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Buddhism at Sarnath

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Item Code: NAL972
Author: Anand Singh
Publisher: Primus Books, Delhi
Language: English
Edition: 2014
ISBN: 9789380607740
Pages: 194 (18 B/W Illustrations)
Cover: Hardcover
Other Details 9.5 inch X 6.5 inch
Weight 500 gm
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Book Description
About the Book

This volume attempts a reconstruction of the different Buddhist traditions that evolved at Sarnath between the preaching of the Four Noble Truths (sixth century BCE) and the construction of Dharmachakrajina Vihara (twelfth century CE) in the early medieval age. Sarnath is one of the eight centres of Buddhism. This volume attempts an objective assessment of the history, rise and decline of Sarnath by studying archaeological, epigraphic and literary sources. It explores the religious traditions, origin and geomorphological construction of the Sarnath region, dhammacakkapabattana, its religious and architectural symbolism and patronage. The probable causes of the decline of Buddhism at Sarnath have also been discussed in the context of Chinese, Indian and Persian sources, and archaeological reports.


About the Author

Anand Singh is Associate Professor, School of Buddhist Studies & Civilization, Gautam Buddha University, Greater Noida, India



This book, Buddhism at Sarnath is an attempt to explore the hitherto unidentified dimension of Sarnath-a place that has been one of the greatest pilgrimage centres of early Buddhism. To this day, it continues to attract Buddhist diaspora from across the world. The book provides a vivid description of the evolution of Sarnath as a centre of Buddhist pilgrimage and the historical development of Buddhism and its various sects, stupas, caityas and mythological characteristics particularly associated with Sarnath, namely, Sambuddhas and Pacceka Buddhas. The dhammacakkapabattana is the most prominent event of Buddhism whose first architectural representation has been found on the Asokan pillar at Sarnath. Thus, the book seeks to discover the origin and significance of various types of cakkas and their relevance in this to Buddhism.

The chapters in this book also enumerate settlement patterns and socio-economic formations in early Sarnath-Varanasi, which in turn seek to show how morphology and the human population in the area have derived their strength from the local topography. The settlement patterns are studied using archaeological and literary evidences, to examine how settlement started in the pre-historical age and came to culminate into a developed urban culture. Examining evidence from inscription and seals found in Sarnath, the book explores systems of patronage and formation of identity; the identification of nature and patronage of nature and patronage of stupas, umbrellas, images, viharas and their affiliation to various schools of Theravada and Mahayana have been pondered over. The first known inscription related to Buddhism in Sarnath belongs to Asoka and the last inscription was issued by Kumardevi in the early medieval age, both of which are interpreted on the basis of new information. This is evident in how the Buddha’s journey to Sarnath to deliver the message of cararyastya; interpretation of architectural and religious symbolism of Asoka’s pillar and Dhammacakka; Buddhist-Brahmanical conflict, and decline of Sarnath as a Buddhist centre have been discussed with new orientation. The relevance, patronage, political, religious, and social identities of the sacred complex of Sarnath are also examined.

In its examination of the cultural changes witnessed during this age, the book also deals with the prolific architectural activities since the age of the Buddha up to the medieval age. The samgharams, catiyas and stupas, are important architectural symbols in Sarnath. In this regard, the Dhammarajika stupa, Chaukhandi stupa and hundreds of small votive stupas been studied with the help of archaeological reports and literary evidences. Self-exploratory in nature, the book attempts to explore certain incidents like the first sermon of the Buddha, the decline of Buddhism and the demolition of Buddhist sites in Sarnath in a more logical way than before. This is helped by interpretion incidents in Sarnath with Pali, contemporary Jaina and Brahmanical sources supported by archaeological evidences made the book none logical. The sources themselves are exclusive, for the causes of destruction have reinterpreted wit support of archaeological reports mentioning evidence of destruction by gunpowder. It is carefully supported by historical evidences of use of gunpowder in warfare I Indian subcontinent.

Professor Vidula Jaiswal encouraged me to carry out comprehensive work on Sarnath; I am indebted to her for the support and advice on completing this project. I must take this opportunity to express my heartfelt gratitude to Professor S.Z.H. Jafri who has always encouraged me in my academic pursuits and guided me in all such endeavours, I would also like to record my thanks to Professor G.S. Bhadauria, Professor K.T.S. Sarao, Professor S.N.R. Rizvi and Professor Prashant Srivastava who have supported me in this project. My sincere thanks are also due to Professor Bhiksu Satyapal, and Dr Praveen Prakash for all their help. My discussions with Dr Rana Purushottam Kumar Singh, Dr Talib Siddiqi, Shaik Mahboob Basha, Dr Archana Singh, Dr Radheshyam Verma, and Dr Dharmendra Singh helped to resolve some tricky issues. My earnest gratitude goes to each of them. I would like to express my thanks to University Grants Commission, New Delhi, India, which has granted me Major Research Project on Sarnath and the American Institute of Indian Studies, Gurgaon, India for providing me necessary photographs. I am also thankful to the Sarnath Museum, Archaeological Survey of India, for providing me necessary support and information.

Finally, I owe a special debt of gratitude to my parents and brothers, especially my late father for always encouraging me in my academic pursuits.



The idea of pilgrimage exists in all religions, although its nature varies within the canonical messages of each. The nature of Buddhist pilgrimage is encapsuled in their scriptures and the place related to it-Sarnath being one of them. The latter holds an ancient and continuous religious tradition of Buddhism which attracts millions of pilgrims from all over the country and the world. Since the hoary past to modern time Sarnath has exerted a powerful pull on believers-so much so that the pilgrimage of today seems to be with the same ritualistic content as that the past.

The people of the Indus Valley Civilization who reverently built the great bath of Mohenjodaro have their modern counterpart in ritual bathing in the divine rivers of India. Even Rigvedic Aryans revered the rivers, as is evident from nadistuti sukta of Rigveda. The idea of the steps of the Ziggurats, developed by the of Mesopotamia to reach the gate of heavens, still prevalence among devout Jews and Christians. Similarly then Sarnath acquires a special place in Buddhism because the Buddha began his dhammacakkapabattana here. This later underpins the basic principles a Buddhist must follow, concerning a virtuous attitude to life. It is characterized by karuna, metta and vissasa and provides monks and lay followers with salvation or freedom from dukkha, at the same time giving a wide variety of courses that a follower or a monk may take towards such spiritual fulfillment. Sarnath provides the Buddhists with an opportunity for a movement-a movement to detach themselves from the cares and worried of daily life and to devote that time to prayer, contemplation and listening to religious discourse. Infact within the religious armoury of Buddhism the emphasis has been on mediation and the control of senses, for which the pilgrimage has no substitute. It has always been considered an additional redemptive practice, an practice an adjunct to other forms of worship. As Buddhism because more fundamental. The significance of ritualistic elements within it increased greatly. This is evident from numerous epigraphs found in Sarnath which date from the Mauryan age up to the early medieval age.

The purpose and motive that impelled lay followers to undertake the journey to Sarnath may be different. It usually involves a commitment or vow to the Buddha whose blessing are desired for the specific problems faced by the followers, this may involve earning religious merit or the fulfillment of mundane demands. The number of Buddhist viharas, supas and votive image are so large and the practice of pilgrimage so ubiquitous that the whole of Sarnath’s sacred complex can be regarded as space organized mainly to be a centre of pilgrimage and faith. It not only reinforces the Buddhist precepts but also impresses their followers with the vastness of diversity and, paradoxically, the oneness of Buddhism. Sarnath has a special framework of cultural geography which is founds upon its manifold interaction with other places and areas. It has been evolved as an institution through which an ancient tradition of Buddhism continuously reiterates and revitalizes itself. Here the sanctity of power of the Buddha repeats itself in the forms of the Pacceka Buddha, Samma Sambuddha and the Bodhisattva by means of which the place assumes a sacred character. The spatial pattern of Sarnath show a fairly strong association with certain elements of the physical landscape namely forests, rivers, etc. The physical phenomenon which given character to Sarnath is to be understood in its symbolic sense and due to its stupas, viharas, etc. and certain forests and places. In fact, the mystery and beauty of this place may have been the original basis for its sanctity, it is a place of fascinating attributes with an environment conducive to meditation.

Sarnath has also been identified with Isipattana, situated six miles away from Varanasi. Cunningham says that Isipattana migdaya was covered by rich forest covering an area of about th eChaukhandi stupa in the south. When Gotama left his rigorous life, the pannacavaggiya bhikkhus deserted him and went to Isipattana, eighteen league away from Uruvela. After nibbana the Buddha joined them in Sarnath to preach the Dhammacakkapabattana Sutta on the full moon day of Ashadha where 80 kotis of Brahmas and innumerable gods attended his first preaching. The Lalitavistara gives details of his journey. In Sarnath the Buddha not only founded Dhamma but also laid the foundation of samgha. It was with the conversion of 60 people that he founded his samgha and spent his first vassavasa.

It is said that all the previous Buddhas preached their first sermon at the migdaya of Isipattana. It is one of the atthamahatthani (eight great places worshipped in Buddism. Lumbini, Bodhgaya, Sarnath and Kusinagar are releted to his life. Rajagaha, Saavatthi, Vesali and Samkasya are related to his miracles.) –the other being the bodhi-pallanaka-such as the spot at the gate of Sankissa (Samkasya) and the side of the bed in the gandhakuti in Jetvana. This place is known as migdaya because here deer could roam without any trouble. In Sarnath the Pacceka Buddhas, having spent seven days in contemplation in the Gondhamadana Hill and taking a bath in the Anotalla Lake, take came to a habitation in search of alms. They described this place as Isipattana. Sometimes the Pacceka Buddha came to Isipattana from Nandamulaka pabbhara. Several other incident also took place in Isipattana it was here that Yassa became the disciple of the Buddha and it was in Sarnath that carious Vinaya rules were framed, like prohibiting the use of Sandals made of talipot leaves. It was in Sarnath that the Buddha framed centain rules forbidding the use of certain kinds of flesh including the human flesh. It is said, that while the Buddha was living at Isipattana, Mara tried to visit him twice, but his efforts were in vain and had to go away with the utmost dejection. Mara in Buddhist literature is defined as personification of death, the evil and the tempter. Altogether five personifications of Mara are known-Khandha Mara, Kilesa Mara, Abhisarikhara Mara, Maccu Mara and Devaputta Mara. Mara with all his evil fores and daughters tried to disturb the Buddha when he we was sitting under the bodhi-tree to attain nibbana.

Besides Dhammacakkapabattana Sutta, several other suttas were preached by the Buddha during his stay a Isipattana. The Panca Sutta, Rathakara or Pacetana Sutta, two Pasa Suttas, the Samaya Sutta, Katuviya Sutta, a discourse on Metteyapanha and Dhammadina Sutta, among other, have been prached. In Samyutta Nikaya, Anattalakkhana Sutta is also known as Panca Sutta because the panncavaggiyas were first ones to learn it. The Buddha preached his sermon after teaching the Dhammackkapabattana Sutta to the Panncavaggiya bhikkhus, all of whom became arahants at the conclusion of the sermon. The Buddha said that no self is to be found in any of the five khandhas all, of which are impermanent, and the Sutta does not deal with the question of whether the self exists or not, it only shows that the khandhas are not the self. The Rathakara or Pacetana Sutta is also known as Cakkavati Sutta. Pacetana was a king who asked his wheel Wright to make a chariot, for a battle that was to be fought after six months. When only six days remained, only one wheel of the chariot was ready but the other had to be completed within the stipulate time. Pacetana thought that both wheels had been alike but the rathakara proved to him that the hurriedly made wheel was faulty in various ways. The Buddha identified himself with the rathakara and declared that one must be free from all shortcomings in order not to fall away from the Dhamma and the Vinaya.

With the appearance of the cakkavati, the seven treasured of the world arise. Similarly, with the appearance of the Tathagata, the seven treasures, of the wisdom-mindfullness, searching of the Dhamma, energy, zest tranquility, concentration and equanimity emerge. The Pasa Suttas were preached at the migdaya of Isipatana, where the Buddha told the monks that he had realized nibbana by means of yoniso manasikara (ekasggata, careful thought), and asserted that he is free from Mara’s snare, both celestial and human. He also urged the monks to wander about and preach for the good of the many and claimed that he himself was going to Senanigama in Uruvela to preach. In the Samaya Sutta the Buddha elaborated upon the right and the wrong time for the striving of the jnana. He also discussed the six occasions when one should visit a monk. The Katuviya Sutta mentions, that once the Buddha was going for the alms a fig tree in the neighbourhood of Isipattana, when he met a monkwhose delight was in the empty outer joys of the senses. He admonished him saying that flies would settle on and attack, those who are corrupt and reek with stench of carrion-and hearing this the monk was really stirred. Later the Buddha repeated the same admonition to the assembled monks and explained that greed is root cause of all evils that spoils purity of thought and mind. The Metteyapanha is mentioned in Tissa-Metteya Sutta which the evil that follows in the from of the sexual intercourse, after listening to this Tissa became sotapanna, and later attained arhnthood. The Dhammadina Sutta records the visit of upasaka Dhemmadina to the Buddha at Isipattana-when he came with 500 upasakas to the Buddha, and the Tathagata preached to him the practices of four limbs of sotapatti, i.e. submission to the Buddha, the Dhamma and the samgha and the cultivation of the ariyamagga. Dhammadina answered that he we following all four regulations at which the Buddha expressed his satisfaction. Dhammadina was one of the laymen who had a following of about five hundred and above others being Visakha, Ugga, Citta, Hatthaka, Alavaka, Cula and Mara- Anathapindika. The conversation between Sariputta and Maha Koththita was convened here. There is also mention of a discourse in which several monks staying at Isipattana tried to help Channa to overcome his problem. The Mahavamsa says a large community of monks at Isipattana, lep by the There Dhammsena, were present at the foundation ceremony of mahathupa in Anuradhapura-the capital of Sri Lanka.

Hiuen-Tsang, the Chinese pilgrim who visited Indian subcontinent between 629-45 CE, claims that fifteen hundred monks were studying the Theravada branch of Buddism at Isipattana. His travelogur of sixteen years of journey (Si-Yue-Ki) is an important document to reconstruct the history of Buddhism in India in early medieval age. According o his record, in the enclosure of samgharama, there was a vihara bout two hundred feet high with its roof surmounted by a golden of mangoes. Too the south-west was the remains of the stupa build by Asoka. The Divyavadana records Asoka as speaking to Upupta about his dhmmayatas to Sarnath, Lumbini, Bodhaya, Isipatana, Kusinagara, etc. The Nigrodhmiga Jataka says that the deer park was a forest gifted by the king of Varanasi where deer might wanderunmolested. The Uapana Jataka talks about an ancient well near Isipattana, in the Buddha’s time, used by the resident monks. In the time of Vipassi Buddha, Isipattana was known as Khema Udyyana. It is said, that while all the Buddhas went through the air to Isipattana to preach the first while sermon, Gotama walked all the way eighteen leagues because he knew that by doing so he would meet Upaka, an Ajivika monka.




  Preface ix
1 Introduction 1
2 Settlement Pattern in Early Age 26
3 Patronage and Identity based on Inscriptions and Seals 38
4 Samgharamas, Caityas and Stupas in Sarnath 61
5 Asoka's Pillar at Sarnath 94
6 Sarnath: Space and Time 116
7 Aftermath in Sarnath 148
  Bibliogrphy 163
  Index 173


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