Friday, 23 September 2011

(South and Central Asian mythology)
Gautama Siddartha (c. 563–479 BC), the prince from present day Nepal who became the Buddha, ‘the Enlightened One,’ required his followers to isolate themselves from worldly life. The saffron robe worn by Buddhist monks was a badge which showed ordinary society that they had elected to leave its toils; the colour of this garment was the same as that used to dress condemned men on the day of execution. Being liable to rebirth because of the self, and knowing the sorrow of living, dukkha,‘ world weariness,’ they sought the unborn, the final escape from Karmic bondage— nirvana. What was demanded from the individual devotee was nothing less than the extinction of the ego, freedom from aversion and desire.

Although there are striking parallels in the stories of the lives of the Jaina saviour Parsva and the Buddha, connections possibly suggesting the continued existence of a pre-Aryan religious tradition, Siddhartha had begun as a Hindu, and his own quest for wisdom was essentially a new and invigorating approach to the classic problem of release, moksa. Where the Buddha encountered difficulties was in the communication of his new understanding of the bondage of individualized existence. These problems sprang from the paradoxical position in which he found himself as a teacher. He alone understood Enlightenment, because it was an internal experience, yet he wished to point others along the way to self-realization. It was ineffable. Perhaps this block in communication explains the reluctance of the Buddha to sanction pictorial representation of his life and deeds. Instead, an empty seat, a footprint, or a wheel, were supposed to indicate the way he had discovered and taught. In contrast with the other great teachers of the world—Zarathustra, Confucius, Jesus, Mohammed–the Buddha was known as Sakyamuni, ‘the silent sage of the Sakya clan.’ The role of the sangha, the monk community, was to act as a permanent spiritual signpost for lay folk, who were daily reminded of the true path by the mendicant monks, the bhikkhus. At the moment in Sri Lanka and Thailand it is still the custom for young people to adopt holy orders for a short period of time. But, as the Buddha is said to have foreseen, his teachings became an organized religion over the centuries, and evolved a distinct mythology, till in its final stage in India Buddhism was merged with Hinduism.

The Buddha had many earlier lives which are described in the Jataka. Here we are only concerned with the chief legends surrounding the life of the historical founder of the Buddhist faith. The Buddha never denied the Hindu pantheon. On the contrary, prior to his incarnation as Gautama Siddhartha he lived in the heavenly realm, where he taught the law to the gods.‘Truly, monks,’ the Buddha once said,‘ I have been Indra, the ruler of the gods, thirty-six times, and many hundred times was I a worldmonarch.’ As the moment approached for his birth as the Buddha, earthquakes and miracles occurred, those ancient harbingers of significant events. In the city of Kapilavastu, on what is the modern Indo-Nepalese border, his earthly mother, Queen Maya, experienced a miraculous conception. She dreamed that she saw the future Buddha come down into her womb in the form of a white elephant. This dream and the corresponding natural signs were interpreted by sixty-four brahmins, who predicted the birth of a son who would become either a world-monarch or a world-saviour. When the time approached, Queen Maya made her way to the near-by grove of Lumbini, where the wonderful child was born, emerging from her right side without causing her the slightest pain. Received by Brahma and the other gods, the young prince was found to be endowed with speech, and there appeared on the ground a lotus every time he took a step. Instantaneously were born Yasodhara Devi, his wife; Kantaka, the horse on which he fled from the palace to seek for supreme consciousness; Chandaka, his charioteer; Ananda, his chief disciple; and the Bo Tree, beneath whose spreading branches he received Enlightenment.

According to one legend, Queen Maya died seven days after giving birth to Prince Siddhartha, and out of filial piety the Buddha, having attained to supreme knowledge, ascended to the Trayastrimsa Heaven and remained there for three months, preaching the law to his mother. This particular sutra, or narrative scripture, became very popular in China, where Buddhist missionaries were confronted with a civilization that set great store by ancestor worship. A religion of individual salvation had to be made relevant to a society based on family and clan harmony, lest the saffron robe seem quite incongruous.

Mindful of the prophecy that the young prince would not become a great ruler, but a great sage, if he became aware of the sufferings of mankind, King Suddhodana, his father, did his utmost to prevent Siddhartha from having any contact with the outside world. A costly palace was built in which all possible pleasures were offered to beguile the youth's mind, and even the words ‘death’ and ‘grief’ were forbidden. King Suddhodana conceived the plan of forging an inseparable link between his son and the kingdom through the marriage of Siddhartha, who would be declared heir-apparent. The beautiful Yasodhara, the daughter of a minister, was chosen and, as a kshatriya, the prince had to win her hand by a display of prowess in fencing, swimming, and combat at a special tournament. Yet within Siddhartha the spirit was beginning to stir, for on hearing the news of the birth of their son, he pronounced the boy's name, Rahula, in such a way as to mean ‘a bond’. Though King Suddhodana took every precaution, order-ing that the streets of the capital be swept clean, decorated with flowers, and emptied of everything unpleasant, the visit of twenty-nine-year-old Siddhartha and Chandaka proved a shattering experience. The prince saw a tottering old man, bowed double over his walking stick, and later had view of an incurable invalid. These sights troubled him considerably, but it was an encounter with a corpse being carried to the cremation ground that jolted him into active discontent with his luxurious surroundings. The serene calm of a hermit suggested a course for him and, abandoning throne, family, and offspring, he became a wandering ascetic, bent on discovering the nature of things. Having tried the way of self-mortification for six years without success, the monk Gautama, as he was now called, travelled to Gaya and resolved to sit in meditation under a fig-tree till he completed his quest. His Enlightenment followed, whereby he became the Buddha, the One who was released from the overwhelming consciousness of suffering.

The demon Mara assaulted the contemplative monk, immobile beneath the Bo Tree, but nothing could disturb his single-mindedness. To no avail were the enticements of Mara's daughters, skilled in all the magic arts of desire and voluptuousness; unheeded went the threats of an army of hideous devils, grotesque in shape and powerfully armed; and the ultimate weapon of Mara, his fiery discus, turned into a canopy of flowers when hurled at the Buddha. For five weeks the possessor of perfect illumination, bodhi, stayed rapt in meditation, all his previous lives being revealed to him. It was during the final week that the world-shaking tempest happened, when Muchalinda, King of the Nagas, protected the Buddha with his serpentine body.

The Enlightened One was then faced with a choice. He could enter nirvana: literally, the cessation, nir, of mental turnings, vritti; the undisturbed condition of supreme consciousness. Or, renouncing personal deliverance for the moment, he could preach the law. Mara urged one course, Brahma the other, and it was to the great god's entreaties on behalf of all created things the Buddha yielded. He began to travel and teach, founding a monastic order as well as preparing the framework for the Buddhist era of Indian civilization. One day a little child wanted to make him an offering, but had no worldly possessions. Innocently the boy presented for blessing a pile of dust, which the Buddha accepted with a smile. This child is reputed to have been reborn as King Asoka, who reigned from 272 to 232 BC. Not only did this monarch establish throughout his realm countless monasteries and have constructed 80,000 stupas, or reliquary shrines, but his Buddhist missionaries were dispatched even to Syria and Egypt.

Tibetan carving of the Buddha
Tibetan carving of the Buddha

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