This is one of the most important days in the Buddhist Calendar which takes place at full moon in the month of ‘Vesakha‘, May in the Christian calendar. It celebrates the birth and death day of Buddha as well as what is known as his ‘enlightenment’.
Buddha was born in 560 B.C., the son of a ruler of Sakha, a small kingdom in northern India. When his mother, Queen Mahamaya, knew that she was to have this baby, she made the customary journey to her parents’ home, travelling in a decorated palanquin, a covered litter carried by four bearers. Stopping to rest in the fuller shade of a Sala tree where she had the baby there and then and, as there was little point in going further, she went back to Sakha with her princely newborn son. He was called Siddhartha, meaning ‘wish fulfilled’, born on the first day of the full moon.
Although the ‘Hindu’ religion did not formally exist at this time, the caste system was already well founded with Brahmins as priests and tutors of religion. Kshatriyas were the warrior ruling class, Vaisyas the merchants, and Sudras the labourers and servants. Kala Devala, a wise man, was the fist to prophesy that the boy would become an exceptional, ‘enlightened’ prince, weeping at the thought that he himself would not be alive to see his prophecy realised. Brahmins who examined the boy declared that he would, in due course, see four signs which would impel him to renounce his home and the world and go out to seek enlightenment.
His mother died when he was only seven days old, but he was cared for by an aunt who also married his father. There are many stories about the young prince’s compassion and his search for answers to the many questions about human existence and experience. In his own life, he exercised self-denial and meditation. From an early age, the King, his father was concerned about losing him, and asked the Brahmins to tell him the four signs which would change his son’s life. They said he would give up his princely life and become a religious leader, or ‘Buddha’ if he saw an old man, a sick man, a dead man, and finally an ascetic or hermit, someone who had given up all worldly things in complete self-denial. So the king tried to keep Siddhartha away from all signs of age, illness, death and poverty. However, this plan failed and the prince was appalled to see age, illness and death, but was als most impressed with the serenity of the one he met who had given up all material things in life in order to meditate and seek answers to life’s complex questions through simple prayer and quiet self-contemplation.
Prince Siddharta Gautama shaves the hair off his head as the sign to decline his status as ksatriya (warrior class) and become sn ascetic hermit, his servants holds his sword, crown, and princely jewelry while his horse Kanthaka stood on right. Bas-relief panel at Borobudur, Java, Indonesia. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)
By this time Siddhartha had married a princess in accordance with his father’s wishes and she had given birth to a son, but the prince only saw this as further binding him to wordly things. He made up his mind to leave this life behind and, without even seeing his son and taking only his horse and a servant, he set off for the frontier of his homeland, the river Anoma. There he cut off his long hair with his sword, exchanged his royal royal clothing for the orange robe of a beggar and, taking up a begging bowl, left his servant and horse. It’s said that the horse later died of a broken heart, such was his loyalty to his master. It was at this point that Siddhartha gave up his princely name and from then onwards went by his family name, Gautama. He joined five other ascetics and the group sought out a guru, Alara Kalama, who quickly realised that Gautama had the ability to attain to the deeper levels of spirituality through meditation. The group set out to found their own hermitage. Gautama punished his own body in order to achieve deeper spirituality, reducing his food to plant roots and leaves, holding his breath for long periods, staying out in the hot summer sun, and taking ice baths in winter. After six years of this rigorous regime he began to eat again, regaining his former strength and health.
Then came his ‘enlightenment’. Sitting cross-legged at the foot of the Bodhi tree he went into a trance from which he emerged with the knowledge of former existences, the power to see passing away and rebirth, and full knowledge of all evil. He spent a similar period in meditation as Jesus spent in the wilderness, emerging as the full moon of Vesakha was setting. Following this ‘epiphany’, he became known as ‘The Fully Enlightened One’, or Buddha, at thirty-five years of age. His teaching ministry lasted another forty-five years and he died an ordinary death in an insignificant place, Kusinara. His death also occured on the full moon of Vesakha. After his cremation, his ashes were distributed for his followers to venerate and these continue to provide a means of communication between the devotee and the Buddha.
Very little has been written about Buddhist festivals since most are very simple, local, and conducted in local languages. The festival of Vesakha (Wesak being the western corruption of the name) brings Buddhists together in the Vihara, or Temple, where they are led by Priests or Lamas in meditation and discourses. There are no domestic ceremonies, although families come together in the Temple for blessings from the monks or ‘bhikkus’ when a child is born. After the civil registration of a wedding, Buddhists go to the Temple for a religious ceremony, and elaborate rituals are followed in funerals and memorial services.