Wednesday 27 November 2013

Be Stoked! Or Not. Have They Found The Buddha's Birthplace?

His Holiness the 14th Dalai Lama of Tibet
Half a billion of the planets inhabitants are adherents of Buddhism. Places that tradition says were important in the Buddha's life are places of pilgrimage, in the same way that Jerusalem, Bethlehem, and Nazareth are the focus of pilgrimage for the Abrahamic faiths—Christianity, Judaism, and Islam. 

I'm not by any means a student of south Asian archaeology, nor am I well-informed as to the life and times of Siddhārtha Gautama, which was the Buddha's birth name. Nevertheless, I'm an archaeologist, and I'm capable of following an archaeological argument—even to the point of refutation, as most of you know. But I'm no spoilsport! I just don't like it when Muggles those not so critical as I tend to accept mere inductive, ampliative analogical inferences as truth.

Yesterday the SA news ticker tossed up this potentially monumental Antiquity article.
R.A.E. Coningham, K.P. Acharya, K.M. Strickland, C.E. Davis, M.J. Manuel, I.A. Simpson, K. Gilliland, J. Tremblay, T.C. Kinnaird, and D.C.W. Sanderson, "The earliest Buddhist shrine: excavating the birthplace of the Buddha, Lumbini (Nepal)," ANTIQUITY 87:1104–1123, 2013.
The Buddha's birthplace? Lumbini is one of the places where tradition has it that his mother, with child, stopped to give birth. Tradition has it that it was between her father's kingdom and that of her husband. I don't mean to be irreverent, but we're talking royalty, here.

Lumbini's location. From Coningham et al. 2013
Anyway, as I read through this article I got two strong impressions. First, the authors aren't just hacking through mud-brick pavement after mud-brick pavement to get to the goodies. Second, they're excavating at Lumbini because a very powerful ruler, Asoka, chose to elevate, venerate, and celebrate the Buddha some indeterminate time after he gave the world his philosophy. There is some debate, but to date no one knows for certain when the Enlightened One lived. The monarch, Asoka, built temples wherever the Buddha was said to have lived, visited, lain, was born, and died.*

Back to the mortal archaeologists on the border between modern-day India and Nepal. In the Antiquity article we are briefed on the state of play in the archaeology of Buddhism. These excavations at Lumbini are the first to delve beneath one of the monumental edifices that Asoka constructed, right on top of earlier shrines that may [or may not] have been Buddhist sacred places. Over the years many have inferred that the Buddha lived nearer to the fourth century BCE, and the rule of Asoka. By contrast, the authors feel they've found evidence of an early Buddhist shrine in the seventh century BCE. Evidence that it was the older period is one thing: arguing that these archaeological traces are those of an early Buddhist shrine—to say nothing of its being the Buddha's birthplace—is another thing entirely.

In brief, the authors excavated a small, area, delimited by, first a timber structure, and later brick buildings enclosing the same space. The space that the timber structure defined was almost devoid of litter, which is found on archaeological surfaces elsewhere in the Lumbini complex. Moreover, in that 'pristine' precinct there was abundant evidence of there having once been a tree growing in that place.
The present-day Maya Devi temple showing the line of post holes in area C5. From Coningham et al. 2013
Line of postholes. From Coningham et al. 2013.
Now, according to the scriptural account, the Maya Devi clung to a tree while giving birth [if I understand correctly]. Indeed, the spot that the authors excavated bore *cough* a one-to-one correspondence with a kind of shrine that is known to pre-date the Buddha. In that part of the world, some say beginning in the Neolithic, certain trees were venerated as symbols of the relationship between the mundane and the divine. These trees were enclosed in some form of roofed structure with an open area above the tree. Supplicants kept it alive and healthy, and kept the sanctuary swept clean.

The authors explain
. . . tree shrines are generally held to have been a well-established and ancient form of ritual focus in South Asia, some scholars suggesting an antiquity stretching back to Neolithic times. Although now typically associated with Buddhism in the form of bodhigaras, tree shrines also formed a significant element of the wider South Asian cosmology, serving as both a social and cosmological central point or axis mundi within communities . . . .
If the postholes at Lumbini are indicative of a tree shrine, ritual activity could have commenced either during or shortly after the life of the Buddha. The dates of the postholes would hence provide the first archaeological evidence for the date of the Buddha. At his mahaparanirvana, the Buddha identified Lumbini as a focus for pilgrimage . . . , and thus it may be argued that formalised ritual activity began soon after this event. [emphasis added]
Indeed, the Maya Devi may well have rested at a tree shrine. Her behaviour would've been no different than you or I resting in the nave of a cathedral after pounding the pavement as a tourist in Prague or Chartres.

The point is this: the postholes yielded good 14C dates. The thorn in the side for the authors? Given the long tradition of building such structures to enclose a sacred tree, pre-Buddhist tree shrines would have been indistinguishable from those that were associated with the Buddha's life. Thus, one can infer that the wooden structure was associated with the life of the Buddha. However, that inference would be based on a weak, formal analogy between the outline of a tree shrine and that of later buildings that did, indeed, have a connection to Buddhism. Incorporating older traditions into an extant faith was common in the world's great religions. And there's a word for that process, which I never thought I'd have reason to use—syncretism. The Christmas tree is a prime example. Hmmm. More sacred trees. There's a dissertation in there, somewhere.

In the end, the authors have made a huge contribution to the archaeology of south Asia. Theirs is the first excavation of a timber structure that bears the outline of later shrines. The authors comment that others may now wish to delve beneath the more permanent structures from the fourth to seventh centuries BCE, to see what pops up.

To sum up. The timber structure beneath the present-day Maya Devi temple in Lumbini could well be as the authors have suggested, an early Buddhist shrine. However, given the equivocal nature of the evidence presented, you'll have to take that on faith

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