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Chapter 3 – Chronology

Mythological Periods

The greater periods employed in the computation of time by the Hindus need scarcely be discussed Though founded on astronomical data, they are purely mythological, and do not deserve the attention they have attracted from European scholars.

A complete revolution of the nodes and apsides, which they suppose to be performed in 4,320,000,000 years, forms a calpa or day of Brahma. In this are included fourteen manwantaras, or periods, during each of which the world is under the control of one Menu. Each manwantara is composed of seventy-one maha yugas, or great ages, and each maha yuga contains four yugas, or ages, of unequal length. These last bear some resemblance to the golden, silver, brazen, and iron ages of the Greeks493.

This last division alone has any reference to the affairs of mankind. The first, or satya yuga, extends through 1,728,000 years. The second, or treta yuga, through 1,296,000 years. The third, called dwapar yuga, through 864,000 years; and the last, or cali yuga, through 432,000 years. Of the last or cali yuga of the present manwantara

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4941 years have elapsed; and within that period most historical events are acknowledged to have occurred. Some, however, are placed at earlier epochs; and would be beyond the reach of chronology, if they could not be brought within more credible limits494.

Impossibility of fixing early dates

We must, therefore, discard the yugas, along with the calpas and manwantaras, and must endeavour to draw the chronology of the Hindus from such other sources as they have themselves presented to us.

It has been shown that the Vedas were probably collected about fourteen centuries before Christ; but no historical events can with any certainty be connected with that date. The astronomer Parasara may perhaps have lived in the fourteenth century before the commencement of our sera; and with him, as with his son Vyasa, the compiler of the Vedas, many historical or mythological persons are connected; but, in both cases, some of those who are made contemporary with the authors in question appear in periods remote from each

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other; and the extravagant duration assigned to the lives of all holy persons, prevents the participation of any of them from contributing to settle the date of a transaction.

The next ground on which we might hope to Solar and establish the Hindu chronology is furnished by lunar races. lists given in the Puranas of two parallel lines of kings (the races of the sun and moon), which are supposed to have reigned in Ayodha, and in the tract between the Jamna and Ganges, respectively; and from one or other of which all the royal families of ancient India were descended. These lists, according to the computation of Sir W. Jones, would carry us back to 3500 years before Christ. But the lists themselves are so contradictory as to prevent all confidence in either. The heads of the two are contemporaries, being brother and sister; yet the lunar race has but forty-eight names in the same period, in which the solar has ninety-five; and Crishna, whom the Puranas themselves make long posterior to Rama, is fiftieth in the lunar race, while Rama is sixty-third in the solar495.

The various attempts made to reconcile the lists

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have only served to increase the discrepancy. The narrative by which they are accompanied in the Puranas discredits them still further by absurdities and puerilities; and, although many of the kings named may have reigned, and some of the tales related may be allusions to real history, yet no part of either, down to the time of Crishna and the war of the “Maha Bharat,” affords the least basis on which to found a system of chronology.

From the time of the “Maha Bharat” we have numerous lists of kings in different parts of India, which present individually an appearance of probability, and are in several instances confirmed by extraneous testimony.

More frequently they are authenticated or illustrated by religious inscriptions and grants of land. These last, in particular, are sculptured on stone or engraved on copper plates; the latter very common and generally in good preservation. They not only record the date with great care and minuteness, but almost always contain the names of some of the predecessors of the prince who confers the grant. If sufficient numbers should be found, they may fix the dates of whole series of kings; but, at present, they are unconnected fragments, which are of use in local histories, but give little help to general chronology.

Kings of Magada

The line of Magada alone, besides receiving striking confirmations from various quarters, presents a connected chain of kings from the war of the “Maha Bharat,” to the fifth century after

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Christ, and thus admits of an approximation to the principal epochs within that period.

Sahadeva was king of Magada at the end of the war of the “Maha Bharat.”

The thirty-fifth king in succession from him was Ajata Satru, in whose reign Sakya or Gotama, the founder of the Budha religion, flourished. There can be little doubt that Sakya died about 550 before Christ496. We have, therefore, the testimonies of the Burmese, Ceylonese, Siamese, and some other Baudha chronicles, written out of India, by which to settle the aera of Ajata Satru.

The sixth in succession from Ajata Satru, inclusive, was Nanda, on whose date many others depend. The ninth from Nanda was Chandra Gupta; and the third from him was Asoca, a prince celebrated among the Baudhas of all countries, as one of the most zealous disciples and promoters of their religion.

It is by means of the two last princes that we gain a link to connect the chronology of India with that of Europe; and are enabled (though still very loosely) to mark the limits of the period embraced by Hindu history.

From some motive, probably connected with the desire to magnify Crishna, the Hindu authors have made the end of the war of the “Maha Bharat” and the death of that hero contemporary with the commencement of the cali yug, or evil age; and

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this assertion, though openly denied by one of their own authors497, and indirectly contradicted by facts stated in others, is still regarded as incontrovertible.

Chandragupta contemporary with Seleucus;

In applying the list of kings drawn from the Puranas to the verification of this epoch, Sir W. Jones was struck with the resemblance between the name of Chandragupta and that of Sandracottus, or Sandracoptus, who is mentioned by European writers as having concluded a treaty with Seleucus. On a close examination, he was surprised to find a great resemblance in their histories; and assuming the date of Chandragupta to be the same as that of Seleucus, he was enabled to reduce those of preceding events to a form more consistent with our notions498. The arguments by which this supposition may be supported are fully and fairly stated by Professor Wilson499. They are – the resemblance between the names just mentioned, and between that of Xandramas, by which Diodorus calls Sandracottus, and that of Chandramas, by which he is sometimes designated in Indian authors; his low birth, and his usurpation, which are common to the Greek and Hindu stories; the situation of his kingdom, as described by Megasthenes, who was ambassador at his court; the name of his people, Prasii with the Greeks, corresponding to Prachi, the term applied by Hindu geographers to the

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tract in which Magada is situated; and of his capital, which the Greeks call Palibothra, while the Hindus call that of Chandragupta Pataliputra. Subsequent discoveries, from Braminical sources, fixed the date of Chandragupta with somewhat more precision: Wilford placed him in 350 B.C., and Wilson in 315; and they received an unexpected confirmation from the chronological tables of the Baudhas, procured from the distant countries of Ava and Ceylon. The first of these (from Crawford’s “Ava”500,) places his reign between the years 392 and 376 B.C.; and the other (in Turnour’s “Mahawanso”501,) between the years 381 and 347 B.C.; while, the Greek accounts lead us to fix it between the accession of Seleucus in 312, and his death in 280 B.C.502. The difference between the Baudha and Greek dates, amounting to thirty or forty years503, is ascribed by Mr. Tumour to a wilful fraud on the part of the priests of Budha, who, though entirely free from the extravagances of Bramin chronology, have been tempted on this occasion to accommodate their historical dates to one which had been assumed in their religious traditions. The effect of this inconsistency would

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and Asoca with Antiochus

not be sufficient to prevent our retaining a strong conviction of the identity of Chandragupta and Sandracottus, even if no further proof had been obtained. All doubt, however, has been removed, by a discovery which promises to throw light on other obscure parts of Indian history. Many caves, rocks, and pillars, in different parts of India, are covered with inscriptions in a character which neither European nor native had been able to decipher, and which tantalised the spectators like the hieroglyphics of Egypt; until Mr. Prinsep, who had long made them his study, without being able to find a key to them, happened to notice the brevity and insulated position of all the inscriptions sent from a particular temple; and, seizing on this circumstance, which he combined with a modern practice of the Baudhas, he inferred that each probably recorded the gift of some votary. At the same time when he made this ingenious conjecture, he was struck with the fact that all the inscriptions ended in the same two letters; and, following up his theory, he assumed that those letters were D and N, the two radical letters in the Shanscrit name for a donation. The frequent recurrence of another letter suggested its representing S, the sign of the genitive in Shanscrit; and, having now got hold of the clue, he soon completed his alphabet. He found that the language was not pure Shanscrit, but Pali, the dialect in which the sacred writings of the Baudhas are composed; and by means of these discoveries, he proceeded to read the hitherto

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illegible inscriptions, and also to make out the names of the kings on one series of the Indian coins. He met with an agreeable confirmation of his theory, from a fact observed simultaneously by himself and Professor Lassen of Bonn; that the names of Agathocles and Pantaleon, which appeared in Greek on one side of a medal, were exactly repeated on the reverse in the newly discovered alphabet.

He now applied the powerful engine he had gained to the inscription on Firuz Shah’s column at Delhi, which has long attracted the curiosity of orientalists, as well as to three other columns in Gangetic India, and found them all give way without difficulty. They proved all to contain certain edicts of Asoca; and as he proceeded with other inscriptions, he found two relating to similar mandates of the same monarch. One of these was found by the Rev. Mr. Stevenson, President of the Literary Society of Bombay, engraved on a rock at Girnar, a sacred mountain of the Baudhas, in the peninsula of Guzerat; and the other by Lieutenant Kittoe, on a rock at Dhauli, in Cattac, on the opposite coast of India. One of these contained eleven, and the other fourteen edicts: all those of the pillars were included in both, and the two rock inscriptions agreed in ten edicts on the whole. One of these, found on both the rocks, related to the erection of hospitals and other charitable foundations, which were to be established as well in Asoca’s own provinces, as in others occupied

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by the faithful (four of whom are named), even as far as Tambapanni; (Taprobane, or

Ceylon;)” and “moreover within the dominions of Antiochus the Greek [Antioko Yona], of which Antiochus’s generals are the rulers.”

A subsequent edict, on one of the rocks, is in a shattered state, and has not been perfectly made out; but seems to express exultation in the extension of Asoca’s doctrines, (especially with regard to forbearing to kill animals504,) in foreign countries, as well as in his own. It contains the following fragment: “and the Greek king besides, by whom the chapta (?) kings Turamayo, Gongakena, and Maga505.”

Two of these names Mr. Prinsep conceives to refer to Ptolemaios and Magas, and regards their occurrence as a proof that Asoca was not without acquaintance and intercourse with Egypt; a conclusion which may be adopted without hesitation, as the extent of the India trade, under the first Ptolemies, is a well-known fact in history. Mr. Prinsep’s opinion, that the Ptolemy referred to was Ptolemy Philadelphus, who had a brother, named Magas, married to a daughter of Antiochus I., appears also to be highly probable; and would establish that the Antiochus mentioned in the other edict is either the first or second of the name: that is, either the son or grandson of Seleucus.

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The synchronism between the grandson of Chandragupta and one of the early successors of Seleucus leaves no doubt of the contemporary existence of the elder princes; and fixes an epoch in Hindu chronology, to which the dates of former events may with confidence be referred.

Date of Nanda’s reign

The first date to fix is that of Nanda. Though there were eight kings between him and Chandragupta, it is not known whether they were in lineal or collateral succession, one account making them all brothers; but four of the Puranas agree in assigning only 100 years to the whole nine, including Nanda. We may therefore suppose Nanda to have come to the throne 100 years before Sandracottus, or 400 years before Christ.

Date of the death of Budha

The sixth king, counting back from Nanda inclusive, is Ajata Satru, in whose reign Sakya died. The date of that event has been shown, on authorities independent on the Hindus, to be about 550 B.C.; and as five reigns interposed between that and 400 would only allow thirty years to each, there is no irreconcileable discrepancy between the epochs.

Probable date of the war of the “Maha Bharat”

Between Nanda and the war of the “Maha Bharat” there had been three dynasties; and the number of years during which each reigned is given in four Puranas. The aggregate is 1500 years; but the longest list gives only forty-seven kings; and the same four Puranas in another place give, with equal confidence, a totally different number of years. One makes the interval between Nanda

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and the war of theMaha Bharat1015 years; two others, 1050; and the fourth, 1115. Now, the shortest of these periods, divided among forty-seven kings, gives upwards of twenty-one years to a reign; and to make out 1500 years, would require more than thirty-one years to each reign. Such a duration through forty-seven continuous reigns is so unlikely, that we can scarcely hesitate to prefer the medium between the shorter periods, and decide, as far as depends on the evidence of the Puranas, that the war of the “Maha Bharat” ended 1050 years before Nanda, or 1450 before Christ.

If we adopt the belief of the Hindus, that the Vedas were compiled, in their present form, at the time of the war, we must place the latter event in the fourteenth century before Christ, upwards of fifty years later than the date given by the Puranas. This alteration is recommended by the circumstance that it would still further reduce the length of the reigns. It would place the war of the “Maha Bharat” about 200 years before the siege of Troy. But even the longest period (of 1500 years from Nanda) would still leave ample room since the commencement of the cali yug, or since the flood, to dispose of the few antecedent events in Hindu history. Supposing the flood and the cali yug to be about the same time (as many opinions justify), there would be considerably more than 1400 years from that epoch to the war of the “Maha Bharat.”

Dates after Chandragupta

Two Puranas give the period from Nanda forwards,

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to the end of the fifth dynasty from him, or fourth from Sandracottus: the whole period is 836 or 854 years from Nanda, or 436 or 454 AD The last of these dynasties, the Andras, acceded to power about the beginning of our era; which agrees with the mention by Pliny, in the second century, of a powerful dynasty of the same name; and although this might refer to another family of Andras in the Deckan, yet the name of Andre Indi, on the Ganges, in the Peutengerian tables, makes it equally probable that it applied to the one in question.

Coincidence with the Chinese annals

The Chinese annals, translated by De Guignes, notice, in AD 408, the arrival of ambassadors from the Indian prince Yue-gnai, King of Kia-pi-li. Kia-pi-li can be no other than Capili, the birthplace and capital of Budha, which the Chinese have put for all Magada. Yue-gnai again bears some resemblance to Yaj-nasri, or Yajna, the king actually on the throne of the Andra at the period referred to. The Andra end in Pulimat, or Pulomarchish, AD 436; and from thence forward the chronology of Magada relapses into a confusion nearly equal to that before the war of the “Maha Bharat.”

An embassy is indeed mentioned in the Chinese annals, as arriving in AD 641, from Ho-lo-mien, of the family of Kie-li-tie, a great king in India. M. de Guignes supposes his kingdom to have been Magada; but neither the king’s name nor that of

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the dynasty bears the least resemblance to any in the Puranas506.

Obscurity after 436

The Vishnu Purana states (in the prophetic tone which, as a professed work of Vyasa, it is compelled to assume, in speaking of events subsequent to that sage’s death,) thatafter these” [Andras] there will reign –

7 Abhiras,

10 Garddharbas,

16 Sakas,

8 Yavanas,

14 Tusharas,

13 Mundas, and

11 Maunas; who will be sovereigns of the whole earth for 1390 years: 11 Pauras follow, who reign for 300 years, and are succeeded by the Kailaka Yavanas, who reign for 106 years. All this would carry us nearly 500 years beyond the present year 1840; but, if we assume that the summing up the first dynasties into 1390 is an error, and

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that they were in reality contemporaneous, or nearly so, the conclusion we are led to is, that after the Andras, a period of confusion ensued, during which different parts of India were possessed by different races, of whom nothing further is known. If the Yavans be Greeks, it would, no doubt, be surprising to find eight of their monarchs reigning after AD 436; and the Kaikala Yavans would be still more embarrassing. They may possibly be Mussulmans507.

Immediately after all this confusion comes a list of dynasties reigning in different kingdoms; and among them is a brief notice of “the Guptas of Magada, along the Ganges, to Prayiga.” Now, it has been put out of all dispute, by coins and inscriptions, that a race, some of whose names ended in Gupta, did actually reign along the Ganges from the fourth or fifth to the seventh or eighth century.

There is, therefore, some truth mixed with these crudities, but it cannot be made available without external aid; and as nearly the same account is given in the other historical Puranas, we have nothing left but to give up all further attempts at the chronology of Magada.

Aeras of Vicramaditya and Salivahana

The aera of Vicramaditya in Malwa, which begins fifty-seven years before Christ, and is in

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constant use to this day all over Hindostan; and that of Salivahana, whose sera, commencing AD 78, is equally current in the Deckan, might be expected to afford fixed points of reference for all events after their commencement; and they are of the greatest use in fixing the dates of grants of land which are so important a part of our materials for history. But the fictitious sera of the Puranas prevents their being employed in those collections, and there are no other chronicles in which they might be made use of. On the whole we must admit the insufficiency of the Hindi chronology, and confess that, with the few exceptions specified, we must be content with guesses, until the arrival of the Mussulmans at length put us in possession of a regular succession of events, with their dates.


493. Mr. Davis, Asiatic Researches, vol. ii, pp. 228–231.

494. In fixing the date of the Institutes of Menu, (which appear, in fact, to have been written less than 900 years before Christ,) the Hindu chronologists overflow even the limits of the four ages, and go back nearly seven manwantaras, a period exceeding 4,320,000, multiplied by six times seventy-one. (Asiatic Researches, vol. ii. p. 116.) The “Surya Sidhanta” (written in the fifth century of our sera) assumes a more modern date; and, being revealed in the first, or satya yuga, only claims an antiquity of from 2,000,000 to 3,000,000 years. Rama, who seems to be a real historical person, is fixed at the end of the second age, near 1,000,000 years ago.

495. For the most improved copies of the lists, see Prinsep’s Useful Tables, p. 94, &c. For the previous discussions, see Sir W. Jones, Asiatic Researches, vol. ii. p. 128.; Colonel Wilford, Asiatic Researches, vol. v. table opposite p. 241., and p. 287.; Mr. Ward, vol. i. p. 14.; Dr. Hamilton Buchanan’s Hindoo Genealogies (a separate work); consult likewise Professor Wilson’s Preface to the Vishnu Purana, p. lxiv., &c., and the Purana itself, Book IV. chaps. i. and ii. p. 347.

496. See p. 210,211.

497. A historian of Cashmir. See note on the age of Yudashtir Asiatic Researches, vol. xv.

498. Asiatic Researches, vol. iv. p. xxvii.

499. Hindu Theatre, vol. iii. p. 3.

500. See Prinsep’s Useful Tables, p. 132.

501. Introduction, p. xlvii.

502. Clinton’s Fasti.

503. As the expedition of Seleucus was undertaken immediately after his reduction of Babylon (312 B.C.), we may suppose it to have taken place in 310 B.C.; and as Chandragupta (according to theMahawanso”) died in 347 B.C., there will be a discrepancy to the extent of thirty-seven years, even if the last act of Chandragupta’s life was to sign the treaty.

504. Journal of the Asiatic Society of Calcutta, vol. vii. p. 261.

505. Ibid. p. 224.

506. The note in which M. de Guignes offers this opinion is curious, as showing, from a Chinese work which he quotes, that Magada was called Mo-kia-to, and its capital recognised by both its Hindu names Kusumapura, for which the Chinese wrote Kia-so-mo-you-lo, and Pataliputra, out of which they made Po-to-li-tse, by translating Putra, which means a son in Shanscrit, into their own corresponding word tse. The ambassadors in 641 could not, however, have come from Pataliputra, which had long before been deserted for Rajgrihi (or Behar); for the capital was at the latter place when visited by the Chinese traveller, in the beginning of the fifth century (Journal of the Royal Asiatic Society, vol. v. p. 132.); and another Chinese, who wrote in 640, states that Pataliputra was a mass of ruins when he had seen it on his travels.

507. Professor Wilson, Vishnu Purina, p. 474–481. Dr. Mills, translation from the Allahabad column, in the Journal of the Asiatic Society of Calcutta, vol. iii. p. 257.; and other papers in that Journal, quoted by Professor Wilson.

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