The date of the Buddha’s birth

The last couple of days I’ve received a whole bunch of emails announcing a breakthrough in dating the Buddha. An international team of archeologists has dug beneath the previously excavated remains at the Buddha’s birth place, Lumbini, where they found the remnants of a wooden structure, which was dated to the 6th century BCE. Breathless reports in the New York Times and elsewhere said that this is the first time we can fix a concrete date to the Buddha’s life.

Okay, so great, new findings are always welcome But what did they find, exactly? I haven’t had the chance to read the peer-reviewed article yet. But the topic was posted on the academic discussion forum H-Buddhism, where Jonathon Silk had the following to say:

what has been found is wood beneath the Asokan layer. There is *no* indication that the wood is connected with the Buddha in any way shape or form. … And in fact, except for a single–I would say incautious–sentence, the article basically says this… the traditional spot rebuilt by Asoka had earlier a wooden structure upon it. What that structure may have been, and whether it could conceivably have had any connection with the Buddha–no evidence at all!

Sorry about that. Truth can be dull, can’t it? The fuss did raise the following interesting response from Achim Bayer. It discusses the prestige in which archeology seems to be regarded, which avid readers will recognize is an issue I have whinged about before. Good to see this is being addressed directly.

Another of the issues involved is that archeology, dealing with material things, seems to be considered “science”, while the study of history as a whole is just “humanities” (at least in the anglophone world) and thus less reliable.

These were my experiences when dealing with the “Lama Wearing Trousers” last year.

I have now organized a panel by the title “Authenticity, Uncertainty, and Deceit in Buddhist Art and Archaeology” at the IABS 2014 in Vienna – to which everyone interested in such methodological questions is warmly invited.


16 thoughts on “The date of the Buddha’s birth

  1. I can’t read this..I mean I can normally read but this ink is empty, so is the loving kindness link..can the others read this??

    • Sadly the hype obscured the actually quite interesting result that there was human activity on the site from ca. 1600 BCE (before the Ṛgveda was composed, and quite a long while before we think Indo-Aryans showed up on the scene) and that someone seems to have built something ca. 7th century (the mid point of their carbon dates was about 675 BCE +/- 125 years). Would love to know more about these people!

      I hope that at least the hype means that Prof Coningham (who has a track record of hype) will get funding for do more digging on the site. Imagine if they could come up with artefacts from either of those periods which did give us insight into who the people were? Fascinating.

    • Hi Jayarava,

      The middle of the 2nd millennium BCE has been established as the time for the arrival of the Indo-Aryans in the region for quite some time. I’m also not sure that we can say for certain just how early the Ṛgveda was composed, and it does seem possible at least that parts of it were composed soon after their arrival c. the mid-2nd millennium BCE.

      Thank you for your thoughtful article linked above. I’ve found myself reflecting on the historical Buddha in new ways since reading your discussion about the legendary and hagiographical elements that most certainly were added later.

    • Hi Brc,

      With the Rg Veda as with the suttas, we have to distinguish between the time the collection was made from the time the parts of the collection were made.

      There is, I believe, a fairly strong consensus that the Rg Veda was compiled around the Kuru country, probably around 700-900BCE as part of the hegemonic efforts to establish the first Brahmanical “empire” that included all the various clans (whose “family books” make up the bulk of the Rg Veda).

      The “family” books (which are books 3–9 of the Rg Veda, if my memory serves me well) predate this, by how much it is difficult to say. But there is little evidence of cultural or other signs of very old texts (pre-Indian, for example), so it seems most likely they were composed in the north-west of (greater) India (Gandhara/Kashmir region, very generally) as the tribes were slowing moving to the south and east, say, around the end of the second millenium BCE. 1600 BCE is certainly too early for Aryan tribes in Lumbini, unless all our history is wrong (which, it must be said, is possible).

    • Hi Bhante,

      Indo-European language speakers moving into many different regions all c. 1600BCE has been common knowledge for quite some time. All right around this time (within about a century before or after 1600BCE), Hittites moved into Anatolia, Mycenaean Greeks moved into the Balkan peninsula, Celtic peoples moved into Europe, Early Iranians moved into the Iranian Plateau, and Indo-Aryans moved into the Indian subcontinent. It’s likely that the Hyksos who moved into NE Africa in these same centuries were also speakers of an Indo-European language.

      My point was and is only that we can’t just assert that ca.1600 BCE is “quite a long while before we think Indo-Aryans showed up on the scene,” as we’ve thought for quite some time that they were in the Indian subcontinent since at least the middle of the second millennium BCE.

      I have found Jayarava’s writings to be thought provoking, but he does sometimes move from speculating to making assertions based on speculations a bit too quickly.

  2. I can’t help thinking that you have jumped too quickly from too much meaning , dismissal. this [below] from National Geographic seems more realistic.
    “The excavations showed that older wooden structures lay beneath the walls of the later brick Buddhist shrine. The layout of that more recent shrine duplicates the layout of the earlier wooden structures, pointing to a continuity of Buddhist worship at the site, Coningham says.

    “The big debate has been about when the Buddha lived and now we have a shrine structure pointing to the sixth century B.C.,” Coningham says. The team used two kinds of scientific dating to find the age of the early shrine.

    Outside scholars applauded the discovery but cautioned against too hastily accepting the site as the oldest discovered Buddhist shrine without more analysis.

    “Archaeologists love claiming that they have found the earliest or the oldest of something,” says archaeologist Ruth Young of the United Kingdom’s University of Leicester in an email message.”

  3. Somewhat related to this, I was wondering how you came to the conclusion that the median chronology is correct (authenticity, 10). It seems to me to have to be completely independent of the pali-canon. If not, would not the whole book be a circular argument? That is, concluding that the Buddha lived between 480-400 BCE, based on archeological references within the pali-canon, and then subsequently arguing that the texts are authentic because they correctly fit within the historical time frame of the life of the Buddha…

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