Three hundred years before Alexandria was founded, about the time that Thales, the most ancient philosopher of Europe was teaching in Greece, that water is the origin of all things, the soul of the world; and Zoroaster, in Media or Persia, was systematizing the fire-worship of the Magi; and Confucius in China, was calling on the teeming multitudes around him to offer the guardian spirits and the manes of their ancestors; and Nebuchadnezzar was setting up his golden image in the plains of Dura; and Daniel was laboring in Babylon to establish the worship of the true God in Judea; a reverend sage who had left a throne for philosophy, was traveling from Bodhgaya to Benares, and from Benares to Kanouj, exhorting the people against theft, falsehood, adultery, killing, and intemperance.
In the year 563 B. C. on the Full Moon Day of Vaisakha in the kingdom of Kapilavastu a young prince was born to King Suddhodana and Queen Mahamaya in the royal Lumbini grove under a Sal Tree. On the fifth day of his birth he was named ‘Siddhartha’ and on the seventh day his mother expired. Prajapati Gautami, the younger sister of Mahamaya, who also was his step-mother, took care of the young child like any other mother would do.
During the formative years of Prince Siddhartha, he received his early education and was trained in warfare and administration but he was often found immersed in deep – thoughts regarding the suffering and miseries of humanity. He was opposed to exploitation of man by man, inequality, poverty, violence, class and caste system. When he attained the age of sixteen he was married to a very beautiful and charming Princess Yashodhara, daughter of the Koliya King Dandapani of Devadaha.
When Siddhartha was 29 Years old Yashodhara gave birth to a beautiful son named Rahula and this he termed as another impediment to keep him attached to worldly life. He left his palace leaving behind his parents, his beautiful wife and the new born Rahula in search of a way that would free mankind or humanity from the cycle of suffering.
Since then Prince Siddhartha who became a parivrajaka wandered forth to several teachers in search of the Truth that would end the cycle of birth and death. He went to dense forests and dark caves, and met many teachers, practised penance and self- mortification and studied their doctrines and disciplines but all these were not sufficient to satisfy him for what he earnestly sought for and he practiced these severe austerities for six long years without taking food nor drink and as a result of which he turned into a mere skeleton.
Realizing that the practice of severe austerities would lead him to death he left his friends and came to the east bank of the river Niranjana where he was offered Kheer (rice-pudding = rice cooked with milk and sugar) by Sujata, daughter of the chief of the village Senani. Accepting the dâna (offer) of Sujata he crossed river Niranjana and came to Uruvela on the same day and in the evening he prepared a seat of kusa grass and sat beneath the peepal tree facing eastwards. The Bodhisattva Siddhartha who was determined to reach the truth started his fight against Mara, the Evil One sitting for meditation with a strong determination (adhitthâna) that unless and until he cannot find out the truth he would not get up from the seat, come what may.
All the efforts of Mara failed to disturb and distract Siddhartha from his seat and on the full Moon day of Vaisâkha during the last watch of the night at the age of 35 years he attained Supreme Enlightenment and came to be known as the Buddha which means the All Knowing One, the All Compassionate One, One who can show us the Truth to end all Suffering for which He is also called the Bhagawân, Sugato, Samyak Sambuddha and Tathâgata and the seat of His Enlightenment is called the ‘Vajråsana’ or the ‘Diamond Throne’ and the Tree under which He attained Enlightenment is known as the ‘Bodhi Tree’ the botanical name being the ‘Ficus Religiosa’.
After attaining Enlightenment, the Buddha spent seven more weeks in meditation in seven different places around the Bodhi Tree contemplating his stupendous achievement for this human life, because to be born as a human being is very rare an opportunity.
The Buddha then set out for Varanasi where at the Deer Park (Mrigadayavana) in Isipatana, modern Sarnath where the first sermon (the Dhammachakka pavattana) was expounded or the setting in motion the Wheel of the Law to the first five disciples who earlier were in the initial years closely associated with Siddhartha for six long years, exhorting them to avoid the two extremes of self-indulgence and self mortification. Self-indulgence leads to retardation of spiritual progress and the latter weakens one’s intelligence. The Buddha expounded the Dhamma based on the Four Noble Truths i.e., Dukkha (Suffering) , the cause of Dukkha (Suffering), the cessation of Dukkha (Suffering) and the path leading to the cessation of Dukkha which was through Ârya Atthangika Magga (the Noble Eightfold Path) consisting of Right Speech, Right Action, Right Livelihood, Right Effort, Right Mindfulness, Right Concentration, Right Understanding and Right Thought. The Dhamma which is based on the three pillars of Sila (Morality), Samâdhi (Concentration) and Prajñâ (Wisdom) which in other words is also called the Middle Way or the righteous way of life. The Buddha established the Sangha or the Order of Monks for the creation of an ideal society based on Mettâ (loving-kindness), Karunâ (compassion), Muditâ (sympathetic joy) and Upekkhâ (equanimity) which was free from class, caste and colour prejudices and maintained equality, freedom, justice, fraternity and brotherhood.
Love, mercy, patience, self-denial, alms-giving, truth, and the cultivation of wisdom, he required of all. Good actions, good words, and good thoughts were the frequent subjects of his sermons; and he was unceasing in his cautions to keep the mind free from the turmoil of passion, and the cares of life.
Buddhism which embraced those doctrines, together with the systems of worship that have grown out of it, has numbered more adherents and influenced more men, than any other system of belief historically known-perhaps than all others together.
Buddhism, however, according to a true definition of the word religion, or any purely technical use of the term, is not a religion. It does truly admit, in a modified way, nearly the whole pantheon of early Hinduism and all the demons, ghosts, spirits and fairies that belong to the wild superstitions of the peoples; but yet it nowhere admits any real god on any superhuman being worthy of worship; it has no temples; it admits neither altars nor sacrifices; it has no true priests; it knows no prayers, no ritual, no religious rites of any kind.
Buddhism is simply an atheistic system of Philosophy and Ethics-a Philosophy of humanity in its environment, so clear, so profound, so positive, that it is destined not only to astonish, but to largely modify, at no distant day, the thought of the West. Ethics which have already begun to awaken surprise and admiration in many who had not believed that any good thing could come out of heathenism.
In a broader, more popular use of the word, however, Buddhism is a religion : and is rightly studied as such in connection with other great religions that have influenced large masses of men.
A religion is always a growth. No religion ever started as an absolutely new and completely perfected system; but each, with constant changes, developed out of something, or in connection with something, that went before. Curiously enough, this word growth in this connection partakes of both senses in which it is used, respectively, of organic development and of inorganic increase; for in religion, there is always something that, like the principle of life, itself-developing from within, according to regular organic law, while, at the same time, there are whole masses of outer accretions like the glittering stalactites and stalagmites of a calcareous cavern, or the slimy alluvial flats of a great river delta.
The Buddha in course of 45 years of his ministry moved from village to village, town to town, city to city alongwith His retinue of monks following His own prescribed dictum ‘Bahujana Hitâya, Bahujana Sukhaya’ and finally at the age of 80 he attained Mahaparinibbana (left His body in meditation) lying between two Sal trees. It is an event of unique significance that all the three events of the Buddha, His Birth, Enlightenment and Mahaparinibbana all took place in the forest and beneath the trees and all happened at a single day on the full Moon Day of Vaisâkha in the Sal grove at Kusinara, modern Kushinagar.
MAHABODHI MAHAVIHARA :
The Mahabodhi Mahavihara or more popularly known as the Bodhgaya Temple or the Great Stupa, is one of the shrines out of the 84000 shrines erected by King Asoka the Great in the 3rd century B.C. The Mahabodhi Mahavihara is the sole surviving example of what was once an architectural genre. How long it took to create this magnificent structure or whose creation it is still remains a mystery and for the lack of a comprehensive historical data this subject remains a controversy till date. However, throughout the centuries, this blessed site has retained its deep spiritual vibration and inspired countless beings towards a saintly life and the vihâra itself stands out as an eye catching artistic landmark as if standing testimony towards the presence of the greatest Teacher of all time mankind has ever witnessed.
A graphic and comprehensive description of the Mahabodhi complex is left by Huen Tsang, a Chinese pilgrim who visited Buddhagaya in 637 A.D. About the Mahabodhi Temple he says :
“To the east of the Bodhi tree, there is a vihara about 160 or 170 feet high. Its lower foundation-wall is 20 or more paces in its face. The building is of blue bricks covered with chunam (burnt stone lime) all the niches in the different stones hold golden figures. The four sides of the building are covered with wonderful ornamental work : in one place figures of stringed pearls (garlands), in another, figures of heavenly rishis. The whole is surrounded by gilded copper amalaka fruit. The eastern face adjoins a storeyed pavilion, the projecting caves of which rise one over the other to the height of three distinct chambers; its projecting caves, its pillars, beams, doors, and windows are decorated with gold and silver ornamental work with pearls and gems let in to fill up interstices”.
The original fabric of the present Mahabodhi temple, which notwithstanding the simplicity of design and decoration, is of unique importance, being the sole survivor of a style of architecture which was in vogue in this region and of which vestiges are still in existence in the ruined temples at Nalanda and a few other places. Curiously enough it retains the dimensions and broad features which characterized it in the time of Huen Tsang.
The Temple underwent several restorations, renovations and repairs in subsequent periods by a number of devout Kings, donors and philanthropists of home and abroad. A very thorough renovation of the Temple was taken up during 1874 by the deputations of the Burmese King, Mindon-Min, with the permission of the Government of India but subsequently completed in 1884 under the supervision of Sir Alexander Cunningham and Beglar. This Temple suffered much at the hands of time due to man made miseries and natural calamities especially during the reign of King Shashanka of Gour (Bengal).