Mahavira and the Buddha

By A. Berriedale Keith
Bulletin of the School of Oriental Studies
1932.09, pp. 859-866

p. 859 In a very interesting article, (l) Professor Jacobi has arrived at the conclusion that, contrary to the Buddhist tradition, we must hold that Mahavira outlived the Buddha, probably by some seven years. In point of fact, of course, it may seem of very little consequence whether we accept this view or that of Buddhist tradition, but the issue involves a very important question affecting the value of our authorities, and on this point it seems to me clear that the position adopted by Professor Jacobi involves serious difficulties. Professor Jacobi treats as the assured foundations for his investigations the dates of the Nirvanas of the Buddha and of Mahavira, as 484 and 477 B.C. But it must be admitted that both these dates rest on very unsatisfactory and late evidence. The question of the date of the Buddha has been set out, with his usual acumen and precision, recently by Professor de La Vallee Poussin,(2) and he has shown how utterly uncertain is the date 483 or 484 B.C. for the Nirvana. From a very different point of view the late Professor Rhys Davids confessed(3) that the date was purely conjectural. We may readily believe that the Buddha died sometime in the fifth century B.C., but to lay any stress on the exact date is completely impossible with the evidence available. What is perfectly clear is that knowledge of the early period of Buddhism was imperfect,(4) and the same remark applies even more strikingly to the traditions of Jainism. In the case of Mahavira the earlier tradition--of uncertain date--is emphatic in allowing 470 years between his Nirvana and the beginning of the Vikrama era, which places the date in 528 or 527 B.C. The later tradition, given in Hemacandra's Paricistaparvan, viii, 339, and somewhat earlier in Bhadrecvara's Kahavali, ascribes 155 years as the period between the death of Mahavira and Candragupta's accession to the throne of Magadha, which gives 477 B.C. as the probable date of Mahavira's death. Here again we are on utterly uncertain ground. We are obliged to treat the earlier Jain tradition as of minimal value ______________________ 1. SBA. 1930, pp. 557-68. 2. Indo-europeens et Indo-iraniens, pp.238--48; L'Inde aux Temp des Mauryas, p.50 3. CHI. i, pp. 171, 172. 4. Keith, Buddhist Philosophy, chap. i. p. 860 and there seems every ground for so doing; but the tradition accepted by Hemacandra rests equally on no assured foundation. The only possible conclusion regarding it is that it cannot be trusted to be accurate within a few years, and it seems wholly impossible to base on two dates so acquired the view that we must believe that the Buddha. predeceased Mahavira. Nor is it irrelevant to note that Professor Jacobi(1) himself has adopted slightly different dates, namely 477 and 467 B.C. in other contributions; but what is more important is that the Jaina tradition contains one certain error which, if rectified, destroys the value of its testimony for 477 B.C. By that tradition, apparently accepted by Hemacandra as well as the rest of Jain opinion, the date of the accession of Candragupta is placed at 255 years before the Vikrama era, i.e., in 313 or 312 B.C. This date is obviously too late; if we take 322, as does Professor Jacobi, as a probable date(2) then we must admit a clear error in the Jain tradition of about ten years in respect of this interval; admitting a like error regarding the earlier interval, that between the accession of Candragupta and the death of Mahavira, we would arrive at 487 B.C. for the death of the latter, and this would place that event before the death of the Buddha, and confirm the Buddhist tradition. This shows clearly with what inadequate data we have to reckon, and leaves the conviction that the supposed dates of the deaths of the two great teachers are of too uncertain character to afford_any conclusion as to the priority of these events. On the other hand, we have the clear and distinct tradition of the Buddhist Canon which asserts that Mahavira, died before the Buddha and does so, not incidentally, but as giving rise to allocutions of the Master regarding the tenets of his teaching, recorded in the Pasadika Suttanta of the Digha Nikaya and the Samagama Suttanta of the Majjhima Nikaya, and of Sariputta, at the Master's bidding, in the this definite tradition recorded in canonical texts?(3) That these texts belong to the Period immediately after the death of the Buddha. I confess I do not believe, but they far outrank in age the tradi- tions of the dates of the deaths of the Buddha and Mahavira, and give us ______________________ 1. Introduction to Kalpa Sutra, p. 9; Introduction to Paricistaparvan, p.6. 2. In CHI. i, pp. 471-3, 321 is suggested as plausible. For other dates see L. de La Vallee Poussin, L'Inde aux Temps des mauryas, pp. 51, 52. 3. The Upali Suttanta clearly asserts an illness, if not the death, of Mahavira; Chalmers SBB. v, p. 278, n.2. p. 861 authentic views of the belief held in Buddhist circles at some period considerably before the Christian era. If we are to discredit their account, we must be prepared to accept the consequences, which involve acceptance of a scepticism as to the value of the Buddhist and Indian traditions in general, which is quite inconsistent with the faith placed by Professor Jacobi in the tradition as to the dates of the Nirvanasa or his acceptance of the view that the Kautill;ya Arthacastra is the work of a minister of the Emperor Candragupta. If we are on any logical ground to discredit the Buddhist tradition, very strong arguments are necessary, and those adduced seem quite inadequate. It is contended by Professor Jacobi that the evidence of the three Suttantas is destroyed by the fact that, while all agree in making the occasion of Mahavira's death and consequent unrest in his community the cause of the dissertations on the Buddhist tenets, the divergence of the form of argument in the three Suttas shows that cannot represent what the Buddha actually said. This may, of course, be conceded at once by those who believe(1) that we have little or nothing of the ipsissima verba of the Master. The view which seems natural is that the Buddhists believed that there was difficulty in the Jain community on the death of their leader, and that this took place before the Buddha's death, eliciting from him comments, which were probably not preserved in any authentic form, leaving it open for the composers of the Suttantas to present the teachings each in his own way. The essential point is really that different Buddhist authors held the same tradition, which shows that it was a belief handed down by tradition and widely spread in Buddhist circles. In the second place, Professor Jacobi argues that the account in these Suttantas is contradicted by the account in the Mahaparinibbana Suttanta, the oldest account of the proceedings of the Buddha's last year up to his Nirvana. This text does not refer to any special anxiety of the Buddha as to the fate of his community after his death as having been elicited by the report of the dissensions in the community of Mahavira, whence it is deduced that this report is a later invention. But this reasoning rests on several unproved assumptions. (1) That the Mahaparinibbana Suttanta is older than the other three Suttantas is assumed without any arguments being adduced, and its age certainly is far from obvious. On the contrary, ______________________ 1. See Winternitz, Geschichte der Indischen Litteratur, ii, pp. 360 f. p. 862 it appears to be a very sophisticated and worked up account of the last days of the Buddha, and in fact it is not open to Professor Jacobi to contend for its early date. He himself shortly afterwards (p.562) refers to the account given in that text of the plans of Ajatacatru for the subjection of the Vrjis, and points out that the undertaking was one demanding careful planning. He adds: "Uber die von ihm getroffenen Massnahmen enthalt das M.P.S. Angaben, die aber in viel spaterer Zeit entstanden und darum so gut wie wertlos sind." Very probably Professor Jacobi's view of the statements of the Suttanta is correct; but it is quite impossible to hold this view of it, and then to ask us to accept the silence of the Suttanta as entitling us to negate the evidence of three Suttantas, two of which at least may well be older than the Mahaparinibbana Suttanta. (2) Moreover, the argument is essentially one ex silentio and there is no form of contention more dangerous. It would be necessary, in order to give it weight, to show that the omission of the episode of the Buddha's views on hearing of Mahavira's death is inexplicable, if its occurrence were widely believed in Buddhist circles. No such proof, however, is possible. Professor Jacobi's view appears to be that the episode of the hearing of the death of Mahavira took place during the last journey of the Buddha en route to Kusinara, and that, therefore, any full account of his last days must necessarily include the episode in question. If this view were sound, there might be something to say for his contention, though the argument would be far from conclusive. But there seems no ground whatever to assume that the Buddhists thought that the news of Mahavira's death came to the Buddha just before his own The Samagama Suttanta has nothing to suggest such a conclusion. On the contrary the Buddha is at Samagama when he hears of the death of Mahavira at Pava,(l) and equally in the other two Suttantas the Buddha's utterances are not connected with his own last stay at Pava.(2) The fact that the death of Mahavira evokes the mention Nirvana. ______________________ 1. Cunda here appears as a novice, and so also in the Pasadika Suttanta, which marks him out from his description in the Mahaparinibbana Suttanta. The Samgiti Suttanta does not use this term of him, and seems to have been influenced by the Mahaparinibbana in this point; compare Franke, Digha Nikaya, p. 229. Two Cundas can hardly be admitted, though the Mahaparinibbana is certainly confused. 2. The Samgiti sets the scene in Pava, but under quite other circumstances than those of the Mahaparinibbana, namely the consecration of the new Mote-Hall of the Mallas. This indicates that the author had on desire to connect the episode recorded with the death of the Buddha also. The location at Samagama seems the more accurate account. The fact that Cunda of Pava brought the news to Ananda no doubt encouraged the idea that the declaration of views took place at that town. p. 863 of the possibility of the effect on the order of the Buddha's death does not indicate that that death was then imminent. It may be noted also that in the Upali Suttanta the Buddha was at Nalanda when the episode of the defection of Upali had so evil an effect on Mahavira that it brought about, according to the tradition followed by Buddhaghosa, his death at Pava. At any rate, it is clear that we have no reason to assert that Buddhist tradition placed the death of Mahavira close to that of the Buddha, and it is then obvious that the silence of the Mahaparinibbana Suttanta is inevitable. If the tradition placed the episode as to Mahavira before the short period covered by that Suttanta, it could not possibly include it in its narrative. So far, therefore, from correcting the version of the other Suttantas, the Mahaparinibbana Suttanta accords excellently with them. Nor(3) can it be admitted that the Buddha, according to tradition, shows no concern for the future of his order after his death. This runs counter to the fact, recorded in the Mahaparinibbana Suttanta itself, that he assured Ananda that the place of himself as teacher would be taken by his doctrine. This assurance is significant of the position. It accords exactly with the frame of mind asserted in the other Suttantas to have been engendered by the news of the dissensions in the Jain community on Mahavira's death. In the three Suttantas alike, the result of the news is to make the Buddha insist that his doctrines provided a definite system which would prevent schisms in the community. In the Mahaparinibbana the Buddha gives the same advice; his doctrine is to serve as the norm. So far, therefore, from the Mahaparinibbana contradicting the testimony of the three Suttantas, it is perfectly consistent with it, while there is no evidence whatever that it is earlier in date that the other three Suttantas, or at least two of them. Thirdly, to strengthen his view that the Buddha could not have known of strain in the Jain community on Mahavira's death, Professor Jacobi insists that there is no record in the Jain tradition of such a catastrophe in the Jain community at the death of Mahavira as is suggested by the Buddhist tradition. No schism, it can be asserted, was occasioned by the death of Mahavira. Indeed sects among the Jains developed relatively late, save in the case of the division into Cvetambaras and Digambaras which was not the result of a single period of conflict. The Buddhists, on the other hand, knew of schisms in their own community, arising soon after the Master's death and resulting in the development of the new religion of the Mahayana. They did not realize that Mahavira was not the founder p. 864 of a new religion, but merely the reformer of that of Parcva, so that on Mahavira's death no catastrophe was possible. The Buddhist account, therefore, in the three Suttantas is based erroneous assumptions and was evoked by dogmatic needs. This interesting suggestion rests on a very unsound basis. It assumes that the Buddhists believed that a formal schism or a catastrophe afficted the Jain congregation on the death of Mahavira. But this is much more than we can justly deduce from the Buddhist statements. All that is said is that there arose disputes, division, and a wordy warfare in the community and that the lay followers were disgusted with the monks. Not a suggestion is made of a real schism or catastrophe, and there seems no reason whatever to suppose that the Suttantas intended to assert that such a schism occurred. Moreover, it seems hard to accept the view of the paucity and lateness of schisms in the Jain community. The evidence is that Mahavira was much troubled by the rivalry of Gocala, whether we regard him as strictly within the Jain community or not,(l) that in his fourteenth year of power his son-in-law, Jamali, raised opposition to him, and persisted in opposition to his death, while two years after Jamali's revolt, Tisagutta stood out in opposition.(2) Moreover, the divergence between Cvetambara and Digambara is fundamental, as is fully recognized by Jains at the present day,(3) so that it was certainly unnecessary for Buddhists to go to their own experience to find justification for the belief in divergence within the Jain community. There is, in fact, nothing whatever to suggest that Buddhist tradition was wrong in asserting that Mahavira's death caused commotions in the Jain community. To judge from the bitter feud between Mahavira and Gocala and from the revolts of Jamali and Tisagutta, not to mention the defection of Upali, we may take it as certain that the community was far from being in ideal unity of heart. The argument that there could be no schism, because (1) Mahavira was the child of parents who were adherents of Parcvanatha, as he perhaps also was, and (2) as a Kevalin, Mahavira was above all worldly interests, cannot be accepted. Apart from the fact that we are not told of anything so serious as a definite schism or catastrophe, it is clear that Mahavira was no mere follower of Parcvanatha. The Jain tradition ______________________ 1. Hoernle, ERE. i, pp. 267 ff., held that the Jain division into Digambara and Cvetambara mav be traced back to the beginning of Jainism, being due to the antagonism of Mahavira and Gocala, the representatives of two hostile sects. 2. See Chimanlal J. Shah, Jainism in Northern India, pp. 60-5. 3. Chimanlal J. Shah, op. cit., p.78. p. 865 does not even assert that he was an adherent, but, on the contrary, tells us distinctly that he departed in an essential from the doctrines of his predecessor, as was long ago stressed by Professor Jacobi(1) himself, who held that the innovation postulated a decline in the morality of the community between Parcva and Mahavira. Moreover, even if, as a Kevalin, Mahavira was superior to worldly considerations, what has that to do with the effect of his death on the community? The disappearance of a great teacher is always a time of trial for his adherents, and, so far from doubting the truth of the assertions of the Buddhist texts, we may treat them as representing the normal result as in the case of Purana Kassapa, and common sense invites us to believe that what is normal really happens. Still less satisfactory is the explanation offered by Professor Jacobi of the cause of the alleged Buddhist error. The Buddhists, he holds, confused the place of Mahavira's death, which is now identified with a village, Papapuri (Pavapuri) in the Bihar part of the Patna district, with the town(2) Pava in which the Buddha stayed in the house of Cunda on the way to Kusinara. The correctness of the Jain identification, Professor Jacobi holds, cannot be doubted. This seems a strange assertion, for he holds that the three Suttantas fall in the second or third century after the Nirvana of the Buddha, and he does not give any indication of the age of the Jain identification.(3) To assert an error on the part of the Buddhists demands support by adduction of proof of the early date of the Jain view, which appears to be lacking and, at any rate, is urgently required. But, apart from this minor consideration, what ground is there for holding that a mistake as to a place was sufficient to cause the invention of an assertion of the death of Mahavira in the lifetime of the Buddha? It is perfectly legitimate to suppose that the Buddhists were right in placing the death of the rival teacher before that of Buddha, even if they confused the two places. But that they were wrong in their identification is so far quite unproved, though possible. It must be added that the tradition that the Buddha died after Mahavira, thus asserted with particularity in the Buddhist texts, recorded within two or three centuries after his death, according to ______________________ 1. IA. ix, p. 160. 2. Jacobi (p. 561) ascribes Pava to the Cakyas, but it is clear that it was a Malla town. 3. The Kalpa Sutra ascribed to Bhadrabahu is clearly not by that author, and is wholly uncertain in date; see Winternitz, Geschichte der Indischen Litteratur, ii, pp. 309 f. p. 866 Professor Jacobi's own dating, is not contradicted by anything expressed in the Jain tradition, and that the contradiction rests on the strength of a deduction from two late and unsatisfactory traditions fixing the date of the deaths of the two teachers. If the Jain tradition contradicted the Buddhist by asserting that Mahavira died after the Buddha, the case for Professor Jacobi's view would assume a different aspect; but, though the Jains must for many centuries have been aware of the Buddhist assertion, there has been adduced no passage in which they negatived it. The obvious conclusion is that no doubt existed in either comunity on this point. Professor Jacobi has endeavoured on the basis of the Jain and Buddhist traditions to throw some light on the political development of Magadha in the time of the great teachers. but it may seriously be doubted if we can make anything very satisfactory out of these confused and obviously biased records. There is no independent control available, and combinations thus become subjective to the highest degree. But one point with which he deals elsewhere(1) should be noted, his belief that Parcva can be assigned confidently to a period 250 years before Mahavira, a view which is utilized by him as assigning to the early part of the eighth century B.C. that influence of popular religious belief on Indian philosophy, which led to the innovations of the Yoga and Samkhya systems, involving (1) belief in the personal immortality of souls, and (2) the recognition of moral principles, and thus advancing beyond the monistic tendency of the older Upanisads with their intellectual disdain for morals. We really cannot accept, as in any sense valid, the date assigned to Parcvanatha. If Jain tradition was wrong, as Professor Jacobi holds it was. in dating the Nirvana of Mahavira, how can we trust its assertions for a period 250 years earlier? The mere figure is suspicious, and why should We give it any greater credence than we do to the figures equally afforded by tradition(2) for the number of his adherents? All that we can possibly rescue from the tradition is the belief in the existence of Parcva at some time before Mahavira; to claim more is misleading. There are other objections to certain features of Professor Jacobi's most interesting reconstruction of the early Yoga, but these must be dealt with on another occasion.(3) ______________________ 1. SBA. 1930, pp. 326, 327. 2. See Kalpa Sutra, sections 161-4. 3. It is dubious if the Bhagavati vii, 9, 2, can be understood, as by Professor Jacobi (p. 564), as meaning that the Mallakis and Licchavis were the chief of the Kacis and Kosalas.