The 17th of May is a special day for India and Buddhists across the globe, as Buddhists from all over get ready to celebrate one of the most sacred days in the Buddhist calendar. The most important festival of Buddhists, Buddha Purnima or Buddha Jayanti is celebrated as the birth anniversary of Lord Buddha.

Falling on the full moon of the fourth lunar month (month of Vaisakh) i.e. April or May, it is a day that commemorates three important events of Buddha’s life – his birth, his enlightenment i.e. attainment of supreme wisdom and his attainment of Nirvana i.e. the complete extinction of self at the age of 80. A day considered thrice blessed it is also believed that Lord Buddha is the ninth avatar (incarnation) of Vishnu (Preserver in the Hindu Holy Trinity of Creator-Preserver-Destroyer).

Born as Siddhartha the only son of Shuddhodana, the King of Kapilavastu situated at the foot of Himalayas, today the Lumbini, in present day Nepal, it was prophesied by the royal astrologer that Siddhartha would become either a famous emperor or a world-renowned ascetic. Protected by his father, who took extraordinary precautions to avoid every situation which would upset his mind, Siddhartha grew up without ever knowing what misery or sorrow was.

One day however he decided to see the city; it was here that he happened to witness the harsh realities and miseries of human life, watching an old and crippled man by the roadside, a dead body and also an ascetic who looked at peace with himself. Sights never witnessed before by the prince, the prince returned to the palace greatly perturbed. Anxious by what he saw he decided to renounce worldly luxuries and search for the true meaning of life. After wandering many places and years of study, meditation, austerity and sacrifice, on reaching Bodhgaya it was under a ‘pipal’ tree on the Vaishaakha Poornima Day, that he ultimately attained enlightenment and has been known as Gautam Buddha or the ‘Enlightened One’ –someone who is completely free from all faults and mental obstructions.

On attaining enlightenment, he found answers to many questions and discovered three great truths of life. Through his teachings he explained these truths in a simple way so that everyone could understand and apply that in their life. The basic teachings of Buddha comprise of the three universal truths, which are as follows

1. Nothing is lost in the universe
2. Everything Changes
3. Law of Cause and Effect

For the next forty-five years, Buddha and his disciples travelled across India spreading the Dharma, his teachings. It was through his teachings that he won the hearts of the people because he dealt with their true feelings even advising them not to accept his words on blind faith, but to decide for themselves whether his teachings were right or wrong, only then follow them. He also encouraged everyone to have compassion for each other and develop their own virtues.

Buddha passed into eternity after completing his Sahasra Chandra Darshana i.e., 1000 full moon days (80th year) on the full moon day of Vaishaakha, also the day of his birth as also of his Enlightenment.

Today Bodh Gaya and Sarnath are two of the best places to enjoy the festival in the country, though celebrations take place at all places where Buddhists reside.

In Bodh Gaya, the place he attained enlightenment under the sacred Bodhi Tree is visited by followers from all over the globe.  Prayer meets and sermons on the life of Gautam Buddha are held throughout the day, religious discourse group meditations, processions, continuous recitation of Buddhist scriptures and worship of the statue of Buddha take place.

The Mahabodhi Temple an ancient temple dedicated to Lord Buddha, located just east of the Bodhi tree that has scenes depicting Buddha’s life, is decorated to mark the special occasion. The Mahabodhi Temple is decorated with colourful flowers and flags and wears a festive look. On this Holy day, Buddhists bathe and wear only white clothes, gathering in their Viharas spend their entire day listening to discourses on the life and teachings of the Buddha or invite monks to their homes and also give alms to monks.

On Buddha Purnima, Kheer (i.e. rice cooked in milk and sugar) is eaten and shared with the poor, stalls are also set up in public places to offer others clean drinking water and fruits and clothes are distributed amongst the needy. Kindness is also shown to animals and birds are freed from cages.

Not only are the branches of the Bodhi decorated with garlands and colored flags, lamps are lit and placed around it while milk and scented waters are sprinkled on its roots. From offering flowers and candles, incense and fruits, to idols and monks, followers also abstain from eating meat that day and reaffirm their faith in the five principles called Panchsheel, which include:

Not to take life

Not to steal

Not to lie

Not to consume liquor or other intoxicants

Not to commit adultery

Celebrations also take place on a grand scale at Sarnath in Uttar Pradesh, the place where the Buddha delivered His first sermon. On Buddha Purnima, a large fair is organised in Sarnath attracting tourists and visitors in large numbers and relics of the Buddha are brought out for public display in a procession.

While Gautam Buddha was not a god, the philosophy of Buddhism does not entail any theistic world-view and its teachings are solely to liberate human beings from the misery and sufferings of life.  According to the Buddhism, sorrow and desire are the main causes of all the evil and suffering of this world.

To reach the ultimate aim of Nirvana, Nirvana being the transcendental state of complete liberation, Lord Buddha advocated the Eightfold Path which consisted of precepts like right conduct, right motive, right speech, right effort, right resolve, right livelihood, right attention and right meditation to gain mastery over suffering.  The simplicity of Buddha’s teaching and emphasis on complete equality of all is what attracted rich and poor alike.

While Buddha traveled far and wide teaching and preaching to hundreds of followers, even after death his disciples continued to spread his teachings. Credit for spreading this religion far and wide goes to the Mauryan Emperor Ashoka in the 3rd century B.C.

Though Buddhism originated in India, the religion has gained tremendous popularity throughout the Far East and has spread across the world, including in countries like present day Syria, Sri Lanka, Egypt, Afghanistan, Siam, China, Sumatra, Cambodia, Laos, Vietnam, Annam, Java, Borneo, Malaya, China, Korea, Japan, Tibet and Khotan in Central Asia.