Saturday, August 11, 2007

The Turning of the Wheel of Law

Dhamekstupa, built over the site where it is believed that the Buddha preached his first sermon.

The first stop the morning after our arrival was Sarnath, a town 10km to the north of Benares, and one of the main spots associated with the life of the Buddha. It was at Sarnath that he is supposed to have preached his first sermon (dhammacakkapavattana sutta in Pali, the turning of the wheel of law) after achieving enlightenment (which happened under the Bodhi tree in Bodhgaya, some 200 km to the east in the neighboring state of Bihar), found his first five companions, and established the first sangha. After the conversion of the Mauryan Emperor Ashok in the 3rd century BC, Buddhism spread across the land, and Buddhist missionaries took this Indian religion across eastern Asia. Monasteries, viharas and stupas sprung up in Sarnath (there are ruins of a medieval monastery complex with one surviving stupa that shows evidence of dating back to Mauryan times), and though Buddhism eventually virtually disappeared from the land (There are various theories: assimilation by Hinduism, a concerted effort by Brahmanical Hinduism to absorb and contain the egalitarian critique of both Buddhism and Jainism, an effort that wasn't without violence, destruction by Muslim invaders. Ultra-right Hindu nationalists tend to minimize the second.), Sarnath remains an important spot on the Buddhist pilgrimage route. There are Thai, Japanese and Tibetan Buddhist temples and pilgrim houses. We passed a large group of Tibetan protesters, chanting anti-China slogans under large flags of free Tibet.

Detail of carving on the Dhamekstupa

An early 20th century vihara, the Mulagandhakuti Vihara (whose donors included a wealthy American lady from Honululu), contains a beautiful gilded image of the Buddha along with frescoes depicting scenes from his life painted a famous Japanese artist. As we approached, several women, clad entirely in white, with white face-coverings, were leaving. They could have been Jain pilgrims (there's a Jain temple nearby, and the area is holy to Jainism as well, it seems), or Indian neo-Buddhists. The area wasn't crowded, with visitors mainly being Indian and foreign tourists, among a few pilgrims. The vihara contains a silver reliquary with relics of the Buddha himself, that apparently came from Takshashila
Image of the Buddha, Mulgandhakuti Vihara

On leaving the grounds we passed a sign in Hindi, "This is a holy place. Please show respect to the surroundings." A few feet away a man was relieving himself in the bushes. Only in India.

I had forgotten that the famous Ashoka Pillar, the capital of which is now the national emblem of the Indian state, was discovered in Sarnath. The fragments of the pillars themselves can be seen among the monastery ruins -- light brown Chunar sandstone stumps with indecipherable inscriptions in the ancient Brahmi script running down the side. The capital itself -- the four lions, facing the four directions, with the Ashoka Chakra (a thirty-two spoke wheel representing the Buddhist conception of the eternal Law, the dharmachakra. The chakra is part of the flag of modern India) on its base, and also as a separate piece (surviving only in fragments) atop the lions -- now rests in an archeological museum close by (Entrance fee Rs. 2! Ten dollars or Rs. 400 for foreigners.). The Ashoka pillar is the first thing one sees in the entrance hall of the museum (no cameras allowed! Stupid Indian paranoia); I had no idea it was this huge, beign at least 6 feet tall, I'd say. It must have looked imposing atop the xx feet tall pillar. Numerous other archeological finds are displayed in the museum's gallery, dating back to Gupta (5th century AD) and Maurya (3rd century BC) times, including an incredibly peaceful and beautiful seated Buddha from the Gupta period. A local guide was giving a visiting Spanish couple a detailed description, in pretty decent Spanish. It was a bit surreal listening in to a Spanish conversation in eastern Uttar Pradesh!

Fresco depicting a scene from the life of the Buddha, Mulagandhakuti Vihara.

Not too far along the road back to Benares is another Mauryan stupa, a four-sided one (Chaukhand stupa, where the Buddha met his five companions.), surmounted by an octagonal brick structure dating from Mughal times.

One tends to forget that Buddhism originated in India and flourished in the land for over a millenium. This visit to Sarnath was a wonderful reminder of this.

[And while surfing Wikipedia, I came across this interesting story: Barlaam and Josaphat, apparently a medieval Greek legend based on the life of the Buddha!]

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