Vesak: its significance today | Sunday Observer

Vesak: its significance today

Hundreds of millions of people, throughout the world, celebrate the festival we know in Sinhala as Vesak (or Visakat Tirunal, in Tamil). Uniquely, it commemorates not just the birth, but also the enlightenment and the demise of Siddhartha Gautama, the Sakyamuni Buddha; the equivalent of combining Christmas and Easter for Christians, or the holy Prophet’s birthday, Hajj and Ramazan for Muslims.

The exact dates of Siddhartha Gautama are debated. The Mahavamsa tradition places it at about 624-544 years before the current era (BCE), but Mahayana traditions have a wide range of dates. An early Buddhist document from Guangzhou, The dotted record of many sages placed the Buddha’s Parinibbana at 486 BCE. The scholar Wilhelm Geiger, by examining the Mahawamsa chronology in the light of Hellenist dating of Emperor Ashoka’s consecration, deduced it to be 483 BCE.

However, a conclave of Orientalists at Göttingen in 1988 came to a consensus, that Siddhartha lived his entire life within the 4th century BCE because – according to one of the participants — of ‘the ancient Indians’ lack of concern about chronology.’ It should be noted that the conference had no participants from India or Sri Lanka (or indeed any Asian countries except Japan, Nepal and Israel).

Nevertheless, Theravada countries continue to use the Mahawamsa chronology. Hence, we celebrated the Buddha Jayanthi, or 2,500 years after the Buddha’s Parinibbana, in 1956-57.

Siddhartha entered this world in the ancient Sakya republic, the scion of the rich Gautama (or Gotama) family. According to the Buddhacarita of Ashvagosha, the Bodhisattva (Buddha-to-be) entered the womb of the lady Maya in a dream, as a white, six-tusked elephant.

It goes on that Maya, having a great longing in her mind, went into the Lumbini garden and as she supported herself by a flower-laden bough, “the Bodhisattva suddenly came forth, cleaving open her womb.”

Siddhartha grew up wanting for nothing, proving himself skilled and learned. However, he grew discontent, and set forth to discover the true meaning of existence. He travelled to Magadha, the then centre of sub-continental philosophical discourse.

Buddhism did not spring out of a vacuum. At the time the lower Gangetic valley hosted up to 60 sages of different creeds. The Dahara Sutta speaks of just six: Purana Kassapa, Makkhali Gosala, Ajita Kesakambalin, Pakudha Kaccayana, Sañjaya Belatthaputta, and the Nigantha Nathaputta. Only the philosophy of the last named, Jainism, still survives.

The Gangetic valley lay in the midst of a revolution: immense prosperity brought about a transformation in society, as non-Brahmanical and non-aristocratic classes began to increase in importance. They challenged the supremacy of the Brahmanical religious and social orthodoxy.

Siddhartha now entered this intellectual milieu, learning philosophy from Alara Kalama and Uddaka Ramaputta. However, their teachings failed to satisfy him, and he set out to deduce the truth by logic and meditation. He drove himself to near starvation, before realising that there must be a middle path between self-indulgence and self-denial.

Through further meditation, amid mental conflict, later allegorised as the “Mara War”, he achieved enlightenment: the realisation that suffering exists; that desire causes suffering; that desire must be eliminated to prevent suffering; and the path to the elimination of desire.

In these four noble truths lie the essence of the Buddha’s teaching. All else springs from this foundation. The immense corpus of Buddhist texts merely represents the means to the end: to eliminate desire and, thereby suffering.

After decades of peregrinations in the Gangetic valley teaching, the Buddha passed away, leaving a body of learned monks who could carry on with spreading the Dharma.

Two hundred years after the Buddha’s demise, Emperor Ashoka accepted these teachings and carried through a revolution: he began to rule according to the principle of justice for all living beings, in essence, he laid down the basis for humanitarian law and for animal rights. Importantly, he gave freedom to all belief systems, a principle of tolerance established by the Buddha.

As Buddhism spread, it developed at two different levels: the philosophical level, at which people look to means of enlightenment; and the popular level, in which people take part in rituals. Of course, there is no clear-cut distinction, the two blending into one another.

The mass of Buddhists wanted something to worship, and the Bo tree and the dagoba became symbols of the Buddha. No images of the Buddha existed for hundreds of years, until they emerged in Hellenistic kingdoms about the 2nd century CE.

The irony of Vesak is that Buddhists pay homage on this day to a great teacher who did not ask for such adulation. When Ananda asked the Buddha, shortly before the latter’s demise, about the funeral rites, the sage replied that he should not worry about these rituals, but should strive hard to attain the good goal. Following in the Buddha’s footsteps, striving for enlightenment, is the greatest homage that can be paid to the Tathagatha.

The story of how Vesak came to be a national holiday in Sri Lanka is significant, in these troubled times. During the Christian Easter celebrations in 1883, clashes broke out when Roman Catholics attacked Buddhists walking in a procession in Kotahena.

The following January, members of the Buddhist Theosophical Society formed the Buddhist Defence Committee, also known as the “Colombo Committee”, to counter the authorities’ inaction in bringing the culprits to book. The Committee demanded that Vesak be declared a holiday for Buddhist public servants and also that the British government should follow a policy of religious neutrality – at that time one needed to be Christian even to join the native headman service.

The British government agreed, and on March 27, 1885, Governor Sir Arthur Hamilton Gordon proclaimed the Vesak Poya a public holiday. The British also removed disabilities from non-Christians: the secular and neutral character of the Sri Lankan state thus owes its existence to the Buddhists’ demand for the recognition of Vesak – and to the violent religious conflict in Kotahena.

Our profound hope on this day is that the abominable violence that occurred this Easter be followed by a similar act of reconciliation and tolerance to that which occurred 134 years ago.