IS IT BOUDDHA OR BUDDHA IN DASAAVATAARA?
(I-DISCOURSE BY N. R. SRINIVASAN, MAY 2011)
The life of historic Buddha who died in 486 B.C.E. is too well known to all in the world. He was Gautama the Sankhya Prince who grew up surrounded by royal luxuries and comforts in Kapilavastu. He married Yasodhara, a princess and had a child. When exposed to miseries of life all of a sudden he felt sad and miserable. He renounced his wife, his child, his wealth and crown and lived a life of a mendicant seeking a solution to the miseries of human beings. He was agitated by the animal sacrifices made at Yajnas. Meditating under a pipal tree in Gaya in India, he realized desire was the root cause of all pains. He propagated a disciplined way of life (eight-fold path) based on compassion known as Buddhism—the path of the Enlightened.
Buddhism spread like wild-fire and posed serious threat to sacrificial form of Sanatana Dharma. Buddha was silent on God. He never claimed to be an avataar of God. He only claimed to be a teacher and enlightened one and concluded that to be free of desire one had to seek answer within oneself, through contemplation and restraint. Later Sankara came with his Advaita Philosophy. Influenced by his teachings, the followers of Buddha, who earlier moved out of Hinduism, returned back to the Hindu fold. Later Hindus sealed the fate of Buddhism in India by absorbing Buddha into the pantheon of Dasaavataaras. Buddhism however gradually moved out of India and became popular in East Asiatic countries to become a World Religion.
History reveals that Vishnu's ninth incarnation was not identified until the third century A.D., though Buddha was raised to the status of god and worshipped by his followers outside India. In the earlier accounts Vishnu was said to have assumed Bauddhaavataara in order to convert Rakshasa (demons) to Naastikavaada (non-believers in God) with the intention of weakening them in their fight against Devas (Divines) or mislead sinful mortals so that they would reach their just punishment. As we all learn from Puraanas, Raakshasas undertook severe penances quite often propitiating Trinities and were blessed with invincibility against their formidable foes Devas. This was therefore an alternate plan to dissuade them from penances. Later a more positive reason was suggested, that it was to direct the attention of mortals from animal and human sacrifices in which they got too much indulged not restricting such things for rare occasions as in the Vedic period.
The narratives in early Stupas in Sanchi, Baarhut and Amaraavati reveal that the early devotees and followers of Buddha did not focus on historical aspect of Buddha. Even today Buddhism does not extol on historic Gautama but the ideals of Buddha-hood. Buddhist prayers mention numerous Buddhas who lived in the past (ye cha Buddhaateetaa cha), the numerous Buddhas yet to take shape in the future (ye cha Buddaaha anaagataa) and Buddhas already in existence without our knowing (pratyupannacha ye Buddhaah). Just like Jains who have many Teerthankaras Buddhists also believe in many Buddhas. According to them 24 Buddhas were responsible for the stability of Dharma amidst mankind and Gautama was the 25th.Buddha in the family of Buddhas. It is also strange all these 25 Buddhas had their birth in Bhaaratvarsha in Jamboodweepa which is referred in every religious resolution (sankalpa) by Hindus for India.
Belief in many Buddhas is similar to the belief in many Saibabas. Recently we had the demise of the second Saibaba and there is the belief that the third Saibaba is already born. It may be interesting to note that Krishna describes himself as: "among Vrishnis I am Vaasudeva". He was often called as Vaasudeva indicating that he is from amongst many Vaasudevas. The monotheistic devotional school in Bharatavarsha was founded by one Krishna Vaasudeva belonging to Saatvata sect of the Yaadava class who was fore runner to Lord Krishna. He was reverently referred as Bhagavan. Krishna probably refers to this forerunner Vaasudeva in Bhagavadgeeta. Like many Buddhas there are also Vasudevas. Vaasudeva thus may indicate family name.
Buddha was absorbed in the more conventional and orthodox pantheon as incarnation of Vishnu. According to popular Bhaktimarga school of thought we are now living in the dispensation of Buddha until the next incarnation of Kalki arrives. But who is this Kaliyuuga Buddha? Is he different from the historic Gautama who later became Buddha after enlightenment? Vaishnava description of this Buddha differs from the historical Buddha. In Bhaagavata Puraana, the sacred text of Hindus this Buddha was born in Keekata country as the son of Anjanaa. His purpose was to delude and confound the enemies of Gods (sammohaaya suradvisham). He is said to have been born at the beginning of Kaliyuga after Lord Krishna's demise (Kalau sampravritte). Later religious texts show him as a digambara (nude like Jina) but in obscene posture, teaching the philosophy of lust and enjoyment to lure the demons into self destruction. Hayasheersha Samhita shows him more divine, sitting in the lotus Posture (padmaasanagatam) dressed in pure white ascetic clothes deeply absorbed in meditation. Naaradeeya Samhita shows him as Munivaravasu, a great sage, an emanation of Pradyumna (Pradyumnaamsaat samah udbhootoe). Buddha is known as an ascetic of Sankhya clan (Sankhya Muni).
There are Dhyaana–slokas (meditational hymns) for both historic and orthodox Buddhas. Puraanic version of Dhyaana-sloka mentions Buddha as Bhauddh-Vishnu:
"Golakaascha tathaa jaatyaa kaayasthaadaye eva cha |
Bauddham-Vishnum samaaraadhya bhuktam muktim prayaanti te ||
Namoe bhagavate Buddha samsaaraarnava taarake |
Kalikaaladharam bheetah saranym saranam gatah ||"
Mantra of Puraanic Buddha is: "Namoe bhagavate Buddhaaya"
The Dhyaana-sloka for historic Buddha runs as follows:
"Padme padmaasanstam tamoorvornyasta-karadvayam |
Gauram manditasarvaangam dhyaanaastimita loechanam ||
Pustakaasanahastaisaha naanaasishyaischa soebhitam|
Indraaadiloekapaalaischa nutam svetaambaraavritam ||
Both these Dhyaana-slokas are from different religious texts. The first one describes him as Bhagavaan Bauddha-Vishnu playing his role as one who is the protector of pious people from the leftists and atheists, in Kaliyuga. The second one solely concentrates on his posture as a recluse (sanyaasi) sitting in lotus posture with a book in his hand, surrounded by disciples and being praised by divine Guards of Directions (lokapalakas) like Indra, thus linking him to Hinduism. The Dhyaana-sloka, later eulogized, links him to Historic Buddha who has been absorbed in the Hindu pantheon to stop the wild-spread Buddhism drawing away people from Hinduism and the consequent declining Hinduism. Buddhists worshipped him as God too but Hindus made him an Avataar of Vishnu raising his status in the pantheon of Gods.
Jayadeva should have been influenced by some of these later Dhyana-slokas of Historic Buddha and made him an Avataar of Vishnu as seen in the Sloka below. He was also strongly influenced by BuddhaViharaas coming from that region where Buddha was worshipped as God. His Dasvataara Stotra (hymn) runs as follows:
"Nindasi yajnavidhe rahaha shrutijaatam |
Keshava dhritabuddha shareera |
Jaya jagadeesha hare ||
Jayadeva here talks about those who sacrificed animals in worship whom Buddha wanted to bring to the pious path.
The worship of Orthodox Buddha as an Avataar of Vishnu (though not in temples) seems to have caught up around 3rd century A.D., based on Bhaagavata Puraana. The switch over to Historic Buddha as an Avataar of Vishnu seems to have gained momentum after the departure of Sankara from the mortal world. It is strange that Buddha idols are not found consecrated in Hindu Temple Complexes though he is vividly portrayed in all wall panels and pillars of Hindu Temples and also glorified in Dasaavataara stories ( like Amar Chitra Katha) and hymns. Various Advaita Spiritual Schools in India like Ramakrishna Math, Chinmaya Mission, Divine Life Society, Arsha Vidya Gurukula etc., also consider Historic Buddha as incarnation of Vishnu. In the recent Vishnu Exposition at Frist Center for the Visual Arts in Nashville, Historic Buddha was shown as the ninth incarnation of blue skinned Vishnu the savior and also as The Buddha, founder of Buddhist Religion. The broad display also stated that in the Vaishnava tradition he is celebrated as false prophet. They also displayed Balarama, Krishna's Brother as one who changes the course of the River Yamuna; sometimes treated as an avatar of Sesha the serpent. He was not included in the pantheon of Dasaavataaras.
Around 1142 A.D. Jayadeva sang for the first time his Geeta Govinda which included description of Dasaavataras. In his opinion all the Avataaras were emanations of Jagannaatha who is none other than Krishna. He therefore excluded Krishna from Dasaavataara but added Balarama as the eighth incarnation of Vishnu. Historic Buddha was his ninth incarnation as stated above. Vedanta Desika, the successor of Ramanuja (1268-1369 A.D.) might have come across the description of Orthodox Buddha as described by Rama in Ayodhyaa Kaanda. He should have been disturbed by Jayadeva's Gita Govinda. He therefore replaced Historic Buddha glorified in Gita Govinda with Balarama in the Dasaavataara stotra composed by him. Being staunch Srivaishnavite he would not replace Sriman Narayana with Krishna. His list therefore left Krishna as the incarnation of Vishnu deviating from Jayadeva. All Sri Vaishnavites in South India chant Dasaavataara Stotra rendered by him regularly. But how can Seshaavataara be Vishnu Avataara? Why not then Lakshmana, Rama's brother? Why do we need two avataaras at the same time when Krishna is already there as powerful full avataara? But Bhaagavata Purana says Balaraama is an avataara of Vishnu? Such considerations should have made Jayadeva to equate Krishna with Jagannatha, Universal Lord and not with Dasaavataara group of deities.
There is also a Mantra in Maha Naraayana Upanishad as follows:Uddhritaasi varaahena krishnena satabaahunaa || Again this Upanishad contains Vishnu Gayatri Mantra as follows:
"Narayanaaya Vidmahe Vaasudevaya dheemahi tannoe Vishnuh Prachoedayaat ||
You (addressed to Goddess Earth) were lifted up by Krishna with his hundred arms in the form of Varaaha (boar). This mantra should have prompted Jayadeva to identify Krishna as Vishnu that is Narayana who is Paramaatman to exclude Krishna from Dasaavataara. Krishna could also mean one who delights the earth. At the time of these Upanishads Krishna had not yet descended so it could have other meanings. But Visnhnu Gayatree mantra equates Paramatman with Vasudeva which is also the name of Krishna. Of course the word Vasudeva comes at many places in other Upanishads too. Jaydeva has thus Vedic guidance in not including Krishna as an avataar of Vishnu.
It is rather surprising nobody seems to have noticed the description and condemnation of Orthodox Buddha by Sri Rama in Tretaa Yuga, whose description fully agrees with the orthodox Buddha celebrated amongst Dasaavataaras in Bhaagavata Puraana. All references to Dasaavatara mainly focus on Bhagavata Puraana and the Dasaavataara slokas. Vedanta Desika silently replaced Historic Buddha with Balaraama Avataara without mentioning anything so as to avoid unnecessary controversies. Balaraama was also one of the avataaras in the bigger list of 22 incarnations of Vishnu of Bhagavata Purana. Also by then everybody had accepted Balarama as an avataar. Ramanuja predecessor to Vedanta Desika in the Guruparampara (lineage of Gurus) was an incarnation of Adishesha like Balarama; so also Lakshmana. Vedanta Desika cleverly picked up Balarama as he was already glorified and popularized by Jayadeva all over India through his famous Geeta Govinda. He was thus glorifying his mentor also. Later Chaitanya gave the concept of Krishna Consciousness to Vaishnavites to justify Jayadeva's stand to eliminate Krishna as an Avataar and identify him with Brahman. Similarly, in South India, Baalaji is not considered as an Avataar though he married Padmaavati daughter of Kaasi Raaja, a princess in his human form.
In Ramayana Bharata after performing last rites to Dasarataha proceeds to the forest where Rama lived and begs him repeatedly to come back to Ayodhya and assume the responsibilities as a king, though it would call for breaking his promise given to his father, for taking care of the welfare of citizens of Ayodhya which had then become the priority. He finds a strong support here from Jaabaali, one of the members of Dasaratha's council of priests. Jaabaali with his non-ethical Naastikavaada (Atheistic arguments) tries to convince Rama, that it would be fitting and proper within the frame work of Kshatriya Dharma to do so. Rama quite upset by his distorted arguments and wrong council pours his outbursts as follows:
thrtherefoe"Nindaamyaham karma kritam pitustad yastvaama-grihnaad vishmasya-buddhim |
Buddhyaanayaiva-vidhayaa charantam sunaastikam dharma-pathaadapetam || 33 ||
Yathaa hi choerah sa tathaa hi buddhastathaagatam naastikamatra viddhi |
Tasmaaddhi yah sakyatamah prajaanaam sa naastike nabhimukhoe buddhah syat || 34 ||
(Ayodhyaa Kaanda—Canto CIX)
"I denounce the action of my father who picked up (as his consular priest) you (Jaabaali), a staunch unbeliever, who has not only stayed away from the path of righteousness but also whose mind is set on wrong path (opposed to the dhaarmic Vedic path), (nay) who is moving about (in the world) with such an ideology (conforming to the doctrine of Chaarvaaka, who believes only in the world of sensual pleasures) as has been set forth in your foregoing speech (33)."
"It is well known fact that a follower of Buddha (condemning the Vedas) deserves to be punished precisely in the same way as a thief (inasmuch as heretic robs people of their faith); and know an unbeliever (a follower of Chaarvaaka philosophy) to be on par with Buddha. Therefore (amongst such unbelievers) he who is most tamable should undoubtedly be so punished in the interest of the people; for no other cause should a wise man (even) stand face to face with an unbeliever (but should shun him) (34)."
Atheist orthodox Buddha as described and strongly condemned by Rama, matches very well with the orthodox Buddha of Kaliyuga described in Bhaagavata. How then this Buddha moved to Kaliyuga after the demise of Lord Krishna at the end of Dvaapara Yuga? How then such a highly condemned person by none other than Sri Rama found a place amongst the celebrated Dasaavataaras of Vishnu? Valmiki Ramayana is the most sacred book for Hindus perhaps even more than Geeta, as revealed in its Phalasruti (hymns describing benefits), which is read by all pious Hindus in full at least once a year during Dusserah, and Sundarakanda Paaraayana (holy reading) almost daily. How then these slokas could have missed the attention of any one? Certainly Vedanta Desika would not have missed it but without comments not to offend the holy text Bhaagavata chose Balarama for his Dasaavataara, listed in it.
Confused but convinced Hindus later switched over to Historic Budha, the pious mendicant chosen as leader by his followers (Buddhists) and later worshipped and achieved their objectives. Thus the naastik Buddha was soon forgotten though celebrated in Bhaagavata, another holy scripture of Vaishnavites.and was replaced by Historic Buddha. There is no indication anywhere that this Historic Buddha was incarnation of Vishnu. Of course Rama himself did not know that he was an avataar of Vishnu even long after his coronation, nor would he have known about naastik Bauddha as amsaavataara of Vishnu and his role as nastik for specific reason.
Followers of Historic Buddha were separatists from Sanatana Dharma who called their following as Buddhism like Christianity which sprang from Judaism. Buddha, the pious mendicant did not start the new religion, but his followers did. Buddha never claimed to be God in the same manner Moses or Mohamed described themselves as prophets, not Gods. But Krishna revealed several times that he was Vishnu in Geeta. Like Krishna Jesus said, "I am the Truth, unless you believe in me you will die in your sins".
It looks as though the Puraanas were constantly meddled with and some changes relevant and irrelevant were made to suit the need of the times. It is no surprise then, you find mentioning of Chera, Pandya and Andhra kingdoms as existing in Tretaa Yuga when you read Kishkinda kandaa . Sugriva while directing his monkey-army to search for Sita forcefully taken away by Ravana describes all these regions as to the possible locations where Sita could have been hidden. How can we justify their existence in Tretaayuga? How could Valmiki mention such modern kingdoms in Trtetayuga? All most all Hindus believe both Ramayana and Mahabharata are Itihaasas, meaning narratives based on facts as the meaning of the word in Sanskrit implies.
Jagadguru Sankaracharya in his Book of Dharma says that whenever we are in doubt we should go by the Sastras and Puraanas and Itihaasas are authentic history of the past which need to be properly understood and not misinterpreted. Guided by these directives, is there a proper explanation linking the Tretayuga Buddha, Orthodox Buddha of Kaliyuga celebrated in Bhagavata purana and the Historic Buddha praised in Dasaavataara Stotras, revered but not worshiped like other Gods in Hindu temples as an avatar of Vishnu at different times?
The task of Lord Vishnu was rather easy in Kritayuga as Dharma had not deteriorated to a large extent. He had very minor role to play and so he incarnated as need and time based Amsaavataaras to the specific call of his devotees and soon went back when the job was done. Still it is not clear why so many of his appearances were needed in that Yuga! Then came Parasurama Bhargava in Tretaayuga as sixth Amsaavataara (part incarnation) of Vishnu. His role was chaotic and in a fit of anger he indiscriminately rounded off all Rakshasas (demons) disguised as Kshatriyas on Earth. Not satisfied with this part role Vishnu should have decided to incarnate in Tretaayuga as Bauddha and changed his tactics to corrupt and misguide ever-thriving Rakshas in different roles on earth not necessarily as Kshatriyas. He had his past experience when Rakshasas who went to severe penance and got invincibility from their enemies. Having had to face formidable enemies like Ravana who had all sorts of protection he incarnated as Rama, with his alert posture all the time with bow and arrows as Poornaavatara with all his accompaniments—Sankha, Chakra and Adisesha. Rama known for his alertness and justice did not spare even his wife Sita, for her misfortune of physical contact with evil Ravana, leave alone Sambhooka and Vaali. Not realizing they were amsaavataaras he did not spare both Parasurama and Bauddha for their lapses as you read in Ramayana. After the ascent of Lord Krishna, Kaliyuga started and Mother Earth needed a vigilant guardian to fight the ever mounting Adharma (unreigteousness).
The evil was so wide spread as Dharma rapidly declined Vishnu could not wait to come as Kalki in his full form at the end of Kaliyuga. He therefore should have dispatched his avmsaavataara Bauddha in reserve from Tretaayuga whose strategy did not work then but with a reiterated role as mentioned by Vedavyas in his Bhagavata Purana. He should have been in charge for some time.
Jayadeva felt adequacy of Krishna, being Omnipresent even in Kaliyuga as Jagannatha (Universal Lord) and therefore felt that Krishna is not an avataar of Vishnu but Vishnu himself in the form of Jagannatha being from Northern parts of India. In the South devotees were satisfied with Vishnu with his assumed new name Venkateswara. Since Krishna did not directly involve in Mahabharata War and actually acted as Man-behind-the–show Jayadeva rightly decided that Balarama was the real avatar in Dvaapara since he was always on the forefront and Krishna always tried to please his Big brother. As you know in Puri Balabhadra owns the Purushoettam or Sri Kshetra even today. But he needed some additional support as an amsaavatara to handle the load of Adharma directly or indirectly. But Bhagavata says Balarama assumed his form of Adisesha and ascended to Srivaikuntha. It looks as though amsaavataara Bauddha of Tretaayuga who came back for a while after the departure Krishna again was withdrawn when Balarama returned back to Mother Earth without reaching his destination to take care of the affairs till Kalki arrives. Jayadeva not realizing this along with majority of Hindus confused that the pious and Enlightened Buddha was none other than the Bauddha who changed his ways and so made him the ninth avataar who came to correct the people indulged in animal killing (pasughaatas) and sacrifices after Balarama. As we all know Buddha himself had 24 appearances before this 25th appearance as the Enlightened.
Vedanta Desika was quick to realize the return of Balarama (Ramanuja means Lakshmana and Lakshmana was an incarnation of Adiseha) in Ramanuja as Ramanuja was the incarnation of
Adisesha. We are quite familiar with the incidence in which Ramanuja as Adishesha sneeked into the sanctum of Tirupati Temple in the night to fix Shanka and Chakra on the deity to assure the devotees that the deity in Tirupati was Vishnu and not Siva, Subhramanya or Devi as speculated around. Again in Tondanur his idol is covered with the hood of Adisesha. Ramanuja's Biography narrates an incidence that occurred during his 12 years of stay in Melkote. Once, a vicious large Saivite crowd of scholars wanted to defeat him in the debate. Ramanuja was ready to do that sitting behind a curtain as he was not yet through with his nitya-karmas. He answered all their questions simultaneously to their satisfaction. Amazed at the convincing answers they forced the curtain open and found only a thousand hooded serpent but not Ramanuja. Dazzled and bewildered they quickly closed the curtain and then on started worshipping him as an avataar of Lakshmana. Vedanta Desika therefore brought out his Dasaavataara-stotra in which Buddha does not find a place but Balarama is praised as 9th Avataara under whose protectorate we all are till Kalki arrives. He had the strong reason to make him an avatar as Bhaagavata Puraana said he is an avatar of Vishnu. In the wake of present situation of terrorism we need a powerful guardian too. So he is a pleasant welcome to all Srivaishnavas. His avataara is very pleasing to orthodox Hindus for regular worship as they were not happy with a naastikavada orthodox Buddha of Kaliyuga condemned by Rama (not knowing he was an amsaavataara of Vishnu that is himself) and later mentioned in Bhaagavata Puraana. This analysis may or may not be convincing. But as Hindus we strongly believe in pairs of opposites as there are strong evidences for both arguments.
This discourse has been compiled by N.R.Srinivasan for Vedanta class at Sri Ganesha temple, by suitably extracting, abridging and editing texts from the following publications which is gratefully acknowledged:
- S.K.Ramachandra Rao, Vishnu Kosha and Geetaa Kosha, Kalpataru Research Academy, Sharada Peetham of Sringeri, Bangalore, India.
- Gita Press, Sreemad Vaalmeeki Raamaayanam, Gorakhpur, India.
- Swami Harshananda, Hindu Gods and Goddesses, Ramakrishna Math, Mylapore, Madras
- Devdutt Patnaik, Vishnu, Vakils, Feffer and Simons Pvt. Ltd., Delhi. India.
- Kamala Chandrakant, Dasha Avatar, Amar Chitra Katha, India Book House Ltd., Mumbai.
- Dasaavatara Stotras of Jayadeva and Vedanta Desika.
- Jack Williams, Nashville Christian Family, The Cross, then the Resurrection, Nashville.
- Arthur Cotterell & Rachel Storm, Mythology, Lorenz Books, London, U.K.
- The Frist Center for Visual Arts, Vishnu, Hinduism's Blue-skinned Saviour.
Archaeologists’ Discovery Puts Buddha’s Birth 300 Years EarlierWhen Professor Robin Coningham’s youngest son Gus was five, he was asked at school what his father did. “He works for the Buddha,” said the boy. Which led to a bit of confusion, recalls Coningham.But it turns out Gus was not that far off the mark. Last week it emerged that a team led by Coningham, a professor of archaeology and pro-vice-chancellor at Durham University, had made a startling discovery about the date of the Buddha’s birth, one that could rewrite the history of Buddhism. After a three-year dig on the site of the Maya Devi temple at Lumbini in Nepal, Coningham and his team of 40 archaeologists discovered a tree shrine that predates all known Buddhist sites by at least 300 years.The impact of Coningham’s work is groundbreaking in many ways. Prior to this discovery, it had been thought that the shrine at Lumbini – an important pilgrimage site for half a billion Buddhists worldwide – marked the birthplace of the Buddha in the third century BC. But the timber structure revealed by archaeologists was radio-carbon-dated to the sixth century BC.“It has real significance,” says Coningham, 47. “What we have for the first time is something that puts a date on the beginning of the cult of Buddhism. That gives us a really clear social and economic context… It was a time of huge transition where traditional societies were being rocked by the emergence of cities, kings, coins and an emerging middle class. It was precisely at that time that Buddha was preaching renunciation – that wealth and belongings are not everything.”The early years of the religion took hold before the invention of writing. As a result, different oral traditions had different dates for the Buddha’s birth. This is the first concrete evidence that Buddhism existed before the time of Asoka, an Indian emperor who enthusiastically embraced the religion in the third century BC.Legend has it that the Buddha’s mother, Maya Devi, was traveling from her husband’s home to that of her parents. Midway in her journey, she stopped in Lumbini and gave birth to her son while holding on to the branch of a tree. The research team believe they have found evidence of a tree in the ancient shrine beneath a thick layer of bricks. According to Coningham, it became clear that the temple, 20km from the Indian border, had been built “directly on top of the brick structure, incorporating or enshrining it”.The painstaking work, carried out every January and February since 2011, was initially intended as a UNESCO preservation project and was jointly conducted in sub-zero temperatures by archaeologists from Nepal and the UK.“We worked there in January because the water table is so low,” says Coningham. “Unfortunately it’s just solid fog for the first three weeks of the season. You just do not see the sun and it’s about three to four degrees … You wash clothes and you cannot dry them. So you end up with two pairs of clothes and rather smelly.” The archaeologists had to wear slippers to preserve the site which, at the bottom of a two-metre trench, picked up much damp. Somewhat incongruously, the slippers were teamed with hard hats “because of health and safety”.There was no gas-fired heating and power was limited to around 10 hours a day, so each morning at 5.30 Coningham would wash himself with a bucket of hot water and a cup. The diet, he says drily, was “great if you like curry and rice and dhal three times a day”. The team also had to contend with thousands of pilgrims visiting the site every day from Tibet, Thailand and Sri Lanka, each bringing their own rituals. “At any one time, you were sprayed with cologne, covered with banknotes or had rice thrown at you,” Coningham recalls. “Or there were nuns busy scraping mortar out from between the bricks and eating it to imbue the relics and sanctity of this sacred site into their bodies. Sometimes it can be quite distracting.”But he says that the response of the monks and nuns to their discovery was “deeply moving and pretty humbling”. There was no big celebration – their reaction was “all that was needed”.The site at Lumbini had been hidden under the jungle until it was excavated in 1896. Back then, it was identified as the Buddha’s birthplace because of a sandstone pillar that bore an inscription documenting the visit of Asoka to the site. The earliest levels remained buried until now.After the filming of a documentary about the find for the National Geographic Channel, Coningham has been dubbed a real-life Indiana Jones – a description that elicits a polite rumble of laughter. “I was one of those rather sad children who loved dinosaurs,” he says. “My grandparents used to go to Hun Stanton [in Norfolk] and I would spend my summer holidays collecting fossils there. Then I discovered that a great way of escaping family holidays was to go on digs, so I started at the age of 15. Then I discovered you could dig abroad, so in my first year at university [he studied archaeology and anthropology at King’s College, Cambridge] I decided to specialise in the Indian subcontinent. That became my life. And if you spoke to my family, they’d say it’s still my life.”His wife Paula, who teaches Greek to A-level students, and his two sons – Urban, 15, and Gus, 13 – are used to his regular absences, despite that early confusion about exactly what his job entailed. For Coningham, the dig at Lumbini was memorable because it has marked “a deeply rare and exciting time when belief, archaeology and science come together”.Does he have a personal faith? “I was brought up a Catholic,” he replies. “I had a great-aunt who was a mother superior, so my youth was full of washing feet, kissing crosses, et cetera. So in a way I suppose the experience [of this dig] has made me a great relativist. Also for me it shows we know so little about the early years of the world’s great traditions.” But he says that the tenets of Buddhism hold a certain appeal. “At the moment, I’m balancing this job with the role of pro-vice-chancellor. So I’m a bureaucrat and it’s very tempting, at times, to think of renunciation,” he jokes.The next site Coningham and his team have been encouraged to look at is one of the rumored locations of Buddha’s childhood home. UNESCO with the Japanese government’s aid, is funding three more years of research.“Buddhism is a growing religion, and within five years there will be 22 million annual pilgrims flying into south Asia,” says Coningham. “That will overwhelm these sites. So the next mission is to start mapping and planning how they will be protected.”In an area where more than half the population live below the poverty line, subsisting on less than $1.50 a day, the key will be to balance the financial benefits of tourism with the need for sustainability and historic preservation. As the story of the discovery at Lumbini becomes more widely known, Coningham is hopeful more young people will be attracted by what archaeology has to offer. “What’s really interesting is it’s the ancient civilizations that continue to pull people in,” he says. “Archaeology like this can touch and be of interest to the life of hundreds of millions of people.”Even if those concerned have to wear damp slippers and work in freezing, foggy conditions, subsisting on a diet of rice for weeks at a time? “Well, yes,” Coningham laughs. “But that’s archaeology for you.”--Courtesy, IndiaDivine.Org