Ever wondered what the significance of Vesak Day is other than just another public holiday? For most Singaporeans, our knowledge of Vesak Day is possibly limited to a Buddhist festival. Since we pride ourselves in being multi-racial and multi-cultural, let's dig a little deeper to understand more about this day's symbolism.

What is Vesak Day?

Vesak Day, also known as "Buddha Day", is considered one of the most important days in the Buddhist calendar where Buddhists all over the world commemorate the birth, enlightenment and death of Siddhartha Gautama Shakyamuni, also known as Buddha.

The life story of Buddha begins around 2,600 years ago in a place called Lumbini, near the border of Nepal and India. Siddharta Gautama was born a prince, but as he grew up, he realized that all of his experiences did not provide him lasting happiness or protection from suffering. After a long spiritual search he went into deep meditation, where he intended to achieve the state of enlightenment - a state of mind which is free from emotions and expresses itself through fearlessness, joy and active compassion.

To achieve enlightenment, the 29-year-old Prince vowed to sit under a fig tree and meditate until he transcended suffering. He then endured a 7 days mental battle with Mara, the god of desire, who tried to use all his wily tricks to lure the Prince away from his meditation. The Prince prevailed, becoming awakened and from then on known as Buddha. 

For the rest of his life, Buddha taught anyone who asked how they could achieve the same state. Therefore, Vesak Day is a day where Buddhists celebrate with immense joy, seek peace and reflect on their deeds. Around 33% of Singaporeans practice Buddhism, which makes this day one of the biggest festivals celebrated by this culturally rich red dot.

How does one observe Vesak Day?

Each country has its own traditions for celebrating Vesak. For instance, in Sri Lanka, numerous colourful lanterns are lit, whereas in Taiwan, fragrant water is poured over statues of Buddha.

In Singapore, Buddhists will usually visit their temples for ceremonies which will include prayers and offerings of candles and flowers. Most Buddhists believe that performing good deeds on Vesak Day will multiply their good deeds merit many times over. They also make an effort to bring happiness to the unfortunate, including the aged, the handicapped and the sick – either by donating money and gifts, or by visiting with them and cleaning their homes. 

Some interesting tidbits about Vesak Day 

One of the more interesting traditions practices by devotees during this day is also the Three-Step, One-Bow procession, where devotees take steps on both knees, bowing at every third step. As they do this, they pray for personal blessings, world peace and repentance. This procession usually begins 24 hours before and can be quite exhausting, lasting for up to two hours or more. 

Vesak Day hasn’t always been a national public holiday in Singapore. The Singapore Buddhist Association petitioned for this public holiday after the end of World War II, and it was finally awarded its due place on the calendar in 1955. 

Traditionally, as part of the Vesak Day celebrations, caged birds and animals are released as a symbol of liberation and peace in Singapore. Over time, however, The National Parks Board and the Buddhist Fellowship have advised against the practice as tame animals released into the wild are unlikely to survive. Even if they do survive, this practice of introducing all sorts of wildlife could also do irreversible damage to Singapore's natural ecosystem.