Chapter 1, Part 3
One morning in Yangon James and I walked from our hotel on 33rd Street to Shwedagon Pagoda, some three kilometers away. The sun was shining brightly, but to the east layers upon layers of clouds rolled on the horizon. I raised my finger to the sky, towards the clouds, to see the direction they were moving: westward, and fast. Based on my memory from my previous visit in 2012, I dashed in front of James and led him to Shwedagon Paya.
More than two millennia ago Ashoka, king of the Maurya Empire, probably moved just as fast, if not faster, in proselytizing the teachings of the Buddha, not only to his subjects but also to lands beyond his realm. His children, Mahinda and Sanghamitta, played a central role in spreading Buddhism to the island of Lanka. The kings of Anuradhapura nurtured the development of the new religion despite frequent attacks by Hindu kingdoms from South India, a region Ashoka never conquered.
Using his immense wealth, Ashoka provided financial support to viharas (Buddhist temples) and sanghas (Buddhist monastic societies). His generosity, however, was both a blessing and a curse as not only did it strengthen Buddhist teaching but also attracted those who wanted to join the sanghas only for the food, clothing, shelter and other facilities. Consequently the Third Buddhist Council was held to purify the monastic societies from those who held wrong views about the religion.
Following the conclusion of the Council, two monks were sent to spread Buddhism to the east, to a land called Suvarnabhumi – land of gold – which is believed to be a part of modern-day Myanmar, although some argue that it is in fact in Thailand, hence the name of Bangkok’s main international airport. Sona and Uttara, the two monks, most likely interacted with the Mon people who at that time ruled the kingdom of Thaton.
However the people in Myanmar believe in the legend that the sixth-century BC kingdom of Okkalapa had already embraced Buddhism not long after Gautama Buddha attained enlightenment. Two Okkalapan merchants by the name of Taphussa and Bhallika visited the Buddha and offered him alms. In return, the Buddha gifted them with eight strands of his hair and instructed them to enshrine the hairs at the place where relics of the three previous Buddhas – Kakusanda Buddha, Kawnagamana Buddha and Kassapa Buddha – were buried.
A pagoda was built after the king of Okkalapa found the exact spot with the help of nats (spirits, widely worshiped in Myanmar). The new shrine was called Shwedagon, ‘Reliquary of the Four’. However historical and archaeological evidence suggests that the pagoda was in fact built by the Mon people around the sixth century AD and further expanded by later kings and queens until it reached its current height in 1774.
More than two thousand years after the spread of Buddhism from its heartland, it is no longer a major religion in India, the historical stronghold of Buddhism. Its influence is only palpable in small pockets in the country, including Sikkim and Ladakh. On the contrary Sri Lanka is today a major Theravada Buddhist stronghold, while more than 80% of the people in Myanmar are Buddhists.
With sweat dripping from all over my face, I was standing before the pagoda, meticulously covered with gold leaves and capped by diamond- and gemstone-laden gilded ornaments. Yangon has changed quite drastically in the three years between my first and second visits; new cars, new malls, KFC, Coca-Cola, and even traffic jams. But Shwedagon remains a quiet refuge from the city’s bustle.
As thick clouds hung over our heads, we slowly walked out of the majestic pagoda compound. Minutes later a heavy downpour washed away the dust and dirt off the gilded monument, the houses, and the trees, slowing down Yangon’s busy pace. Behind us Shwedagon stood tall, a symbol of the nation’s pride and wealth, and of a thriving faith in the land of gold.
Click here for the full list of stories from the Spice Odyssey series.