The Buddha’s Relics and the Mystery of Vethadipa

As word of the Buddha’s passing spread delegations from the various states in north India converged on Kusinara hoping to get the ashes that remained after the Buddha’s cremation. The Sakyans wanted them because, as their representative said; “The Tathagata was the greatest of our clan.”  The envoy of the Ajatasattu king of Magadha said that his master was entitled to the ashes because he was of the warrior caste as was the Buddha. The Mallas of Kusinara, arguing from the standpoint of possession being nine-tenths of the law, said; “The Tathagata   attained final  Nirvana in the precincts of our town and we will not give up his ashes.” In all, eight claimants were involved in this unseemly dispute, the others being the Licchavis of Vesali, the Bulayas of Allakappa, the Koliyas of Ramagama, the Mallas of Pava and a brahman of Vethadipa.

Just as the situation started to get tense a brahman named Dona who just happened to be in the vicinity came to the rescue. Apparently Dona was a skilled arbitrator and he addressed the crowd saying:  “The Buddha’s teaching is about patience and it is not fitting that strife should come from sharing out the remains of this best of men. Let us all be combined in harmony and peace. In the spirit of friendship, let the remains be divided into eight.” These words brought everyone to their senses, it was agreed that Dona should divide the relics according to what he thought fair, and this he did. As a reward for his services he was given the vessel in which the ashes had been held and from which he had measured them out, he received it with gratitude and announced that he would enshrine it in a stupa. The division having been made to everyone’s satisfaction, an envoy from the Moriya clan turned up and demanded a portion of the ashes. Dona came to the rescue again, suggesting that the latecomers be given the ashes from the funeral pyre. This was done and thus the first ten Buddhist stupa came to be built.

Most of these  individuals and their cities or countries are mentioned in other places in the Tipitaka, the Buddha himself had visited some of them, and  the majority are also mentioned in other ancient literature. Likewise, archaeologists have identified the remains of  four of the stupas that were built to enshrine the ashes. But there is one exception to this – the brahman of Vethadipa. This individual and the place he came from are not mentioned anywhere in the Tipitaka or in any other context in any Indian literature. No inscription mentioning the name Vethadipa has ever been found.  So who  this brahman was, where  he came from, why  he thought  he was  entitled to  a share of the Buddha’s relics, and where he built  his stupa  are completely unknown.

I have always been interested in identifying and visiting places where the Buddha lived and taught but the possible location of Vethadipa has always eluded me. Its location and significance are also questions that academics have not thought necessary to explore. As  there is no research on the subject I decided to do my own. I started by looking at the name. ‘Vetha’ in Pali means to be enclosed or enveloped, and sometimes it  is used to mean a turban; ‘dipa’ can mean  a  lamp or an island, and in this context it almost certainly means the latter.  I considered that such a ‘dipa’ is unlikely to be one located in the ocean  which would be    at least 700 kilometres from the area in which the Buddha lived.  The other alternative would be a riverine island. A bit of research revealed that there is no island in the Yamuna, northern India’s second largest river other than seasonal ones which are formed by silt during the monsoon and are washed away a few years later. But there is a permanent one and only one  in the Ganges, named Jahangira at Sultanganj in Bihar. As this seemed like a good place to start looking I decided to go there. Sultanganj is about 200 km. from Patna and on arriving in the town I  went to the bank or the river, and there, in the middle of the river,  I saw  Jahangira  formed by  a cluster of  rocks with a temple perched on it.  It is a picturesque place and in the 19th century before the railway was built English travellers sailing up the Ganges often remarked on and even made drawings of or took photos of this unexpected and beautiful landmark. I hired a boat to take me out to the island.

The island’s Ajgavinath Temple is a modern and rather ugly one but clamouring around the rocks below it I immediately saw that many of them have ancient carvings on them, mainly Hindu ones, probably dating from the late Gupta period judging by their style. Finally, on a large rock on the south side of Jahangira I came across a carving of the Buddha slightly  smaller than life-size. Although the statue’s body and right arm have suffered some damage the face  has not and it retains its original fine features. There is also a halo behind its head. At its feet on the right is a small crouching figure in a gesture of worship, probably the donor who paid for the statue to be carved, and on the right is an alcove with another smaller Buddha statue in it. I looked carefully to see if there was any inscription near the statue but could find none.  These statues are proof positive that this island was once a Buddhist one while the other carvings show that it was, probably at a later period, shared with Hindus.

There is also evidence that Sultanganj, the town adjacent  Jahangira, was once a Buddhist centre of  considerable importance. When the Chinese pilgrim Xuanzang was in India in the 6th century he spent a year there studying with two famous pundits, Tathagatagupta and Kshantisimha, but he said nothing about the island.  In 1861 an ancient Buddhist temple near the bank of the river was demolished so its bricks could be used in the construction of the railway.  In the process a truly magnificent bronze statue of the Buddha was revealed, the largest metal statue ever found in India.  It is 2.3 meters high, weighs 500 kilograms and was probably made in the 6th or 7th centuries. Today it is exhibited in the Birmingham Museum in the UK where it is considered the pride of the collection. What attracted scholars and pilgrims to  Sultanganj?  Was it because Vethadipa and its stupa was nearby?  We have no way of knowing as its story has been lost in the mist of time. We do not even know  Sultanganj’s  original name;  of course its present name  was given during the Muslim period.

We could conjecture that Jahangira’s original name was Vethadipa and that a brahman from there who happened  to be in Kusinara at the time of the Buddha’s passing, managed to  get some  of the relics and then  built  a stupa on the island and enshrined them in it.  But this can only be conjecture. Until more research is done or more evidence comes to light who this brahman was and where Vethadipa is will remain a mystery.