The Date of Kanishka

Alternative Evidence

A number of alternative sources of evidence have been excluded from consideration. An example of a piece of evidence that appears initially promising but has been abandoned is the theory of Fleet (1913). Fleet based his opinion of the legend of Kanishka included in the writings of the Buddhist traveler Hsuan Tsang. This appears to contain a specific formula for Kanishka's date "In the 400th year after the Nirvana of the Tathagata, Kanishka, at the proper time having fulfilled his destiny...". So in short take the date at which the Buddha's Nirvana is ascribed in Hsuan Tsang's time and add 400, and that is the year Kanishka became king (and thus founded his era). There is a certain amount of doubt about what date was meant by the Buddha's Nirvana but this is not why the date has not been accepted. Firstly, it gives a date in the first century BC, which is incompatible with other evidence. Secondly Fleet, chose on particular date from the Buddhist legends, rather arbitrary. There are earlier Buddhist works by Sung Yun and Hui Sheng (Zurcher, 1966: 375) which give the period as 200 and 300 years. Thirdly, the date itself is suspicious because it is a round number, rather than a specific number of years. These problems led historians to assume that the Buddhist dates were spurious, and for that reason I have excluded them from consideration.

Of course, not all the excluded evidence. Radiocarbon dating was used in the sixties to support the date of 78AD (Basham, 1966: 414ff, 436ff). For various reasons, not least of which is that radiocarbon dates have been recalibrated since due to serious flaws in their use in the 50s and 60s, I have not included the evidence. However, it is a promising field, especially the use of Dendrochronolgy (Bivar & Bridge, 1989), which is much more accurate than radiocarbon dates, sometimes to within 6 months. So the only reason that this source of evidence is not included is that no-one has yet prepared a systematic study of the available data. Before you race to old copies of Indian Archaeology to assemble a chart, it is worth saying that historical archaeologists rarely collect radiocarbon dates, and reliable dendrochronology series are restricted to Western Europe, so this is a matter of collecting samples in the field. It is also worth noting that nothing linked to Kanishka's dates can actually be dated by this method. Rather the timbers which are used to construct the buildings which house the inscriptions and coins, can be dated to their felling. So linking scientific dating methods to Kanishka's era remains a task fraught with difficult, but also one with the promise of future reward.

One of the most famous theories was developed by the numismatist Robert Gobl. In 1960 he was invited to give a paper comparing the Kushan and Roman coinage. In that he came broadly to the conclusion that numismatic evidence supported date of 144 AD (Gobl, 1968:109). However, following the conference he want on to argue on stylistic grounds that the era of Kanishka should be referred to the start of the third century. A position restated in his final publication (Gobl, 1999). Gobl was not the first person to argue for a third century date, but for the majority of the last two decades he was in a minority of one. Part of the reason is that stylistic comparisons are very doubtful method of arriving at conclusions. 

Contents Page The Date of Kanishka Did Kanishka's era begin in 127AD? Was Huvishka sole ruler of the Kushan Empire General Chronology

Robert Bracey.