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Early Indian Religious History: Severe Problems of Chronology

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I’ve been reading Geoffrey Samuel’s outstanding book The Origins of Yoga and Tantra, and I’ve been astonished by his criticisms of scholarly chronologies of the Indian subcontinent prior to 300 CE. Samuel observes that “a series of conjectural datings adopted as working hypotheses by the great nineteenth-century Indologists and Buddhologists had become a kind of received doctrine. It is now clear that many of the details are wrong and that the scheme as a whole is quite shaky and problematic….” (pg 12).

This amplifies the uneasiness I feel when I encounter historical dates for early India without rationale, with the authors frequently referring to “scholarly consensus” in a vague sort of way.

I knew the chronology was conjectural, but I am startled by how bad the situation actually is. “For the whole of the first millennium BCE there is only one reliable fix point,” he writes, “the invasion of Alexander in 329 to 325 BCE, which coincided with the rise to power of Candragupta, the founder of the Mauryan empire. Everything else – the datings for Aśoka (including the dates of the Aśokan inscriptions), the Buddha, Mahāvīra, the Upaniṣads and the guesstimates for the Vedic texts – is inference and guesswork on the basis of this one figure.” (pg. 22)

Samuel G. The Origins of Yoga and Tantra. Cambridge University Press. 2008.


Written by Mesocosm

March 19, 2012 at 8:46 am

Posted in History

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