The Mahaparinirvana image of the Buddha is considered more sacred than any of his other images, not even one representing him engaged in penance or meditation, or setting the wheel of Law in motion, perhaps for representing extinction : ascent to the plane where release is final with no birth or death beyond. Mahaparinirvana is the most celebrated image of the Buddha in all art traditions, Gandhara, Vakatakas or Pala, and enshrines many major Buddhist sites including Ajanta, a massive sculpture representing his Mahaparinirvana, datable to the sixth century, enshrining Cave 26. It is also one of the main five classes of the Buddha’s images identified in the Buddhist iconography, the other four being meditating Buddha – the Sakya-muni as also emaciated Buddha, Buddha in earth-touching posture, Buddha delivering first sermon, and Buddha, the universal teacher.
The most sublime the moment was as much emotional, not merely for those left behind but also to him who knew he was never to come back. The Buddha was now quite old and feeble but after Ajatashatru, who had great aversion for him, assassinated his father king Bimbasara and occupied the throne of Rajagriha, Buddha shifted to Shravasti; however, his attachment to Rajagriha was ever the same. Though beyond bonds, the incidence had broken his heart. He realised that his material frame was failing. Before he bade farewell to this world he desired to visit all places he had reminiscences of. As it happened, Ajatashatru before long realised his sin and made a public confession of it. He apologized to Buddha and joined Buddhist congregation. On his prayer Buddha came to Rajagriha. After some time when he left and was on the point of crossing the river Ganga, he stood on a stone block and turning his eyes back to Rajagriha said, full of emotion, ‘This is the last time that I shall see that city.’
Thereafter Buddha visited Vaishali. His farewell to Vaishali was as emotional. Then he headed towards Kushinagar. When almost close to the town, his vital strength began failing. Realising his end close, he halted in a forest-part and in the centre of two Sal trees made his bed on the bare land with a stone-piece, his cushion, under his head. He straightened his figure with his head on the north. He lied on his right supporting his head on his right hand. He saw the pain of losing their Master on the faces of his disciples accompanying him, Ananda in particular. He called him close and besides consoling commanded that the end of his material body is not the end of his words, his message. Let the Rule of Dhamma prevail and let the truth be everyone’s torch and guide and in its light let everyone seek one’s means of attaining knowledge.
The end had approached. He was surrounded by disciples with tears in eyes. They served him his last meal that he ate. Then lying on his right, he addressed his disciples for the last time : ‘Behold now, brethren, I exhort you, saying, Decay is inherent in all component things. Work out your salvation with diligence.’ And, then, the Great Master breathed his last. Hearing the news the Kushinagar king made appropriate arrangement for his funeral. Kings of neighbouring states and thousands of disciples assembled in Kushinagar. As the Buddhist mythology has it, his body lay for six days and it was only on the seventh that it could be laid on the great pyre prepared for him. Again, the pyre did not ignite for some time but did when the appointed moment came. Thus, the Buddha himself set his bed for the last journey, ascended the pyre when chose and fixed the hour when his body transformed into ashes. After the pyre extinguished, there emerged from ashes a heap of what looked like shining pearls.
This description by Prof. P.C. Jain and Dr. Daljeet. Prof. Jain specializes on the aesthetics of literature and is the author of numerous books on Indian art and culture. Dr. Daljeet is the curator of the Miniature Painting Gallery, National Museum, New Delhi. They have both collaborated together on a number of books.