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Vesak celebrations; A Traditional Custom of the State

Tracing back the history of Vesak festival

Vesak or the month of May is a time of celebrations for Buddhists all over the world. This month is known in Pali as Vesaakha and in Sanskrit as Vaisaakha.

The Vesak full moon day is celebrated as the birth day of prince Siddhartha, the day of enlightenment of ascetic Siddhartha and the day of Parinibbana of Gautama Buddha, the Supreme one. Therefore, this day is also known as the Themagula, or the three noble events. Considering the birth and enlightenment of the Buddha, the Vesak full moon day is also referred to as the Buddha Jayanti and Buddha poornima or the Buddha day. It is indeed a holy and special day to Buddhists all over the world as it marks three significant events of their master, Gautama Buddha, the Supreme one. Buddhists all over the world observes sil, take part in meditation and alms giving programs.

Tracing back the history of Vesak festival

Historical sources refers to various festivals and celebrations of early Buddhists. Buddhist philosophy encourages a humble and less complex life style. Therefore many Buddhist civilizations around the world were fashioned by this philosophy. Consequently the early Sinhalese culture was simple yet classic. This is why Professor Senarat Paranavitana once stated that the base of Sinhalese arts is ‘simplicity’. Thus the festivals and celebrations of the Sinhalese are also simple and spiritual.

There are very few references of pre-Buddhist functions or festivals in historical records in Sri Lanka. These festivals are believed to be events of dance and music. However, these events of dance and music are not further mentioned in Sri Lankan history since the arrival of Buddhism as people have adopted a more simple and meritorious lifestyle. In its place, Buddhist functions were celebrated. Vesak is one such celebration.

It can be assumed that Vesak celebrations must have come to the highlight approximately after five centuries or more afterwards the Parinibbana of the Buddha. This could be due to the rise of the Bhakti movement, which were focusing more on amisa pooja than prathipaththi pooja.

What Fa Hien witnessed in India sixteen centuries ago…

The renowned scholar, Ven.Walpola Rahula thero in his celebrated work, History of Buddhism in Ceylon states that Vesak is one of the most ancient Buddhist festivals, celebrated even in India from early days. Fa Hien tells us that about the 5th century “every year, on the eighth day of the second month, they celebrate a procession of images. They make a four- wheeled car and on it erect a structure of five stories by means of bamboos tied together… They make figures of devas with gold, silver and … On the four sides are niches, with a Buddha seated in each, and twenty cars all grand and imposing, but each one different form the other.”

If we look at Fa Hein’s description which is quoted above, he says that the festival he saw was held on the second month of the Indian year. Furthermore, he does not mention the name of the festival. Walpola Rahula thero explains this as follows; now the second month of the year according to the Indian calendar is Vesakha, and it is possible, therefore, what Fa Hien saw in India was a Vesak festival, though he did not mention it by name.

Was Vesak celebrations introduced to the Sinhalese by Arhat Mahinda in the 3rd century BC?

It is mentioned in Emperor Asoka’s edicts that he had organized shows and processions which were held in honour gods. Walpola Raula thero explains that, the Ceylon Vesak festival was modelled on Asoka’s ‘shows and processions’ and also on ‘the processions of images; seen by Fa Hein. He further believes that the Vesak festival was introduced to the Sinhalese by Mahinda thero, son of Asoka. It is also possible that Mahinda, having seen those shows and processions organized by his father and realized their effect on the mass-mind, introduced the same practice into Ceylon.

Vesak celebrations; A Traditional Custom of the State

Deepavamsa, the oldest surviving Pali chronicle states that, the Vesak festival is held in the month of Vesak to celebrate the birth of the Buddha. Also, according to Mahavamsa, celebrating Vesak was a traditional custom of the state.  Some scholars assume that the first Buddhist king of Sri Lanka King Devanampiyathissa during the 3rd century BC would have celebrated the Vesak festival. However, we only know that he performed a special coronation ceremony on the Vesak full moon day.

The first recorded Vesak festival in Sri Lanka was held during the time of King Dutugamunu during the 2nd century BC. Mahavamsa states that King Dutugamunu (2nd century BC) held twenty seven Vesak festivals.  King Bathiya (1st century AD) is reported to have held twenty eight Vesak festivals. Mahavamsa records a list of monarchs who held Vesak festivals every year. To name a few are King Vasabha (1st century AD), King Voharikatissa (3rd century AD) King Gotabhaya, King Jettatissa, King Mugalan, King Dala- Mugalan (7th century AD), and King Sena II (9th century AD).

During these festivals the kings also held lavish alms giving programs as a part of the celebrations. It was a custom of the Sinhalese monarchs to have celebrated the Vesak festival with the poor, giving them food and clothes. Also, animals were given food as a part of the celebrations. Thousands of monks were given robes and alms.

Eminent scholar Panditha Baddegama Wimalawansa thero states in his research work that the Sinhalese monarchs followed a set of rules and regulations in celebrating the Vesak festival. He presents evidences from Pali texts and inscriptions. He further states that it was a decree that a king must held Vesak festivals annually, following the ratified rules and regulations. There has been a government officer who was in charge of organizing the state Vesak festival. Wimalawansa thero says that the term Magul Jetak in the well-known Mihintala inscription could be the ancient designation of the officer who was in charge of the organizing.

Poojawaliya describes in detail about a lavish Vesak festival performed by King Parakramabahu II of the Dambadeniya kingdom (13th century AD). The detailed description creates a vivid picture on the reader’s mind. There were thoran (pandolds), flags, exquisitely decorated temples and stupas and extravagant decorations all over the city. Also the life of Buddha (must be certain selected incidents) were recreated. It must be noted that, during this festival they have used life-size and lifelike ‘robot’ (machines) elephants/ tuskers instead of real elephants. Also there were similar robot horses. These artificial elephants and horses were a sight of awe and splendour. The entire city was a delightful sight to see.

Very less information is known about the Vesak festivals held during the kingdom of Kotte and Kandy. There have been lavish festivals held for Buddha during Kotte and Kandy, but it is not clear if they were Vesak festivals. Up to this day Vesak is celebrated in great festivity every year in Sri Lanka. Free refreshment halls (daan-sal) and thoran are unique features of the Vesak festivals held in Sri Lanka. And there is no doubt that Sri Lanka holds the most glamourous Vesak festival in the entire Buddhist world.

Vesak: celebrated as an International Buddhist festival

The decision to agree to celebrate Vesak as the Buddha’s birthday was formalized at the first conference of the World Fellowship of Buddhists held in Sri Lanka in 1950, although festivals at this time in the Buddhist world are a centuries-old tradition. The resolution that was adopted at the World Conference reads as follows:

That this Conference of the World Fellowship of Buddhists, while recording its appreciation of the gracious act of His Majesty, the Maharaja of Nepal in making the full-moon day of Vesak a Public Holiday in Nepal, earnestly requests the Heads of Governments of all countries in which large or small number of Buddhists are to be found, to take steps to make the full-moon day in the month of May a Public Holiday in honour of the Buddha, who is universally acclaimed as one of the greatest benefactors of Humanity.

An International day of Vesak recognized by the United Nations become a reality only on 15th December 1999. The proposal to declare Vesak as an international public holiday was tabled at the United Nations General Assembly by Sri Lanka. In 1999, the United NationsGeneral Assembly adopted resolution 54/115, entitled ‘International recognition of the Day of Vesak at United Nations Headquarters and other United Nations offices’. The resolution internationally recognized the Day of Vesak to acknowledge the contributions that Lord Buddha and Buddhism have made for over two and a half millennia. It also called for annual commemoration of the Day at the UN Headquarters, in New York, and other UN offices around the world. The Day of Vesak is an official holiday for the UN offices in many of the countries in South-East Asia.

Uncategorized, Sri Lankan festivals, SRI LANKAN HISTORY, Vesak, Vesak celebrations 

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