Page images
PDF
EPUB

we gain certain specific information respecting this city at that early epoch.

It is a fact, admitting of no dispute, that S'ákya Muni, the last and only really historical Buddha, on attaining the mysterious condition of Buddhahood under the Bodhi tree in the neighbourhood of Gayá, travelled to Benares, and proceeded to the Ísipattana Vihára, or monastery, now known as Sárnáth. This may have been in the sixth century B.c. Here he announced the change which had come upon him, and the transcendental and superhuman, not to say divine, state in which he imagined he found himself. The five Bhikshus, or religious hermits, men of considerable note in the early history of Buddhism, who had formerly been associated with him, but had subsequently abandoned him, and who happened, at that time, to be at the Ísipattana monastery, embraced the new religion, and became disciples of Buddha. At Sárnáth S'ákya Muni first began to "turn the wheel of the Law," in other words, to preach the famous doctrines of Dharma and Nirváņa, which were destined, in later years, 'to exert such an extraordinary influence over a large portion of the human family.

The Rev. R. Spence Hardy, in his erudite and valuable work, “A Manual of Budhism,” quoting from Ceylon records, gives the following account of the visit of Buddha to Ísipattana :—“When Budha looked to see unto whom he should first say bana, he saw that the ascetics Alára and Uddaka were worthy; but when he looked again to discover in what place they were, he perceived that the former had been dead seven days, and that the latter had died the day before; and that

as they were now in an arúpa world, they could not receive its benefit. With affection for the ascetics who were dead, he looked to discover in what place Kondanya was, and the four other recluses with whom he had

practised austerities; and when he saw that they were in the Isipatana wihára, near Benares, he resolved that unto them first bana should be said. At the end of sixty days, in the eighth week after he became Budha, Gótama went from the Ajápála tree to Isipatana alone, a distance of 288 miles." P. 184. The brief inaugural discourse which he there delivered is stated to have been as follows: “Then Budha opened his mouth, and preached the Dhamsak - pæwatum - sútra (Dhammachakka). "There are two things,' said he, “that must be avoided by him who seeks to become a priest; evil desire, and the bodily austerities that were practised by the (Brahman) ascetics.?” P. 187.

It is plain that Benares must have been, at this time, a city of power and importance, the weight of whose opinions on religious topics was very considerable in the country generally; and, therefore, that it was of the utmost consequence to secure its countenance and support on any great subject affecting the religious belief of the entire nation. That this was the real reason why Gautama wished to commence his career from Benares, admits of no controversy. But, if Benares was so celebrated at that era, we must look away from it to preceding ages for the date of its foundation.

The Buddhists themselves give us some glimpses of intelligence respecting the history of this city prior to the year of s'ákya's visit; and these, although

liable to some suspicion, have, nevertheless, in all probability, a basis of truth. The information which they incidentally furnish rests partly upon the statements of no other than Buddha himself, corroborated, in some measure, by their own observations. This wonderful personage, considering that some of the leading dogmas which he expounded were borrowed from Hinduism, and had been advocated and set forth by various teachers previously to his time, cleverly availed himself of the prestige of these earlier instructors, by pronouncing each in succession to have been an incarnation or manifestation of Buddha; thereby coolly attaching to himself and his creed the sanction of their authority and the weight of their names.

In any case, Benares is a city of no mean antiquity. Twenty-five centuries ago, at the least, it was famous. When Babylon was struggling with Nineveh for supremacy, when Tyre was planting her colonies, when Athens was growing in strength, before Rome had become known, or Greece had contended with Persia, or Cyrus had added lustre to the Persian monarchy, or Nebuchadnezzar had captured Jerusalem, and the inhabitants of Judæa had been carried into captivity, she had already risen to greatness, if not to glory. Nay, she may have heard of the fame of Solomon, and have sent her ivory, her apes, and her peacocks to adorn his palaces; while partly with her gold he may have overlaid the Temple of the Lord. Not only is Benares remarkable for her venerable age, but also for the vitality and vigour which, so far as we know, she has constantly exhibited. While many cities and nations

have fallen into decay and perished, her sun has never gone down; on the contrary, for long ages past it has shone with almost meridian splendour. Her illustrious name has descended from generation to generation, and has ever been a household word, venerated and beloved by the vast Hindu family. Notwithstanding her destruction by fire, applied by the hand of Kșishņa, which may or may not be true, and the manifestations, in her physical aspects, of repeated changes, shiftings of site, and resuscitations, yet, as a city, no sign of feebleness, no symptom of impending dissolution, so far as I am aware, is apparent in any of the numberless references to her in native records. As a queen, she has ever received the willing homage of her subjects scattered over all India; as a lover, she has secured their affection and regard.

Hiouen Thsang, the celebrated Chinese traveller, who, as a Buddhist pilgrim, visited India in the seventh century of the Christian era, describes Benares as a kingdom “about four thousand li (six hundred and sixty-seven miles) in circumference. To the west is the capital,-near the Ganges,—which is from eighteen to nineteen li (three miles and upwards) long, and from five to six li (about one mile) broad. The villages lie very near together, and contain a numerous population. Families of great wealth, whose houses are filled with rare and precious things, are to be seen. The people are gentle and polished, and esteem highly those who are devoted to a studious life. The greater portion of them believe in the heretical doctrines (of Hinduism), and few have respect for the Law (religion)

of Buddha. The climate is temperate, grain is in abundance, the fruit-trees are luxuriant, and the earth is covered with tufted vegetation. There are thirty (Buddhist) monasteries, containing about three thousand monks. .... There are a hundred temples of the (Hindu) gods, and about ten thousand heretics (Hindus), who, for the most part, worship the god Ta-tseu-thsaï (Maheswara). Some cut off their hair; others preserve a tuft upon the crown of the head, go naked, and are destitute of any kind of clothing. Some besmear their bodies with ashes, and practise zealously severe austerities, in order to obtain release from life and death (that is, from transmigration). In the capital there are twenty (Hindu) temples of the gods.” 1

And now, after the lapse of so many ages, this magnificent city still maintains most of the freshness and all the beauty of her early youth. For picturesqueness and grandeur, no sight in all the world can well surpass that of Benares as seen from the river Ganges. Macaulay's graphic description of her appearance towards the close of the last century is, for the most part, applicable to her present state. He speaks of her as “a city, which, in wealth, population, dignity, and sanctity, was among the foremost of Asia. It was commonly believed that half a million of human beings? was crowded into that labyrinth of lofty alleys, rich with shrines, and minarets,

1 See Appendix B.

? This conjecture regarding the population of Benares is not correct. The Government census gives less than two hundred thousand; but this is too low an estimate. The number of pilgrims annually visiting the city, moreover, is very large, being one hundred and fifty or two hundred thousand, and perhaps more, while the population of the surrounding villages is exceedingly dense.

« PreviousContinue »