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Buddhist festivals of Varanasi

From Tibetan Buddhist Encyclopedia
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After Christianity and Islam, the most number of followers are from the Buddhist religion. Buddha was born in Lumbini (Nepal) in a royal dynasty. From his birth in Lumbini, till his salvation in Kushinagar, many cities of eastern U.P. and western Bihar have an important role in his journey but Varanasi has the most eminent position among all these cities. During his youth when he was married and had a child, the feeling of aversion from worldliness generated into him and he sacrificed all he had and went on to witness the ultimate truth of life.

Through the mental and physical afflictions of years and walking over prickling path of calamity, Prince Siddhartha ultimately attained the enlightenment and become Gautam Buddha. During this period, he spent his time at many places. He attained the enlightenment in Gayá (now Bodhgayá) in Bihar, but he gave his first precept of Dhamma Chakka Pavattana (actuation of the disc of religion) in Sarnath, Varanasi only. In fact, the Buddhist religion was actuated here only and proliferated to Nepal, Tibet, Japan, Korea, Thailand, China, Myanmar, Vietnam, Sri Lanka etc. and reached the rest of the world.

As Varanasi has a special place in sacred Buddhist places and Buddhist devotees from all over the world come and go here across the year, the Buddhist festivals of Varanasi are salient. The followers of three sects of Buddhism viz. Heenyán, Maháyán and Vajrayán celebrate their own festivals but most of these are celebrated by all and our discussion will be focused on these only. One of the most significant festival of Buddhists is Vaishákha Poornimá {full moon day of Vaishakha (Apr-May)}, which is venerated as the day of birth, enlightenment and salvation of Shákyamuni among all the followers.

The Buddhists observe Prabhát Pheri (morning cyclic walk) on this day. The idol of Buddha at Moolgandha Kuti Vihára is circumambulated and ritually worshiped, bestowing of food to monks, religious recitation and in the evening candle lighting is performed, which is possibly a display of faith and uncomplicated religiousness. Except Indian followers, the devotees from Sri Lanka, Thailand, Myanmar, Malaysia, Japan, China, Taiwan, Korea, Cambodia and Nepal etc. also participate in this festival with full zeal.

The Mahabodhi Society organizes a colorful gathering which high dignitaries also Join. Late Vibhuti Narayan Singh, Kashi Naresh, was also a regular invited guest of this congregation. The U.P. government decided to organize a three day Buddhist festival (Bauddha Mahotsava) at this place every year in 1997, which was aimed to focus on the lifetime of Buddha through cultural presentations such as drama etc. In later years, this congregation was shifted to be organized on the occasion of Kártika Poornimá {full moon day of Kartika (Sep-Oct)}. As per Buddha’s teaching

Dhammam Hi Passato Mampassati
Mam Passato Dhammam Passati

‘He who realizes my teachings visualizes me, and he who visualizes me realizes my teachings’. Probably, in the spirit of this perspective , for the last two decades nearly, Central Institute of Higher Tibetan Studies at Sarnath has been organizing a bi-annual intellectual festival in their premises. On Vaishakha Poornima day, at the rising time of full moon, monks, novice, scholars and teachers of Buddhology gather on the lawn of Santarakshita Library.

An image of the Blessed One is placed on a pedestal with decorative light reminding one of Prabhámandal (halo of light). The function starts with chanting of prayers by monks in Bhot language. After prayers candles are lighted in fron of the image by guest-scholar. He also performs the Buddharpana (entrust to Buddha) of the volume of the publication Dhee. The rare books in India and other countries is the main topic. It pieces together missing portions, correcting faulty ones based on the scholarly works in all the languages of the world in which that treatise is dealt with, giving it a ‘semi scripture status’. Thus is Buddha realized. There is no pomp and show – only intellectual festivity.

This intellectual festival is repeated on the Kartika Poornima day, the day on which the Varshávása (four months stay at one place during the rainy season like the Cháturmásya of Hindus) is finalized. Buddhist tradition enjoins the monks to remain in monasteries during the period of the rains. They are expected to go out only after this day. On this day, festival is held with great gaiety by laymen at Mulagandha Kuti Vihára and attached Viháras. The relic of the blessed one is taken out in procession locally and adherents from various countries are allowed to see the relics in the temple. This event is once a year type.

After the morning prayers and worship, the monks are offered food and gift of robes which they are not allowed to change except on this occasion. This ceremony is known as Kathina (rice flakes). The robes were supposed to be made of coarse raw wool, dyed as per the color of the sect. In Theravada areas, particularly in Sri Lanka, the tradition is to dye, weave and stitch it the same day. Rest of this day is spend in meditation and worshiping and in the evening lamps and candles are lighted in the temples and Stupas.

Another important festival is Ashádha Poornimá (full moon day of Ashadha viz. Jun-Jul). This day is related directly with two important events of Buddha’s life. The great renunciation when he left the palace in search of truth; and – the day when he turned the wheel of law at Sarnath by preaching ‘the four noble truths’ to Kaundilya and four of those who were his colleagues in Bodh Gaya prior to Enlightenment. The occasion is marked by simplicity. The usual worship and lighting of lamps and candles at the Dhammeka Stupa, where the preaching is supposed to have taken place. The day starts with prayers at Mulgandha Kuti Vihara with Dhammánusásana Pavattana Sutta and ends in the night with Vasna (Varshan = Rain).

The Varshavasa is a three month reteat and ends on Ashwina Poornima {full moon of Ashwina (aug-sep)}, but the main thrust is not to celebrate it, but to go for Kartika Poornima {full moon day of Kartika (sep-oct)}. This is because of the fact that on this very day, the temple was consecrated with the establishment and enshrinement of Buddha’s relics in the vault below his image after a three day ceremony during 11-13 november, 1931 and it was Kartika Poornima that day. Ever since then, every year, the Casket is mounted on elephants and taken round in the procession.

The older Tibetan temple of Gulaga-pa or Dalai Lama’s group celebrates, other than Vaishakha and Kartika Poornima, two other days. One is Losar or the new year day, which according to lunar calendar falls in February. One is reminded of the famous Hemis monastery function of Western Tibet, Laddakh, which is a seven day function with night dances by monks/others wearing devils masks having a Tantric significance. Lamps and candles are lighted before Buddha’s image and Khatas (scarves) are offered. This group also celebrates the Dalai Lama’s birthday in a quasi-religious manner. A photograph of Dalai Lama is placed near the image of Buddha and khata is offered to both. The followers invoke Dharmapala Dalai Lama’s deity, along with sages-saints and pray for world peace.

\ Reference:

Kumar Kranti and Mathur Suman, Fairs and Festivals of Varanasi, Jñána Pravaha, 2003, 32-37.