Part 8 Siddhartha Deserted by His First Disciples
The clear waters of the Nairanjana flowed through a rich and fertile land. Little villages drowsed in the shade of magnificent trees, and great meadows stretched away into the distance. The hero thought, “How pleasant it is here; what an inviting spot in which to meditate! Perhaps, here, I shall find the path to wisdom. Here I shall dwell.” He became deeply absorbed in contemplation. He was so engrossed with his thoughts that he stopped breathing, and, one day, he fell into a swoon. The Gods, who were watching him from the sky, thought he was dead, and they cried: “Is he dead, this child of the Sakyas? Has he died and left the world to its suffering?”
For six years, the hero remained on the banks of the river and meditated. He never sought shelter from the wind, from the sun or from the rain; he allowed the gadflies, the mosquitoes and the serpents to sting him. He was oblivious to the boys and girls, the shepherds and woodcutters, who jeered at him as they passed by and who sometimes threw dust or mud at him. He hardly ate: a fruit and a few grains of rice or of sesame composed his fare. He became very thin; his bones showed prominently. But under his gaunt forehead, his dilated eyes shone like stars. And yet true knowledge did not come to him. He felt he was becoming very weak, and he realized that if he wasted away, he would never reach the goal he had set for himself. So he decided to take more nourishment.
There was a village called Uruvilva near the spot where Siddhartha spent long hours in meditation. The head man of this village had ten daughters. They revered the hero, and they brought him grain and fruit by way of alms. He rarely touched these gifts, but, one day, the girls noticed that he had eaten all they had offered him. The next day, they came with a large dish full of boiled rice, and he emptied that. The following day, each one brought a different delicacy, and the hero ate them all. He began to gain flesh, and, presently, he started going to the village to beg his food. The inhabitants vied with one another in giving him alms, and, before long, he had regained his strength and his beauty.
But the five disciples who had joined him said to each other: “His austerities did not lead him into the path of true knowledge, and now he has ceased to practice them. He takes abundant nourishment; he seeks comfort. He no longer thinks of doing holy deeds. How can he, now, attain true knowledge? We considered him a wise man, but we were mistaken: he is a madman and a fool.” And they left him and went to Benares.
Uruvela: A locality on the banks of the Nairanjana or Neranjara, in the neighbourhood of Bodhgaya. Here, Siddhartha practiced the most severe penances for six years . His companions left him when he relaxed the severity of his austerities. The Jatakas contain additional details. When he decided to take ordinary food again, it was given to him by a girl, Sujata, daughter of Senani of the township of Senani.
Neranjara: A river on whose banks the Uruvela stood. It is identified with the modern Nilanjana, that flows from Hazaribagh (in Jharkhand, a state lying on the south-eastern margins of the Gangetic plain), that unites with the Mohana to form the Phalgu (a tributary of the Ganga).
Image Attribution: The image above, sourced from Wikimedia Commons, shows a Yuan era carving of Gautama Buddha practicing austerities. It dates back to 1300 CE and is made of wood, lacquer and pigment. The Yuan emperors ruled China from 1271 to 1368, and were descendants of the fifth Mongol Khagan (title held by the rulers of the Mongol Empire) – Kublai. The carving is preserved in the Birmingham Museum of Art, Birmingham (Alabama), USA.