Relics, relic offerings and sarira
Western Buddhism has tended to primarily embrace the philosophical aspects of the religion. Early European and American scholars of religion, influenced by a characteristic Protestant bias against relic worship, declared such practices to be superstitious and fraudulent. However in South Asia, South East Asia and China relic veneration has always played an integral role within Buddhist traditions. To many in the west the jewels from the Piprahwa collection are regarded as relic offerings that were interred with the Buddha's remains as a tribute. In the east, however, the distinction between relics and relic offerings becomes less clear. Relics are not confined only to body parts but may include objects such as a bowl or a robe that were integral to the persons life. The pearls within the Piprahwa collection - often referred to as sarira - are of particular importance to the devout. Professor John Strong's observations can better help us understand their significance in the Buddhist religion
Passage from 'Relics of the Buddha' by John Strong
In the case of body relics, it should be pointed out that distinctions came to be made between (a) relics that were actual physical remains of the body, such as bones, teeth, etc., and (b) transmogrified somatic substances that could be as small as mustard-seeds and appear as jewel-like beads (and which, in fact, in East Asia, eventually come to be associated with magical wish-granting gems [cintamani]). These "very hard glittering particles" (Das 1902: 1182, s.v. ring-bsrel) exist in a variety of colors and sizes, and are usually found in the ashes of cremation fires. They can also appear, however, during a person's lifetime, by emanation, from their hands, or hair, or eyes, or clothes, or calligraphy brushes, or they can appear on altars, offering plates, other relics, or images, or by the side of stupas, etc. (Faure 1991: 138ff.; Prip-Moller 1967: 172, 176; Kieschnick 2003: 34-35). The colors are said to reflect the part of the body or organ with which these particles were associated: white if they originated in bone, black if from the hair, red if from the flesh, etc. (T. 2122, 53:598c = Eng. trans., Ruppert 2000: 291; Faure, forthcoming). One Tibetan tradition even gives these relics different names and associates them with different "families" of buddhas: Sharira are white, the size of a pea, and come from the head; barira are blue, the size of a small pea, and come from the space between the ribs;churira are yellow, the size of a mustard seed, and come from the top of the liver; serira are red, also the size of a mustard seed, and come from the kidneys; finally nyarira are green, also the size of a mustard seed, and come from the lungs (Germano 1994).
Yet these particles, these colored crystalline "beads," are clearly to be distinguished from the organs or the bodily parts (e.g., bones) from which they are said to come. In Korea, for instance, when monks look for such relics in the cremated remains of saints and teachers, they at the same time pick out the unburnt bits of bone. These are specifically understood not to be relics, and are set aside to be pulverized and mixed with meal, formed into balls of dough that are then abandoned in the woods for animals to consume. The relics, if there are any, are carefully preserved and
frequently distributed later to disciples or to lay patrons. In Thailand, the unburnt bone fragments are similarly not considered to be relics, but they are often preserved because it is thought that they eventually may become relics, through a process of metamorphosis over time.
These bead-like relics have their analog and precedent, perhaps, in the tradition reported by Buddhaghosa that the Buddha's own relics (sarira) were of three types- -"like jasmine buds, like washed pearls, and like (nuggets) of gold"--and came in three sizes, as big as mustard seeds, as broken grains of rice, and as split green peas (DA., 2:603-4. See also Thup., 172 = Eng. trans., Jayawickrama 1971: 34; and Jin., 37 = Eng. trans., Jayawickrama 1968: 52-53). This is important because there has been a tendency among scholars looking at buddha-relics in India to think of them primarily as bones or ashes left over from the Buddha's cremation. Given what we have just seen, however, we should be thinking of them also as "beads"--the results of a process of metamorphosis brought on not only by the fire of cremation but also by the perfections of the saint (in this case the Buddha) whose body they represent. It is occasionally said that, physically speaking, such "beads" may result from the burning of the body under particular conditions at certain temperatures. From a cultural perspective, however, it is possible that such crystalized gem-like relics are a response to worries about pollution or further decay, especially in those cultures where handling--let alone venerating--the bones and ashes of the dead might be viewed as impure. On the other hand, the whole phenomenon may simply reflect a need to be able to distinguish between the relics ("beads") of the "special dead" (such as saints and the Buddha) and the remains ("bones") of the "ordinary dead" who have no relics.
(Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2004), pp. 11-12
John Strong is the Charles A. Dana Professor at Bates College in the Department of Religious studies. He recieved his Ph.D in History of Religions and has taught for the Associated Kyoto programme and been a visiting professor at the University of Chicago, Princeton, Stanford & Harvard. He is the author of numerous articles and of The Legend of King Asoka (Princeton, 1983), The Legend and Cult of Upagupta (Princeton, 1992), The Experience of Buddhism (Wadsworth, 1995), The Buddha: A Short Biography (OneWorld Publications, 2001), and Relics of the Buddha (Princeton, 2004). He is currently working on a book on miracles in the Buddha’s biography.