Importance of Esala Full-moon Poya Day
The first sermon
Buddha delivering His first sermon at Migadaaya
The site of Buddhaâ€™s first sermon
Today, Esala Full-moon Day, is of very special significance to
Buddhists. It is a full-moon day as special and as important as Vesak.
It was on the Esala full-moon day, two months after His Enlightenment,
that the Buddha delivered His first sermon in the deer park (Migadaaya)
at Isipathana in Benarese.
It was to the five ascetics Kondanna, Vappa, Baddiya, Mahanama and
Assaji that the Buddha first explained the fundamentals of His
philosophy. He had spent sometime with them earlier, leading a very
austere (harsh) life, giving up even the basic comforts of life like
sleep. He left them because He realized that these austerities were
leading Him nowhere.
When He met them after His Enlightenment, He told them that the two
extremes - austerity and luxury - should be avoided, and He explained to
them the root cause of all the sorrow and suffering and the way out of
it, which is the eight-fold path, the 'ariya attangika magga' - one must
follow in one's actions, speech and thoughts.
This first sermon is known as the Dhamma Chakka Pavattana Sutta - the
sutta or sermon that "set the wheel of the Dhamma rolling." This name
was given to this sutta by a commentator (one who explained) much, much
The Great Renunciation
The Great Renunciation
Pic: courtesy Light of Asia
Esala full-moon day is of significance for another reason. It was on
an Esala full-moon night six years before the first sermon in the deer
park, that Prince Siddhartha left the palace to become an ascetic
(hermit) and try to find the answer to the BIG question that was
worrying him - what was the root cause of all the sorrow and suffering?
Is there a way to become free of them? That day being a feast day, he
was out in the park enjoying himself in water sports when a messenger
from the palace brought the news that his wife Yasodhara Devi gave birth
to a son. "Another fetter (barrier)", said the Prince.
That was his instant reaction to what many consider 'happy news.' To
Prince Siddhartha, a son would bind him even more to the lay life of
which he was already disgusted. That night, the palace was lit up with
hundreds of lamps burning sweet-scented oil and there was dancing and
But the brooding Prince was not interested in any of that or in the
beautiful girls performing. The dancers, singers, and musicians seeing
that the Prince was not interested in their performances, lay down here
and there and soon fell fast asleep.
The prince who was brooding far into the night saw the girls sleeping
with their clothes dishevelled and untidy. He was disgusted, and decided
to leave the palace at once. Summoning his faithful charioteer Channa,
he asked him to saddle his horse Kanthaka, and in the dead of the night,
in the light of the Esala full moon, he rode far away into a forest.
The horse Kanthaka, sensing the separation from his beloved master,
died on the spot, and the heart-broken charioteer Channa returned on
foot to tell the story to the Prince's father, King Suddhodana.
The advent of Vas
Esala full-moon marks the beginning of 'Vas' the three month retreat
that bhikkhus observe. When the monsoon rains begin to lash, the rivers
are in spate (overflow), flooding the plains. Outdoor work is halted and
The culmination of Vas
travel becomes near impossible.
The Buddha's advice to his first set of disciples was "Go forth ye
bhikkhus, for the good of the multitude, for the welfare of the
"multitude". But when the monsoon breaks, it rains non-stop and it was
not easy to go from place to place, so the Buddha advised the bhikkhus
to stay in one place for the duration of the monsoon. This period is
called Vas from vassa meaning rain.
Following this custom coming down from the days of the Buddha and
observed by Mahinda Thera from his first year in Lanka, bhikkhus in Sri
Lanka and every Buddhist country or wherever they are take upon
themselves certain vows on Esala full-moon day or on the following
Esala festivities - last fling before the rains
Esala, when the full-moon was closest to the constellation aashaadi
was the time of a fun-filled festival in the kingdoms in the Ganges
plain in the sixth century B.C., in the days of the Buddha and before
It was a day of outdoor sports and water sports, of merry-making and
enjoyment. The Maha Abhinikkamana or Prince Siddhartha's
renunciation of the lay-life was on a night when the Esala moon was full
and the festivities were in full-swing.
Stories such as these are pointers to a festival marking nature's
cycle of seasons. The festival was before the onset of the monsoon.
Esala was the last month of the "gimhana" - the hot season and
the approach of the rainy season - Vassa.
The feasting and merry-making, coming to a peak on Esala full-moon
day, was the last fling before the monsoon rains when people were
compelled to give up outdoor activities and stay indoors. The
Chulavamsa, which is a continuation of the Mahavamsa,
mentions the 'aasallha keela' in the time of King Parakrama Bahu
I (12th century). The Chulavamsa is written in Pali. The Pali
word keela means festival.
Dr. John Davy, the physician to Governor Brownrigg (1817-1819) has
written a complete account of Kandy's Esala Mangalla. He says
"the festival observed with the greatest pomp and parade was always in
the month of July where it is property called Eysalakeli - play of "Eysala".
There is a folk-poem (Kavi) which tells us of a king (of Kandy)
taking part in the Esala Keli.