English : First Flight

Chapter 8 The Sermon at Benares


“The Sermon at Benares” is an essay with two distinct parts. The first part, biographical in nature, lays bare the first phase of prince Siddhartha’s life that was lived in luxury. This part also includes his encounter with the sufferings of human life. The second part brings out the enlightened state of Gautama Buddha where he teaches Kisa Gotami and the world at large how to overcome grief and suffering. This part is the actual sermon at Benares.


Gautama Buddha – initially called prince Siddhartha – lived the first phase of his life in luxury. He had his schooling, got married, had a son and lived a life of royalty with his family. However, at the age of twenty-five he renounced his palace, family and all possessions and went into the world in search of enlightenment after an encounter with the sufferings of the world in the form of sickness, old age, death and a monk begging for alms.

After seven long years, he sat under a peepal tree resolving to get up only after achieving enlightenment. In a span of seven days, he got enlightened and he moved on to impart his knowledge to the world. To alleviate the sufferings of mankind, Buddha gave his first sermon at Benares. This sermon reflects his deep insight and wisdom. It was given by Buddha to Kisa Gotami not through a long discourse but through a personal experience that left an indelible impact on the young mother who had lost her son. Unable to reconcile to the death of her only son, Kisa ran from house to house asking people to give some medicine to revive her dead child. All the neighbours could offer her nothing but pity. However, one man directed her to Sakyamuni, the Buddha, assuring her that only he could be of help to her under the circumstances.

Kisa Gotami approached Buddha who directed her to get a handful of mustard-seed from a house where no near and dear one had ever died. Kisa again went from house to house. Everyone was ready to provide her with a handful of mustard but she found no house where no beloved had ever died. At long last, she realised that death was common to all. She also became aware of the fact that she had been selfish in her grief. She reconciled to her child’s death and concluded that one could be led to immortality only by surrendering all selfishness.

Buddha declared that death is inevitable for all mortals, wise or foolish, young and old. Every single being is subject to death. Peace of mind and bliss come when one gets over lamentation and sorrow.


‘Sermon’ means an advice or a discourse on a religious or moral subject. The title “The Sermon at Benares” is an apt one. The inclusion of the word ‘sermon’ in the title makes it appropriate as it directly points at the moral discourse by an enlightened soul, Buddha that forms the entire extract. Benares fits in perfectly well because this sermon was delivered at Benares. Thus the title “The Sermon at Benares” is fully justified.


The theme of the account “The Sermon at Benares” is the inevitability of death. Anything that comes in this mortal world is bound to perish. The sermon at Benares reflects the Buddha’s wisdom and he brings home the point that the principle of appearing and finally disappearing applies to every phase of life. The light that brightens must be consumed by darkness. In sum, everything in this world is subject to decay.


The message that the extract gives its readers is that, life is full of sufferings, physical as well as mental; and sooner or later one is bound to become aware of them. It also brings home the idea that death is inevitable and one must submit to it. If one wants to rise above the life of frustration and desolation, one must shed all selfishness. The sermon also teaches us that it is futile to grieve over the departed ones. Grief makes one sick and our lamentations are never able to save the dead or bring them back. In order to be blessed, one must keep oneself free from sorrow.


Gautama, the Buddha

  • Gautama, the Buddha (563 B.C. – 483 B.C.) was born in a royal family of northern India, but was destined to enjoy the life of princely luxury for only twenty-five years.
  • He was sent away for schooling in the Hindu sacred scriptures at the age of twelve. Four years later, he returned home and got married to a princess. Soon after a son was born to them and Siddhartha lived a royal life for ten years.
  • Very sensitive by nature, he renounced the world of luxury on coming across human suffering, sickness, old age and death. His strong will power made him leave behind his family, his palace and a life of comfort in the prime of life. He attained enlightenment after undergoing a long period of renunciation and hardships. He wandered for seven long years and finally sat down under a peepal tree. He stayed in meditation for seven days after which he attained enlightenment and came to be known as the Buddha.
  • A very selfless soul, he gave the benefit of his wisdom and enlightenment to humanity at largeby helping to relieve it of its suffering. Having a deep psychological insight, he handled Kisa Gotami’s uncontrollable grief not only by uttering words of wisdom but by making her realise the reality of birth and death through a personal experience. Buddha’s sermon remains a source of comfort to humanity even in the present times.

Kisa Gotami

  • Kisa Gotami was a simple woman whose only son had died. She was so grieved by this loss that she carried her dead child to all her neighbours, asking for medicine to cure him. Everybody thought that the woman had lost her senses since a dead person could not be revived. However, Kisa was so driven by her love for her son that she went to Sakyamuni, the Buddha, when a man suggested her to meet him. The Buddha knew that it would not be easy to make Kisa understand that death is universal and inevitable. So, he asked her to bring a handful of mustard-seed from a house where no one had lost a dear one to death. Kisa was such a determined lady that she set out right away to bring the mustard-seed in order to bring life to her son. Having wandered from house to house, she finally realized that she had been selfish, in her grief. So, she decided to surrender all selfishness, and accept that Death is common to all.
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