Reading Romila Thapar’s “The Past Before Us” (Harvard 2013, pp. 390-399) we again come across the dogmatised opinions about Buddhism among a fair number of academics, in this case the dogmatised order of events as far as the coming-to-be of the Buddhist Scriptures goes. What is relevant in this case is that here we have two fiels of study that hardly ever meet: the secular academic world that seems to be a closed vessel that turns around on itself, and the world of scholar-monks who try to reach out but whose words fall on deaf ears since they are deemed not “objective”.
Here’s the proper timeline as far as the coming-to-be of the Buddhist Canon goes:
Sources that fed Unesco with information about Gáutama, or Gótama, or Sákyamuni Buddha’s year of birth take it that this event took place in the year 623 B.C. There is however no absolute certainty about this year, and despite Ms Thapar’s and others’ research we will probably never discover a source that is absolutely reliable as to Buddha’s year of birth.
According to scholar-monks who study the Buddhist history, seven days after Buddha’s demise, at the age of 80, the Elder monk Kássapa (Kásyapa in Sanscritic parlance) decided that the teachings needed to be written down. As for the venue, most sources point in the direction of Vebhāra near the city of Rajgir in India (Vebhārapasse sattapanniguhā — Amarnath Thakur, Buddha and Buddhist Synods in India and Abroad, p. 113). Of the Seven Grottoes (Sattapanni [Pali] or Saptaparni [Sanscritic]) only six remain; over the centuries there may have been landslides or earthquakes that changed the landscape.
Much later sources, e.g. the monk Ashva-ghósa (approx. 80 – c. 150 CE) mention Mount Grdhrakūta (Vulture’s Peak) as the venue for what has become known as the First Council. Here the memorised teachings were recited and subsequently written down.
The scribe who wrote down the Mahāparinibbana Sutta (whether or not in a summarised version), i.e. the Teaching concerning Buddha’s Great Demise, remembered Buddha’s words on Vebhāra: “… how pleasant the Sattapanni cave on the slope of Mount Vebhāra; …”
It is highly likely that these words indeed came from Buddha’s mouth.
Already in Buddha’s time monks migrated. They settled down in larger or smaller communities and produced texts that tried to both honour the memorized earliest teachings as well as elaborating on them. These first migrating monks could not yet rely on written sources; what they knew was orally transmitted.
As of a number of years after Buddha’s demise this oral transmission could be replaced by copies of texts produced at Vebhāra, or somewhat later in different vihāra (monasteries) across Northern India.
This endeavour to “export” Buddha’s teachings steadily continued. In the year 67 AD the first Buddhist text, imported from regions West of India proper, was imported. As time went by China would elaborate on imported Buddhist texts by having them translated and commented. Thus several Buddhist sects arose in accordance with the culture encountered.
A number of new Sūtra written in Serindia, , i.e. regions West of India, probably as of the 2nd Cent. BC, prove to be both teachings as well as commentaries and elaborations, apparently catering for an audiance of religionists belonging to different religions.
As to the new texts written in India proper and in Serindia, André Bareau in his “Les sectes bouddhiques du petit véhicule” gives a summary of some 18 pre-mahāyana Buddhists sects of which some sejourned for a longer or shorter period of time in the caves of central and western India (Bhaja, Karle, Kanheri etc.). Some of these sects are pre-third century, others came to be in later centuries, e.g. in the Western regions of todays Pakistan and Afghanistan — although an exception ought to be made for the city of Táxila in Pakistan, the name of a city that appears in early Scriptures as a place of (Vedic) learning.
During the first migration, after Buddha’s demise but prior to the early mahāyanistic period, there have been scribes who rewrote the sections of the early canonical texts they carried along — let’s remember that it is impossible to fold the entire Canon, whether Northern of Southern in a backpack. Sometimes these scribes embellished, or extended, or more or less altered some, or most of the texts they carried along, texts they considered to be the core teachings of Buddha.
For example, merely looking at the pre-3rd century Pali Canon we more than once come across two versions of one and the same teaching, e.g. the Cūla-suññattasutta and the Mahā-suññattasutta (PTS MN 121, 122), or the Mahā-Sakuladáyisutta and the Cūla-Sakuladáyisutta (PTS MN 77, 79) — Cūla = short; Mahā = long.
The 3rd century
Whether or not the Indian king Asoka had a son and a daughter by the name of Mahinda and Sangha-mitta, and whether or not these two brought a set of the Buddhist Canon to Sri Lanka, somewhere during the 3rd cent BC, as stated in the Mahāvamsa (the Great Chronicle) the dissemination of Buddhism in Sri Lanka began in that century. Considering the mere volume of the texts it is highly likely that what is now known as the Pali Canon arrived there in batches, whether or not commissioned (if you go to India, bring us something we don’t have yet).
This dissemination amongst the population led to a “council”, that is, an ironing-out of defects or misconceptions according to the majority sub-sect in the Mahā-vihāra, the Great Monastery. This council was held during the reign of Valagamba (104-77 BC). It formalised and solidified the extant collection of texts. The monks of Alu-vihāre, rock caves in the neighbourhood of Mátale, published — if that is the word — this collection on a fresh set of “ola-leaves“, palm leaves, that to this days are the primary source of the theravāda sect of Buddhism. No alterations to this set of texts have since been made.
Around the 6th century
In Northern India the position of Buddhism seems to have become untenable. In the parlance of sportsmen: Saivism, Mimámsa, Nyāya and Vaishésika — some Hinduïstic, some philosophic, some atheïstic — had won the match. One of the earlier Mahāyana Scriptures, the Lankāvatāra Sūtra, possibly dating from the 6th century, testifies to this effect.
As of the 13th century
With the invasion of Turkic-Afghan troops, as of the year 1207, the last vestiges of Buddhism nearly completely disappeared from India’s soil, with the exception of some pockets in remote areas of todays Bengal. Richard M. Eaton, in his “The Rise of Islam and the Bengal Frontier” (1978, Univ. of California Press) quotes geographer, zoologist, and botanist Francis Buchanan (1762 – 1829) who in 1789 travels to Bengal. Further South, writes Eaton, among the jhúm cultivators of Ukhia, he [Buchanan] found a form of Buddhism that he said “differs a good deal from that of the orthodox Burma …. their chief god was Maha Muni …”.
Nor Buchanan nor Eaton knew, or knows as far as Mr Eaton goes, that Mahāmuni, the Great Sage, is another epithet of Buddha. Nor did at least Buchanan know that Buddha is not a ‘god’ in the theistic sense of the word.
After the invasion of the Turkic-Afghan troops that devastated the remainder of the walled-in Buddhist vihāra, thinking that these were military settlements, another migration of Buddhism took place, to the North in the direction of Tibet and China, and to the South in the direction of Sri Lanka and South-East Asia. The northern route led again to new sub-sects of Buddhism with again new texts, i.e. new interpretations; the Southern route stranded on a 3rd century canonised set of teachings that were not to be tampered with.