Emeritus Professor J. B. Dissanayaka, who researched deeply into Sri Lanka’s customs, cultures and religions, has compiled his booklet ‘The Vesak Full Moon Festival’ showcasing the spiritual and cultural significance of the event for Buddhists. In fact, he says Vesak gave birth to a Buddhist New Year. It is the first significance. The Buddha’s Birth, His Enlightenment and His Passing Away are the three events. The last one is the arrival of Prince Vijeya with his followers on Vesak day. Excerpts of the interview with him on the importance of the thrice-blessed event:
Q How do you analyse the origin of Vesak festival?
The exact beginning cannot be traced as there is no proper study done. From ancient years, we have had celebrations of it, though. Being a Buddhist country, we have had all kinds of celebrations for a long time. When the Sacred Tooth Relic was brought here, we had celebrations in Anuradhapura. From what is called Data Ge, it was taken to Abhayagiriya. There were Peraheras conducted. Chinese monk Fa-Hien described this in his travel records of Sri Lanka. He described how Dalada Perahera was there. Vesak celebration would have been there since time immemorial in this manner. The origin cannot be traced precisely.
Q How did it come into being then?
Poya Day or the full moon day of the month has always been marked with religious observances. Every Poya Day has some religious significance in our country. Vesak is the most important day marking the Birth, Enlightenment and Passing Away of the Buddha. These are the three events that took place on the full moon day of Vesak. Alongside, Mahawamsa says Vijeya landed in this country on the day the Buddha passed away in India. Mahawamsa describes how the Buddha asked ‘Sakra’ or the lord of gods’ to look after Vijeya and his followers in this new land where his doctrine would flourish. The Buddha asked for this when he was in his death bed.
It means the system of kingdom also originated on Vesak Day. According to Buddhist chronicles and stories, the Buddha’s chief attendant Ananda Thera was born the same day. Then, King Suddodhana, the father of the Buddha, had a sister called ‘Pamitha’. Her daughter is Yasodhara. Prince Siddhartha and Yasodara were also born the same day. Channa, head charioteer of prince Siddhartha was also born the same day. Kanthaka, the horse, was born on Vesak. By accident or miracle, all were born on the same day. Also, Bo Tree which gave shade for Prince Siddhartha to attain the Buddha-hood had also been born on a similar day. Its age is also similar to the Buddha’s age. We only celebrate the birth of Siddhartha, his becoming Buddha and his passing away. We had celebrated it during the British period even. The colonial rulers stopped it, though.
There are two Vesak days. The first day is meant to celebrate it spiritually and the second to celebrate it culturally. When celebrating it spiritually, people go to temples, observe five precepts (Sil in Sinhala and Sila in Pali) and meditate.
That is a day for spiritual reflection. Five precepts are observed on a daily basis. On this day, this is extended to eight or ten precepts. You control yourself. If you observe Pansil or five precepts, you will be a better person. When this is extended beyond observance of five precepts, you control your senses.
The second day is marked with cultural activities- lighting lamps, watching Pandals and dramas. We listen to Bhakti Gee (Devotional Songs). We find street dramas. In the past, we had separate dance performances dedicated to 24 Buddhas (Suvisi Netum). We have drama, poetry, and painting in this manner. Today, technology has been infused for celebration. This is a new phenomenon. If you look at a Pandal, it is magical.
"Bo Tree which gave shade for Prince Siddhartha to attain the Buddha-hood had also been born on a similar day. Its age is also similar to the Buddha’s age. We only celebrate the birth of Siddhartha, his becoming Buddha and his passing away. We had celebrated it during the British period even. The colonial rulers stopped it"
Q What is unique about Sinhala Buddhist culture here?
Buddhist couture is common to all the Buddhist countries. When any religion settles on a particular culture, it takes root in that culture acquiring local aspects, however. In China, it is one form and in Tibet another. Our Buddhism is associated with agriculture here. Ours is an agricultural society. In the Himalayas, agriculture is impossible. The Buddhist doctrine - what the Buddha taught, the four Noble Truths, and the Eightfold path-is common. Around them, there are varying cultural habits.
Q Once you were the Sri Lankan Ambassador to Thailand. From your perspective, how is the cultural link between the two countries?
There are two schools of thought on Buddhism. Theravada Buddhism and Mahayana Buddhism are them. There are five Theravada countries - Sri Lanka, Thailand, Cambodia, Laos and Myanmar. Still Thailand and Cambodia have kings. It means two are kingdoms. In Thailand, in fact, there are two kings - Maharaja and Sangaraja. The head of laymen is Maharaja or the king. The head of all the monks is Sangaraja.Sangaraja is all powerful in that country.
"There are two schools of thought on Buddhism. Theravada Buddhism and Mahayana Buddhism are them. There are five Theravada countries - Sri Lanka, Thailand, Cambodia, Laos and Myanmar. Still Thailand and Cambodia have kings. It means two are kingdoms"
Q How is Sri Lanka’s National New Year Celebration similar to that of Thailand?
What we call ‘Sankranthiya or transitional period ‘is called Sonkran in Thailand. They all go by Shaka years. They sprinkle water on others on the day. Unlike in Sri Lanka, They do not follow ‘Nekath’ system. From the earliest time, we have had very close links with Thailand.
Q How do you see the cultural element of the New Year celebration here?
There is confusion in the way we call ‘the New Year’. Some call it Sinhala/Tamil New Year and others the Sinhala/Hindu New Year. It shows confusion. Here, actually two new years have got mixed up. It means two New Year concepts have been merged into one. One is the Sinhala New Year. It dawns on the first day of the first month of that year. According to the Sinhala calendar, the first month is Bak. The first of Bak, falls, during the last week of March. It did not happen. Yet, we take April 13 or 14 as the beginning of the New Year. It is actually the beginning of another year called ‘Saka New Year’. It means the Sinhala New Year got mixed up with Saka New Year. The Sinhala New Year is based on the lunar calendar. A lunar month has 30 days divided into two phases- Pura and Ava. It means from the waxing moon and the waning moon. Saka New year is based on the astrological movement of the sun. It is an astrological calendar. When the sun reaches the House of Pisces, the last one, and moves to the House of Aries , the New Year dawns.
Sighting the new moon is the first ritual associated with the New Year. This time, the full moon day of Bak fell before the New Year days. When Robert Knox was here, he mentioned that the Sinhala New Year was celebrated on March 28. That is correct.
Saka is a powerful dynasty. They devised a calendar. They were Buddhists. They came to power 78 years after Christ. The Sinhalese, be they Buddhists and Christians, can celebrate the Sinhala New Year on the first day of Bak. As for Buddhists alone, they can even celebrate the Saka New Year.
"Vesak is the most important day marking the Birth, Enlightenment and Passing Away of the Buddha. These are the three events that took place on the full moon day of Vesak"