I have always been fascinated by the personality and teachings of Gautama Buddha. This fascination evolved, over time, into an interest in the philosophy and practices of Buddhism. Born nearly 2,500 years ago, the Buddha enjoys a special place in the annals of Asia. His precepts, first revealed to the inhabitants of North India, made their way to distant lands – Iran to the northwest, Sri Lanka to the southwest, Japan to the northeast, and Sulawesi to the southeast. The expansion of the Buddhist faith, over a collection of contrasting landscapes and diverse ethnic groups, counts as one of the most interesting episodes in the history of mankind.
For a number of reasons, some known and others not, it disappeared from much of Central and South Asia. Buddhism’s decline was almost total and spectacular in the region of its birth. Buddha became a figure of the hoary past, surviving in mysterious legends, obscure tracts and crumbling ruins. Almost 600 years went by after the decline of the last major Buddhist polity of South Asia – the Pala Empire of Bengal, before an even more amazing resurrection. European archaeologists, historians, linguists and philosophers, driven by a passion for all things Oriental, dug, deciphered, examined and analysed the treasures of Buddhism, revealing them once more to the people of the subcontinent.
With the arrival of British rule, came new ideas; those dealing with the liberty, equality and fraternity of human beings. New modes of organizing society were available; those that rejected religious dogma, ossified tradition and social hierarchy for secular thought, radical politics and egalitarian ethos. The vast majority of Indians had been struggling under the yoke of caste, authored by Brahman priests and enforced by dominant warrior, merchant and landowning communities. The rediscovery of Buddhism provided South Asia’s exploited masses a new and revolutionary tool to challenge the ruling classes. No wonder then that Buddha’s message became a source of guidance for leading social reformers – Iyothee Thass, Bhagya Reddy Varma and Bhim Rao Ambedkar.
Today, there are a sizable communities of Buddhists in those parts of India from where the religion had all but disappeared. Many more, especially long-suffering members of the lower castes, and those who are thoroughly disillusioned with the caste system, have begun to explore Buddhist values. There is however, a lack of knowledge when it comes to the cultural heritage of Buddhism. While the doctrine of Buddha is familiar to many Indians (to be accurate, at least a bare outline of it), the political, social and economic background against which it was developed remains obscure. This robs it of the human element that is so vital to developing an appreciation for the way Buddha spoke and acted. My intention is to draw attention to these aspects.
Art can play a crucial role in helping people develop a historical perspective with regard to a range of subjects, Buddhism included. It brings them face-to-face with the physical manifestations of social customs, religious beliefs and political ideologies, evolving over time and space, in response to multiple influences. A cursory glance at Buddhist artifacts recovered from the monasteries, stupas and caves dotting the Silk Road of Central Asia would provide the kind of insight that voluminous texts would struggle to convey. Which is why I am attempting to narrate the life of Buddha using paintings and sculptures. The excerpts I am using are drawn from Andre Ferdinand Herold’s ‘The Life of the Buddha’ a biographical account in French that was translated into English by Paul C Blum.
The entire book is available on Sacred Texts. Herold drew on multiple sources to author the book – the Lalitavistara Sutra (a Mahayana text describing the legends surrounding Buddha’s life up to his first sermon at the Deer Park in Sarnath), the Buddhacharita (an epic poem on Buddha’s life by Ashvaghosha), and the Jatakas (tales surrounding the previous lives of Buddha). Along with portions culled from Herold’s work, I will be furnishing brief notes about the different personalities, places, tribes, clans, kingdoms, terms and concepts one would encounter in the narrative. These have been sourced from Palikanon, an online repository of Buddhist works. While it is beyond the scope of this blog to provide an exhaustive account, it will hopefully aid those who are new to Buddhist doctrine, literature and art.
Part 1 King Suddhodana And Queen Maya
Serene and magnificent was this city where once had dwelt the great hermit Kapila. It seemed to be built out of some fragment of the sky: the walls were like clouds of light, and the houses and gardens radiated a divine splendor. Precious stones glistened everywhere. Within its gates darkness was as little known as poverty. At night, when silver moonbeams fingered each turret, the city was like a pond of lilies; by day, when the terraces were bathed in golden sunshine, the city was like a river of lotuses.
King Suddhodana reigned in Kapilavastu; he was its brightest ornament. He was kindly and generous, modest and just. He pursued his bravest enemies, and they fell before him in battle like elephants struck down by Indra; and as darkness is dissipated by the sharp rays of the sun, even so were the wicked vanquished by his radiant glory. He brought light into the world, and he pointed out the true path to those who were close to him. His great wisdom gained for him many friends, many courageous, discerning friends, and as starlight intensifies the brightness of the moon, so did their brilliance enhance his splendor. Suddhodana, king of the Sakya race, had wed many queens. His favorite among these was Maya.
She was very beautiful. It was as if the Goddess Lakshmi herself had strayed into the world. When she spoke, it was like the song of birds in the spring, and her words were sweet and pleasant. Her hair was the color of the black bee; her forehead was as chaste as a diamond; her eyes as cool as a young blue-lotus leaf; and no frown ever marred the exquisite curve of her brows. She was virtuous. She desired the happiness of her subjects; she was attentive to the pious precepts of her teachers. She was truthful, and her conduct was exemplary. King Suddhodana and Queen Maya lived quietly and happily in Kapilavastu.
Shakyas: A tribe in North India, to which the Buddha belonged. Their capital was Kapilavastu. Within the tribe were several clans. They had a republican form of government, with a leader who was elected from time to time. The administration and judicial affairs of the clans were discussed in the Santhagara (Assembly Hall) at Kapilavastu. The Shakyas were very jealous of the purity of their race; they belonged to the Adiccagotta (Lineage of the Sun), and claimed descent from Okkaka. Their ancestors were the nine children of Okkaka, whom he banished in order to give the kingdom to Jantukumara, his son by another queen. These nine children went towards the Himalayas, and, having founded Kapilavastu, lived there. To the eldest sister they gave the rank of mother, and the others married among themselves.
Kapilavastu: A city near the Himalayas, the capital of the Shakyas. It was founded by the sons of Okkaka, on the site of the hermitage of the sage Kapila. Near the city was the Lumbinivana where the Buddha was born, and which became one of the four places of pilgrimage for the Buddhists. Close to Kapilavastu flowed the river Rohini, which formed the boundary between the kingdoms of the Shakyas and the Koliyas. The city was sixty leagues from Rajagaha. From Kapilavastu lay a direct road to Vesali. From Mahavana, outside Kapilavastu, the forest extended up to the Himalayas, and on the other side of the city it reached as far as the sea.
Image Attribution: The image above, sourced from Wikimedia Commons, is the reproduction of a mid-19th century Burmese painting, ‘Devas announce the Coming of a Buddha’, preserved in the Asian Collection of the Wellcome Library, London, UK. The panel to the left shows the future Buddha (Siddhattha Gotama), in Tusita Heaven, surrounded by Devas. The panel to the right shows the Devas announcing the coming of a Buddha in a thousand years’ time.