In Honour Of The Enlightened One: Buddha Purnima
For every Buddhist follower across the world, India remains the most important centre of pilgrimage. The birth of Buddhism took place in the subcontinent, and the Buddha attained both Nirvana (enlightenment) and Mahaparinirvana (death) here, as well. It should not be surprising, therefore, that Vesak, or Buddha Jayanti, or Buddha Purnima is one of the most important annual festivals of India.
Buddha Purnima, celebrated on the full moon day of the Vaisakha month (April/ May), is the most sacred occasion for the followers of Buddhism. It marks the anniversary of, not one, but three most important phases of Buddha’s life, each of them contributing to the foundation and growth of Buddhism as a major religion. On the auspicious occasion of Buddha Purnima, let us recall the story of one of the most renowned personalities who enriched the history of ancient India.
In c. 563 BCE., a prince was born to the Sakya Kshatriya ruler of Kapilvastu in Lumbini, present-day Nepal. He was born on a Purnima Tithi, or a full moon day in the lunisolar month of Vaisakha. The prince was named Siddhartha, which is made up of two Sanskrit words, siddha and artha and together it means ‘he who has achieved his goal’.
The young prince, who was always sheltered in his palace, decided to step out of the house one day. That day became a turning point in his life when he witnessed four intense sights: an old man, a diseased person, a dead body and an ascetic. At the young age of 29, Siddhartha began to question the meaning of life, suffering, death, and the cycle of rebirth. It is this quest to find the true purpose of life, that led him to abandon all the riches and comforts of his princely life. He renounced everything and became a wandering ascetic for the next six years.
Although Buddha's birth, and life achievements have been celebrated for centuries by his disciples all over the world, the formal decision to adopt an annual date for celebration was taken at the first conference of World Fellowship of Buddhists (WFB) conducted in Sri Lanka in 1950.
In India, interestingly, even some of the Hindus celebrate Buddha Purnima because in Hinduism, Buddha is regarded as the eighth incarnation of Lord Vishnu!
On the day of Buddha Purnima, every Buddhist visits their local monastery and offer their greetings to Buddha. Some remain in the monastery, wearing robes of white and meditating all day, a symbolic gesture intended to commemorate Buddha’s long Meditation in Bodh Gaya. Some devotees visit the Mahabodhi temple, a UNESCO site in Bodh Gaya, as well his stupas, on this day. Many followers also engage in charity and other noble work. On the night of Buddha Purnima, many devotees release lanterns into the sky and watch the full moon together, as a sign of respect to the Enlightened one.
An important ceremony on this day includes the ritualistic bathing of Buddha’s statue, which is a symbolic reminder of Buddha’s teachings about foregoing hatred, greed and other negative things in life.
At the age of 35, Siddhartha, abandoning all his bodily needs, meditated continuously for 49 days, under a pipal tree in Bodh Gaya (Bihar). Finally, on the 49th day, he attained nirvana or enlightenment, unravelling the secret to end the worldly suffering, escape Karma and the cycle of rebirth. With this, Buddha or the ‘Enlightened one’ was born and a new religious thought, Buddhism, came into prominence. The great Buddha passed away at the age of 80, but not before passing on his legacy and teachings to the massive number of followers he earned during his lifetime.
The followers of Buddhism regard these three important phases of Buddha’s life, namely his birth, nirvana (enlightenment) and mahaparinirvana (death) as sacred and worth celebrating. His earliest disciples claimed that all these important phases coincidentally occurred on the full moon day of Vaisakha and hence, this day is celebrated as Buddha Purnima or the Thrice Blessed Festival.
The Buddha Purnima celebrations with its simplicity and devoid of flamboyance and glamour, is a wonderful reflection of Buddha’s teachings about life, which his followers continue to uphold everyday.
The appeal of Buddhism lay in its simple and moralistic teachings as well as its inclusive nature. It is no wonder why Buddhism became acceptable to so many people, transcending national and international borders. With its emphasis on humanitarian values and moral principles, Buddha’s basic teachings are practical and universal in many ways.