Sarnath is a place located 10 kilometres north-east of Varanasi city near the confluence of the Ganges and the Varuna rivers in Uttar Pradesh, India. The deer park in Sarnath is where Gautama Buddha first taught the Dharma, and where the Buddhist Sangha came into existence through the enlightenment of Kondanna (Sanskrit: Kauṇḍinya).
Singhpur, a village approximately one kilometer away from the site, was the birthplace of Shreyansanath, the Eleventh Tirthankara of Jainism. A temple dedicated to him is an important pilgrimage site.
Also referred to as Isipatana, this city is mentioned by the Buddha as one of the four places of pilgrimage to which his devout followers should visit. It was also the site of the Buddha's Dhammacakkappavattana Sutta, which was his first teaching after attaining enlightenment, in which he taught the four noble truths and the teachings associated with it.
Sarnath has been variously known as Mrigadava, Migadāya, Rishipattana and Isipatana throughout its long history. Mrigadava means "deer-park". "Isipatana" is the name used in the Pali Canon, and means the place where holy men (Pali: isi, Sanskrit: rishi) landed.
The legend says that when the Buddha-to-be was born, some devas came down to announce it to 500 rishis. Another explanation for the name is that Isipatana was so-called because, sages, on their way through the air (from the Himalayas), alight here or start from here on their aerial flight. Pacceka Buddhas, having spent seven days in contemplation in the Gandhamādana, bathe in the Anotatta Lake and come to the habitations of men through the air, in search of alms. They descend to earth at Isipatana. Sometimes the Pacceka Buddhas come to Isipatana from Nandamūlaka-pabbhāra.
Xuanzang quotes the Nigrodhamiga Jātaka (J.i.145ff) to account for the origin of the Migadāya. According to him, the Deer Park was a forest given by the king of Benares of the Jātaka, where deer might wander unmolested. The Migadāya was so-called because deer were allowed to roam about there unmolested.
Sarnath derives from the Sanskrit Sāranganātha, which means "Lord of the Deer", and relates to another old Buddhist story in which the Bodhisattva is a deer and offers his life to a king instead of the doe the latter is planning to kill. The king is so moved that he creates the park as a sanctuary for deer. The park is active in modern times.
Before Gautama (the Buddha-to-be) attained enlightenment, he gave up his austere penances and his friends, the Pañcavaggiya monks. Seven weeks after his enlightenment under the Bodhi tree in Bodh Gaya, Buddha left Uruvela and traveled to Isipatana to rejoin them because, using his spiritual powers, he had seen that his five former companions would be able to understand Dharma quickly. While traveling to Sarnath, Gautama Buddha had no money to pay the ferryman to cross the Ganges, so he crossed it through the air. Later when King Bimbisāra heard of this, he abolished the toll for ascetics. Gautama Buddha found his five former companions and enlightened them with the teachings of the Dharma. At that time, the Sangha, the community of the enlightened ones, was founded. The sermon, Buddha gave to the five monks, was his first sermon, called the Dhammacakkappavattana Sutta. It was given on the full-moon day of Asalha Puja. Buddha subsequently also spent his first rainy season at Sarnath at the Mulagandhakuti. By then, the Sangha had grown to 60 in number (after Yasa and his friends had become monks), and so Buddha sent them out in all directions to travel alone and teach the Dharma. All 60 monks were Arhats.
Several other incidents connected with the Buddha, besides the preaching of the first sermon, are mentioned as having taken place in Isipatana. It was here when one day, at dawn, Yasa came to the Buddha and became an Arhat. It was at Isipatana, too, that the rule was passed, prohibiting the use of sandals made of talipot leaves. On another occasion when the Buddha was staying at Isipatana, having gone there from Rājagaha, he instituted rules forbidding the use of certain kinds of flesh, including human flesh. Twice, while the Buddha was at Isipatana, Māra visited him but had to go away discomfited.
Besides the Dhammacakkappavattana Sutta mentioned above, several other suttas were preached by the Buddha while staying at Isipatana, among them
Some of the most eminent members of the Sangha seem to have resided at Isipatana from time to time; among recorded conversations at Isipatana are several between Sariputta and Mahakotthita, and one between Mahākotthita and Citta-Hatthisariputta. There is also a mention of a discourse in which several monks staying at Isipatana tried to help Channa in his difficulties.
According to the Udapāna Jātaka, there was a very ancient well near Isipatana which, in the Buddha's time, was used by the monks living there.
According to the Mahavamsa, there was a large community of monks at Isipatana in the second century B.C. for, we are told that at the foundation ceremony of the Mahā Thūpa in Anurādhapura, twelve thousand monks were present from Isipatana led by the Elder Dhammasena.
In the enclosure of the Sanghārāma was a vihāra about two hundred feet high, strongly built, its roof surmounted by a golden figure of the mango. In the center of the vihāra was a life-size statue of the Buddha turning the wheel of the Law and to the south-west were the remains of a stone stupa built by King Ashoka. In front of it was a stone pillar to mark the spot where the Buddha preached his first sermon. Nearby was another stupa on the site where the Pañcavaggiyas spent their time in meditation before the Buddha's arrival, and another where five hundred Pacceka Buddhas entered Nibbāna. Close to it was another building where the future Buddha Metteyya received assurance of his becoming a Buddha.
The Divy. (389-94) mentions Ashoka as intimating to Upagupta, his desire to visit the places connected with the Buddha's activities and to erect stupas there. Thus he visited Lumbinī, Bodhimūla, Isipatana, Migadāya and Kusinagara; this is confirmed by Ashoka's lithic records, e.g. Rock Edict, viii.
Buddhism flourished in Sarnath because of kings and wealthy merchants based in Varanasi. By the third century, Sarnath had become an important center for the arts, which reached its zenith during the Gupta period (4th to 6th centuries CE). In the 7th century by the time Xuanzang visited from China, he found 30 monasteries and 3000 monks living at Sarnath.
Sarnath became a major center of the Sammatiya school of Buddhism, one of the early Buddhist schools. However, the presence of images of Heruka and Tara indicate that Vajrayana Buddhism was (at a later time) also practiced here. Also, images of Brahminist gods as Shiva and Brahma were found at the site, and there is still a Jain temple (at Chandrapuri) located very close to the Dhamekh Stupa.
At the end of the 12th century, Sarnath was sacked by Turkish Muslims, and the site was subsequently plundered for building materials.
Isipatana is identified with the modern Sarnath, six miles from Varanasi. Alexander Cunningham found the Migadāya represented by a fine wood, covering an area of about half a mile, extending from the great tomb of Dhamekha on the north to the Chaukundi mound on the south.
According to the Buddhist commentarial scriptures, all the Buddhas preach their first sermon at the Migadāya in Isipatana. It is one of the four avijahitatthānāni (unchanging spots), the others being the bodhi-pallanka, the spot at the gate of Sankassa, where the Buddha first touched the earth on his return from Tāvatimsa, and the site of the bed in the Gandhakuti in Jetavana
In past ages, Isipatana sometimes retained its own name, as it did in the time of Phussa Buddha, Dhammadassī Buddha and Kassapa Buddha. Kassapa was born there. But more often Isipatana was known by different names (for these names see under those of the different Buddhas). Thus in the time of Vipassī Buddha, it was known as Khema-uyyāna. It is the custom for all Buddhas to go through the air to Isipatana to preach their first sermon. Gautama Buddha, however, walked all the way, eighteen leagues, because he knew that by so doing he would meet Upaka, the Ajivaka, to whom he could be of service.
It is the place of 4 kalyanak of Shri Shreyansnath Bhagwan. A huge ashtakod stoop (octagonal pillar), 103 feet in height is still present showing its historical establishment. It is considered to be 2200 years old. The main deity of this temple is a blue colored idol of Shri Shreyansnath Bhagwan, 75 cm in height, in Padmāsana. The artistic work of this temple is unmatched.
The major excavated ruins are listed below, generally in north-to-south and west-to-east order.
Most of the ancient buildings and structures at Sarnath were damaged or destroyed by the Turks. However, amongst the ruins can be distinguished:
Sarnath has been developed as a place of pilgrimage, both for Buddhists from India and abroad. A number of countries in which Buddhism is a major (or the dominant) religion, such as Thailand, Japan, Tibet, Sri Lanka, and Myanmar, have established temples and monasteries in Sarnath in the style that is typical for the respective country. Thus, pilgrims and visitors have the opportunity to experience an overview of Buddhist architecture from various cultures.
The plate on which Letitia Elizabeth Landon's poem Sarnat, a Bodh Monument is based shows its then run-down condition, and her words, comparing the religions of the world, pick up on the apparent weakness of Buddhism in the country of its origin at that time (1832).
Sarnath is one of the locations of Rudyard Kipling's Kim. Teshoo Lama stays at the Temple of the Tirthankhars in Sarnath when not on his pilgrimages. Kim meets him there after he leaves Saint Xavier's school.