Buddham Sharanam Gachami in the
Protection of the Buddha. Om Mani Padmaham, chant the
devout as they spin the prayer wheel, and thus adhere one third of
the worlds population to the religion of Buddhism. For what
could be a more reasonable philosophy than the Eight Fold Middle Path
advocated by Lord Buddha; between self-indulgence and
self-mortification. As Sir Edwin Arnold so beautifully expressed in
his Light of Asia, the saga
of Gautama Buddha compiled in verse.
Fair goes the dancing when the sitars
Tune us the sitar neither low nor high, And we
will dance away the hearts of men.
The string or stretched breaks, and the
music flies; The string or slack is dumb, and music dies,
Tune us the sitar neither low nor high.
The stars and the Gods
convened for a propitious birth in 566 B.C. In Kapilavastu, the
capital of the Kingdom of Kosala which extended from southern Nepal
to the Ganges, ruled King suddhodana and his Queen Maha Maya. To
them was born an only son, Prince siddharth. Seers proclaimed that
he would be a great man. Unfortunately, the Queen died seven days
after his birth, so he was tended by a foster nurse Princess
Mahaprajapati. The young prince was brought up in every conceivable
luxury within the palace walls. At the age of eight the king decided
to impart all princely skills to the child, so he became the pupil of
the learned Vishwamitra. The child was endowed with divine knowledge
and skills. He was completely protected from any negative aspects of
life. The king had decreed that should the Prince pass through town,
should the Prince pass through town, there should be no sign of
sickness, pain or poverty.
Once in the royal garden,
his cousin Devdutta felled a white swan with his willful shaft. The
Prince sensed compassion and sat down nursing it tenderly for an
hour. Yet he was scarcely aware of pain, so on gently drawing out
the cruel shaft of steel from the bird, he curiously pressed the barb
into his wrist and was surprised to feel the sting and wince. Then
arose the dispute as to who could rightfully claim the bird. The
question was put to the seniors who decided that the one who
preserves life has more right than one who destroys. Another time,
the king drew his son to bask in the garden resplendent with spring.
But the Prince also noted the thorns that grew below the roses, the
lizards eating the lesser insects, the oxen forced to labour, etc.
till he sighed and sat down to contemplate on this.
When the Prince was 18
the king was still perturbed by his contemplations, and again sought
the council of his ministers. Marriage, they decided, was the best
diversion. A competitive fair was held for all nobility and the best
of youth presented to the Prince, to choose a mate himself. Thus he
met Yashodhara, his wife. The King had the most magnificent palace
built for the couple with splendid gardens. It had three stalwart
gates with explicit orders that no man even the Prince could
pass through. In vain the king plied every pleasure within the
confines, hoping yet to divert destiny and prophecy and anticipate a
mighty King in his son.
But the prince went forth
into the city and despite all orders there crept up a withered old
man. On questioning his charioteer he was told that this was old age
and inevitable to all. Then the prince sallied out once again and
this time encountered an ailing and diseased man, and death being
mourned at a funeral. On seeing his son so effected by the misery,
the King tripled the guards at the gateyet who can shut out
Finally one night, after
a silent lingering farewell to his slumbering wife who was with
child, he stole out of the palace, on his white horse Kantak and his
faithful charioteer Channa. Before dawn, deep in the forest the
Prince took off his royal robes and cut off his locks and turned back
Channa and Kantak. Now he was a wandering mendicant in search of the
ultimate truth. He roamed all over meeting with hermits, Brahmins and
holy men. It only made him realize that the answer would have to be
realized within himself. His saintly demeanour won him his first
five disciples. He sat down to do severe penance, but at the end of
the ordeal he knew that self-mortification was not the answer. So he
continued with his begging bowl and yellow robes; but abandoned by
the five who thought their master had failed.
After six years, the
Prince came upon a sylvan spot on the banks of the river Nairanjana,
now known as Phalgu, and the site Bodh Gaya. Here he espied the huge
Bodhi tree and sat down with his back to it facing east in his final
quest. So deep was his sadhana that none of the ten sins could
tempt him. With the dawn came the enlightened and Gautama Buddha
attained Nirvana. At this hallowed site the Mahabodhi temple was
built subsequently. Having achieved this state of bliss the Buddha
was wont to return to the world, but realized his divine mission was
to enlighten the rest of mankind.
He preached his first
sermon at the Deer Park near Banaras. At hand were his five old
disciples who again converted to him. Sarnath, as it is known today,
is a tranquil place sustaining its sanctity by the scores of
worshipping monks from all over the world. Lord Buddha and his
disciples went on preaching. When there were 61 disciples he sent
them out to preach and empowered them to receive and ordain others.
On his way from Banaras
to Uruvela the Buddha encountered some young men picnicking in the
forest. The mistress of one had absconded with his belongings so
they were looking for her. On inquiring from the Buddha, his
rejoinder was that wouldnt it be more worthwhile to seek the
Self? Such insight turned the young men to him. At Uruvela he
resided for some time with the Brahmins, who were so impressed that
the Brahmin master Kashyapa and all five hundred of his followers
became his disciples. Buddha had performed two miracles for them.
One was taming the furious serpent who dwelt in their temple, and the
other was lighting their fire by his super powers. From there the
Buddha led them to Gaya where he preached his famous Sermon on
Fire, pertaining to the fire of the senses. The Order swelled
to one thousand disciples.
Next the Buddha went to
Rajgriha, now known as Rajgir in Bihar. Rajgira then was the capital
of Magadh ruled by King Bimbisara of the Maurya dynasty. Lord Buddha
passed many years of his ministration here. His favourite resorts
were the Jivakamarvana monastery presented to Buddha by the renowned
physician Jivaka. And Venuvana which is identified today near the
hot springs. An aerial rope was today takes you up to the top of
Ratnagiri Hill where the Japanese have built the Vishwa Shanti Stupa.
Saptaparni Cave was the venue of the first Buddhist Council, of 500
leading disciples, six months after the demise of the Lord. In
Rajgir it is best to be with a certified guide, because it was
impossible to locate the historical sites on ones own.
In the course of his
wanderings, Gautama Buddha returned to Kapilavastu. In all these
years of his absence Yashodhara his wife grieved and lived as plainly
as a window with just their son Rahula as solace. The King lamented,
and was none too pleased to see his son and heir return with a
begging bowl in his hand. But they too were enlightened by the
Buddha. King Suddhodana became a lay disciple, and Yashodhara
followed the same rules. She sent Rahula to ask his inheritance from
the father, as he was now rightfully heir to the throne. Buddha
turned to his disciple Sariputra and told him to ordain his son into
the Order. At this the king was hurt and requested Buddha that
henceforth no child may be ordained without the permission of the
parents. To this the Buddha acquiesced.
By now the order had
expanded enormously and they were no longer just a band of wandering
mendicants. Some were teachers, and a definite set of rules emerged.
Twenty years after his own enlightenment, the Buddhas own
cousin Ananda rose to become his personal attendant, confidante and
representative. He was responsible for the admission of women into
the Order. Mahaprajapati, Buddhas foster nurse, sought Sakya
women followers who cut off their hair, donned yellow robes, and
trudged to the Masters dwelling at Vaishali. But he thrice
repeated his refusal. Ananda took up the cause and reasoned with the
Master, till he agreed to a separate Order of Nuns. The famous
courtesan Amrapali of Vaishali became a devotee of his and gifted him
a mango grove. Later she became a nun herself. Vaishali, in Bihar,
is said to have been visited thrice by the Buddha in his life time.
It was here he preached his last sermon, and announced his
approaching Nirvana. Hundred years after his passing away the second
Buddhist Council was held there.
In his lifetime the
Buddha ha decreed that worship to him in his absence should be via
the symbolic Great Wisdom Tree, Mahabodhi tree, which also represents
the tree of life. After his death it was to be his bodily relics. It
was at the age of 80 that Gautama Buddha fell ill and gave up his
body at Kushanagar near Gorakhpur, U.P. The body was cremated and the
relics divided into eight parts among his classmen. Subsequently
eight important monuments were erected to enshrine them, which are
now the important Buddhist pilgrimages. Thus we have in Sanchi,
Madhya Pradesh, his tooth enshrined in a stupa. Sanchi also has the
distinction of having practically all forms of Buddhist architecture;
stupas, chaityas, temples and monasteries.
Buddhism spawned the
great ancient university of Nalanda in Bihar. It was founded
by the Gupta dynasty in the 15th century, and frequently
visited by Lord Buddha. Its immense and orderly layout is impressive
even today; considering that it is still not fully excavated. An
instance lies in the mound recently unearthed near the entrance,
which has a statue of Buddha with the original paintings at the base.
Buddhas chief disciple Sariputra was born here.
But the core of Buddhism
lies in Bodh Gaya, Bihar. In fact the very name Bihar is
derived from Vihar which bespeaks of its antiquity. Bodh
Gaya was thought to be the very centre of the universe. I may have
set off as a tourist, but treading on such hallowed ground evokes a
sense of reverence, the Mahabodhi temple soars up majestically 170
feet high in the sky, flanked by four lesser towers, and embellished
in the unique Buddhist style. The garden is dotted with stupas big
and small. The smaller ones were built in tribute to wish fulfilled.
Like every I too gazed upon the Bodhi tree with awe. It is not the
imposing tree we remember from illustrations of the Buddha seated
there, but an off shoot of the original. A shoot from the original
was taken to Anuradhapuram in Sri Lanka, and two off shoots were
brought back and planted here. One on the same spot, and a reverse
in the temple compound. Within the temple is the main gilded statue
of Buddha seated on the Vajrasan. This throne I am told is the
original, which Emperor Ashoka had gold plated when he came here 250
years later. Some of his contributions to the temple are still
evident in parts of the railing, gate, and of course the Ashoka
pillar which marked the pauses of Buddha in gratitude for his
enlightenment. The temple itself is 2300 years old. Thirty feet of
the construction is attributed to Ashoka, and 150 feet to the Gupta
period. The temple lay neglected and gradually covered with earth
until 1890 when Lord Cunningham unearthed it and had it restored.
Every Buddhist country
like Thailand, Japan, Burma, Ceylon, etc. has built its own temple
and monastery in Bodh Gaya. They are worth visiting for their
splendid décor and distinctive architecture. Back outside are
more worldly diversion. From the roadside stalls I picked up genuine
little antiques like coins, a tiny brass measure, and an interesting
stick-head. For after all, what are most of us?
We are the voices of the wandering wind,
Which moan for rest and rest can never find;
Lo, as the wind is, so is mortal life, A moan, a
sigh, a sob, a storm, a strife.