Skip to main content

Relics and Relics Cults


Relic veneration has been virtually ubiquitous in the history of Buddhist traditions. The reputed remains of the historical Buddha, as well as those of other buddhas, bodhisattvas, and even disciples of the Buddha, have been the objects of worship in a variety of locations and eras. Such remains have usually taken the form of granulated ashes or bones, and have often been seen as possessing a sheen similar to, if not identical with, jewels. In some contemporary Buddhist traditions, believers search for relics among the cremated remains of deceased masters; if found, such remains will sometimes be divided for distribution among affiliated monasteries.

Meaning and early historical context

The term that is usually used to refer to relics in Sanskrit Buddhist literature is śarīra, which refers to the body. Less frequently, dhātu, a word with multiple and complex senses, is used. Relics have been a focus of veneration for Buddhists since, it would seem, the passing of the historical Buddha Sakyamuni himself. The MahĀparinirvĀna-sŪtra (Pāli, Mahāparinibbānasutta; Great Discourse on the Extinction) depicts the relics of the Buddha as remaining at his cremation pyre. Monarchs of northern India vied to obtain the relics for enshrinement, leading to a dispute that was prevented only by a Brahman named Droṇa, who divided the remains into eight portions for distribution. Archaeological investigations at reliquary sites, such as Vaiśālī and Piprāhwā in northern India, have further confirmed that the practice of relic veneration existed prior to the time of King AŚoka (third century b.c.e.).

According to the Pāli Kaliṅgabodhi-jātaka, funerary mounds housed three types of relics of the Buddha: bodily relics (sarīrika-cetiyam), use or contact relics (uddesika-cetiyam), and commemoration relics (pāribhogika-cetiyam). In general, Buddhist traditions have interpreted the bodily relics to be granulated ashes, as well as remains of teeth, hair, and flesh. Use or contact relics were objects believed to be associated with the Buddha, such as his begging bowl and staff. The relics of commemoration, a category that presumably developed later than the others, consisted of images of the Buddha.

Relics were signs that simultaneously represented death and the conquest of death. As emphasized by Peter Brown in the context of the veneration of saints' relics in Western Mediterranean Christendom of the third to sixth centuries, the reputed remains of saints provided believers with hope; the presence of the relic, as an instantiation of the "special dead," provided a kind of proof of existence beyond death and alleviated anxieties concerning what seemed to be radical finitude. For Buddhists, relics, especially those of the historical Buddha, served as a sign of death and the subjugation of death.

On the one hand, the Buddha was subject to the universal law of anitya (impermanence), like all other beings. Moreover, relics, like the living community of monks, constituted a "field of merit," so that making offerings to relics and reliquaries enabled believers to accumulate great merit (puṇya). Indeed, a conceptual relationship existed in Buddhist literature between relic veneration and the actions of the Buddha during previous lives as a bodhisattva. In particular, jĀtaka tales describe acts of giving on the part of the bodhisattva, such as the offering of his body or other valuable objects on behalf of other beings, which served as a model of ideal giving. Thus, sites associated with the offering of the bodhisattva's body became locations for construction of relic stŪpas, and Buddhist literature depicted the construction of reliquaries in response to such actions. In fact, homilies that invoked tales of the Buddha's sacrifice were probably made at stūpas in order to encourage believers to give lavish offerings to reliquaries.

On the other hand, relics represented the Buddha's conquest of death through his attainment of parinirvāṇa; they were an index of his former presence. Indeed, as Gregory Schopen has noted, the relics and the reliquary constituted a "legal person" because the Buddha was viewed as a living entity on the site and the rightful owner of objects offered at the stūpa. One Buddhist text forbade the appropriation of even a robe given to a reliquary, warning against its exchange for money, because no object of the stūpa could have a price. Other writings went so far as to identify the theft of reliquary property with the five acts of immediate retribution within the Buddhist community (Schopen 1987, pp. 206–208).

In addition, the transfer of relics to increasingly disparate locations made it possible for Buddhists to venerate holy figures without going on long-distance pilgrimages. Buddhists throughout Asia were clearly concerned about their access to sites associated with the historical Buddha, and remains reputedly of him or those close to him were highly valued. Through the local veneration of relics, Buddhists could gain merit

equivalent to that accrued through pilgrimage to sacred sites like Bodh GayĀ and Lumbinī Garden. Thus, the presence of reputed relics bridged the temporal gap between contemporary believers and the historical Śākyamuni, whose life grew increasingly distant with the passage of time.

In fact, for Buddhists, the mobility of relics offered a new mode of relationship with Śākyamuni, the early disciples, and later Buddhist saints. Insofar as relics could be easily transported across long distances, these objects (like the images and amulets studied by Stanley Tambiah in contemporary Thai Buddhism) were "repositories of power." They constituted the burning energy (tejas) manifested in the body of the Buddha and other holy beings, as well as in images of them. Indeed, the transfer of relics to, and their discovery in, Southeast Asia and East Asia became so common that one might argue, as Brown has noted in the context of Christendom, that "Translations—the movement of relics to people—and not pilgrimages—the movement of people to relics—hold the center of the stage in late-antique and early-medieval piety" (pp. 89–96). Throughout the history of early Buddhism, as well as later MahĀyĀna and Tantra Buddhism, relics of one form or another were venerated in a vast variety of locales, and constituted a form of veneration that complemented efforts at pilgrimage.

The increasing dissemination of śarīra

The categories of Buddhist relics include not only bodily remains of the historical Buddha and other saints, but a variety of other objects. For example, image consecration in Buddhism included the common practice of inserting relics inside of the images.

In works associated with the rise of Mahāyāna Buddhism, the words of the Buddha as embodied in sūtras were represented as śarīra or dhātu. As the Mahāyāna came to prioritize worship of "the book" as manifesting the presence of the Buddha, sūtras as relics came to be considered superior to physical remains. Moreover, insofar as the practice of venerating bodily relics had developed earlier and was historically dominant, the discussions of relics in sūtras of the early and middle Mahāyāna were ambivalent, both antagonistic toward the practice and modeling it. Scriptures such as the early Aṣṭasāhasrikāprajñāpāramitā-sūtra (Perfection of Wisdom in 8,000 Lines) thus stressed the fundamental importance of relic veneration, while at the same time emphasizing that because sūtras are the dharma of the Buddha, their veneration is, ultimately, superior to that of physical remains.

In this context, such "dharma" relics came to be inserted in stūpas throughout Asia by the early centuries of the common era. In most cases, only portions of the scripture were included. The verse most often enshrined described pratĪtyasamutpĀda (dependent origination): "Those dharmas which arise from a cause: the Tathāgata has declared their cause, and that which is the cessation of them; thus the great renunciant has taught." Thus, the words of the Buddha, when inserted in reliquaries, revivified his presence, and works such as the Pratītyasamutpāda-sūtra described the great merit of inserting such verses even into miniature stūpas.

By roughly the middle of the first millennium, the emergent Mahāyāna dhĀraṆĪ sūtras (incantatory formulae scriptures) proclaimed that dhāraṇī should be deposited in stūpas and interpreted as relics. Indeed, as noted by Yael Bentor, the contents of scriptures such as the Guhyadhātu equate their very presence with that of the Buddha and his relics (p. 252). The practice of inserting dhāraṇī in stūpas occurred in parts of China, Tibet, Korea, and Japan, in addition to the Indian sub-continent.

The Shingon school of the Japanese tantric tradition, which inherited the practice of venerating relics from Chinese Buddhism, stressed the importance of the bodily relics that the founder KŪkai (774–835) brought back from China. Over time, the Shingon school developed innovative interpretations of relics. The so-called Last Testament (Go-yuigō) of Kūkai, from roughly the tenth century, describes how Buddha relics and a variety of precious substances and herbs can be combined to produce a wish-fulfilling "jewel" (Japanese, nyoi hōju; Sanskrit, cintāmaṇi). Likewise, some scriptures describe how, in the event that "authentic" relics cannot be obtained for ritual use, relics can be constructed from a variety of precious stones, pebbles, or medicines.

Buddhist kingship and the ritual use of relics

As noted above, Buddhist tradition told of the efforts of monarchs to obtain relics of the Buddha on the occasion of his cremation. Moreover, King AŚoka's construction of reliquaries, and the wealth of literature describing him constructing eighty-four thousand stūpas throughout the Indian subcontinent, consolidated the narrative foundations for a long history of royal patronage of relics, as well as for a wide variety of ritual uses.

The Aśokāvadāna (Legend of Aśoka) had the greatest influence on the development of Buddhist traditions concerning the ideal of the wheel-turning king (cakravartin) and his relationship with relics. In particular, the motif of the ruler's construction and protection of reliquaries arose out of Aśoka's effort to give exhaustively to the Buddhist community, and the centerpiece of his actions is his construction of stūpas. As a wheel-turning king, Aśoka is the chief supporter of the "wheel of dharma," the teachings of Buddhism; to fulfill that duty, he cares for the body of the Buddha in the form of relics. In symbolic terms, as suggested by Paul Mus, when a king constructs stūpas to house relics, he and his kingdom become a kind of living reliquary. To the extent that stūpas constitute mesocosms (cosmic centers for the ritual invocation of the absent Buddha), the Buddhist king may also be conceived of as a symbol of the Buddha.

The construction of stūpas and their veneration by rulers and aristocrats continued with the spread of Buddhism. Rulers in China, especially those of the Wei of the mid-fifth to sixth centuries, gave elaborately to the Buddhist community, a relationship epitomized by the sponsorship of the construction of stūpas and images. Emperor Wen (r. 581–604) of the Sui dynasty took imitation of Aśoka's patronage to great lengths, going so far as to sponsor the construction of multiple stūpas enshrining Buddha relics for distribution to monasteries throughout the land.

Imperial patronage of relic veneration in China, Sri Lanka, and other areas of Asia constituted both a demonstration of the rulers' largess and a response to the fervor of local Buddhists. For example, the writings of Chinese pilgrims such as Faxian (ca. 337–418) indicate that the Chinese were aware of the practice among Asian rulers of conducting relic processions to

bolster their authority, and the large crowds that attended such processions gave evidence of faith among the populace. Indeed, a famous tract by Han yu (768–824) argued forcefully against welcoming the relic of the Buddha's finger from Famensi into the Chinese imperial palace in 819. Han yu demonstrated in his criticisms of believers' behavior the extent of their devotion, whereby some burned their heads and fingers, and discarded clothing and large numbers of coins. On the occasion of another procession of Buddha relics in 873, worshippers variously offered their arms, fingers, and hair in acts that symbolically matched the bodily sacrifices that Śākyamuni as a bodhisattva had made in the jātaka tales.

In Japan, the royal government, in a gesture similar to that of Emperor Wen, sponsored the presentation of Buddha relics throughout the land. In this case, however, the offerings were made to celebrate royal accession to shrines of the native deities (kami), with relic veneration being incorporated directly into cults associated with royal authority. Moreover, clerics of the Shingon school held an annual royal rite in the palace Shingon'in chapel in veneration of the relics brought back by Kūkai, suggesting that monastic Buddhists, together with the royal family and aristocracy, saw the veneration of relics as key to the annual renewal of the ruler's body and of the realm. At the same time, possession of the relics legitimized the Shingon lineage internally and vis-à-vis the royal family. By at least the thirteenth century, the relics of Shingon were seen as indispensable to royal authority; by the fourteenth century, clerics of both the Shingon and Tendai tantric traditions identified the wish-fulfilling jewel with the regalia of the sovereign.

See also:Merit and Merit-Making; Printing Technologies; Reliquary; Self-Immolation


Bentor, Yael. "On the Indian Origins of the Tibetan Practice of Depositing Relics and Dhāraṇīs in Stūpas and Images." Journal of the American Oriental Society 115, no. 2 (1995): 248–261.

Boucher, Daniel. "The Pratītyasamutpādagāthā and Its Role in the Medieval Cult of the Relics." Journal of the International Association of Buddhist Studies 14, no. 1 (1991): 1–27.

Brown, Peter. The Cult of the Saints: Its Rise and Function in Latin Christianity. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1981.

Faure, Bernard. The Rhetoric of Immediacy: A Cultural Critique of Chan/Zen Buddhism. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1991.

Mus, Paul. Barabadur: esquisse d'une histoire du bouddhisme fondée sur la critique archéologique des textes, 2 vols. Hanoi, Vietnam: Imprimerie d'Extreme-Orient, 1935. Reprint, New York: Arno Press, 1988.

Ruppert, Brian D. Jewel in the Ashes: Buddha Relics and Power in Early Medieval Japan. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Asia Center and Harvard University Press, 2000.

Schopen, Gregory. "Burial 'Ad Sanctos' and the Physical Presence of the Buddha in Early Indian Buddhism: A Study in the Archaeology of Religions." Religion 17 (1987): 193–225.

Schopen, Gregory. Bones, Stones, and Buddhist Monks: Collected Papers on the Archaeology, Epigraphy, and Texts of Monastic Buddhism in India. Honolulu: University of Hawaii Press, 1997.

Strong, John S. The Legend of King Aśoka: A Study and Translation of the Aśokāvadāna. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1983.

Tambiah, Stanley Jeyaraja. The Buddhist Saints of the Forest and the Cult of Amulets: A Study of Charisma, Hagiography, Sectarianism, and Millennial Buddhism. New York: Cambridge University Press, 1993.

Trainor, Kevin. Relics, Ritual, and Representation in Buddhism: Rematerializing the Sri Lankan Theravāda Tradition. New York: Cambridge University Press, 1997.

Brian O. Ruppert

Cite this article
Pick a style below, and copy the text for your bibliography.

  • MLA
  • Chicago
  • APA

"Relics and Relics Cults." Encyclopedia of Buddhism. . 21 Sep. 2018 <>.

"Relics and Relics Cults." Encyclopedia of Buddhism. . (September 21, 2018).

"Relics and Relics Cults." Encyclopedia of Buddhism. . Retrieved September 21, 2018 from

Learn more about citation styles

Citation styles gives you the ability to cite reference entries and articles according to common styles from the Modern Language Association (MLA), The Chicago Manual of Style, and the American Psychological Association (APA).

Within the “Cite this article” tool, pick a style to see how all available information looks when formatted according to that style. Then, copy and paste the text into your bibliography or works cited list.

Because each style has its own formatting nuances that evolve over time and not all information is available for every reference entry or article, cannot guarantee each citation it generates. Therefore, it’s best to use citations as a starting point before checking the style against your school or publication’s requirements and the most-recent information available at these sites:

Modern Language Association

The Chicago Manual of Style

American Psychological Association

  • Most online reference entries and articles do not have page numbers. Therefore, that information is unavailable for most content. However, the date of retrieval is often important. Refer to each style’s convention regarding the best way to format page numbers and retrieval dates.
  • In addition to the MLA, Chicago, and APA styles, your school, university, publication, or institution may have its own requirements for citations. Therefore, be sure to refer to those guidelines when editing your bibliography or works cited list.