Buddhism began at Sarnath, when the Buddha delivered his first Sermon. This image shows the ruins of the Dhamekh Stupa, attributed to the emperor Ashoka (d. 232 BCE), and the ruins of the monasteries surrounding it. The bricks in the stupa's center are several centuries older, and may mark the "exact" spot where that sermon took place.
All photos June 2011.
||This life-size tableau shows the Buddha
teaching his five former ascetic companions (who had at first shunned him as a
fallen ascetic after he began eating regular meals, but eventually agreed to
listen to him). During the sermon the ascetic Kaundinya attained
enlightenment--proving that the Buddha's experience was transmissible
to others. Buddhist lore describes the Buddha as choosing these men based
on their spiritual readiness....maybe, maybe not. But he was clearly
eager to spread his message--to get to Benares (a city with a large
potential audience) he walked almost 150 miles in the hottest month of the year
Buddhists from all over the world come to Sarnath, and so all the signs are in multiple languages.
|Tradition describes Sarnath as a "deer park,"
and it was probably a private nature preserve. It is 4 miles
(6 km) from Benares, which means that currently part of the urban sprawl, but
would have formerly been a quiet spot at a reasonable distance from the
city (close enough to go in and beg for food, but quiet enough for
contemplation--in short, a perfect ascetic home).
I was told that "out back" was a fenced area that actually had some deer, but out front all we could see were these goats. The symbolism is more than a little disturbing.
|The "commemorative" section of Sarnath contains
a small temple built in the Thai Buddhist architectural style, though the
temple's interior contains paintings done by a Japanese Buddhist artist (see
This golden statue (almost certainly gold-leaf) is on the temple's "altar" at the far end. Lights are visible in front and on the sides, as are vases of flowers, and both of these are gestures of reverence toward someone or something. Another such gesture is to do prostrations, and many people were doing this as well.
The hands of the image are in the mudra (hand position) associated with preaching the First Sermon (which seems highly appropriate for this site)..
|The paintings covering the inside of the temple
showed various scenes from the Buddha's life. A plaque on one side reports
that they were painted in 1937 by a Japanese artist brought by a direct appeal to the imperial Japanese government.
I found myself thinking was how close this was to WWII, and the
dissonance between Buddhist principles and Japanese militarism.
This image shows Sujata making her offering of milk-rice to the starving Budda-to-be. Tradition says that this food was so rich that it gave him the energy to meditate nonstop for 40 days.
|This image portrays the moments before enlightenment. On both sides the future Buddha is assailed by the hosts of Mara (which can be seen symbolically as doubts, anxieties, and continuing worldly attachments), but he remained unfazed. When Mara taunted the Buddha to produce a witness to his religious merit (since no one else was there), the Buddha touched the ground and called on the Earth (which she did by an earthquake). The female figure at the lower right may be the Earth, or it may be one of Mara's daughters (Discontent, Delight, and Craving), all of whom create attachments.|
|This shows Buddha's parinirvana
or "Great Demise." Tradition records that the Buddha was tranquil
before death, and that he tried to comfort his followers. He told them not to mourn him, since all created things
must end, he asked senior monks to be kind to their juniors, and juniors to respect
their seniors, and several times asked whether anyone had questions about his
The picture shows Buddhist monks nearest to the Buddha, but but other figures (including long-haired ascetics) at the margins. Although this image reflects the artist's imagination, as a religious leader the Buddha would have been respected by people from throughout society.
|This eighty-foot tall statue has the standing
Buddha giving the abhaya mudra (the hand gesture meaning "do not fear").
This is new construction, and was begun after the Taliban destroyed the rock-cut Buddha images in Bamiyan (Afghanistan) in spring 2001, as a way for the Buddhist community to respond to this iconoclasm, and to reassert the relevance of the Buddhist message.
These pages are in progress.
Page maintained by James G. Lochtefeld.
Last modified 10 August 2011