By Dhanendra Kumar
Buddha Purnima, or Vesak (derived from Vaisakhi) is celebrated with great fervour as the birthday of Gautam Buddha, the founder of Buddhism, in India and across the World, specially South and South-East Asia, with holidays as in Singapore and other countries. Gautam Buddha was born as Prince Siddhartha Gautam on the full moon day in 563 BC in Lumbini in Kapilvastu (modern Nepal), where Prime Minister Modi is visiting on 16th May, on Buddha Purnima. In Hinduism, Buddha is venerated as the ninth incarnation of Lord Vishnu, with huge following among Hindus besides Buddhists. There is a huge following in Singapore, China, a, Sri Lanka, Nepal, Bhutan, Tibet, Thailand, Korea, Laos, Vietnam, Cambodia, Indonesia, Taiwan etc.
This day is especially significant as three major events took place on this day in the life of the Gautama Buddha. First, Prince Siddhartha was born at Lumbini on the full moon day in May. He denounced his princely life when 30 years to turn into an ascetic, and after six years of extreme hardship, attained enlightenment under the Bodhi tree in Bodh Gaya (in India) and became Gautama Buddha also on the full moon day of May. Thirdly, after 45 years of spreading his messages, when he was eighty, he passed away at Kusinagar, on the full moon day of May.
His teachings had such a wide and universal appeal that it spread with spontaneity without efforts or violence, based on peace, compassion and universal brotherhood. It was based on seven principles – right view, right resolve, right speech, right action, right livelihood, right effort, and right mindfulness.
Devotees of Buddha on this day visit temples, light candles and incense sticks, pray and offer sweets and fruits before the statue of Lord Buddha. Sermons on the life and teachings of Buddha are held and congregations widely attended. People generally dress in white and do not consume non-vegetarian food. Some devotees also free caged birds on this day as a symbol of empathy and compassion for all living beings. In India, a large fair takes place in Sarnath, Uttar Pradesh, a major Buddhist pilgrimage site where Buddha is said to have delivered his first sermon after attaining enlightenment. Special flights are arranged due to heavy demands and thousands of tourists visit from neighbouring countries.
The life and principles of Buddha constitute important cultural linkages for India and these countries which look up to India as the fountainhead of Buddhism. There is great demand for Buddha’s relics from India to be sent there for special exhibitions. PM Modi’s scheduled visit to Nepal on Buddha Purnima also symbolises some of these linkages.
In India, there are many important cultural sites including Bodh Gaya which is a world heritage site. Cultural tourism is promoted on Buddhist circuits and special measures are being taken for development of tourism infrastructure and facilities. Nalanda University, the ancient academic pride of India, was the most sought after Buddhist University in the ancient kingdom of Magadha (modern-day Bihar) attracting students from across the world. A thousand years after it was destroyed by Bakhtiar Khilji, it is being revived to its full glory at Rajgir. Sarnath, near Varanasi in Uttar Pradesh where Buddha taught important lessons of ‘The Middle Way’ (Madhyam marg), the Four Noble Truths, and the Noble Eightfold Path. Kushinagar, the site of Buddha’s parinirvana is home to many prayer and meditation sites. Kesariya stupa in Champaran, Bihar; Sanchi Stupa in Sanchi, Madhya Pradesh are some other important pilgrimage sites in India. Monasteries like Tawang in Aruanachal Pradesh, Rumtek in Sikkim, Durpin in West Bengal are important places of worship and also tourist attractions. The town of Dharamshala in Himachal Pradesh is the seat of Dalai Lama, the spiritual leader of Buddhism, one can feel Tibetan-Buddhist traditions and culture at the place.
In all, this special festival, extending beyond India in the entire region, and the world, reminds us not only of the religion and teachings that was founded 2500 years ago but also the special cultural linkages of India which spread with mass appeal in these countries. India as Vishwaguru always emanated the message of peace, love, tolerance and universal brotherhood. In this conflict ridden world, the eternal teachings of Buddha are more relevant than ever.
(The writer is former secretary, culture, & executive director at World Bank for India, Sri Lanka, Bangladesh and Bhutan. Views expressed are personal and not necessarily that of Financial Express Online.)