The great quest

Print edition : November 07, 2008

Gilded statue of the Parinirvana. Like other sacred places associated with the life of the Buddha, Kushinagar, Uttar Pradesh, where the Buddha attained Parinirvana, rose to be an important place of pilgrimage and, in the course of time, was covered with shrines and monasteries built by Emperor Asoka and others. This is among the four most holy places for Buddhists.-

After six years of wandering, Gautama Siddhartha attained his goal: he became a Buddha, one who had gained Bodhi.

IT was the beginning of the first millennium B.C. There were many principalities in the northern plains of India. Some of them were Jana-Samghas, ruled by elected councils. In others, the concept of hereditary leaders was evolving. It was a time when great philosophic concepts, which were to last forever, were being crystallised. By the 8th century B.C., the early Upanishads were composed, out of the continuing traditions of the land.

These verses speak of the oneness of the whole of creation. The world of separated forms, which we see around us, is considered to be maya, an illusion. We perceive this illusory world through our senses, which are subjective. The high purpose of life is to transcend these limitations: to lift the veils of illusion and to see beyond, to perceive the unity of all that there is and thereby to break out of the spell of the transitory world. The main illusion, which keeps us bound to the material world, forever seeking its fruits and benefits, is the ego. We imagine ourselves to be distinct and separate entities and forever chase our ambitions and desires. The spell has to be broken to attain the peace of the truth.

In this period, numerous thinkers gave up the attractions of the ephemeral world to pursue the search for the truth. They left behind their material possessions and the emotional bonds with their families to wander homeless. They sought to be free of the endless pursuit of desires in the mundane world. This would give them the opportunity to seek the truth, which was eternal and beyond the passing material illusions.

Monkey brings honey for the Buddha, pillar, North Gateway. Siddhartha realised that depriving his body of nourishment in rigorous self-denial only weakened it and his mind. When he decided to give up his extreme asceticism, a monkey brought honey for him to eat.-

Two of the greatest of these renouncers were Gautama Siddhartha and Mahavira. Gautama is known as the 4th or the 7th Buddha, or Enlightened One, and Mahavira is known as the 24th Tirthankara, or Victor over the fear of death. Their followers form two of the great religions of the world: Buddhism and Jainism.

Gautama Siddhartha, the son of Suddodhana, the ruler of the Sakya clan, was one of humanitys wisest teachers. He was born circa 563 B.C. Suddodhana ruled from the town of Kapilavastu, in present-day Uttar Pradesh in India. The site of Kapilavastu has been excavated near the villages of Piprahwa and Ganweria.

It is believed that before Gautama was born his mother, Queen Maya, had a dream. In her sleep, she saw a white elephant entering her womb. Asita, the court astrologer, was told about it. He said, Queen Maya, you will have a son. He will be destined for greatness, in whichever path he chooses, whether as a great king or as a renouncer and saviour of mankind. Thus the arrival of a great being was heralded.

Asoka Pillar, Lumbini. This highly polished sandstone pillar commemorates the visit of Asoka to Lumbini, now in Nepal, in the 3rd century B.C.-

Just before she was to give birth, Maya set out for her fathers town, Devadaha. On the way she halted in a grove at Lumbini, which is in present-day Nepal. Here, as she reached up to take support of a branch of a sal tree, a son was born from under her raised arm. The deities Brahma and Vishnu are believed to have been present to receive the child. When he was born, the child took seven steps and said, I am one who will tread the path taken by others before me.

Asoka, the great Mauryan emperor of the 3rd century B.C., erected a pillar at Lumbini to commemorate this sacred site. After Gautamas birth, Maya bathed in a pond and Gautama is said to have been given an abhisheka, or ritual shower, by celestial creatures.

Gautama led a princely life and was kept away from all the pains and miseries of the world. His parents were afraid of the possibility that he may renounce the world to become an ascetic. However, Gautama had a thoughtful nature and an inclination towards meditation.

The Holy Pond in Lumbini, where Queen Maya bathed after she gave birth to Siddhartha. Lumbini is one of the four most venerated places for Buddhists.-

At the age of 29, his life took a different turn. On separate occasions, when he was driven outside the palace by his charioteer, he saw four sights, which set him thinking. He saw a very old and feeble man, an extremely sick man and a dead man being taken for cremation. As he was sheltered from the realities of life, these sights stunned him. He realised that all pleasures were transitory. On a fourth occasion, he saw an ascetic, whose face was serene. Gautama decided to renounce the fleeting pleasures of the world.

In the stillness of the night, Gautama bade a silent farewell to his sleeping wife and son. He left the palace quietly on his horse Kanthaka, accompanied by his charioteer Chandaka. It is said that celestial beings cushioned his horses hooves as he rode so that the sound would not awaken the sleeping palace.

Having gone some distance, Gautama cut off his beautiful long hair and took off his ornaments and royal attire. He sent these and Kanthaka back with Chandaka. It is said that Kanthaka, who loved his master very much, turned around for one last look at Gautama. In that moment, Kanthakas heart broke and he died.

Cave 2 of Ajanta has a beautiful depiction of the scene of the Buddha's birth. As Queen Maya raises her hand to hold the sal tree above her, the child is born from her side below the arm.-

For six years, Gautama wandered all over Bihar in his quest for true knowledge. He looked for teachers who may be able to show him the path of release from samsara, the endless cycle of life and death in the illusory world. None was able to satisfy him.

He subjected himself to the severest austerities in the belief that this would elevate the mind. He denied himself food and water until he was reduced to a skeleton. However, the truth remained beyond his grasp.

Seeing the futility of self-mortification, Gautama decided to take nourishment again. This would sustain his body and give him the clarity of mind he desired. He accepted a bowl of sweet rice-milk offered to him by a village girl called Sujata. A grass-cutter offered him a bundle of soft grass on which to sit. Next to the Niranjana river, at the village of Uruvela, Gautama sat down to meditate under a pipal tree. For days he sat in meditation, determined to seek the truth.

Mara and his armies, the personifications of doubts, confusions and temptations, assailed him from time to time. However, he was unshaken in his meditation and his will to escape the desires and pains of the material world. It was a full moon night. Gautama sat under the tree and continued his quest. Finally, his mind dispelled all the darkness of confusion. He fully realised the truth of the cause of suffering and the path to happiness.

After six years of struggle, Gautama attained his goal: he had become a Buddha, one who had gained Bodhi, the knowledge of the truth. One mans glorious journey in search of enlightenment had concluded successfully. In this was the beginning of a great journey for mankind. Gautama Buddha meditated at the place of his enlightenment and arose after 49 days. He had resolved to preach what he had realised.

Thereafter, the site of the Buddhas enlightenment became one of the most sacred spots. It is today known as Bodh Gaya. A rock edict records Asokas visit to Bodh Gaya in the 3rd century B.C. Here, he erected a shrine to commemorate the sacred spot. Under the Bodhi tree, there is still a stone seat, the Vajrasana, which has an inscription of that period. The geese and palmette motif on the seat are also typical of Asokas time.

Dhamek Stupa, Sarnath. This marks the spot where the Buddha gave his first sermon, setting into motion the Wheel of Dharma.-

The site also flourished greatly under the Pala and Sena rulers between the 8th and 12th centuries. Many fine sculptures of this period are preserved in the nearby archaeological museum.

At Sarnath, near Varanasi, the Buddha delivered his first sermon to his five former companions. This event is known as the Dharmachakra Pravartin, or the setting into motion of the Wheel of Law.

The Buddha spoke of Four Noble Truths. He said there is Duhkha, or suffering. There is Samudaya, or the cause of suffering. There is Nirodha, or the removal of the cause of suffering. There is Marg, or the path leading to the removal of the cause of suffering.

Now, this O monks, is the noble truth of sorrow: from birth it begins; old age causes sorrow; sickness causes sorrow; death causes sorrow; contact with unpleasant things causes sorrow, separation from pleasant things causes sorrow and not getting what one wishes for also causes sorrow.

Now, this O monks, is the noble truth about the origin of sorrow: sorrow arises from craving, which leads to rebirth and a thirst for sensual delights. Desire leads to the seeking of satisfaction now here, now there that is to say, the craving for gratification of passions, or the craving for life, or the craving for success this is the cause of sorrow.

The Himalaya mountains of India. Profound spiritual ideas developed very early in the subcontinent. The beginning of the first millennium B.C. saw the composition of the Upanishads. These crystallised continuing philosophic concepts, whose roots are to be discerned in the earlier river valley civilisations.-

Now, this O monks, is the noble truth about the removal of sorrow: sorrow shall be gone when desire ceases and no passion remains.

Now, this O monks, is the noble truth about the way which leads to the removal of sorrow: it is the noble Eight-fold Path.

This is the path of moderation. It keeps clear of the two extremes of self-indulgence and self-mortification. This path is the noble Eight-fold Path of the right views, the right thoughts, the right speech, the right action, the right means of livelihood, right effort, right mindfulness and right contemplation. Hearing the Buddhas enlightened words, the five ascetics were at once converted and formed the nucleus of the Buddhist Sangha, or Order.

The Dhamek Stupa is said to stand at the exact place where the Buddha preached to the five ascetics in the deer park. The walls of this stupa are decorated with many beautiful carvings. The date of the present stupa is not certain. However, archaeologists have discovered another, smaller stupa within it. This is believed to have been made by Asoka in the 3rd century B.C.

Asoka built many great stupas to honour the Buddha. Each of these was called a Dharmarajika stupa, and these contained the holy relics of the Buddha. One of these is at Sarnath.

Sculptures belonging to different periods have also been found at the site, which has continued to be in worship till today. Some of the most beautiful Buddha figures here are of the Gupta period, around the 5th century A.D.

There is a peaceful expression and an inward look that marks the art of this period. Here we see the Buddha in the Dharmachakra Pravartin mudra, setting into motion the Wheel of the Law or Dharma. Asoka also erected many impressive pillars to commemorate events of the Buddhas life.

Mahabodhi Temple, Bodh Gaya. The temple is built at the spot where the Buddha gained enlightenment, near Gaya in present-day Bihar. The present structure dates back to the mid-5th century A.D. and is the oldest standing grand building in the Indian subcontinent.-

The Asoka pillar at Sarnath, with its famous capital of four lions, was erected at the place where the Buddha established his first Sangha, the Buddhist congregation. The lion capital of this pillar is the national emblem of the Republic of India.

The Buddha wandered ceaselessly from place to place in present-day Bihar and Uttar Pradesh. He taught dharma to all without any distinction. He and his disciples lived on alms. This wandering life ceased only in the monsoons when the rain came down hard.

The Buddha frequently visited Rajgir, the capital of the kingdom of Magadha. He spent many monsoons preaching there. After he passed away, the First Buddhist Council was convened at this site. Modern-day Rajgir preserves the remains of this ancient past. In these, historians have tried to identify places associated with the events of Buddhist history.

The Buddha preached in the easily understood local dialect of the people. He spoke of universal equality, charity and logical reasoning.

Large numbers flocked to his sermons and became his followers.

At the age of 80, Gautama Buddha headed to Kushinagar in present-day Uttar Pradesh. There he told his close disciple Ananda that his end had come. Ananda was miserable and cried bitterly. The Buddha asked him not to grieve the loss of his masters ephemeral self. He said, Dharma is your refuge.

The Buddha addressed the Sangha one final time and said at the end: All that comes to existence must fade away. Let your striving alone never come to an end! The year was 483 B.C. and these were the Buddhas last words.

Following the Buddhas Mahapariniravana, his relics were distributed among seven groups of his followers, who enshrined them in stupas. The Pali chronicles tell that Asoka opened these original stupas and redistributed the relics in other stupas across his empire.

Archaeological excavations have shown that the core of the stupas at Sanchi and Amaravati dates back to Asokas period. However, building activity continued at these sites. What is visible today does not belong to the Mauryan period.

Since earliest historical times, the kings and the people of this land presented a unique and fascinating culture. There were no portraits of rulers made in ancient India. Asoka does not even mention his own name in most of his edicts. He is just referred to as Devanampiya Piyadasi, beloved of the divine and one whose vision is filled with adoration.

Besides his visits to many Buddhist pilgrimage sites, he also excavated great caves out of the hills at Barabar in Bihar. These were made for the ascetic sect of the Ajivikas.

Asokas inscriptions of the 3rd century B.C. are a remarkable record of a compassionate and cosmopolitan vision: a vision that has not been surpassed by any ruler till today. He says, His Sacred Majesty does reverence to men of all sects. A man must not do reverence only to his own sect while disparaging the sects of others.

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