India is a land of spiritual diversity and rich cultural heritage, and among its most revered treasures are the Buddhist pilgrimage sites scattered across the subcontinent. These sacred locations hold deep significance for millions of Buddhists worldwide, as they are closely associated with the life and teachings of Siddhartha Gautama, the founder of Buddhism. From the enchanting city of Varanasi, where the Buddha delivered his first sermon, to the serene environs of Bodh Gaya, where he attained enlightenment, and the ancient stupas of Sarnath, these pilgrimage sites serve as profound reminders of the profound spiritual journey that shaped the Buddhist faith. This introduction will take you on a journey through some of India’s most hallowed Buddhist pilgrimage sites, offering insight into their historical, cultural, and spiritual importance.
In India, there are many important places related to Buddhism. This is because Buddha became enlightened and lived most of his life there. The Astamahasthanas are eight special places connected to Buddha’s life. These include four places linked to Gautama Buddha’s life, like Lumbini, Bodhgaya, Sarnath, and Kushinagar, as well as four other places: Sravasti, Sankasya, Rajgir, and Vaishali.
Buddhism in India
- Buddhism began about 2,600 years ago in India as a life-changing way of living.
- It’s a very important religion in South and Southeast Asian countries.
- The religion is based on the teachings and life of Siddhartha Gautam, who was born in 563 BCE.
- He was born into the royal lineage of the Sakya clan, ruling from Kapilvastu in Lumbini, near the border of India and Nepal.
- Gautama left home at 29, giving up his wealthy life for intense self-discipline.
- Gautama became enlightened under a pipal tree in Bodhgaya, Bihar, after 49 days of meditation.
- A pilgrimage is a significant journey in religion and spirituality, often to a sacred site or shrine important to a person’s beliefs and faith.
Buddhist Places in India
|Sarnath, Uttar Pradesh||Site of Buddha’s first sermon. Has ancient stupas and relics. Notable sights include the Ashok Pillar and Indian National Emblem.|
|Bharhut, Madhya Pradesh||Known for Buddhist stupa relics. Buddhism was practised here until the 12th century. Features a small Buddhist temple and a new Buddha statue.|
|Bodhgaya, Bihar||Where Buddha attained enlightenment under the Bodhi Tree. A place of devotion for both Hindus and Buddhists.|
|Mahabodhi Temple, Bihar||One of the four sacred locations related to Buddha’s life. Originally built by Ashoka, it was later rebuilt in the 5th or 6th centuries.|
|Sravasti, Uttar Pradesh||Historical capital with ancient stupas, monasteries, and temples. Buddha and his disciples spent 24 years preaching here.|
|Kushinagar, Uttar Pradesh||Site of Buddha’s ‘Mahaparinirvana’. Attractions include the Ramabhar Stupa and Mahanirvana Temple with a reclining Buddha statue.|
|Kapilavastu, Uttar Pradesh||Birthplace of Buddha with Stupa Complex and the ruins of King Shuddhodhan’s palace.|
|Ajanta Caves, Maharashtra||Rock-cut caves with ancient Buddhist monasteries, prayer rooms, paintings, and sculptures.|
|Ellora Caves, Maharashtra||UNESCO World Heritage Site featuring Hindu, Buddhist, and Jain cave complexes.|
|Pitalkhora, Maharashtra||Group of early rock-cut Buddhist caves with chaityas and viharas. Features Mahayana period murals.|
|Sirpur, Chhattisgarh||Archaeological site with Hindu, Jain, and Buddhist monuments from the 5th to 12th century.|
|Ratnagiri, Odisha||Home to a 5th-century Buddha monastery with Buddha sculptures and cells.|
|Lalitgiri, Odisha||Large Buddhist complex with stupas and monasteries, known for Tantric Buddhism practices.|
|Udayagiri, Odisha||Largest Buddhist complex with stupas and monasteries. Part of the “Diamond Triangle” with Lalitgiri and Ratnagiri.|
|Nalanda, Bihar||Ancient Buddhist monastic university, known for its scholars and diverse curriculum.|
|Odantapuri, Bihar||Well-known Mahavihara founded in the 8th century in Magadha.|
|Vikramashila, Bihar||Significant Buddhist monastery during the Pala Empire, with a renowned faculty.|
|Rajgir, Bihar||Former capital of Magadha with historical significance for both Mahavira and Buddha.|
|Vaishali, Bihar||Important place for both Jain and Buddhist religions, known for the Second Buddhist council and relic stupa.|
|Piprahwa, Uttar Pradesh||Archeological site near Lumbini, believed to be the Buddha’s ash burial site.|
|Sankisa, Uttar Pradesh||Believed to be the place where Buddha descended from heaven.|
|Nagapattinam, Tamil Nadu||Once-famous Buddhist Vihara with historical ties to the Chola kingdom and South India.|
|Dhauli, Odisha||Hill with the Dhauli Shanti Stupa, symbolising peace and commemorating the Kalinga War.|
|Ladakh||Region in Jammu & Kashmir with a strong Buddhist presence, reflected in monuments, monasteries, and cultural practices.|
|Sikkim||Major Buddhist site with over 200 monasteries, influencing local culture and way of life.One of the most prominent monasteries is Rumtek Monastery, also known as the Dharma Chakra Centre.|
|Sanchi, Madhya Pradesh||It is a UNESCO World Heritage Site.One of the oldest and most well-preserved Buddhist stupas in India, dating back to the 3rd century BCE.The stupa is known for its exquisite stone carvings, depicting scenes from the life of Buddha and various Jataka tales.The site also includes several other Buddhist structures, such as monasteries, temples, and pillars, contributing to the overall historical significance of the complex.|
|Amaravati Stupa, Andhra Pradesh||It is one of the most famous and well-preserved stupas, dating back to the 2nd century BCE to the 3rd century CE.The stupa is known for its intricate carvings and various Jataka tales.It served as a centre of learning during the Satavahana period.|
|Tawang Monastery, Arunachal Pradesh||Tawang Monastery is the largest monastery in India.It is a significant Tibetan Buddhist monastery, belonging to the Gelug school, and was founded in the 17th century by Merak Lama Lodre Gyatso.The monastery houses a large gilded statue of Lord Buddha along with numerous ancient scriptures and valuable thangkas (Tibetan Buddhist paintings).Renowned for its stunning architecture, which reflects a blend of traditional Tibetan and Chinese styles.|
|Angkor Wat, Cambodia||Angkor Wat is located in Cambodia. The temple complex was built by Suryavarman II and it was first devoted to Vishnu and later to Buddhists.|
Patronage of Buddhism
- Emperor Ashoka: Spread Buddhism through his messages and supported Buddhist groups and teachers.
- King Kanishka: Led the Fourth Buddhist Council and helped grow Mahayana Buddhism.
- King Milinda: A Greek king who converted to Buddhism and followed Nagasena.
- Pala Dynasty: Ruled Bengal and supported the growth of Mahayana Buddhism and universities like Nalanda and Vikramshila.
- Srivijaya Empire: A Southeast Asian maritime empire that spread Buddhism in Indonesia and Malaysia.
- Dalai Lama: Leader of Tibetan Buddhism, known for promoting Buddhism and Tibetan culture worldwide.
- Chulalongkorn, King of Siam: Supported the revival of Buddhism in Thailand and established the Buddhist Institute.
- B. R. Ambedkar: Indian social reformer who embraced Buddhism and fought for the rights of Dalits through Buddhism.
Important Buddhist travellers and scholars
- Fa-Hien: A Chinese monk who visited India in the 4th-5th century CE and wrote about his travels in “Record of Buddhistic Kingdoms“.
- Hsuan Tsang: Another Chinese monk who journeyed to India in the 7th century CE and studied at Nalanda University. He documented his experiences in “Great Tang Records on the Western Regions“.
- I-tsing: A Chinese monk who also visited India in the 7th century CE, studied at Nalanda University, and wrote about his travels in “A Record of Buddhist Practices Sent Home from the Southern Sea“.
- Kumarajiva: An Indian scholar who went to China in the 4th century CE and helped translate Buddhist texts from Sanskrit into Chinese.
- Important Buddhist scholars: Nagarjuna, Asanga, Vasubandhu, Dignaga, Dharmakirti, Shantarakshita, Atisha, Padmasambhava, Tsongkhapa.
Buddhahood and Cycle of Buddhas
- Buddhahood is the state of perfect enlightenment achieved by a Buddha, who has attained liberation from suffering and the cycle of rebirth.
- The cycle of Buddhas suggests that there have been and will be many Buddhas throughout history.
Buddhas in the Bhadra Kalpa
First Buddha of the current age. Emphasised moral conduct, meditation, and spiritual powers.
Second Buddha. Born into a Brahmin family, focused on compassion and meditation.
Third Buddha. Stressed ethical conduct and wisdom.
Sakyamuni (Gautama Buddha):
Fourth and most famous Buddha. Taught the Four Noble Truths and the Eightfold Path for enlightenment.
Future Buddha of the next Bhadrakalpa, currently residing in the Tushita heaven, expected to be reborn on Earth when the teachings of Sakyamuni are forgotten.
1.Who was Asanga?
Answer: Asanga was an influential Buddhist philosopher and scholar who lived in India during the 4th century CE. He is considered one of the key figures in developing the Yogacara or Vijñānavāda school of Mahayana Buddhism.
2.Are all Buddhas identical?
Answer: While all Buddhas share the goal of liberating beings from suffering, they may differ in their specific teachings, methods, and emphasis. Each Buddha’s teachings are suited to the capacities and inclinations of the beings they aim to help.
3.Who was Gautama Buddha, and what were his teachings?
Answer: Gautama Buddha was a spiritual leader and the founder of Buddhism. His teachings emphasised the Four Noble Truths, which revolve around the nature of suffering and the path to its cessation through the Eightfold Path.
4.What is the significance of Bodhgaya in the history of Buddhism?
Answer: Bodhgaya is revered as the place where Gautama Buddha is believed to have attained enlightenment under the Bodhi Tree. It is considered one of the holiest sites in Buddhism and a major pilgrimage destination for Buddhists worldwide.
5.How did the spread of Buddhism influence various Asian cultures and societies?
Answer: The spread of Buddhism influenced various cultures by promoting values such as non-violence, compassion, and mindfulness. It impacted art, architecture, literature, and societal structures, fostering the development of unique Buddhist traditions across Asia.
6.What are some notable Buddhist monasteries or universities, and what role did they play in the development of Buddhism?
Answer: Nalanda and Vikramshila were prominent ancient Buddhist universities in India, known for their contributions to Buddhist philosophy, art, and literature. They facilitated the exchange of ideas and the preservation of Buddhist teachings, significantly influencing the development of Buddhism in the region.
7.Who were some of the significant figures in the history of Buddhism, and what contributions did they make to the religion and its philosophy?
Answer: Nagarjuna, known for his teachings on the Middle Way philosophy, and Asanga and Vasubandhu, who played crucial roles in the development of Mahayana Buddhism, are some key figures. Their contributions include the refinement of Buddhist doctrine and the propagation of new schools of thought within Buddhism.
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