Word quickly spread of the sage teaching in the Deer Park at Sarnath. Hundreds came to hear him, and became disciples, too. Many were wealthy merchants or their sons, living just five miles away in a thriving trading center on the Ganges, the holy city of Benares. Today, Benares is the most sacred city in all of India, as it has been for millennia. Even before the time of the Buddha, pilgrims came here to worship their gods and bathe in the holy river of Heaven.
D. Max Moerman, scholar: "You see people purifying themselves bathing in the Ganges. You see priests performing rituals. You see corpses because that’s the best place to end one’s life. So you see going on there a great range of religious activity and much of it of the type that does go back to the Buddha’s time."
Many of today's sacred ceremonies on the Ganges echo the ancient practices of the Vedic priests, the Brahmins. In the Buddha's day, only the Brahmins could mediate between the gods and men. Only they could conduct the holy rituals that were said to preserve the universe itself.
The Brahmin priests stood at the pinnacle of a rigid social hierarchy—a sacred system of caste. Beneath them were the warriors—the caste to which the Buddha belonged. Below them were farmers. At the bottom were the servants, and still lower outcastes.
Kevin Trainor, scholar: "Those social groups are not merely social conventions but rather they’re hardwired into the nature of the universe. You’re supposed to stay in that group and the survival of society depends upon your continuing to perform the function associated with that social status."
Caste was irrelevant to the Buddha. So were priestly rituals to preserve the universe. His teachings focused on the universe within.
Mark Epstein, psychiatrist: "The Buddha said, 'you can be from any caste. What makes you noble is if you understand reality, you know if you’re a good person. If you’re a wise person then you’re noble.'"