Buddhism as a dharma or religion, was founded in India, based on the teachings of Siddhartha Gautama, more than 2,500 years ago. Siddhartha was born in the 5th century BCE as a prince in the India Subcontinent, but he abandoned his royal abode and followed his inner calling towards the ascetic life.
For almost seven years, he wandered as an ascetic and finally attained enlightenment under a sacred Peepal tree, now known as the Bodhi tree in the sacred town of Bodh Gaya. From then on, Siddhartha Gautama began to be known as Gautama Buddha, ‘The Enlightened One’. He began to deliver sermons and spread his spiritual knowledge. Thus, Buddhism as a religion began to take shape. Today, Buddhism is the fourth largest religion in the world with over 500 million followers.
The spread of Buddhism can be attributed to the personality of Gautama Buddha and the method adopted by him to preach his religion. He maintained poise and calm under difficult conditions, refusing to be provoked by slander and abuse. The use of Pali, language of the common people, also contributed to the spread of Buddhism. The admission to the religious order or the sangha was open to all, irrespective of caste or gender.
Several centuries later, during the 2nd BCE, Mauryan ruler Ashoka the Great embraced Buddhism and spread its teachings across Asia. Soon, Buddhism transformed into a world religion and continues to hold ground in South Asia, South-East Asia, and East Asia.
Buddhism has a rich culture encompassing art, architecture, and literature. Buddhist spiritual institutions can be broadly categorized as stupas, viharas, and chaityas. These places not only have a religious but also historical and artistic significance. The influence of local art and culture can be observed in these institutions, giving each one of them a unique touch. We shall cover a few of such institutions below.
Stupa means ‘heap’ in Sanskrit and is an important form of Buddhist architecture. Earliest stupas contained portions of Buddha’s ashes. Thus, they came to be associated with the body and energy of Buddha himself.
Situated at Sanchi in the state of Madhya Pradesh, India, Sanchi Stupa is one of the oldest stone structures in India. It was commissioned by Mauryan emperor Ashoka in 3 BCE. It was enlarged and decorated further in the following centuries under the Shunga and Satavahana dynasties. The stupa boasts of a double circular path, which is unique to this site. It is also adorned by one of the pillars of Ashoka.
Chaitya is a Buddhist prayer hall with a semi-circular dome at the end opposite to the entrance, and a high roof with a rounded profile. The earliest chaitya structures are rock-cut caves in found India like Bhaja caves, Karla caves and Nasik caves, dating back to 2nd century BCE.
Buddhist monks followed an ascetic lifestyle, moving from one place to another. Monasteries, also known as Viharas served as residential places for these monks. In India, these monasteries gradually developed into centers of learning where philosophical ideas were discussed. Presently, monasteries have come to represent a settled lifestyle for Buddhist Monks globally.
Wat and Pagoda
Among many different forms of Buddhist structures, Wat is one of the most prevalent forms in Southeast Asia. It refers to a complex of various buildings such as ordination hall, library, monks’ lodgings, and stupas.
The structure of pagoda draws historical influence from stupa, a monument associated with preservation of sacred relics. This form of architecture evolved from the intermixing of Buddhist and Chinese architecture.
Famous Temples and Monasteries
Ganden Monastery, Tibet
Originally founded by Je Tsongkhapa in 1409, Ganden monastery in Tibet contained around 24 chapels with large statues of Buddha. The largest chapel had a capacity to accommodate around 3500 monks. According to a legend, the founder, as a small boy in his previous life, gave a crystal rosary to Buddha. Buddha prophesized that the boy would establish a monastery called ‘Ge’, a form of the first syllable of ‘Ganden’. He gave the boy a conch shell and his disciple, Maudgalyayana, buried the shell in Tibet. A year after the establishment of Ganden monastery, Tsongkhapa dug up the conch shell on a hill behind the monastery.
Unfortunately, the monastery was completely destroyed by the People’s Liberation Army during the 1959 Tibetan uprising. Following the destruction, the monastery has been rebuilt since the 1980s. The Ganden Monastery has been re-established in the state of Karnataka, India, by the Tibetan population in exile.
Tango Monastery, Bhutan
Tango Monastery is situated near the capital city of Bhutan, Thimphu. The monastery has six temples built in the dzong fashion. It has a characteristic curved wall and a prominent main tower. According to a legend, the monastery is located at the place where Avalokiteshvara revealed himself as “the self-emanated form of the Wrathful Hayagriva”. Avalokiteshvara is a Boddhisattava, considered to encompass compassion of all the Buddhas.
An important annual festival, Yarney (‘Yar’ means ‘summer’; ‘Ney’ means ‘to stay’), is celebrated at this monastery. The monks observe special vows and strict monastic discipline during this period.
Celebration of festivals is an important aspect of almost every religion. Followers of Buddhism not only celebrate key events from the life of Buddha but also his teachings. There are numerous Buddhist festivals celebrated across the globe. They represent the confluence of religion and local cultures thereby making each one of them unique in their own right.
Buddha Purnima marks the birth, enlightenment, and death of Gautam Buddha. It is considered as the most auspicious day for the Buddhists. ‘Purnima’ refers to full moon thereby implying that the festival falls on the day of full moon in the month of April or May. One can witness grand processions at the places associated with Buddha. Temples are decorated, offerings are made by devotees and teachings of Buddha are discussed in light of their significance in the present-day society.
Observed in the Indian states of Ladakh, Arunachal Pradesh and Sikkim along with countries like China and Nepal, Losar festival marks the arrival of Tibetan New Year. The festivities are observed in their liveliest and the most colourful form showcasing several Buddhist rituals and spirited performances.
Mani Rimdu Festival
Mani Rimdu is an annual festival celebrated at the monastery of Tengboche, Nepal. It is celebrated by Lama and Sherpa community of Nepal and represents the teachings of Buddhism through elaborate dance and theatrical performances. The festivities are concluded by a special fire ritual to destroy evil forces.
Buddhism is generally perceived as a religion seeped into spirituality, embodied by prayers, meditation, and abstinence. However, if one delves deeper into its rich culture of art, architecture, and festivals, it comes across as a vibrant religion exuding life and spreading spiritual light in all shades of rainbow.