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The Story of Buddha

“Buddham Sharanam Gachami” in the Protection of the Buddha. “Om Mani Padmaham,” chant the devout as they spin the prayer wheel, and thus adhere one third of the world’s population to the religion of Buddhism. For what could be a more reasonable philosophy than the Eight Fold Middle Path advocated by Lord Buddha; between self-indulgence and self-mortification. As Sir Edwin Arnold so beautifully expressed in his Light of Asia, the saga of Gautama Buddha compiled in verse.

Fair goes the dancing when the sitar’s tuned;

Tune us the sitar neither low nor high, And we will dance away the hearts of men.

The string o’r stretched breaks, and the music flies; The string or slack is dumb, and music dies,

Tune us the sitar neither low nor high.”

The stars and the Gods convened for a propitious birth in 566 B.C. In Kapilavastu, the capital of the Kingdom of Kosala which extended from southern Nepal to the Ganges, ruled King suddhodana and his Queen Maha Maya. To them was born an only son, Prince siddharth. Seers proclaimed that he would be a great man. Unfortunately, the Queen died seven days after his birth, so he was tended by a foster nurse Princess Mahaprajapati. The young prince was brought up in every conceivable luxury within the palace walls. At the age of eight the king decided to impart all princely skills to the child, so he became the pupil of the learned Vishwamitra. The child was endowed with divine knowledge and skills. He was completely protected from any negative aspects of life. The king had decreed that should the Prince pass through town, should the Prince pass through town, there should be no sign of sickness, pain or poverty.

Once in the royal garden, his cousin Devdutta felled a white swan with his willful shaft. The Prince sensed compassion and sat down nursing it tenderly for an hour. Yet he was scarcely aware of pain, so on gently drawing out the cruel shaft of steel from the bird, he curiously pressed the barb into his wrist and was surprised to feel the sting and wince. Then arose the dispute as to who could rightfully claim the bird. The question was put to the seniors who decided that the one who preserves life has more right than one who destroys. Another time, the king drew his son to bask in the garden resplendent with spring. But the Prince also noted the thorns that grew below the roses, the lizards eating the lesser insects, the oxen forced to labour, etc. till he sighed and sat down to contemplate on this.

When the Prince was 18 the king was still perturbed by his contemplations, and again sought the council of his ministers. Marriage, they decided, was the best diversion. A competitive fair was held for all nobility and the best of youth presented to the Prince, to choose a mate himself. Thus he met Yashodhara, his wife. The King had the most magnificent palace built for the couple with splendid gardens. It had three stalwart gates with explicit orders that no man – even the Prince –could pass through. In vain the king plied every pleasure within the confines, hoping yet to divert destiny and prophecy and anticipate a mighty King in his son.

But the prince went forth into the city and despite all orders there crept up a withered old man. On questioning his charioteer he was told that this was old age and inevitable to all. Then the prince sallied out once again and this time encountered an ailing and diseased man, and death being mourned at a funeral. On seeing his son so effected by the misery, the King tripled the guards at the gate—yet who can shut out fate!

Finally one night, after a silent lingering farewell to his slumbering wife who was with child, he stole out of the palace, on his white horse Kantak and his faithful charioteer Channa. Before dawn, deep in the forest the Prince took off his royal robes and cut off his locks and turned back Channa and Kantak. Now he was a wandering mendicant in search of the ultimate truth. He roamed all over meeting with hermits, Brahmins and holy men. It only made him realize that the answer would have to be realized within himself. His saintly demeanour won him his first five disciples. He sat down to do severe penance, but at the end of the ordeal he knew that self-mortification was not the answer. So he continued with his begging bowl and yellow robes; but abandoned by the five who thought their master had failed.

After six years, the Prince came upon a sylvan spot on the banks of the river Nairanjana, now known as Phalgu, and the site Bodh Gaya. Here he espied the huge Bodhi tree and sat down with his back to it facing east in his final quest. So deep was his sadhana that none of the ten sins could tempt him. With the dawn came the enlightened and Gautama Buddha attained Nirvana. At this hallowed site the Mahabodhi temple was built subsequently. Having achieved this state of bliss the Buddha was wont to return to the world, but realized his divine mission was to enlighten the rest of mankind.

He preached his first sermon at the Deer Park near Banaras. At hand were his five old disciples who again converted to him. Sarnath, as it is known today, is a tranquil place sustaining its sanctity by the scores of worshipping monks from all over the world. Lord Buddha and his disciples went on preaching. When there were 61 disciples he sent them out to preach and empowered them to receive and ordain others.

On his way from Banaras to Uruvela the Buddha encountered some young men picnicking in the forest. The mistress of one had absconded with his belongings so they were looking for her. On inquiring from the Buddha, his rejoinder was that wouldn’t it be more worthwhile to seek the Self? Such insight turned the young men to him. At Uruvela he resided for some time with the Brahmins, who were so impressed that the Brahmin master Kashyapa and all five hundred of his followers became his disciples. Buddha had performed two miracles for them. One was taming the furious serpent who dwelt in their temple, and the other was lighting their fire by his super powers. From there the Buddha led them to Gaya where he preached his famous ‘Sermon on Fire’, pertaining to the fire of the senses. The Order swelled to one thousand disciples.

Next the Buddha went to Rajgriha, now known as Rajgir in Bihar. Rajgira then was the capital of Magadh ruled by King Bimbisara of the Maurya dynasty. Lord Buddha passed many years of his ministration here. His favourite resorts were the Jivakamarvana monastery presented to Buddha by the renowned physician Jivaka. And Venuvana which is identified today near the hot springs. An aerial rope was today takes you up to the top of Ratnagiri Hill where the Japanese have built the Vishwa Shanti Stupa. Saptaparni Cave was the venue of the first Buddhist Council, of 500 leading disciples, six months after the demise of the Lord. In Rajgir it is best to be with a certified guide, because it was impossible to locate the historical sites on one’s own.

In the course of his wanderings, Gautama Buddha returned to Kapilavastu. In all these years of his absence Yashodhara his wife grieved and lived as plainly as a window with just their son Rahula as solace. The King lamented, and was none too pleased to see his son and heir return with a begging bowl in his hand. But they too were enlightened by the Buddha. King Suddhodana became a lay disciple, and Yashodhara followed the same rules. She sent Rahula to ask his inheritance from the father, as he was now rightfully heir to the throne. Buddha turned to his disciple Sariputra and told him to ordain his son into the Order. At this the king was hurt and requested Buddha that henceforth no child may be ordained without the permission of the parents. To this the Buddha acquiesced.

By now the order had expanded enormously and they were no longer just a band of wandering mendicants. Some were teachers, and a definite set of rules emerged. Twenty years after his own enlightenment, the Buddha’s own cousin Ananda rose to become his personal attendant, confidante and representative. He was responsible for the admission of women into the Order. Mahaprajapati, Buddha’s foster nurse, sought Sakya women followers who cut off their hair, donned yellow robes, and trudged to the Master’s dwelling at Vaishali. But he thrice repeated his refusal. Ananda took up the cause and reasoned with the Master, till he agreed to a separate Order of Nuns. The famous courtesan Amrapali of Vaishali became a devotee of his and gifted him a mango grove. Later she became a nun herself. Vaishali, in Bihar, is said to have been visited thrice by the Buddha in his life time. It was here he preached his last sermon, and announced his approaching Nirvana. Hundred years after his passing away the second Buddhist Council was held there.

In his lifetime the Buddha ha decreed that worship to him in his absence should be via the symbolic Great Wisdom Tree, Mahabodhi tree, which also represents the tree of life. After his death it was to be his bodily relics. It was at the age of 80 that Gautama Buddha fell ill and gave up his body at Kushanagar near Gorakhpur, U.P. The body was cremated and the relics divided into eight parts among his classmen. Subsequently eight important monuments were erected to enshrine them, which are now the important Buddhist pilgrimages. Thus we have in Sanchi, Madhya Pradesh, his tooth enshrined in a stupa. Sanchi also has the distinction of having practically all forms of Buddhist architecture; stupas, chaityas, temples and monasteries.

Buddhism spawned the great ancient university of Nalanda in Bihar. It was founded by the Gupta dynasty in the 15th century, and frequently visited by Lord Buddha. Its immense and orderly layout is impressive even today; considering that it is still not fully excavated. An instance lies in the mound recently unearthed near the entrance, which has a statue of Buddha with the original paintings at the base. Buddha’s chief disciple Sariputra was born here.

But the core of Buddhism lies in Bodh Gaya, Bihar. In fact the very name Bihar is derived from ‘Vihar’ which bespeaks of its antiquity. Bodh Gaya was thought to be the very centre of the universe. I may have set off as a tourist, but treading on such hallowed ground evokes a sense of reverence, the Mahabodhi temple soars up majestically 170 feet high in the sky, flanked by four lesser towers, and embellished in the unique Buddhist style. The garden is dotted with stupas big and small. The smaller ones were built in tribute to wish fulfilled. Like every I too gazed upon the Bodhi tree with awe. It is not the imposing tree we remember from illustrations of the Buddha seated there, but an off shoot of the original. A shoot from the original was taken to Anuradhapuram in Sri Lanka, and two off shoots were brought back and planted here. One on the same spot, and a reverse in the temple compound. Within the temple is the main gilded statue of Buddha seated on the Vajrasan. This throne I am told is the original, which Emperor Ashoka had gold plated when he came here 250 years later. Some of his contributions to the temple are still evident in parts of the railing, gate, and of course the Ashoka pillar which marked the pauses of Buddha in gratitude for his enlightenment. The temple itself is 2300 years old. Thirty feet of the construction is attributed to Ashoka, and 150 feet to the Gupta period. The temple lay neglected and gradually covered with earth until 1890 when Lord Cunningham unearthed it and had it restored.

Every Buddhist country like Thailand, Japan, Burma, Ceylon, etc. has built its own temple and monastery in Bodh Gaya. They are worth visiting for their splendid décor and distinctive architecture. Back outside are more worldly diversion. From the roadside stalls I picked up genuine little antiques like coins, a tiny brass measure, and an interesting stick-head. For after all, what are most of us?

“We are the voices of the wandering wind,

Which moan for rest and rest can never find;

Lo, as the wind is, so is mortal life, A moan, a sigh, a sob, a storm, a strife.”