Benaras and Buddhism

Author Rev. M.A.Sherring
It is a fact, admitting of no dispute, that Sakya Muni, the last and only really historical Buddha, on attaining
the mysterious condition of Buddhahood under the Bodhi tree and the neighbourhood of Gaya, travelled to Benares, and proceeded to the Isipattana Vihara or Monastery, now known as Sarnath. This may have been in the sixth century B.C. Here he announced the change which had come upon him, and the transcendental and superhuman, not to say divine, state in which he imagined he found himself.

The five Bhikshus or religious hermits, men of considerable note in the early history of Buddhism, who had formerly been associated with him, but had subsequently abandoned him, and who happened, at that time to be at Isipattana monastery, embraced the new religion and became disciples of Buddha. At Sarnath, first began to “Turn the wheel of the Law”, in other words, to preach the famous doctrines of Dharma and Nirvana, which were destined in later years, to exert such an extraordinary influence over a large portion of the human family.

The Rev. R. Spence Hardy, in his erudite and valuable work, “a Manual of Buddhism”, quoting from Ceylon records, gives the following account of the visit of to Isipattana: “When Buddha looked to see unto whom we should first say “bana”, he saw that the ascetics Alara and Uddaka were worthy, but when he looked again to discover in what place they were, he perceived that the former had been dead seven days, and that the latter had died the day before; and that as they were now in an “arupa” world, they could not receive its benefit, with affection for the ascetics who were dead, he looked to discover in what place Kondanya was and the four other recluses with whom he had austerities; and when he saw that they were in the Isipattana Vihara near Benares, he resolved that unto them first “bana” should be said.

At the end of sixty days, in the eighth week after he became Buddha, Goutama went from the Ajapala tree to Isipatana alone, a distance of 288 miles”. (p. 184) The brief inaugural discourse which he there delivered is stated to have been as follows: “Then Buddha opened his mouth, and preached the Dhamsak- Paewatum-sutra (Dhammachakka). ‘There are two things’, said he, ‘that must be avoided by him who seeks to become  a priest, evil desire, and the bodily austerities that were practiced by the (Brahman) ascetics.” (p. 187)

It is plain that Benares must have been, at this time, a city of power and importance the weight of whose opinions on religious topics was very considerable in the country generally; and therefore that it was of the utmost consequences to secure its countenance and support on any great subject affecting the religious belief of the entire nation. That this was the real reason why Gautama wished to commence his career from Benares admits of no controversy.

But if Benares was so celebrated at that era, we must look away from it to preceding ages for the date of its foundation.The Buddhists themselves give us some glimpse of Intelligence respecting the history of this city prior to the year of Sakya Muni’s visit; and these, although liable to some suspicion, have nevertheless, in all probability, a basis of truth. The information which they incidentally furnish rests partly upon the statements of no other than Buddha himself, corroborated in some measure, by their own observations.

This wonderful personage, considering that some of the leading dogmas which he expounded were borrowed from Hinduism and had been advocated and set forth by various teachers previously to his time, cleverly availed himself of the prestige of these earlier instructors, by pronouncing each in succession to have been an incarnation or manifestation of Buddha; thereby coolly attaching to himself and his creed the sanction of their authority and the weight of their names.

(Excerpts from renowned Indologist Rev. M.A.Sherring’s (1826-1880)
book “: The Sacred city of the Hindus” published in 1868)
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