Part 6 Siddhartha Leaves His Father’s Palace

Siddhartha could no longer find peace. He strode through the halls of his palace like a lion stung by some poisoned dart. He was unhappy. One day, there came to him a great longing for the open fields and the sight of green meadows. He left the palace, and as he strolled aimlessly through the country, he mused: “It is indeed a pity that man, weak as he really is, and subject to sickness, with old age a certainty and death for a master, should, in his ignorance and pride, contemn the sick, the aged and the dead. If I should look with disgust upon some fellow-being who was sick or old or dead, I would be unjust, I would not be worthy of understanding the supreme law.” And as he pondered the misery of mankind, he lost the vain illusion of strength, of youth and of life. He knew no longer joy or grief, doubt or weariness, desire or love, hatred or scorn. Suddenly, he saw a man approaching who looked like a beggar and who was visible to him alone. “Tell me, who are you?” the prince asked him.

“Hero,” said the monk, “through fear of birth and death, I became an itinerant monk. I seek deliverance. The world is at the mercy of destruction. I think not as other men; I shun pleasures; I know nothing of passion; I look for solitude. Sometimes I live at the foot of a tree; sometimes I live in the lonely mountains or sometimes in the forest. I own nothing; I expect nothing. I wander about, living on charity, and seeking only the highest good.” He spoke. Then he ascended into the sky and disappeared. A God had taken the form of a monk in order to arouse the prince. Siddhartha was happy. He saw where his duty lay; he decided to leave the palace and become a monk. He returned to the city. He went to the king; he bowed and said to him: “King, grant the request I have to make. Do not oppose it, for I am determined. I would leave the palace, I would walk in the path of deliverance. We must part, father.”

The king was deeply moved. With tears in his voice, he said to his son: “Son, give up this idea. You’re still too young to consider a religious calling. Our thoughts in the springtime of life are wayward and changeable. Besides, it is a grave mistake to perform austere practices in our youth. Our senses are eager for new pleasures; our firmest resolutions are forgotten when we learn the cost in effort. The body wanders in the forest of desire, only our thoughts escape. Youth lacks experience. It is for me, rather, to embrace religion. The time has come for me to leave the palace. I abdicate, O my son. Reign in my stead. Be strong and courageous; your family needs you. And first know the joys of youth, then those of later years, before you betake yourself to the woods and become a hermit.” The prince answered: “Promise me four things, O father, and I shall not leave your house and repair to the woods.”

“What are they?” asked the king. “Promise me that my life will not end in death, that sickness will not impair my health, that age will not follow my youth, that misfortune will not destroy my prosperity.” “You are asking too much,” replied the king. “Give up this idea. It is not well to act on a foolish impulse.” Solemn as Meru mountain, the prince said to his father: “If you can not promise me these four things, do not hold me back, O father. When some one is trying to escape from a burning house, we should not hinder him. The day comes, inevitably, when we must leave this world, but what merits is there in a forced separation? A voluntary separation is far better. Death would carry me out of the world before I had reached my goal, before I had satisfied my ardor. The world is a prison: would that I could free those beings who are prisoners of desire! The world is troubled, the world is in a turmoil, the world is a wheel of fire: would that I could, with the true law, bring peace to all men!”

With tears in his eyes, he returned to the palace. In the great hall, Gopa’s companions were laughing and singing. He paid no heed to them. Night came on, and they were silent. They fell asleep. The prince looked at them. Gone was their studied grace, gone the sparkle of their eyes. Their hair was dishevelled, their mouths gaped, their breasts were crushed, and their arms and legs were stiffly outstretched or clumsily twisted under them. And the prince cried: “Dead! They are dead! I am standing in a graveyard!” And he left, and made his way toward the royal stables. He called his equerry, fleet Chandaka. “Bring me my horse Kanthaka, at once,” said he. “I would be off, to find eternal beatitude. The deep joy I feel, the indomitable strength that now sustains my will, the assurance that I have a protector even though I am alone, all these things tell me that I am about to attain my goal. The hour has come; I am on the road to deliverance.” Chandaka knew the king’s orders, but he felt some superior power urging him to disobey. He went to fetch the horse.

Kanthaka was a magnificent animal; he was strong and supple. Siddhartha stroked him quietly, then said to him in a gentle voice: “Many times, O noble beast, my father rode you into battle and defeated his powerful enemies. To-day, I go forth to seek supreme beatitude; lend me your help, O Kanthaka! Lend me your strength and your speed; the world’s salvation and your own is at stake.” The prince had spoken to Kanthaka as he would have to a friend. He now eagerly climbed into the saddle. The horse was careful to make no noise, for the night was clear. No one in the palace or in Kapilavastu was awakened. Heavy iron bars protected the gates of the city, an elephant could have raised them only with great difficulty, but, to allow the prince to pass, the gates opened silently, of their own accord. Leaving his father, his son and his people, Siddhartha went forth from the city. He felt no regret, and in a steady voice, he cried: “Until I shall have seen the end of life and of death, I shall not return to the city of Kapila.”

Kanthaka bravely carried him a great distance. When the sun finally peered between the eyelids of night, the most noble of men saw that he was near a wood where dwelt many pious hermits. Deer were asleep under the trees, and birds fluttered about fearlessly. Siddhartha felt rested, and he thought he need go no further. He dismounted, took off his jewels and handed them to Chandaka. “Take this necklace,” said he, “and go to my father. Tell him to believe in me and not give way to his grief. If I enter a hermitage, it is not because I am wanting in affection for my friends or because my enemies provoke my anger; nor is it because I seek a place among the Gods. Mine is a worthier reason: I will destroy old age and death. Therefore, do not grieve, Chanda, and do not let my father be unhappy. I left my home to be rid of unhappiness. Unhappiness is born of desire; that man is to be pitied who is a slave to his passions. When a man dies, there are always heirs to his fortune, but heirs to his virtues are rarely found.”

With tears in his eyes, Chandaka replied: “You are going to leave your family for ever! Oh, if you must cause them grief, spare me, at least, the anguish of imparting the sad news! What would the king say to me if he saw me return without you? What would your mother say to me? What would Gopa say?” He seized the hero’s hand. “Do not forsake us! Come back, oh, come back!” Siddhartha remained silent. Finally, he said in a solemn voice: “We must part, Chanda. There comes a time when people who are bound by the closest ties must go their own ways. If, out of love for my family, I were not to leave, death would still separate us, in spite of everything. Birds that sleep in the same tree at night scatter to the four winds at the first flush of dawn; clouds that some puff of wind has brought together by another puff of wind are again dispersed. I can no longer live in a world that is but a dream. Tell the people of Kapilavastu that I have done nothing worthy of blame, tell them to forget their affection for me; and tell them also that they will see me again, soon, the conqueror of old age and death, unless I should fail miserably and die.”

Then he took a sword that Chandaka was holding. The hilt was of gold and was studded with jewels; the blade was sharp. With one blow he cut off his hair, then tossed the sword into the air where it glistened like a new star. The Gods caught it and held it in great reverence. But the hero was still wearing his gorgeous robe. He wanted a plain one, one suitable to a hermit. Whereupon a hunter appeared, wearing a coarse garment made of a reddish material. Siddhartha said to him: “Your peaceful robe is like those worn by hermits. Give me your clothes and take mine in exchange. They will suit you better.” “Thanks to these clothes,” said the hunter, “I can deceive the beasts in the forests. But if you have need of them, my lord, I shall willingly give them to you and take yours in exchange.” Siddhartha joyfully donned the coarse, reddish-colored clothes belonging to the hunter. The saintly hero set out on the path to the hermitage. He was like the king of the mountains wrapped in clouds at dusk. And Chandaka, with a heavy heart, took the road back to Kapilavastu.

Gopa had awakened in the deep of night. A strange uneasiness possessed her. She called to her beloved, Prince Siddhartha, but there was no answer. She rose. She ran through the halls of the palace; he was nowhere to be found. She became frightened. Her maidens were asleep. A cry escaped her lips: “Oh, wicked, wicked! You have betrayed me! You have allowed my beloved to escape!” The maidens awoke. They searched every room. There was no longer any doubt: the prince had left the palace. Gopa rolled on the ground; she tore her hair, and her face bore the marks of her deep despair. Her companions tried in vain to console her. Mahaprajapati learned from one of her maidens of Siddhartha’s flight. She went to Gopa. The two women wept in each other’s arms. King Suddhodana heard the lamentation. He asked the reason. A servant went to inquire and returned with this answer: “My lord, the prince can not be found anywhere in the palace.” “Close the gates of the city,” cried the king, “and search for my son in the streets, in the gardens, in the houses.”

He was obeyed, but the prince was nowhere to be found. The king broke down. “My son, my only child!” he sobbed, and fell into a swoon. He was soon brought to, and he ordered: “That horsemen be dispatched in all directions, and that they bring me back my son!” In the meanwhile, Chandaka and Kanthaka were returning. As they approached the city, they both hung their heads in dejection. Some horsemen espied them. “It is Chandaka! It is Kanthaka!” they cried, and they galloped their horses. Chandaka followed them to the palace. The king summoned him at once. “My son! My son! Where has he gone, Chandaka?” The equerry told him what the prince had done. The king grieved. Gopa and Mahaprajapati questioned him, and they learned of Siddhartha’s high resolve. Mahaprajapati saw the jewels Chandaka had brought back with him. She stood looking at them a great while. She was weeping. Then, taking the jewels, she left the palace. Still weeping, she walked through the garden until she came to a pool. Once again, she looked at the jewels, then threw them into the water.

Image Attribution: The image above, sourced from Wikimedia Commons, is the reproduction of a Tang era (618-907 CE) Chinese painting. It shows Prince Siddhartha cutting off his hair, with attendants watching. The kneeling horse and servant in the uppermost segment are most probably Kanthaka and Chandaka. The landscape painting was scanned from Michael Sullivan’s ‘The Arts of China: Fourth Edition’ (1999).

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