2640 years ago
It was spring time in the foothills of the Himalayan mountain. Flowers were in full bloom and the air was filled with bird songs on this full moon day in the month of Waisakha.King Suddhodana's queen Maya Devi, accompanied by her maids and palace staff, was on her way from Kapilavatthu to her parent's home in Devdaha. She was expecting her first baby. That was why she was going to her parents' home. It was the custom for a woman to be with her parents at the birth of her first child.
As the party was going through the grove of sal trees in Lumbini, Queen Maya felt the pangs of childbirth. The men put down the palanquin in which the queen was travelling and she walked up to a sal tree. Her maids made a curtain round the tree and there, under the sal tree, Queen Maya gave birth to a bonny baby boy. Legend says that seven lotus flowers sprang up to welcome the baby prince. The queen returned to Kapilavatthu with the baby.
The brahmins who came for the naming ceremony predicted that the baby will become a cakravarthi, a universal monarch, or renounce the worldly life and become a Buddha. The baby was given the name Siddhartha.
The baby grew up to be a handsome prince, proficient in the arts and sciences that a prince was expected to know. At the age of 16, he married his cousin, Princess Yasodhara. King Suddhodana could not forget the prophecy of the brahmins - that the prince will renounce (give up) the worldly life.
However, one day, as he drove in his chariot, he saw a sick man writhing in pain. "Who is that and why is he writhing?" he asked Channa, his charioteer. Channa's answer set him thinking. In the next few days, he met an old and feeble man and also saw a corpse.
Once again, Channa's answers made him sad and depressed. The prince's world of pleasure was shattered. He realised that his youth was impermanent, that he too will be subject to these infirmities (physical or mental weaknesses) and die. Legend says that the devas had a hand in these meetings.
When he next drove in his chariot, he saw an ascetic who looked so calm and serene. The Prince couldn't accept life as it was; full of sorrow and suffering brought about by sickness and old age.
He decided to give up this worldly life of pleasure and become an ascetic like the one he had seen. That same day, his wife had given birth to a son named Rahula. This didn't change his decision. In the dead of night, he asked Channa to bring his horse and rode away, leaving his wife, a new born son and all the luxuries of the palace, accompanied only by his faithful charioteer, Channa.
35 years later
Prince Siddhartha was 29 years when he left the palace and became an ascetic. He had come a long, long way from Kapilavatthu and was now in another territory.
He went to one sage and then to another and learned the doctrines that they believed in and practised. He found he was getting nowhere. Then he came to Uruwela in the Magada country and found a jungle thicket with a stream flowing by.
He liked the place and settled down there and started practising the known meditation exercises of the time; he started practising austerities, even giving up food which impressed the five ascetics who had attached themselves to him.
It was the belief then that insight could be gained by such austerities. He became so emaciated (abnormally thin) that his ribs were showing through the skin. Realizing that those austerities were useless, he decided on a middle path - not too much, not too little.
His disciples left him and he went on to Gaya. For six years, he had been searching and had still not found the cause for life's sorrows and dissatisfaction and the cure for it.
He then started meditating on his own. He saw a large pipal tree with spreading branches; he sat under it and told himself "I shall not leave this seat until I have found the answer to my problem."
He meditated and meditated in the course of which, he gained many insights; mental powers. He saw himself in the cycle of birth and death and rebirth a million times. Then in the early hours of one morning, when his mind was purified and concentrated, he won the insight, the Enlightenment into dukkha, suffering, the cause of suffering, the destruction of suffering and the way which leads to it.
These were the Four Noble Truths, the realisation of this was the ascetic Siddhartha's Enlightenment. He was now a Buddha.
He spent the next seven weeks in the vicinity of the tree that gave him shelter during the peak of his intellectual struggle for the Truth. He wondered to whom he should tell his discovery. He remembered the two sages from whom he had learned their philosophy and meditation.
He saw with his divine eye - an ability he had acquired on Enlightenment - that they were dead. Then he thought of the five ascetics who had attached themselves to him. He saw them in the deer park at Isipathana in the Kingdom of Kasi and decided to meet them.
He met them on the full moon day of Asalha (Esala) two months after his Enlightenment. To them he preached his first sermon and set in motion the Wheel of the Law (Dharma). It was a statement of the virtue of the Middle Path, avoiding the two extremes of indulgence in pleasure and austerity.
Kusinara - (Parinibbana)
45 years later
Forty five years have passed since the Buddha preached to the five ascetics in the deer park in Isipathana. They were his first disciples, the first bhikkhus. By the end of the rainy season that year, many more had joined and the Buddha told them, "Go forth bhikkhus into the world, take the message to them, explain to them which I have explained."
And the Buddha himself set the example, going out to meet those in distress, those grieving or suffering from physical pain and ministered to them. In the course of time, numerous disciples from all walks of life gathered round him. There were some who were hostile. There were even attempts to kill him. But, the Buddha went about his task undaunted, and carried on for 45 years.
Now he was 80 years and age was telling on him. He himself had said "I am now like a rattling old cart." He knew his end was near. He wished to go to the Republic of the Mallas. The Maha Parinibbana Sutta is a very moving human account of his last days.
As Buddha set out with Ananda on his last journey from Vesali, he looked upon the town and said, "This will be the last time Ananda, that the Thatagata shall see Vesali". As they went on, they met many members of the Sangha and he addressed them.
At last they came to Pava where Chunda, the smith invited the Buddha to a meal in his house. This was his last meal. They set out on their journey and on the way, the Buddha got sharp pains, but he bore them without complaint and continued the journey to Kusinara in the Republic of the Mallas.
With his physical strength weakening, he still managed to reach the sal grove in Kusinara. He asked Ananda to spread his robe on the slab of stone between the twin sal trees.
As he lay there exhausted, he was anxious that the smith Chunda, should not be blamed and that Chunda should not feel guilty that this meal he served was the cause of the Buddha's death. He made it known that Chunda had accumulated some good karma.
This showed the Buddah's feeling for others.Ananda was weeping as it was obvious that the Buddha was dying.
The Buddha called Ananda to sit beside him and told him not to weep, for everything is impermanent and he recalled Ananda's love and kindness which bound the two. He praised Ananda for his devotion and urged him to reach the stage of an Arahat.
The Buddha's last words to the bhikkhus who were around him were: "Listen now bhikkhus, I exhort you. Decay is inherent in all component things (Sabbe sankara anicca). Work out your salvation with diligence".
With those words, the Buddha exhaled his last breath. As he passed away, he attained Nirvana; he had ended his life in Sansara - the cycle of births and deaths. The Parinirvana was also on a Vesak Full-moon Day. Hence, to Buddhists the full moon day in the month of Vesak is a "Thrice Blessed Day."
Vesak through the ages
The Deepavamsa - 'Island's Story' - which is older than the Mahavamsa, says "On the full-moon day of Waisaaka (Vesak), the Buddha was born. To honour him there was a festival in that month.... 'Waisaaka maasay punnamaayam Sambuddha upapajjata kam maasam poojanattaaya"...
The Mahavamsa, the history of Lanka, says King Dutugemunu celebrated 24 Vesak festivals,King Bhatiya 28 and King Vasaba 44. This indicates that these kings held a festival every year of their reign. Other kings mentioned in the Mahavamsa, as having celebrated Vesak are Vohara Tissa, Gotabhaya, Mugalan, Dala Mugalan, and Sena II. On that day, they offered robes to bhikkhus.
The famous Chinese monk Fa Hsien, who in his travels through Asia, visited Lanka, mentions in his records an annual procession in Anuradhapura in the second month of the year. A Buddha statue was taken in procession in a beautifully decorated chariot. The late Ven. Dr. Walpola Rahula Thera, who did a lot of research on the history of Buddhism in Sri Lanka, has pointed out that according to the Indian calendar, Waisaakha was the second month of the year.
In the early Anuradhapura period of our history, Vesak was a religious festival, but from about the 9th century Vesak became, in addition to the religious observances, a festival of song and dance. The Mahavamsa phrase, 'Waisaaka Keelam Keelitivah', suggests a secular festival.
The Chulavamsa which is a continuation of the Mahavamsa, says that Parakarama Bahu the Great, who ruled the country from Polonnaruwa, had an annual Dalada Pooja, a Tulabhara Daana and a waisaka keela. (Vesak festival). A tulabhara dana is an offering equal in weight to the donor's weight.
We do not read of Vesak celebrations patronised by kings after that. Vesak was not one of the four great festivals in the last Sinhala Kingdom, that is Kandy and the hill-country. There is reason for this.
The kings after Rajadhi Rajasinghe were of the Nayakkar dynasty from South India and they were Hindu. Hinduism was the State religion. You may know that bhikkhus had to be got down from Siam (now Thailand) to confer "Upasampada" during the reign of Kirti Sri Rajasingha, because there were no bhikkhus in Lanka then, who had received Upasampada or higher ordination.
There is another reason for the suppression of Vesak celebrations. From the middle of the 16th century - that is about 40 years after the coming of the Portuguese in 1505 - a large part of the low-country was under foreign rule, first the Portuguese who wanted to turn this into a Catholic country and destroyed Buddhist and Hindu shrines.
After them came the Dutch and finally the British who made this island a colony of the British Empire in 1815. Buddhism was not wiped out in the low-country; it went underground. Buddhists continued to have their religious observances on Vesak day, and make their poojas, but everything was on a low-key until 1885.
The year 1885 was an important year, a land-mark year, for the Buddhists in this country. In 1885, Ceylon as our country was known then, was a small colony in the vast British Empire.
That year-1885- the Governor of Ceylon, Sir Arthur Gorden declared by a gazette notification 25, April 1885 which is the full moon day of Vesak shall be a Government holiday."
This was the result of long negotiations with the Governor, to give Buddhists who were the majority in this country, the freedom to practise their religion and celebrate their festivals. For the first time, government offices, and the courts closed. As reported in the popular newspaper "Sarasavi Sandaress" of May 1, all shops, boutiques and eateries from Maradana to Borella were closed.
For the first time on that Vesak Day, the Buddhist flag was flown at the Kelani Vihara, at the Deepaduththarama in Kotahena and one or two other temples in Colombo.
Ven. Migettuwatte Gunananda Thera, addressing the devotees assembled at the Kelani Vihara, explained the importance of making Vesak day a government holiday.
The devotees thanked Col. Henry Steele Olcott who played a very important role, meeting with the Governor and convincing him of the significance of the day and of declaring it a holiday.
April 28, 1885 was the first Vesak holiday after the end of the Sinhala rule. Vesak day became a statutory holiday only after Act No. 4 of 1886, declaring Vesak Full-Moon a public holiday, was passed by the Legislative Council.
Col. Olcott who had a hand in the designing of the Buddhist flag asked people to fly the flag in their homes on Vesak Day. He also requested Buddhists to light a few lamps in their homes in honour of the Buddha whose Birth, Enlightenment and Parinirvana were being celebrated that day.
That simple request and the Buddhists' response, lighting a few oil lamps in honour of the Buddha and as an outward expression of their new inner faith, is the origin of today's Vesak celebrations - a festival of lights.