In the sixth century BCE there was a deer park near the city of Benaras called Rishipattana or the garden of the sages because wandering ascetics came here to meditate in peace. Over two hundred years later the deer still roam among the trees of the sacred grove that we know as Sarnath.
In Bodh Gaya, Prince Siddhartha Gautama became the Buddha, an enlightened being. He meditated deeply to develop a philosophy that came to be known as Dhamma. It was the first school thought that explored the causes of human sorrow and then offered a path of thought and action that would help us face and survive this inevitable pain. This was the Four Noble truths and the Eight Fold Path that the Buddha simplified into teaching that he called the Middle Way.
The next challenge for the young preacher was to test his philosophy before people. In Bodh Gaya, when he stopped his meditation by starvation, five companions had felt he had failed and abandoned him to go to Rishipattana and now the Buddha went in search of them. As the Buddha said later of his journey.
“I shall go to Benaras, where I will light the lamp that will bring light into the world. I will go to Benaras and beat the drums that will awaken mankind. I shall go to Benaras and there I shall teach the Law.”
So from Bodh Gaya the Buddha began to walk westwards to the sacred pilgrim town of Benaras, also known as Varanasi and Kashi which was a great centre of learning. He crossed the Ganga River and wandered in the lanes where many famous scholars lived, listening to their lectures and joining in philosophical debates.
Then the Buddha walked to the outskirts, crossing the Varuna River and entered the wooded area called Rishipattana. This deer park was also known as Mrigadaya or the deer sanctuary. Later Buddhist tradition connects this place to a bodhisattva named Saranganath or the Lord of the Deer, and the name Sarnath is a simplification of his name.
When the Buddha found his five old companions they were quite sceptical about his offer to share his thoughts with them. Then the Buddha began to speak and they were deeply impressed by his new philosophy and his compassionate and logical thinking. Then led by the senior most monk named Kondanna, they all became the first disciples of the Buddha and this became the Sangha or monastic order of bhikshus.
The First Sermon
The Buddha’s first sermon is called Dharma Chakra Pravartana or the Turning of the Wheel of Law. In the beginning he spoke of his...
Spreading the Word
The Buddha’s journey as a teacher begins at Sarnath and then for the next four decades he would walk across the kingdoms of Magadha...
After the Buddha
Two centuries after the parinirvana of the Buddha, like Bodh Gaya, the vihara at Sarnath was patronised by Emperor Ashoka. He built viharas, a...
Mulagandha Kuti Vihara
Hsuan Tsang mentions a monastery at Sarnath called Mulagandha Kuti Vihara that marked the spot where the Buddha sat in meditation. During excavations by...
At one time there were many small stupas at Sarnath but today this is the only one that is standing. Made of brick with...
The ruins of this brick stupa stand to the north of the Dhamek Stupa. It was built by Ashoka over the relics of the...
Sarnath was a treasure trove for archaeologists who began to excavate and restore the stupas in the nineteenth century. Their finds are housed in...
As in all Buddhist pilgrim sites, Buddha Purnima is the most important festival of the year at Sarnath. This falls on the full moon...
Traveling to Sarnath
As Sarnath is 10 km from Varanasi, all travel should be to the city first. There are buses, taxis and auto rickshaws connecting the...