Wednesday, August 12, 2009


The Scripture of the Savior of the World,
Lord Buddha--Prince Siddartha styled on earth
In Earth and Heavens and Hells Incomparable,
All-honoured, Wisest, Best, most Pitiful;
The Teacher of Nirvana and the Law.

Then came he to be born again for men.

Below the highest sphere four Regents sit
Who rule our world, and under them are zones
Nearer, but high, where saintliest spirits dead
Wait thrice ten thousand years, then live again;
And on Lord Buddha, waiting in that sky,
Came for our sakes the five sure signs of birth
So that the Devas knew the signs, and said
"Buddha will go again to help the World."
"Yea!" spake He, "now I go to help the World.
This last of many times; for birth and death
End hence for me and those who learn my Law.
I will go down among the Sakyas,
Under the southward snows of Himalay,
Where pious people live and a just King."

From Light of Asia, Edwin Arnold.
Buddha's mother Maya gave birth to him under a sal tree, (Shorea robusta).
Buddha spent the first twenty-nine years of his life at Kapilavastu, the capital city of a republic in the Middle Land, (Madhyadesa), according to the Buddhist scriptures. This is a town nestled on the plain between the Himalayan foothills and the Ganges River. (This blog's thesis is, however, that Buddha was of Gandhara.) Buddha’s father Suddhodana was not a king but a raja, and obviously Buddha couldn’t have been born a prince, though later tradition made him one. The legend was embellished by the Sinhalese in their Dipavamsa and Mahavamsa chronicles, written fourth to sixth centuries CE, to record the history of their island and royal dynasties. It was important to associate Buddha with kings, including Asoka, to bolster their own kings' legitimacy.
Buddha died between two sal trees.

Importantly, the Buddha was born into the kshatriya class rather than the brahman class; he was in fact to rebel against the Brahmins and their belief in gods and sacrifice as a means of personal salvation, a rebellion which already had faint stirrings in the Upanishads. Although he was not born into a brahman family, it was from the start clear that Buddha would be an extraordinary human being, a man destined for greatness.

The nobles of the conquering Indo-Aryan tribes who invaded ancient India (after the Vedic period), such as the Sakas, were co-opted into the caste system as kshatriyas. Hence the story of the Buddha stresses that he was a kshatriya and not a brahman.

First, the Buddha’s conception was immaculate, a detail not dwelled upon in later Buddhist texts, but which, at the very least, marks the young Siddhartha as a particularly special person, one who is also not tainted by the impurity associated with sexual activity in Indian and ancient thought. According to the early Buddhist tradition, the Buddha’s mother, Maya, dreamed that a white elephant—a standard symbol in Indian literature for royal power—entered her womb and implanted a fetus there. She then discovered that she was, in fact, pregnant. Upon learning of his wife’s unusual pregnancy, Suddhodana didn’t think this particularly strange; compare the story of Mary and Joseph in the Gospels. Nothing daunted, Suddhodana summoned his sages to interpret the significance of his wife’s puzzling dream. They duly predicted that the child would be a boy, and that he would be destined for greatness—either he would inherit his father’s kingdom and become a great ruler (Chakravartin, a ‘wheel-turning’ monarch) or he would leave his home and family and become a great religious leader (a buddha, or an ‘enlightened one.’)

Relief Panel with the Dream of Queen Maya (Buddha's Conception),
Pakistan, ancient region of Gandhara.

Kapilavastu was Buddha’s hometown but he was not born there. (Compare Jesus of Nazareth, born in Bethlehem.) According to the Nidanakatha, the introductory narrative to the Jatakas (birth-stories of Buddha’s previous lives), Maya, Buddha’s mother, who was forty at the time, set out shortly before she was due to give birth to stay with her parents in Devadaha, in order to have the child there, supported by her mother Yasodhara. The journey in bumpy ox-cart over hot and dusty roads brought the birth on prematurely before she reached her destination, at the village of Lumbini, with no protection but that provided by sal trees (Shorea robusta), and without medical assistance, Siddhartha, the future Buddha, was born in May, 448 BCE. Legend has it that Maya gave birth to the child standing and holding on to a branch of a sal tree, and the child emerged from her side, apparently because the birth canal was considered unclean for the future Buddha to pass through; but it may also be connected to a pan-Indian tradition that asserts that the trauma of vaginal birth is what wipes out memory of previous lives. In this context, since the Buddha is aware of his previous existences, he obviously could not have been born vaginally.
Relief Panel with the birth of the Buddha Sakyamuni,Pakistan, ancient region of Gandhara.
It is incomprehensible that Suddhodana would have permitted Maya to travel over dangerous and bumpy trails just when she was expecting his first child, unaccompanied by medical attendants or soldiers to protect them from robbers. It was no wonder that the birth came on prematurely, and miraculously, witnessed only by Maya’s own personal serving maids. Also the reason for the journey, so that she could have her mother by her side, seems a trifle flimsy. (Another version says that she had taken the journey for pleasure, flimsier still, seeing the condition she was in.) It wasn’t as if Maya was some spring chicken—she was forty—her mother would have been sixty or seventy and totally incapable of any physical assistance. Would it not have been wiser for Maya to have stayed at home and given birth there, with all the assistance her husband’s minions could have provided? Anyway, Maya was unable to continue her journey to Devadaha, so she and her small retinue returned to Kapilavastu, exhausted. The journey was a bad idea from the start; in the bible we see that Jesus was also born while his parents were on the road so that he could be born in Bethlehem to fulfill a supposed prophecy. Is there any connection between the two stories, one wonders? (Well, of course there is. See here.)

The miracles didn’t end there. Buddha emerges from the womb, diving out of his mother’s side, spotlessly pure. He is caught by a group of attendant devas (devine beings), often in a pure cloth or, sometimes, in a golden net. But the miraculous oddity of his birth does not end there: the baby, who is typically depicted more like a young boy than like a newborn, turns in each of the cardinal directions, determines that he is the foremost of all beings in the world, and then takes seven steps toward the east (the auspicious direction, which he will also face at the time of his enlightenment), and proclaims that he is the chief of the world. While these miraculous acts are agreed to be mythical and are intended by the Buddhist tradition to emphasize the special qualities and powers of this most exalted of all persons, it hasn’t stopped the ignorant faithful down through the ages in believing that they were real, no less than present-day Christians believe in the miracles associated with Jesus’ life and death.

Maya died seven days after giving birth, the fate reserved for the mothers of all buddhas, which would at the least prevent them ever having their wombs defiled by lesser mortals.

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