By Swami Harshananda
One of the most celebrated places of pilgrimage for the devotees is Gayā in the Gayā district of Bihar. It is 88 kms. (55 miles) from the capital city Patna and is situated on the western bank of the river Phalgu. Gayā proper, the main pilgrimage center of the devotees, is called Brahma-Gayā.
Situated 11 kms. (7 miles) away from this is Bodh-Gayā, the place where Siddhārtha attained bodhi and became the Buddha. There is a temple here, dedicated to Buddha, measuring 15 meters square (50 ft.) and 48 meters (160 ft.) high. There is also a bodhi tree under which Buddha is said to have attained enlightenment.
The bodhi tree is not the original tree. However, replanting from the branches of the original or growing it from its seeds must have been going on for centuries. The present one was probably planted around A. D. 1876. Many edicts of kings, mostly from South India, have been discovered at Gayā.
Gayā an Asura
According to a paurāṇic legend, Gayā was an asura (demon) who was a great devotee of Viṣṇu. By performing severe austerities he propitiated Viṣṇu and secured a boon that whoever touched him would go to heaven. As a result, all people started going to heaven just by touching him and Yama’s hell became empty. At his request, Viṣṇu suggested Brahma to perform a Vedic sacrifice on Gaya’s body. Gayā agreed and the sacrifice started. But his head started shaking thus disturbing the sacrifice. In order to make it steady a stone called ‘dharmaśilā’ was secured from the world of Yama and placed upon Gaya’s head. Even this did not work out. All the gods and Viṣṇu with his gadā or mace had to stand on it, to stop the shaking. Gayā requested Viṣṇu to grant him the boon of his body should be a permanent station of all the gods. Viṣṇu granted the same. As a result, the place where Gaya’s body lay became an extremely holy place.
Pilgrimage to Gayā
Before starting on a pilgrimage to Gayā one should circum ambulate one’s own town or village and perform a śrāddha, which is a call to the pitṛs or ancestors to come to Gayā. The rites to be performed after reaching Gayā may be summarized as follows:
- Digging a pit in the bed of the Phalgu river, which is dry most of the time, to get water and offer tarpaṇa and also perform a śrāddha.
- Twelve ancestors are to be satiated by these rites.
- Offering piṇḍas (rice-balls) at the Viṣṇupāda in the Viṣṇu temple (built in A. D. 1787 by the queen Ahalyābāī Holkar) and sprinkling the holy water on oneself.
- Offering piṇḍas at the foot of the famous Akṣayavaṭa and honoring the brāhmaṇas.
- Visit to some minor tīrthas (holy places) like Rāmaśilā and Pretaśilā hillocks.
Significance of Gayā
The footprints of Lord Viṣṇu (Viṣṇu- pāda) in the Viṣṇu temple are in an octagonal basin 1.2 meters (4 ft.) in diameter and measure 40 cms. (16 inches) by 15 cms. (6 inches). The śrāddha performed at Gayā is said to yield inexhaustible results. Hence once it is performed there, there is no need to do it again during the rest of one’s life.
- Tarpaṇa is the water for satiation of the manes.
- Twelve ancestors are the three generations on the paternal and maternal side.
- The Concise Encyclopedia of Hinduism, Swami Harshananda, Ram Krishna Math, Bangalore