Manufacturing Lumbini

The United Nations, Development, and Buddhism in the Twentieth Century


  • Blayne Harcey Arizona State University



Buddhism, Development, United Nations, World Peace, Nepal


This article draws attention to the United Nations' sustained development interventions at the Buddha’s birthplace of Lumbini, in the rural Terai region of Nepal. Following a self-described “pilgrimage” to Lumbini in April 1967, former United Nations secretary-general U Thant championed a call to restore the site to its rightful glory as a global pilgrimage destination and center of “world peace.” Despite fifty years of formal sponsorship by the United Nations, Lumbini’s development remains incomplete. This article has three main arguments. First, the UN’s sustained investment in Lumbini marks an unprecedented convergence between the international peacekeeping organization and expressions of religious piety and devotion. For many Buddhists, Lumbini is regarded as an auspicious place on par with Jerusalem or Mecca. Decades of interventions at Lumbini challenge normative assumptions concerning the UN’s secular authority. Second, through these sustained investments the UN became the preeminent patron of Lumbini, conferring to the international organization the power to mobilize Buddhist ethical principles in its peacekeeping agendas during the Cold War. Development interventions at Lumbini led to the appropriation of a pacified and politically benign Buddhist ethic premised solely on the Buddha’s teachings of compassion (karuṇā), good-will (metta), and nonviolence (ahiṃsā). These ethical maxims were harmonized with the UN Charter and redirected to justify the organization’s sustained investment in Nepal. Third, UN sponsorship of Lumbini brought together disparate political entities and religious organizations in service of a common goal, but friction amongst these stakeholders beleaguered the development proceedings throughout the latter half of the twentieth century. Despite these tensions, UN intervention has left an indelible mark on the accessibility of the site and its global prestige as a UNESCO World Heritage Site.

Author Biography

Blayne Harcey, Arizona State University

Blayne Harcey is a doctoral candidate in Religious Studies pursuing research interests in material culture, place-making, pilgrimage, and ritual in South and South East Asian traditions. His dissertation explores the manufacture of the Buddha's birthplace at Lumbinī, in the southern Terai region of Nepal. He received an M.A. from the Iliff School of Theology in Comparative Religion and a B.A. from Colorado State University in Philosophy with a certificate in Religious Studies. Blayne has travelled and conducted research abroad in Nepal, Sri Lanka, India, Thailand, and Indonesia. 


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How to Cite

Harcey, Blayne. 2022. “Manufacturing Lumbini: The United Nations, Development, and Buddhism in the Twentieth Century”. Journal of the Council for Research on Religion 4 (1). Montreal, QC, Canada:12-35.