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Previous The Birth of the Buddha

The Birth of the Buddha

7. The Uruvela Conversion

Soon after his first turning of the wheel in Benares, the Buddha decided to return to the site of his enlightenment. He must have known that near Uruvela there were three brahmin brothers called Kashyapa who led the life of matted-hair ascetics and practiced the fire-cult.

As we see in Figure 10 from the the great stupa at Sanchi in India, the Kashyapa followers were recognized by their large mop of hair and by their garments made of bark. They lived in huts built of branches on the edge of the jungle. Their austerities, their complicated rites had quickly brought them popular veneration in the Benares area. It is this hermitage of Uruvela-Kashyapa where the Buddha visited and asked if he could spend the night at the hut in which the sacrificial fire was kept burning. Taken by the stranger's self-confidence and personality Kashyapa did not dare refuse, but warned him that the place was haunted by a venomous divine serpent (naga). But the Buddha did not allow himself to be frightened off, and spent the night in the hut. As soon as he went in the hut the serpent entered and a terrible struggle ensued. Smoke against smoke appeared, fire against fire, so that the whole structure seemed to go up in flames. In Figure 10, we can see the flames coming out of all the openings of the hut, which looks as if it is burning up, while the brahmin ascetics seem stricken with horror and the novices rush forward with jugs of water to put out the fire. The Buddha is here represented by the stone slab between the five-headed serpent and the sacrificial fire. In the end the supernatural power of the Buddha overcame the naga's fury, and he placed the serpent in his begging bowl. When morning came, Kashyapa and his followers went to the hut and said: "The young monk must have been fiercely burned by the serpent's fire." But the Buddha came out of the hut and presented the distressed brahmins with the serpent quietly coiled inside his alms bowl.

Totally overpowered by this miraculous feat, Kashyapa and his five hundred threw their ritual utensils into the river and converted to the Buddhist faith. Sometime after their conversion the Buddha delivered the well-known Fire Sermon, which alluded thematically to the practices of the Kashyapa brothers' fire cult. It begins with these famous words: "Everything is ablaze!" The message of this sermon is that if anyone's senses are ruled by greed, hatred and delusion, all his perceptions will kindle, because they arouse further desires and aversions in him: for him the world is on fire. But whoever exerts control over the six senses is free from lusts and passions, and will gain freedom from rebirth.