Seeking Sarnath: Where the Buddha First Taught Wisdom
My day trip to Sarnath was an impromptu decision. That day, I actually intended to explore more of old Varanasi – specifically the festival that was going to be observed in Kashi Vishwanath temple. It should be an interesting cultural experience. Besides, Najindran had not taken me there during our tour of Varanasi the previous day.
So, after a bit of breakfast on the steps of Dashashwamedh Ghat, where festive umbrellas lined the banks of the Ganges, I headed back into the warrens of the city towards the most important Shiva temple of Varanasi.
- Kashi Vishawanath on a Festival Day
- Sarnath: Where the Buddha Taught
- Sarnath Archaeological Site
- Dharmapala Road
- Returning to Varanasi
- Carbon offsetting information to Varanasi, India
Kashi Vishawanath on a Festival Day
It was never clear to me exactly what festival it was. The hostel told me that it was not one of the really big ones, but one of the numerous lesser holy days observed in India.
Even so, I quickly learned that my day’s intention was a lot less realistic than I imagined. The Hindu faithful in their holiest city thronged the narrow alleys in unimaginably long queues. Policemen manned checkpoints at various parts that I can only assume makes sense from a security point of view if I understood the true layout of the alleyways. Not only that, but you needed to surrender your belongings at these checkpoints – no bags, no phones (there are lockers to leave things in).
The already close atmosphere increased in its oppressive density. The crowd was orderly, but the lines barely moved.
And I told myself, I really didn’t need to be there. It was not my festival, and I was in the way.
I remembered Sarnath
I freely admit that I reached my limit then. Just two days ago I came into India with the full composure of bending with the moment, after my time in Nepal. I figured, even though I am an introvert, surely I would not buckle until at least when I got to Lucknow.
I didn’t expect to have my mental reserves depleted in just two days.
But two nights of falling to sleep with difficulty against the backdrop of unceasing traffic noise, and two mornings of a dusty, noisy walk to the ghats, plus the sheer crowd of people headed towards Kashi Vishwanath, did it.
When I extracted myself from the snaking queues, I did not think to choose any other activity on my Varanasi shortlist. I looked for a destination that would take me out of Varanasi completely.
It was then that I remembered Sarnath. I remembered from the reliefs on the Pokhara World Peace Pagoda that Sarnath was an important site for Buddhism, because it was where the Buddha first delivered his teachings. Importantly, I remembered that Sarnath is near to Varanasi.
I found a tuktuk for the day, agreed a price, and went on a spontaneous day trip to Sarnath.
En route to Sarnath
The tuktuk driver told me that we would pass through the Muslim quarter of Varanasi, before entering the Buddhist area around Sarnath.
I nodded. Cities were typically laid out with distinct areas for different ethno-religious communities before modern times, and some old cities still are. I had reckoned that Varanasi might be one.
Still, I hadn’t expected to be able to tell when the line was crossed, but surprisingly I could.
I’m still not entirely sure what gave it away. It was more like several little things – fewer people out maybe, and the cows in the streets became goats. There were women out on the roads, but not on foot and not in sarees. They were often in full face veil and often on a vehicle – either a rickshaw, tuktuk, or at least a bicycle.
The streets opened up wider as we entered relatively newer areas, though they were still dusty, packed earth.
And I definitely knew when we entered Sarnath. I knew because it was green.
Sarnath: Where the Buddha Taught
Sarnath felt entirely different from Varanasi. Suddenly the noise abated and the bustle dropped. It was simply not as dense.
The tuktuk driver stopped at a common parking area for passenger transport in a place that was clearly a planned sort of amenity. He indicated to me where the Sarnath temple complex was, which was free to enter, and told me to return to find him when I was done.
I half-wondered if he would still be there. But I could see there were many other ride options, and since I only paid half the fare, I did not worry too much. The greenery in the complex was calling to me.
Sanctuary in Sarnath temple precincts
The first thing I saw at the gate, was a set of rules. Do not take in food and ‘playing items’. No entry after 6. Be clean and peaceful.
Now I know, in this day and age the ‘young and free’ millennial society has an automatic dislike response for rules. But that day I was incredibly relieved to see rules – they are the reason for the peace, tidiness, and order within.
It was what preserved the sanctuary, as a sanctuary.
Beyond the gate, a wide path opened and led towards the temple. All around was a spacious green lawn, lined with neatly trimmed green hedge. Birds warbled in the trees and squirrels roamed the verges freely. The place was designed for serenity.
The feeling was very similar to the sudden peace of the courtyards of the mosques of Morocco, the moment you step in from the labyrinthine bustle of the old markets.
Thoughts while strolling in the Sarnath temple gardens
I decided to come back to the temple, and opted to first wander the paved paths around.
Here there is greenery that exists not because a tree was saved by not being worth removing, or too holy to be disturbed. Instead they are wanted just for being trees, specifically planted and reared, giving assent to the human desire for a piece of primordial nature, even within the bricks and stone of great cities.
By the straight paths were placed placards of Buddhist teachings for the casual stroller – teaching, still teaching.
The choice of quotes was interesting, I thought. They tended to be ones about placing power to change in the individual. The messages seem straightforward and uncomplicated, not the metaphysical philosophy that endeared Buddhism to the West. I’m certain the learned embellish and complexify simple teachings, as smart people are often tempted to in every faith.
The deer park in the Sarnath temple gardens
I went on my Sarnath day trip without much preparation. So when I came upon the deer park at the end of the gardens, I did not know it was supposed to be the very area where Gautama Buddha was supposed to have taught his first disciples.
It simply looked like a recreational park for families. There was a fee to enter, and turnstiles, like an amusement park.
Since I did not particularly feel an interest in the deer, I turned back. Content to simply sit by the lined water channel with the water lilies, and watching butterflies on the grass.
A couple of Indian men who were likewise enjoying the garden were watching me. Certainly, I looked foreign in my non-Indian clothes mostly meant for my earlier trekking in Nepal. Eventually they called to me, and in halting English tried to discover where I was from. I replied, but further conversation was impeded by my lack of Hindi, and their fragmented English.
One of them did manage to make me understand that I was sitting next to a bodhi tree. He kept pointing to the heart-shaped leaf. Fortunately, I remembered something from a different trip to Pattaya, Thailand, and put two and two together. Siddhartha Gautama achieved enlightenment while meditating under a bodhi tree, which has heart-shaped leaves.
Raindrops. The heavy bank of cloud overhead finally released its load.
I suppose this was the downside of being in verdant nature – lack of shelter.
Striding back to the nearest building, the raindrops turned more quickly than I expected into a torrential downpour. I only just managed to squeeze myself into a shallow alcove between the temple colonnades.
It was a meagre shelter. As the wind shifted, it exposed different alcoves to rain bombardment and sheltered others. A few other visitors were in the same boat, at different tiny shelters by the sides of walls and buildings, and we endured as best we could.
How I somehow attended a Buddhist sermon I did not understand
Eventually, the rain let up enough that I judged it possible to go all the way to the temple entrance. And though you were supposed to leave your shoes in a designated rack, it was out in the rain without a cover. So I did as the others and took the damp sandals off at the steps.
As the rain increased in intensity, and the winds began blowing it sideways, I thought I might shelter inside the temple. Walking in past the custodians, I saw that there was already a crowd inside. I took a spot on the floor next to some women.
Looking around, the temple struck me as having a very churchlike feel. The space felt like a nave, and there were images high up on the walls depicting Buddhist scenes. At the far end, there was something like an altar or podium.
And the person at the podium began speaking in a language I did not understand. The congregation responded at intervals. Whoops. I think I crashed a service.
Torn between the rainy outside and the self-consciousness of having crashed a Buddhist sermon, I tried to acquire the powers of invisibility. The congregation mostly ignored me, but eventually the self-consciousness won out.
So when I judged I could do it the least conspicuously, I slid back out into the windy porch outside, and waited out the rain.
Buddhist pilgrims in Sarnath
When the rain let up, I decided to wander over another part of the garden which was fenced around. The entrance was through an ornate arch topped by the Buddhist dharma wheel.
Immediately after the arch was a feature installation, with statues depicting Lord Buddha teaching his disciples. Beyond, there was a kind of shrine. I watched as Indian Buddhists made their walk around the shrine – clockwise, just like I had seen in Nepal.
As they rounded the front and passed by a series of prayer wheels, they passed a hand across to spin them around. Om mani padme hum.
It began to rain again. Really?? I hurried to the entrance to the deer park, which was closer than the temple. The ticket counter area had a roof, and many others were also sheltering there.
I did not mind that much, really. It was nature falling upon nature, and I found shelter. I was provided for. It was enough. It was nothing compared to my recent monsoon trek in Annapurna.
In hindsight, if the day had turned fine, I might have gone to wander the deer park. It is actually quite large, and probably very nice.
Sarnath Archaeological Site
There was a distinctive earthen structure rising above the treeline, visible from within the temple garden. It had to be significant.
I wandered about the garden all around towards it, but it cannot be reached from inside the temple precincts. So I left the temple to walk along the main road to find the entrance to the place next door. The only other place in the area I could think of based on the signs, was the Sarnath Museum.
I walked up the next lane that turned in, but it didn’t seem like the right place. I walked on a little bit more and turned into the next lane. The stupa-like edifice loomed big in the background, but it was not accessible from this area either.
The tour guide by the roadside
As I walked back towards the main road, a man called out to me. It was a local man, middle-aged and bespectacled. He had a straight bearing and a scholarly manner. Speaking perfect English, he asked whether I was looking to see the stupa.
“I’m looking for the museum. Is that where I can get in there?” I asked him, pointing at the edifice.
He assented, but then said, “But there’s nothing you can see from inside the compound, that you can’t see from outside.” Like the astrologer in Varanasi, he dissuaded me from the museum, saying that it was not worth the entrance fee to look inside. “It’s expensive,” he said. He gave me the price truthfully.
He told me he was a local Buddhist, and gives tours himself. And then he began to narrate to me the history of the place, as if we were already in conversation. Wherever I moved, he subtly shifted to keep his place in relation to me. He was not aggressive – rather fatherly in fact. But again, I found myself in the same situation as in Kathmandu Durbar Square.
Inwardly I sighed, knowing this was going to cost me. This was not another Najindran. On the other hand, I looked at him with his quiet dignity, and wondered if perhaps he really needed to do this.
Ah well. Let’s hope it would not cost me too much.
On effective communication: The things we remember
He actually gave a really good, informative story about the place. I remember thinking this throughout his narration.
He told me about Buddhism, its philosophies and its ideals. He took me close to the fenceline, where there were gaps for me to see Dhamek stupa, the structure I was curious about. And he brought me to a different part of the fence, where I could see the excavation site where archaeologists were still uncovering remains of the old Buddhist monasteries that were once there.
And later, he pointed out the Jain temple that was there, explaining that it was an important temple in Jainism.
But the most important thing I got from this exchange had nothing to do about the tour. Because, one year on, I remember almost nothing of the details he told me, even though at the time I listened well enough.
Rather, reflecting on the experience today, I realised it demonstrated everything that I have been learning in recent years about what is actually essential in human communication.
1. You remember less when you did not consent to being informed
While it wasn’t a scam per se, it was a tour that I did not feel like I chose. And so my mind was on guard, wondering when and how I would get charged for something.
Consequently, I was busy thinking of something else, and not thinking about storing the information that was being given. Even though part of my mind that was listening, evaluated it as good information.
2. You remember things better when there’s an emotional tag
Comparing the tours I had in Kathmandu and Sarnath, they were both dry and academic. The Sarnath one was actually better; less bombardment of facts and more narrative driven.
But I remembered more things from Kathmandu. I remembered things attached to arresting visuals, like shockingly bloody effigies, or a prominent sculpture, or photos I took, and of course – anything related to the sex temple! Whereas the Sarnath tour only involved a view of the stupa and the archaeological dig.
In fact, the only information I remember about the stupa was that supposedly there is a relic of the Buddha within, and that it was supposedly the very spot where he taught.
There’s a reason why clickbait headlines provoke us with a specific set of words and phrases, and why image-based social media proliferated so quickly.
3. You don’t remember what someone said, but you remember what he/you felt
No, I do not remember information about the ancient site of Sarnath.
But, I remember the guide’s bitterness as he narrated Sarnath’s history. I remember the change in his tone when he shifted from speaking about Buddhist ideals, to speaking of when a Muslim conqueror overran the lands and destroyed the structures, narrating it as though it had happened only last year. Carrying the anger of hundreds of years past, intact into the present day.
True enough, when the man was done, he held out his hand for a tip. I gave him something, but he was not pleased with the amount and asked for more. Weary and keen to be on my way, I added a little more and bid him good day.
I was in the mood for something more mundane, so I inspected the cheery line of vendors that lined the main road.
Most were selling street food, and some were selling Buddhist-themed religious icons and objects. But one was additionally selling curious crafts such as a lantern-shaped decoration that seemed to be knitted (?).
I was not sure if they were real lanterns, since they seemed somewhat… flammable. Although I suppose the Chinese have lanterns of paper.
I thought long and hard about getting one just as a curiosity, but could not really justify the space in my backpack. In all honesty, I can’t think of where they would go in my apartment!
Street food in Sarnath
Getting somewhat hungry, I debated whether I ought to take the risk of having street food in India. I have been doing well so far, having had no trouble in Varanasi at all with fried snack foods and lassi, and the success of my water filter.
Emboldened by my success, I decided to deviate from my gastronomic care and tried one of the street food offerings. I don’t know what it was called. It was a sort of thin fried ball, hollow on the inside. I figured it would be safe enough.
But when I said yes to a set of five, it turned out that the way to prepare it was to puncture the top, and pour a kind of watery spicy sauce with sweetcorn into the hollow. The sauce was not piping hot. And, it had been sitting there through the rainstorm.
But, I was feeling emboldened. I sat on the kerb, and ate it.* It was good.
The surprising roadside musolla
There was a curious thing I noted on this road. A tiny little green** building, somehow built on the sidewalk. Rising above the roof of zinc sheets was a sort of onion dome, which one normally associates with a mosque.
Nah, it can’t be. There are many, many religions and sects in India. It could be a building associated with any of them. Why on earth would there be a Muslim building in the middle of a footpath, let alone the main street of a holy site of Buddhism?
As I passed it, I turned again to look.
And looked closer.
Specifically, in the shadow of the roof over the brightly painted little grille door. I could read the Arabic. Allahu Akbar^.
Walking closer, I confirmed it. Indeed, for some unfathomable reason, there is a tiny little musolla^^ just, you know, there on the sidewalk of Dharmapala Road!
There’s India for ya. The currents of her history clearly eddy back and forth, trapping pieces of past decisions all stirred up together in layers and layers of superposition.
Returning to Varanasi
The tuktuk driver was indeed still there when I went to look for him. In fact, he came up to me when I was still walking from the road.
(I later found this to be the case generally throughout my trip across Uttar Pradesh, which seems to be significantly poorer than Delhi. Because of the guarantee of a fare, drivers will wait. They will also keep an eye out for you so that you are not poached by another driver due to being unable to find them).
He asked where I would go next. “Back to Varanasi,” I said. Back we went, and I was dropped off at the place where I was picked up.
Epilogue: On Religious Defensiveness
As I travelled through Uttar Pradesh, visiting its prominent sites in the coming days, listening and observing in silence, reading the news and feed from local social media groups, I hear something repeated in every place I stopped. And that was the echo of grievance, like that carried by the tour guide I met in Sarnath.
Varanasi was the exception. In the city of Shiva, despite spending the most time there, I learned of Hindus having Muslim friends, and the Muslim community being known primarily for clothing Hindu women in the famous silk sarees of Benaras.
In Sarnath I listened to a Buddhist’s defensive words against Muslims. Then in Delhi, I listened to the Jains’ grievance against Muslims. In Agra, a Muslim’s discontent against Hindus. And in Lucknow, capital of Uttar Pradesh, Hindus defensive against the foreigner.
None of it was overt or aggressive. Daily life is peaceful, and the traveller’s journey is unaffected.
Just a latent wound kept festering by remembering a chain of feuds from long ago, that was never quite reconciled.
It was a mental state that is not unknown to me, because it was growing in my country too.
Is it religion that fuels wars?
It is common to read on the internet, ‘religion fuels wars’. And I often wonder whether the people writing it really do not understand, or are simply dishonest.
Every war is fought between tribes. In fact, in order to have a civil war, you must first split one tribe into two smaller ones, that stay split. The reason for wars is invariably some kind of self-interest, over things like resources and self-determination (which is still about control of resources, if you think about it).
Ethnic concepts of the nation state, nationalism, and other ethno-geographical ideas (e.g. ‘white man’s burden‘) were specifically created through the long ages of mankind either to take, or defend, resources. Where this was not feasible, any other idea that will serve as a proxy for ‘the tribe’, will be conscripted. So religion, as well as technically non-ethnic philosophies and beliefs (e.g. capitalist vs communist, ‘democracy’ vs something else), have all been and still are used to create the lines of tribalism required to grease the way to conflict.
When that happens, an honest eye would see that those beliefs and philosophies cease to be themselves, since they have lost their content and become just an empty proxy for ‘the tribe’. Democracies do undemocratic things, and religious congregations justify highly irreligious things, when compared against their own standards.
I don’t know why it’s not obvious. Or perhaps it is, but people don’t want to see, because then their own tribe (i.e. ‘anti-religious’) would vanish.
Diversity does not cause war.
In the absence of a resource grab, not even latent grievance causes war. But when self-affirmation turns into self-centredness, when diversity is turned into a proxy for tribalism that justifies taking resources from another tribe without negotiating – this causes war.
War is caused by selfishness, by ideas that are about ‘me’. Whereas religion – all the religions, not just the ones in fashion in the West – is about the opposite of that, about ‘we’. The highest figures of every religion are venerated for embodying precisely this. And if their view does not overrule lesser ranking people in their respective religions, are we not being dishonest?
The hurts I remember underlying the words I heard across Uttar Pradesh were all the more poignant when you consider that every one of those religions gives a way to heal out of the festering bitterness. I don’t mean the apathy of ceasing to care, of nihilism and anarchy. I mean true healing.
But the hearts must want to come. The wounds of the past can only be laid down together, when the groups are so sick of living this way that every one sweeps aside their grievances for the future, and puts to rest the ghosts where they belong.
* Later that night, I regretted it very much. It was the one and only time I had digestive issues in India. But this is why you bring a properly stocked travel med kit.
** Green is often associated with Islam, because tradition has it that it was Prophet Muhammad’s favourite colour. It is also associated with luxury due to the rarity of greenery in the desert, hence featuring often in Qur’anic descriptions of Paradise luxuries.
^ Arabic: God is (the) Great(est)
^^ Arabic: prayer space for Muslims
Carbon offsetting information to Varanasi, India
A return flight between Kuala Lumpur and Varanasi via Delhi produces carbon emissions of approximately 3,573 lbs CO2e. It costs about $18 to offset this.
If you’re in Varanasi, Sarnath is a great day trip, and gives you an appreciation for India’s religious diversity.