A festival of devotional splendour
Vesak Poya falls on May
by Samangie Wettimuny
The month of May is almost upon us and it is with great piety and
sanctity that the Buddhists around the world, await the arrival of
Vesak full moon poya day since it was on such a day that the Birth,
Enlightenment and the Passing away of the Buddha took place.
So this thrice blessed Vesak Poya Day is of great significance to
Buddhists and the festival is celebrated with great splendour. It is
a day of great sanctity devoted to religious observances and charity
and its main intention is to focus on the importance of bestowing
kindness on all living beings, not only the human beings.
So during the Vesak week animal slaughter is strictly prohibited
and those hapless beings are saved from death even for a day. Isn't
it a great relief to your eyes, not to witness raw flesh hanging in
meat stalls on either side of the road at least for a week!
We also look forward to celebrate the Vesak festival with much
festivity - with numerous colourful decorations, illuminations,
pandals and pageants. Not only today, but throughout history,
Buddhists in Sri Lanka have celebrated the festival on a grand
According to Mahavamsa , the Aryans from India (Prince Vijaya and
his group) had arrived in Sri Lanka on the same Vesak Full Moon Poya
day that the Buddha passed away in Kusinara. So apart from its
religious significance, Vesak day is also related to the origin of
Ancient Sinhalese kings, as revealed by Mahavamsa , had
celebrated this festival with great reverence, as well as with
numerous colourful decorations and illuminations as is the case
Although Mahavamsa does not mention about the origin of the Vesak
festival in Sri Lanka, we can assume that the celebrations might
have commenced after the official introduction of Buddhism to the
country by Mahinda thera, in the 3rd century B.C.
The first Vesak festival
The first grand Vesak festival we come across in Mahavamsa is the
one which was conducted 2160 years ago, during the reign of King
Dutugamunu. The King, according to Mahavamsa has held twenty four
Vesak festivals. King Bhathikabhaya too has held twenty eight Vesak
festivals during his reign, giving prominence to 'Prathipaththi
King Vasabha who reigned the country for forty four years had
conducted Vesak festivals annually. King Gotabhaya made Vesak day an
occasion to offer robes to monks and King Sena II also gave much
prominence to this festival. All in all, ancient kings have
celebrated the Vesak festival in a similar manner that it is being
It was a religious festival and was also one with much colour and
gaiety. Beggars and the poor were given food, clothes free of charge
and kings and citizens thus celebrated the festival (Mahavamsa
As mentioned earlier, Buddhism is a unique religion which bestows
love and compassion on all living beings. Abiding by this "Avihimsa"
policy , the Sinhalese kings like Kithsirimevan and several others
imposed rules prohibiting animal (including fish) slaughter. It is
called 'Maghathaya'. Even today it is only on a Buddhist festival
(apart from Hindu festivals) that animals are being rescued from
slaughter. Prisoners are also released from prisons.
Through all these practices and rituals, through engaging in
meritorious deeds, what we commemorate is the great doctrine of the
Buddha which was preached more than 2550 years ago.
His message was meant to promote the happiness and well-being of
other human beings. At no time in the history of the world is his
message more needed than it is now, as the present day society is
torn by conflict and restlessness.
Since Buddhism is based on great compassion (maha Karuna ) and
great wisdom (Maha prajna ), people who practise his teachings
properly, can make their life and their next lives happy.
The Buddha was the embodiment of all the virtues that he
preached. No contradiction was exhibited between what he said and
what he did. Soon after attaining Enlightenment, the Buddha showed
the world the importance of being grateful to the ones who supported
Since he got to know that his first teachers - Alara Kalama and
Uddakaramaputta were no more, he went to meet the five ascetics who
were with him while he was engaged in self mortification. The Buddha
visited 'Isipathana' in Baranasi and preached to them "Dhamma Chakka
Pawathna Sutta" .
There he advised these ascetics to follow the middle path without
either going to the extremes of self denial or totally surrendering
to sensual desires. The Four noble truths (Suffering, the arising of
suffering, the ceasing of suffering and the approach to the ceasing
of suffering) described in the sutta reveal the true nature of the
world. It is only a Buddha who can reveal this great truth to the
What we should determine on this Vesak day is to mould our lives
according to the Buddha's teachings. Though the Buddha was an
extraordinary human being, he was neither a god nor an incarnation
of god. In fact he showed the world that the nibbanic bliss is
within one's reach, if one genuinely tries to achieve it.
What the Buddha tried through-out his life time was to make the
lives of people happy, to help them lead a conflict free life. For
nearly half a century, he walked on the dusty paths of India
preaching his doctrine, so that those who practised his teachings
could be ennobled and free.
He always advised people not to become followers of his doctrine
without verifying or testing it in the light of their experience. He
was never moved by anything, was well disciplined and had self
confidence and extreme compassion (Maithree) which made it possible
for him to control criminals like Angulimala and beasts like the
Not a drop of blood stained his pure path, it is through words
that he did all these 'miracles'. Suneetha, Sopaka and Patacara
would have died in grief had not the Buddha intervened.
Caste system was severe in India during Buddha's time. Corrupt
feudalism and Brahminal dominance were at their peak. The Buddha
dispelled the caste system stating that 'one becomes a brahmin or an
outcaste by one's action and not by his birth. By getting Suneetha
admitted to the Order he practically proved what he said.
Also when five princes from the Sakya clan came to him (to become
monks), whom the Buddha ordained first was Upali, (a barber who
belonged to a low caste who came with the princes), it was only
after making them worship Upali (thera) that the Buddha admitted the
other five to the Order.
Always when an outcaste , or the poor came to him his/her self
respect was restored and he/she was made a noble being. It was the
same compassion that he bestowed on animals.
When the female Elephant named 'Bhadravathika' was abandoned by
king Udeni in her old age, it was the Buddha who persuaded the
latter to treat the poor animal properly until she died.
Anyway we normally tend only to praise his teachings and respect
him without trying to practise what he preached. In fact all of
life's most difficult problems can be better understood and solved
if we genuinely put his teachings in to practice.
So genuine Buddhists should never commemorate Buddhist festivals
by consuming liquor or meat. They should rather devote their time to
abstaining from evil, saving animals from slaughter and helping
others to overcome suffering.