New Evidence Of Buddha’s Birthplace Connects Science And Religion
November 25, 2013

New Evidence Of Buddha’s Birthplace Connects Science And Religion

Lee Rannals for - Your Universe Online

A big win for both religion and science was announced today when archaeologists unveiled that they have discovered evidence linking the birthplace of the Buddha to the sixth century BC.

Researchers excavating an existing temple at Lumbini, Nepal discovered the remains of a previously unknown sixth century BC structure they claim is evidence of the world’s earliest Buddhist shrine in that country. Before this study, the earliest archaeological evidence of Buddhist structures at Lumbini dated no earlier than the third century BC, during the time of Emperor Asoka, who promoted the spread of Buddhism from present-day Afghanistan to Bangladesh.

During the excavation, archaeologists worked in the midst of meditating monks, nuns and pilgrims at the Maya Devi Temple in Lumbini. This site is one of the key locations associated with the life of the Buddha. Publishing a paper in the journal Antiquity, the research team wrote how Lumbini is a microcosm for the development of Buddhism from a localized cult to a global religion.

“Very little is known about the life of the Buddha, except through textual sources and oral tradition,” stated archaeologist Professor Robin Coningham of Durham University, UK, who co-led the investigation, which was partly funded by the National Geographic Society. “We thought ‘why not go back to archaeology to try to answer some of the questions about his birth?’ Now, for the first time, we have an archaeological sequence at Lumbini that shows a building there as early as the sixth century B.C.”

Buddhist tradition recalls that the Buddha was born to Queen Maya Devi, who gave birth while holding on to the branch of a tree within the Lumbini Garden. The Buddha was born into wealth and royalty, but at the age of 29 he renounced his family and set off on his own, traveling to seek enlightenment.

Coningham said during a press conference on Monday hosted by National Geographic that when the Buddha was born, it was a time of dramatic change for the Shakya people, which was the tribe the Buddha’s father was the chief of. Coningham added this time period saw the introduction of coinage, great merchants and the middle class, making it a huge transitional period.

Ancient Lumbini was lost and overgrown in the jungles of Nepal, until it was rediscovered in 1896 and identified as the birthplace of the Buddha on account of the presence of a third century BC sandstone pillar. This pillar bears an inscription documenting a visit by Emperor Asoka to the site of the Buddha’s birth, as well as the site’s name.

The archaeological investigation was funded by the government of Japan in partnership with the government of Nepal, under a UNESCO project aimed at strengthening the conservation and management of Lumbini. Hundreds of thousands of people travel to this site every year, and Coningham said by 2020 an estimated four million people will have visited it. Archaeological excavation is a crucial step in attempting to preserve Lumbini.

The researchers said the reason this finding is significant is because it provides the first evidence of a Buddhist shrine in the world, and that the shrine was clearly focused around a tree.

While performing the excavation, the team managed to uncover both tree roots and a timber structure under a series of brick temples built later above the shrine. The timber structure was laid out in a design that contained an open space in the center, which links to the nativity story of the Buddha himself. Coningham said this is the first scientific evidence linking Buddha to the shrine.

Researchers used a combination of radiocarbon and optically stimulated luminescence techniques to date fragments of charcoal and grains of sand found around the ancient shrine. These techniques allowed the team to determine this temple dates back to the sixth century BC. The scientists were able to confirm this date when they compared two sets of different post holes and found they each indicated the same date.

The central portion of the ancient temple had no roof and was always open to the elements. Coningham said this clearly adds to the mounting evidence that the shrine was actually focused around a tree.

Coningham mentioned during the press conference that this is one of the rare times when science and religion come together. While Buddhist tradition links a tree to Buddha’s birth, this group of archaeologists has found evidence a tree was in the middle of this ancient shrine from the sixth century BC. Coningham said they have found no evidence of archaeological tree shrines within the region previously.

A documentary on Coningham’s exploration of the Buddha’s life, entitled “Buried, Secrets of the Buddha”, will premiere in February on the National Geographic Channel internationally. A short video is currently featured on NatGeo detailing the latest discovery.

[ Watch the video: World's Earliest Buddhist Structure Uncovered ]