'Secrets of the Dead: Bones of the Buddha' seeks new answers to old questions

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A mystery over the remains of the Buddha is logically solved in PBS' "Secrets of the Dead: Bones of the Buddha" Tuesday, July 23 (check local listings).

It remains unclear if those with deep faith need such verification, but the hourlong documentary answers questions that have plagued some for over a century.

Historian Charles Allen unravels the issue while traveling more than 4,000 miles. He begins with a visit to Neil Peppe in suburban England. Peppe, grandson of colonial landowner William Peppe, has cabinets full of jewels reportedly from the tomb of the Buddha.

Peppe's grandfather and workers excavated a hill in northern India in 1898, and unearthed a huge stone coffin with jewels, gold and silver. There's also a jar, inscribed in Sanskrit, stating: "These are the relics of the Buddha -- the Lord."

Still, more questions are raised. Would the man who shunned material goods have had such an ornate burial? A scholar of ancient Sanskrit confirms the translation on the jar, adding that this dialect didn't exist until 150 years after the Buddha died.

"The Buddha was a real person of flesh and blood," Allen says of the sage born 563 years before Christ. 

An actor who does not speak portrays Buddha, praying.

As Allen tries to authenticate the urn, he talks about how Buddha lived in extreme denial and meditated by a tree. His followers retrace his steps daily.

Buddha's remains were divided among eight simple urns. And it was under the richly appointed coffin that a plain container, one in keeping with the Buddha's beliefs, was found.

The ornate burial, though, made sense because Ashoka, an Indian emperor critical in making Buddhism a world religion, would have added the jewels. And Allen can finally report to a relieved Peppe that his grandfather had indeed found the genuine article.

The film, however, does not delve into whether the relic should remain with the family of the former colonial landlord.
Photo/Video credit: PBS