Gautam Buddha was born in Lumbini. Though he was from Kapilvastu, the Shakyamuni attained enlightenment at Bodh Gaya, just south of the old Magadhan capital of Rajgir. Still, Buddha did not deliver his first sermon in Bodh Gaya or in the nearby towns and villages. In fact, not even in the royal capital of Rajgir which was ruled by Bimbisara, Buddha’s first royal patron. Instead Buddha headed west towards Kashi (now Varanasi).
Now, Why Did Buddha Go All the Way to Varanasi to Spread His Message?
According to historian Vidula Jayaswal, Varanasi became Gautam Buddha’s natural choice as it was an important place not only for exchange of goods, but also for ideas. The ancient city stood at the crossroads between the Uttara Path (also called as Grand Trunk Road by British) and a highway that came from the Himalayas, and then continued till the south as the Dakshina Path (which began from Allahabhad and moved to Kashkinda in Karnataka and then ended at Rameswaram).
In some ways, this remains true to this day as the east-west National Highway 2 meets the north-south National Highway 7 at Varanasi. The latter then runs all the way down to the southern tip of India.
The alignment of the modern north-south highway runs somewhat east of the ancient trade route but it is amazing how the logic of India’s transport system has remained the same. Even when the British built the railways in the 19th century, they used Mughalsarai, just outside Varanasi as the nerve centre of the railway network.
When the Buddha went there in the 6th century BC, Varansi was already a large urban settlement built on the Ganga. It was in a deer park at Sarnath, just outside the city that the Buddha delivered his first sermon. As an important crossroads the place was already an established hub of commercial and intellectual activity by this time, which is precisely what attracted to him.
The Importance of Sarnath
Often tourists visiting the Buddhist archaeological site at Sarnath do not realize that the place is sacred to other religion and traditions too – Just outside, the tourists and travelers can see a large Jain temple dedicated to the 11th Tirthankara, Shreyansanath. Similarly, the archaeological museum next door contains various artifacts and idols of the Brahminical tradition.
Sarnath is still sacred to the devotees of Shiva. In fact, the name Sarnath is a short form of Saranganath (meaning Lord of the Deer) which is another name of Lord Shiva.
This is not surprising as Varanasi from ancient times remains an important hub for Hindus of the Shaivate tradition. This explains why the Buddha found a park with sacred deer at this place.
Reference and Source:
Land Of The Seven Rivers ~ Sanjeev Sanyal, Varanasi
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