Tuesday, July 20, 2010

India/Bangladesh pilgrimage #5

We were booked on the over night train from Calcutta to Varanasi (Benares) but the train was several hours later departing and arrived 22 hours later than scheduled. Our guide, Nagendra, assured us that this rarely happens.

The villages between Calcutta and Varanasi are primitive. Except for electric lines and people talking on cell phones, there's not much evidence that this is the 21st century. In the more developed towns the railway stations are covered and a few more enterprising Indians put out boxes covered with cloth on which they offer water, sweets, and other things. The women walk by in saris and the men with heavy sacks of flour and rice on their heads.

Warren Hastings, the British Governor General of India from 1773, greatly admired Indian civilization and commissioned a translation of the Bhagavidgita, a Hindu holy book. In the preface he wrote, "Every instance which brings the Indians' real character home to observation will impress us with a more generous sense of feeling for their natural rights, and teachus to estimate themby the measure of our own. But such instances can only be obtained by their writings, and these will survive, when the British dominion of India shall have long ceased to exist, and when the sources which it once yielded of wealth and power are lost to remembrance."

Our first stop after checking into our hotel in Varanasi was to drive out of the city to Sarnath, the birthplace of Buddha and site of his first sermon. The story of Buddha's life is fairly well known. Born around 550 BC to a noble family, he was known as Prince Siddhartha. After a sheltered childhood, he began to inquire about the suffering he saw and decided to become a monk. After years of meditation, Siddhartha received "enlightenment" and became known as the Buddha (the enlightened one). He taught that the central problem of human life is suffering and that suffering is caused by attachment to things that are temporal and finite. The path to enlightenment, Buddha taught, is to release our grasp upon the things that cause suffering.

Sarnath contains a small but impressive museum of antiquities. It houses the top of a pillar that dates from the 3rd century BC erected by Prince Ashoka, a convert to Buddhism, to mark Buddha's birthplace. The top of the pillar or capital consists of 4 lions, facing the 4 directions. The lions symbolize Buddha who was (according to Hindu thought) a member of the "warrior" or lion caste ("shakya") and is sometimes known as Shakyamuni (the lion or warrior monk). Although it no longer exists, the pillar also supported a 32 spoke wheel. The 32 spokes symbolized the 32 characteristics of an incarnation of the god Vishnu, because Buddha was believed to be such an incarnation. The spokes also symbolized the Buddha's Four Noble Truths times the Eight Fold Path to enlightenment. Although India is a predominantly Hindu nation, the state of India adopted the 4 lions of Ashoka's pillar as its official symbol.

Across the street from the musum is an archeological site containing the ruins of "stupas" or shrines, commemorating the birthplace of Buddha and site of his first sermon.