chapter  3
The archaeology of Buddhism
Pages 35

During the first half of the first millennium BCE a number of heterodoxical teachers emerged from the mainstream Hindu belief system within the northern part of the Indian subcontinent, partly as a response to the creation of state and urban forms. One of the most successful and influential of these teachers was the individual known as Siddhartha Gautama, although more widely recognised by his title of Buddha or ‘one who has attained enlightenment’ (Figure 3.1). Once an extremely influential force in Asia, there are now only 6.6 million Buddhists within India, the only majority Buddhist communities lying within Sri Lanka and south-east Asia. Traditionally knowledge of the history and nature of Buddhism has come from a combination of two sources, ancient texts and modern devotional practices. Archaeology has seldom been utilised in this process, apart from the largely unscientific clearing of ‘Buddhist’ monuments. Indeed, the role of archaeology may be summarised in de Jong’s words: ‘Buddhist art, inscriptions and coins…cannot be understood without the support given by the texts’ (1975:15). These views are so widely held that when such clearing has revealed material evidence which conflicts with these two sources, it is commonly interpreted as a local aberration or degener-ative practice (Coningham 1998:121). However, an increasing number of scholars (Coningham 1995a, 1998, Coningham and Edwards 1998, Schopen 1997, Trainor 1997) have begun to question this premise, suggesting that it is possible to use archaeology to test the antiquity of such practices, and thus demonstrate a pervasive tradition which is at odds with the traditionally held modes of ‘Buddhist’ behaviour. In fact, when examined in detail, archaeologically based knowledge of Buddhism, and of the Buddha himself, is extremely slight. For example, the date of his birth and death and even the location of his childhood home, Kapilavastu, are still unknown.