Gaya is where Siddhartha Gautama became the Buddha as he sat
in meditation on the diamond seat under the Bodhi (Ficus Religiosa)
bodhisattva, having renounced the luxurious life of Prince Siddhartha,
now as Gautama the ascetic, walked in a south-easterly direction
from Kapilavastu and came to Vaishali. Here he listened briefly
to the teaching of Arada Kalapa, an aberrant samkhya, but left
dissatisfied. Crossing the river Ganges he once again entered
the kingdom of Magadha and came to Rajgir, the capital, where
he listened to the yogic teachings of Rudraka. Again dissatisfied,
he left followed by the five ascetics. Together with them he
came to the village of Uravilva on the banks of the Nairanjana
river, which is close to the place now known as Bodhgaya. Here
they engaged in long, austere practices. For the first two years
Gautama ate but one grain of rice a day, and for the next four
years he ate nothing at all. He remained sitting in continual
meditation despite the almost complete degeneration of his body.
years after his initial renunciation he realized that extreme
mortification does not yield liberation. He arose and broke
the austerities. The five ascetics were disgusted and departed
his former garments had perished, he took a yellow shroud from
the corpse of a servant girl awaiting cremation nearby. To help
him wash it, the god Indra struck the ground and produced a
pond. A local brahmin's daughter, Sujata, approached and offered
him a golden bowl filled with rice prepared in the essence of
the milk of one thousand cows. Renewed in body and mind, his
complexion brilliant as the lustre of burnished gold, the bodhisattva
bathed and then walked to a nearby cave to continue his meditation.
However, the earth shook and the voices of previous buddhas
resounded in the air, telling him that this was not the place
of his enlightenment and advising him to proceed to the nearby
bodhi tree. The sites of all these events were seen by the Chinese
pilgrims in the fifth and seventh centuries, and they record
that stupas had been constructed at each. None of these exist
he walked to the tree the graincutter Svastika gave him a bundle
of kusha grass. A flock of birds flew around the bodhisattva
three times. When he entered the area about the tree, the earth
shook. He made himself a seat from the kusha grass on the eastern
side of the tree and after seven circumambulations sat down
facing the east. He made the great resolve not to rise again
until enlightenment had been attained, even if his skin, bones
and flesh should crumble away. Sending forth a beam of light
from the hair-treasure between his eye-brows, he invoked Mara,
who came to challenge him. Mara dispatched first his horrible
armies and next his enticing daughters, but the bodhisattva
remained unmoved and defeated him, calling upon the earth and
her goddess as his witness. He continued in profound meditation
through the three watches of the night and finally realized
supreme enlightenment at dawn. The air filled with flowers and
light, and the earth trembled seven times.
seven days the Buddha continued to meditate beneath the tree
without stirring from his seat and for six weeks more remained
in the vicinity. During the second week he walked up and down,
lotus flowers springing from his footsteps, and pondered whether
or not to teach. This was later represented by the chankramanar
jewel walk, a low platform adorned with eighteen lotuses, which
now runs close and parallel to the north side of the Mahabodhi
Temple. For another week he sat gratefully contemplating the
bodhi tree; this spot was later marked by the animeshalochana
stupa, now situated to the north of the chankramanar. Brahma
and Indra offered a hall made of the seven precious substances,
in which the Buddha sat for a week radiating lights of five
colours from his body to illuminate the bodhi tree. Hsuan Chwang
describes this site as being west of the tree and remarks that
in time the precious substances had changed to stone. However,
ratnaghara is now identified by some as a roofless shrine again
north of chankramanar.
a week of unusually inclement weather, the naga king Muchalinda
wrapped his body seven times about the meditating Buddha, protecting
him from the rain, wind and insects. Hsuan Chwang saw a small
temple next to the tank, thought to be this naga's abode. He described
it as being somewhat southeast of the bodhi tree and it is now
identified with the dry pond in Mucherim village near Bodhgaya.
the Buddha sat meditating beneath the ajapala nigrodha tree,
Brahma came and requested him to teach the Dharma. Hsuan Chwang
saw this tree with a small temple and stupa beside it at the
southeast corner of the bodhi tree enclosure. It is thought
that the site is now within the Mahanta's graveyard near the
present eastern gate.
spent the last of the seven weeks seated beneath the tarayana
tree. Hsuan Chwang placed this some distance south and east
of the bodhi tree enclosure, near the places where the bodhisattva
earlier had bathed and eaten Sujata's offering. All were marked
by stupas. Here two passing merchants, Trapusha and Bhallika,
offered the Buddha the first food since his enlightenment. Seeing
that he needed a vessel to receive it, the four guardians of
the directions each offered precious bowls, but he would only
accept one of stone from each. He pressed the four bowls together
to form one, which survived, and when Fa Hien saw it in Peshawar
four rims could be seen in the one.
thus spending forty-nine days meditating close to the seat of
enlightenment, the Buddha left Bodhgaya on foot to meet the
five ascetics at Benares in order to turn the first wheel of
Dharma. This accomplished, he returned briefly to Uruvela and
introduced the three brothers - Uruvela, Gaya and Nadi Kasyapa
- to his teachings. They developed faith in the Buddha and,
together with a thousand of their followers, became monks and
accompanied Shakyamuni to Rajgir.
far we have described Bodhgaya only in connection with Shakyamuni
Buddha, but that connection is in no way exclusive. In the same
manner as Shakyamuni, all the buddhas who show enlightenment
to this world eat a meal of milk rice, sit upon a carpet of
grass at Vajrasana, engage in meditation, defeat Mara and his
forces and attain supreme enlightenment beneath the bodhi tree
(although the species of tree differs with each buddha).
present bodhi tree is a descendant of the original, for the
tree has been destroyed deliberately on at least three occasions.
King Ashoka, initially hostile to Buddhism, ordered it to be
cut down and burned on the spot, but when the tree sprang up
anew from the flames his attitude was transformed. In deep regret
for his destruction, Ashoka lavished so much personal care and
attention on the new tree that his queen became jealous and
secretly had it destroyed once more. Again Ashoka revived it
and built a protective enclosing wall, as had previously been
done by King Prasenajit of Koshala within the Buddha's lifetime.
Later, Nagarjuna is said to have built an enclosure to protect
the tree from damage by elephants and, when in time this became
less effective, placed a statue of Mahakala upon each pillar.
of the third destruction of the tree are given by Hsuan Chwang,
who reports seeing remains of these walls, and states that in
the sixth century a saivite king of Bengal by the name of Shasanka
destroyed the tree. However, even though he dug deep into its
roots, he was unable to unearth it completely. It was afterwards
revived by Purvavarma of Magadha, who poured the milk of one
thousand cows upon it, causing it to sprout again and grow ten
feet in a single night.
addition to human destruction, the tree has perhaps perished
naturally several times, yet the pipal is renowned for growing
wherever its seeds fall and the direct lineage has continued.
General Cunningham offers an example. After showing severe decay
for more than a decade, the remains of the old tree fell over
during a storm one night in 1876. Young sprouts were already
growing within the old tree (which grew into the one we see
origins of the Mahabodhi Temple, which adorns the site today,
are shrouded in obscurity. Various traditions hold that Ashoka
erected a diamond throne shrine, which seems to have been a
canopy supported by four pillars over a stone representation
of Vajrasana. When General Cunningham was restoring the floor
of the present temple he found traces that he took to be the
remains of the shrine. It is his opinion that the temple may
have been built between the fifth and seventh centuries, but
this would seem to be based on Hsuan Chwang's detailed description
of it, while Fa Hien mentions it not at all. Others propose
that because of its resemblance to similar structures in Ghandhara,
Nalanda and so forth, as well as other archaeological evidence,
its founding could have been as early as the second century
AD Nagarjuna is reputed to have built the original stupa
upon the roof, which is more consistent with the latter theory.
However, from Hsuan Chwang we can be certain that the temple
existed before the seventh century.
of the builder are no longer clear. Some legends attest that
he was a brahmin acting on the advice of Shiva. The statue in
the main shrine of the temple, famous for its likeness to Shakyamuni,
is said to have been the work of Maitreya in the appearance
of a brahmin artisan.
tradition seems to have been strong in Bodhgaya. Fa Hien mentions
three monasteries and Hsuan Chwang describes particularly the
magnificent Mahabodhi Sangharama, founded early in the fourth
century by a king of Ceylon. Both pilgrims make special remark
of the strict observance of the Vinaya by the monks residing
there. Some accounts tell that the great master Atisha, who
later emphasised pure practice of the Vinaya, received ordination
elsewhere, neglect and desolation followed the muslim invasion
of northern India. However, extensive repairs and restoration
of the temple and environs in the fourteenth century by the
Burmese and their further attempts in the early nineteenth century
are recorded. In the late sixteenth century a wandering sanyasi
settled in Bodhgaya and founded the establishment which is now
the math of the Mahanta. When in 1891 Anagarika Dharmapala,
inspired by appeals in the press by Sir Edwin Arnold, began
the Mahabodhi Society and sought to restore the site as a buddhist
shrine, he was obstructed by bureaucracy. The British Government
of India decided that the temple and its surroundings were the
property of the saivite Mahanta, who only then began to take
an interest in it. Nearly sixty years of judicial wrangling
followed until the Mahabodhi Temple was legally recognized as
belonging to buddhists.
the inception of the Bodhgaya Temple Management Committee and
the beginning of its active administration in 1953, vast improvements
have been made to both the temple and its grounds. Existing
structures have been repaired and new stupas are being erected.
With the reintroduction of gilded images in the niches of the
Mahabodhi Temple, it begins to regain some of the splendour
described by Hsuan Chwang.
establishment, in the surrounding district, of beautiful temples
and monasteries by the people of Tibet, Japan, China, Thailand,
Burma and others has brought back to Bodhgaya the varied traditions
of buddhist practice that have evolved in those lands. By contrast,
the headless, mutilated statues in the local museum present
a disturbing reminder of past destruction.
abound in Bodhgaya and in recent years thousands have had
the fortune to listen to the Dharma there. Many buddhist masters
are again travelling to Bodhgaya to turn the wheel of Dharma.
For example, the Kalachakra empowerment given by His Holiness
the Dalai Lama in 1974 was attended by over 100,000 devotees.
The Tibetan monastery now offers a two-month meditation course
annually for the international buddhist community, and meditation
courses and teachings are given occasionally in the Burmese,
Thai, Japanese and other temples.