Buddha Purnima is traditionally known as Vesak or Vesakha since it falls in the month of Vaishakh according to lunar calendar. It is a festival that marks the birth, enlightenment and death of Gautam Buddha. This day usually falls on the day of full moon (Purnima) in the month of May, hence it is also known as ‘Buddha Purnima’. Many of us may not know the amount of divinity that goes into celebrating this festival, therefore, lets enlighten ourselves.
On this day devout Buddhists and followers assemble in various temples before dawn for the ceremonial and honourable hoisting of the Buddhist Flag.
Devotees bring simple offerings of flowers, candles and joss-sticks to lay at the feet of their teacher. They come together to make a special effort to refrain from killing of any kind and are encouraged to partake in vegetarian food for this day.
Certain temples observe the practice of displaying a small statue of Buddha in front of the altar in a basin filled with water and decorated with flowers. Devotees are allowed to pour water over the statue as a symbol of cleansing bad karma.
Buddha Purnima also includes talks given by monks who engage in reciting verses uttered by Buddha 25 centuries ago to invoke peace and happiness.
Celebrating this day does not involve festivities unlike other events, but works as a mean of making special efforts to bring happiness to the unfortunate, the aged, the handicapped and the sick.
Vesak around the world
Japan Sadly, Japan does not have public holiday on this occasion. The festival here, is based on a different legend that says, a dragon appeared in the sky on Buddha’s birthday and poured soma over him, which is a Vedic ritual drink. In the modern arena, Japan celebrates Vesak by pouring amacha, a sweet tea on statues.
Nepal Nepal is home to Lumbini-birthplace of Buddha, and Swayambhu-the holy temple for Buddhists also known as the Monkey Temple. The main door of Swayambhu is opened only on this day; hence, people from all over Kathmandu valley are stimulated by the event. Pilgrims across the world gather in thousands to celebrate Buddha’s birthday at his birthplace.
Sri Lanka Sri Lanka celebrates Vesak for about one week! During this time, the selling of alcohol and fresh meat is prohibited with abattoirs also being closed. The celebrations here include giving of alms and erection of pandals wherein each pandal illustrates a story from the Jataka Tales. Food stalls are set up by Buddhist devotees that provide eatables and drinks to passersby. Also birds, insects and animals are released by the thousands in what is known as a ‘symbolic act of liberation’; of giving freedom to those who are in captivity, imprisoned, or tortured against their will. Apart from these, other Asian countries like Korea, Vietnam, Malaysia, Indonesia, and Singapore also participate in processions and prayers by monks and make this day a true symbol of spirituality.
What Do People Do? Many Buddhists visit temples on Vesak 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. Many Buddhists pay special attention to Buddha’s teachings during Vesak. They may wear white robes and only eat vegetarian food on and around Vesak. Many people also give money, food or goods to organizations that help the poor, the elderly and those who are sick. Caged animals are bought and set free to display care for all living creatures, as preached by Buddha.
Public Life Government offices, post offices and banks are closed in India on Vesak. Stores and other businesses and organizations may be closed or have reduced opening hours. Transport is usually unaffected as many locals travel for religious celebrations.
Background Gautama Buddha was a spiritual teacher in India. Many scholars are uncertain when he lived. It is believed that Buddha was born at some time between sixth and fourth centuries BCE. Opinions among scholars are generally divided between those who place Buddha’s death about 480 BCE and those who place it as much as a century later.
Buddha was an influential spiritual teacher during and after his lifetime. Many Buddhists see him as the Supreme Buddha. Festivals to honor Buddha were held for many centuries. The decision to celebrate Vesak as the Buddha’s birthday was formalized at the first conference of the World Fellowship of Buddhists. This conference was held in Colombo, Sri Lanka, in May, 1950. The date was fixed as the day of the full moon in May.
Different Buddhist communities may celebrate Vesak on different dates in years when there are two full moons in May. This is because the Buddhist lunar calendar can be interpreted in different ways.
Symbols The dharmacakra or dharma wheel is a symbol often seen during Vesak. It is a wooden wheel with eight spokes. The wheel represents Buddha’s teaching on the path to enlightenment. The eight spokes symbolize the noble eightfold path of Buddhism.