Several weeks ago the global press (including the Shambhala Sun) reported on the announcement of British archaeologist Robin Coningham, backed by the imprimatur of National Geographic, that he had found evidence pointing to a much earlier date for the Buddha’s birth than is generally reckoned, while digging at Lumbini, the site of the Buddha’s birthplace. Almost all of the reporting was uncritical of this claim. Tricycle magazine, however, has reproduced on its blog the withering scrutiny of Richard Gombrich, historian of early Buddhism and editor of The Journal of the Oxford Centre for Buddhist Studies. Gombrich doesn’t mince words: “The entire story presented to us in the headlines is a fantasy,” he says, “and I feel sad that the only time when my subject, the history of early Buddhism, makes the news, it is because of self-serving hype, more worthy of a politician than of an academic.”
Gombrich draws this conclusion after detailing glaring errors in Coningham’s presentation, including his grasp of current scholarship on the issue of the dates for when the Buddha lived, including the omission of the most pertinent contemporary research; misuse of Sanskrit terminology; problematic aspects of the dating technology; the analysis of the “shrine” supposedly revealed beneath the current Ashokan monument (“In nothing that has been unearthed is there a single trace to suggest anything to do with Buddhism”); and broad misunderstandings of ancient Indian spiritual practices, including giving credence to discredited, “baroque” scholarly views.