Bodh Gaya: where the Buddha was Enlightened
Bodh Gaya from 500BCE to 500CE
Almost nothing certain is known about the Buddha before he began to proclaim his Dhamma in the year 527 BC. Details of the 36 years of his life prior to this are hard to come by. He is known to have been born into a warrior caste family, brought up in relative luxury, married at an early age and, after the birth of his son, to have renounced the world to become a wandering ascetic. Except for saying that he meditated in ‘fearful forests’, the Buddha says nothing about where he spent the next six years. According to the Tipitaka, shortly after his renunciation he resided for a while on the cast side of Mount Pandava (Ratna in modern Rajgir). Later literature and tradition says he practised austerities at Gayasisa (Brahmayoni near Gaya), Pragbodhi (modern Mora Hill) and on the banks of the Neranjara. What is certain is that after being deserted by his five companions he wandered alone until he arrived on the outskirts of the small village of Uruvela and, impressed by its sylvan environment and convenience for getting alms, decided that it would be a suitable place to continue his meditation:
Then being a quester for the good, searching for the incomparable, matchless path of peace, while walking on tour through Magadha I arrived at Uruvela, the army township. There I saw a beautiful stretch of ground, a lovely woodland grove, a clear flowing river with a beautiful ford and a village nearby for support. And I thought: “Indeed, this is a good place for a young man set on striving.” So I sat down there, thinking: “Indeed, this is a good place for striving.”
A few nights later, as he sat at the foot of the local holy tree, “seeing arose, understanding arose, wisdom arose, knowledge arose, light arose” and the young ascetic became the Buddha, the Fully Enlightened One. As enlightenment is primarily a psychological experience, and is therefore private, it has very few outward manifestations. Consequently, the first Buddhists found the description of the Buddha’s experience at Bodh Gaya too bland so they embellished it with a series of appealing, not to say intriguing, stories in which a dragon king, a milkmaid, a gift of crystal bowls and a struggle with the Evil One are all included. These stories, rich in symbolism and meaning, have been the mainstay of pedagogues, artists and poets throughout Asia for centuries.
The Buddha spent the next five weeks at Bodh Gaya moving to a different location each week. From an early period legend extended this to seven weeks and seven locations. These seven locations (sattamahatthana) and the shrines later built over them were the main attractions for pilgrims coming to Bodh Gaya. After leaving Bodh Gaya the Buddha headed for Isipatana near Benares where he taught the Dhamma for the first time. He spent the rainy season there and then returned to Bodh Gaya. It was during this second visit that he met and converted the three Kassapa brothers and their one thousand disciples. After this he left for Gayasisa in Gaya and later for Rajagaha (modern Rajgir) apparently never returning to Bodh Gaya again.
Bodh Gaya seems to have taken time developing into a religious centre of any importance. The Buddha’s regular visits or long sojourn in places like Savatthi, Rajagaha, Vesali and Kosambi had stimulated the growth of monastic communities. His brief stay at Bodh Gaya had meant that this did not happen there. In about 483 BC, when Yasa toured the main monastic centres in North India trying to elicit support for his censure of the Vesali monks, Bodh Gaya was not one of the places he visited. But this relative unimportance was soon to change.
In about 262 BC, Asoka Maurya, emperor of all India, converted to Buddhism and began a campaign to promote his new faith. It is sometimes difficult to reconcile Asoka’s activities as described in the many edicts he issued with those attributed to him in Buddhist literature like the Asokavadana, the Divyavadana and the Mahavamsa. But as far as his connection with Bodh Gaya is concerned, three things are certain or at least highly probable – that he made a pilgrimage to Bodh Gaya, that he built a temple there and that he had a branch from the Bodhi Tree sent to Sri Lanka. Asoka’s pilgrimage is described in details in the Asokavadana and also mentioned briefly in one of his edicts. In the Eighth Rock Edict issued in 256 BC he says:
“In the past kings used to go on pleasure tours during which there was hunting and other entertainment. But ten years after Beloved of the Gods’ coronation he went to Sambodhi and thus instituted Dhamma tours”.
According to the Asokavadana, the pilgrimage included all the main sacred sites while in his edicts Asoka says only that he went to Bodh Gaya in 260 BC and to Lumbini ten years later. Asoka’s pilgrimage must have added prestige and legitimacy to what was already becoming a well established institution. It soon passed into folklore and legend and was even depicted on the east gateway of the great stupa at Sanchi [ 10. VIEW IMAGE ]. Modern historians are reluctant to give credence to the tradition that Asoka built the first temple at Bodh Gaya, mainly because it is not mentioned in any of his edicts. However, the evidence that he did build such a temple, albeit indirect, is compelling. Firstly, Asoka is known to have been a devout Buddhist, to have been enthusiastic about spreading his religion and to have visited Bodh Gaya at least once. This being the case, it would be quite natural for him to embellish the centre of his religion with a new temple. Secondly, ancient sources are unanimous in attributing the building of the first temple to him. Thirdly, there is archaeological evidence that some sort of structure existed around the Bodhi Tree during the Mauryan period. Proof of this was uncovered by Alexander Cunningham when he did exploratory digging under the Mahabodhi Temple in 1881. What is thought to be a depiction of this early temple is found on a relief from the Bharhut stupa. The relief shows a two storied gabled roofed tree shrine (bodhi ghara) built around the Bodhi Tree. The upper story is supported on octagonal pillars and at the base of the Bodhi Tree is a stone slab on which people are offering flowers. The whole temple is surrounded by a railing beyond which is a pillar with an elephant capital reminiscent of those known to have been raised by Asoka. The relief dates from approximately 150 BC [ 11. VIEW IMAGE ].
The bringing of a cutting of the Bodhi Tree from Bodh Gaya to Sri Lanka is mentioned in most of the island’s chronicles and, after the introduction of Buddhism itself, is perhaps the most celebrated event in the country’s long history. When the first Sri Lankan youths became monks, Anula, the wife of King Devanampiyatissa’s youngest brother, and numerous other women, expressed the desire to become nuns. Consequently, it was decided to invite Sanghamitta, a senior nun and the daughter of King Asoka, to Sri Lanka. A mission was dispatched with an invitation to Sanghamitta and a request asking her to bring a cutting of the Bodhi Tree with her. According to the Mahavamsa, Asoka was reluctant about granting either of these requests but finally he agreed to do so. Accompanied by a retinue of monks, princes and soldiers, he proceeded to Bodh Gaya where the Bodhi Tree was “decked with manifold ornaments, gleaming with various jewels and garlanded with many-coloured flags.” He worshipped the tree, circumambulated it and then placed a golden bowl beneath the southern bough which miraculously detached itself and took root in the bowl.
After returning to Pataliputra, he gave the cutting to Sanghamitta who, together with 11 other nuns and a mission of nobles, craftsmen and attendants, set sail down the Ganges. Before reaching the river’s delta the mission disembarked and took the land route across the Vinjha Hills to Tamralipti. Exactly why they did not sail the whole course of the river is not clear – perhaps it was blocked by sandbars during certain seasons. When Sanghamitta and her party arrived at Jambukola, Devanampiyatissa welcomed them and accompanied them to Anuradhapura where the cutting of the Bodhi Tree was planted at the Mahavihara. In the centuries that followed, the Bodhi Tree, usually called the Sri Maha Bodhi, became almost the palladium of the Sri Lankan state and was worshipped with magnificent ceremonies, as indeed it still is today [ 12. VIEW IMAGE ]. When Fa Hsien visited Anuradhapura in the 5th century, he noticed that the Mahavihara’s rival, the Abhayagiri, had its own Bodhi Tree which was likewise an offspring of the original tree at Bodh Gaya. As King Mahasena (334-362 AD) is credited with having built the first temple around this Bodhi Tree, it is likely that it had been brought during his reign.
Some time in either the 2nd or 1st century BC, a stone railing was erected around the Bodhi Tree at Bodh Gaya and whatever temple existed there at that time [ 13. VIEW IMAGE ]. Ancient Indians thought it appropriate to demarcate sacred objects with such railings and this one in stone probably replaced an earlier wooden one. The railing enclosed an area approximately the size of the present temple and Cunningham reported finding the plinth on which it originally stood under the temple foundations. Four different inscriptions on the railing tell us who erected it and something about them. All the inscriptions are in Brahmi characters on the coping, crossbars and pillars of the railing which are now housed either in the Indian Museum in Calcutta or the Archaeological Museum at Bodh Gaya. The first inscription which occurs in 15 different places reads:
“The gift of the noble lady Kurangi” [ 14. VIEW IMAGE ]
The honorific noble lady (Sanskrit, Arya) shows that Kurangi was a woman of high social standing and probably that she was of advanced years. Both these assumptions are confirmed by another inscription to be discussed below where Kurangi is described as the wife of King Indragnimitra and also as the mother of living sons (jivaputra). This later designation indicates that despite Kurangi’s age her sons were still living, a source of great pride for Indian women then as now. The next inscription reads:
“The gift of Nagadevi the wife of King Brahmamitra”
The third inscription reads:
“The gift of Kurangi, the mother of living sons and the wife of King Indragnimitra, son of Kosiki. The gift also of Srima of the royal palace shrine”
The meaning of the words raja pasada cetika in this inscription are not certain and have given rise to much discussion. Barua takes cetika as a feminine form of cetaka (Prakrit, ceyaga) meaning a female donor. Cetika cannot mean a shrine, he says, because it is “inconceivable” that a shrine or temple could have existed at Bodh Gaya prior to the 5th century AD. I would contend that it was inconceivable that a shrine of some sort did not already exist. However I do not think that cetika here refers to a shrine at the Bodhi Tree, but rather to another shrine built nearby. A shrine at the Bodhi Tree would have inevitably been called Vajrasana Gandhakuti. If, as the inscription indicates, King Indragnimitra and the members of his family were devout Buddhists, and if Bodh Gaya was in his domain, which seems likely, he could be expected to build a shrine as such a sacred place, something akin to a private royal chapel. Therefore I follow Cunningham and Bloch in taking cetika to mean a shrine. The fourth inscription reads;
“The gift of Srima of King Indragnimitra’s royal palace shrine”
Altogether two kings and their wives, the mother and father of one of the kings and one other person are mentioned in these inscriptions. Who were these people and what was the connection between them? It is unlikely that the two kings ruled at the same time and, as Kurangi was an older woman and the wife of Indragnimitra, we may assume that he was the deceased predecessor and father of Brahmamitra. This assumption is reinforced by Kurangi’s designation as the mother of living sons, while Brahmamitra’s wife apparently had no sons as yet. Both kings are mentioned in coins found in North India and were members of a minor dynasty that ruled parts of Magadha. In the Hathigumpha inscription mention is made of a Bhasatimitra of Magadha who was killed by Kharavela in the twelfth year of his reign. It is likely that this Bhasatimitra was the successor of Brahmamitra. So it would seem that King Indragnimitra, the predecessor and father of King Brahmamitra, had built a shrine at Bodh Gaya. After his death his widow, the dowager Kurangi and her daughter-in-law Nagadevi, together with Srima, perhaps a member of the family living at the royal palace shrine, further endowed Bodh Gaya with a beautifully carved railing. When the Mahabodhi Temple was built this railing was dismantled and later, with new sections added by King Purnavarma in the early 7th century, reassembled to enclose a larger area.
Proof that the railing has been moved at least once, perhaps more than once, is to be seen in the mortice holes found in several of the pillars. By the medieval period, a legend had developed that the railing had been built by yaksha artists during King Asoka’s time. Later Mahayana legend attributed its construction to Nagarjuna. Taranatha says:
“Moreover, when the Bodhi Tree of Vajrasana was being damaged by elephants, he built two lofty stone pillars behind it and for many years there was no more damage. As, however, there was damage again, he established on the top of each pillar the image of Mahakala riding on a lion and holding a club in his hand. This proved effective for many years; but the damage started again. So he built a stone wall surrounding it and also one hundred and eight shrines with images beyond it”
By the 19th century, 33 pillars from the railing had been taken to the Mahant’s palace, nine were used in the construction of the Pancha Pandu Temple and several others lay buried under the rubbish that had accumulated around the temple [ 15. VIEW IMAGE ]. Standing as long as it did and surrounding the most sacred spot at Bodh Gaya, the railing was used for centuries by pilgrims to record their visits and the donations they made. To the modern archaeologist it is almost a book in stone recording an important part of Bodh Gaya’s history [ 16. VIEW IMAGE ].
Dating from about the same time as the railing, and presumably built by the same people, is the Ratnacankama Chaitya which is situated beside the north wall of the Mahabodhi Temple. This shrine marks the place where the Buddha paced up and down during his third week at Bodh Gaya. The shrine originally consisted of a raised plinth with a row of pillars on each of its longer sides supporting a roof above it [ 17. VIEW IMAGE ]. Along the top of the plinth were lotuses carved in stone intended to mark the Buddha’s footsteps. Only one of the pillars survives and is now housed in the museum at Bodh Gaya. Its octagonal shaft has an elaborately coiffured and bejewelled female figure in high relief on it [ 18. VIEW IMAGE ]. The pillar bases on the south side of the plinth are now buried under the foundations of the temple. Those on the north side are still exposed and have a sequence of Brahmi letters on them, probably mason’s marks.
An inscription carved on the railing shortly after its erection is the first evidence from Bodh Gaya itself of pilgrims coming on pilgrimage from outside India. Written in Brahmi characters of about the 1st century BC, the inscription is carved on a crossbar which may have been donated to replace one that had been broken. The inscription reads:
“The gift of Bodhiraksita from Tamrapanni”.
The name Tamrapanni could refer either to the region near the Tambapanni River in South India or to Sri Lanka. This inscription almost certainly refers to the latter place. It would seem that the fervour of the island’s inhabitants for their new religion was already motivating some of them to journey all the way to India to see the place where the Buddha became enlightened. The name Bodhiraksita, ‘protected by wisdom’ indicates that this early pilgrim was a monk.
During the early decades of the 4th century AD, a monastery was established at Bodh Gaya that was to have a continual and powerful influence there for nearly a thousand years. The younger brother of King Meghavana of Sri Lanka (304-332) had gone on pilgrimage to India. Although he was both a monk and of royal birth he was given tardy hospitality in all the monasteries he staged at and on his return complained bitterly of this to his brother. Consequently Meghavana sent an envoy to the king of India, probably Samudragupta, with a gift of jewels and seeking permission to build monasteries at all the sacred places for the convenience of pilgrims. The Indian king could not have been anxious to have so many foreign outposts in his realm but he gave, permission for one such monastery to be built at a place of Meghavana’s choice. Bodh Gaya was chosen and thus the Mahabodhi Monastery came to be built just beyond the north gate of the sacred precincts.
There had been contact between the monks of Bodh Gaya and Sri Lanka for several centuries. The Mahavamsa informs us that in 104 BC a monk named Cittagutta led a delegation from the Bodhimanda Monastery to Sri Lanka to participate in the opening ceremony of the great stupa at Anuradhapura. According to the Rasavahini, a monk named Culla Tissa and a group of lay people went from Sri Lanka to Bodh Gaya at around the same time. Hsuan Tsang saw the Mahabodhi Monastery in the 7th century and described it thus:
“Outside the northern gate of the walls of the Bodhi Tree is the Mahabodhi Monastery. It was built by a former king of Sri Lanka. This edifice has six halls, with towers of observation of three stories; it is surrounded by a wall of defense thirty or forty feet high. The utmost skill of the artist has been employed; the ornamentation is in the richest colours. The statue of the Buddha is of gold and silver, decorated with gems and precious stones. The stupas are high and large in proportion; they contain relics of the Buddha”
Within the monastery was a proclamation by Meghavana inscribed on a copper plate emphasising the establishment’s policy of hospitality. It read in part:
“To help all without distinction is the highest teachings of all the Buddhas, to exercise mercy as occasion offers is the illustrious doctrine of former saints”
Cunningham’s account of the Mahabodhi Monastery’s partial excavation in the 19th century gives some idea of its huge size and splendour:
The mound is from 1,500 to 2,000 feet in length from west to east and nearly 1,000 feet in breadth from north to south… Here, in November 1885 Mr Beglar and myself discovered the remains of a great monastery, with outer walls 9 feet thick, and massive round towers at the four corners. The enclosure that surrounded the monastery had already been traced by Mr Beglar, at a distance of about 100 feet all round … The plan consists of 36 squares, six on each side, of which the four corner squares are assigned to be the corner towers, and the four middle squares to an open pillared court containing a well … A long covered drain leads from the well to the outside of the walls on the north-northeast, ending in a gargoyle spout in the shape of a large crocodile’s head, of dark blue basalt, richly carved”.
In the centuries after its founding, the Mahabodhi Monastery grew so powerful that it eventually came to control the Mahabodhi Temple itself. This situation may have developed because, continually revitalized by monks and funds from Sri Lanka, it was relatively unaffected by the dynastic changes, local politics and fluctuating patronage that would have periodically broken the power of the Indian monasteries at Bodh Gaya. It is usually assumed that, being staffed by Sri Lankan monks, the Mahabodhi Monastery was a Theravadin establishment, but this is not necessarily so. The Mahayana had a large and vigorous following in Sri Lanka right up to the beginning of the medieval period and the island produced some great scholars of that persuasion. There were periods when the two schools were bitter rivals and other periods when they shared the same monasteries as indeed they sometimes did in India. Whether Theravadin or Mahayanist monks staffed the Mahabodhi Monastery probably depended on which school was in favour with the ruling monarch. It is even possible that it was monks returning from Bodh Gaya who introduced the Mahanaya into Sri Lanka in the first place.
King Silakala (518-531), who encouraged the Dharmadhatu cult in Sri Lanka, had spent his youth as a samanera at Bodh Gaya. However, there seems little doubt that Theravadins were the predominant community at the Mahabodhi Monastery during most of its existence. This strong Theravadin presence was one of the reasons why Bodh Gaya developed into the premier study centre for the early Buddhist schools in northern India. Sadly, almost nothing is known about Bodh Gaya’s academic life because, unlike Nalanda, no accounts by students who studied there have survived. Bodh Gaya was probably not a single university but a collection of loosely affiliated or even independent seats of learning in one locale.
The Mahabodhi Monastery would have specialized in Theravada of the Mahavihara tradition but the Sravastavada and other early Buddhist schools would have had their own monasteries too. However, while the Mahayanists, and later the Tantrayanists, were never significant at Bodh Gaya, they were not entirely absent. This is confirmed by Taranatha who says: “The Mahayanists did not have any special importance at Vajrasana, though some yogis and Mahayanists continued to preach there.” If what we know of other places in India was true of Bodh Gaya also, they would have stayed at and studied in the monasteries of the other schools, considering a knowledge of the ‘Hinayana’ to be an essential part of a well rounded education.
The number of monks at Bodh Gaya seems to have always been large. Taranatha says that the brothers Udbhata and Sankarapati once provided requisites to 500 savakas there. This was probably some time during the Gupta period. During Hsuan Tsang’s visit there were 1,000 monks residing in the Mahabodhi Monastery alone. He noted “They carefully observe the Dhamma Vinaya, and their conduct is pure and correct.” In the reign of Ramapala (1087-1141) there were 40 Mahayanists and 200 savakas, while for special festivals up to 10,000 savakas would assemble there. Even in the dark days of the 13th century Dharmasvamin counted 300 Sri Lankans at the Mahabodhi Monastery, although it seems that the other monasteries were deserted by then.
It was essential for monks residing in the great monasteries to know the exact time so that they could finish their meals before midday, be punctual for the daily offices and know when classes were to commence. To this end, water clocks were used. These clocks consisted of a large bronze bowl filled with water in which floated a smaller bowl made from extremely thin metal with a tiny hole in its bottom. When this bowl filled with water and sank, a bell was struck. The second time the bowl sank, the bell was struck again, and so on. Different monasteries divided the day differently, but at Bodh Gaya the bell was struck 16 times before noon.
History has preserved the names of but a few of the great scholars who were associated with Bodh Gaya. Taranatha mentions a Sravastavadian scholar from South India named Sanghadasa who studied there for many years. Another South Indian, Dharmapala, famous for his ability to recite from memory large numbers of scriptures, taught at Bodh Gaya for 30 years. He is said to have composed the Madyamakacatuhsatika while there. This Dharmapala was not the more famous scholar of the same name, but probably the Dharmapala who ordained Hsuan Tsang’s preceptor Silabhadra. According to the Culavamsa, after Buddhaghosa finished his literary labours in Sri Lanka “he set out for Jambudipa to worship the Bodhi Tree” while later tradition asserts that he wrote both the Atthasalani and the now lost Nanodaya at Bodh Gaya before going to Sri Lanka. Prajnadeva and Jnanaprabha, both staunch savakas, are known to have been at Bodh Gaya in the 7th century.
According to Wang Hiuen Ts’e, a monk from the Mahabodhi Monastery, whose name he did not give, wrote a book in which the dates of all the important events in the Buddha’s life were calculated. The year of the Parinirvana was given as the equivalent of the year 537 BC. The last Theravadin monk whose name is mentioned in connection with Bodh Gaya is the Sri Lankan pundit Anandasri who subsequently lived and taught in Tibet. He is eulogised in one Tibetan book as “…foremost amongst the many thousands in the sangha of the island of Simhala, a disciple of Dipankara, residing at Vajirasana, a great scholar… skilled in two languages, one who seeks the benefit of the sangha, the excellent one”. As Anandasri was translating Pali text in the Land of Snows at the very beginning of the 14th century , it is likely that he was teaching at Bodh Gaya, and by implication, that it continued as a centre of Theravada, albeit a small and feeble one, at least up to the end of the 13th century.
I Tsing informs us that during the time he was in India a significant number of Chinese monks did part of their education at Bodh Gaya. One Hsuan-chao studied the Vinaya and Abhidhamma of both the Theravada and Mahayana schools for four years, while another monk, Chin-hung, studied the same subjects plus Sanskrit for two years. I Tsing also says that one of his countrymen was actually appointed head of a monastery at Bodh Gaya. The Sri Lankan scholar monk, Panditaratana Srijana, probably the author of the Candragominyakaranapanjika and the Sabdarthacinta, is known from an inscription to have been in Bodh Gaya in the 9th century [ 19. VIEW IMAGE ]. Atisa studied the Vinaya for some time at Bodh Gaya under Silarakshita, the head of a monastery there called Matavihara.
The frequent mention of the study of the Vinaya at Bodh Gaya is a further pointer to its importance as a centre for early Buddhism. The Tibetan tradition preserves the names of several great Tantrayanists who studied or taught at Bodh Gaya. They are usually said to have moved on from there to either Nalanda or Vikramasila. The lay Tantric adept Ratnavajra (979-1040) travelled from Kashmir to finish his education at Bodh Gaya. Later he was appointed Gatekeeper Scholar (dvara pandita) at Vikramasila. The famous Tibetan translator Rinchen Sangpo (958-1051) likewise studied at Bodh Gaya. His biography says he did a puja at the north gate of the sacred precinct. Ratnaparasvamin (died 1117) spent several years meditating at Bodh Gaya before going to China. Legend says he used his psychic powers to fly back to Bodh Gaya from time to time.
Other great names associated with Bodh Gaya include Naropa (956-1040), Buddhakirti, Abhayakaragupta, the grammarian and logician Yamari, and Sariputra, head of an academic institution established at Bodh Gaya by Cingalaraja in the early 15th century and the last Buddhist monk known to have lived or taught there. Only a few monks from Bodh Gaya are known to have made a name for themselves outside India. Two of them, Sanghanandamoksa and Kasyapa, were translating Buddhist texts in China in 653. Another monk from Bodh Gaya, Pragunavisvana, compiled a work in Chinese, but his dates are not known. Having monks of so many different persuasions living together inevitably led to jealousies and on a few occasions to even more serious incidents, the worst of which took place during the reign of Dharmapala (815-854).
“In the temple of Vajrasana there was then a large silver image of Heruka and many treatises on Tantra. Some of the Sendhava savakas from Singha Island (Sri Lanka) and elsewhere said that these were composed by Mara. So they burned these and smashed the image into pieces and then used the pieces as money. From Bamgala (Bengal) people used to come to Vikramasila for offering worship. The savakas said: ‘That which is called the Mahanaya is only a source of livelihood for those who follow the wrong view. Therefore keep clear of those so-called preachers of the True Dharma. In this way the savakas drew people towards themselves”.
When Dharmapala came to know of this desecration, he was going to punish the savakas, but was eventually talked out of it by the royal preceptor, Buddhananapada. One day, while Dharmasvamin was visiting one of the Bodh Gaya’s shrines, a Sri Lankan monk enquired from him what book he was carrying. When he replied that it was copy of the Prajnaparamita Sutra the monk said: “You seem like a good monk, but to carry on your back a Mahayana book is not good. Throw it in the river.” The monk added: “The Buddha did not teach the Mahayana, it was enumerated by one called Nagarjuna, a man of sharp intellect.” Later, when Dharmasvamin was worshipping a statute of Avalokitesvara, the same monk again commented: “You seem like a good monk, but it is improper to worship a householder.” However, despite these rather unseemly incidents relationships between monks of different schools at Bodh Gaya were generally good. Taranatha says that when the Mahayanist Abhayakaragupta became a teacher at Bodh Gaya in about 1090, even the savakas respected him because of his knowledge of the Vinaya. Dharmasvamin commented that the savaka monks he had contact with at Bodh Gaya generally treated him with more courtesy than did his fellow monks in Tibet. We do not know how Anandasri came to be invited to Tibet but it seems likely that a mutual respect and friendship between him and some Tibetan monks at Bodh Gaya had something to do with it.
By the 2nd century AD, the nature of Buddhist worship was beginning to change; aniconic representations of the Buddha like stupas, footprints and trees were losing popularity to statues. The earliest Buddha statue so far found at Bodh Gaya comes from around this period. The statue is made of pink Mathura sandstone and, like many early images produced in Mathura, its left hand, now missing, was placed on its knee, while the right hand, also now missing, was probably raised in the abhayamudra. This much damaged, though nonetheless still impressive, statue was found in the ruins of a small shrine just south of the Mahabodhi Temple and is now displayed in the Indian Museum [ 20. VIEW IMAGE ]. A fragmentary inscription on the statue’s pedestal reads:
“Just prior to Samvat 64 of the fifth day of the third month of the hot season in the reign of the great King Tirkamala, the fellow monk … conversant in the Vinaya disciple … set up by his own efforts two lion-supported stone images of the Bodhisattva in the monastery erected by the royal minister. By a female lay disciple who was a helper in doing this meritorious deed… a work of merit has been done by the preacher of the Dhamma… Let this act of good benefit (my) mother and father…”
The date mentioned in the inscription is equivalent to 383 AD [ 21. VIEW IMAGE ]. In about 402, the Chinese monk Fa Hsien arrived in Bodh Gaya after a truly heroic two year journey through the mountains and deserts of Central Asia. He was the first Chinese pilgrim known to have reached India, but he was not the first to have attempted the journey. Some time during the decade after 325, another monk, Yu Fa Lan, had set out for India by the so-called southern route, but he only managed to get as far as Indo-China before dying. Unfortunately, the information Fa Hsien gives about Bodh Gaya is rather scant. Perhaps he only stayed for a short time, or perhaps he lost the notes he took during his stay, and later, when writing about it, had to rely on his memory. He mentioned seeing stupas marking all the sacred places around Bodh Gaya as well as three monasteries, one of which must have been the Mahabodhi Monastery:
At the place where the Buddha attained perfect wisdom, there are three monasteries, in all of which there are monks residing. The families of the people around provide the congregation of these monks with abundant sufficiency of what they require, so that there is no lack or stint. The disciplinary rules are strictly observed by them. The laws regarding their demeanour in sitting, rising and entering when the others are assembled, are those that have been handed down since the Buddha was in the world, down to the present day.
When Fa Hsien returned to China in 413, he wrote a book about his travels which was to inspire numerous others to set out for India. As far as China was concerned the golden age of pilgrimage, which was to last for the next 600 years, was about to begin.
Copyright 2007 © Ven. S. Dhammika. All rights reserved.