Homage to the Blessed One, the Worthy One, the Highest Self—Enlightened One!
The Dhamekh Stupa, Sarnath. Click on the image to download a larger version.
The deer park in Sarnath is where Gautama Buddha first taught the Dharma, and where the Buddhist Sangha came into existence through the enlightenment of Kondanna. Sarnath is located 13 kilometres north-east of Varanasi near the confluence of the Ganges and the Gomati rivers, in Uttar Pradesh, India. Singhpur, a village approximately one km away from the site, was the birthplace of Shreyansanath, the eleventh Tirthankara of Jainism, and a temple dedicated to him, is an important pilgrimage site.
Isipatana is mentioned by the Buddha as one of the four places of pilgrimage which his devout followers should visit, if they wanted to visit a place for that reason. It was also the site of the Buddha's Dhammacakkappavattana Sutta, which was his first teaching after attaining enlightenment, in which he taught the four noble truths and the teachings associated with it.
Origin of Names
Mrigadava means 'deer-park'. Isipatana is the name used in the Pali Canon, and means the place where holy men (Pali: isi, Sanskrit: rishi) landed.
The legend says that when the Buddha-to-be was born, some devas came down to announce it to 500 rishis. The rishis all rose into the air and disappeared and their relics fell to the ground. Another explanation for the name is that Isipatana was so called because sages, on their way through the air (from the Himalayas), alight here or start from here on their aerial flight (isayo ettha nipatanti uppatanti cati-Isipatanam).
Pacceka Buddhas, having spent seven days in contemplation in the Gandhamadana, bathe in the Anotatta Lake and come to the habitations of men through the air, in search of alms. They descend to earth at Isipatana. Sometimes the Pacceka Buddhas come to Isipatana from Nandamūlaka-pabbhara.
Xuanzang quotes the Nigrodhamiga Jataka (J.i.145ff) to account for the origin of the Migadaya. According to him the Deer Park was a forest given by the king of Benares of the Jataka, where deer might wander unmolested. The Migadaya was so-called because deer were allowed to roam about there unmolested.
Sarnath, from Saranganath, means "Lord of the Deer" and relates to another old Buddhist story in which the Bodhisattva is a deer and offers his life to a king instead of the doe the latter is planning to kill. The king is so moved that he creates the park as a sanctuary for deer. The park is still there today.
Gautama Buddha at Isipatana
The Buddha went from Bodh Gaya to Sarnath about 5 weeks after his enlightenment. Before Gautama (the Buddha-to-be) attained enlightenment, he gave up his austere penances and his friends, the Pañcavaggiya monks, left him and went to Isipatana.
After attaining Enlightenment the Buddha, leaving Uruvela, travelled to the Isipatana to join
and teach them. He went to them because, using his spiritual powers, he had seen that his five former
companions would be able to understand Dharma quickly. While travelling to Sarnath, Gautama Buddha had
to cross the Ganges. Having no money with which to pay the ferryman, he crossed the Ganges through the
air. When King Bimbisara heard of this, he abolished the toll for ascetics.
Click on the image to download a larger version.
When Gautama Buddha found
his five former companions, he taught them, they understood and as a result they also became enlightened.
At that time the Sangha, the community of the enlightened ones, was founded. The sermon Buddha gave to
the five monks was his first sermon, called the Dhammacakkappavattana Sutta. It was given on the
full-moon day of Asalha Puja. Buddha subsequently also spent his first rainy season at Sarnath
at the Mulagandhakuti. The Sangha had grown to 60 in number (after Yasa and his friends had become monks),
and Buddha sent them out in all directions to travel alone and teach the Dharma. All 60 monks were Arahants.
Dharmarajika Stupa from the pre-Ashokan Era. Click on the image to download a larger version.
Several other incidents connected with the Buddha, besides the preaching of the first sermon,
are mentioned as having taken place in Isipatana. Here it was that one day at dawn Yasa came to the
Buddha and became an Arahant. It was at Isipatana, too, that the rule was passed prohibiting the use
of sandals made of talipot leaves. On another occasion when the Buddha was staying at Isipatana,
having gone there from Rajagaha, he instituted rules forbidding the use of certain kinds of flesh,
including human flesh. Twice, while the Buddha was at Isipatana, Mara visited him but had to go away
Besides the Dhammacakkappavattana Sutta mentioned above, several other suttas were preached by the
Buddha while staying at Isipatana, among them
the Anattalakkhana Sutta,
the Saccavibhanga Sutta,
the Pañca Sutta (S.iii.66f),
the Rathakara or Pacetana Sutta (A.i.110f),
the two Pasa Suttas (S.i.105f),
the Samaya Sutta (A.iii.320ff),
the Katuviya Sutta (A.i.279f.),
a discourse on the Metteyyapañha of the Parayana (A.iii.399f), and
the Dhammadinna Sutta (S.v.406f), preached to the distinguished layman Dhammadinna, who came
to see the Buddha.
Some of the most eminent members of the Sangha seem to have resided at Isipatana from time to time;
among recorded conversations at Isipatana are several between Sariputta and Mahakotthita, and one
between Mahakotthita and Citta-Hatthisariputta. Mention is made, too, of a discourse in which several
monks staying at Isipatana tried to help Channa in his difficulties.
According to the Udapana Jataka (J.ii.354ff ) there was a very ancient well near Isipatana which,
in the Buddha's time, was used by the monks living there.
Isipatana After the Lord Buddh
According to the Mahavamsa, there was a large community of monks at Isipatana in the second century B.C. For, we are told that at the foundation ceremony of the Maha Thūpa in Anuradhapura, twelve thousand monks were present from Isipatana led by the Elder Dhammasena.
Xuanzang found, at Isipatana, fifteen hundred monks studying the Hinayana. In the enclosure
of the Sangharama was a vihara about two hundred feet high, strongly built, its roof surmounted by a
golden figure of the mango. In the centre of the vihara was a life-size statue of the Buddha turning
the wheel of the Law. To the south-west were the remains of a stone stupa built by King Asoka. The Divy.
(389-94) mentions Asoka as intimating to Upagupta his desire to visit the places connected with the
Buddha's activities, and to erect thupas there.
Sarnath ruins. Click on the image to download a larger version.
Thus he visited Lumbini, Bodhimūla, Isipatana, Migadaya
and Kusinagara; this is confirmed by Asoka's lithic records, e.g. Rock Edict, viii. In front of it was a
stone pillar to mark the spot where the Buddha preached his first sermon. Nearby was another stupa on the
site where the Pañcavaggiyas spent their time in meditation before the Buddha's arrival, and another where
five hundred Pacceka Buddhas entered Nibbana. Close to it was another building where the future Buddha
Metteyya received assurance of his becoming a Buddha.
Buddhism flourished in Sarnath in part because of kings and wealthy merchants based in Varanasi. By the
third century Sarnath had become an important center for the arts, which reached its zenith during the
Gupta period (4th to 6th centuries CE). In the 7th century by the time Xuan Zang visited from China, he
found 30 monasteries and 3000 monks living at Sarnath.
Sarnath became a major centre of the Sammatiya school of Buddhism, one of the early Buddhist schools.
However, the presence of images of Heruka and Tara indicate that Vajrayana Buddhism was (at a later time)
also practiced here. Also images of Brahminist gods as Shiva and Brahma were found at the site, and there
is still a Jain temple (at Chandrapuri) located very close to the Dhamekh Stupa.
The first five disciples pay respects to the Wheel of the Dharma at the deerpark of Isipatana. Click on the image to download a larger version.
At the end of the 12th century Sarnath was sacked by Turkish Muslims, and the site was subsequently
plundered for building materials.
Discovery of Isipatana
Ancient Buddhist monasteries near Dhamekh Stupa Monument Site, Sarnath. Click on the image to download a larger version.
Isipatana is identified with the modern Sarnath, six miles from Benares. Alexander Cunningham found the Migadaya represented by a fine wood, covering an area of about half a mile, extending from the great tomb of Dhamekha on the north to the Chaukundi mound on the south.
Legendary Characteristics of Isipatana
According to the Buddhist commentarial scriptures, all the Buddhas preach their first sermon at the
Migadaya in Isipatana. It is one of the four avijahitatthanani (unchanging spots), the others being the
bodhi-pallanka, the spot at the gate of Sankassa, where the Buddha first touched the earth on his return
from Tavatimsa, and the site of the bed in the Gandhakuti in Jetavana
In past ages Isipatana sometimes retained its own name, as it did in the time of Phussa Buddha
(Bu.xix.18), Dhammadassi Buddha (BuA.182) and Kassapa Buddha (BuA.218). Kassapa was born there (ibid., 217).
But more often Isipatana was known by different names (for these names see under those of the different Buddhas).
Thus in the time of Vipassi Buddha, it was known as Khema-uyyana. It is the custom for all Buddhas to go
through the air to Isipatana to preach their first sermon. Gotama Buddha, however, walked all the way,
eighteen leagues, because he knew that by so doing he would meet Upaka, the Ajivaka, to whom he could be of
Discovery of Isipatana
In Sarnath, the base of the Ashoka pillar, which was broken during Turk Islamic invasions. It was originally surmounted by the Lion Capital of Ashoka, the "National Emblem of India", now on display at the Sarnath Museum. Click on the image to download a larger version.
Most of the ancient buildings and structures at Sarnath were damaged or destroyed by the Turks. However, amongst the ruins can be distinguished:
The Dhamek Stupa; it is an impressive 128 feet high and 93 feet in diameter.
The Dharmarajika Stupa is one of the few pre-Ashokan stupas remaining, although only the foundations remain. The rest of the Dharmarajika Stupa was removed to Varanasi to be used as building materials in the 18h century. At that time, also relics were found in the Dharmarajika Stupa. These relics were subsequently thrown in the Ganges river.
The Chaukhandi Stupa commemorates the spot where the Buddha met his first disciples, dating back to the fifth century or earlier and later enhanced by the addition of an octagonal tower of Islamic origin. In recent years it is undergoing restoration.
The ruins of the Mulagandhakuti vihara mark the place where the Buddha spent his first rainy season.
Brahmi Inscriptures on the main pillar. Click on the image to download a larger version.
The modern Mulagandhakuti Vihara is a monastery built in the 1930s by the Sri Lankan Mahabodhi Society, with beautiful wall paintings. Behind it is the Deer Park (where deer are still to be seen).
The Ashoka Pillar erected here, originally surmounted by the "Lion Capital of Asoka" (presently on display at the Sarnath Museum), was broken during Turk invasions but the base still stands at the original location.
The Sarnath Archeological Museum houses the famous Ashokan lion capital, which miraculously survived its 45-foot drop to the ground (from the top of the Ashokan Pillar), and became the National Emblem of India and national symbol on the Indian flag. The museum also houses a famous and refined Buddha-image of the Buddha in Dharmachakra-posture.
There is also a Bodhi tree planted by Anagarika Dharmapala which was grown from a cutting of the Bodhi Tree at Bodh Gaya.
MA.i.387; AA.i.347 adds that sages also held the uposatha at Isipatana
Vin.i.10f.; on this occasion 80 kotis of Brahmas and innumerable gods attained the comprehension of the Truth (Mil.30); (130 kotis says Mil.350). The Lal. (528) gives details of the stages of this journey
Vin.i.216ff.; the rule regarding human flesh was necessary because Suppiya made broth out of her own flesh for a sick monk