Universal Brotherhood – November 1897

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


And certain nights he remained there, bright as the lord of night, observing well their penances. Then considering the penances as vain, and leaving them, he set forth from the region of that place of penances. Then the folk of the hermitage set forth after him, their thoughts gone out to the splendor of his beauty; they went forth as the great masters do, following the departing law, when the land is overrun by baser men.

And he beheld them, astir with their hair bound up in top-knots, as is the wont of devotees, and clothed in the bark of trees; and meditating on their penances, he stood there, hard by a great, wide-spreading forest tree. And all the men of the hermitage, coming up, gathered around that most excellent of men, and stood there, near him. And their elder, paying all courtesy and honor, spake thus to him with voice modulated as in the holy chant:

"When thou earnest, this hermitage became as though filled and completed; but if thou goest, it will be empty indeed. Therefore graciously refuse to leave it, lingering like the well-loved life in the body of one who longs to live. For close by is Mount Shailas, of the Himalay, where dwell masters of priestly birth, masters of royal birth, and masters of birth divine; and from their nearness, the penances of our devotees are multiplied. And there are holy refuges around us, that are very stairways to the doors of heaven. And there dwell masters divine and mighty masters, whose spirits are at one with the law, who are full of the spirit. And moreover this northern country is most fit for worship, since the law dwells here in its excellence. For it is not fitting for one who is awakened, to take even one step hence, toward the south.

"But if, in this wood of penance, thou hast beheld any remiss in holy rites, or falling short of the law, or failed from purity, and if therefore thou hast set thy mind to depart, then tell it, that thy dwelling-place may be made according to thy desire. For those who dwell here earnestly desire such a one as thee, for companion in their penances, since thou hast such a wealth of holiness. For to dwell with thee, who art like the king of the gods, will surely bring us a sunrise of godlike wisdom."

Then he, who was the chiefest in wisdom, thus addressed by the chief of the men of the hermitage, and standing in the midst of the devotees, — he who had promised to make an end of birth and death, spoke thus his hidden thought: Through these kindly affectionate thoughts of righteous men, fulfillers of the Law, and saints, desiring to shew me hospitality, as to one of themselves, a great love and friendship is born in me; I am, as it were, washed clean altogether by these loving words, that find their way to my heart. My passion has faded altogether away, though I have but newly sought the law; and it grieves me that I must leave you, after ye have thus dealt with me, giving me shelter, and shewing me such strong affection; it grieves me, as though I had to leave my kinsmen, and men of my own blood.

"But this law of yours makes for heaven, while my longing desire is for the ceasing of birth and death. And I do not desire to dwell in this wood, for that the law of ceasing is apart from the activities of these penances. Yet it is from no lack of love, nor from any haughtiness towards others, that I go forth hence, from the forest; for ye all are like the mighty masters, standing firm in the law that has come down from the days of old."

Hearing the prince's word, very kindly, of firm purpose, very gentle, and luminous, and full of dignity, the men of the hermitage honored him with signal honor. And a certain man among them, who had passed through the rites of second birth, who was smeared with ashes, of great fervor, his locks bound in a topknot, his dress made of the bark of trees, fiery-eyed, keen-nosed, and holding a water-pot in his hand, spoke to him this word:

"Sage, this resolve of thine is noble, in that, being still young, thou hast seen the evil of life. For, judging between heaven and liberation, he whose mind is set on liberation is truly wise. For it is through passion that they seek the way to heaven, through penances, and sacrifices, and religious rites; but fighting passion as the chiefest foe, they who follow peace seek the way to freedom.

"Then if thy mind be set as thou hast said, let my lord go without delay to the refuge among the Vindhya mountains; for there dwells the Saint Aradas, who has gained the intuition of the better way of freedom from desire. From him shalt thou hear the way of truth, and shalt even enter on it, if so be thy will. But as I see, this thought of thine will enter his mind also, stirring it with a great commotion. For beholding thy face, with nose well-formed, as of a well-born steed; with large, long eyes; full red lower lip; teeth keen and white, — this mouth of thine, and thy red tongue will drink up the ocean of the knowable, altogether. And that matchless profundity of thine, and thy brightness, and all thy well-marked gifts, will gain for thee a place as teacher of the world, such as was held by the masters, in the ages that are gone."

So the King's son made answer once more to the sages assembled there, and took leave of them, in gentle courtesy. And the men of the hermitage returned again to the forest of penances.

Meanwhile Chhanda, the guardian of the prince's steed, very despondent that his master had renounced all to dwell in the forest, strove greatly, along the way, to contain his grief, yet his tears fell, and ceased not. And the way that he had gone at the command of the prince, in a single night, with the self-same steed, he now retraced slowly, thinking all the while of his master's loss, — the self-same way, in eight full days. And yet the horse went swiftly, but there was no fire in him, and his heart was heavy; and for all that he was decked with bright adornments, he was as though shorn of his glory, when his prince was gone.

And turning his face back towards the wood of penances, he neighed pitifully, again and again; and though hunger was heavy on him, he tasted neither grass nor water as of old, along the way, nor found any pleasure in them. So they two made their way towards the city of Kapilavastu, robbed now of that mighty-souled well-wisher of the world; slowly they came towards the city, as though it were empty, like the sky robbed of the lord of day.

And the self-same garden of the palace, even though it shone with lotuses, and was adorned with fair waters and trees laden with flowers, was yet no fairer than the wilderness, for the glory was gone from the grass. And hindered, as it were, by the people of the city wandering in their way, with miserable minds, the fire gone out of them, their eyes all worn with tears, they two slowly entered the town, downcast and covered with dust. And seeing them, worn, and going onward in bodily weariness, because they had left the bull of the Shaky a clan behind, the townspeople shed tears in the path, as when of old the chariot of Rama came back empty. And they spoke thus to Chhanda, full of grief, and shedding many tears:

"Where is the King's son, who should make great the glory of his race, stolen away by thee?" — thus asking, they followed him.

Thereupon he answered them in their love:

"I abandoned not the son of the lord of men; for weeping I was thrust aside by him, in the unpeopled wood, and his householder's robe as well."

Hearing this word of his, the people went away, saying: "Hard, in truth, is this decision; "nor kept they the grief-born drops within their eyes, and blaming within themselves their own greed of wealth. "So," said they, "let us too enter the forest whither has gone the prince's might; for we love not life without him, as the soul loves not the body, whose vigor is departed. This fair city without him, is a wilderness; and the wilderness, where he dwells, is a city. The city shines no more for us, now he is gone, as the sky shines not, when the rain-clouds bind it up in storms."

And the women, gathering round the latticed windows, cried out that the prince had come back again; but when they saw the riderless horse, they clung to the windows, weeping.

And at the time of the sacrifice, the lord of the people prayed beside the altar of the gods, making vows for the recovery of his son, his heart heavy with great grief. And there he performed whatever rites were deemed of efficacy. And there Chhanda, his eyes overflowing with bitter tears, taking the horse, entered the palace, downcast and full of grief, — the palace that was stricken as though its lord had been captured by the foe. And he went towards the King's apartments, searching for him with eyes full of tears. And the good steed Kanthaka neighed with a heavy neigh, as though telling the news of evil to the people.

Thereupon the birds, that dwelt among the houses, and the swift, strong steeds, that were near, sent forth a cry, echoing to the horse's cry, woe begone at the departure of the prince. And the people, deceived into too great exultation, hurrying towards the inner dwelling of the lord of the people, thought, from the neighing of the horse, that the prince had come again. And from that exultation, they fainted into grief, their eyes longing to behold the King's son once more. And the women came forth from the houses that sheltered them, as the lightning flashes forth from an autumn cloud. Their garments drooping, their robes and vestures stained with dust, their faces pale, their eyes heavy with weeping. They were faint and colorless, and without lustre, like the stars, at dawning, when the red day comes.

Their feet were stripped of the anklets of red gold; they wore no bracelets; their earrings were laid aside. Their well-rounded waists were decked with no bright girdles; their breasts were as though robbed of the pearl-chains that had adorned them. Thus they look forth at Chhanda and the steed, at Chhanda, desolate, his eyes all worn with tears; and their faces were pale, and they cried aloud, like kine lowing in the forest, when the leader of the herd is gone. Then full of lamentation, the monarch's chiefest spouse, majestic Gautami, who had lost her child, as a buffalo loses its calf, clasping her hands together, fell, like a gold-stemmed silk-cotton tree, with shivering leaves.

Yet others, their beauty dimmed, their arms and bodies chilled, robbed of all feeling by their grief, neither cried, nor wept, nor sighed, unconscious, standing like statues. Yet others, heavy-laden at the loss of their lord, sprinkled their breasts, no longer adorned with sandal, with the bright drops that fell from their eyes, as the mountain is sprinkled with opals. Their faces gleamed so with bright tears, that the palace shone with the gleaming of them, like a lake, at a time of the beginning of the rains, when every red lotus flower is bright with water drops. And with their fair-fingered hands, no longer hidden under their adornments, their heads covered in grief, they beat their breasts, with those lotus hands of theirs, as the climbing plants of the forest beat their stems, with branches moving in the wind. And striking thus their breasts with their fair hands, they were like streams when the lotuses that deck them are driven hither and thither by the storm-wind of the forest. And the blows that their hands inflicted on their breasts, their breasts inflicted equally on their soft hands. So their gentle hands and breasts pitilessly wounded each other in their pain.

Then indeed Yashodhara, her eyes red with anger, with bitter sobbing and desolation, her bosom torn with sighs, her tears springing up from unfathomable grief, spoke thus:

"Where is my beloved gone, O Chhanda, leaving me thus in the night time, asleep and powerless to hold him? My heart is as vexed by thy coming back thus with the prince's steed, as it was when all three went away. This act of thine was ignoble, unloving, unfriendly, O base one; how then canst thou return today with lamentations? Cease from these tears, for thine heart must be glad, nor do thy tears consort well with such an act as thine. For through thy means, — who art his friend, his follower, his good companion and helper, his well wisher — is the prince gone forth to return no more. Rejoice, for thou hast done thy work well! Truly a man's keen enemy is better than a friend, dull, ignorant and awkward. At thy hands, who hast called thyself a friend, and through thy folly, has our house suffered dire eclipse. And these women here, how greatly are they to be pitied, that their bright adornments are set aside, the sockets of their eyes all red with weeping, as though widowed, and all their glory lost, though their lord stands firm as the earth or the Himalayan mountain. And the palaces in their rows seem to utter lamentation, their dovecotes like arms thrown up, while the doves moan incessantly; losing him, they have lost all that could console them.

"And Kanthaka, did not even he desire my destruction, since he has carried off my jewel, while the people slept, like some thief of gold? Kanthaka, brave steed that could withstand the fierce onslaught of arrows, much more a whip lash, — how could fear of the whip, then, compel him to rob me of my heart and happiness? Now base and ignoble, he fills the palace with his mournful neighings; but while he bore away my beloved, this evil steed was dumb. If he had neighed so that the people were awakened, or the noise of his hoofs, or the sound of his jaws had alarmed them, then this heavy grief had not fallen upon me."

Hearing the lamentations of the princess, her words choked by tears and sorrow, Chhanda made answer thus, his voice broken with tears, his head bent, his hands clasped in supplication:

"Nay, princess, lay not the blame on Kanthaka, nor put forth thy anger against me! — for we are indeed free from blame, — for that god amongst men departed like a god. For though I knew well the word of the King, I was as though compelled by a higher power, and so brought the swift steed to him quickly, and followed him unwearied on the way. And the good steed too, as he went, struck not the ground even with the edges of his hoofs, as though some bore him up, and fate kept close his jaws, so that he made no sound. And when the prince would leave the city, the gate flew open, of its own accord, and the dark night was lit up, as by the sun; so we can know of a surety that this was fate. And even after the king had set thousands of watchful guards in palace and city, deep sleep fell on them at that very hour, so we may know of a surety that this was fate. And when such a robe as they should wear, who dwell in hermitages, came down for him out of heaven, and the muslin head dress, that he cast away, was carried up instead, so we may know of a surety, that this was fate. Think not then, princess, that we two are guilty, in his departure, for we acted not freely, but as though compelled to follow a god."

And when the women heard this wondrous tale of how their prince went forth, their grief changed to marveling; but when they thought of him as dwelling in the forest, they broke out into lamentation again. And the queen mother Gautami, her eyes sorrow-filled, grief-torn like an eagle whose young are lost, was stricken with weakness, and cried out, weeping, thus:

"Those locks of his, beautiful, soft, dark, and firm-rooted, that a royal diadem should encircle, are not cast on the ground. Can a hero of mighty arms, of lion stride, his eye like a bull's, his voice like a drum or a storm-cloud, — can such a one become a forest-dweller? This land, indeed, is unworthy of this high doer of noble deeds, for he has left it; for the people's worthiness brings forth the King. And how can those soft feet of his, the toes well joined, the ankles hidden, soft as a blue lotus, a circle marked on either sole, how can they tread the stony forest ground? And his body, befitting well a palace, with its costly robes, sandal, and perfumes, how can that fair form withstand, in the forest, the force of frost and heat and rain? He who was gifted in birth, in virtue, and power, and force, and learning, in youth and beauty, — he who gave ever, nor asked again, — how can he now beg alms from others? He who, resting on a bright couch of gold, heard through the night the symphony of sweet music, how will he now rest on the bare earth, with but a cloth to guard him?"

And the women, hearing this sorrowful lamentation, linking their arms together, let their tears flow afresh, as the climbing plants, shaken by the wind, distil honey from their blossoms. Then Yashodhara fell to the earth, like a swan robbed of her mate, and, given over altogether to sorrow, spoke thus, her voice choked with sobs: .

"If he desires now to follow a life of holiness, leaving me his consort, as a widow, what holiness is that, in which his spouse is left behind? Has he not heard of the great kings of old, his own forefathers, Mahasudarsha and others, how they went to the forest, taking their wives, too, that he thus seeks holiness, abandoning me? Can he not see that husband and wife are together consecrated in the sacrifice, that the Vedic rites purify both, that both are to reap the same holy fruit, — that he robs me of my part in his holy work? Surely it must be that this devotee of holiness, thinking that I was set against him in my heart, has fearlessly left me sorrowing, hoping thus to win the heavenly beauties of the gods. Yet what foolish thought is this of mine? For these women here have every beauty's charm, — yet through them he has gone to the forest, leaving behind his kingdom and my love. I long not so greatly for the joy of heaven, nor is that a hard task even for common men, who are resolved; but this one thing I desire, — that my beloved may not leave me here, or in the other world. But if I am not worthy to look on the face of my lord, shall our child Rahula never rest on his father's knee? Cruel, indeed, is that hero's heart for all his gentle beauty; for who with a heart could leave a prattling child, who would win the love even of an enemy? But my heart, too, must be hard as his, hard as stone or iron, that it breaks not now, when my lord has gone to the forest, shorn and orphaned of his royal glory, instead of the happiness that should be his lot."

So the princess, weak and wailing, wept and thought and wept again; and though of nature queenlike, yet now she forgot her pride and felt no shame. And seeing Yashodhara thus distraught with sorrow, and hearing her wild grief, as she cast herself on the earth, all her attendants wept too, their faces gleaming like rain-beaten lotuses.

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