Buddhist Flag History & Significance

Buddhist festivals prominently display the colors of the Buddhist flag along with Buddha statues and other symbolic items. However, the meaning of the flag goes far beyond the bright colors on display. This is because the colors portray the aura which emanated from the head of the Buddha after he achieved enlightenment. Similar to Buddhist mudras, the colors of the flag have also come to reflect the virtues of Buddhism.

The five primary colors are displayed vertically from left to right. Additionally, the 6th and final rectangular band is a blend of the 5 colors and displayed perpendicular to the other bands. However, the sixth band is not necessarily included.

Buddhist Flag
The Buddhist Flag

The Buddhist Colors and Their Meanings

  1. Nila (Blue) – Spirit of Universal Compassion
  2. Pita (Yellow) – Middle path of emptiness and avoiding extremes.
  3. Lohita (Red) – Merits of practice – achievement, wisdom, virtue, fortune and dignity. 
  4. Odata (White) – Purity of Dharma which leads to liberation outside time or space.
  5. Manjesta (Orange) – Wisdom of the Buddha’s teachings.

The Buddha’s birth, paranirvana and enlightenment all occurred on the same day. This important day is known by many names such as Vesak Day, Buddha Purnima, Buddha Day and also informally as “Buddha’s Birthday”. As a result, Vesak Day celebrations occur around the world every year in Buddhist countries. Therefore, the Buddhist colors are prominently on display using many variations such as independent flags, formations and also the formal flag itself. 

Buddhist Colors
Buddhist Colors Displayed in Formation.

Common Variations of the Buddhist Flag

There are several common variations of the Buddhist flag which incorporate additional Buddhist symbols onto the colors. For example, it is common to see the Dharmachakra superimposed onto the traditional flag. Additionally, the swastika is a prominent symbol used in Hinduism, Buddhism and Jainism.

Unfortunately, in modern times its image has become controversial due to it’s use by the Nazis during the 20th century. Nonetheless, the swastika is an auspicious symbol that has been considered sacred for over 11,000 years.

Buddhist colors and symbols
Buddhist processions commonly depict different Buddhist flag images with the swastika.

History of the Buddhist Flag

In contrast with the long and venerable history of Buddhism, the Buddhist flag has more recent beginnings. Ironically, the development of the flag was in response to British Colonialism in Sri Lanka. Unfortunately, in Sri Lanka, Buddhism had become repressed by the British. Therefore, the Colombo Committee designed the first flag in 1858. As a result, the flag served to symbolize Buddhism and also assist with the revival of Buddhism in Sri Lanka.

The flag was first hoisted in celebration of Vesak day on May 28, 1885. However, the original elongated flag design was subsequently adjusted to suit the conventional proportions commonly displayed by national flags.

The hoisting of the Buddhist flag on May 28, 1885 has special significance because it was the first Vesak Day public holiday under British rule. Furthermore, the World Fellowship of Buddhists adopted the flag of Buddhism as their international symbol in 1952. As a result, Buddhists from over 60 countries have accepted the flag as a symbol of Buddhist unity.

Nationality of the Buddhist Flag

The Buddhist flag is commonly displayed alongside national and state flags (although it is nonsectarian). This can be an indication that Buddhism is the national religion, or an indication that there is a large Buddhist population.

During Vesak Day processions in Malaysia, Buddhist flags are displayed alongside the national and state flags. Indeed, Islam is the national religion in Malaysia. However, there is a large Buddhist population in certain areas such as Penang.

Vesak Day Procession
Buddhist Flags on display during Wesak Day Procession in Penang, Malaysia.

Helpful Resources:

  • https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Buddhist_flag
  • https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Swastika
  • http://www.buddhanet.net/e-learning/history/b_flag.htm
  • https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Henry_Steel_Olcott