(RNS) Scientists have uncovered the first physical evidence showing when the great religious leader known as the Buddha passed away, a date crucial to scholars and adherents of Buddhism.

An photograph of a Bodhi tree with a Buddha statue.

Buddha in the Bodhi tree Photo courtesy Shutterstock

Excavations in 2011 and 2012 at a site known as the Buddha’s birthplace imply he died – or, more accurately, experienced his “great passing away” – in the sixth century B.C., roughly 100 years earlier than the scholarly consensus.

The debate over the timing is not just academic: Buddhist countries such as Thailand use a dating system pegged to the year of the Buddha’s death, and some of his prophecies imply no one will achieve enlightenment a certain number of years after his passing.

“The find is very important,” said the University of Michigan’s Donald Lopez, who was not involved in this latest research but is the author of a new history of the Buddha. Whether or not it settles when the Buddha lived and died, “it does provide an important archaeological piece of the puzzle of when the Buddha lived, a puzzle that has vexed Buddhists for centuries.”

The research appears in the latest issue of the journal Antiquity and was partially funded by the National Geographic Society.

Though Jesus’ birth has been pinpointed to within a few years, scholars have argued for decades over not just the year but even the century of the Buddha’s life. According to Buddhist tradition, the baby who would become the Buddha was born as his mother, Queen Maya Devi, grasped a tree in a beautiful garden. Scholars have placed his birth at the Nepalese village of Lumbini at the foothills of the Himalayas, but opinions vary so widely about which century he lived in that “it’s mildly embarrassing,” Lopez said.

Some schools of Buddhism put his death at 544 B.C., but most historians conclude that he died between 420 and 380 B.C.

Digging at Lumbini, a team of archaeologists found that beneath the remains of a third-century B.C. brick shrine lay remnants of an older brick structure, and below that hints of an even older wooden structure. All three were built around a central open-air courtyard, never covered by a roof, where a tree had once grown. Perhaps, the archaeologists say, it was a temple built around a living tree. Such “tree shrines” are depicted in ancient Buddhist sculptures and still exist in Sri Lanka.

When the researchers analyzed the age of sand and bits of charcoal from the site, they found that the wooden shrine had been built in the sixth century B.C. Pilgrims began visiting sites important in the Buddha’s life right after his death, so the fact that a shrine rose at his birthplace in the sixth century B.C. lends support to the idea that he died in that century, too, said excavation leader Robin Coningham of Durham University in the United Kingdom.

Other scholars are either mildly or totally skeptical.

“Rubbish,” said Richard Gombrich, a historian emeritus of Buddhism at the University of Oxford. “There’s no evidence that what was there already was a Buddhist shrine. None!” He and Lopez both say it’s possible that the site could have been built as a religious center for one of the many cults of the day, then repurposed into a site of Buddhist veneration.

An archaeologist who has worked in Nepal said she’s concerned that the Lumbini team is drawing conclusions from a very cramped excavation site

“The only problem … is that the excavation was done in a very, very small area,” said Nancy Wilkie, a professor emeritus at Carleton College in Minnesota, noting that the finding of a wooden structure is based only on five holes where wooden posts once stood. “It’s a really small bit of evidence.”

Coningham responds that the footprints of the three stacked structures correspond so closely, it seems likely that the site had a similar purpose for its entire history. If one religious group had taken over the site from another, there should’ve been dramatic changes, he said.

When asked whether his team’s findings are likely to settle the Buddha’s dates, Coningham laughs. “There will always be questions,” he said. “And there always should be questions.”

(Traci Watson writes for USA Today.)

KRE END WATSON

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