- This article is about a place in India.
Uttar Pradesh • India
Coordinates: Sarnath (also Mrigadava, Migadāya, Rishipattana, Isipatana) refers to the deer park where Gautama Buddha first taught the Dharma, and where the Buddhist Sangha came into existence through the enlightenment of Kondanna. Sarnath sits thirteen kilometers north-east of Varanasi, in Uttar Pradesh, India.
The Buddha mentions Isipatana as one of the four places of pilgrimage which his devout followers should visit for the purpose of coming closer to the origin of the Way taught by Buddha. The holy site holds a place of importance in Buddhism because many foundational firsts happen there. Sarnath's extreme importance arises from Buddha's beginning the Way or Buddhism there. He sought his fellow monks, meeting with them at Sarnath, teaching them the Dharma for the first time. Kondanna, the first to become his disciple, attained Enlightenment, thus inaugurating the Sangha, or community of monks, or enlightened ones. Buddha spoke many of his fundamental and most important sermons to the monks at Sarnath, including his first sermon, Dhammacakkappavattana Sutta. The Sangha grew to sixty monks, Buddha sending them out to travel alone, teaching the Dharma, all of them becoming Arahants. After Buddha's death, Sarnath became an important center for teaching and practicing Buddhism until the twelfth century C.E., with Moslem's armies sacked the site.
Origins of names
The name Isipatana appears in the Pali Canon, and means the place where holy men (Pali: isi, Sanskrit: rishi) fell to earth. Legend states that at the Buddha-to-be's birth, some devas came down to announce it to 500 rishis. The rishis all rose into the air and disappeared and their relics fell to the ground. Another explanation for the name advances that Isipatana had been so called because sages, on their way through the air (from the Himalayas), alight or start from here on their flight (isayo ettha nipatanti uppatanti cāti-Isipatanam). Pacceka Buddhas, having spent seven days in contemplation in the Gandhamādana, bathe in the Anotatta Lake and come to the habitations of men through the air, in search of alms. They descend to earth at Isipatana. Sometimes the Pacceka Buddhas come to Isipatana from Nandamūlaka-pabbhāra.
Hiouen Thsang quotes the Nigrodhamiga Jātaka (J.i.145ff) to account for the origin of the Migadāya. According to him, the king of Benares of the Jātaka gifted Deer Park, where deer might live unmolested. The Migadāya means, "the place deer roam unmolested." Sarnath, from Saranganath, means "Lord of the Deer" and relates to another ancient Buddhist story depicting the Bodhisattva as a deer who offers his life to a king instead of the doe the latter intended to kill. The king, so moved, created the park as a sanctuary for deer. The park still exists today.
Gautama Buddha at Isipatana
The Buddha went from Bodhgaya to Sarnath about five weeks after his enlightenment. Before Gautama (the Buddha-to-be) attained enlightenment, he gave up his austere penances and his friends, the Pañcavaggiya monks, left him and went to Isipatana.
After attaining Enlightenment, the Buddha left Uruvela, traveling to the Isipatana to join and teach them. He went to them because, using his spiritual powers, he had seen that his five former companions would be able to understand Dharma quickly. While traveling to Sarnath, Gautama Buddha had to cross the Ganges. Having no money with which to pay the ferryman, he crossed the river through the air. When King Bimbisāra heard of this, he abolished the toll for ascetics. When Gautama Buddha found his five former companions, he taught them, they understood, and as a result they also became enlightened. At that time, Buddha founded the Sangha, the community of the enlightened ones. The sermon Buddha gave to the five monks constituted his first sermon, called the Dhammacakkappavattana Sutta, given on the full-moon day of Asalha. (On that occasion 80 kotis of Brahmas and innumerable gods attained the comprehension of the Truth. The Lal gives details of the stages of that journey.) Buddha subsequently also spent his first rainy season at Sarnath, at the Mulagandhakuti. The Sangha had grown to sixty (after Yasa and his fiends had become monks), and Buddha sent them out in all directions to travel alone and teach the Dharma. All sixty monks became Arahants.
Several other incidents connected with the Buddha, besides the preaching of the first sermon, reportedly took place in Isipatana. One day at dawn, Yasa came to the Buddha and became an Arahant. At Isipatana, Buddha pronounced the rule prohibiting the use of sandals made of talipot leaves On another occasion, when the Buddha stayed at Isipatana, having gone there from Rājagaha, he instituted rules forbidding the use of certain kinds of flesh, including human flesh (the rule regarding human flesh became necessary because Suppiyā made broth out of her own flesh for a sick monk). Twice, while the Buddha resided at Isipatana, Māra visited him but had to go away discomfited.
Besides the Dhammacakkappavattana Sutta mentioned above, the Buddha preached several other suttas while staying at Isipatana, among them:
- The Anattalakkhana Sutta
- The Saccavibhanga Sutta
- The Pañca Sutta (S.iii.66f)
- The Rathakāra or Pacetana Sutta (A.i.110f)
- The two Pāsa Suttas (S.i.105f)
- The Samaya Sutta (A.iii.320ff)
- The Katuviya Sutta (A.i.279f.)
- A discourse on the Metteyyapañha of the Parāyana (A.iii.399f)
- The Dhammadinna Sutta (S.v.406f), preached to the distinguished layman Dhammadinna, who came to see the Buddha
Some of the most eminent members of the Sangha apparently resided at Isipatana from time to time; several recorded conversations exist between Sariputta and Mahakotthita, and one between Mahākotthita and Citta-Hatthisariputta at Isipatana, as well as a discourse in which several monks tried to help Channa in his difficulties.
According to the Udapāna Jātaka (J.ii.354ff), monks used an ancient well near Isipatana in the Buddha's time.
Isipatana after the Buddha
According to the Mahavamsa, a large community of monks lived at Isipatana in the second century B.C.E. At the foundation ceremony of the Mahā Thūpa in Anurādhapura, twelve thousand monks had been present from Isipatana, led by the Elder Dhammasena.
Hiouen Thsang found, at Isipatana, fifteen hundred monks studying the Hīnayāna. In the enclosure of the Sanghārāma stood a vihāra about two hundred feet high, strongly built, its roof surmounted by a golden figure of the mango. In the center of the vihāra, a life-size statue of the Buddha turning the wheel of the Law stood. To the south-west, the remains of a stone stupa built by King Asoka exist. The Divy (389-94) mentions Asoka as intimating to Upagupta his desire to visit the places connected with the Buddha's activities, and to erect thupas there. Thus, he visited Lumbinī, Bodhimūla, Isipatana, Migadāya, and Kusinagara; Asoka's lithic records—for example, Rock Edict, viii.—confirm that.
In front of it, a stone pillar marks the spot where the Buddha preached his first sermon. Near by, another stupa sits on the site where the Pañcavaggiyas spent their time in meditation before the Buddha's arrival, and another where five hundred Pacceka Buddhas entered Nibbāna. Close to it stands another building where the future Buddha Metteyya received assurance of his becoming a Buddha.
Buddhism flourished in Sarnath, in part because of kings and wealthy merchants based in Varanasi. By the third century, Sarnath had become an important center for the arts, which reached its zenith during the Gupta period (fourth to sixth centuries C.E.). In the seventh century, by the time Xuan Zang visited from China, he found thirty monasteries and 3000 monks living at Sarnath.
Sarnath became a major center of the Sammatiya school of Buddhism, one of the early Buddhist schools. The presence of images of Heruka and Tara indicate that monks practiced (at a later time) Vajrayana Buddhism here. Also images of the Brahmin gods as Shiva and Brahma exist found at the site, and a Jain temple (at Chandrapuri) sits close to the Dhamekh Stupa.
At the end of the twelfth century, Turkish Muslims sacked Sarnath, and the site had been subsequently plundered for building materials.
Discovery of Isipatana
Isipatana has been identified with the modern Sarnath, six miles from Benares. Alexander Cunningham found the Migadāya represented by a fine wood, covering an area of about half a mile, extending from the great tomb of Dhamekha on the north to the Chaukundi mound on the south.
Legendary characteristics of Isipatana
According to the Buddhist Commentarial Scriptures, all the Buddhas preach their first sermon at the Migadāya in Isipatana. That constitutes one of the four avijahitatthānāni (unchanging spots), the others being the bodhi-pallanka, the spot at the gate of Sankassa, where the Buddha first touched the earth on his return from Tāvatimsa, and the site of the bed in the Gandhakuti in Jetavana.
Throughout history, Isipatana occasionally retained its own name, as it did in the time of Phussa Buddha (Bu.xix.18), Dhammadassī (BuA.182) and Kassapa (BuA.218). Kassapa had been born there (Ibid., 217). But more often, Isipatana went by different names (see those names listed under the different Buddhas). Thus, in Vipassī's time it went by the name Khema-uyyāna. All the Buddhas customarily went through the air to Isipatana to preach their first sermon. Gautama Buddha walked all the way, eighteen leagues, because he knew that by so doing he would meet Upaka, the Ajivaka, to whom he could be of service.
Current features of Isipatana
The Turks damaged or destroyed most of the ancient buildings and structures at Sarnath. Among the ruins can be distinguished:
- The Dhamek Stupa, an impressive 128 feet high and 93 feet in diameter.
- The Dharmarajika Stupa, one of the few pre-Ashokan stupas remaining, although only the foundations remain. The rest of the Dharmarajika Stupa had been removed to Varanasi as building materials in the eighteenth century. At that time, relics found in the Dharmarajika Stupa had been thrown in the Ganges river.
- The Chaukhandi Stupa commemorates the spot where the Buddha met his first disciples, dating back to before the fifth century; later, the addition of an octagonal tower of Islamic origin enhanced the structure. Recently, it has been undergoing restoration.
- The ruins of the Mulagandhakuti vihara mark the place where the Buddha spent his first rainy season.
- The modern Mulagandhakuti Vihara; a monastery built in the 1930s by the Sri Lankan Mahabodhi Society, with beautiful wall paintings. Deer Park stands behind it; deer still graze there.
- The Ashoka Pillar; originally surmounted by the "Lion Capital of Asoka" (presently on display at the Sarnath Museum). It was broken during Turkish invasions, yet the base still stands at the original location.
- The Sarnath Archeological Museum houses the famous Ashokan lion capital, which miraculously survived its 45 foot drop to the ground (from the top of the Ashokan Pillar), and became the National Emblem of India and national symbol on the Indian flag. The museum also houses a famous and refined Buddha-image of the Buddha in Dharmachakra-posture.
- A Bodhi tree; grown from a cutting of the Bodhi tree at Bodh Gaya planted by Anagarika Dharmapala.
- (MA.ii.1019; PsA.437-8)
- BuA., p. 3.
- S.ii.112f;iii.167f;iv.162f; 384ff
- Beal, Records of the Western World, ii.45ff
- Arch. Reports, i. p. 107.
- BuA.247; DA.ii.424.
ReferencesISBN links support NWE through referral fees
- Aitken, Molly Emma. Meeting the Buddha On Pilgrimage in Buddhist India. New York: Riverhead Books, 1995. ISBN 9781573225069
- Bhattacharya, Brindevan Chandra. The History of Sārnātha, or, Cradle of Buddhism. Delhi: Pilgrims Book Pvt. Ltd, 1999. ISBN 9788176240635
- Mani, B.R. Sarnath Archaeology, Art and Architecture. New Delhi: the director general Archaeological Survey of India, 2006.
- Narain, Rai Bahadur Pandit Sheo. Sarnath. Maha Bodhi Pamphlet Series, No. 10. Benares: Maha Bodhi Society, 1945.
- Narain, Sheo, and D. Valisinha. Sarnath. Calcutta: Maha Bodhi Society, 1963.
All links retrieved December 22, 2022.
- Entry on Isipatana in the Buddhist Dictionary of Pali Proper Names.
- Map showing Sarnath.
- Pictures of the famous original "Lion Capital of Ashoka" preserved at the Sarnath Museum.
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