Bodhisattva, having renounced the luxurious life of Prince Siddhartha, became Gautama, the ascetic. After leaving his home, he started walking in the southeastern direction from Kapilavastu and came to Vaishali. There, 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, its capital, where he listened to the yogic teachings of Rudraka. Again dissatisfied, he left the place, followed by five ascetics. Along with them, he came to the village of Uravilva, situated on the banks of the Nairanjana River, close to the place now known as Bodhgaya. There, they engaged in long, austere practices. For the first two years, Gautama ate only one grain of rice a day and for the next four years, he ate nothing at all. Despite almost full degeneration of his body, he remained sitting in continual meditation.
Six years after his initial renunciation, he realized that extreme
mortification does not lead to liberation. He arose and broke the
austerities. The five ascetics got upset and left for Benares.
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,
Indra Deva struck the ground to form a pond. A local Brahmin's daughter,
Sujata, approached him and offered him a golden bowl filled with rice,
prepared in the essence of the milk of one thousand cows. Renewed, he
bathed and then walked to a nearby cave to continue his meditation.
However, the earth shook and the voices of the earlier Buddhas resounded
in the air, telling him that this was not the place of his
enlightenment. They advised him to proceed to the nearby Bodhi tree. The
sites, where these events took place, were seen by the Chinese pilgrims
in the fifth and seventh centuries. The records mention that stupas had
been constructed at each of the sites. However, none of these exist
As Buddha walked to the Bodhi tree, Svastika, a graincutter, gave him a
bundle of kusha grass. A flock of birds flew around him three times.
When he entered the area around the tree, the earth shook. He made a
seat from the kusha grass for himself, on the eastern side of the tree
and after seven circumambulations sat down facing east. He made the
great resolve of not rising again, till enlightenment had been attained,
even if his skin, bones and flesh crumble away. Sending forth a beam of
light from the center of his eyebrows, he invoked Mara, who came to
challenge him. Mara first dispatched his horrible armies and then his
enticing daughters, but Buddha remained unmoved and defeated him,
calling upon the earth and her goddess as his witness. He continued in
profound meditation for three nights and finally realized the Supreme
Enlightenment at dawn. The air filled with flowers and light and the
earth trembled seven times.
For seven days, Buddha continued to meditate beneath the tree, without
moving from his seat and for the next six weeks, He remained in the
vicinity. During the second week he paced, lost in thoughts, with lotus
flowers springing from his footsteps. He pondered whether or not to
teach. The chankramanar jewel walk later represented this event. The
walk consists of a low platform adorned with eighteen lotuses, which now
runs close to and parallel to the north side of the Mahabodhi Temple.
For another week after the walk, He sat under the Bodhi tree. The
Animeshalochana Stupa, situated to the north of the Chankramanar, later
marked this spot. Brahma and Indra offered a hall made of the seven
precious elements, where Buddha sat for a week, radiating lights of five
colors from his body to illuminate the Bodhi tree. Huen Tsang described
this site as being to the west of the tree and remarked that with time
the precious elements changed to stone. Today, Ratnaghara stands
identified by some as a roofless shrine to the north of Chankramanar.
During a week of unusually inclement weather, the Naga king, Muchalinda
wrapped his body seven times around the meditating Buddha, protecting
him from the rain, wind and insects. Huen Tsang saw a small temple next
to the tank, believed to be the Naga's abode. He described it as lying
to the southeast of the Bodhi tree. Presently, it is identified as the
dry pond in Mucherim village near Bodhgaya.
While Buddha was meditating beneath the Ajapala nigrodha tree, Lord
Brahma came and requested him to teach the Dharma. Huen Tsang saw this
tree, along 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 seventh week seated beneath the Tarayana tree.
According to the Huen Tsang, the tree lies to the southeast of the Bodhi
tree enclosure, near the place where the bodhisattva earlier had bathed
and eaten Sujata's offering. All these places were marked with stupas at
that point of time. It was here that two passing merchants, Trapusha and
Bhallika, offered Buddha food for the first time, since his
enlightenment. Seeing that he needed a vessel to receive it, each of the
four guardians of the directions offered precious bowls. But, He
accepted only a stone bowl from each one of them. He pressed the four
bowls together to form one and when Fa Hien saw it in Peshawar, four
rims could be seen in the one.
spending forty-nine days in meditation, close to the seat of
enlightenment, Buddha left Bodhgaya on foot to meet the five ascetics at
Benares, where He was going to turn the first wheel of Dharma. After
accomplishing this task, he returned briefly to Uruvela and introduced
the three brothers, namely Uruvela, Gaya and Nadi Kasyapa, to his
teachings. They, along with a thousand followers of their own, became
monks and accompanied Shakyamuni to Rajgir.
Just like Shakyamuni, all other 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, as the tree was 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 changed. Deep regretting 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, during the Buddha's
lifetime. Nagarjuna is said to have built an enclosure later, to protect
the tree from being damaged by elephants. With time, this became less
effective. So, he placed a statue of Mahakala upon each pillar.
Huen Tsang gave a record of the third destruction of the tree. He
reported seeing remains of these walls and states that in the sixth
century, a Saivite king of Bengal, Shasanka, destroyed the tree.
However, even though he dug deep into its roots, he was unable to
unearth it completely. Purvavarma, of Magadha Empire, revived it later.
He poured milk of one thousand cows upon it, leading to the growth of
tree to a height of ten feet, in a single night.
The origin of the Mahabodhi Temple, which adorns the site today, is
shrouded in obscurity. Various legends hold that Ashoka erected a
diamond throne shrine, basically a canopy supported by four pillars,
over a stone representation of Vajrasana. When General Cunningham was
restoring the floor of the 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 century and seventh century. Others propose
that because of its resemblance to similar structures found in Ghandhara
and Nalanda as well as the other archaeological evidence, it could have
been founded as early as the second century AD. Nagarjuna is reputed to
have built the original stupa upon the roof. However, from the records
of Huen Tsang, we can be certain that the temple existed before the
Records of the builder are not clear. Some legends go that he was a
Brahmin, who acted 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 Huen Tsang describes particularly the
magnificent Mahabodhi Sangharama, founded in the early 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 emphasized pure practice of the
Vinaya, received ordination in Bodhgaya.
Like everywhere else, 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 (ascetic) settled in
Bodhgaya and founded the establishment now known as the math of the
Mahanta. 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. However, his efforts were hindered by
bureaucracy. The British Government of India decided that the temple and
its surroundings were the property of the Saivite Mahanta. Nearly sixty
years of judicial wrangling followed, after which 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 began to
regain some of its lost splendor. The establishment of beautiful temples
and monasteries, in the surrounding district, by the people of Tibet,
Japan, China, Thailand, Burma, etc has brought 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. In the recent years, thousands have had
the fortune to listen to the Dharma there. Many Buddhist masters are
again traveling to Bodhgaya to turn the wheel of Dharma. For example,
over 100,000 devotees attended the Kalachakra empowerment given by His
Holiness, The Dalai Lama, in the year 1974. The Tibetan monastery now
offers a two-month meditation course every year, for the international
Buddhist community. It also provides meditation courses. Occasionally,
the teachings are given in the Burmese, Thai, Japanese and other