Religion plays a major role in human society. Every religion has its significant events for its followers to pay respect and commemorate. Buddhism is also one of the greatest religions in the world accepted today. Buddhism has many significant days in its calendar and VesakPoya, full Moon day of Kason, is the greatest event out of them. It commemorates three significant events in the life of the Buddha, the founder of Buddhism.
The first event in the life of the Buddha commemorated by Vesak is His Birthday. The second occasion in the Buddha’s life that Vesak celebrated is His attainment of Enlightenment and the last great in the Master’s life commemorated at Vesak is His Parinibbana, final passing away. This triple anniversary occurred in May according to Buddhist tradition and so Buddhists all over the world celebrate annually this Vesak Full Moon festival to commemorate the important events in their respected countries in accordance with their culture, tradition and custom that falls on the month of May.
Although Myanmar and Sri Lanka have been practicing Theravada Buddhist tradition since 3rd century B.C, the festival such as Vesak, Poson and so on that they celebrate are in different due to their culture, custom, tradition and historical background of the country. In this article, I would like to shed light on the Vesak Poya celebrated by Sri Lankan people.
Sri Lanka is an island situated in South Asian Region and it is also known as ‘the Pearl of Indian Ocean’ and it has been embracing Buddhism since the 3rd century B.C. The population is about 20 million and majority of Buddhists are Sinhalese ethnic and 76.7 percent of the populations are Buddhists. The Buddhist calendarical system included twelve lunar months and ‘Visakha’ is the second out of them. In Sri Lankan calendar this month is known as Vesak. The word ‘Vesak’ in Sinhalese derives from the Pali word ‘Visakha’, the second month mentioned in Pali literature that represents the month of the Buddhists. ‘Poya’ in Sinhalese also derives from the Pali term ‘Uposatha’, means observance religious significance on full moon days so ‘VesakPoya’ means the Full Moon day of Vesak. Among the rite and ritual celebrated in Sri Lanka, Vesak Poya, Poson Poya, the day when Venerable Mahinda, son of Empire Asoka, came to the Island and introduced Buddhism to the king, Devanampiyatissa and his subjects and Esala Poya, the festival of Sacred Tooth Relic of the Buddha, are the greatest festivals and those events are participated the whole Island, Buddhists as well as non-Buddhists alike.
First of all, let me tell you how Sri Lankan Buddhists prepare and hail Vesak festival. You can see temporaries shops set up at the junctions and off roads in Colombo, commercial City and other big cities the whole Island. People are selling season’s cards, Vesak Cards. This is the most popular custom in Sri Lanka like Christmas seasons and they commercialize greeting cards. Colorful attractive Vesak cards were issued in several sizes and designs by several groups for their customers and people mail greeting cards to their parents, brothers and sisters, friends, relatives, partners who are at home and abroad wishing them with the blessing of the Triple Gems. Vesak lanterns, Buddhist flags and raw materials to make lanterns are available in the shops. Several sizes and shapes of lanterns come up practically in every corner of street and in front of Banks, supermarkets, hotels and government buildings. Lantern exhibition and competition also are held annually in front of Colombo Town Hall. They display the exhibition for one week and crowd flock to that spot participating days and nights.
The amazing decorations that we have never seen in our country, Myanmar are ‘Pandals’. These pandals are decorated in major junctions in Colombo City and other big cities. They were sponsored by private company groups and big firms. It is difficult to translate in Myanmar what the term ‘pandal’ is so let me depict how they create and decorate it. The shape of pandals is up to the designers and some pandals are cycle shape but some are square. To construct the pandal they set up big and long areca tree on the ground and fix up with Masonite sheets. The artists painted sitting or standing posture of large picture of the Buddha at the center of the sheets and the posture is up to the designers. They illustrate Jataka stories, the past lives of the Buddha, section by section, around the picture of the Buddha. The colorful bulbs and lights are decorated the whole pandal. The pandals are inaugurated at the auspicious evening time on the full moon Poya day and they were displayed for a week. People come and have a look the pandals and listen to the Jataka stories narrated from recorded tapes that illustrated on it. After watching one pandal, they moved to another place where the other pandals are in and enjoyed it, thus, they spend their times the whole night moving from one place to another to take part in Vesak festival. They celebrate that festival for one week. This is the real and purely religious activities performed by Sri Lankan.
Let us glance from media point how media supports to celebrate Vesak festival. Vesak magazine, booklets, and other Buddhist magazines were published before the event. Several Radio stations and TV channels telecast special Vesak programs both in Sinhalese and English. They transmit religious songs, discussion and debating on Dhamma, observance precepts, listen to the Dhamma Talk, perform role-play and some program are live on Radio as well as TV channels and they enlighten the knowledge to the people by running these programs.
Before the day falls on, the several sizes of six colored Buddhist Flags, are hoisted at every Buddhist temple, home, shop, and public building throughout the Island as a symbol of respect and gratitude to the Buddha, Teacher of God and Men. According to historical record, religious observances on Poya days had been introduced from the time of King Devanampiyatissa. Poya days were announced as public holidays by the king and even today Sri Lankan government is keeping on exercise that valuable religious tradition.
A unique feature of Buddhism that Buddhists around the world; Theravada, Mahayana or Tibetan had recognized is Buddhist Flag. Let me turn to the interested historical background of the Birth of the Six Colored Buddhist Flag. When invaders such as Portuguese, Dutch and British came to the Island they moved the people away from Buddhist values, customs and traditions. In November 1770 Dutch Governor Falk abolished the Poya holidays and made Sunday the weekly holiday. The British introduced the Sunday holiday Act in 1817. The Poya holiday, a privilege enjoyed by Buddhists since the introduction to Buddhism in 247 B.C, was officially abolished. Buddhists did not have the freedom to observe Vesak from that time onwards.
Buddhist revivalist movement evolved with the arrival of Colonel Henry Steele Olcott, the American theosophist and his friend, a Russian Lady, Madame Helena Petrovna Blacatsky on 17, May 1880 in Ceylon (Then known as). A week later, both of them embraced Buddhism at Vijayanandarama temple, Galle, Southern City. Col.Olcott established Buddhist Theosophical Society in Galle and Colombo and gave leadership to the Buddhists uniting them and directing them on how their lost rights could be regained.
Buddhist Defence Committee (BDC) was organized under the patronage of Col.Olcott in January 28th, 1884. Carolis Pujitha Gunawardene was appointed as its secretary. He was in the fore front of the Buddhist revival of Sri Lanka. The main objective of the committee was to get back the Vesak Poya holiday to the Buddhist revivalist movement but the British had not shown any interest in restoring the Vesak holiday. On a visit to London in February 1884, Col. Olcott handed over a memorandum to the Secretary of State for the colonies requesting the British Government to restore Vesak holiday to the Buddhists. Lord Derby, the Secretary of State gave an assurance that the Governor would be consulted on the matter. On 29th March, 1885, Governor Sir Arthur Hamitton Gordon issued a proclamation declaring Vesak Poya a public holiday.
The Buddhists thus regained a privilege they had lost for 115 years. The time when Vesak declared by the British, Col.Olcott was away at Adya, Madras, Southern India and the Buddhist Defence Committee informed him of the happy news. The Buddhist Defence Committee organized to celebrate the historic event at the same time.
With the announcement of restoration of Vesak holiday, the Buddhist Defence Committee decided to celebrate Vesak Poya on a ground scale which fell on 28th April that year. The committee felt the need for a Buddhist Flag to host as a unifying symbol of this memorable day. It would symbolize the unification of Buddhists and provide the Buddhists with a tool to display their reverence to the Buddha. The members of committee designed the flags that represent Buddhist community and they submitted the flags. The one submitted by C.P Gunawardene, secretary of BDC, was accepted. It represents the six rays of the Buddha: Nila, (sapphire-blue), Pita, (golden yellow), Lohita, (crimson), Odata, (white), Manjjhitha (scarlet), and Pabhasara (a hue composed of the others blended. The flag was hoisted at six places on that Poya day and from that year on it was hoisted every Buddhist temple, house, shop and public building when Vesak Poya day falls on. Many of us believed that Col.Olcott designed the Buddhist Flag. In his diary, Col. Olcott admitted that he did not design Buddhist Flag. On Vesak Poya every Buddhist organization launches religious activity in their respective places the whole Island. The United Nation also declared gazette holiday on Vesak Poya.
Let me conclude this article with the comments of Venerable Bhikkhu Bodhi, a renowned Theravada Buddhist monk, an American citizen, who has given his sermon titled “The Buddha and His Message” on the occasion of the first official United Nations celebration of Vesak in 2000. The Buddha states that of all things in the world, the one with most powerful influence for both good and bad is the mind. Genuine peace between peoples and nations grows out of peace and goodwill in the hearts of human beings. Such peace cannot be won merely by material progress, by economic development and technological innovation, but demands moral and mental development.”
Dr.Tun Tun @ Dr.Nyan Tun is a Tutor of Department of Nationalities Affairs, Nationalities Youth Resource Development Degree College (NRDC) (Yangon).