Buddha Purnima is the most sacred day in the Buddhist calendar. It is the most important festival of the Buddhists, and is celebrated with great enthusiasm. Every festival has its own rituals which provide an insight into the lives and beliefs, customs and culture of the people observing them.
One may well ask why is Buddha Purnima observed only by the Buddhists? The answer is simple: because it is associated with the founder of their faith, Lord Buddha. Although Buddhists regard every full moon as sacred, the moon of the month of Vaisakh (April-May) has special significance because on this day the Buddha was born, attained enlightenment, and attained Nirvana when he died. This strange, three fold coincidence, gives Buddha Purnima its unique significance.
Let us first learn something about the life of the Buddha. The Buddha was born in 544 BC, over two thousand five hundred years ago. His father, King Suddhodana, was one of the best-known rulers of the Sakya dynasty. He, like Lord Rama, was a Suryavanshi who traced his legendary descent from the sun.
On the full moon day of Vaisakh, the Buddha’s mother, Queen Mahamaya, happened to be on her way from the capital Kapilavastu to her parents’ home in Devdaha. During the journey she stopped under the shade of two Sal trees at Lumbini, where she gave birth to the Buddha. When she returned to Kapilavastu, an old sanyasi named Asit, who was also the court astrologer, came to the palace and predicted that the child would redeem the world.
The child was named Siddhartha. But it was his clan name, Gautama, by which he came to be known, and he attained fame as Gautama the Buddha, Gautama the wise. The rejoicing at the birth of the prince was abruptly cut short because a week later his mother Queen Mahamaya suddenly died. Gautama was brought up by his mother’s sister who was also his step mother.
Gautama was a serious-minded child who instead of playing with other children would sit alone, lost in his own thoughts. His father did his best to get him interested in various pursuits, but to no avail. When Prince Gautama came of age, King Suddhodana arranged his marriage to the beautiful Princess Yasodhara and saw to it the prince was kept occupied with diverse amusements and pleasures of life. None of these, however, succeeded in diverting Gautama’s mind from its quest for truth.
Prince Gautama was a Kshatriya, who, like others of the warrior caste, was also expected to hunt animals and birds. But Gautama was different from other Kshatriyas; instead of killing animals and birds he wanted to protect them. Once his cousin Dev Datta shot a flying swan which fell near Gautama. He picked up the bird, took the arrow out of its body and dressed its wound. When Dev Datta came on the scene and demanded the bird he had shot, Prince Gautama replied, “He who saves life has a stronger claim to it than he who seeks to destroy it.”
The dispute was referred to King Suddhodana. The king had the swan brought to court and put on a platform in the centre. He then told the two princes that the swan would be awarded to the one to whose call it responded. First Dev Datta called to the bird. It began to sqawk and tremble. Then Gautama called to it. The bird waddled up to the prince and sat down in his lap. “The swan has chosen its protector and belongs to him,” pronounced King Suddhodana.
There were other things about the world that began to trouble Gautama. One day, when passing through a street, he saw a man who was so old that he could not walk. Another day, he saw a very sick man lying unconscious on the ground. He asked himself, “What is pain? Why is there so much pain and suffering in the world? Is there any way of avoiding them?” The Gautama came across an ascetic who looked so calm that he seemed to have found the answers to the problems of old age, sickness and death. Gautama decided to renounce the world and become an ascetic.
By now Gautama had become a father. But neither love for his baby son Rahul nor attachment to his beautiful wife Yasodhara deflected him from his purpose. One night, when his wife and son were asleep, Gautama stole out of palace. He discarded his royal robes, snipped off his long curling tresses and went out into the dark night to seek the light of knowledge.
Gautama went from one religious centre to another and from one hermitage to the next asking the inmates for answers to his questions. He got none. At last he reached a forest at the edge of the river Niranjana near Gaya. Gautama stayed here for six long years, starving himself and practising all kinds of other penances till he was reduced to skin and bone. He then realised that enlightenment could not come through mortifying the flesh. That very day a woman named Sujata offered him a bowl of kheer and a grasscutter gave him a stack of grass to sleep on. Gautama accepted both these gifts. His health recovered. He took his seat under a Bo tree and resolved to stay there until he found the answers to his questions.
One night, an hour or so before dawn, he found the answers to the four truth of life-the existence of pain and suffering, their causes, the need to overcome them and the means of doing so. Thus Gautama became Gautama the Buddha-the Enlightened One. This event took place on his thirty-fifth birthday which was also the night of the full moon of Vaisakh.
From Gaya, the Buddha proceeded to Sarnath near Varanasi. Here five men became his disciples. He taught them the truths he had discovered and formed the first Sangha-community. Thereafter he travelled far and wide preaching the truth and gained a large following consisting of scholars, sanyasis, rulers of states and their ministers. He also went to his home. But this time he entered his father’s state not as a prince but as a bhikshu-monk. His father, stepmother, wife and son joined his Sangha.
Whereas followers of others religions observe the birth, deaths, and other important occasions in the lives of their founders, for Buddhists all these events are combined in one on the full moon day in Vaisakh. On this day they bathe and wear only white clothes. They gather in their viharas for worship and give alms to monks. Many spend their entire day at the vihara listening to discourses on the life and teachings of the Buddha or invite monks to their homes to speak to them. They reaffirm their faith in the five principles (Panch Sheel)-not to take life, not to steal, not to lie, not to imbibe liquor or other intoxicants and not to commit adultery.
On Buddha Purnima Buddhists refrain from eating meat and eat kheer which they share with the poor. They set up stalls in public places which provide clean drinking water. Their special forms of charity include kindness to animals: they buy caged birds and set them free and pay butchers to let go animals meant for slaughter.
Just as in some homes paper lanterns are hung on Diwali, on Buddha Purnima Buddhists make Vaisakh Vakats out of bamboo, festoon them with starts and decorate their houses with them. Some people also drape the walls of their homes with paper or cloth depicting incidents from the Jataka tales which are based on incarnations of the Buddha prior to his birth as Prince Gautama.
Different Buddhist countries have different ways of celebrating this great day. In Sri Lanka the celebrations are very similar to Diwali. All homes are brightly illuminated and even the poorest light at least on oil-lamp.
In Japan, Buddhists have fixed the eighth of April as the Buddha’s birthday. On this day, they make replicas of shrines with spring flowers and place a small idol of the Buddha on them. They bathe and consecrate these idols with great reverence.
In Burma, the Buddhists set a day apart every month in honour of the Buddha. Since the Buddha attained enlightenment sitting under a Bodhi tree, special care is taken in watering and tending Bodhi trees.
Celebrations of Buddha Purnima have been extensively written about in poems and novels and depicted in painting because Buddha Purnima is not only a day of rejoicing; it is also a day for reflection on the life and teachings of one of the greatest teachers the world has ever known.
Excerpts from the book “Festivals of India”