Home > India, Varanasi > India – Day 4 – Sarnath and Buddhism

India – Day 4 – Sarnath and Buddhism

Day 4 - Varanasi - Standing alongside stupa recognizing Buddha's sermon to the First Five

We begin our first of 2 days in Varanasi with a tour of Sarnath. This is one of four locations associated with very important events in the Buddha’s life. Buddha gave his first sermon/lecture on his enlighten to five friends at Sarnath. The five friends became Buddha’s first disciples. Thus Sarnath represents the third of the most important events in Buddha’s life. His enlightenment is second when listed chronologically, and his birth and death are first and fourth respectively.

The Buddha gave his first sermon/lecture in a wooded area outside of town in 528 B.C.E., therefore you might expect there would not be anything physical to see in Sarnath.  However, 300 years later, Ashoka the Great converted to and became the great proselytiser of Buddha’s teachings. He sent emissaries across India and Southeast and East Asia to spread Buddhism. He built two structures to commemorate the site of the original teachings one to house some relics of the Buddha and another on the spot considered to be the exact location the Buddha stood. This became the site of many smaller stupas and a monastery. Today you can visit the one Stupa still standing 43.6 meters tall and 28 meters in diameter as well as the remaing ruins of the complex.

There is a museum nearby this site that houses many sculptures found when the site was excavated in the 19th and 20th centuries.

Our guide, Indrageet, first gave us a tour of the museum. He focused our visit on two key sculptures. An exquisite example of the Lion Capitals of Ashoka and a statue of Buddha with miniatures of the First Five Disciples and the female artist who sculpted the piece during the Gupta period, 6th century C.E., the Golden Age of Indian Art.

If if you are travelling to Varanasi check out Varanasi Day Tours to book a tour similar to mine. http://varanasidaytours.com

As you may already know, the Lion Capital of Ashoka was selected as a symbol of the Republic of India after independence. In addition an Ashoka Dharma Wheel that topped this column capital is displayed in the center of the Indian national flag.  I was familiar with the capital but had never seen this sculpture in real life. Thus I was impressed with its size and appearance. Most fascinating to me was the high degree of polish on the sandstone as our guide explained modern man does not know what technique was used. The technique is impressive because it has made the stone as resilient as marble and thus the features did not weather over millenia.  Each of the four full lion sculptures has a different, small bas-relief animal sculpted below it representing one of four stages of Siddharta Gautma’s life before and after his enlightenment. An elephant symbolizes his royal birth. A horse represents him leaving his royal life to seek enlightenment. A bill represents his strong will power necessary to pursue an as sting life and achieve enlightenment. A deer represents his sermon to The First Five.

Only fragments remain of a Dharmic Wheel that sat atop the four lions. A  Dharmic wheel traditionally  has 24 spokes representing 4 sets of important tenants in Buddhism:
• The Four Noble Truths
• The Eight Fold Noble Path
* The Twelve Origins of Dukkha

“Dukka” is often translated as anxiety or suffering. My understanding is that it’s important to first think about the dukkha you feel as an individual.

The Four Noble Truths:
• Dukkha
* Dukkha has an origin
• Dukkha can be eliminated
• There is an Eight Fold Noble Path to follow to eliminate dukkha

Eight Fold Noble Path
• Right view
• Right intention
• Right speech
• Right action
• Right livelihood
• Right effort
• Right mindfulness
• Right concentration

Twelve Origins of Dukkha
• Ignorance
• (Mental) formations
• Consciousness
• Name and form
• Six Senses
• Contact
• Feeling
• Craving
• Grasping
• Becoming
• Birth
• Aging and death

I thought it fitting to share these principles of Buddhism in my entry on Sarnath.

The second sculpture Indrageet shared with us was the Gupta era sculpture of Buddha. This sculpture is a master piece. The features and emotions portrayed by the statue change depending on what angle you look at it. You even view the sculpture differently as you squarely approach it straight on as you get closer and closer to the sculpture.

The First Five knew the Buddha as a man. They knew him as an Enlightened man and wanted to ensure that people practiced his teachings instead of ignorantly worshipping him as a god. This fact is one reason Buddhists did not erect or create sculptures of him for hundreds of years. However eventually people begin to build statues and begin worshipping him as a divine God. I believe Buddha was simply trying to provide guidance to people to find the same Enlightenment and neutral content he had discovered in life. Buddha only talked about what he had experienced. He wanted to provide guidance to others to avoid Dukkha in life. Whenever he was asked about the metaphysical he would remain silent implying he did not know or it was not his objective to share. His objective was to provide guidance on the middle path between the luxurious life as a royal prince and heir to a kingdom until he was 29 and his ascetic life of hardship and intense knowledge seeking as an ascetic until he was 35 and attained enlightenment.

Buddhism has evolved and can broadly grouped into two schools of thought. Mahayana (or Great/Big Vehicle) Buddhists seek to make the understanding of Enlightenment to everyone but this has led to what I perceive as mysticism and people believing in phenomenal they have not observed). There is another branch Hīnayāna meaning, (Smaller vehicle) which is supposed to keep closer to the specific guidance of Buddha for those who want to reach Enlightenment. I’m definitely getting these two interpretations a little wrong. However these terms and there traditions help me to separate the myth and conflation with Hinduism from the worldly guidance that is all that Buddha, was at least willingly, to talk about.

We first visited the relatively small museum with its two master pieces and about 100 other pieces from the deer park where Buddha gave his first sermon. Then we visited the site of the sermon on which Ashoka the Great erected a stupa which is still standing and nearby a stupa was ignorantly dismantled in 1800s in which he placed some relics of Buddha. The destruction of the stupa by the local governor to reclaim bricks was bittersweet because it was because of this destruction that the significance of the structures was discovered and a monastery complex was excavated in the 19th and 20th century.

The other spiritual experience I connected with circling the stupa where Buddha gave the sermon to the first five disciples was circling the largest living organism, a giant sequoia (Sequoiadendron giganteum), in Sequoia National Monument.

Categories: India, Varanasi
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