Sarnath is not just a city situated 13 km to the north-east of Varanasi in the state of Uttar Pradesh. It is rather an abode of the most enlightened ones. It is a sacred and holy city for the followers of Buddhism and Jainism of the world. It is one of the pilgrimage sites for both Buddhists and Jain as it was here that Lord Buddha gave his first sermon, and the eleventh Tirthankara of Jainism, Shreyansanath was born. Given the important role it has played in the spread of two peace-loving and advocate of non-violence religions, it will be no mistake to say that it was chosen by the gods for this role. Several numbers of people have attained realization here for centuries and many from distant places of the world still come here for the same. Its location, near the confluence of the holy Ganga and Gomati rivers also stands as a testimony for its sacredness.
The history of Sarnath has been mentioned in the Buddhist scriptures. Before being re-christened with its current name, Sarnath was known as Isipatana, Rishipattana, and Mrigadaya. The reason for donning different names is also justified in the texts. The name, Isipatana had been attributed to two different reasons though. The first one says that the birth of to-be Buddha was announced by the gods to 500 sages here. When the announcement was made, all the sages raised into the air, and their relics fell on the ground. Another reason given for the name is that those 500 sages took an aerial flight from the Himalayas and landed here. The description for the name of Rishipatna refers to the falling to the ground of the 500 sages after attaining enlightenment.
The clarification for the name of Mrigadaya in the Buddhist Jataka is a tad lengthy. It says that the place was ruled by the Banaras King. This king used to love deer hunting. A group of deer approached the king and asked him to stop the killing. They even agree to offer him one deer daily as a tax to use the place. When the turn to face the sacrifice comes on a hind, he refuses to go to the king. To calm the situation, the group leader agrees to offer himself to the king. Seeing the leader’s boldness, love for his fellow, and willingness to die, the king relents and declares the area as a deer park. The leader was none other than the Buddha of the previous birth. The park still exists today. This reason co-relates to the current name of Sarnath since it is a contraction of Sranganath or Sarnath, which means the Lord of deer.
Sarnath is also important since it was the first place Lord Buddha visited after attaining enlightenment at Bodh Gaya. To reach Bodh Gaya, Buddha had to cross the Ganga River in a ferry. As he had nothing to offer to the ferryman for the ride, He crossed the river through the air. Being amazed by Buddha’s mystical power, the king of Banaras declared the abolition of tax from ascetics. Lord Buddha then delivered his first sermon here to five of his disciples — Kaundinya, Mahanaman, Ashvai, Bashpa, and Bharika. He also laid the foundation for Sangha and Dhamma. The former is a community of monks and the latter doctrine of religion to be followed.
As Buddhism spread its wing to the neighbouring countries, Xuan Zang from China visited Sarnath in the 7th century. Sarnath had 3000 monks living in 30 monasteries then. Spiritual and artistic activities were at the peak during this time. Lots of shrines or stupas were built in order to accommodate more monks. The most popular among them is the Dhamekh Stupa, Chaukhandi Stupa and the Ashoka Pillar.
Sarnath has a deep influence from the life of Buddha. Buddhist monks of the world make it point to visit it to gain the highest distinction of the religious doctrine. The first Buddhist school was also founded here. It is designated as the pilgrimage site by Gautama Buddha. Countless monasteries built in the Buddhist architecture style from different countries makes it a tourist place.