Stupa-hopping in Sarnath

• In the 6th century BCE, a young man left the comforts of his royal home in search of truth.

• For six years, he followed extreme ascetic practices and became totally emaciated. It was then that he realised that this was not the way to nirvana.

• He eventually found enlightenment under a tree in Bodh Gaya. Prince Siddhartha became Buddha, or the Enlightened One.

Teachings of Buddha

• From Bodh Gaya, Buddha went to the Deer Park (Mrigadava) in Sarnath, where the five monks who had been with him during his ascetic phase were staying.

• It was there that he gave his first sermon, an event known as the Dharma Chakra Pravarttana, or turning of the wheel of law.

• In ancient times, this place was known by many names — Rishipatana, Mrigadava and Mrigadaya. The word Sarnath comes from a corruption of the name Saranganatha (lord of deer).

• In his first sermon to these five companions, Buddha spoke of the Four Noble Truths and the eightfold path that frees people from suffering.

• He said that there are two ways of life: one is to indulge in all the pleasures of the world and the other is to deny oneself these pleasures. The middle path is the way to achieve nirvana, he said.

• It is in Sarnath that Buddha laid the foundation of his sangha, or organisation of monks.

• He had 60 disciples whom he sent to different parts of the country to spread his teachings. He also established an order of female monks, which was joined by his wife.

Invasions and restorations

• This stupa is the one said to have been built by Ashoka to commemorate Buddha’s first sermon.

• Today it is just a low and flat platform as it “was pulled down in 1794 by one Jagat Singh of Banaras,” says B.R. Mani in Sarnath: Archaeology, Art and Architecture.

• He says, “Jagat Singh, the Diwan of Raja Chet Singh of Banaras, dug the stupa mound in 1793-94 for the purpose of obtaining building material, both stones and bricks, for the erection of a market place in the city after his name.”

• On top of the Ashoka pillar in Sarnath was the the Lion Capital and the Dharmachakra, but the Lion Capital is now housed in Sarnath museum, while the pillar remains where it was originally.

• The Lion Capital was adopted as the national emblem of India in 1950.

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Mains Paper 1: Arts & Culture | All syllabus

Prelims level: Sarnath Stupa and associated stories

Mains level: Significance of Buddhism

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