The year, ecclesiastically, was a unit of time by which age and seniority was reckoned in the Order [Vin. i, pp. 59f., 60, 86, 198.]. The former being very necessary for ordination which insisted on age-qualifications [Vin. i, p. 96f.]. The number of years, for these purposes, was generally counted by reference to the number of seasons experienced by the individuals concerned. Thus a person would be reckoned as having lived a hundred years [samvacchara, vassa] if he had witnessed a hundred rainy seasons [vassam satam]. In the Mahâparinibbana Suttanta [d.ii,p.100], the Buddha, shortly before his death, speaks of his age being eighty at the time, obviously meaning eighty years, which indicates that inspite of his many wanderings and the many vicissitudes and diverse experiences of his life, he had kept count of his age, and this in terms of years.
That the year was utilised as a regular unit of time even among the Buddhist laity is evidenced by a reference in the Vinaya [Vin.iii, p. 264] where certain laymen are said to have observed a custom of annual donation of robes.
The scriptures, however, do not bear evidence of a practice of numbering or naming the years and it is difficult to trace any hint or allusion which indicates or specifies any year by relating it to some memorable historical or social event which took place in a preceding year, until the death of the Buddha when we notice such a tendency at work in a reference in the Vinaya [Vin. iii, p.294] when the framing of certain disciplinary rules is spoken of as having taken place “a century after the Lord’s nibbana’. Perhaps in this we observe the first beginnings of the trend which culminated in the adoption of the Buddhavamsa which later so freely utilised in the Buddhist chronicles such as the Dipavamsa and Mahavamsa.
Probably, the practice of indicating a month by its position in the season was sufficient and convenient enough that the date of the commencement of the year did not evince the particular attention of the time. Regarding the precise date or month on which the year was supposed to commence, direct evidence does not seem to be forthcoming from the canonical texts. Rhys Davids [Dialogues of the Buddha, i, SBE, p.66, n.1] notes a statement in the Samannaphala Suttanta [D.i,p.47] which refers to an incident concerning King Ajatasattu, contemporary of the Buddha, as having taken place ‘on komudi”, the fifteenth, the full-moon day of the fourth month [komudi catumasini] and suggests that, at least for the compilers of that suttanta, the year began in Savana which takes as falling between mid-July and mid-August.
Rhys David’s inference is based on the fact that komudi catumasini refers to the full-moon night of a fourth month which is recognised, as the commentary [DA.p.139] informs us, by the bloom of the white lotus, komudi and which, by the internal evidence of the Vinaya itself [Vin. i, pp. 137-154 and 175] signifies the month of Kattika, counting backwards from which month, on the assumption that the Brahmanical list of months [see above} was in vogue, the first month would be Savana. But, as Thomas [ERE. 12, p.73, n.3] points out. “There is no reason for thinking that the year ever began with Savana. The recurring phrase “komudi catumasini” does not mean the full-moon of Kattika ‘in the fourth month,’ but the catumasya festival. The Catumasya festival is one of the four monthly festivals of the Vedic ritual which terminated a season and Rhys Davids’ error seems to arise from the conclusion that the reference is to the fourth month of the year, overlooking the custom of indicating months by reference to their position in the quadruplet of a season.
Better, though still weak, ground for inferring the commencement of the year in the fact that usually, when the three seasons come to be mentioned together, the cold season [hemanta] is mentioned first and the rainy season [vassa] last, and this is striking particularly in that this order occurs in such an important discussion as that giving the date for the commencement of the Rains-Retreat [Vin. i,p.137f.]. But this would then place the date of the beginning of the year as the day after the full-moon day of the month of Kattika.
On the other hand, Fleet [JARAS. (CB) 1909,P.6] and Geiger after him [Mahavamsa p.2.n.3] apparently assumed the year as commencing with the month of Citta, which conclusion is also supported by the Abhidhannappadipika list.
Although calendrical time-reckoning seems to have been mainly a ecclesiastical interest among Buddhist, the common people too seem to have depended largely on the same system in the daily concerns of their lives. The Jatakas are profuse with allusions to common human habits of noting the days by the lunar phases. This is interestingly portrayed in the hare of Sasa Jataka [J.iii,p.52], who, very much after the manner of men, looks at the moon to know that the next day would be the uposatha day. Punctuality was a sine qua non for monks, not only in respect of meal-times but in respect of time for sleeping, bathing, begging of alms and entry into the villages, not to speak of the keeping of the Rains-retreat; but punctuality and economy of time as a layman’s virtue has also been stressed by the Buddha himself, as well exemplified by the Sigalovada Suttanta [D.iii,p.184]. The Buddhist general attitude, however, to the passage of time has nowhere been more precisely expressed than in the beautiful stanza of the Samyutta-nikaya [S.i,p.108] where the Buddha addresses Mara, the very personification of death and evil, in the lines:
“The days, the nights pass on until they cease
So doth our life break up and come to naught.
Wither our mortal term of years and dries
As water of the rains in little rills.”
(Trsl. Mrs. Rhys David, The Book of Kindred Sayings (PTS) London, i.p.136)