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Sunday, 19 May 2013





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Vesak as a festival of lights

With the dawn of the 2556th year of the Buddhist calendar, reckoned after the Passing Away of Sakyamuni Gautama Buddha, the world will mark Vesak this week.

Vesak lanterns are a major attraction of the festivities

The Vesak Poya is significant to Buddhists across the world as three most significant events of the Buddha’s life occurred on a Vesak Full Moon Poya day. They are the Birth of Prince Siddhartha Gautama, the Enlightenment of ascetic Siddhartha Gautama and the Parinibbana (Passing Away) of Gautama Buddha.

Vesak is a time which highlights the importance of Amisa Pooja, the practice of dana (charity), making offerings to the Buddha in various ways including alms-giving. Prathipaththi Pooja, on the other hand, is when one practises Dhamma through seela (morality) and bhavana (meditation). Sometimes, the two types of poojas are practised hand in hand.

The festival of Vesak is also identified with Bhakthi Gee or devotional songs. Clad in pure white or other light colours, both male and female singers would sing the songs to elaborate the great virtues of the Buddha. Bhakthi Gee recitals are organised by schools and institutes as well as different companies and even the Armed Forces and police.

Vesak marks the triple significant moments from the life of the Enlightened One. It is also one of those rare times when Amisa Pooja is witnessed at its best. Hence, there is no better time to set aside all differences - racial, religious, ethnic and cultural - and relish the blissful experience of the splendour of the Vesak festival in total harmony.

Dazzling illuminations

While dansalas are set up in most cities to generously serve local food and beverages free, where the noble cause of alms-giving is practised, the festival gains an added dimension at night with thorana (pandals), Vesak lanterns, Buddhist flags, festoons and dazzling illuminations where the Aloka Pooja or offering of light to the Buddha is practised.

The Buddha’s teachings are compared to a lamp for those who are groping in the darkness of ignorance. Those bhikkhus who have followed the path laid down by the Buddha and achieved their release and hence delivered themselves from samsaric darkness are described as light-bringers (Aalokakara), torch-bearers (Ukkaadhaara) and darkness-dispellers (Tamonuda) in the Itivuttaka (p-108).

Offerings of light at temples

A recurrent passage highlights this idea at the end of most of the Buddha’s discourses by comparing the exposition, concerned as “holding a lamp in darkness so that those endowed with eyes could see (Andhakaare tesapajjotam vaa dhaareyya). The Buddha is thus referred to as holding aloft the torch of the Dhamma to the entire world, thereby spreading light and eyesight to humanity.

Light and wisdom

Light offering has today become so popular that Vesak illuminations commemorating the Birth, Enlightenment and Passing Away of the Buddha have turned out to be more or less a ‘festival of lights’, especially in Sri Lanka, the home of Theravada Buddhism.

A pandal displays a story from the Buddha’s life, a Jataka tale or historical events of the country. Offerings of light such as pahan or Aloka pooja have, in fact, become a common element among the popular Buddhist rituals everywhere.

Unlike in the case of other aspects of Amisa Pooja, offering of light through lamps has a special significance owing to the symbolism of light and wisdom. Therefore, it is well and good that pahan pooja has become the major element in the widely popular Bodhi pooja ritual of today. This is so because it was under a Bo tree that the Buddha attained Enlightenment by conquering all the forces of darkness and ignorance that torment this world.

In this context, when lamps are lit as part of a Bodhi pooja, it serves, not only as a memorial to the great event, but also as a symbolic ritual whereby the performer also could expect to partake of at least a minimal portion of that “light” attained by the Enlightened One. In this sense, when performed with seriousness, devotion and confidence, this ritual can be justifiably treated as a spiritual exercise. Cetiya-worship also has Pahan pooja as an integral part, based on the same logic.

Vesak lanterns of various kinds, shapes and colours are lit in Buddhist homes on Vesak Day. Pandals, well-illuminated with electricity and depicting various scenes from the Buddha’s life or from Jataka stories, also constitute a way in which the Buddha is worshipped and remembered by means of lights.

There is a stanza popularly used in Sri Lanka, when offering lit lamps in the name of the Buddha:

Ghanasarappadittena - deepena tamadansinaa
Tilokadeepam sambuddham – poojayami tamnudam

Colourful pandals spring up everywhere during Vesak

“I worship the fully Enlightened One, the dispeller of darkness, the lamp of the three worlds, with this darkness-dispelling lamps well-lit with camphor”.

Camphor in lamps

This stanza refers to lamps lit with camphor, ghanasaara is a Sanskrit word meaning camphor, this word seems to be absent in Pali, in which language this stanza is composed. One could interpret this to mean “lamps lit with camphor” to mean that camphor was used to light up the lamp. But, it would be more correct to take the stanza to mean offering lit camphor which is also used as a light-offering to the Buddha. The burning camphor flame is said to be very pure unlike its smoke which is a very powerful blackening agent.

In the above context, it would be better to confine the above-quoted stanza to offer lit camphor and to substitute the word Telapajjota for Ghanasarappa when offering oil-lamps, which has become the commonest form of light-offering today.

State-sponsored events take place across the country with the participation of the Maha Sangha, Dasa Sil Mata and the laity with non-Buddhists joining their Buddhist fraternity at vihara, upasikarama and other Buddhist centres. Vesak goes beyond Dana, Sila, Bhavana in vihara and upasikarama to decorations and pandals in the towns and cities.

The United Nations gave credence to the international recognition of the Day of Vesak at the 54th Session of the UN General Assembly, following a proposal by Sri Lanka. Vesak celebrations are now held at United Nations offices throughout the world.



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