On the Happy Dust of India once Trodden by the Sacred Feet of Buddha: Part 3 of the Buddhist Pilgrimage
A Beyond Here Feature travel story.
Our journey continued as we rode through the endless countryside roads of northern India. Dust collected on the body of our car. Our driver kept a steady gaze on the road, and next to him sat our guide, the novice monk Ronal. His head rested against the soft upholstery, drifting in and out of sleep. In the distance stubble crops were lit and flames burned bright against the dark sky.
On this leg of our Buddhist pilgrimage journey, we visited Vaishali in Bihar, and Kushinagar in Uttar Pradesh. Although Shravasti in Uttar Pradesh was on our list, we could not go there because of time constraints. This historic site was the capital of Kosala King Prasenjit, and was the location of Jetavana Vihara where the Buddha stayed for a long time. It is famous for the deliverance of many Buddha’s sutras, as well as the devotional legends of Anathapindaka, Visakha, and Angulimala.
Anathapindaka was a wealthy merchant of Shravasti who convinced Prince Jeta to donate his beautiful garden to the Buddha Sangha. The garden became known as the Jetavana.
Vishaka successfully persuaded her father to become the Buddha’s disciple, and was renowned for promoting the Dharma to others.
Finally, Angulimala transformed from a rogue killer to the Buddha’s disciple after realizing the corrupt path his former guru embarked him on.
Vaishali in Bihar occupies a unique and significant position in Buddhism. At least five historic occurrences made Vaishali special:
- The Buddha (563 – 483 BCE) announced his approaching mahaparinirvana, which is the final passing from the world. It happened around three months later in Kushinagar. He handed over his alms bowl to the Licchavis, a clan of people living in the region.
- He started the formation of Bhikshuni Sangha, or the community of nuns by first ordaining his aunt, Mahaprajapati.
- The Buddha organized his community of monks and nuns in democratic principles, in honor of local Licchavis who had a democratic system of governance.
- Vaishali hosted the Second Buddhist Council in 383 BCE by King Kalasoka. It is also said that a monkey king offered honey to the meditating Buddha at Vaishali.
- The Buddha sent Venerable Ananda to chant Ratan Sutra to alleviate the suffering of Licchavis in the drought and ailment stricken Vaishali. Joined by people, Ananda chanted the sutra while walking around the kingdom and sprinkling the blessed water-of-life.
Vaishali is still in stages of development. We visited its main attractions – the Vietnamese and Sri Lankan Monasteries; Buddha Relic Stupa and the World Peace Pagoda; and the Ananda Stupa on the grounds of the Mahavihara ruins with an Ashoka Pillar (of Mauryan Emperor Ashoka from 304 – 232 BCE).
The Vietnamese and Sri Lankan Monastery, and Navayana Buddhism
The spectacular Vietnamese Monastery is opposite to the Sri Lankan Monastery. We stayed one night in the Sri Lankan Monastery hostel. The hostel facilities were comfortable, and we thanked the resident Sri Lankan monk for letting us stay in the hostel by providing a small donation.
During our walk in the morning, we met a neo-Buddhist (Navayana) Indian monk. The Navayana movement was started by a famous Indian Dalit (untouchables or the lowest-caste in the heinous Hindu caste system) named Dr. B.R. Ambedkar (1891 – 1956). He was an Indian independence movement hero, and the first Justice Minister of Independent India. He was also the author of the Independent India constitution.
Along with some 1 million of his Dalit followers, he plead allegiance to Buddhism on 14 October 1956 at Deekshabhoomi in Nagpur. The movement he started continues today, with more Dalits embracing Buddhism every year in different ceremonies. Dr. Ambedkar was voted the best Indian after Mahatma Gandhi (1869 – 1948) by the people of India. The Navayana monk we met explained to us that Navayana Buddhists started a project to build a temple in Vaishali. He showed us the Buddha statue now sitting under a tin-shed at the project site. We met him again later on during our trip while eating chana masala at a roadside eatery. The chana masala was absolutely delicious!
Buddha Relic Stupa and the World Peace Pagoda
Next we visited the temporary Buddha Relic Stupa on the spot where Buddha’s ashes were sacredly preserved by Licchavis. They were one of the honorable recipients of ashes after the Buddha’s cremation. The World Peace Pagoda (Nichidatsu Fujii; 1885 – 1985) stands close to this Stupa. The pagoda has the familiar shape of other pagodas. Four gazebos are also located on four corners of the compound.
The Mahavihara Ruins, Ananda Stupa, and its Museum
The Mahavihara ruins, where the Ananda Stupa lies, is a large complex with a museum and the Ashoka Pillar. It is the only standing Ashoka Pillar with the lion head still intact. Most Venerable Ananda is revered highly in Buddhism. He was Buddha’s cousin and his personal attendant. Ananda recited the Sutra Pitaka at the First Buddhist Council held at the Sattapanni Guha in Rajgir.
The museum has a large collection of Buddhist artifacts and Buddha statues. The Lion Capital of Great Mauryan Emperor Ashoka (now the national emblem of India) attracted our attention. The Wheel of Law featuring elephants, stands on an inverted lotus flower guarded on the top by four back-to-back lions.
We carried onto Kushinagar – the place of Buddha’s mahaparinirvana. On our way, just on the roadside we saw the massive stupa ruins of Kesaria (originally known as Kesaputta).
The town of Kesaria is still developing into a tourist destination. The size of the Kesaria ruins are comparable to the Borobudur temple in Indonesia. There are many differences between Indian and Javanese architectures. The Kesaria has a circular base while Borobudur is built on a square base. Another notable difference is the material used. Borobudur was built by massive un-mortared dark basaltic rocks, and the one at Kesaria was built by mortared bricks.
This majestic bell-shaped Stupa (first in the world) in Kesaria was founded by none other than Emperor Ashoka. It was further developed during the Kushan (30 CE – 230 CE), and Gupta (240 CE – 550 CE) dynasties. The region of Kesaria is very significant in Buddhism because the Buddha delivered his famous Kalama Sutra here. In the Kalama Sutra, the Buddha delivered his teaching on the necessity of freedom of thinking.
Here is an excerpt from the Sutra:
“Do not go upon what has been acquired through hearsay…nor upon what is in scripture…Kalamas, when you yourselves know…things that you have observed and verified…that lead to benefit and happiness…then accept and abide by them.”
Through this brave deliverance the Buddha established the non-dogmatic nature of his teaching. He was perhaps the first in history to propose that one should trust and inquire into his or her own Bodhi to find answers for intellectual and spiritual questions. Bodhi is a transient and transformative consciousness of wisdom that develops and matures in an individual over time and with experience.
From Kesaria, we crossed the border from Bihar to Uttar Pradesh. Before entering Kushinagar proper, we stopped at a well with a small Buddha shrine. The Buddha drank water from this well before mahaparinirvana. We paid homage to the historic site which had been restored with this Buddha shrine.
Kushinagar was known as Kushinara during the Buddha’s time, and was the capital of the Malla kingdom. Throughout the Buddhist dynasties, from Emperor Ashoka to the Palas in the 12th century, it remained an important pilgrimage site where many mahaviharas and stupas were built. Visitors can now see the ruins of these great establishments, as well as the modern temples and monasteries built by many Buddhist majority countries.
The modern Kushinagara Stupa is divided into two: the cylindrical one housing the reclining Buddha and an upright one. We walked around the vihara ruins, and bought a robe to offer and cover the reclining Buddha. During the reclining posture, the Buddha delivered his final teaching – the Mahaparinirvana Sutra. It must have been a very sad moment for many of his disciples who gathered to pay final homage to their beloved teacher.
It is said that Ananda was the most affected by grief because he was the Buddha’s constant companion. The Buddha reiterated his stand on individual freedom and told the lamenting Ananda, “. . . be a light unto yourself, be a refuge to yourself. . .”
Many devotees lined up to offer a robe to the reclining Buddha. When our turn came, a Sri Lankan monk administered the offering procedure by chanting which we repeated after him. I performed a three-time circumambulation around the reclining Buddha.
Afterwards, we visited temples nearby from different countries. Most visitors gathered around the Myanmar pagoda. This pagoda is similar to the Yangoon Shwedagon Pagoda style, with statues of most of Buddha’s famous companions and disciples.
It touched our hearts to see the Buddha’s final resting place. In our final leg of the journey we will recount our travels through Lumbini, Nepal, the birthplace of the Buddha, where it all began.
– By Dr. Dilip K. Barua
Interested in completing the Buddhist Pilgrimage circuit? Join our tour!
This is part 3 of a 4-part series detailing the Buddhist Pilgrimage through India.
Copyright © Dr. Dilip K. Barua 2019
About the Author:
Dr. Barua is a coastal, marine and ocean engineering professional with more than 30 years of research and versatile work experience. As a researcher, his work has been published in many academic journals, including his website Wide Canvas where he discusses nature, social interactions, and science & technology.
Buddhist Pilgrimage Travel Guides
Buddhist Pilgrimage Part 1: Come along with us as we show you where the Buddhist pilgrimage begins. On the historical site of Bodhgaya stands the Bodhi Tree, the place of enlightenment for the Buddha, a man of wisdom and insight on humanity.
Buddhist Pilgrimage Part 2: The journey continues through Rajgir, the site of the first Buddhist Council; Nalanda, one of the earliest universities in the world; and Sarnath, the site of the Buddha’s first sermon. Read along to find out details of each site for your next visit.
Buddhist Pilgrimage Part 4: On the final leg of our journey we visit the Buddha’s birth place, Lumbini, Nepal. Inside the Mayadevi Temple is the once-home of Siddharta. Nearby is the Pushkirini Pond where his mother bathed. Read our guide detailing the renowned site.