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DateLine Sunday, 29 July 2007

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Importance of Esala Full-moon Poya Day

The first sermon


Buddha delivering His first sermon at Migadaaya


The site of Buddha’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 later.

The Great Renunciation

(Maha Abhinikkamana)


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 singing.

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 full-moon day.


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 and after.

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.

S.S.

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