Famine, Social Disorder, and the Writing Down of Buddhist Scripture: Did the Eruption of Alaska’s Okmok Volcano affect Indian Civilization in the first century BCE?

Editor’s Note: This week, we are delighted to feature a guest post written by Jamie Flynn, a graduate student at Yale University!

The research I would like to showcase in this blog post is an interdisciplinary project building on a paper recently published by one of my professors at Yale, Joseph Manning. I am spending my summer working for him as a research assistant for the Yale Nile Initiative, a collaboration among historians and climate scientists examining the relationship between climate and society in the ancient world, particularly in the Hellenistic era. In 2020, this project made headlines with the publication in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (PNAS) of a paper titled “Extreme climate after massive eruption of Alaska’s Okmok volcano in 43 BCE and effects on the late Roman Republic and Ptolemaic Kingdom.” This paper used paleoclimatic data—ice cores, climate proxies, and climate models—to argue that fallout from a volcanic eruption in Alaska blocked out the sun during the years 43-41 BCE and thereby caused lower global temperatures in the following decade, which was one of the coldest decades in the last 2,500 years. This disruption was linked to various reports of unusual climate in historical and literary sources from ancient civilizations, including cold temperatures, droughts, and famines in Italy, Greece, Egypt, the Near East, and China. The famines of this period, it is argued, might have impacted political events at the end of the Roman Republic.

Building off this paper, I sought to answer whether the impact of this obviously massive event might be detected in other contemporary civilizations, particularly those in South Asia. As seen in the figure below, ancient India and Sri Lanka experienced a massive decrease in rainfall during this period, simultaneous to the decrease in the Mediterranean.

Seasonal temperatures of 43 BCE in South Asia modeled by the Earth System Model in McConnell et al. 2020. The anomalies are in reference to the period from 60 to 46 BCE, when seasonal temperatures were not affected by volcanic fallout.

Given the scale of the climatic disruption, there must have been some effect on South Asian society. Can we find such an effect in our literary sources? Sanskrit and Pali sources that can be dated to around that time report of a “12-year famine” that had a devastating impact on society. As temperatures throughout the North Hemisphere decreased after 43 BCE for the following decade, these famines could potentially be linked to the eruption. Since reports of “12-year famine” do occur in a number of places throughout Indian literature, that particular span of time appears to be a trope to represent a great famine either in intensity or in duration. Nevertheless, even if the “12 years” is not to be taken literally, it probably approximates an historical famine of that length. It is telling that the paleoclimatic data lines up well with a famine length of approximately, if not exactly, twelve years, as we will see below. There are two groups of sources on famine that are contenders for being linked to the eruption.

The first group is Pali sources that attest to a massive famine on the island of Sri Lanka in the late first-century BCE, which coincided with political disruption. This group of sources includes the Sri Lankan chronicles the Mahavamsa and the Dipvamsa, as well as the commentaries of Buddhaghosa, including the Sammohavinodani, the Manorathapurani, and the Samantapasadika. Sri Lanka’s King Vattagamani was challenged first by the uprising of Tissa and then by the invasion of the Tamils. In the most widely accepted dating scheme, this occurred in 43 BCE. At the same time as Tissa’s uprising, a famine struck the island, killing many of the inhabitants. In the sources, the direction of causality is vague, with the foreign occupation, the social unrest, and the famine being all conflated. But regardless, the famine is reported to have lasted until about 31 BCE, during which time King Vattagamani was in exile.

Buddhaghosa relates a tradition of vivid stories from the time of the famine. While infused with legends, these stories probably still contain a real cultural memory of the devastation. Buddhist monks by the thousands were dying of starvation. The Great Monastery was deserted and overgrown. Laypeople were unable to fulfill their traditional role of supporting the Buddhist sangha with alms. It was in this context that we hear of a debate among monks over the relative importance of “learning” (pariyatti) and of “practice” (patipatti). Monks in favor of “learning” argued that in the dire situation, their primary concern should be to study and preserve the oral scriptures, whereas those in favor of “practice” argued for strict adherence to monastic rules. Eventually, those in favor of “learning” won out. 

The famine and political disorder resulted in one of the most significant events in the history of Theravada Buddhism, namely the writing down of the Pali scriptures. For centuries since the Buddha’s parinibbana in the late 5th-century BCE, monks had preserved his teachings orally, memorizing texts and passing them down through recitation. But now the monks perceived an existential threat, with so many monks dying, and decided that the only way to preserve the teachings was to put them to writing. They did so in c. 25 BCE, causing a massive shift in the nature of authority and the role of the monks. Now there would be much wider access to the Pali Canon, facilitating the spread of Buddhism, and the monks who specialized in recitation were no longer the main source of authority.  The writing down of the Pali Canon has, for Theravada Buddhism, been compared in impact to the invention of the printing press for the Protestant Reformation. 

Timeline of events in Sri Lanka

  • 43 BCE: first reign of king Vattagamani Abhaya; revolt of Brahmana Tissa
    • 43 BCE: eruption of Mount Okmok II in Alaska, followed by global cooling 
  • 43-29 BCE: invasion and rule of the seven Tamil kings
    • 43-34 BCE: fourth coldest decade in the Northern Hemisphere in the last 2,500 years
    • Approx. 43-31 BCE: 12-year famine as reported in Pali sources
  • 29-17 BCE: second reign of King Vattagamani
    • c. 29 BCE: founding of Abhayagiri
    • Dispute between the dhammakathikas and the paṃskūlikas 
    • c. 25 BCE: writing down of the Pali Canon at the Aloka Vihara

The second source for the potential impact of the famine of 43 BCE is the Sanskrit Yuga Purana. This pseudo-prophetic text possibly written in c. 25 BCE describes the period in the mid-first century BCE in Northwestern India when Scythians invaded. After the reign of the Scythians, a great famine occurred for twelve years, which, along with other natural disasters, afflicted much death and devastation. In this text, the famine marks the end of the last eon in the cyclical Hindu cosmology, known as Kali Yuga, and therefore a reset of the world. It is possible that this was a real famine that actually occurred, which was then remembered through a religious lens. As for the date, the end events of the Yuga Purana have traditionally been put at 57 BCE, when the legendary king Vikramaditya defeated the Scythians. But the Scythian king mentioned in the text has been identified with Azes I, who we know from numismatic evidence reigned from approximately 60-55 to 20-15 BCE. Furthermore, recent scholarship has shown that the Age of Azes, which possibly marked a consolidation of his power, began at 47/6 BCE, much closer to the date of Okmok’s eruption in 43 BCE. Since the Yuga Purana does not itself provide dates for the events it describes, it is possible, though not provable, that the famine it’s referring to began in 43 BCE when corroborated with climate data, and the Sri Lankan events, and the Age of Azes.

In conclusion, the eruption of Mount Okmok in 43 BCE impacted the temperatures and rainfall of the Northern Hemisphere for several years afterwards. The extreme climate is likely reflected in the two sources we have examined: the Pali literature of Sri Lanka, namely the historical chronicles, as well as the anecdotes preserved in the writing of Buddhaghosa; and the Sanskrit literature of Northwestern India, namely the Yuga Purana. From these sources, common themes emerge. In both geographical regions, environmental disaster coincided with foreign occupation. Perhaps the social unrest caused by the environmental disaster created vacuums for foreigners’ powers to fill, with the result that the events were all associated together in the sources. And in both cases, the environmental disaster was given religious meaning. The monks of Sri Lanka saw it as a sign of religious decline and a threat to the religious order, compelling them to make a theologically significant decision to write down the texts. The author of the Yuga Purana interprets the famine as a sign of the end of the Kali Yuga, a time of moral decadence and divine retribution, which marks the resetting of the world. These are examples of making religious meaning out of climactic events.

Works Cited

  • Adikaram, Edward W. Early History of Buddhism in Ceylon. Migoda, Sri Lanka: D. S. Puswella, 1946.
  • Bowden, Russell. “Writing down of the Pali Tripitaka at Aloka Vihara in Sri Lanka.” Journal of the Royal Asiatic Society of Sri Lanka 55 (2009): 115–67.
  • McConnell, Joseph R., et al. “Extreme Climate after Massive Eruption of Alaska’s Okmok Volcano in 43 BCE and Effects on the Late Roman Republic and Ptolemaic Kingdom.” Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences 117, no. 27 (2020): 15443–49.
  • Mitchiner, John E., trans. The Yuga purāṇa: Critically Edited, with an English Translation and a Detailed Introduction. 2nd ed. Kolkata: The Asiatic Society, 2002.
  • Sigl, M., et al. “Timing and Climate Forcing of Volcanic Eruptions for the Past 2,500 Years.” Nature 523, no. 7562 (2015): 543–49.

About the Author

Jamie Flynn (he/him) is a Master’s student in history at Yale University. He focuses on ancient history, particularly on the Greek world during the Hellenistic era and on ancient South Asia.

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