Whose idea was it to pave with brick in Varanasi? As if the roads weren’t narrow and treacherous enough, there’s a small stretch from Varanasi to Sarnath that has a bone-rattling cobblestone section. What seems quaint in Boston or Philadelphia looks downright foolish in India. Infrastructure, people, infrastructure.
I should have had a closer spiritual connection to Sarnath than I did. After all, Sarnath is where Buddha gave his first teachings in a deer park. From there, a Buddhist temple arose and was subsequently decimated by Hindus and Muslims alike. If anything brings disparate religions together, it’s decimating other religions. Nothing remains but some excavated ruins now, and a huge brick stupa with historic carvings. You can access the park for a fee and walk along the ruins, but a Buddhist monk led me around the perimeter for free. Well, not exactly for free -- I made a donation to the Buddhist temple through him -- so if he pockets the money, it’s on his own head.
Inside the temple itself, a mural by a Japanese artist depicts the life of Buddha. I particularly liked the one with him battling numerous demons. Symbolic, perhaps. It reminded me of a commercial I saw on Hindi TV for a children’s cartoon; the Hindu gods were superheroes -- the Justice League of India. It brings in the younger generation, sure, but it also sort of cheapens the religious experience. This, of course, comes from a devout atheist, so Krishna laser power away! A replanted sapling from the original bodhi tree (now grown into its own) frames a quiet meditation spot. Black granite slabs inscribed with Buddha’s first sermon in several different languages surround life-size statues of him with his five disciples. All the time, I kept thinking that my parents would have loved to see this. They had a Vietnamese translation of the sermon. I would have read the English one, but it was in the sun, and it was nearing noon.
The nearby archaeological museum had much more interest for me, however. And that’s not just because it cost 2 Rs. to get in. Rather, seeing the retrieved statuary gave me, finally, a sense of history of the area. There was a huge stone umbrella with a diameter of at least 10 feet; images of Buddha in his various teaching poses (which I tried to emulate, of course); and an Ashokan column top with four lion heads roaring into each direction. And did I mention that the museum had A/C?