Buddha Jayanti, also known as Buddha Purnima, celebrates the birthday of Lord Buddha. It also commemorates his enlightenment and death. It’s the most sacred Buddhist festival.
Buddhists regard Lumbini (which is now part of Nepal) to be the birthplace of Buddha. Named Siddhartha Gautama, he was born as a prince into a royal family sometime in the 5th or 6th century BC. However, at the age of 29 he left his family and began his quest for enlightenment after seeing the extent of human suffering outside the walls of his opulent palace.
He became enlightened at Bodhgaya in the Indian state of Bihar, and is believed to have lived and taught mostly in eastern India.
Buddha Jayanti is celebrated at the various Buddhist sites across India, particularly at Bodhgaya and Sarnath (near Varanasi, where Buddha gave his first sermon). Celebrations are widespread in predominantly Buddhist regions such as Sikkim, Ladakh, and Arunachal Pradesh as well.
The festival is also celebrated in Buddha Jayanti Park, Delhi. The park is located on Ridge Road, towards the southern end of Delhi Ridge.
How is the Festival Celebrated?
Activities include prayer meets, sermons and religious discourses, recitation of Buddhist scriptures, group meditation, processions, and worship of the statue of Buddha.
At Bodhgaya, the Mahabodhi Temple wears a festive look and is decorated with colorful flags and flowers. Special prayers are organized under the Bodhi Tree (the tree under which Lord Buddha attained enlightenment).
Rituals Performed During Festival
Many Buddhists visit temples on Buddha Jayanti to listen to monks give talks and recite ancient verses. Devout Buddhists may spend all day in one or more temples. Some temples display a small statue of Buddha as a baby. The statue is placed in a basin filled with water and decorated with flowers. Visitors to the temple pour water over the statue. This symbolizes a pure and new beginning. Other statues of Buddha are worshiped by offerings of incense, flowers, candles and fruit.
Buddhists pay special attention to Buddha’s teachings Buddha Jayanti. They give money, food or goods to organizations that help the poor, elderly, and those who are sick. Caged animals are bought and set free to show care for all living creatures, as preached by Buddha. The usual dress is pure white. Non-vegetarian food is normally avoided. Kheer, a sweet rice porridge is also commonly served to recall the story of Sujata, a maiden who offered the Buddha a bowl of milk porridge.
The Birth of the Buddha
Twenty-five centuries ago, King Suddhodana ruled a land near the Himalaya Mountains.
One day during a midsummer festival, his wife Queen Maya retired to her quarters to rest, and she fell asleep and dreamed a vivid dream. Four angels carried her high into white mountain peaks and clothed her in flowers. A magnificent white bull elephant bearing a white lotus in its trunk approached Maya and walked around her three times.
Then the elephant struck her on the right side with its trunk and vanished into her.
When Maya awoke, she told her husband about the dream. The King summoned 64 Brahmans to come and interpret it. Queen Maya would give birth to a son, the Brahmans said, and if the son did not leave the household he would become a world conqueror. However, if he were to leave the household he would become a Buddha.
When the time for the birth grew near, Queen Maya wished to travel from Kapilavatthu, the King’s capital, to her childhood home, Devadaha, to give birth. With the King’s blessings she left Kapilavatthu on a palanquin carried by a thousand courtiers.
On the way to Devadaha, the procession passed Lumbini Grove, which was full of blossoming trees. Entranced, the Queen asked her courtiers to stop, and she left the palanquin and entered the grove. As she reached up to touch the blossoms, her son was born.
Then the Queen and her son were showered with perfumed blossoms, and two streams of sparkling water poured from the sky to bathe them.
And the infant stood, and took seven steps, and proclaimed “I alone am the World-Honored One!”
Then Queen Maya and her son returned to Kapilavatthu. The Queen died seven days later, and the infant prince was nursed and raised by the Queen’s sister Pajapati, also married to King Suddhodana.
Aspects of this story may have been borrowed from Hindu texts, such as the account of the birth of Indra from the Rig Veda. The story may also have Hellenic influences. For a time after Alexander the Great conquered central Asia in 334 BCE, there was considerable intermingling of Buddhism with Hellenic art and ideas. There also is speculation that the story of the Buddha’s birth was “improved” after Buddhist traders returned from the Middle East with stories of the birth of Jesus.
There is a jumble of symbols presented in this story. The white elephant was a sacred animal representing fertility and wisdom. The lotus is a common symbol for enlightenment in Buddhist art. A white lotus in particular represents mental and spiritual purity. The baby Buddha’s seven steps evoke seven directions – north, south, east, west, up, down, and here.
In Asia, Buddha’s Birthday is a festive celebration featuring parades with many flowers and floats of white elephants. Figures of the baby Buddha pointing up and down are placed in bowls, and sweet tea is poured over the figures to “wash” the baby.
Newcomers to Buddhism tend to dismiss the Buddha birth myth as so much froth. It sounds like a story about the birth of a god, and the Buddha was not a god. In particular, the declaration “I alone am the World-Honored One” is a bit hard to square with Buddhist teachings on nontheism and anatman.
However, in Mahayana Buddhism it is said the baby Buddha was speaking of the Buddha-nature that is the immutable and eternal nature of all beings. On Buddha’s birthday, some Mahayana Buddhists wish each other happy birthday, because the Buddha’s birthday is everyone’s birthday.
The Enlightenment of the Buddha
Siddhartha sat beneath a sacred fig (Ficus religiosa), known ever after as the Bodhi Tree, and settled into meditation.
The work of Siddhartha’s mind came to be mythologized as a great battle with Mara, a demon whose name means “destruction’ and who represents the passions that snare and delude us. Mara brought vast armies of monsters to attack Siddhartha, who sat still and untouched. Mara’s most beautiful daughter tried to seduce Siddhartha, but this effort also failed.
Finally, Mara claimed the seat of enlightenment rightfully belonged to him. Mara’s spiritual accomplishments were greater than Siddhartha’s, the demon said. Mara’s monstrous soldiers cried out together, “I am his witness!” Mara challenged Siddhartha–who will speak for you?
Then Siddhartha reached out his right hand to touch the earth, and the earth itself roared, “I bear you witness!” Mara disappeared. And as the morning star rose in the sky, Siddhartha Gautama realized enlightenment and became a Buddha.