Summary: a Buddhist festival celebrating the birth, enlightenment and death of the Buddha
2018 Date: varies around the world, but dates include 29th April and 29th May
Celebrated by: Buddhists (predominantly Theravada), some countries as a National Holiday
Linked Holidays: Buddha’s Birthday, Bodhi Day (Buddhism)
Background and Theological Significance
Vesak, also known as Buddha Jayanti, Buddha Purnima or simply ‘Buddha Day’, is a festival in Buddhism that celebrates the birth, enlightenment and death of Siddhartha Gautama, also known as the Buddha. Siddhartha was a great spiritual teacher and guide who during the course of his life is seen to have broken through the cycle of ‘samsara’ (the cycle of birth and rebirth) and attained full Buddhahood, consequently passing into ‘nirvana’ (ultimate liberation) upon his physical death. Buddhists believe that Siddhartha’s life and teachings provide a path through which they may also attain enlightenment and liberation. He is also a revered figure within other dharmic faiths, including Hinduism and Sikhism, and is a widely-admired spiritual figure in many other cultures and societies.
The etymology of Vesak is derived from ‘Vaisakha’, the name of the lunar month in the Hindu calendar in which Siddhartha Gautama was believed to have been born. According to traditional biographies Siddhartha was born in Lumbini in present-day Nepal, in around the year 563 BCE. His father was called Suddhodana, the ruler of a tribe, and his mother was called Maya. On the night of his conception, Maya dreamt that a white elephant with six tusks entered her womb, symbolising the greatness of her future son. Whilst on her way to her parents’ home, she gave birth to Siddhartha on the night of a full moon under a tree in the Himalayan foothills. It was said that the birth was stainless and was accompanied by radiant light and cosmic trembling. The infant Siddhartha was visited by a holy man named Asita who predicted that he would one day achieve a spiritual awakening and become a Buddha. Many Buddhist writings also hold that both Siddhartha’s enlightenment at the age of 35 and his physical death and passing at the age of 80 occurred on a full moon during the month of Vaisakha. This means that the festival of Vesak draws together three major life events of the Buddha into one celebration in his honour.
The celebration of Vesak is one of the most important Buddhist observances. Not only does it commemorate the Buddha’s physical birth, it also commemorates his enlightenment to the truth, which is the ultimate Buddhist goal. The festival provides a day for Buddhists to commit themselves to the teachings and actions of the Buddha and seek after their own enlightenment and passing into nirvana.
The observance of Vesak grew with Buddhism as it spread from India out across eastern Asia. This is reflected in the different names, dates and practices associated with the festival. In India it is often known as Buddha Jayanti, meaning ‘Buddha’s Birthday’, which is reminiscent of the similar Jain celebration of Mahavir Jayanti (Siddhartha was a contemporary of Mahavira, the principal figure in Jainism). Another name, Buddha Purnima, translates as ‘full moon day’, which indicates the night of Siddhartha’s birth. Typically, these names refer primarily to the celebration of the birth of the Buddha, whereas Vesak draws together the three celebrations of his birth, enlightenment and death into one observance. The three-in-one Vesak is more common amongst Theravada Buddhists in South Asia, whereas the singular celebration of Buddha’s birth is more common amongst Mahayana Buddhists in East Asia.
Vesak has long been celebrated on the full moon of the Hindu month of Vaisakha. In the Gregorian calendar, this usually falls either in late April, May or early June. However, differences between the various strands of Buddhism have meant that the exact date of this can vary. Buddhists who typically observe Buddha’s Birthday rather than Vesak often observe the celebration on the eighth day of the fourth month according to the Chinese lunar calendar. In some Western cultures this has translated to an annual celebration on the 8th April.
The World Fellowship of Buddhists met in Sri Lanka in 1950 for their first conference, during which they formally declared Vesak to be a worldwide celebration of the Buddha’s birthday. They made a request to the governments of all countries with a Buddhist population to make the first full moon day in May a public holiday ‘in honour of the Buddha, who is universally acclaimed as one of the greatest benefactors of humanity’.
The festivities of Vesak often vary depending on the culture, but usually share many similarities. Devout Buddhists will gather in their temples before dawn on the day of Vesak to witness the raising of the Buddhist flag and the singing of praises to the Three Refuges: the Buddha, the Dharma (teachings) and the Sangha (disciples). A statue of the Buddha is bathed in water by his followers, to symbolise the washing away of bad karma and the desire for spiritual liberation. Buddhists will usually bring flowers, candles and incense as an offering for the Buddha, both as a homage and as a reminder of impermanence and decay. Many Buddhists around the world take part in lantern-lighting ceremonies as an expression of their spiritual journey. Buddhists also honour Vesak by abstaining from meat, and often celebrate by releasing captive animals into the wild. In Sri Lanka, slaughterhouses and alcohol shops are closed by government order for the entire festival.
Buddhists also make a special resolve on Vesak to commit themselves to the Eight Precepts of Buddhism, and to make time for meditation and charitable endeavours. It is a time to commemorate the life and teachings of the Buddha and to seek after their own enlightenment and liberation from the cycle of rebirth.