When Siddhartha Gautama was born, he was clearly no ordinary infant. According to Buddhist texts, he raised his hand to the skies and declared, “In the heavens above and below the heavens, I am the world’s most honored one. I will free all beings from birth, old age, sickness, and death.”
Then the remarkable baby is believed to have received a first bath: streams of water poured by the gods Brahma and Indra – or flowing from two dragon kings’ mouths, depending on the legend. This cleansing consecrated the Buddha-to-be as holy, signaling that even the gods recognized him as worthy of veneration.
Buddhists believe that several “buddhas,” or enlightened teachers, have been born throughout history. Yet the title “the Buddha” typically refers to this historical figure, Siddhartha Gautama, who went on to found Buddhism. Each year on the Buddha’s birthday, East Asian Buddhists recreate his first bath by pouring water or sweetened tea over a statue of the infant.
The holiday has been observed in different parts of Asia for hundreds of years, but its significance varied by region. In Sri Lanka, for example, it was a religious day simply celebrated at temples, not a public celebration. In Korea, on the other hand, the Buddha’s birthday became a more commercial festival.