Why India is a Vital Experience for Every Buddhist
Buddhism, and everything that came from it to become the widespread faith it is today, is deeply rooted in India. In the words of the Dalai Lama, the relationship that Buddhism shares with India is that of student and master. From the birth of the very first Buddha, Buddha Shakyamuni, also known as Gautama Buddha, India and its vast landscape have played a vital role in the evolution of Buddhism from humble beginnings into a full-fledges internationally spread faith.
Almost all of the Buddha’s life was spent in this part of the subcontinent, and this has resulted in there being a marked elevation in the spirituality of the places which saw him work his cause in the flesh as opposed to the later structures and institutes that came to be. To put it another way, all the monumental events with respect to the faith during the Buddha’s lifetime occurred here.
The Birth of the Buddha:
Gautama Buddha was born into princely luxury in what is generally agreed to be 623. For the first twenty nine years of his life, he did not leave this luxury. Then he ventured into the outside world, more importantly, what was at the time still shaping up to be the Indian landscape. Upon encountering the general condition of civilization as it existed, he felt compelled to seek out a path of life that rid man of the afflictions of existence. This led him to a number of places, such as Vaishali Bodh Gaya, most of which happen to be situated in present day India.
The Enlightenment of the Buddha and the beginning of his mission:
The first five years of his life outside of princely luxury were spent in Vaishali, which is located in present day Uttar Pradesh and the Buddha continued to frequent the town in the years after his enlightenment. In the fifth such year, upon his return to it, the settlement saw the mass induction of eighty four thousand locals into the Buddhist faith within the first week of his arrival.
Bodh Gaya in Bihar, or more specifically, the Maha Bodhi tree which one can still find well maintained and highly revered, is where Gautama attained enlightenment, or Nirvana. This event earned him the title Buddha, which loosely translated means the Enlightened One. After he attained enlightenment, the Buddha was determined to get his message across to as many people as possible, and to this end travelled and spoke extensively of his new found enlightenment and the way for others to achieve it.
There is, as is clear if one looks close enough, a tangible difference in the aura and divinity one experiences upon visiting the settlements personally visited or inhabited by the Buddha, however brief his time here may have been, as compared to those sites glorified by later patrons and disciples of the faith. This fact is illustrated sharply enough by the well preserved remnants of sites such as Vaishali and Sravasti. Sravasti, located in the present day state of Uttar Pradesh, was the only place where the Buddha spent as much time as he did. Documented accounts indicate he spent at least twenty five years here, after his enlightenment. This was, consequently, the site of delivery for more than 850 suttas, as well as the location of one of the few mythological accounts related to the Buddha. There are numerous sites that felt an equal or comparable impact of the Buddha’s presence in India, such as Rajgir, Sankasya, etc.
Death of the Buddha and the Furthering of Buddhism:
The Buddha delivered the very last sermon ever to impart from his mortal body, and went on to attain Parinirvana, or Nirvana in Death, the highest kind, in Kushinagar, also located in Uttar Pradesh. The Buddha’s body was cremated here, the site is today marked by the Ramabhar Stupa, and his last resting place is marked by the Parinirvana Temple and Stupa.
In the time following this event, the spread of Buddhism assumed a rather tumultuous course, and soon there came about a decline in the popularity of the faith within the Indian subcontinent, while simultaneously rapidly spreading outside, and splitting into several factions as it was transported far and wide by the Buddha’s disciples. It was at this point that Buddhist monuments and edifices were erected elsewhere, far from where the Buddha had been himself, to facilitate the quality relay of his message. One of the most influential sects to have emerged since is that of Tibetan Buddhism, which in itself consists of a number of differing ideologies with similar yet unique belief systems.
Admittedly, Buddhism has received a much greater audience and patronage post Gautama Buddha’s own lifetime than it ever did during his life. However, the foundations for this entire faith and its massive global acceptance were laid down by that very mortal, and that assigns an incalculable value to the places he dwelt in, most of which can be found in rather remarkable condition in what is today India.