On the outskirts of the modern town of Shravasti in Uttar Pradesh are the remains of the Jetavana Monastery, and within it lie some of the most important monuments in Buddhist history. Jetavana includes the remnants of the hut in which the Buddha lived through more than 20 monsoon seasons; it has a stupa built over the mortal remains of two of the Buddha’s greatest disciples – Anathapindika and Angulimala. Shravasti is also where the Buddha performed his most famous ‘miracle’.
The area where the modern-day village of Sahet-Mahet lies was one of the most blessed places in the Buddhist world. Located 170 km from Lucknow, the site has a jetavana or wooded garden/grove bought by Anathapindika for his lord, the Buddha. The Buddha spent more time in the city of Shravasti than in any other city during his lifetime, and depending on the tradition you believe in, he spent between 24 and 26 ‘Varshavaas’ here. A varshavaas is a monsoon season and, according to Buddhist texts, the only time of year when a monk can spend more than two consecutive nights in the same place.
The Buddha attained enlightenment at Bodh Gaya, after which he wandered the length and the breadth of the Ganga Valley preaching his doctrine of salvation and bringing many people into his fold. He is said to have performed many miracles and deeds but none greater than ‘The Miracle at Shravasti’, which resulted in the conversion of more than 90,000 people to Buddhism.
The Story of the Miracles
Buddhist legend says ‘The Twin Miracle’, also known as ‘The Miracle at Savatthi’ in Pali and ‘The Miracle at Shravasti’ in Sanskrit, is one of the great miracles performed by the Buddha. There are two main versions of the story, the first told in the Pali text, the Dhammapada Atthakatha, and the Sanskrit version in the Pratiharya Sutra. The Dhammapada Atthakatha is a commentary by Buddhagosha of the Dhammapada and is one of the most popular Pali Buddhist canons. It is dated to the 4th BCE. The Pratiharya Sutra is a Sanskrit text which is a part of the Dharmasangraha attributed to the Buddhist sage Nagarjuna and is dated to the 2nd CE.
Buddhists believe the miracle was performed seven years after the Buddha's enlightenment, in the ancient Indian city of Shravasti. It all started when a disciple of the Buddha performed a miracle for an unbelieving official who was so awed that he embraced Buddhism. The Buddha forbade his monks from doing this and the rival heads of six different groups of religious believers looked upon this as a chance to wean away members of the Buddhist laity by challenging the Buddha to a ‘battle of miracles’. They were sure he would refuse and that they could then persuade the laity to follow them. The Buddha stumped them by accepting the challenge. He performed the miracle twice, first at Kapilavastu (the city of his birth) and then at Shravasti.
Flames are said to have burst forth from the shoulders of the Buddha and water poured out of his feet. The people were so awed that the Buddha gained 90,000 followers, thanks to this miracle. This ‘miracle contest’ is considered one of the Ten Indispensable Acts that all Buddhas are supposed to perform during their lives. It is a miracle that can only be performed by one who has reached a fully enlightened Buddhahood.
The people were spellbound as the fire and water interchanged positions and colours radiated from the Buddha, who in turn, split into multiple images, some standing, some sitting and some walking as they all preached the Dhamma. The rivals were awestruck and when they tried to respond, they were unable to move.
It then started raining but the rain only fell on those who wished to be wet and not on those who wished to remain dry, further impressing the audience. A strong wind then blew down the pavilion of the six rivals and they were blown away. All but one of them committed suicide in shame. The Buddha then debated the Dhamma with a duplicate of himself, to the joy of the people assembled before him. The laity realised that the Buddha was the winner and truly a far greater soul and teacher, and 90,000 of them are supposed to have converted to Buddhism.
According to the Mahayana tradition, the Buddha then ascended to the heavens for three months of varshavaas, to teach his deceased mother the Abhidhamma so that she could ascend to heaven too. This too is considered something each of the Buddhas does when he completes the miracle. The Buddha then descended from the heavens, accompanied by Brahma and Indra. He made landfall at Sankisa (also in Uttar Pradesh).
The Jetavana & Its Monuments
Close to the site of Shravasti lie the remains of the Buddhist complex of Jetavana, next to the village of Sahet-Mahet, and there are a number of very important buildings scattered here. The most important of these are Mulagandhakuti, a shrine built over the remains of the hut in which the Buddha spent varshavaas here. There are also two stupas here.
Shravasti was the capital of the kingdom of Kosala in the 6th BCE and was ruled by King Prasenjit. His son, Prince Jeta, owned a grove known as Jetavana. Anathapindika, a very rich merchant, wanted to build a vihara or monastery on the lines of the Venuvana of Rajagriha for the Buddha and his disciples. Prince Jeta did not want to sell his grove and set a ridiculous price. He said he would only part with the Jetavana if Anathapindika covered the entire area encompassing the grove with coins.
Anathapindika sold all his assets and property, converted it into karshapanas (punch-marked coins of silver), transported the coins in bullock carts, and had his men cover the ground in the jetavana in coins. That’s how he is said to have bought the grove for the Buddha and his disciples. This story is told again and again in medallions sculpted in stone at Sanchi and Bahrut. Only a tiny spot was left uncovered and Prince Jeta magnanimously declared that he would build a gateway to the park here. He spent the entire sum he had received from Anathapindika for the jetavana on construction of the gateway.
The Sahet-Mahet mounds also hold the remains of Anathapindika’s stupa and a stupa under which lie the mortal remains of another famous disciple of the Buddha, known as Angulimala (‘garland of fingers’). Angulimala was a notorious highwayman, who wore garlands made of the fingers of his victims. When he tried to accost the Buddha, he was impressed with the Buddha’s stillness, calmness and love. Angulimala was converted to ahimsa (a life of non-violence) and became a Buddhist monk.
This is a very popular Buddhist story and highlights the triumph of ahimsa. Angulimala was from Shravasti and his mortal remains were placed under a stupa in the jetavana. Among the many remains of viharas and votive stupas is yet another incredibly important Buddhist icon. This is the Ananda Bodhi, a Bodhi tree which was a sapling of the original Maha Bodhi tree at Bodh Gaya (under which the Buddha attained enlightenment) and which was brought to Jetavana and planted by Ananda, the first and foremost disciple of the Buddha. If this is indeed the actual tree, it may be even older than the Bodhi tree at Anuradhapura in Sri Lanka, which is considered the oldest tree known to us historically.
In the lifetime of the Buddha itself, the Buddha sanctioned the planting of an offspring of the Bodhi Tree at Jetavana so that his disciples would be able to offer their respects to him when he was not in residence at the vihara. Thus, Buddha’s disciple Mogallana collected a seed as it fell from the tree but before it hit the ground. It was sprouted in a golden vessel by Anathapindika and then planted at the entrance to the Jetavana by Ananda at the behest of the Buddha. The tree is said to have grown miraculously tall. The Buddha further sanctified it by spending an entire night under it in meditation. Since it had been planted by Ananda, it was named ‘Ananda Bodhi’.
Shravasti and the Jetavana Vihara flourished for many centuries, first as a part of the Magadhan Empire of Ajatashatru and then as a part of the Mauryan Empire and the Kushana Empire. It was at the end of the Gupta Era in the 5th CE that the site was abandoned and fell to ruin.
Chinese Buddhist monk and traveller Fa Hien (early 5th CE) tells us that all the great cities at the foothills of the Himalayas had suffered a catastrophic decline in population. Chinese traveller Hiuen Tsang (7th CE) visited the Jetavana Vihara and recorded its various structures but he talks about it being abandoned and empty. Interestingly, the site shows evidence of a revival during the period of the Gahadhavala rulers in the 10th-11th CE.
The site was rediscovered by Sir Alexander Cunningham in 1862- 1863, when he identified the mounds of Sahet and Mahet, and identified them as Jetavana and the capital city Shravasti, respectively. Cunningham proceeded to expose the remains of Mulagandhakuti and other temples as well as monasteries. He unearthed inscriptions of Gahadavala King Madanapal and his son Govindchandra, referring to donations made by them to the Jetavana Vihara.
The site was subjected to repeated archaeological excavations by Dr Hoe (1874-76 and 1884-85), Dr J P Vogel (1907-08) and Dr K K Sinha (1959), leading to the discovery of several structural activities. The Archaeological Survey of India and Kansai University at Osaka in Japan excavated the site for nine seasons under Prof Yoshinori Aboshi, revealing more or less continuous occupation from the 8th BCE to the 5th CE, and an overlying short, final phase around the 10th CE. A large number of terracotta human figurines, animal figurine beads, rattles, hop-scotches and skin rubbers have been found during the course of excavation. Silver and copper punch-marked coins, Ayodhya coins and Kushana coins were also found.
Modern Shravasti is the district capital, an important administrative centre and a huge tourist attraction. While it is a significant Buddhist pilgrimage centre and Buddhist tourism hub, it is also important to Jains, who believe it is the birthplace of the 3rd Jain Tirthankara, Shobhnath. The ruins of the Shobhnath Jain Temple lie between the site of ancient Shravasti and the Jetavana Vihara, and many images of Jain Tirthankaras have been recovered from there. Since these sites are visited by scores of tourists from India and abroad, each year, they have preserved this valuable legacy.
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