‘Buddha Day’ or ‘Buddha Jayanti’ or ‘Vesak’ is a very auspicious day for Buddhist to celebrate the birth, enlightenment and death of Buddha. Every full-moon day is very auspicious for the Buddhists but the most important of all is the day of the full moon in May because three major events in the life of Gautam Buddha took place on this day. Firstly, ‘the Buddha-to-be’ Prince Siddhartha was born at Lumbini grove on a full moon day in May (according to Gregorian calendar) or lunar month of Baisakha (according to Hindu Bengali calendar). Secondly, after six years of hardship, Siddhartha attained enlightenment under the shade of Bodhi tree and became Gautam Buddha at Bodh Gaya on this full moon day. Thirdly, after 45 years of teaching the truth, when Gautam Buddha was 80 yerars old, he passed away to ‘Nibbana’ (the cessation of all desires) at Kushinagar on the full moon day of May. Therefore, ‘Vesak’ is the day of full moon in the lunar month of Baisakha.
THE BIRTH : The Buddha-to-be was born in about 563 BCE in the kingdom of Sakyas (presently in Southern Nepal), on a full-moon day of the month of Baisakha. His father was king Suddhodana and his mother was queen Maya. They named their son Siddhartha, which means ‘He who achieves His goal’. Soon after the birth, the king’s wise men predicted that the little prince would become either a universal monarch or a Buddha (‘The Awakened One’).
ACHIEVING ‘ENLIGHTENMENT’: Siddhartha’s father king Suddhodana tried to prevent his son from the contact of any religious path, as he wanted his son to be a successor. Oneday king Suddhodana took his little son Siddhartha to a royal ploughing ceremony and left him to sleep in a tent under a nearby Eugenia tree. Little Siddhartha sat himself cross-legged on the bed and entered into his first state of meditation. On seeing this, the king was amazed and paid homage to his son. The young prince Siddhartha was brought up in great luxury and at the age of 16, married Yashodhara.
At the age of 29, Siddhartha encountered four signs – an old person, a sick person, a dead-body and an ascetic. The scene was stuck to his memories. Being a prince, Siddhartha never experienced such phases of life but this was the first time when he witnessed such worldly sufferings and grievances. The four signs made Siddhartha to realize about the old age which is the final cycle of life and stuffed with pain, unhappiness, sorrow and resentment. He realized that death is the ultimate truth of life and worldly treasures are just like the shine of a glittering gold with a harsh reality. Witnessing these strident realities, Siddhartha decided to leave his kingdom and family, to get the answers of his questions about life and death. Then Siddhartha decided to leave his life of luxury and set out in search of truth and peace. One night Siddhartha left the city of Kapilavastu, when everyone in the palace was sleeping and became a wandering ascetic at the age of 29 only. Siddhartha easily renounced his princely life to know the reasons behind his bitter realisation of life. However, to get the answers of his search was not easy. Hence his journey of meditation begins. For nearly six years, in the course of search for the truth, he practised various forms of severe austerity and extreme self-mortification, until he became weak and realised that such mortifications could not lead him to what he sought. Siddhartha then changed the way of life and followed his own path ‘the middle way’. He sat cross-legged under the foot of the Peepal (Bodhi) tree and determined not to rise without attaining ‘enlightenment’.
Siddhartha continued to search for the solution to the true meaning of life. After six years of hardship, working to find the right spiritual path and practising on his own to seek ‘enlightenment’, prince Siddhartha reached his goal. After 49 days, at the age of 35, finally he attained ‘enlightenment’ and became a supreme Buddha, on the full-moon day of the month of ‘Vesakha’ at Bodh Gaya. He, then came to be known as ‘Siddhartha Gautama’, ‘Gautam Buddha’, ‘Sakyamani Buddha’ or simply ‘The Buddha’ (meaning : ‘The Awakened One’).
Soon after achieving enlightenment, Gautam Buddha gave his first discourse ‘Dhammachakkappavattana Sutta’ or ‘Turning the Wheel of Dhamma’ to five ascetics in the deer-park at Isipatana in Benaras. After hearing Gautam Buddha’s teachings, the five ascetics became his first disciples. His teachings attracted many followers and they joined ‘Sangha’, the community of monks. He then visited his father, who was ill, to preach the ‘Dhamma’. After hearing Gautam Buddha’s teachings, the king attained ‘Arahatta’ (perfect sanctity), before he passed away. Gautam Buddha then preached the ‘Abhidhamma’ or the higher doctrine to his former mother, who was reborn as ‘deva’ with other deities in the ‘Tavatimsa heaven’. He also founded the order of Buddhist nuns. During his long ministry of 45 years, Gautam Buddha walked throughout the northern districts of India and taught about the sufferings of life, how to end it, and how to attain peace and ‘nibbana’ to those who would listen.
MAHAPARINIBBANA (DEATH) : At the age of 80, Gautam Buddha set out on his last journey with Ananda, his cousin and beloved disciple and a group of bhikkhus from Rajagriha to Kusinagar. Gautam Buddha arrived at Vesali and stayed there during the rainy retreat (vassa). After leaving Vesali, on his way to Kusinagar, he arrived at Pava where he had an attack of dysentery. The Buddha then arrived at Kusinagar and lay down on a couch between two sal trees in the grove of the Malla kings. Though he was very weak, he addressed Ananda and the bhikkhus, and preached the ‘Mahasudadsan Sutta’ and made one last convert. Then Gautam Buddha attained ‘parinibbana’ or entry into the final nibbana on the full-moon day of the month of Vesakha (May). Buddha’s body was placed in a golden coffin upon a pyre and a gilded, white umbrella was held above. Mahakassapa, the senior disciple of Lord Buddha, firstly kneeled before Buddha’s coffin, uncovered guru’s feet and offered homage with full prostrations. The grieving monks gathered at Lord Buddha’s funeral in respectful adoration. The Malla kings also gathered together to pay their respects to Lord Buddha with perfume, incense etc. The sacred relics of Lord Buddha were divided and enshrined across Asia in monuments called ‘Stupas’. These Stupas are considered to be the living presence of the Buddha. These sacred places became centres of pilgrimage, where people come and honour Lord Buddha, who taught the Dhamma and established the ‘Sangha’.
THE VESAK FESTIVAL : Vesak, also known as ‘Buddha Day’, is observed by Buddhists in South, Southeast and East Asia as well as in other parts of the world as Gautam Buddha’s birthday. The festival of Vesak commemorates the birth, enlightenment and death (parinibbana) of Gautam Buddha in Buddhist tradition. As the Vesak full-moon day is the most important day in Buddhist calendar, many Buddhists go to the pagodas in procession to pour water at the foot of the sacred tree in remembrance of Lord Buddha’s Enlightenment. The Peepal (Bodhi) tree is the most sacred tree for the Buddhists, as it was under this tree at Bodh Gaya, that Siddhartha attained ‘Enlightenment’ and became ‘The Buddha’.
CELEBRATION : The Buddhists celebrate this historically significant event ‘Buddha Purnima’ by going to monasteries, giving alms, keeping precepts and practising meditation. In return, the monks chant the scriptures, lead periods of meditation and give teachings on the themes of the festival. Vesak is widely celebrated across much of the Buddhist world, but especially in SouthEast Asia, where it is considered an especially important time to perform good deeds. Devotees of Lord Buddha visit temples, light candles and incense sticks, pray and offer sweets and fruits before the statue of Lord Buddha. Sermons on the life and teachings of Lord Buddha are held and attended by the followers all over the world. People usually dress in white and distribute kheer, as according to Buddhist lore, on this day a woman named Sujata had offered Lord Buddha a bowl of milk- porridge. Some Buddhists also free caged birds on the day of Buddha Purnima because this is one of the teachings of Lord Buddha. Being observed with great faith and devotion, there is deep significance of ‘Buddha Purnima’ – it is also considered to be the day when Buddha was in the 9th incarnation of Lord Vishnu.
Over the years, this festival has come up like social, religious, spiritual and cultural festival. At Bodh Gaya, the Mahabodhi temple drapes a festive look and is lavishly decorated with flowers and flags. Special prayers, mediation, religious speeches, recitation of Buddhist scriptures, processions alongwith worshipping the statue of Lord Buddha are organised. Several events like Sutrasraban, Sutrapath, Bodhiroom mela, Ashthaseel, Panchaseel etc. are organised on account of Buddha Purnima, which attracts tourists all over the globe. Thousands of Buddhists and members of International Buddhist Council take part in the procession and other activites. The festival is celebrated by a visit to common Viharas in white attire. The statue of Lord Buddha is placed in a basin filled with water and decorated with flowers. This is a ritualistic bath which symbolise the day as a pure and new beginning. The festival and the teachings of Lord Buddha also depict that donating and helping poor is the doorway to the heaven. To the devotees, there is immense importance of Buddha Purnima. It entails processions, meditation, speeches and also prayer- recitals. Thousands of devotees also observe a special fasting on Buddha Purnima. The fasting starts from dawn and lasts till the full moon ascends at night. While many fast without food and water, the fasting allows consumption of fruits and milks. The ‘subha muhurta’ (auspicious time) marks the start of prayers and Vishnu-puja for the Hindus.
On the occasion of Buddha Purnima, monks and organisations donate money and food which can help the poor and elderly people who are sick. Another destination Sarnath also celebrates Buddha Purnima with great show and grandeur - Sarnath is a location where Buddhist monks throng in a huge number to celebrate the festivity.
In 2021, Buddha Purnima holds immense astrological significance. It will be the time when Jupiter and Sun will be facing each other. The astrology of Buddha Purnima hence predicts that it is a good time to buy land, expand business or delve into new professional endeavours. Let peace and positivity enter in everyone’s life, making space for goodness and newness.
SAATVIC FOOD DURING BUDDHA PURNIMA : Kheer (sweet rice porridge) is the relishing dish which is consumed on the occasion of Buddha Purnima as ‘prasad’. However Buddhism promotes to consume saatvic food and Buddhists abstain them from consuming non-vegetarian food items - they are considered as ‘Tamasic’ which generates the feelings of worldly desires and sensual pleasures. The special food prepared on this day, directly relates to the ‘saatvic’ living and eradicate the destructive influence on our mind and body.