The Buddha’s birthplace has been discovered in Nepal which can also place his birth in the sixth-century B.C. but some scholars expressed caution over some of the findings.
Archaeologists digging for evidences at Nepal’s Lumbini pilgrimage site, the place said to be the Buddha’s place of birth have uncovered several remnants of wooden structures and an empty space at the center where a possible tree once stood. The team led by Robin Coningham of U.K.’s Durham University, unearthed wooden structures that lay beneath the walls of a more recent Buddhist shrine.
Traditions have placed the birth of Buddha to 400 B.C. but with the recent discovery at Lumbini it was pushed back to several centuries and possibly it might be pegged at 623 B.C. It was in Lumbini where Maya Devi, Buddha’s mother grasped a tree and gave birth to him. Lumbini resembled a garden site and later became one of the four sacred sites of Buddhism. The Indian emperor Ashoka in 249 B.C. became a convert and helped spread Buddhism across Asia. The emperor left inscriptions and a pillar on the place to commemorate the birth of Buddha. But due to rapid forest growth, the place was eventually forgotten.
Lumbini was rediscovered in 1896 and immediately the Maya Devi temple was built and is now considered a UNESCO’s World Heritage Site. Coningham’s research was supported by UNESCO and by the National Geographic Society.
However, South Asian archaeology lecturer Julia Shaw of the University College London called the discovery of the wooden structures surrounding a possible tree shrine speculative. Shaw was also cautious on the claim of the team about the oldest Buddhist shrine they have found. She added that the worship of trees is common during the time and that the Buddhist ritual may have overlapped with other pre-existing traditions. But she maintained the findings presented new insights for further study.
Historian emeritus of Buddhism Richard Gombrich of the University of Oxford meanwhile said of the discovery of Buddha’s birthplace as “rubbish.” He added that there was no evidence that what was previously in the site was a Buddhist shrine. It is possible that what was built there was a religious center from the many cults of the day and after which the site could have been altered for Buddhist purposes. Donald Lopez of the University of Michigan and author of the history of the Buddha also expressed caution to relate the earlier structures to Buddhism saying that this could have come from other religions as well.
Another professor emeritus Nancy Wilkie of Carleton College in Minnesota noted that the excavations were done in a very small and limited area. The wooden structures the team found are based only on five holes and can only be considered a small evidence to draw any conclusions from.
The excavations were done in 2011 and 2012 and were partially funded by the National Geographic Society, the Japanese and Nepalese governments and the results of the study will appear in the December issue of the journal Antiquity.
Clarifying the issue of the structures, Coningham said that the structures are somewhat related and they correspond so closely. If the structures are used for very different purposes these would change the structures differently but not in this case. He added further that “There will always be questions, and there always should be questions.”
But while the Buddha’s birthplace has been discovered it is always good to have an open mind and be cautious about the findings, the scholars expressed.
By Roberto I. Belda