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.

A fragment from the first-century A.D. Gandharan scrolls is among the oldest surviving Buddhist texts. British Library, London

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.

Becoming the Buddha

Today’s Buddhists practice their faith all over the world, with large concentrations in eastern Asia, especially China, Thailand, and Japan. As the religion spread, it divided into different schools with varying interpretations of the faith and different central texts detailing each branch’s core beliefs.

The sacred texts describe Siddhartha’s early life as part of the rich and powerful Shakya clan who controlled a region in the northeast Indian subcontinent. His parents were a man named Suddhodana and a woman named Maya. In an attempt to protect Siddhartha from the evils of the world, his father isolated him in Kapilavastu to insulate him from pain and suffering.

Ruins of Kapilavastu, Nepal, the city identified as where Siddhartha Gautama grew up.LEONID PLOTKIN/ALAMY/CORDON PRESS

It was only at age 29 that Siddhartha, who had become a husband and father, became disillusioned with life at the lavish court and ventured out into the world where he confronted for the first time the harsh realities of life: sickness, old age, and death. Leaving behind his parents, wife, and son, he rejected comfort to go into the world to seek wisdom and an end to human suffering. At Bodh Gaya, today in northeastern India, Siddhartha found his answers as he sat under a sacred fig tree (Ficus religiosa), known as a bhodi. There, he attained enlightenment, or nirvana. In this new state, he became known as the Buddha, which means “awakened one.”

Golden Buddha (center), on the Bimaran reliquary. First century A.D. British Museum, LondonSCALA, FLORENCE

Scholars believe that Siddhartha taught others and a sect, which came to be known as a Sangha. Among its teachings was the advocation to turn away from worldliness and attachment in order to achieve the state of nirvana. A common Buddhist belief is that most people must repeat a cycle of death and rebirth over numerous lifetimes, a process called samsara, before they can reach enlightenment and be free of suffering.

Early Buddhist scriptures provide a common biographical narrative for the Buddha’s life, but they present differing scenarios for when it took place. Some place the events as early as the mid-third millennium B.C., while others are as late as the end of the third century B.C.

Following the Buddha’s death, his teachings slowly accreted into a distinctive new faith. Dedicated followers spread his teachings throughout Asia. At first, it was probably one of many new, small religions in the fertile intellectual and religious atmosphere of northern India of the time.

The Mahabodhi Temple at Bodh Gaya, in Bihar, India, marks the traditional place where the Buddha attained enlightenment under the bodhi tree. First constructed in the time of Ashoka in the third century B.C., the present structure—built entirely of brick—dates from the fifth century A.D.OLAF SCHUBERT/ALBUM

Enter Ashoka

In the third century B.C., a most unusual king would come to power who would help this new faith burgeon and grow. His name was Ashoka, the grandson of the founder of the Mauryan empire, a powerful dynasty centered on the city of ancient Pataliputra (near modern-day Patna). The Mauryans exploited the power vacuum following Alexander the Great’s death in 323 B.C., expanding Mauryan rule across northern India.

Ashoka the Great became emperor circa 265 B.C. and continued to conquer new territory for his empire. In the eighth year of his reign, he underwent a profound spiritual change. According to his own accounts, this occurred following Ashoka’s conquest of the neighboring Kalinga region. After observing the suffering caused by his war, the king felt such remorse that he renounced violence and embraced Buddhism. Ashoka imposed Buddhist teachings as a state policy and inscribed his new principles and strategies on landmarks and pillars across his empire. (See 20 beautiful Buddhist temples around the world.)

Top: Emperor Ashoka, a convert to Buddhism, left monuments across the Mauryan empire, including one at Lumbini to commemorate his… Read More

Ashoka’s embrace of Buddhism sparked a massive spread of the faith across India. By around 50 B.C. various schools of Buddhism started to “travel” along trade networks, including the Silk Road. Buddhism started taking root thousands of miles east of its homeland, reaching Japan by the fifth century. As Buddhism expanded, its adherents began performing pilgrimages to the Buddha’s birthplace—Lumbini.

New light on Lumbini

Buddhist texts describe Maya’s giving birth there; she had been traveling to her parents’ home when she went into labor at Lumbini and gave birth while holding on to the branch of a sal tree. For several centuries after the Buddha’s death, the site remained important, but its popularity waned over time, perhaps owing to political upheavals in the region.

In the 1890s a pillar was found there with a third-century B.C. inscription in the name of King Devanam Priya Priyadarsin, identified by most historians as Ashoka the Great. It stated: “Having been anointed twenty years, he came himself and worshipped this spot, because the Buddha Shakyamuni was born here.” The Buddha’s birthplace had been rediscovered.

Holding on to the branch of a sal tree, Maya (right) gives birth to Siddhartha Gautama, who will become the Buddha (left) in this second- or third-century A.D. relief from modern-day Pakistan, now in the Guimet Museum, France.RICHARD LAMBERT/RMN-GRAND PALAIS
Top: The white walls of Lumbini’s Temple of Maya stand over much earlier Buddhist structures. Tradition holds that, before giving… Read More

Excavations at Lumbini have revealed a complex site with many structures erected over centuries. One of the most sacred is the Shakya Tank, a pool where Maya is believed to have bathed before giving birth. Remains of Buddhist monasteries have been found dating from the third century B.C. to the fifth century A.D. Archaeologists have also uncovered ruins of stupas (sacred shrines) from as recent as the 15th century A.D. The site’s principal building, the Temple of Maya, was built over earlier Ashokan structures. In 1996 a block was found beneath the temple, believed to mark the spot of the Buddha’s birth. In 1997 UNESCO designated the Lumbini complex as a World Heritage site.

Built in the third century B.C., the Great Stupa at Amaravati was one of Buddhism’s most important monuments in ancient India. Visiting pilgrims could visit the stupa and see elaborate reliefs depicting the Buddha’s life. Some of these artworks, such as this one depicting his birth, can now be seen in the galleries of the British Museum.BRITISH MUSEUM/SCALA, FLORENCE

Until recently, the earliest archaeological evidence of established Buddhist practice has been from the third century B.C., but a discovery in 2011 may change that belief. An international team had been excavating beneath an Ashokan-era brick pavement at Lumbini. Led by archaeologists Robin Coningham and Kosh Prasad Acharya, the team removed the pavement to find remnants of a wooden structure. When analyzed, the samples were found to date to around 550 B.C.

Mineralized tree roots found there suggest the wooden structure was likely a bodhigara, a tree shrine. While these kinds of remnants have also been associated with pre-Buddhist sites, Coningham and Acharya both believe the find’s distinctive traits are Buddhist.

Top: Buddhist monks pray at the wall of the Temple of Maya at Lumbini while archaeologists are excavating ancient sacred structures at… Read More

According to tradition, the Buddha designated Lumbini as a pilgrimage site during his lifetime. As the tree shrine has been dated to around the sixth century B.C., the discovery suggests that the Buddha may have lived some time in the sixth century B.C. and gives historians new evidence to weigh as they strive to reconstruct the life of the Buddha.