Temple painting at Sarnath

Located 10 kms from the ancient city of Varanasi, India, the tranquil city of Sarnath is one of the holiest of cities for Hindus. It is also where the Buddha in his 35th year preached his first sermon in the deer park to the five ascetics who had turned their backs on him in Bodhgaya, where he had broken the austerities after six long years. The Dhamekh Stupa in the deer park marks the exact spot of the Buddha's first sermon, and is literally covered with writings engraved on stone in different scripts. Like Lumbini, Sarnath also boasts major ruins of stupas, temples and ornate monasteries. In all, it is believed that the Buddha turned the wheel of dharma twelve times at Sarnath. The wheel of dharma is also known as the wheel of the law.

Standing opposite to the Dhamekh Stupa, is a four-headed lion pillar errected by Emperor Ashoka. The pillar is really a column measuring 15.24 metres in height with a lion capital. Emperor Ashoka became a convert to Buddhism when he witnessed a massive slaughter on the battlefield while ruthlessly invading a neighbouring Indian kingdom in 260 BC to further expand his recently inherited empire. In all, Ashoka built 84,000 stupas across his empire to house the many sacred relics of Gautama Buddha. The magnificient lion pillar at Sarnath is a lasting testimonial to the emperor's miraculous change of heart. Thanks to the chance conversion of Ashoka, the dharma became a strong moral force in 3rd century India, with Sarnath becoming one of the main destinations for newly converted Buddhist pilgrims.

When the Buddha gave the first turning of the wheel in the deer park at Sarnath, he taught the middle way which by necessity avoids the extremes of austerity and pleasure. He also taught the four noble truths and the eightfold path. It is said that Kaundmya was the first of the five ascetics to understand and internalize the gist of Buddha's teachings, and that Ashvajit was the last. All five ascetics eventually became arhants and rejoiced in the bodhisattva Gautama's miraculous awakening. The teachings included in the collection known as the first turning of the wheel would extend over a period of seven years.

Gautama Buddha began teaching the law at Sarnath not for debate purposes, but out of genuine compassion for his fellow human beings. He wanted all sentient beings to overcome their sufferings, and to live fuller lives until it was time for them to enter Nirvana. His message was mainly one of love, equality and non-violence.

Today the actual site of the Buddha's first moral discourse at Sarnath along with several prominent ruins in the area have been enclosed in a pleasant park. Nearby, a well-planned museum houses a number of unearthed statues, many barely damaged, as well as other interesting findings from the site. The museum's entrance is dominated by the famous lion capital from Ashoka's pillar, which incidentally, has been adopted as the Indian national emblem. The wheel design on its base has also become the central figure of India's flag.

Sarnath has come to be known as the craddle of Buddhism in India and around the world. Many Buddhist dignitaries visit the site to circumambulate the Dhamekh Stupa to chant Buddhist mantras and pay homage to the place where the voice of Buddhism was first heard. As mentioned earlier, Emperor Ashoka, realizing the sanctity of the deer park site, built several fine monuments there in the 3rd century BC. His Dhamekh Stupa contains some of the ashes and other cremated remains or relics of Lord Buddha. From 600 BC to the 12th century, Sarnath remained a Buddhist education centre of world repute; however, it was forgotten for centuries after the muslim invasion, until British archaeologists excavated the site in 1836.

Due to its location near the Tropic of Cancer, Sarnath enjoys a comfortable winter but a very hot summer. The months of April, May and June are considerably cooler.

appended and edited @buddhavision

Kushinagar - The Great Passing Away