Tuesday, October 18, 2011

India! Where the Buddha Taught: Sarnath

Blog Entry #34: Where the Buddha Taught: Sarnath

Friday, October 15, 2011

Today was full of surprises.  The first came on our flight from Delhi to Varanasi.  As we neared our destination, Pat said, “Dan, look out the window.”  And there they were: the Himalayas, snow-capped and shining in the sun to the north.  Headwaters of the Ganges River, Mother Ganga, and rooftop to the world.  The Himalayas!!

"Stupa" in Sarnath, site of the Buddha's 1st Sermon
I also had not realized that just a few miles northeast of Varanasi lies Sarnath – the site of the Buddha’s first sermon known as dharma chakra pravartana, “The Turning of the Wheel.”  And that was where we headed after another sumptuous meal at the Radisson Hotel where we would lodge that night.

Much better versed in Buddhism than I am in Hinduism, I found myself very emotional at visiting this ancient site – considered one of the 4 holiest sites in the “Buddha circuit” – where Siddhartha Gautama, the first Buddha, was born, reached enlightenment, taught, and died.

Hindustan Motors Ambassador in entourage of President of Myanmar
Our visit to Sarnath coincided with a visit by the President of Myanmar (Burma), and so we found ourselves stopped on the side of the road as a motorcade of Hindustan Motors “Ambassadors” went by.  The museum we had hoped to visit was closed as the President went through, as were the grounds of the large Dhamek stupa, site of the Buddha’s first sermon, so we could only look on from a distance as the Burmese delegation passed through.  Nevertheless it was moving to see several Buddhists both praying and meditating on the grounds of the stupa deer park, and to think back 2500 years to the time of the Buddha here.

Delegation of President of Myanmar at Stupa site in Sarnath
Buddhist Stupa & Entrance to Jain Temple in Sarnath
Entrance to Jain Temple in Sarnath
Altar in Jain Temple
 While we waited for the delegation from Myanmar to move on, we had the opportunity to visit the Sir Digamber Jain temple dedicated to Shreyansnath, the 11th Tirthankara, Jain holy and enlightened one, born at this site.  Jainism began about the same time as Buddhism, as a reaction to Hindu rituals and the caste system.  Jains teach that liberation can be attained through complete purity of the soul, gained through strict asceticism.  One of its central teachings in ahimsa – nonviolence or noninjury – particularly to any other form of life.  Gandhi drew on this teaching in developing his satyagraha movement, and it is also the source of much of Hinduism becoming vegetarian.

Sign in Jain Temple listing the 24 Tirthankaras
Tibetan Buddhist Monk entering Monastery in Sarnath
Visiting the Jain temple and seeing several Buddhist monasteries at Sarnath reminded me of how much India has been at the center of many different religious movements and traditions over the centuries.  In fact in our short time here India seems in some ways saturated with religion: Hinduism and Islam, of course, manifest everywhere, but also Jainism, Buddhism, and Christianity, as well as other traditions.  Many Indians we met spoke with pride of the history of relative tolerance for religious pluralism that characterizes India, despite periods of ethnic and religious violence stoked by nationalism, such as around India’s birth as a nation in 1948 when partitioning the subcontinent into Hindu and Muslim nations caused so many deaths.  Hinduism in particular sees other religious traditions as different expressions of one underlying religious truth or reality – Brahman – and hence often embraces different religious traditions as merely one more manifestation of Brahman.

Water Buffalo cow pies drying on wall
There is a remarkable museum at Sarnath with statues and carvings of both the Buddha and Hindu gods and goddesses going back centuries.  The statues of Buddha from the gupta period are stunning in their aesthetic sense of balance and harmony; unfortunately cameras are not allowed in the museum (just as well), so I have no images to share here.  But we did have a chance to wander through the village and encounter several water buffalos, with buffalo cow pies used for cooking fuel drying on the walls -- something the Buddha himself might have seen here 2500 years ago.
Water buffalo and cow pies drying on wall in Sarnath

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