Sravasti is a sleepy outpost likely unknown by many Buddhists east or west. Yet it is Sravasti, or ancient Savatthi, that was the center of the Buddha’s world, its largest city, and the closest any place comes to being his home. As the capital of the kingdom of Kosala, Sravasti hosted the Buddha for 25 rainy seasons and was the setting for the majority of his important teachings.

 © Elinor Holland
© Elinor Holland

The morning air, thick with the ethereal mist that typically veils most Indian villages on the Gangetic Plain,seems to linger longer in Sravasti. An early visit to the shrines atop the ruins of ancient temple foundations gives you a sense of intimacy with the Buddha’s life. Sravasti is situated in a lovely archaeological park replete with gardens, flowering trees, and an abundance of monkeys; it isn’t until the afternoon that you see vestiges of this vast ancient city unfolding to the south of the temple bluff.

The suttas tell us that one day, Sravasti’s wealthiest merchant, Sudatta, happened on the Buddha giving a sermon. He felt attracted to the teachings but was not inclined to give up his business. The Buddha told him it was enough to live a virtuous life: “Not by a shaven head” is ignorance overcome. Sudatta became the Buddha’s student, took the name Anathapindika (“incomparable giver of alms”), and set out to acquire some land in Sravasti for the Buddha and his growing Sangha. But the most suitable place, the verdant bluff overlooking the city, was owned by King Pasenadi’s son, Prince Jeta, who had no plans to sell. However, when Anathapindika offered to pave every inch of the land with gold, Jeta was quite impressed and accepted the offer. Thus the Buddha and his followers received the Jeta Grove, capable of accommodating ten thousand people.

Present-day Sravasti hosts two monasteries, six temples, five stupas, and a pleasantly shaded water tank. The ruins of Gandhakuti, the wooden temple said to have been used by the Buddha, are also here; once seven stories high, its magnificence was recorded centuries later by Chinese pilgrims. A highly venerated spot is the site of the Anandabodhi Tree, a descendent of the original Bodhi Tree in Bodhgaya. Anathapindika planted it for the laity to worship during the Buddha’s absences. Other worthwhile sites in modern Sravasti include a Sri Lankan monastery containing impressive murals that depict important events in the Buddha’s life, and some Buddha relics kept in a stupa-shaped vessel. A Burmese Temple, featuring a wonderfully weathered pagoda, is just outside the fenced-in Jeta Grove.

North of Jeta Grove, amidst the ruins of the old Sravasti city, stands the imposing Sudatta stupa. According to the fourth-century Chinese pilgrim Fa Hsien, this stupa was built on the foundations of Anathapindika’s house. A nearby mass of bricks surrounding a tunnel was identified in 1863 by the British archaeologist Alexander Cunningham as the Angulimala stupa. The story of Angulimala was an important teaching at the time of the Buddha. Legend has it that one day the Buddha learned that the townspeople were terrified of a madman living in the woods outside the city walls. Several people were found murdered, and the killer was seen wearing a garland of fingers. The Buddha went fearlessly into the woods to seek an encounter with the killer, Angulimala. Seeing the Buddha approach, Angulimala commanded him to stop. The Buddha replied that he had already stopped—that is, stopped living unskillfully—and it was now time for Angulimala to follow his example. Stunned by the Buddha’s lack of fear and warmed by his compassion, Angulimala abandoned his murderous career, took refuge with the Buddha, ordained as a monk, and eventually became a great arhat. Angulimala’s transformation from a murderer to a monk highlights the basic Buddhist understanding of impermanence and the endless possibilities of change, and counters the notion that one might be too soiled by past unskillful behaviors to cultivate a virtuous life.

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