Vesak, the most important day in the Buddhist calendar around the world, celebrates the birth, enlightenment and passing away of Gautam Buddha. Its significance lies in it being associated with the Buddha and His universal message of peace. Though festivals were celebrated since long around the time around which Vesak is celebrated today, yet, the formal decision to mark it as the Buddha Day was taken at the first Conference of the World Fellowship of Buddhists (W.F.B.). This conference was held at Sri Lanka in 1950 and the resolution adopted here read,
"That this Conference of the World Fellowship of Buddhists, while recording its appreciation of the gracious act of His Majesty, the Maharaja of Nepal in making the full-moon day of Vesak a Public Holiday in Nepal, earnestly requests the Heads of Governments of all countries in which large or small number of Buddhists are to be found, to take steps to make the full-moon day in the month of May a Public Holiday in honour of the Buddha, who is universally acclaimed as one of the greatest benefactors of Humanity."
The Name Vesak - In India & Other Countries
The 2nd month in Hindu calendar is known as 'Vaisakha' and it is from here that Vesak draws its name. Vesak, itself, is a Sinhalese word for Pali 'Visakha'.
Vesak is known by different names in different countries. In India, Bangladesh and Nepal, it is Visakah Puja or Buddha Purnima while in Thailand, it is called Visakha Bucha. Buddhist in Vietnam celebrate it as Phat Dan while those in Indonesia call it Waisak. Sri Lankan and Malaysian Buddhist term it as Vesak (Wesak) and Tibetan Buddhist as Saga Dawa. In Laos and Myanmar, the festival is known as Vixakha Bouxa and Ka-sone respectively.
The Celebration Date - 2008
Vesak is celebrated on the first full moon of the Tauras (an astrological sign) which is quiet often in May in common years and June in leap years. In coming years, Vesak will be celebrated on following dates:
2008 - 18th June
Vesak is a completely religious festival wherein the Buddhist are required to reaffirm their faith in the Buddha Dharma and vow to lead a noble religious life.
For this, Buddhist devotees gather in their respective area temple before dawn and attend the honourable hoisting of the Buddhist flag. Hymns are sung exalting the holy triple jewel - the Buddha, the Dharma and the Sangha. Offerings of flowers, candles and joss sticks are made. These offerings are symbolic of the ultimate reality of life - death. As the flowers wither away and the joss sticks burn out in time, so the life is destined to come to an end in due course of time.
Devotees are also called upon to avoid any kind of killing and eat vegetarian food on the day. In quiet a few countries, particularly in Sri Lanka, two days are marked out for the celebration of Vesak and all liquor shops and slaughter houses are closed by government orders. Also, a number of animals and birds are set free from captivity in a 'symbolic act to liberation'.
Buddhist monks recite verses given by the Buddha some 2500 years ago and call upon people to live with peace and harmony. Also, they urge people to respect other religious faiths as preached by their great teacher, Lord Buddha.
Unlike usual festivals, where people dress up beautifully and prepare delicious dishes, during Vesak, Buddhists, endeavour to bring a bit of happiness in the life of miserable people like the aged, handicapped and the sick. For this, they give away gifts in both cash and kind. Apart from this, devotees also distribute food amongst those who come into the temple to pay homage to the Buddha. Also, they lend a helping hand to adorn and lighten up the temple and paint scenes from the life of the Buddha.
Some Similar Festivals
Though Vesak is the main festival that marks the birth, enlightenment and passing away of Buddha, yet, in many other countries, festivals that mark only the birth of Buddha are also celebrated. Prominent amongst these is Hana-matsuri, also known as the Flower festival and celebrated on April 8 in Japan. In Hongkong, Macau, Taiwan and South Korea, the 8th day of the 4th moon is celebrated as Buddha's Birthday. It is infact, a public holiday in these countries.