This is an overview of the historical evidence for Buddhism:
Gautama the Buddha was not a mythical figure but an actual, historical personality who introduced the religion known today as Buddhism. Evidence to prove the existence of this great religious Teacher are to be found in the following facts:
The testimonies of those who knew Him personally. These testimonies were recorded in the rock-inscriptions, pillars and pagodas made in His honour. These testimonies and monuments to His memory were created by kings and others who were near enough to His time to be able to verify the story of His life.
The discovery of places and the remains of buildings that were mentioned in the narrative of His time.
The Sangha, the holy order which He founded, has had an unbroken existence to the present day. The Sangha possessed the facts of His life and Teachings which have been transmitted from generation to generation in various parts of the world.
The fact that in the very year of His death, and at various times subsequently, conventions and councils of the Sangha were held for the verification of the actual Teachings of the Founder. These verified Teachings have been passed on from teacher to pupil from His time to the present day.
After His passing away, His body was cremated and the bodily relics were divided among eight kingdoms in India. Each king built a pagoda to contain his portion of the relics. The portion given to King Ajatasatthu was enshrined by him in a pagoda at Rajagriha. Less than two centuries later, Emperor Asoka took the relics and distributed them throughout his empire. The inscriptions enshrined in this and other pagodas confirmed that those were the relics of Gautama the Buddha.
‘The Mahavansa’, the best and authentic ancient history known to us gives detailed particulars of life as well as details of the life of Emperor Asoka and all other sovereigns related to Buddhist history. Indian history has also given a prominent place to the Buddha’s life, activities, Buddhist traditions and customs.
The records which we can find in the Buddhist countries where people received Buddhism a few hundred years after the Buddha’s passing away such as Sri Lanka, Burma, China, Tibet, Nepal, Korea, Mongolia, Japan, Thailand, Vietnam, Cambodia and Laos show unbroken historical, cultural, religious, literary and traditional evidence that there was religious Teacher in India known as Gautama the Buddha.
The Tripitaka, an unbroken record of His 45 years of Teaching is more than sufficient to prove that the Buddha really lived in the world.
The accuracy and authenticity of the Buddhist texts is supported by the fact that they provide information for historians to write Indian history during the 5th and 6th century B.C. The texts, which represent the earliest reliable written records in India, provide a profound insight into the socio-economic, cultural and political environment and conditions during the Buddha’s lifetime as well as into the lives of His contemporaries, such as King Bimbisara.
This is a documentary film on a particularly interesting evidence of the historical Buddha:
A buried stupa was discovered by William Claxton Peppe, a British colonial engineer and landowner of an estate at Piprahwa in January 1898. Peppe led a team in excavating a large earthen mound on his land. Having cleared away scrub and jungle, they set to work building a deep trench through the mound. Eventually they came to a large stone coffer which contained five small vases containing bone fragments, ashes and jewels. On one of the vases was a Brahmi inscription which was translated by George Bühler, a leading European epigraphist of the time, to mean:
This relic-shrine of divine Buddha (is the donation) of the Sakya-Sukiti brothers, associated with their sisters, sons, and wives,
implying that the bone fragments were part of the remains of Gautama Buddha. In the following decade or so epigraphists debated the precise meaning of the inscription. John Fleet, then epigraphist of the Government of India, proposed that it referred to the Buddha’s kinsman rather than the Buddha himself. In the 2013 documentary, ‘Bones of the Buddha’, epigraphist Harry Falk of Freie Universität Berlin confirmed the original interpretation that the depositors believed these to be the remains of the Buddha himself. Falk translates the inscription as “these are the relics of the Buddha, the Lord” and concludes that the reliquary found at Piprahwa did contain a portion of the ashes of the Buddha and that the inscription is authentic.
In 1997 epigraphist and archaeologist Ahmad Hasan Dani noted the challenges that isolated finds present to paleographical study:“The Piprahwa vase, found in the Basti District, U.P., has an inscription scratched on the steatite stone in a careless manner. The style of writing is very poor, and there is nothing in it that speaks of the hand of the Asokan scribes”. He concluded that “the inscription may be confidently dated to the earlier half of the second century B.C.”