Place of Lord Buddha’s First Preaching – [Isipatana]
How to reach there:
Located in the state of Uttar Pradesh, about 30km from Benares (Varanasi), Saranath can be approached from Buddhagaya within a distance of about 250km.
After the stay of seven weeks following enlightenment at Buddhagaya, the Lord Buddha decided to teach the Dhamma he had realized to the five ascetics – Kondanna, Vappa, Bhaddiya, Mahanama and Assaji. They were his first disciples and , Sanath marks the birth place of religion of the Lord Buddha.
The inscriptions here refer to the site as the “Monastery of the Turning of the Wheel of Righteousness”. The five ascetics – Parivrajikas or Pancha Vaggiyas,
who had served him for six years, but left after he abandoned the path of self- mortification, on seeing the Lord Buddha coming in the distance, decided not to welcome him; but as soon as the Lord approached them, they found themselves unable to keep their pact and began to serve him. The Lord Buddha was able to convince them of his attainment. This was on the Esala (Asalha) full moon-day i.e.: exactly two months after Wesak. The very night the Buddha delivered the historic First Sermon – the Dhamma chakka pavattana sutta or Discourse on Turning of the Wheel of Dhamma.
This led to Kondanna attaining First stage of Sainthood. The remaining four ascetics attained the first stage of sainthood successively over the next four days. Later the Anatta Lakkhana Sutta or the discourse on Characteristics of Non-self was preached, hearing which, they attained Arahantship or final sainthood. Also in Saranath, the Buddha converted the rich man Yasa and his 54 friends, who also became Arahants. Later they were dispatched in different directions to propagate the Dhamma, each one going in a separate way. Thus Sarnath is famous as the Place of the First Sermon as well as the Founding of the Sangha (Monkhood).
In 249BC, King Asoka visited Sarnath and erected several monuments notably,
- Dhamek Stupa
- Dharmarajika Stupa and
- Asokan Pillar.
The latter surmounted by the famous Lion Capital, now forms the Crest of India. During the reign of Kaniska (78AD), Sarnath was a centre of religious activity.
In 520 AD, Sarnath had its destruction during the invasion of Huns, but after they were defeated, Sarnath again flourished under the Buddhist king Harsa Vardhana (606 – 647AD) and the Pala Kings (8th – 12th century AD). In the century queen Kumaradevi, a pious Buddhist, built a large monastery named Dhammachakka Jina Vahara. But these were devastated when Muslim hordes overran India. After the diaspora of the Sangha in India, Sarnath became deserted and was forgotten for about 600years.
In 1794, a tragic incident happened when a minister in Benares dismantled the famous Dharmarajika Stupa as a means of collecting bricks and stones for building a housing colony.
This act of vandalism would have gone unnoticed but for a report about the discovery of a stone box containing a green marble casket with some relics ( which were consigned to the Ganges river where they were lost for ever) by Jonathan Duncan, Commissioner of Benares. Soon the pubic attention was attracted to the ruins of Sarnath. In1815. Col. C . Mackenzie began explorations and discovered some sculptures which are now kept at the Calcutta Museum. In 1835 -36, Cunningham began explorations and discovered over forty sculptures and carved stones. In another tragedy, stones from the shrines were carted away as construction materials for some bridges and buildings. Further excavations carried out during the period 1851- 1922, exposed the Darmarajika Stupa, Mulagandhakuti Shrine, Asokan Pillar and ruins of several monasteries.
Objects of interest
- Chaukhandi — This is the first monument seen as one enters Sarnath. This is a terraced temple surmounted by an octagonal tower erected to mark the spot where the Lord Buddha, on his way from Gaya to Isipatana , first met the five ascetics who were soon to become his disciples.
- Deer Park or Isipatana – This is one of the most attractive spots in the Saranath Complex.
- Dhamek Stupa — (Dhammekka Stupa)- This imposing Stupa is cylindrical in shape, 185m in basal diameter and 43.6m tall. During the Gupta Period the lower portion was encased in stone, having beautiful carvings all round. The design consists of a broad band Swastikas worked into different geometrical patterns with a chiseled Lotus Wreath. Inside the stupa a slab with Buddha’s creed “ye dhamma hetuppabava” was found during Cunningham’s time.
- Dhamek Stupa
Although this place is also claimed to be the site of the First Sermon, it is not certain as there are two other places, namely Dharamarajika Stupa and the Gupta Shrine of Pancayatana as well, believed to be the said site. Therefore for the pilgrim it is best to treat the whole area of Isipatana as the place of the First Sermon.
- Dharmarajika Stupa
Built by King Asoka to enshrine the relics of the Buddha
at the time of re-distributing his relics, is located at a bit north of Dhammeka Stupa.
V . Mulaganadhakuti or First Perfumed Chamber —
Located north of Dharmarajika stupa is the main shrine where the Buddha spent the first rains- retreat. The area between the ruins of these two stupas is believed to be the site of the Cankama, the promenade where the Buddha did his walking meditation.
VI . Asokan Pillar – A short distance to the west of Mulagandhakuti, stands the 2m high base of the Asokan Pillar. The original pillar was 15m high and surmounted by the famous Lion Capital which can be seen in Sarnath Museum. This pillar is believed to mark the site where the Buddha established the Sangha, its first members – the Panchavaggiya Bhikkus, Yasa and his 54 companions were exhorted to go in different directions to spread the Teaching. Engraved on this pillar is an inscription “Let no one cause a division in the Sangha” – an edict warning the monks and the nuns in this regard and promote harmony among the various Buddhist sects.
Mulagandhakuti Vihara Asokan Pillar
VII Mulagandhakuti Vihara –
About 500m east of the Dhamek Stupa stands the Mulagandhakuti Vihara, built by the Mahabodhi Society of India in 1931 under the untiring efforts of Anagarika Dharmapala ,a Sinhalese Buddhist youth of an aristocratic family of Sri Lanka, whose mission was to make all the sacred places in India come under the care of the Sangha.
When he visited Sarnath in1890 for the first time it was being used as a breeding ground of pigs. He was shocked and saddened by the terrible neglect of this holiest place of Buddhism. He resolved to restore and make it once again a living centre of Buddhism.
As a first move , he sent a letter to
the then Collector, Benares, requesting him to restore and conserve the sacred spot.
While making the request he stated that to the 470 millions of Buddhists, “ the Deer Park is as holy as Jerusalem to Christians and Mecca to the Muslims”
When Anagarika Dharmapala decided to stay at Sarnath, he had no proper place to stay and spent the nights under a tree with personal belongings. Having come to know his intentions, the agents of the interested parties and the British soldiers chased him away, but the innocent residents around Dhammeka Stupa assisted him to realize his aim.
At this time some residents of the area were removing bricks from the demolished stupas to build their houses. He prevented this action by using his authority as the representative of the Mahabodhi Society.
Thereafter, purchased land at Sarnath and built the Mulagandakuti Vihara. On the day of opening, the sacred relics of the Buddha, unearthed in Taxila in 1913- 14, were presented by the Director General of Archaeology, representing the Govt: to the Mahabodhi Society. These relics were enshrined under the Preaching Buddha image and were taken out at every year during Katina for worship. Among the distinguished guests were Pundit Jawaharlal Nehru with his wife and sisters. The present chief priest of Mulagandakuti Vihara is Ven. Dodangoda Rewata Thera, Deputy General Secretary of the Mahabodhi Society of India and author of the book “ The Lotus Path”, describing the Eight Great Places of Pilgrimage.
Viii. Sarnath Archaeologocal Museum — (closed on Fridays) – The museum houses antiquities recovered from the ruins at Deer Park during excavations from 1905 onwards. The four most important sculptures on display are:
. Lion Capital
On entering the main hall, one sees the most magnificent sculpture of Mauriyan art – the Lion Capital- which once crowned the Asokan Pillar at Deer Park. This polished sandstone sculpture is 2 -3m tall and consists of Four Lions sitting back to back on a circular abacus about 0.3m tall. The abacus has four running animals, each separated by a Dhammacakka Wheel on its side, namely, Bull representing the Buddha’s birth signs, Elephant representing his conception-as Maya Devi dreamt that an elephant entered her womb, Horse representing Bodhisatta’s renunciation as he left home on his horse Kanthaka, Lion representing his First Sermon. The Four Lions that surmount the Capital is the Crest of India and Dhammacakka Wheel is the emblem of its National Flag.
Other important sculptures include –
. A colossal Bodhisatta Image made out of red sandstone
. Lord Buddha’s Life Panels showing the Four Principal Events , namely: Birth, Enlightenment, First Sermon, and Mahaparinibbhana in the life of Lord Buddha.
.Preaching Buddha Image – This seated Buddha image in Dhammacakka Mudra or Preaching Posture is a beautiful creation of Gupta art.
IX . Mahabodhi Society –
In the process of restoring Sarnath, Anagarika Dharmapala, founder of Mahabodhi Society of India, established the Mahabodhi Society in Sarnath. It is located to the left of Mulagandhakuti Vihara. In addition to the Mahabodhi Schools, College Library and Training School for Monks and Nuns, it has constructed a hospital to cater to the poor patients.
X . Temples and Monasteries in Sarnath —
There are several modern temples and monasteries for the pilgrims to visit in Sarnath, namely;
the Burmese Vihara . Chinese temple . Japanese temple . Korean temple
Thai temple and . . three Tibetan monasteries
The Burmese monastery called Dhammacakka Vihara has added a new wing to accommodate pilgrims visiting Sarnath.