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"Sarnath" by Shantum Seth

8 April 2010

The presence of the Buddha permeates the quiet ruins of Sarnath. The still air carries the fragrance of incense and flowers and the chants of the monks. Deer wander near the ruins and the grass shimmers at dawn, spangled with dew.

Sarnath is only 6 miles from Varanasi, the holy city of the Hindus. Compared to the frenetic volatility of Varanasi, Sarnath welcomes you with a serene smile.

After the Buddha gained Enlightenment under the Bodhi tree on the banks of the Neeranjana river, he walked for over 160 miles from Bodh Gaya and crossed the Ganges by ferry to reach the river banks (ghats) of Varanasi. He was searching for the five companions who had abandoned him at Uruvela. The five ascetics deserted him when Siddhartha Gautama forsook the path of self-mortification, since they felt that spiritual salvation was not possible through any other means. 

The Buddha found the five ascetics at a deer park in the outskirts of the city. The park was called Rishipattana after the rishis or sages who came to meditate under its shady trees and share the efficacy of each others’ spiritual practices.

When the Buddha approached his former companions, they were skeptical at first. His presence and words convinced them of his awakening. They were the first to hear him unfold his path to Enlightenment, the Four Noble Truths, the Eightfold path and the Middle Way. This first sermon is called Dharmachakrapravartana, or Turning of the Wheel of Law and while listening to it, Kondanya the senior most of the five ascetics gained awakening. The Four noble truths are ‘dukh’, the existence of suffering, ‘samudaya’, the cause of suffering, ‘nirodha’ the cessation of suffering and ‘marga’ the path that helps us overcome suffering, namely the eight fold path of appropriate view, thought, speech, action, livelihood, effort, mindfulness and concentration. The middle way encourages not to be caught in the extremes of asceticism or sensual pleasures, or in the concepts of being or non being. 

At Sarnath the Buddha founded the Sangha, (the community) with his five companions as his first disciples. It was also here that Yasa, the son of a rich merchant of Varanasi, renounced his life of worldly pleasures to become the Buddha’s sixth disciple. Yasa’s parents became the first lay disciples.

Thereafter for 45 years the Buddha walked the Gangetic plains of Northern India, touching the lives of many thousands with his teachings and presence, returning occasionally to Sarnath. 

Sarnath continued in importance from the Buddha’s time through the reign of Emperor Ashoka and other dynasties. When Xuan Zang, the Chinese chronicler came in the 7th century, he mentioned seeing 30 monasteries here. The site was destroyed by the Turkish soldiers in the 12th century and the thriving monasteries in Sarnath lay in ruins, and the few monks who survived fled.

In 1794, the Dharamrajika stupa was taken apart by a local minister to build a market place with the bricks. In the stupa he found some relics of the Buddha, and as a devout Hindu, sprinkled them in the Ganges. This discovery however aroused interest among the archeologists and soon this was discovered to be a site associated with the Buddha.

Ashoka’s Pillar and its famous lion capital, which is the symbol of the modern Republic of India was discovered here in 1904, is now housed in the museum.

The most impressive sight in Sarnath is the looming 33 metres high cylindrical structure of the Dhamekh Stupa, built to its present stature in the 5th century. The present name Dhamekh shows some connection with Buddha’s Dharma. This might have been the stupa started by Emperor Ashoka to mark the spot where the Buddha preached the Dharmachakrapravartana for the first to the five ascetics. Today pilgrims from all over the world circumambulate in reverence.

The custom built site museum is a treasure trove of Buddhist sculptures, inscriptions and pottery. Some of the finest images of the Buddha and panels depicting important episodes from the life of Sakyamuni Buddha can be seen here. The largest collection is from the Gupta period, carved in the fine-grained Chunar sandstone. The famous teaching Buddha of the 5th century is here, which draws you from the image of the Buddha to the Dharma, from the outward to the inner.

Adapted by Shantum Seth from the book Walking with the Buddha, co-authored by Shantum, who has lead acclaimed pilgrimages to traditional Buddhist sites --'In the Footsteps of the Buddha’-- since 1988. Visit www.buddhapath.com to learn more.


Major funding provided by: National Endowment for the Humanities, PBS, Corporation for Public Broadcasting, and the Robert H. N. Ho Family Foundation. Additional funding provided by: the Arthur Vining Davis Foundations, the Shinnyo-en Foundation, the Shelley and Donald Rubin Foundation, the Bumper Foundation, and viewers like you.