Bodhgayā (alternatively Bodhgaya, Bodh Gaya, Buddha Gaya, or Buddhagaya) is believed to be the place where the historical Buddha Shakyamuni (Siddhartha Gautama) attained enlightenment. Located within the region of northeastern India historically known as Magadha, Bodhgayā and other nearby sites witnessed Buddhist activity from at least the 1st century BCE that significantly diminished only in the 13th century. An early focus of worship at Bodhgayā seems to have been the Bodhi tree and the seat beneath it, often called the vajrāsana (meaning adamantine or diamond seat). Here, after meditating through the night, Shakyamuni reached profound understanding of the way things really are (an understanding of the concept known as pratityasamutpāda), thus becoming a buddha (one who has awoken). Eventually a temple was built there called the Mahābodhi Temple, and many other monuments were added over the centuries, reflecting extensive religious patronage and practice. When a group of Saivite ascetics took up residence in the 16th century, Bodhgayā seems to have been abandoned, and Buddhist practice was not revived there until near the end of the 19th century. It can be difficult today to conceive of it as ever having been a desolate Buddhist site, given its now thriving character. Visitors in the 19th century, however, repeatedly recorded their surprise that this sacred Buddhist place was so ruinous. Although exactly how this happened, as well as other questions about Bodhgayā’s history, may never be fully resolved, there is no doubt that much can still be learned. What follows is not a comprehensive listing of all works published on Bodhgayā, but one meant to reflect the range of extant evidence as well as the varying perspectives that have been used to consider this place that Buddhists characterize as the navel of the earth.
There is no single volume that treats all the evidence and issues that concern Bodhgayā. Asher 2008 highlights the major features of the site as well as some of its historical significance; Barua 1981 is another solid source for additional details about the site. Ahir 1994 is more typical of many published works, in that it is useful but more general, while Leoshko 1988 is a collection of focused essays by different authors. Patil 1963 gives a lengthy list of published notices about the antiquarian remains in the region encompassing Bodhgayā, demonstrating that this was long an important area of religious activities. Mitra 1971 remains the best publication for understanding Bodhgayā within the broad scope of Buddhist sites in South Asia. It also provides useful summaries of the life of the Buddha and the history of Buddhism in South Asia. Introductions to Buddhism usually relate some version of the enlightenment of Shakyamuni at Bodhgayā; these narratives are mostly derived from Buddhist texts, although sometimes they are mixed with elements from early pilgrim accounts. Bareau 1963 provides probably the best overview and close reading of various Buddhist texts that describe the enlightenment. Knowledge of the story, however, does not lead to an understanding of the site or what happened there over the many centuries since Shakyamuni’s enlightenment. Unfortunately, Bodhgayā has not been extensively excavated, and little information survives about the surface remains in the area or the form of the Mahābodhi Temple before much was literally swept away by renovation efforts in the 19th century. Sato 2014 demonstrates that Bodhgayā is a place of international concern by including material documenting some of the legal battles over ownership of the site. These began with the revival of Buddhist worship at the site in the late 19th century and continued on into the 20th century. The UNESCO World Heritage Convention website presents the documents that were submitted to help make the case in 2002 for adding Bodhgayā to the UNESCO World Heritage list; these lack some accuracy but broadly describe the site’s significance.
Ahir, D. C. Buddha Gaya through the Ages. Delhi: Sri Satguru, 1994.
A broad, general survey. One of the most successful of the many general treatments of the site that have been published. It presents the typical view of the site’s importance.
Asher, Frederick M. Bodh Gaya. Monumental Legacy Series. New Delhi: Oxford University Press, 2008.
The series editor Devangana Desai notes that the intention was to provide brief introductions to each of the cultural sites in India that become accepted by UNESCO for its World Heritage list. Although short, this work provides the best introduction, especially to the issues of its importance in the past and in the present. It is also the most thoughtful introduction to reflecting on the site as a place of dynamic interactions.
Bareau, Andrè. Recherches sur la biographie du Buddha dans les Sûtrapitaka et les Vinayapitaka anciens: De la quête de l’éveil à la conversion de Śāriputra et de Maudgalyayana. Paris: Presses de l’École Française d’Extrême-Orient, 1963.
Surveys the Buddha’s life from enlightenment to the conversion of his two foremost disciples. A masterful study of various Buddhist texts that present the biography of the Buddha.
Barua, D. K. Buddha Gaya Temple: Its History. 2d ed. Buddha Gaya, India: Buddha Gaya Temple Management Committee, 1981.
Although somewhat dated, provides extremely useful information not found elsewhere in one volume. First edition published in 1975.
Leoshko, Janice, ed. Bodhgaya, the Site of Enlightenment. Bombay: Marg, 1988.
In addition to essays that cover works at the site, the volume includes scholarly discussions about various topics focused on the surviving evidence at the site as well as its larger significance, including its relationship with the nearby Hindu pilgrimage town of Gaya, and the many full-scale replicas of the Mahābodhi Temple built in other Buddhist countries, such as Burma, Thailand, and China. Good range of various bibliographic sources.
Mitra, Debala. Buddhist Monuments. Calcutta: Sahitya Samsad, 1971.
The author was a distinguished Indian archaeologist who excavated various sites and directed the Archaeological Survey of India. The quality of the information in this work about the many Buddhist sites covered reflects her careful approach, and no other publication presenting a similar range yet rivals this work, even though it badly needs to be updated.
Patil, D. R. The Antiquarian Remains in Bihar. Patna, India: K. P. Jayaswal Research Institute, 1963.
A formidable attempt to compile all the published notices made about remains in the state of Bihar; 448 sites are covered, and the entry for Bodhgayā is one of the largest. Most remains noted are Buddhist, but many sites have Hindu, Jain, or Islamic material (and many with some combination of these). The volume establishes a sense of the regional context in which Bodhgayā is situated.
Sato, Ryojun. The Mahabodhi Temple at Bodh Gaya. Delhi: Motilal Barnasidass, 2014.
A survey that emphasizes inscriptional evidence; provides some bibliographic sources not published elsewhere in overviews and is especially rich in Japanese and Chinese references.
This website of UNESCO discusses the background of the World Heritage list and maps all the sites in the world so far inscripted. It details the acceptance of the Mahabodhi Temple Complex at Bodh Gaya to the list in 2002 and the periodic reports that have been made subsequent to it inscription. Although not the first Indian Buddhist site to make the list, it is the first of the four sites considered to be the most sacred of those associated with the life of Shakyamuni.
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