Philosophy breakthrough: How Buddha discovery ‘changed ancient understanding’

Buddhism was founded by Siddhartha Gautama around 2,500 years ago. It has since spread from the Far East into Western thought, and influenced societies around the world especially since the Sixties with the onset of the so-called “counter-culture” movement.

Siddhartha Gautama became known as the Buddha, which means “enlightened”.

The story follows that, when Siddhartha was 29 years old, he went outside his luxurious palace and witnessed people suffering for the first time.

The event led him to leave his life of comfort and live among holy men in search of truth.

Six years later, it is said that Siddhartha became “enlightened” while meditating under a fig tree.

From this point on he was known as the Buddha – the “awakened” or “enlightened” one.

He dedicated the rest of his life to spreading his spiritual teachings.

In 2013, archaeologists came across a major discovery within the Maya Devi Temple at Lumbini, Nepal.

Researchers unearthed a 6th Century BC timber structure – a shrine – appearing to have housed a tree.

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Historians and archaeologists were quick to link the find to the Buddha nativity story, in which his mother gave birth to him while holding on to a tree branch.

During BBC Radio 4’s 2014 podcast ‘Beyond Belief: Archaeology and Religion’, Ernie Rea put the question of the discovery’s significance to Professor Robin Coningham, an archaeologist who specialises in South Asian archaeology, and who led the international team that found the remains.

Mr Rea asked: “Robin, I want to come to your big one, the shrine discovered at Lumbini.

“Does the discovery of a Buddhist shrine dating back to the sixth century change how we think about the Buddha?”


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Professor Coningham replied: “It changes it in a way by it actually gives us a calendrical century in which we know the Buddha lived.

“That means we can actually place his teachings of renunciation set within a specific social and economic context.

“It’s dramatic context of growing wealth, of mercantile development, also of cities of standing armies, of tax and coinage.

“All of that actually begins to reflect that here we have a teacher who’s coming through, who’s actually saying ‘renunciation is the key to Nirvana’.

“‘The key to self-satisfaction not through the accumulation of goods and objects’.

“And that gives us a really clear view.

“The second I would say is much of the late textual evidence stresses particular renunciant behaviours of early Buddhism.

“In the temple, in the very earliest levels, we have no evidence – disappointingly – of goodies.

“There’s no material gold, there’s no semi-precious stone.

“So actually, we’re able to begin to link together some of those anticipations of the tradition of Buddhism with the actual physical archaeological evidence.”

To this, Mr Rea replied: “So it’s clearly a protest movement in a sense against the ethos of the day?”

Prof Coningham replied: “That’s right, and it’s by no means an independent one.

“There are many other traditions but it’s this tradition which succeeds.

“And this tradition really which over the following centuries comes to dominate most of southern Asia.”

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