Standing Buddha Shakyamuni

Legend or History?

Buddha Shakyamuni is considered to be the founder of the Buddhist teachings. He is also referred to as the “historical Buddha”. This is because Buddha Shakyamuni is said to have been active in our world many centuries ago. Whether he actually ever existed or not remains unclear.

In this story you get to know when the first narratives about the Buddha began to emerge and what kind of archaeological finds point to his actual existence. 

Stela Showing Scenes from the Life of the Buddha

Evidence suggests that in the 5th century BCE there lived a man in northern India who sowed the seeds of a new religious movement. However, very little information remains from the early years of Buddhism about the life of this man.

It was only over time that people began telling each other stories about the Buddha, embellishing them with ever more wondrous details as they went along.

The stories about the Buddha’s life are therefore not historical records, but rather religious legends.

Buddha Shakyamuni with Scenes from his Life


To this day, the episodes from the Buddha’s life are recounted in a very similar way throughout Asia. We also find similar representations in art in many countries.

The narratives explain how and why Prince Siddhartha became a Buddha (Skt. “Awakened One”). In doing so, they disclose the deeper meaning of the Buddhist teachings.

These narratives are meant to convince people of the Buddha’s path and inspire them to follow it.

Dharani Sutra of the Heart of the Perfection of Insight

First Writings

It is not known when exactly the first Buddhist texts were recorded in writing.

The oldest preserved manuscripts, which were written on birch bark, date back to the 1st century CE.

From the 5th century onwards, the texts were intensively copied and then translated into many different Asian languages.

Pillar with inscription of Ashoka, Vaishali, India

Archaeological Finds

The earliest archaeological finds that refer to the Buddha are from the 3rd century BCE, around 200 years after the Buddha’s presumed lifetime.

They comprise inscriptions and edicts carved into stone pillars and rock faces by the powerful northern Indian emperor Ashoka (reigned ca 272–236 BCE). An ardent promoter of Buddhism, Ashoka was instrumental in spreading the new religion.

The finds tell us that by Ashoka's time, the cult around the Buddha was already quite widespread.

Piprahwa stupa, Kapilavastu, northern India

Piprahwa Stupa

According to legend, the Buddha’s body was cremated at Kushinagara. His remains were then distributed among eight princes, who took them back to their respective principalities and interred them in burial mounds, called stupas.

In the middle of the 3rd century BCE, Emperor Ashoka may have had the relics unearthed and redistributed across 84,000 stupas.

It is said that a portion of the ashes was buried in the Piprahwa stupa, not far from Kapilavastu.

Longitudinal section through the Piprahwa stupa, 1898

A spectacular archaeological find appears to confirm the legend of the Buddha’s relics.

Towards the end of the 19th century, the British colonial officer and amateur archaeologist William Claxton Peppé (1852–1936) discovered a man-made burial mound, or stupa, on his land in what is today the village of Piprahwa in northern India.

Reliquary from the Piprahwa stupa

The Discovery

During excavation work on the mound in 1898, William Claxton Peppé came across a large stone coffer deep inside the stupa.

He had it opened and found inside five reliquary vessels, one made of crystal, the other four of soapstone. The bottom of the coffer was covered in myriad gold flakes and gemstones in many different shapes and colours.

One of the soapstone vessels bore an inscription.

Reliquaries from the Piprahwa stupa

The Inscription

In a recent translation by the Indologist Harry Falk (b. 1947), the inscription reads as follows:

“This reliquary shrine containing the mortal remains of the sublime Buddha of the Shakya clan is a gift made by the Illustrious One’s brothers and sisters, along with their sons and wives.”

The inscription on the reliquary suggests that it contains the remains of the Buddha Shakyamuni.

Gemstones, Secondary relics from the Piprahwa stupa

Sacred Relics

The find and the inscription caused a sensation, especially among Buddhists across South and South East Asia. For them, the remains were sacred relics of the Buddha.

From a scientific point of view the discovery cannot be seen as proof of the Buddha’s existence. It does, however, indicate that, by the time the inscription was created, there already existed a cult centred around the Buddha.

In other words, the find tells us above all about the significance the Buddha had for his followers.

J. C. Jinaravansa (1851–1935)

The influential Thai monk J. C. Jinavaravansa convinced the British government to have the relics transferred to Thailand. There, in a large ceremony in 1900, they were redistributed among important Buddhist temples and monasteries in Myanmar, Sri Lanka, and Thailand.

Since then they have been venerated by millions of people in their new abodes.

What did your face originally look like
before your mother and father
placed you in this world?

Well done

Legend or History?

Legend or History?