Tuesday, November 26, 2013

Discoveries At Lumbini

You will have heard the news. Archaeologists say they have discovered evidence suggesting that Buddhism may be at least 100 years or more  older than has been  previously thought. This will be not just an interesting but also an important piece of evidence – if it can be verified. All sources agree that the Buddha lived for 80 years but there is wide disagreement about exactly when he was born. From at least as early as the 2nd century BCE, Sri Lankans have believed that he was born in 624 BCE. This date probably reflects the belief in India at the time Buddhism was introduced into Sri Lanka. Up to now most historians and Indologists have considered this date to be too early. Until recently 563 BCE was thought to be the more likely date of his birth. However, in 1988 an international conference was held at Gottingen University in Germany to review all the evidence pertaining to the Buddha’s  dates and there was wide consensus among scholars that he was born later than 563, perhaps as much as a 100 years later. More research is needed before we can be sure. All the papers read at the conference can be read in Heinz Bechert’s 1995 When Did the Buddha Live?
Of course, uncertainty about the Buddha’s  dates has no bearing on the veracity of his Dhamma. Nonetheless, a certain date would allow us to have a better understanding of the forces that influenced the Buddha’s teaching and how he presented it. I have not read the archaeological report that contains these new findings  and the press  reports of it so far give very few details. The main evidence seems to be this;  that digging under the foundations of the Maha Maya Temple in Lumbini where Prince Siddhattha was born has revealed the remains of what appears to be a tree shrine and wood from this shrine has been carbon 14 dated at aprox. 600 BCE.  Siddhattha’s birth took place under a tree and the assumption is that the actual remains of the tree have been located. There are more than a few problems with these conclusions. Is there any evidence that the tree was worshipped by Buddhists? The tree around which the shrine (if that’s what it is) was built could have been alive for several hundred years before Buddhists started worshiping it. Etc, etc, etc.
Some scientists and researchers nowadays are in the habit of announcing headline-grabbing accounts of their discoveries long before they have actually been confirmed. Before we start getting too excited about these new discoveries let’s wait until the jury is in.  You can read more about the discoveries at  


Daniel Efosa Uyi said...
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Russell said...

It was announced by Coningham et al in the peer reviewed journal "Antiquity". Which means that they are certain enough of their data to open it to questioning. So I would take the announcement as being quite solid.

Jayarava said...

@Russell. The data is not in question. What many of us take issue with is how the data is interpreted.

It is note worthy that Buddhist Studies scholars, now including Richard Gombrich, have roundly criticised the article. Indeed there is a consensus amongst those Buddhist Studies scholars who have voiced opinions that the article overstates the significance of the data presented in the article, makes a number of errors, and is on the whole not what it seems. We generally speaking have found the news coverage reprehensible and misleading.

What we have is evidence of human occupation of the sites ca. 1600 BC. Then evidence of a mound and some kind of wooden fence ca. 675 BC (long before the Buddha) that at some later (but unknown) date was paved over. Evidence of tree roots in a structure that was covered in jungle for centuries is hardly surprising. This is about as much as we can say about the data - and yet the researchers go on to say so much more. And as Richard Gombrich says in Tricycle, the interpretation is largely fantasy.

And actually the lead researcher has a track record of this kind of hyping up results - having previously discovered "the earliest evidence of writing in India". Not.

Peer review is far from infallible. One must always read and evaluate the publication before deciding how solid it is. And if one cannot do that then a survey of reactions is the only way to get a sense of how solid it is. And there is a wave of protest against the main conclusions of this article from those in the know.