Theosophy – September 1897

BUDDHA'S RENUNCIATION: II (Ashvaghosha's Buddha-Charita) — trans. Charles Johnston

Being an original translation from the Sanskrit of Ashvaghosha's Buddha-Charita.



Thereupon, when the sun had risen, the shining eye of the world, that lord of men, came to the place of the hermitage of Bhrigu's son. And he beheld the deer there resting in quiet trust, and the birds of the air, that had come there to dwell.

And seeing it, his heart grew light, as one who had gained what he sought. He descended from his horse's back, to put an end to their wandering, and to show respect for their devotion, and his own kinship of spirit with them. And dismounting, he stroked his steed, as who should say that all is well; then he spoke to Chandaka, his attendant, full of kindness and with gentle tenderness in his eyes:

"Good friend, as thou hast followed this sun-swift steed of mine, thou hast shown thy love toward me, and thine own strength and speed. For though my thoughts are wholly full of other things, yet thou hast held me in thy heart. For thy love for thy master is not less than thy power to serve him. For there are those that love not, though they have the power to serve; and there are those, full of love, who yet avail nothing. But one who is full of love, with power to serve as well — such a one as thee, — is hard to find, through all the world. Therefore my heart is gladdened by this most excellent deed of thine; for thy love for me is manifest, even though thou seest that I have turned my face back from all rewards. For many a man will set his face towards one who may reward him, but even one's own kin will become as strangers to him who has fallen in fortune. A son is held dear, that the family may not fail from the land; a father is served because he is the giver of food; the world is kind to us, through hope of favors; there is no unselfishness without its cause. But why need I speak all this to thee? For a word suffices to say that thou hast done what was dear to my heart. Return, therefore, taking my horse with thee."

Speaking thus, the strong armed hero, wishing to show him gentle courtesy, taking off his princely ornaments, gave them to sorrow-stricken Chandaka. And holding the shining jewel that was set as a lamp in his diadem he stood there speaking words like these, like Mount Mandara, when the sun rests on its peak.

"Taking this jewel, my Chanda, bear it to the King, saluting him with lowly reverence. Speak to him, that his sorrow may cease, while yet he loses not his trust in me. Say that I have come to this forest of holy hermits, to make an end of old age and death; yet not through any lust of paradise, nor through lack of heart's love, nor through resentment. Let him not, therefore, deign to grieve over me, who have set forth on such a quest as this. For even had I remained beside him, our union could never have lasted throughout all time. For separation is as fixed as fate, therefore I have set my heart wholly. For a man must be divided again and again, even from his own kinsmen and friends. Therefore let him not deign to grieve for me, set forth to make an end of grief. One may rightly grieve for those whose hearts are set on desires that must bring grief; but this determination of mine is fixed and sure, as of those who went before me in the path. Nor let him that shall inherit from me grieve, that I have entered on the path; for there are those that, at a man's surcease, shall inherit his riches, but throughout the whole earth those who shall inherit his part in the law are few, or none. And even should my father say that this going-forth of mine is untimely, let him know that no hour is untimely for the law, since life is unstable as water. Therefore even today I must seek the better part, and thus is my firm determination. For who can hold his faith in life, while death stands there, as our enemy. Speak thus, and other words like these, good friend, to my lord the King; and do thy endeavor that even his memory of me may fade. Thou shalt even tell him all of me that is evil, for love ceases from the sense of evil, and when love ceases, there is no more grief."

And hearing him speak thus, good Chanda, altogether broken down with grief, made answer to him with palms humbly joined, and his speech was heavy with tears:

"My heart sinks within me, lord, at this mind of thine, that brings such sorrow to thy friends, — sinks like an elephant in the morass of some great river. And who would not succumb to sorrow, knowing this fixed purpose of thine, — even if his heart were iron; how, then, if it be full of love?

"And how shall it be with my lord's tender body, worthy to rest delicately in a palace, — how shall it be with the hard earth of this penitential forest, and the coarse fibres of kusha grass that cover it? And truly when I first heard of thy resolve, and brought thy horse, I did it through some power above my own, and fate indeed compelled me to it. And how could I, knowing thy resolve, of my own free will bring back thy horse, Kapilavastu's grief?" Deign not, mighty armed one, to leave thy lord the King, devoted to his son, well-loved, and old, — as an unbeliever might desert the holy law. Deign not to leave thy second mother, — she who is worn out with caring for thee; my lord, forget her not, as one who, ingrate, forgets a benefit. And thy fair princess with her infant son, with all her virtues, bringing glory to her house, and heartily vowed to her lord, abandon her not, as some craven heart abandons fortune won.

"And even if thy mind is fixed to leave thy kin, to leave thy kingdom, oh, my lord, desert not me, for my goings are before thy feet. I cannot go back again to the city, for my heart is all on fire; I cannot leave thee in the forest, as Sumitra left the son of Raghu's race. For what will the King say, if I return to the city without thee? And what shall I say to the dwellers in thy palace, — I who should be a bringer of good tidings? And again thou sayest I should speak ill of thee, in the presence of my lord the King; but what evil can I speak of one who is a very saint for sinlessness? And even if, with heart full of shame, with tongue cleaving to my mouth's roof, I should bring myself to speak that evil — who would credit it? Only he who would speak of the moon's beams as fierce, and who would believe that, spoken, — only such a one would speak evil of thee; only such would believe it, spoken. And thou who art ever compassionate, whose heart is ever full of gentle pity, — is it well for thee to desert thy friends? Turn back, then, and have pity on me."

And when he heard these words of Chandaka's and saw his utter sorrow, the best of those who speak made answer, self-possessed, and very firm.

"Give up this grieving, Chanda, for thy separation from me; for change is inevitable for those who are possessed of bodies, in their various births. And even if, through natural love, I should not leave my kin to seek for freedom, Death will certainly tear us asunder from each other, helpless to resist. And she who bore me, full of bitter thirst and pain, where am I, in regard to her, my mother, who suffered for me fruitlessly? For as birds come together to a tree to roost, and separate again in the morn, not less certain is it that the coining together of all beings must end in separation. And as clouds, meeting together, drift away again, so I deem the meetings and partings of living men to be also. And as all this world is subject to separation, how then may we say that we possess a union that is but a dream. For as even trees lose the inborn greenness of their leaves, how should there not be separation of those who are already divided from each other. Since this is so, give over grieving, my good friend, and go; or if love altogether overcomes thee, then go, and again return. Say to the people of Kapilavastu, who are full of loyalty to me, that they shall cease from their love of me, and that they shall hearken to my firm determination. 'Either he will come again quickly, having made an end of age and death, or, failing of his aim, and all hope, he shall go to his destruction.'"

Hearing him speak thus, the best of steeds, Kanthaka, licked the prince's feet with his tongue, and let hot tears fall. And the prince stroked him with his gentle hand, bearing the swastika mark in the palm, with the circle in its midst; and stroking him, spoke to him as to a friend.

"Shed no more tears, my Kanthaka, for thou art already known for a noble steed; for what thou hast now done will quickly bear its fruit."

Then firmly taking the keen sword, set with gems, from the hand of Chandaka, and drawing from its scabbard the blade decked with inlaid gold, as who should draw a serpent from his lair, raising it, he cut off his diadem and his long hair, dark as the petal of the blue lotus; he cast it, with its muslin folds undone, to the empty air, as a swan going forth on a lake; and, behold, the celestial dwellers plucked it up, longing to pay it reverence, with great honor. And the hosts of heaven-dwellers worshipped it, ascending thus to the sky, with signal worship.

And putting off that robe of his, bright with all adornments, and the kingly splendor from his head, and seeing his muslin headdress floating away, like a golden swan, that sage desired a forest garment. Thereupon, a hunter of wild beasts in form, one of the heaven-dwellers of perfect purity appeared there, close at hand, wearing a garment of dull red, and the Shakya prince addressed him thus:

"Auspicious is this dull red robe of thine, like the robe of a devotee: but thy injurious bow becomes thee not. Therefore, good friend, if thou settest no special treasure by it, give this garment to me, and take thou mine."

And the hunter spoke:

"O thou fulfiller of desires, this garment has fulfilled my desires, since giving them confidence through it, I have slain the deer; but if it has any worth for thee, who art like a king of the gods, accept it from me, and give me that white robe of thine."

With much delight, then, he took the forest garment, and put off his own white linen robe, and the hunter, taking to him his divine form again, ascended to the celestials, bearing the white robe with him.

Thereupon the prince, and the groom also, fell into a great wonder, as he departed thus; and they quickly showed reverence to him who had worn the forest garment. Then dismissing the tear-stained Chanda, he of the mighty heart, whose glory was hid in the dull red robe of the hunter, went forth thither, where the hermitage was, like a mighty mountain, wrapped in the red clouds of evening.

And as his master, spurning his splendid kingdom, went forth to the forest of penances, in a faded robe, Chaudaka tossed his arms in the air, and, weeping bitterly, threw himself on the ground. And looking after him, he again cried out aloud, wrapping his arms about the good steed Kanthaka. And hopelessly lamenting again and again, his body went to the city, but his heart remained behind.

And awhile he was lost in thought, and awhile he cried aloud; and again he stumbled in the pathway, and again he fell. And so going and tormented by the might of his love, he did many strange things as he went his way.

Thus dismissing wet-eyed, weeping Chanda, and entering the forest according to his desire, with his purpose gained, his splendor set aside, he entered the hermitage like the home of perfection. The prince, walking, like the lion, king over the beasts of the forest, entered the dwelling of the deer, himself gentle as a deer. And though he had cast away his splendor, he yet held the eyes of all by the splendor of his beauty.

And those who had come in chariots, with their wives, stopped their steeds in delight and watched him, in form like the king of the gods, their heads bent lowly towards him in reverence. And the men of priestly birth who had gone forth for fuel, coming with the kindling wood, or flowers, or the sacred kusha grass in their hands, even though they had gone through many disciplines, and had learned to rule their thoughts, were overcome with the desire to look at him, and did not go on to their dwellings.

And the peacocks cried out shrilly in their joy, as if they had seen a dark-blue rain cloud coming. And leaving the luscious grass, the deer stood there large-eyed, their heads turned towards him, and those who kept the deer. And seeing the kingly descendant of the children of the sun, flaming there like the sun uprisen, the cows, though they had been milked already, so great was their delight, gave milk again as a holy oblation.

"This is one of the eight Gods of the breath, or haply of the twin physicians of the celestials"; thus resounded the voices of the saints, full of wonderment. For he shone like the form of the king of the gods, like a second refuge of the moving and unmoving world, and lit up the whole forest, as though the sun had come there for his good pleasure.

Thereupon saluted and greeted with all courtesy by those dwellers in the hermitage, he saluted them in return, according to the gentle law, his voice like the voice of a water-bearing cloud in the season of the rains. And accompanied by those pious folk who were full of longing for paradise, he, who longed for freedom only, went onward into the hermitage, to behold their various penances. And he, noble-hearted, beheld there the varied forms of penances of those who were fulfilling penances in that forest of penances. And to one of those men of penances, who was walking beside him, desiring to know how the matter stood, he spoke these words:

"This is the first time that I come to this hermitage, and therefore I know not the rule of the law. Therefore let thy worthiness deign to declare to me what your fixed purpose is, and to what end?"

Thereupon the practiser of penances made answer to that bull of the Shakyas, a very bull in valor; telling him the whole matter step by step, and the way of penances, and the fruit of the way. How some lived on wild food, coming from the river, and leaves and water, and fruit and roots; how this was the life of the saints, and how some of them lived apart, and others ceased from penances. How others live like the birds of the air, on the grain they pick up; and others like the deer, on the green herbs of the earth. And how others, as if turned into ant hills, live on air, with the snakes. How others live on what they wring forth effortfully from the rocks, and others on grain that their own teeth have ground. And some, after cooking for others, eat of the remnants themselves, if any be left. Others, with hair knotted and wet with water, twice offer the sacred fire, with chanted hymns. Some dwell plunged in the water, like fish, till the tortoises scratch their bodies.

And, by such penances as these that fill their time, they seek the heavenly world; and by yet others, the world of mortal men. By a painful way they seek happiness; for pain, they say, is the root of the law.

Hearing this story told, and the word of the man of penances, that son of the King of men was not greatly delighted with them, even though he knew not yet the perfect truth; he spoke, therefore, this thought that had come into his heart:

"Many a penance here is hard enough and painful enough, yet heaven is set as the reward of penance. Yet heaven and all the worlds are doomed to change; of little worth, in sooth, is the toil of all these hermitages. And they who, abandoning fortune and friends and wealth, perform this penitential law for the sake of heaven, they indeed, after all their sacrifices, desire to go to a second penitential forest, and a greater. And he who, led on by desire, seeks for another existence, through penances and torturing of his body, he, indeed, altogether failing to understand the turning circle of birth, grievously follows after grief. All men fear death for ever, yet they effortfully strive for a new life; when that new life is come, death follows certain with it; and sunk there verily, they are slaves to fear. Some enter upon pains for this world's sake, and some for the sake of heaven undergo much toil. In the search for happiness, this world of men is pitiful, indeed, in its hopes, fails of its end, and falls into helplessness. Not indeed is that effort to be despised, which, giving up the less, follows after the better; wise men should strive strongly for that which, done once, is not to do again.

"But if pain of the body is virtue in the world, then bodily happiness is vice. Yet by virtue they hope to gain this happiness in another world; therefore vice is the fruit of virtue.

"Since the body moves, or ceases to move, through the power of the mind, the right way is to control the mind, for without thought, the body is like a log of wood.

"If holiness is to be gained by purity of food, then the deer also attain to holiness. And the wealthy are therefore wealthy through fortune's fault, since such are the fruits of wealth.

"And if, in sorrow, attachment to it is a cause of holiness, why should there not be the same attachment to joy? If the rule is that there should be no attachment in happiness, should there not also be unattachment in pain?

"And there are those who go to holy shrines to bathe in the waters and wash away their sins; yet their satisfaction of heart is indeed empty, for water cannot wash away sin.

"That water is holy where the righteous dwell; therefore righteousness is the true place of pilgrimage, and water without doubt is only water."

Thus he spoke, with wisdom and eloquence, until the Sun went down; and then he entered the wood, whose trees were stained with the smoke of sacrifices, though the penances were now ceased. And the evening oblation was offered on the kindled fire, by the men of piety, after they had anointed themselves.