International Buddhist Conclave 2014 – Visit to Holy Sites of Buddhism

by Dr. Demetrios Vassiliades

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The International Buddhist Conclave took place for the fourth time, between 26-28 September 2014. Its participants were distinguished figures of the international spectrum of philosophy and culture, monks, journalists and representatives of numerous travel agencies from all Indian states, as well as of 33 other countries. Most guests came from Asian Buddhist countries, like Japan, China, Taiwan, Korea, Thailand, Vietnam, Laos, Cambodia, Indonesia, Malaysia, Singapore, Bhutan, Myanmar, Nepal, Sri Lanka etc., but there were also invitees from countries like Australia, New Zealand, Canada, USA, Brazil, Russia, Italy, France, United Kingdom, Holland, Spain, Serbia, Malta, etc. Greece was represented by Indologist Professor and President of the Indo Hellenic Society for Culture and Development (ELINEPA), Dr Demetrios Vassiliades.

 mahabodhi temple

The aim of the Conclave was to propound the timeless and universal message radiating from the Buddhist holy sites towards Global Peace and harmonious living among the peoples of the world. This is attainable solely through each individual’s spiritual awakening and the cultivation of compassion and non-violence towards all beings, two fundamental principles of the moral teachings of Buddhism.

 ibc buddha mahabodhi

The holy places that the Buddha lived and taught in constitute major pilgrimage sites for millions of devotees from all over the world. Naturally, the Ministry of Tourism of India as well as local  governments of other Indian states that host major Buddhist monuments, wish to further promote those to the international community. This action will surely develop religious tourism, which contributes greatly to the improvement of the living standards of the locals, as well as boosts Indian economy in general. Towards this goal, the Indian government has already planned a special AC train called ‘Mahanirvana” that will transport tourists and pilgrims quickly and safely to all major areas that the Buddha lived and taught in. Moreover, a significant financial sum has been budgeted towards improving road and electricity networks, multi-lingual signage as well as erecting new monuments, like statues of the Buddha etc.

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Guests of the Conclave gathered at New Delhi and were transported via a special Indian Airlines flight to Bodh Gaya, accompanied by the Indian Minister of Tourism, Mr. Shripad Yesso Naik. The Conclave was jointly organized by the Ministry of Tourism and the local governments of the states of Bihar and Uttar Pradesh that hosted the activities.

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In Bodh Gaya, guests initially visited the awe-inspiring gigantic statue of the Buddha, 25m-high, encircled by statues of his main disciples. They then crossed the Niranjana river and visited the site where Sujata offered sweet milk-rice to the Buddha, thus causing realization of pointlessness of his extreme ascetic life. At sunrise, visitors headed to the main temple next to the Tree of Great Wisdom (Mahabodhi) under which the Buddha reached enlightenment around 2500 years ago. They attended the afternoon meditation along with hundreds of other pilgrims arriving daily to this temple, initially founded by Emperor Ashoka in 3rd century BC, a UNESCO World Heritage Site.

 bodhgaya great buddha

The following morning, at sunrise, invitees visited Pragbodhi hills and the caves the Buddha was meditating in, before his enlightenment. In the depths of the cave in absolute darkness, there stands a statue of the Buddha in emaciated form, as due to extreme fasting and practice his body resembled a skeleton.

 pragbodhi


icb bodhgaya museumIn Bodh Gaya Museum the guests were greeted by a pleasant surprise. Amongst Buddhist sculptures of exceptional craftmanship, there were some familiar figures from the Greek mythology ‒  Pegasus, Centaur and Mermaid, that provide unshakable evidence of the influence of ancient Greek thought on Buddhism. This influence began from the time of the Buddha himself, who, according to the Assalāyana Sūtta, appears to be the first in Indian history to mention the Greeks (Yonas in the Pali language) and the absence of castes in their country. Relations between Greeks and Buddhism continued. It is considered very probable that Emperor Ashoka, the first to establish Buddhism as the formal religion of the state, had mother or grandmother, Elena, the daughter of King Seleucos (the successor of Alexander the Great), who had offered her for marriage to the house of Chandragupta, based on the peace and collaboration treaty signed between them. The support of the Indo-Greek successors of Alexander the Great towards Buddhism reaches its peak during the reign of King Menandros, where his philosophical discourse with monk Nagasena, as detailed in the holy script of Milindapañha, placed him among the Arhats (enlightened souls) of Buddhism.

nalanda university 

The oldest Buddhist University in the world is situated in Nalanda, two hours away from Bodh Gaya. It thrived between 6th and 13th century, and it is here that numerous great teachers of Indian and Tibetan Buddhism studied. The archaeological site has been morphed into a beautiful park, where amongst the blooming flowers and the dewy lawn one can distinguish the crumbling ruins of ancient walls, the frugal cells of the monks as well as numerous stupas adorned with impressive statuettes of the Buddha sitting in meditation offering their blessing to travelers who made the pilgrimage to lay their eyes upon them.

 nalanda stupa

Sitting on the grass next to the ruins, small groups of pilgrim monks follow with the utmost concentration the words of the elders, embodying once again this timeless teaching, which once numbered thousands of students in this same place. The Indian Government, in its efforts to promote the academic importance of the ancient University of Nalanda, inaugurated the contemporary International University of Nalanda, which aims to rise as one of the most important Indian study centers of Pali and Buddhism. The contemporary university operates a few kilometers away, in Rajgir, the ancient capital of the kingdom of Magadha. Rajgir is particularly important for Buddhism, as the local king donated some land to the Buddha whereupon the first monastery was founded, which accommodated about 1000 of his first students.

nalanda monks

The top of the hill, reachable on foot or by cable car, is dominated by the Stupa of World Peace, built of sparkling white marble by Japanese Buddhists in 1969. The dome of the stupa is adorned by four golden Buddhas facing the four directions. Melodious bell chimes and the monks’ incessant prayers carry the message of peace to the vast valleys of the Indian continent and even further to the ends of the world and the star-filled sky.

rajgir stupa 

On the last day of the Conclave, the guests were transported by a special flight to the holy city of Varanasi, where they attended the impressive physiolatrous ceremony on the central ghat (Dasaswamedh Ghat) of the river Ganges. It is here, twice a day, at sunrise and sunset, that eight Brahmin priests, offer their welcome and goodnight to Goddess Ganges with a spectacular ceremony, in order to thank her for her precious water, which generously provides the gift of life to millions of people throughout vast expanses of land that she passes from, starting from her source in the Himalayas until her final merge into the sea, in the Bay of Bengal.

 arti

The holy capital of Hinduism constitutes simultaneously one of the most important sites of Buddhism, as a few kilometers outside of the city, in the deer forest of Sarnath, the Buddha delivered his first discourse. Sarnath for Buddhists is similar to the Mount of Olives for the Christians. It was here, at the same spot where now the impressive Dhamek stupa stands, that the Buddha taught the Four Noble Truths to his first five students.

sarnath buddha

Further away is the main temple of the Mahabodhi Society known as Mulagandha Kuti Vihar. The temple’s interior hosts numerous wall paintings depicting scenes from the Buddha’s life. Right next to the temple, visitors can read the Four Noble Truths, engraved in different languages in front of the monument of the Buddha’s teaching. In the same park, there is also a statue of Anagarika Dharmapala, who by his continuous efforts and founding of the Mahabodhi Society in 1891, contributed greatly to the revival of Buddhism in its own Mother Land.

 sarnath teaching

The main entrance to the museum of Sarnath is dominated by the column of the four lions of Ashoka, a piece of exceptional artistic expression, which now constitutes the official symbol of the Indian Republic. Remarkable statues from the 4th and 5th centuries (Gupta period) that reveal the influence of the Greco-Buddhist art of Gandhara and contributed the well-known apollonian features of curly hair and the philosopher’s tunic to the Buddha, are also here. Moreover, the museum houses a varied selection of items and statues of great artistic and archaeological interest from the early to the later periods of Buddhist, Hindu and Jain art.

 sarnath stupa

At the archaeological site, next to the museum, apart from the impressive ancient 33.5m-high Dhamek stupa, there is the recovered part of the monolithic column of Ashoka – undoubtedly of immense importance. It bears the engraved inscription of Ashoka as well as two later ones that are samples of the first Indian scripts, which were used even before the development of Devanagari. There are also ruins of ancient Buddhist monasteries and temples, dating from 3rd to the 12th century.

 sarnath wall

In the vicinity of Sarnath and Bodh Gaya, two of the four most important holy Buddhist sites (the other two are Lumbini and Kushinagar where the Buddha was born and died respectively), there have been built temples and monasteries by all Buddhist countries, each representing its own architecture and decorations. They coexist in a perfect harmony with a plethora of other places of worship, like Hindu, Jain and Christian temples, as well as Muslim monuments. Thus, the area brims with the symbolism of a live interreligious dialogue and makes the meeting point of all religions.

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Apart from the exhellent hospitality, rich site-seeing program and briefing, the Conclave invitees had an opportunity to attend performances of Indian musicians and dancers. Banquets were also given in the honor of the delegates by the Chief Minister of Bihar Shri Jiran Ram Manjhi and the Chief Minister of Uttar Pradesh, Shri Akhilesh Yadav.  

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The Conclave concluded with the return of the guests to New Delhi, where they visited various monuments of Islamic art, like Qutub Minar and the Tomb of Humayun, as well as contemporary monuments like the India Gate, Gandhi’s statue, the Parliament, the Presidential House and Laxmi Narayan and Bangla Sahib temples. The capital of India boasts a plethora of compelling monuments, as it has brought together numerous cultures and civilizations through the ages, so much so that it can easily become the sole protagonist of another article purely dedicated to its rich cultural heritage. 

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