Excerpts of the book
The Vesak festival as celebrated in Sri Lanka today marks a fivefold significance: first, it marks the beginning of a New Year, the Buddhist New Year; second, it marks the birth of an Indian Prince who was later to become Gauthama Buddha, one of the greatest sons of India; third, it marks the day on which this prince attained Enlightenment and became the Buddha; fourth, it marks the day on which the Buddha passed away from this world, never to be born again; and finally, it marks the day on which Prince Vijaya, the founder of the Sinhalese i-ace, landed in this island, accompanied by 700 men.
The calendrical importance of Vesak stems from the fact that it reckons another system of chronology, the Buddhist Era, (abbreviated BE), in contrast to two others that are in use today: the Christian Era (BC and AD), and the Muslim Era (ME).
The western world recognizes the Christian Era which is based on a calendar known as the Gregorian calendar, named after Pope Gregory XIII who introduced it in 1582. The credit of devising the Christian Era goes to a Scythian monk who lived in Rome in the sixth century AD, Dionysius Exiguus. This Era begins from the date of the birth of Jesus Christ. It is a modification of the Julian calendar introduced by Julius Caesar in 46 BC.
"Modern historians express no doubt about the historicity of the Buddha. That he lived for 80 years has also received unanimous acceptance"
The followers of Islam, the religion founded by Prophet Muhammad, go by the Muslim Era, which starts from the year of the Prophet Muhammad’s flight from Mecca, his birth place, to Medina, where he died and was buried. The flight took place in 622 AD.
The Buddhists follow a third type of calendar, marking the Buddhist Era (Buddha varsha). The starting point of this Era is, however, not the birth of the Buddha but his death, which took place 80 years after his birth.
Modern historians express no doubt about the historicity of the Buddha. That he lived for 80 years has also received unanimous acceptance. But the exact dates of his birth and death are still matters of scholarly debate. There are two main schools of thought.
The first school, to which Sri Lankan Buddhists belong, reckons the year 623 BC as the date of the Buddha’s birth, and the year 543 BC as the date of his death. Buddhists of Burma, Thailand, Kampuchea and Laos also subscribe to this view. According to this school, 2000 AD is 2543 BE.
The second school, whose majority consists of western scholars, reckons the year 566 BC as the date of his birth, and the year 486 BC as the year of his death. The difference is due mainly to the way they calculate the year of Emperor Asoka’s coronation.
The Sri Lankan tradition is based on dates recorded in the two oldest chronicles of the island, Dipavamsa (the Island Chronicle) and Mahavamsa (the Great Chronicle), both written in Pali, before the sixth century AD. The traditions they follow, it is believed, were taken over from earlier works known as Atthakarhd (Commentaries).
The Dipavamsa, the older of the two chronicles, says:
dve satani ca vassani attharasa vassàni ca
sambuddhe parinibbute abhisitto Piyadassano (Ch.6, v.1)
(218 years after the Sambuddha has passed into parinirvana Piyadassano (Asoka) was conseclared)
Thus, the consecration of Emperor Asoka took place 218 years after the death of the Buddha. Asoka had already reigned 4 years before he was consecrated. Sri Lankan tradition maintains that before Asoka, King Bindusara reigned for 28 years, and before him, King Chandragupta reigned for 24 years. The date of ascendancy of Chandragupta has been calculated with reference to Greek sources, and the date of the Buddha’s birth, will thus vary according to these calculations.