Many centuries ago, a wealthy man from Kapilavastu (in today’s Nepal), left behind his family and his wealth to seek a different way. He set out as Siddhartha Gautama and became the Buddha—the Enlightened One. His teachings have become the foundation of a faith that today has 500 million followers.
Religion scholar Karen Armstrong observed in her 2001 biography of the Buddha that “[s]ome Buddhists might say that to write a biography of Siddhatta Gotama [sic] is a very un-Buddhist thing to do.” During his life, the Buddha was known for his teachings, but he did not want a following devoted exclusively to him. His preferences created a challenge for historians. Religious texts on Buddhism abound, but concrete facts about his personal life—including when he lived—are few.
Scholars are turning to archaeology for a fuller picture of the Buddha’s life and exploring sites sacred to the faith. In the past two decades, excavations at the UNESCO World Heritage site of Lumbini, Nepal, where tradition says Siddhartha Gautama was born, have unearthed some astonishing discoveries, including the world’s earliest Buddhist shrine. These finds are shedding more light on the early development of Buddhism and the role of third-century B.C. Indian emperor Ashoka the Great in its spread. They are also providing crucial information in the quest to determine when Siddhartha was born, when he lived, and when he died.