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Riches to rags

Asia » India » Uttar Pradesh » Sarnath - 27th January 2018

sunny 30 °C

'If you let cloudy water settle, it will become clear.
If you let your upset mind settle, your course will also become clear'.*

Is this something Buddha might have said?

I think so - but probably not in those words.
Take a look at an actual quote in the picture below!


It's a definite fact, however, that Buddha's story was one of riches to rags - but it's not one that many people know about, so be prepared for a bit of history:

Born in 563 BCE as Siddhartha Gautama, he was the son of a wealthy chief from a small kingdom in the Himalayan foothills of Nepal. He was brought up in relative luxury but, when he ventured beyond his spoiled existence, he was shocked to discover poverty and suffering in the world outside. A year or so short of his 30th birthday, he forsook his privileged life to become a monk and, leaving behind a wife and child, set about searching for the meaning of existence.

As an ascetic, an itinerant religious beggar, he tried the predominant religion at that time, a form of Hinduism, as well as the Jain faith, later abandoning both because their followers practised the caste system and sacrifices and rituals which he and the masses couldn't understand.

His wanderings brought him to the forests of Gaya (in the eastern Indian state of modern-day Bihar). There he decided to go no farther than the Bodhi tree under which he sat until such time as he'd solved the mystery of existence. Through discipline and meditation and eventual realisation, he achieved the knowledge he desired, becoming the 'Awakened' or 'Enlightened One' - the 'Buddha'. He then spent the remainder of his life travelling around north-eastern India teaching eager disciples his thoughts about suffering, desire and the path to inner peace.

From Bodh Gaya, he walked 250 kms (155 miles) to Sarnath, where he gave his first sermon in 500 BCE. We arrived in Sarnath on an outing from Varanasi, ten kilometres (six miles) away, in a car that Raju had borrowed from a friend!


Not until now had we fully appreciated the background to this religion - one that's followed by over 500 Million people around the world today. Nor, until we started planning this spiritual journey to India and arrived here at its conclusion had we realised the importance of Sarnath, second only to Bodh Gaya, to followers of Buddhism.

Together with others who'd journeyed from afar, pilgrims from Japan, Thailand, China and many other countries where Buddhism holds sway today, we toured part of a circuit of momentous sites designed to aid visitors' understanding of this revered place.

The tranquillity of our surroundings, amid spacious grounds that would once have been a forest, emphasised the Buddhist tenets of meditation, the sanctity of life and non-violence, some of which had influenced Mahatma Gandhi in his day. Individuals meditated among ruins. Small groups sat shaded from the afternoon heat beneath time-worn trees in silence (possibly finding it difficult to talk because of the inexplicable surgical face-masks many of them were wearing!). Larger groups sat cross-legged, listening attentively to a saffron-robed monk quietly reading Buddha's first sermon.

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Incidentally, it's often possible to discern the nationalities of monks by the colours of their robes. Saffron robes are favoured by those from India, brown ones are typically worn by Thai monks, red robes by Tibetans, and the almost purple ones by monks from Myanmar.


In modern times, temples in varying styles from all over the Buddhist world have been built here.

Within the sprawling complex, a church-like temple with spires, the Mulagandha Kuti Vihar, built by Sri Lanka’s Maha Bodhi Society in the 1930s, was reached by an avenue lined with hedges and illustrated posters with quotes from Buddhist teachings. Multi-coloured prayer flags, spreading their messages of goodwill and compassion, fluttered in the breeze like bunting.

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Its interior had remarkable fresco-covered walls depicting scenes from Buddha's life and housed a beautiful golden statue of the Buddha on a marble platform. This statue, like all those of the Buddha, displayed a particular hand gesture called a mudra - in this case, the Dharmachakra mudra, formed when the inward-facing left hand touches the outward-facing right one, the thumb and index finger of both the hands touching at their tips to form a circle, symbolising the Wheel of Dharma (the teachings of the Buddha).

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More prayer flags lined an area containing a Bodhi tree, claimed to be a descendant of the tree at Bodh Gaya beneath which Buddha had reached enlightenment. A model of him preaching to his first five disciples was donated by a family from Myanmar and constructed beneath it in 1989 (although, of course, this was not actually where Buddha had given that first sermon). There's also an enormous bell with inscriptions of the Buddha's teachings in numerous languages, and lines of prayer-wheels which pilgrims - and we - rotated for good karma, good deeds or actions.

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Manicured gardens of tall trees, colourful shrubs and running fountains with blooming lotus flowers in the water beneath led to a standing Buddha, the tallest in India at over 24 metres (80 feet) high. Here, the mudra was the Abhaya, Buddha's right palm facing outward with the fingers upright and joined, representing protection, peace, benevolence and dispelling of fear.

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In a small shrine nearby was an enactment of him delivering a sermon, his right hand showing the raised three fingers and index finger touching the thumb of the Vitarka mudra, the gesture of discussion and transmission of Buddhist teaching. In contrast, alongside was a gold, morbidly-obese, laughing figure - not Buddha, but a Japanese 'god' of happiness called Hotei, sometimes known as a 'Laughing Buddha' (there's a similar Chinese good luck symbol called Bodai). It's not related to Buddha, except possibly as a future incarnation, but I guess it was there to encourage everyone to smile. Beneath the trees were more appropriate statues of Buddha, one a particularly striking black monument with a patchwork of gold leaf offerings and a magnificent gold fabric off-the-shoulder shawl.

The incredibly beautiful black Buddha - showing the Bhumisparsha mudra, the 'earth touching' gesture,
representing the moment of Buddha's awakening as he claims the earth as witness to his enlightenment.

The Japanese temple was a double-storey pagoda with a sloping roof curving up at the eaves.The interior was serenely beautiful, adorned with gold, bells hanging above a table of ornaments and photos, and scented with sandalwood. Its predominant feature was an exquisite reclining Buddha, his inscrutable face concealing a calm, hidden smile. It was carved from a single piece of highly-polished brown sandalwood. My late father, who loved the grain in wood of all kinds, would have drooled over the aesthetic qualities of this truly outstanding statue.

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But the highlights of this complex were probably the colossal ruins dominated by a massive stupa, an elaborate mound-like brick and stone structure. In the Third Century BCE, Ashoka the Great, who reigned over an empire that stretched from present-day Afghanistan in the west to Bangladesh in the east, was deeply moved by this place’s sense of peace. He would become one of the most passionate converts to Buddhism and erected numerous stupas and monasteries here, as well as a magnificent engraved pillar.


At the end of the 12th century CE, Sarnath was sacked by Turkish Muslims and the site was subsequently plundered for building materials. What remained lay abandoned until 1834, when it was visited by Sir Alexander Cunningham, later archaeological surveyor to the government of India, who excavated the site. In the ruins that once housed 1500 monks, Cunningham unearthed ancient foundations, reliefs depicting the life of Buddha, railings that dated back many centuries, statues of deities and other exquisitely carved artefacts.


There's a glass-encased remnant of what was once a gigantic pillar, one of a series of columns erected by Ashoka at important Buddhist places of pilgrimage throughout the Indian subcontinent. This one was made of sandstone from Chunar (which we'd visited on our boat journey down the Ganges - see Faster down the Ganges... ). It would have been around 15 metres (50 feet) tall and, at the very top, would have been a sculpture of four lions standing back to back, symbolising power, courage, confidence and pride. That lion capital, now in the site museum, was adopted as the country's national emblem when it became a republic in 1950 and an adaptation of it appears on the country's currency and its citizens' passports.


The colossal monastic ruins were dominated by the Dhamek Stupa, the oldest existing stupa, said to mark the spot where Buddha gave his first sermon and to contain relics that can be directly attributed to him and his disciples. This imposing domed shrine, almost 44 metres (143 feet) tall and 28 metres (92 feet) in diameter at the base had an upper part made of red bricks that looked unfinished. The more prominent lower section had huge stones partly covered in delicate floral carvings, inscriptions and geometric patterns.


Pilgrims walked clockwise around this monument, some leaving white prayer shawls tied to the wooden fence around it or draping marigold garlands on it. Some left lotus blossoms in little glasses. Others lit candles and incense. One or two simply had their photo taken in front of it, while the occasional family asked to have a photo taken with us.

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On this spiritual journey, we'd visited countless magnificent, fascinating places important to many of the world's major religions - Hindu, Muslim, Sikh, Christian and now Buddhist.

We had learned about beliefs and seen rituals associated with their followers' lives and deaths. Many of these were complicated, unbelievable, or simply incomprehensible.

At their places of worship and at their monuments - new, old and positively ancient, we'd taken off our shoes many more times than we'd eaten a hot curry. We'd experienced frenzied crowds, noise, peace and tranquility, kindness, colour, darkness, exotic scents and unpleasant odours, ugliness and incredible beauty.

I confess that I often understood very little of the mumbo-jumbo of the beliefs we were being asked to comprehend, but it was clear that thousands, nay millions, placed considerable trust and hope in their chosen faith. For that, they deserved and received our respect.


I hope you've enjoyed sharing our spiritual experiences. We now move on to visit friends and wildlife sanctuaries in Rajasthan for the final week of our stay in India. Join us for blogs that will follow during the coming days about the leopards, blackbuck, rats, vultures, camels, cranes and bustards that we encountered, plus a few tales of royalty, privilege, and joy.


* With thanks to Fake Buddha Quotes, from whom I borrowed this supposed 'quotation'!

You don't have to read what follows but, if you do, I think you'll see what I meant about 'not in those words':

Buddha's actual words, which gave way to that fake quote (translated from the 'Samyutta Nikaya') were:
'Again, Brahman, when a man dwells with his heart possessed and overwhelmed by doubt-and-wavering, and does not know, as it really is, the way of escape from doubt-and-wavering that has arisen, then he cannot know or see, as it really is, what is to his own profit, nor can he know and see what is to the profit of others, or of both himself and others. Then even sacred words he has long studied are not clear to him, not to mention those he has not studied. Imagine a bowl of water, agitated, stirred up muddied, put in a dark place. If a man with good eyesight were to look at the reflection of his own face in it, he would not know or see it as it really was. In the same way, Brahman, when a man dwells with his heart possessed and overwhelmed by doubt-and-wavering that has arisen, then he cannot know or see, as it really is, what is to his own profit, to the profit of others, to the profit of both. Then even sacred words he has long studied are not clear to him, not to mention those he has not studied'.

Posted by Keep Smiling 11:22 Archived in India Tagged india ganges varanasi sarnath Comments (0)

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