This is an advance summary of a forthcoming article in the Oxford Research Encyclopedia of Asian History. Please check back later for the full article.
Archaeology, as it has developed over the last few decades, helps define a context for both relic and image worship. It maps Buddhist sacred spaces both horizontally, across the physical and natural landscape, and vertically, in time, highlighting antecedents of religious sites and subsequent transformations. An important aspect is that of the interconnectedness of sites through pilgrimage and religious travel. Archaeology has helped to contextualize Buddhist religious architecture within its cultural landscape.
The eightfold path shown by the Buddha in the middle of the first millennium bce was founded on wisdom, morality, and concentration. Like other contemporary Indic religions, Buddha dhamma had no central organization, “no single authoritative text, no simple set of defining practices,” according to Jacob N. Kinnard. Its core principle was refuge in the Buddha, the Dhamma, and the Sangha, though as it expanded across Asia, it absorbed local traditions, responded to historical factors, and evolved philosophically. The physical manifestations of the dhamma appeared in the archaeological record at least two to three hundred years later, in the form of inscriptions, stupas, images, and other objects of veneration. Relic and image worship were important features in the expansion of Buddhism across the subcontinent and into other parts of Asia.