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Bodhgaya—site of Buddha’s enlightenment

First published in 1981 by Mahayana Publications, Tushita Mahayana Meditation Centre. This article first appeared in Teachings from Tushita, Journal of Tushita Mahayana Meditation Centre.

Born and educated in England, Jeremy Russell’s interest in Buddhism was initially sparked during his first visit to Dharamsala in the early 1970s. He subsequently studied at the Library of Tibetan Works & Archives for several years. He has lived in Dharamsala with his family since 1981, dividing his time between working as an editor for several offices of the Tibetan government-in-exile and leading trekking groups into the nearby mountains. He is editor of Chö-Yang, the Journal of Tibetan Culture.

This publication has been translated into Spanish by Ediciones Mahayana, and is now available for download as a pdf file.

Bodhgaya—site of Buddha's enlightenment

"... here at Bodhgaya he attained enlightenment ..."

"Here on this seat my body may shrivel up,
my skin, my bones, my flesh may dissolve,
but my body will not move from this very seat
until I have attained Enlightenment,
so difficult to attain in the course of many kalpas."
Voice of the Buddha

The bodhisattva, having renounced the luxurious life of Prince Siddhartha, now as Gautama the ascetic, walked in a south-easterly direction from Kapilavastu and came to Vaishali. Here he listened briefly to the teaching of Arada Kalapa, an aberrant samkhya, but left dissatisfied. Crossing the river Ganges he once again entered the kingdom of Magadha and came to Rajgir, the capital, where he listened to the yogic teachings of Rudraka. Again dissatisfied, he left followed by the five ascetics. Together with them he came to the village of Uravilva on the banks of the Nairanjana river, which is close to the place now known as Bodhgaya. Here they engaged in long, austere practices. For the first two years Gautama ate but one grain of rice a day, and for the next four years he ate nothing at all. He remained sitting in continual meditation despite the almost complete degeneration of his body.

Six years after his initial renunciation he realized that extreme mortification does not yield liberation. He arose and broke the austerities. The five ascetics were disgusted and departed to Benares.

As his former garments had perished, he took a yellow shroud from the corpse of a servant girl awaiting cremation nearby. To help him wash it, the god Indra struck the ground and produced a pond. A local brahmin's daughter, Sujata, approached and offered him a golden bowl filled with rice prepared in the essence of the milk of one thousand cows. Renewed in body and mind, his complexion brilliant as the lustre of burnished gold, the bodhisattva bathed and then walked to a nearby cave to continue his meditation. However, the earth shook and the voices of previous buddhas resounded in the air, telling him that this was not the place of his enlightenment and advising him to proceed to the nearby bodhi tree. The sites of all these events were seen by the Chinese pilgrims in the fifth and seventh centuries, and they record that stupas had been constructed at each. None of these exist today.

As he walked to the tree the graincutter Svastika gave him a bundle of kusha grass. A flock of birds flew around the bodhisattva three times. When he entered the area about the tree, the earth shook. He made himself a seat from the kusha grass on the eastern side of the tree and after seven circumambulations sat down facing the east. He made the great resolve not to rise again until enlightenment had been attained, eve

Bodhgaya: the Animescalocana Stupa stands where the Buddha gazed for a week at the site of enlightenmentn if his skin, bones and flesh should crumble away. Sending forth a beam of light from the hair-treasure between his eye-brows, he invoked Mara, who came to challenge him. Mara dispatched first his horrible armies and next his enticing daughters, but the bodhisattva remained unmoved and defeated him, calling upon the earth and her goddess as his witness. He continued in profound meditation through the three watches of the night and finally realized supreme enlightenment at dawn. The air filled with flowers and light, and the earth trembled seven times.

For seven days the Buddha continued to meditate beneath the tree without stirring from his seat and for six weeks more remained in the vicinity. During the second week he walked up and down, lotus flowers springing from his footsteps, and pondered whether or not to teach. This was later represented by the chankramanar jewel walk, a low platform adorned with eighteen lotuses, which now runs close and parallel to the north side of the Mahabodhi Temple. For another week he sat gratefully contemplating the bodhi tree; this spot was later marked by the animeshalochana stupa, now situated to the north of the chankramanar. Brahma and Indra offered a hall made of the seven precious substances, in which the Buddha sat for a week radiating lights of five colours from his body to illuminate the bodhi tree. Hsuan Chwang describes this site as being west of the tree and remarks that in time the precious substances had changed to stone. However, ratnaghara is now identified by some as a roofless shrine again north of chankramanar.

During a week of unusually inclement weather, the naga king Muchalinda wrapped his body seven times about the meditating Buddha, protecting him from the rain, wind and insects. Hsuan Chwang saw a small temple next to the tank, thought to be this naga's abode. He described it as being somewhat southeast of the bodhi tree and it is now identified with the dry pond in Mucherim village near Bodhgaya.

While the Buddha sat meditating beneath the ajapala nigrodha tree, Brahma came and requested him to teach the Dharma. Hsuan Chwang saw this tree with a small temple and stupa beside it at the southeast corner of the bodhi tree enclosure. It is thought that the site is now within the Mahanta's graveyard near the present eastern gate.

Buddha spent the last of the seven weeks seated beneath the tarayana tree. Hsuan Chwang placed this some distance south and east of the bodhi tree enclosure, near the places where the bodhisattva earlier had bathed and eaten Sujata's offering. All were marked by stupas. Here two passing merchants, Trapusha and Bhallika, offered the Buddha the first food since his enlightenment. Seeing that he needed a vessel to receive it, the four guardians of the directions each offered precious bowls, but he would only accept one of stone from each. He pressed the four bowls together to form one, which survived, and when Fa Hien saw it in Peshawar four rims could be seen in the one.

After thus spending forty-nine days meditating close to the seat of enlightenment, the Buddha left Bodhgaya on foot to meet the five ascetics at Benares in order to turn the first wheel of Dharma. This accomplished, he returned briefly to Uruvela and introduced the three brothers—Uruvela, Gaya and Nadi Kasyapa—to his teachings. They developed faith in the Buddha and, together with a thousand of their followers, became monks and accompanied Shakyamuni to Rajgir.

Bodhgaya: The Vajrasana, the Diamond Throne of the BuddhaThus far we have described Bodhgaya only in connection with Shakyamuni Buddha, but that connection is in no way exclusive. In the same manner as Shakyamuni, all the buddhas who show enlightenment to this world eat a meal of milk rice, sit upon a carpet of grass at Vajrasana, engage in meditation, defeat Mara and his forces and attain supreme enlightenment beneath the bodhi tree (although the species of tree differs with each buddha).

The present bodhi tree is a descendant of the original, for the tree has been destroyed deliberately on at least three occasions. King Ashoka, initially hostile to Buddhism, ordered it to be cut down and burned on the spot, but when the tree sprang up anew from the flames his attitude was transformed. In deep regret for his destruction, Ashoka lavished so much personal care and attention on the new tree that his queen became jealous and secretly had it destroyed once more. Again Ashoka revived it and built a protective enclosing wall, as had previously been done by King Prasenajit of Koshala within the Buddha's lifetime. Later, Nagarjuna is said to have built an enclosure to protect the tree from damage by elephants and, when in time this became less effective, placed a statue of Mahakala upon each pillar.

Records of the third destruction of the tree are given by Hsuan Chwang, who reports seeing remains of these walls, and states that in the sixth century a saivite king of Bengal by the name of Shasanka destroyed the tree. However, even though he dug deep into its roots, he was unable to unearth it completely. It was afterwards revived by Purvavarma of Magadha, who poured the milk of one thousand cows upon it, causing it to sprout again and grow ten feet in a single night.

In addition to human destruction, the tree has perhaps perished naturally several times, yet the pipal is renowned for growing wherever its seeds fall and the direct lineage has continued. General Cunningham offers an example. After showing severe decay for more than a decade, the remains of the old tree fell over during a storm one night in 1876. Young sprouts were already growing within the old tree (which grew into the one we see today).

Bodhgaya: Mahabodhi TempleThe origins of the Mahabodhi Temple, which adorns the site today, are shrouded in obscurity. Various traditions hold that Ashoka erected a diamond throne shrine, which seems to have been a canopy supported by four pillars over a stone representation of Vajrasana. When General Cunningham was restoring the floor of the present temple he found traces that he took to be the remains of the shrine. It is his opinion that the temple may have been built between the fifth and seventh centuries, but this would seem to be based on Hsuan Chwang's detailed description of it, while Fa Hien mentions it not at all. Others propose that because of its resemblance to similar structures in Ghandhara, Nalanda and so forth, as well as other archaeological evidence, its founding could have been as early as the second century AD— Nagarjuna is reputed to have built the original stupa upon the roof, which is more consistent with the latter theory. However, from Hsuan Chwang we can be certain that the temple existed before the seventh century.

Accounts of the builder are no longer clear. Some legends attest that he was a brahmin acting on the advice of Shiva. The statue in the main shrine of the temple, famous for its likeness to Shakyamuni, is said to have been the work of Maitreya in the appearance of a brahmin artisan.

Monastic tradition seems to have been strong in Bodhgaya. Fa Hien mentions three monasteries and Hsuan Chwang describes particularly the magnificent Mahabodhi Sangharama, founded early in the fourth century by a king of Ceylon. Both pilgrims make special remark of the strict observance of the Vinaya by the monks residing there. Some accounts tell that the great master Atisha, who later emphasised pure practice of the Vinaya, received ordination in Bodhgaya.

As elsewhere, neglect and desolation followed the muslim invasion of northern India. However, extensive repairs and restoration of the temple and environs in the fourteenth century by the Burmese and their further attempts in the early nineteenth century are recorded. In the late sixteenth century a wandering sanyasi settled in Bodhgaya and founded the establishment which is now the math of the Mahanta. When in 1891 Anagarika Dharmapala, inspired by appeals in the press by Sir Edwin Arnold, began the Mahabodhi Society and sought to restore the site as a buddhist shrine, he was obstructed by bureaucracy. The British Government of India decided that the temple and its surroundings were the property of the saivite Mahanta, who only then began to take an interest in it. Nearly sixty years of judicial wrangling followed until the Mahabodhi Temple was legally recognized as belonging to buddhists.

Since the inception of the Bodhgaya Temple Management Committee and the beginning of its active administration in 1953, vast improvements have been made to both the temple and its grounds. Existing structures have been repaired and new stupas are being erected. With the reintroduction of gilded images in the niches of the Mahabodhi Temple, it begins to regain some of the splendour described by Hsuan Chwang.

The establishment, in the surrounding district, of beautiful temples and monasteries by the people of Tibet, Japan, China, Thailand, Burma and others has brought back to Bodhgaya the varied traditions of buddhist practice that have evolved in those lands. By contrast, the headless, mutilated statues in the local museum present a disturbing reminder of past destruction.

Pilgrims abound in Bodhgaya and in recent years thousands have had the fortune to listen to the Dharma there. Many buddhist masters are again travelling to Bodhgaya to turn the wheel of Dharma. For example, the Kalachakra empowerment given by His Holiness the Dalai Lama in 1974 was attended by over 100,000 devotees. The Tibetan monastery now offers a two-month meditation course annually for the international buddhist community, and meditation courses and teachings are given occasionally in the Burmese, Thai, Japanese and other temples.