The Prince Who Would Be Buddha
by Anindita Basu
I wish hed told me before leaving
Do we not, Kshatriya women, smilingly send our
Even if it were to war?
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 Gautams
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.
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 Buddhas 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 ones
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
(3) Sutta Pitaka, containing five Nikayas: Digha,
Majjhima, Samyutta, Anguttara and Khuddaka