Magha Puja – The Buddhist festival of lights
‘Atma dipo bhava’ – be the light unto yourself. These were the last words spoken by the Buddha, his parting message to his disciples, many of whom were present there, witnessing the sight, as Buddha went into ‘parinirvana’* leaving his mortal body on earth. The message, perhaps, the crux of all his teachings is one that constantly makes us aware of how far we are from kindling the Truth within ourselves.
Buddha’s teaching has not just provided us with a safe haven, Buddhist ideas and symbols have also been a profound influence on the Indian constitutional framework. In the Lok Sabha, above the chair of the Speaker are inscribed the words, “Dharma Chakra Pravartanay”, which means “setting in motion the wheel of righteousness”. The Preamble of the Constitution extols the principles of liberty, equality and fraternity, whose roots can be traced to Buddhist teachings. The Buddha or the ‘awakened one’ is inseparable from our lives, his teachings find reflection in the globally accepted Gandhian ethos as Swami Vivekananda aptly said, “Buddhism, the fulfillment of Hinduism”.
True to its illuminating philosophies and teachings, is the Buddhist festival of lights that is celebrated by many Buddhist monks and lay Buddha followers in several countries, known as ‘Magha Puja’ or Makha Bucha (as spelled in some southeast Asian countries).
Magha Puja falls on the full moon day of the third lunar month of each year and is the second most important Buddhist festival (after Buddha Purnima). Thousands of temples celebrate this special day each year by lighting candles or lanterns. In Thailand alone, over 30,000 temples are lit with candles every year on this day. Lay Buddhists (householders) observe the same by lighting candles in their homes and meditating on the 3 gems as enshrined in Buddhism.
The story behind the Magha Puja goes like this. A few months after the Buddha had attained his own enlightenment, on the full moon day of the third lunar month, he visited the Veruvana monastery in the city of Rajagaha (currently Rajgir). Coincidentally, on the same day, one thousand followers spontaneously returned from their wanderings to pay their respects to the Buddha. Slowly, 250 awakened followers of the Buddha’s principal disciples– Mahakasyapa, Sariputra and Maudgalyayana also assembled on the same day at the monastery. The uniqueness of this congregation was the fact that it was completely unprecedented. It was a matter of serendipity that all of them had assembled at Veravana on a full moon day during the third lunar month or Magha.
That day, The Buddha had given his sermon to all these 1250 seekers through a series of verses asking them to follow the path of righteousness.
This was the day when 4 wonderful things happened.
• 1,250 Buddhist monks met spontaneously, without any prior planning
• All 1,250 were enlightened monks (arhats).
• Each of them was ordained personally by the Buddha.
• It happened on a full moon day
For all these 4 wonderful things that happened on that day, Magha Puja Day is also known as ‘Fourfold Assembly Day’. Because it established a community of monks, it is also known as the ‘Sangha Day’ in Buddhism and is also celebrated for being the day when an ideal and exemplary community was created.
On the first important Magha Puja Day, the Buddha had for the first time shared his valuable teachings infront of a large gathering of followers. The second one happened 45 years later, three months before the Buddha’s death at Vaishali. On this Magha Puja Day, it is said that the Buddha had called his disciple Ananda to inform him that the ’Tathagata’ (as he would address himself in his later years) had chosen to die in three months.
Magha Puja Day hence encompasses the Buddha’s teaching life as well, yet another reason why it is held as a very significant Buddhist festival.
Today, the Magha Puja Day is a grand festival wherein Buddhists gather in temples in the evening and bring flowers, incense, & candles along with them. They circle the temple’s main hall 3 times, with lit candles in their hands – a spectacular sight to view on a full moon night.
As the moon shines brightly on the sky, overseeing thousands of flickering candles in the darkness carried by the monks who make clockwise movement around the uposatha hall*, Buddha’s teaching of love and compassion fill the air.
Today, Many Buddhists around the world celebrate Magha puja by exchanging gifts, lighting oil lamps, meditating, chanting and attending the candlelight procession in the temples carried out by monks.
The focus throughout this procession of candles is to meditate on the ‘Three Jewels’ and their importance: The Buddha (his attainment of enlightenment), The Sangha (the community of Buddhists, beyond our own individual lives), and finally, the Dharma (the Buddha’s teachings). A meditation that encompasses every part of Buddhism. And one that the Buddha himself taught 2600 years ago on that first Magha Puja Day.
parinirvana – In Buddhism, parinirvana (Sanskrit: parinirvāṇa; Pali: parinibbāna) is commonly used to refer to nirvana-after-death, which occurs upon the death of someone who has attained nirvana during his or her lifetime.
uposatha hall – Uposatha hall, is the most important building in the monastery. This is where ordinations and other official acts of the Order take place. It also houses the Buddha’s images.