Vesak: the day of enlightenment

By Ven. Dr. M. Dhammajothi

(May 27, Colombo, Sri Lanka Guardian) All the past twenty four Buddhas have become their full enlightenment on the Vesak full moon days. So, Vesak is the day of enlightenment. Buddhists celebrate this auspicious day specially to commemorate the three principal events of the Sakyamuni Buddha’s life such as birth, enlightenment and passing away or attained parinibbana. The Sakyamuni Buddha was a historic person who was born to queen Mahamaya and king Suddhodhana, lived in Kapilavastu, Nepal. His birth occurred on the day of Vesak at the park, Lumbini, and he was named as prince Siddhattha. In his sixteenth year of age prince Siddhattha got married to a princess Yasodhara and subsequently became the father of prince Rahula. As a son of a beloved father, whose name was Suddhodhana prince Siddhattha was fortunate to have a luxurious life with plenty of pleasures. But, by the influence of his perfections, (paramita)prince Siddhattha, who was in his twenty ninth year of age, understood these pleasures are the cause for the suffering in world, and renounced them like spit thrown out in the morning. He began to mortify his body, for it was the philosophy of the day that truth was obtainable through asceticism, and ascetic Siddhattha went through the severest forms of ascetic penances till he found that no more was possible for a human being to proceed and he understood that asceticism was no avail, then he started to follow the middle path which brought him illumination, and on the full moon day of Vesak, attained the supreme state of Buddha, the fully enlightened teacher of gods and men. Ever since, the Buddha propagated the dhamma with a incomparable benevolence for the sake of not only human being but also every living being. Like this other previous Buddhas the Sakyamuni Buddha too, determined not to die till his disciples were well established in the Dhamma with all skills such as true hearers, wise, well trained, ready and learned, carrying doctrinal books in their memory, and masters of the lesser corollaries that follow from the larger doctrine.

There is a view that Vesak ceremony dates back to the king Asoka’s period. In his fourteenth Rock Edict, he mentioned about a processions conducted by him, which was very illuminated and fascinating to the masses, because images of gods, in their celestial cars with heavenly sights were exhibited in it. After several centuries, in the fifth century, Chinese traveller, Fa hien, in his itinerary, described a procession of images conducted on the eight day of the second month in Pataliputra. It further recorded that this festival has been done in the second month of year. He describes that a five – tired bamboo structure erected on a four-wheeled car was used in the procession to carry images of gods in gold and silver and also images of the Buddha on the four sides of the structure were niches with seated images of the Buddha, each with a bodhisattva in attendance. There were about twenty such vehicles, all grand and imposing, but different from one another. So, the point is that the ceremony described by the Chinese traveller, Fa hien was a further continuation with modification and improvements of the procession conducted by the king Asoka. If we take this view as a true, we can say that Arahanth Mahinda must have introduced these festivals to Sri Lanka, in the third century B.C. when he brought Buddhism to Sri Lanka.

The records of the celebration of the Vesak festival, for the first time in the Sri Lankan history, can be clearly seen in the account of the religious activities of the king Dutthagamini in the Anuradhapura period ( B.C. 101-72). Twenty four Vesak festivals, which had been performed by the king Dutthagamini were mentioned in the record of his meritorious deeds. King Dutthagamini ruled the country for over twenty four years. So, may be he had celebrated this Vesak festival annually. King Bhatikabhaya also performed twenty eight Vesak festivals in grand scale during his twenty eight years of reign for the commemoration of the great enlightenment of the Sakyamuni Buddha. There is a record that king Vasabha too, by performing a large number of meritorious deeds, including forty four Vesak festivals in his forty four years of reign, increased his life span. King Voharikatissa and king Gothabhaya also named as king Meghavarna, not only celebrated Vesak festivals but also offered robes for the mahasangha. Many other kings such as Jetthatissa, Mugalam, Sena II, Parakramabhahu I, etc, continued this custom annually. It is said that king Sena II widened the Vesak festival and celebrated it with the poor, giving them foods, drinks and clothes as they wished.

The Vesak festivals celebrated in Sri Lanka from pre-Christian times by Buddhist kings, gradually went into abeyance with the entry of Catholic and Christian western rulers into the country. Dutch who established their ruling power in the maritime area of the country, abolished the Poya holiday in Sri Lanka on 1st November 1770. This was cause for the end of Poya holiday, Vesak full moon holiday, and traditional festivals. Declaration of Sunday as holiday, by the British ruler on 5th April 1817, in Kandyan period, also influenced the extinction of the Poya holiday and Vesak celebration. During the British period in Sri Lanka, Buddhist almost lost all their privileges. But, they strived to protect their religious freedom in every possible manner. The effort taken by the learned monks of this time to safeguard the rights of the Buddhists and revive Buddhist activities is well reflected in the well known Five Debates (Panca-maha-vada), among which the Debate at Panadura (Panaduravadaya) marks the real starting point of the modern Buddhist revival movement. This debate headed by Venerable Mohottivatte Gunananda drew the attention of Henry Steel Olcott and his arrival to Sri Lanka from America to helped the Buddhists to regain their lost rights. One of the achievements by the Sri Lankan Buddhists with the support of Henry Steel Olcott is the proclamation of Vesak day as a public holiday by the Colonial governor on twenty seventh march 1885. On April twenty eighth Sri Lankans celebrated Vesak on grand scale. The newly designed Buddhist flag was also hoisted for the first time on this Vesak day. On thirteenth of December 1999, the fifty forth General assembly of the United Nations Organization unanimously accepted Vesak day as a day of United Nations and gave international recognition to the Vesak day. In this remarkable achievement, the late Minister of Foreign Affairs of Sri Lanka, Laksman Kadiragamara’s contribution is unforgettable.

In honor of the Buddha, Buddhists celebrate the Vesak not only in Sri Lanka but also in many other countries. Activities performed at the Vesak festivals can be categorized into two main streams such as paripattipuja, which means veneration by the practice of principles(dhamma) and amisapuja, means veneration by the offerings of material objects, such as food, drinks, clothes etc. Both these aspects are markedly seen when celebrating Vesak. Giving predominates the amisapuja aspect. This is undoubtedly prompted by the Buddhist teaching about the advantages that accrue one who engages in giving. On the Vesak day the people put this practice of ‘giving’ (dana) into good use by providing food and drinks to sight-seers who came from distant places to enjoy Vesak celebration. dana has become a salient feature of Vesak celebration in Sri Lanka. This indeed is a unique feature of Vesak festival as conducted in Sri Lanka. No matter rich, poor, high cast irrespective of nationality all are treated with food or drinks at alms-halls (dana ilas) which in Sinhala are called dansal

Regarding to the patipattipuja on Vesak full moon day, Buddhists, dress in white clothes and observe the eight moral precepts ( or ten moral precepts ( dasa sila) specially at the temples. They spent their time at the temples from morning to evening some of them even staying over the night, practicing meditation, listening to preachings, participating dhamma discussions etc. Perhaps Vesak Festival in the most colourful religious festival in the world. In Sri Lanka almost all Buddhist households hoist Buddhist flags and illuminate the premises by hanging beautifully designed lantern of different colours and shapes. Pandals depicting Jataka tales are a eye-catching sights on Vesak day. Devotional songs are sung in chores by white clad males and females. Often dramas on religious themes are staged to help the devotees to experience serene joy and enjoy righteously.

The writer, Senior Lecturer,Pali and Buddhist Studies Unit,University of Colombo