Shravasti: the ancient religious city
In the Buddhist religious circuit the biggest names are Lumbini/Kapilavastu, Bodhgaya,Saranath,Sravasti,Vaishali,Sanchi,Kushinagar in Nepal and Northern India. These are amongst the greatest places of pilgrimage for Buddhists from around the world.
Lumbini,Bodhgaya and Kushinagar are of prime importance as the Lord's birthplace,place of obtaining enlightenment and mahaparinirvana(leaving the earth for heavenly abode). Sarnath is the place where Lord Buddha started preaching his religious ideas amongst his first five desciples. In Vaishali he delivered his last sermon and announced that his time was over and he has to prepare for Nirvana. But Sravasti has perhaps taken a backseat as one of the most important of the places from which the great religion Buddhism really started spreading. The place is not being much discussed. You don't find much tourists around the place which makes it quiet and peaceful.
This presently quiet township was once bustling with activities while it was the capital of ancient Indian Kingdom of Kosala. You get reference of this Kosala and it's rulers in both Mahabharata and Ramayana which clearly proves it's millenniums of existence. This had been a religious place for all major religions of those ancient days viz Hinduism,Jainism,Buddhism and Ajivikas. Various proof and relics of Hinduism have been found during explorations and excavations. The King of Kosala Raja Prasenajit who ruled Sravasti during Lord Buddhas arrival was also a Hindu King and had been known for being a devout Hindu before coming into contact with Buddha Deva. It is believed that in ancient times Hindu King Sravasta founded the city and hence the name Sravasti was derived. However,there are other versions of the naming as well.
The third Tirthankara of Jainism,Sambhavanath was born here and made the city a spreading spot of Jainism. The 8th and 24th Tirthankaras of the religion also had been to this place. Specially the 24th and last Tirthankara Mahavira was in Sravasti many times and accounts are available of his great debate on religion with Gosala Mankhadiputta,the founder of the faith Ajivikas.
It is not a widely circulated fact that Lord Buddha had spent the most important and greatest part of his teaching time after Enlightenment in this great city. The fact is he spent quarter of a century here after his enlightenment in the capital of Kosala (Sravasti)where he dictated most part of his teachings as sermons which went down several generations by transfer of word of mouth before being formulated as Suttas in Pali language. He converted huge number of his followers in his new belief while in Sravasti. Sravasti is the place where the Lord had performed his Great Sravasti Miracles. He was not interested in performing miracles. But after being challenged that he was an ordinary ascetic and his teachings were of no importance he was compelled to perform his Twin miracles in front of disbelievers of Shravasti. After that there was no hindrance to his stay and preaching in the region. In a short span of time more than 90 thousand people came under his new religious umbrella.
After Buddha Deva attained enlightenment in Bodhgaya,he first took five disciples in Saranath. This first group started preaching the new Dhamma and the inner beauty of Ahimsa started attracting people. The richest merchant of Sravasti Anathapindaka(Sudatta) became the Lord's follower. He invited Lord Buddha to Sravasti. When the Lord gave his nod, preparations went afoot to welcome him. Anathapindaka choose Jetavana,a pleasure garden palace of King Prasenajit (which he made for his son Jita)as a suitable place for his Lord. When approached, Prasenajit wanted Anathapindaka to cover the whole area of Jetavana with gold coins as the price. Anathapindaka complied unhesitatingly. Prasenajit was mesmerized and agreed to welcome Buddha Deva in his country. In the premise of Jetavana his hut was made ready which took the name Mulagandhakuti. It is in this hut the Lord put up for the whole period he was in Shravasti. A Bodhi sapling was planted there which was derived from the Bodhgaya main Bodhi tree under which Lord Buddha was seeking and obtained enlightenment. A disciple of the Lord,Ananda by name, planted this tree and nurtured it. The prayers and meditations used to be held in the Gandhak uti or under the Anandabodhi tree. Anathapindaka constructed a huge stupa which too was a place of worship. All these places,the place of performance of the great miracle and many other stupas of lesser sizes constitute the present day Jetavana Vihara ,which is the main religious attraction and place of worship for the Buddhists in Shravasti. The other places of interest in Shravasti are Angulimala stupa,the remnants of the old city wall,the Jain temple at the site of Sambhavanath's birth and the world peace pagoda constructed by Thailand. Besides different Buddhist countries have also constructed their own places of worship and stay of their visiting pilgrims.
From whatever has been discussed so far we owe clarification of two points. The richest merchant of Kosala/Shravasti Sudatta was known as Anathapindaka because of the fact that he used to feed all the hungry and needy people and orphans(Anathas) everyday from his own resources.
Angulimala was a bandit who was very cruel. He robbed people and then chopped off their fingers(Anguli) to make garlands out of those and used to wear those garlands. When he came to know about the appearance of Lord Buddha in the area,he decided to go and find out what the new religion was all about. After getting adviced by the Lord he changed himself overnight to embrace Dhamma. He distributed all his wealth amongst the needy and also made a huge stupa not far from Jetavana,which goes by his name as Angulimala stupa.
Lord Buddha spent 25 Varshabashas in Shravasti. Varshabasha is a three month period during the rainy season when the monks are supposed to stay put in a place,not travel for preaching so as not to be harmed by inclement weather,to study further and upgrade themselves,to engage in religious studies and discussions. The rest of the year they are supposed to spread all over to preach Dhamma and Ahimsa. This practice of Varshabasha is continuing till date in Buddhism.
Our discussion shows that Lord Buddha spent 25 years of his productive preaching time in Shravasti. Later ,of course,the Lord moved to other areas for spreading his new religion.
During the hay days of Shravasti famous Chinese travellers Fahein and Xuanzang both visited this great city and we get a good account of the Buddhist civilisation and religion from their writings.After about one and a half thousand years of flourishing Buddhist advancement the area was apparently destroyed by invasions and went into oblivion. During the British colonial period archaeological excavations revealed the old glory of the famed city. Proof of destruction,even burning could be established.
Since the revelation of the old civilization of Shravasti the area has been declared as protected archaeological site and proper care is being taken of. Different Buddhist countries are also aware of and are taking interest in restoring the old glory of the place.
Shravasti is definitely a part of World Heritage and further studies, archaeological excavations and development of the most important sites therein should be continued.
Om Mani Padme Hum!