socratic philosophy and the teachings of Siddartha Gautama and his near contemporaries, suggest that these developments all took place during the time of the Achaemenid Persian empire. This preferred fifth-century dating of the lifetime of the Buddha is about a century lower than is commonly assumed.

Of course, the Achaemenid Persian empire covers the span 550–330 BCE, ending right around the time of Alexander’s arrival (maybe even with Pyrrho in tow). And of course, there were already centuries-long traditions of samana-bahmana practices throughout that period, some of them quite close to later Buddhist doctrine, e.g. annihilationists, even skeptics.

Democritus was born about the time the Bodhisatta was born, when comparing Greek histories with the first link in this post, and I don’t think he got any farther East than Egypt. And of course, none of the writings of Democritus survive.

So, I didn’t think this paper significantly adjusted the dates.

I’m not sure about this, but I’m going to guess ca. 1000 BCE, as they were all swimming around each other by then.

1 Like

Thanks for these.

I’ll probably split this up & put a few timelines together over time: one for persons and politics, one for texts, and one for folk practices & archaeology & such.

1 Like

And what does that say about the tipitaka mentioning three vedas?
Btw of course I took the idea from Hagens, only the calculation was my guesswork I wanted to say.

1 Like

Thanks for the link, but it doesn’t detail the sources, it basically says ‘research shows’ and the article is 20 years old.

Reviewing a symposion edition on dating the historical Buddha, de Jong writes that “Heinz Bechert… rejects Richard Gombrich’s recent attempt to date the Nirvana of the Buddha in the year 404.” and concludes “It is obvious that no consensus on the dates of the Buddha has been reached and probably will never be reached”. The review is about: The Dating of the Historical Buddha/Die Datierung des historischenBuddha. Part3. Vandenhoeck & Ruprecht, Gottingen, 1997

And let’s leave room for the possibility that the shrine found in Lumbini from 550 BCE actually is a buddhist shrine. It’s a shrine from that time for sure. Is there proof for it to be buddhist, or proof to be non-buddhist? not yet…:

1 Like

Heinz Bechert rejects the precision of Gombrich’s date, but he agrees with the general idea that the traditional dates of the Buddha are too early. In fact, if my memory serves me right, Bechert thinks the dates of the Buddha may be even later.

It is probably true that there is no consensus on the exact dates of the Buddha, but I believe there is a consensus that the traditional accepted (at least among scholars) date of 480 BCE for the parinibbāna is too early, at least by several decades. If you read “The Dating of the Historical Buddha”, it is clear that 400 BCE is closer to the current ideas of most scholars than the traditional 480 BCE.

1 Like

And as per the Cousins article linked above, it seems clear to me that Bechert is wrong. While the Gombrich/Rhys Davids median chronology is far from proven, it is clearly the best candidate at the moment.

That was discussed over here, so I don’t think the possibility is very likely at all. The constellation of likelihoods supports a ca. 400 BCE date, plus or minus a couple decades or so.

Perhaps in these respects I can make fuzzy lines (for a chart, if one should end up being possible) & italicized phrases on the timeline to cover these outlier ideas, and then make a solid line & normal text to cover the more likely cases. Of course this chart will be altogether ‘fuzzy’ to some extent in any case, but at least we can try to tighten things up.

And, I’m not sure about the relevance of this “three vedas reference” (trayī vidyā?) you’re looking for. That would’ve been around 1900-1100 BCE, long before this timeline begins.

[quote=“Gabriel, post:12, topic:2832”]
Thanks for the link, but it doesn’t detail the sources…[/quote]

Sure it does, the whole paper reflects on previous attempts & their sources, and throughout builds up a discussion that ends with the linked conclusion.

Have a look at another paper, this one also providing a literature review & further resources:

A New Publication on the Date and Historiography of the Buddha’s Decease (“nirvāṇa”): A Review Article by D. Seyfort Ruegg in the Bulletin of the School of Oriental and African Studies, University of London, Vol. 62, No. 1 (1999), pp. 82-87.

The conclusion there is a date range of 420-350 BCE.

The Encyclopedia of Buddhism reviews the discussion as well, reporting similar conclusions overall.

just about to start a new topic for that…

I’m very much into edition history when it comes to old texts. Is there a good overview on that? Questions that would interest me:

  • What are the oldest pali canon manuscripts we have?
  • Have they worked on the differences between the thai vs. singhalese based canon texts?
  • what are generally the oldest manuscripts covering EBT material and how is doctrinal coherence there in comparison with ‘our standard edition’? (incl Gandhari)
  • what is the edition history of ‘our standard edition’?

Thanks for hints including references!


There isn’t very much on this that I’m aware of. I believe there are some things by Von Hinuber that cover this area, but I don’t have them to hand.

But to answer your questions at least a little bit:

  1. Not sure, but the oldest complete manuscripts are quite recent, maybe a couple of hundred years.
  2. Not systematically, so far as I know.
  3. There’s little variation between manuscript tradition in Pali as far as “doctrinal coherence” goes. All our Pali texts are well edited and highly consistent, considering that they are from a much-copied hand-written manuscript tradition. But there are considerable variations in things like spelling, handling of abbreviations, and the like.
  4. The “standard” edition these days is probably the 6th Council edition, as found on SuttaCentral. Despite claims to be a “world” edition, it is in fact a Burmese text. It’s by far the cleanest and best edited version available, though not necessarily the earliest. In academic circles it is customary to cite the PTS editions. But these have no overall coherence, and were edited together on an ad hoc basis from whatever manuscripts happened to be available. in most cases the PTS editors tried to consult manuscripts stemming from the three main theravada countries; and they probably lean on the Sinhalese lineage as primary. But other than that they don’t closely represent any particular tradition. Their quality varies greatly.

I know this is an old thread but I read an article that answers this today.

According to Mark Allon, the oldest EBT manuscript material yet discovered might possibly be the British Library Karosthi Manuscripts Collection, which has EBT birch bark manuscripts in Gandhari dating to the 1st century CE.

Allon, M. (2013). Recent Discoveries of Buddhist Manuscripts from Afghanistan and Pakistan and Their Significance . In Wei Shan and Zhang Xuesong (Eds.), Religious Studies 2013 , (pp. 28-46). Beijing: Religious Culture Press (Zongjiao Wenhua Chubanshe).


Interesting thread. I recently watched a documentary about Buddhism in central asia. That area is vast, it is amazing to see the map and see how far Buddhism had reached at an early stage. They mentioned the discovery of some the Gandhari scriptures found in Afghanistan. It is amazing these really old documents have survived. Makes you wonder if there are any more still to be found.

1 Like