May 2003 A Conscious Evolution Newsletter
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Volume 2, Number 5

Opinions presented in Metamorphosis are those of their respective authors and do not necessarily reflect the opinions of others associated with the newsletter.


Gautam Siddharth:
The Prince Who Would Be Buddha

by Anindita Basu


        “Friend!
        I wish he’d told me before leaving
        Do we not, Kshatriya women, smilingly send our men off
        Even if it were to war?”

                                - from Yashodhara by Maithili Sharan Gupt

Thus did a modern Hindi poet imagine the princess Yashodhara, wife of Gautam Siddharth, to have spoken on that day many hundreds of years ago when she discovered that her husband had departed in the dead of the night to seek enlightenment - leaving behind a wife, a son and a kingdom of which he was the crown prince. Instead of becoming king, her husband would become Buddha.

Gautam Siddharth was born about 566 B.C. on the full-moon night of the month of Jyesth, the lunar month lasting from mid-April to mid-May. Buddhists celebrate his birthday this year on the full-moon day of May 16, 2003. He is said to have been born in a mango grove at a place called Lumbini near the borders of present-day India and Nepal, where his father was king of the Sakya clan.

The royal astrologers, after scrutinising his natal chart, predicted that the child would grow up to be a Chakravartin - he whose wheels roll all over the land; in other words, an undisputed emperor. He grew up in royal pomp and turned out to be a most accomplished and handsome young prince, winning the hand of his bride, Yashodhara, by defeating other suitor-princes in individual duels.

The prince lived quite happily with his wife, and they had a son named Rahul. As told in The History and Culture of the Indian People, it is not known exactly what planted the idea of renunciation in his mind, since the earliest Buddhist texts are silent on this account. The texts simply state that the prince realised that worldly life was rather too troublesome, and that the life of an ascetic seemed more free, and hence, more desirable. Thus, at the age of 29, the prince rode away on his horse secretly one night, removed his princely garments and left them on his horse (which found its way back to the royal stables), and began his life as a wandering seeker of knowledge.

The India of Gautam’s ancestors had appeared to the outside world as an undefined territory beyond the Indus River. By the time Gautam was born, however, there had begun a process of political and geographical unification of the regions within India. Large kingdoms like those spoken of in ancient epics had disappeared; in their place had sprung strong monarchies like Magadh and republics like the Lichchhavis. By this time, the sacred literature of the land had expressed itself in the codified Vedas and Upanishads and was being taught and discussed in ever-increasing centres of learning. These teachings formed the basis of the Dharma, or moral principles, that shaped daily life.

After leaving the palace, Gautam the seeker soon reached the hermitage of a teacher who espoused the Sankhya philosophy. The Sankhya school is one of six classical systems of Indian philosophy; it teaches that God and the soul are one (as distinct from Yoga philosophy, which holds that God and the Soul are distinct and that the aim of human life is to attain Yoga i.e. Union of the two.) Gautam was evidently not satisfied with these teachings, so he left to study under another teacher. Here too, he found that his yearning for the kind of knowledge that leads to freedom went unfulfilled. On discovering that his guru had reached the stage of highest meditation but was yet to arrive at final liberation, the prince left to wander on his own.

He subjected himself to a number of rigorous ascetic practices but concluded that mere torture of the physical self would not lead to knowledge. Then one day, while he sat meditating at a calm spot, he attained knowledge of the Absolute Truth. It is said that this filled him with such bliss that he sat contemplating upon his newfound knowledge for seven full weeks. He had become Buddha, the enlightened one.

The Buddha’s first discourse is called the Dharma Chakra Pravartan (Turning of the Wheels of Dharma), and it contains the Eightfold Path. By following this Eightfold Path one can become free from ignorance and attachment, according to Buddha’s teachings. The practice of the Eightfold Path leads to comprehension of the four Arya Satya, or Noble Truths, which are: (1) worldly existence is full of misery, (2) this is caused by material attachment, (3) the worldly existence can be ended if the yearning for material wealth is extinguished, and (4) the way to do this is by following the Eightfold Path.

The Eightfold Path that Buddha taught is made of (1) right speech, (2) right action, (3) right livelihood, (4) right exertion, (5) right-mindedness, (6) right meditation, (7) right resolution, and (8) right point of view. According to the Buddha, the first three lead to physical control, the next three to mental control, and the last two to the development of the intellect. Nirvana is the final stage of destruction of all desire. Although the state of Nirvana is not specifically defined, it is described as incomparable, free from decay, death, disease, grief or impurity. It is the highest goal one can achieve.

The Buddha repeatedly emphasised “the Middle Path” - he advised his followers to be practical in their pursuit of the Truth, by neither mortifying themselves nor giving themselves up to luxury. He denounced scholastic debates about the Absolute, as well as prayers and sacrifices offered to godheads. He laid special emphasis on the message of compassion as taught in the traditional Dharma, which probably appealed more to him than the pessimism and negativity of some of the other prevailing Dharma Sutras, or scriptures.

While not categorically denying the existence of God, he chose to remain silent on the issue. He strictly forbade image worship and disallowed his disciples to create reproductions of himself. This may be the reason why the earliest Buddhist conventions represented the Master by symbols like footprints, the Bodhi tree or a royal parasol. He also discouraged any questions about the re-absorption of the individual soul into the Absolute, which he said was immaterial in one’s quest for salvation. Ignorance of the impermanence of this world, said Buddha, leads to desires, and those desires lead to actions (karma), which in turn lead to the impulse of being born again and again in order to satisfy desires. Thus is created a circle of birth and rebirth that can be broken only when one realises that there is nothing permanent in the world; that this universe is nothing but a ceaseless flow of events that is caused by action and ended by knowledge.

The Buddha organised his disciples to live in monasteries (Sangh) for which he framed a number of rules. He also formed a separate order for nuns at the express request of his stepmother, Gotami Prajapati (who had brought him up because his own mother died seven days after his birth). One of the first entrants to his order of nuns was his wife, Yashodhara.

The Buddha did not nominate a successor; he merely instructed that monks living within a particular boundary should elect their chief. In his dying words, Buddha exhorted his disciples to be lamps unto themselves, for there is no other light.

***

For further reading
Some of the oldest Buddhist texts, available in English translations, are:

(1)  Sutta Nipaata
(2)  Ariyapariyesana-sutta
(3)  Sutta Pitaka, containing five Nikayas: Digha, Majjhima, Samyutta, Anguttara and Khuddaka