Buddha’s teeth

After Gautama Buddha died (around 500 years BCE) he was cremated and his ashes divided up and distributed to stupas across northern India. But some relics purportedly survived, including a surprising number of teeth.

Temple of the Sacred Tooth Relic
Temple of the Sacred Tooth Relic, Kandy, Sri Lanka
Dan Lundberg, CC BY-SA 2.0, via Wikimedia Commons

While touring across Europe twenty years ago, I came across several pieces of the True Cross housed in cathedrals, churches, and museums. It amused me no end that they all seemed to be made of different types of wood. So either Jesus’ cross was made of composite wood, glued together like a cutting board… or not all of those relics were on the up and up.

When Gautama Buddha, the founder of Buddhism, died, he was cremated. The ashes and other leftovers were originally going to be kept together, but nearby kingdoms went to war over these most precious relics. The “War Over the Buddha’s Relics” ended with the remains going to eight different kingdoms. A century later, those relics were collected together again and redistributed by Ashoka the Great. This time, they went in 84,000 different directions – contributing to the spread of Buddhism throughout Asia, but also making it really difficult to know what went where.

Jump ahead a couple of thousand years, and we have stupas housing purported relics spread across the world. Bones and hair are common, but also surprisingly widespread are the teeth of the Buddha. And the stories around them are pretty wild.

A tooth on display at the Buddha Tooth Relic Temple and Museum in Singapore is seven and a half centimetres long (either Buddha had huge gums or something strange is afoot). So the story goes, someone in Japan tried to destroy a tooth relic by smashing it on an anvil. The tooth survived; both the anvil and the hammer did not. In Chinese tradition, Emperor Taizong of Tang tried to burn a tooth of the Buddha, but flames could not harm it. In fact, a lot of people supposedly tried to destroy these teeth throughout history. Usually, their failure to actually harm the relic would be enough to convert the would-be iconoclast to Buddhism; if the tooth is indestructible, its religion must be worthwhile.

Probably the most significant tooth relic today is the one kept in the Temple of the Tooth in Kandy, Sri Lanka. Legend holds that control of the tooth equals control of the country, so even in recent memory people have attacked the temple to try to gain control of the relic. (Militant communists bombed the temple in 1989 and the Tamil Tigers did the same in 1998.) Another story goes that the first Archbishop of Goa, the Portuguese priest Gaspar Jorge de Leão Pereira, actually successfully destroyed that Sri Lankan tooth: he ground it up in a mortar and pestle, burnt it, and threw the ashes into a river. I have no idea of the veracity of that one.

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