Mapping the Buddhist Holy Land


Sārnāth, known as the Deer Park, is the location where the Buddha is believed to have transmitted the first Buddhist teachings to his five ascetic companions soon after he became enlightened. Thus, this location is of great importance to Buddhists, and it has come to be one of the major pilgrimage sites in the Buddhist Holy Land. In the Mahāparinirvāna Sūtra, the final discourse two days before his death, the Buddha explained that all his followers should visit four holy sites: the place of his birth (Lumbinī), the place where he attained enlightenment (Bōdhgayā), the location of his death Kuśinagar), and the place where he first turned the wheel of Dharma and where deer lived in freedom (Sārnāth).[1]i Located about 10 kilometers from the Ganges River and the holy city of Vāraņasī in the Indian state of Uttar Pradesh, the site of Sārnāth has traditionally flourished in proportion with the popularity of Buddhism in India, and it is currently experiencing a golden age as a center of learning, pilgrimage, prayer, reverence, and history among Buddhists worldwide. From its mystical origins before the arrival of the Buddha, Sārnāth has experienced days of bounty during the rule of the kings who patronized Buddhism, obliteration at the hand of Muslim invaders, and indifference and neglect during the long periods of Hindu rule, only to blossom once again in this new age of international Buddhism.

The First Teaching

A Buddhist temple at Sarnath

To Buddhists, this site is of such importance because it is the location of the Buddha’s first teaching. That pivotal event in the development of Buddhism, known as setting the Wheel of Dharma in motion, is recorded in the Dharmacakrapravatana Sūtra.[1]iv The Dharma of the Buddha would be constantly in motion, turning round and round, mimicking the cycles of life, death, and rebirth in which living beings are trapped due to their cravings and desires. The wheel, depicted in the upper left corner of each page of this website, has become symbolic of the teaching of the Buddha. In his first discourse, the Buddha unveiled the idea of the middle way to his ascetic companions, a path leading to enlightenment and nirvāṇa through a balanced and structured life, a middle between the two extremes of self-indulgence and self-denial. His distinct view charted a new pathway that was different from the prevalent concepts of religion in India at the time.

During this period, the strict ritual observance and priestly control of society set forth in the Vedas (circa 1500-1200 BCE) had been challenged in favor of new ideas that promoted a more democratic access to religiosity. These innovations were articulated in a set of teachings known as the Upaniṣads (circa 600-300 BCE)[2]v....Read More

King Aśoka in Sārnāth


Before Aśoka (304-232 BCE) rose to power in India, there were eighteen schools of Buddhism .However, these schools, contended for attention and patronage along with the Ajivikas and the Jains in that spiritually tumultuous period before King Aśoka’s support brought it prestige and prominence.x

According to Buddhist accounts of his life, Aśoka was brutal and cold during his reign, and before he turned to Buddhism he was referred to as Aśoka the Fierce (Chaṇḍa) due to his temperament. Confronting the violence of his own acts, however, King Aśoka found the nascent Buddhist religion appealing, and he began to support its growth. Aśoka was converted to the religion by his nephew, Nigrodha Samanera, and a well-known monk, Moggaliputta Tissa, who taught Aśoka the value and importance of life. He condemned the slaughter of all animals, whether it be for sacrifice, pleasure, or hunting, and King Aśoka wanted all his subjects to learn the value of all life and to gain the moral virtues of observance of truth: restraint from negative actions, kindness, charity, liberality to friends, kinsmen, acquaintances, and even slaves and servants, as he had been learned from the Sigolavada Sutta of the Digha Nikaya.xi Aśoka changed to a life of compassion, and due to his study and practice of Buddhism, it was validated and promoted throughout his kingdom.....Read More

Chinese Pilgrims Visiting Sārnāth

Chinese Pilgrim

By the turn of the millennium into the common era, Buddhism had already arrived in China, mainly imported from travelers along the Silk Road who brought with them stories and texts relating to the Buddha.[1]xv Buddhist tradition began to flourish in China; however, the texts were few. The oral accounts of the Buddhist religion, given by spice traders and merchants traveling along the silk road began to be translated and transcribed by the imperial court; which usually had a motive to promote. [2]xvi As Buddhism’s popularity grew in China, some scholars wondered how accurately parts of the Buddhist canon had been translated. By the early third and fourth centuries CE, this had become an essential issue, especially with regard to the veracity of the vinaya, or the set of rules followed by Buddhist monastics. Without one original, accurate vinaya that practitioners could follow, much of China’s educated Buddhist community doubted that Buddhist monastic institutions would continue to thrive.[3]xvii.Born in the fourth century CE Faxian (337-422 CE) was but one of the Buddhist scholars of this time who felt this way. Little is known of Faxian’s early life; however, his own documentation of his life began in the year 399 CE.[4]xviii.......Read More


 Maha Bodhi Society

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In 1885, Edwin Arnold (1832-1909 CE), an English journalist, visited Bōdhgayā. He was disturbed to find the site of the Buddha's enlightenment under Hindu control, with Buddhists not able to practice their religion there.[1]xlix He covered this in his writings, which attracted the attention of Anagārika Dharmapāla (1864-1933 CE), a Sri Lankan Buddhist best known at the time as being an advocate for an independent Sri Lankan Buddhist state. Dharmapāla was born Don David Hewavitarane to an English-speaking Buddhist family in Sri Lanka; however, he was educated in Christian schools.[2]l His education led him to become a great orator in several languages, and he made connections as a young man with a diverse community of thinkers, including members of the Theosophical Society, an organization founded by Henry Olcott (1832-1907 CE) with the intention of spreading Buddhism to the West.[3]li After joining the Theosophical Society and noticing that the role of Buddhism in Sri Lanka was mainly defined by the monastics or monarchy, Don David changed his name to Anagārika (naked wanderer) Dharmapāla (protector of the Dharma), declared himself Buddhist and sought to establish a more prominent role in Buddhist leadership for the layperson.[4]lii The work that he did promoting Buddhism in India would require that he remain active in the world, and as a layperson he could attend to things that he could not as a monastic. Dharmapāla would himself be a member of the lay community for much of his life, despite his deep passion for Buddhism, only taking monastic vows late in life.[5]liii....Read More   

 Excavation of Site 

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By the late twelfth century BCE, little remained of the great site of learning that Sārnāth had been in the days Faxian and Xuanxang. The Muslim conqueror Qutbuddin Aibak (1150-1210 CE) had demolished many of the Buddhist structures in an invasion ordered by Sultan Muhammad Ghori (1149-1206 CE) in 1194 CE as part of the effort to establish Muslim rule over northern India.xlvi In the sixteenth century CE, the Mughul emperor Akbar (1542-1605 CE) ordered the construction of the octagonal tower on top of the Chaukhandi Stūpa to honor his father, Humayun (1508-1556 CE), who was said

to taken shelter at the stūpa one night after a battle. Finally, by 1794 CE, for the state of Sārnāth’s decline had become so severe that Jagat Singh, minister to the Maharaj of Benares, ordered bricks to be taken from the Dharmarājikā Stūpa in order to construct his own buildings around Benares.xlvii Among the bricks, workers reportedly found a large stone casket bearing relics. An account by the British Resident of Benares Jonathan Duncan (1756-1811 CE) reported that these unidentified bones, perhaps relics of the Buddha, from the Dharmarājikā Stūpa were ordered thrown into the Ganges River by the excavation team.xlviii It was safe to say that the glory days of Sārnāth were temporarily over, until the arrival of Alexander Cunningham.