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A festival of devotional splendour

Vesak Poya falls on May 1:

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 scale.

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 the Sinhalese.

Ancient Kings

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 today.

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 Pooja'.

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 held today.

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 49.84)

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.

Great doctrine

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 you.

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 world.

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 Nalagiri elephant.

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.

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