Although Buddhists form only a small minority in modern India, the significance of India as the spiritual homeland for both Buddhism and Buddhists cannot be overemphasized. (The Buddha himself, who lived — speaking only approximately, since his precise dates cannot be known with certainty — from the sixth century before Christ into the fifth, spent his entire lifetime on the Indian subcontinent.) This significance is reflected both in the pilgrimages undertaken by modern Buddhists and in the building of modern Buddhist shrines sponsored by the Buddhist-majority countries of East Asia.
In India today, three great primary Buddhist pilgrimage centers commemorate the life, teachings and cosmic significance of the Buddha. These are: Bodhgaya, the site of the Buddha’s spiritual enlightenment; Sarnath, where the Buddha taught his most important public sermon, and Kushinagar, where the Buddha died. A fourth, Lumbini — the Buddha’s birthplace — is only a few miles across the border in Nepal. And a fifth, Sanchi, is the major burial place of the Buddha’s ashes.
These sites were all traditionally founded by Ashoka, the first Buddhist emperor of India, who ruled from around 268-232 B.C. Much like Constantine and his mother Helena founding church and memorials during the early fourth century at the important sites of the life of Jesus in ancient Palestine, Ashoka toured India in an attempt to locate the sites and relics of the Buddha and to commemorate them with monuments.
A sense of the original form of Ashoka’s Buddhist stupas — domed burial memorials in which relics of the Buddha are enshrined — can be seen at Sanchi, where many of the ashes of the Buddha were buried by Ashoka.
Likewise, Ashoka erected numerous tall pillars inscribed with both Buddhist laws and his spiritual biography. The best preserved of these is at the Firuz Shah Kotla Park in New Delhi, where it was carried and re-erected in the 14th century as a victory monument by the Muslim conqueror Firuz Shah.
Furthermore, these pillars were once surmounted by huge ornate capitals. The best preserved of these can be found in the Sarnath museum, where four royal lions facing the cardinal directions stand guard over the wheel of dharma resting on a lotus. This statue is now the official emblem of India, and it is found on most of India’s currency.
The great Buddhist pilgrimage sites of India were constantly expanded through royal patronage, both from within India and from later Buddhist kings in east Asia, and such patronage continues today from Buddhist-majority countries. At all of these sites, bigger was often thought of as better, as reflected in the Dhamek Stupa at Sarnath, built around A.D. 500 on the site of Ashoka’s earlier, smaller stupa. As the wealth of Buddhist monasteries and kings grew during the Middle Ages, ornamentation of Buddhist shrines often became more extravagant.
Throughout the Middle Ages, famous Buddhist scholars from throughout Asia — such as Xuanzang of China (A.D. 602-664) — gathered to the Buddhist shrines and monasteries in the heartland of India in order to study the ancient scriptures and translate them into their own mother tongues.
Sarnath was the site of the preaching of the “Sermon at the Deer Park” — a kind of “Sermon on the Mount” for Buddhists. In this sermon, the Buddha taught the Four Noble Truths and Eightfold Path, which provide the essence of Buddhism. The exquisite fifth-century statue of a seated Buddha at Sarnath shows the Buddha preaching this sermon.
Modern Buddhist pilgrims from all over east Asia can be found touring the great sites commemorating the Buddha, just as Christians still tour the Holy Land in search of a spiritual connection with the land of the life of Jesus. And just as Christian monks and priests still live, teach at and care for the Christian holy sites in Israel, Buddhist monks still pray and meditate in new temples that surround the ancient pilgrimage monuments. Ancient scriptures are studied, while the Buddha and his teachings are proclaimed in sermon and hymn.
Today, pilgrim prayers and chants can be heard in Tibetan, Thai, Chinese, Korean and Japanese throughout Buddhist shrines in India. Busloads of Buddhist tourist-pilgrims from throughout the world can be seen meditating, chanting, praying and scurrying about the monuments taking selfies, proud that their countries continue the tradition of patronage of Buddhist shrines in India that dates back two millennia.
Daniel Peterson founded the Middle Eastern Texts Initiative, chairs The Interpreter Foundation and blogs on Patheos. William Hamblin is the author of several books on premodern history. They speak only for themselves.