An Assamese short story by Geetali Borah
Translation: Biman Arandhara
Buddhang sharanang gacchami
Dharmang sharanang gacchami
Sanghang sharanang gacchami…
There, the sound of the holy mantra is wafting in through the air after striking against the sal forest. Maybe some monk, or some mendicant.
The sun has risen. At the end of a dark night the first rays of the sun are grazing Kapilavastu. They are beginning to play varied games in the snow-covered mountain range far in the distance. And just like the white rays, the holy mantra Buddhang sharanang gacchami… over the main thoroughfare of Kapilavastu is pervading the entire surrounding after rebounding from the sal forest.
Groups after groups of people are taking refuge in Tathagata in search of spiritual knowledge. Buddhism is spreading fast across Kapilavastu, Koshala, Magadha, Varanasi, etc. Wherever Tathagata is setting foot, he is gaining numerous followers.
People are seeking emancipation. Emancipation is possible, Tathagata assures them; there is a path to it. Yes, only the Buddha can brighten up such a path with the light of the soul, that path that had so long remained hidden in the darkness of ignorance.
What is truth? What is emancipation? I, Yashodhara Gopa, wife of Gautama Buddha, have asked myself this question on several occasions. So, was this escape from his responsibilities towards the kingdom and family, the path of truth, of emancipation? Had Prince Gautama abandoned his little son and sleeping wife for the sake of such freedom? Can he, who can toss his father, son and wife into the sea of sorrow for the sake of deliverance from old age, illness and death, from never-ending misery, find a well-chiselled path for humanity at the end of which lies emancipation, the absolute enlightenment called Nirvana?
Father King Suddhudhana remains drowned in the sea of grief. In this twilight of life, loneliness and distress at the loss of his son unsettle him at every moment. Adding to that is more bad news that his son Prince Gautama, who was born with a silver spoon in his mouth, now begs alms at the doorsteps of his disciples with a begging bowl in hand in the form of the tribastra -clad Buddha Tathagata with a tonsured head.
And Mother Queen, Gautama’s foster-mother, stepmother! Her fragile body that has withered like a chandramalika plant (scientific name is chrysanthemum indicum linn), droops in grief. Like the thirsty redrumped swallow, the perplexed look of her eyes still tends to get lost far in the distance. She mistakes every minute object she sees for the Prince.
Another morning fraught with the lethargy of monotony arises in Kapilavastu. There, on the other side of the window is the cool form of the endless earth. With the rise of the sun the humped snowline has begun melting silently. Gradually the white sunlight is turning mild red. Like the sacrificial fire at the yagna that flares up with the addition of clarified butter, the mantra of the people seeking emancipation is becoming clearer – Buddhang sharanang gachhami… Even though that mantra tends to pull me towards a peaceful ambience, I restrain myself. I reignite the flame of resentment lying dormant in a deep corner of my heart and singe myself. I say to myself mentally – you cannot be forgiven, O Tathagata, you cannot be forgiven!
Even though I do hard penance day and night to acquire limitless endurance power like Basudha, I do feel disturbed sometimes. How is he? Is the extraordinary handsomeness of this man whose shining nails put to shame even the flame of the lamp, whose physique is stronger and more well built than a sculpture, still intact? Do the eyes of monk Tathagata with a tonsured head still radiate infallible purity like the glimmer of a planet, or are his pupils becoming like stone – cold and dead?
The sun rose and set. The fragrant easterly wind lost itself in the deep forest. Seasons changed. Everywhere – in the soft splendour of spring, clouds of monsoon, barren trees of winter, there was news of separation. Gautama seemed to have packed up and taken away every excuse for being content, happy. Life turned into a dry leaf that drifted away in the deluge of tears.
After the Prince’s retreat to the forest, I obtained the King, my father-in-law’s permission and stood on the bank of an ancient river. On the other bank of that river named Rohini was Devadah, my father’s kingdom. Long gone were those days when I used to get lost in myself looking at my face in the bosom of the Rohini. Still, in the depressing moments of my youth this river stood by me as my companion and inspiration.
One day as I stood beside the Rohini, I noticed that the sun had set. The riverbed assumed a heavenly look in the magnificent golden light. Standing on the bank of the ancient river at that golden moment, I realised without sitting in meditation one more truth – that, like the river life also has its constant changes, taking a new form every day. This is not the restive transparent river of my adolescence. The ever-flowing water takes the shape of the river. The name of this endlessness is river. If that is so, then this is not the river that had overwhelmed me a few moments ago. Turning into waves, the sea-bound water is moving away fast from me. Its place has now been taken over by another current of water.
Suprabuddha’s daughter Gopa of the royal Kula family and Princess of Kapilavastu, Gautama’s wife Yashodhara are not the same person. Even this Yashodhara who is now standing in a heavenly ambience and crying for herself, is different.
As I strove to see my face in the fading light even in the midst of the timeless beckoning, I saw the visage of the Prince shining like the full moon, which the current was drawing away from me far into the unknown distance.
After the Prince left home the Mother Queen and King Suddhudhana gave me the cold shoulder. The silence of their scornful looks seemed to condemn me – fie your beauty, fie your womanhood! The lustre of my graceful beautiful body would overcome the Sakya Prince’s indifference to family life and bind him cohesively to family life; this was what they had hoped for. Yes. It was not my talent or intellect that had brought a girl like me from the ordinary Kula royal family to the richness and opulence of Kapilavastu as the future queen; it was the extraordinary beauty of Kula teenager Yashodhara Gopa. Her youth was bright and restive like the moon in the expansive cloudless sky of autumn. No one was keen to know about the state of mind of Gopa that lay hidden behind it.
Of course, there was nothing new in it to feel sad about. It was a rule being followed since ages. A woman was an ordinary creation of God for the joy, enjoyment and service of men; she was a usable item of men that could be donated, used as a pawn, bought, decked out in ornaments and then feasted upon, enjoyed and then discarded whenever one wished. A woman’s intellect, talent, love and loneliness were never to be counted in the midst of her body, beauty and services. (Even though during my days of learning my father had said that a woman without talent was like the coral flower on the roadside that could not entertain the weary traveller with its fragrance; that did not come of use even in worship.)
That was why I had to stand with a sense of guilt before the devastated hearts of my parents with fathomless grief in my heart. I ought to beg forgiveness for being unable to keep him enticed to me with my beauty and youth, or even by bearing him a child. But at the same time I had acquired the pride of feeling fulfilled with another achievement. My child was not a girl, it was a boy, Rahul. Maybe because I was the mother of a boy-jewel, the future heir to the throne of Kapilavastu, that I was spared the torture of having to bear the cold indifferent looks of my parents-in-law for a long time.
There was no end to agony. Time became like the bluish feather of a peacock that lost its way and drifted around to the heavy assaults of the wind. A messenger had brought information that Prince Gautama was doing hard penance deep inside a forest named Urubela. Five of his disciples were his companions in his penance on the ivory bank of the River Nairanjana. Even though I had decided not to shed tears over him, I used to get depressed thinking about his condition during heavy rain or intense cold, in the sweltering heat. Thoughts of the hungry and suffering Prince who used to sleep in a butter-soft bed and eat from a gold dish, drove away my sleep and peace of mind.
Six springs passed in that manner. Gautama’s hard penance had failed. This information rekindled a glimmer of hope in me, like a thin swift ray of optimism brightening up somewhere in the dark sky. But there was also bad news. A messenger informed that the once golden-skinned body of Gautama had emaciated due to malnutrition and neglect. His pupils had become like lifeless stars that got reflected in muddy water. The frustrated, companionless, vulnerable Gautama had been deserted even by his disciples.
He might come back. Hardly had this hope made my mental horizon clear, when news came that this time he was getting ready to resume his meditation under an ancient pepul tree on the bank of the River Nairanjana.
At that time a Kula woman named Sujata was attending on him. I was filled with immense gratitude and a little jealousy towards her at the same time. But, who was this Sujata? I became eager to know about the past and present of this woman who gave company and inspiration to my husband in that pleasant ambience of Urubela.
Sujata was married. She was the daughter of the village chief of Urubela. Having grown up in the lap of nature, she was peerless in beauty, talent and knowledge.
I knew Gautama was never interested in the company of women. As per rules of the Sakya royal palace, there were elaborate arrangements for female dancers and harlots for his physical gratification deep within the palace premises. But he was dying for some opening on an inaccessible platform far above that, which could bring peace to his soul.
So then, what kind of talent was Sujata endowed with, which I did not possess, that gave her the opportunity to act as his companion and attendant on the quiet riverbank?
The messenger informed that Sujata would sit with her head lowered at the feet of Gautama as he sat on padmasana. Discussions on life took place between them. He would eagerly partake of the food that she offered him with due reverence.
So, was it just a relationship between a teacher and an attendant? Or, was some overpowering force laced with carnal desire keeping them bound to each other?
I tried to ponder by fixing my gaze on the smallest point where earth and heaven met.
An imaginary picture of the two figures in courteous engagement in the pleasing beauty of nature pierced my heart with piquant sadness.
I had lost forever the hope that Gautama in penance would return one day, and I would get back like lost rubies my temporary post-wedding days of joy. Holding in my bosom Rahul, who was taking after his father, I prepared myself to spend the remaining endless time of my life alone. And probably for the first time since the Prince left home, I prayed to God with all sincerity for the success of his sacrifice and mission.
Dull time passed moment to moment. Suddenly a morning in the month of Bohag began unlike any other normal day. The sweet chirp of birds right from dawn awakened the sleepy Kapilavastu. Melodious fusion notes rising from the sal forest pervaded the area. The fragrant wind spread all around.
The sunshine decked out Kapilavastu in red and white. News came that Prince Gautama was coming back after attaining enlightenment. He had attained the ultimate divine truth. He was now a competent and wise man to lead people towards Nirvana. In moments the news spread all around – in the wind, fragrance, and in people’s smiles and enthusiasm.
After attaining enlightenment Gautama in penance came to be known as Buddha Tathagata. He first propagated his message in Varanasi. Like humble bees flocking to fragrant flowers, within a very short time followers made a beeline for him to listen to him preach. His disciples and their disciples grew fast in large numbers. I had a belief that people flocked to him not only because of their faith in the path shown by him. More than the assurance of Nirvana, it was their interest in something new after being fed up with the excesses of Brahminism.
Moreover, Gautama had a bright, pure and calm personality like the morning sun whose magic was not easy to ignore.
When I heard that the King was getting drawn to the new religion Buddhism after being impressed with the message of Tathagata, his enlightened son who begged from his subjects with a begging bowl, I thought that happened because of his love for his son, not his interest in the new faith. Gautama Buddha spread the message of sacrifice and freedom among the attendants in the royal court of Kapilavastu also. Everyone was impressed. They fell at his feet for initiation. From all that news, I inferred that the officials of the Sakya kingdom were actually willing to follow the heir to the throne of Kapilavastu; not some atheistic unclear philosophy.
Hence, when my husband in the form of the revered Buddha entered the palace, I showed no keenness at all to welcome him or take the sacred water from his feet on my head like the others. And yet, a countless number of people from his parents’ families were waiting in the royal palace to get initiation from him.
Timeless culture and knowledge had taught me that true religion lies in carrying out one’s responsibilities. I was not at all inclined to take lessons from the one once closest to my heart, who shed his responsibilities towards his old father, his kingdom, son and wife and departed for the jungles seeking liberation (or, was it in the hope of breaking free from sorrow and remain happy forever?) I had no idea how Tathagata or my father-in-law the King, viewed my determination (or arrogance). They might have regarded it as my resentment or foolishness.
At one point of time Tathagata entered my room. It was a cloudy afternoon in the month of Shrawan. I controlled myself with a lot of effort and tried to look at him. My eyes first fell on his feet, yellow and plump like the petals of the chrysanthemum. It was long back that I had touched those feet with all the unexplored dreams and hopes of my youth and placed my life at his disposal.
When he came and stood near me I became emotional and cried in some deep grief, more so, with some feeling of helplessness.
“Rahul, see that handsome sage sitting beneath the pepul tree? He is your father. Go, pay your respects to him and seek paternal benefaction from him,” I said to my son pointing to Tathagata, who was giving initiation to his disciples sitting under the pepul tree in the royal garden.
“But mother, I am a prince, how can a sage in a saffron robe be my father,” Rahul asked, looking at me in disbelief.
I then introduced him to Tathagata’s past life. “Go son, pay your respects to him and seek your due,” I said to him again.
Initially Rahul was a bit hesitant. But heeding my instruction he made his way towards Gautama Buddha with slow steps.
The sun had just risen. Golden rays peeping in through the tree leaves enveloped the physical form of Tathagata who was sitting in padmasana under the pepul tree. From the distance he looked like a heavenly halo.
I looked on through the open window as his son I had given birth, walked slowly towards his father.
… And now, at the end of the day my son is standing before me richer with the benefaction he got from his father – a tonsured head, a saffron robe!
“I have obtained paternal benefaction, mother,” the little monk is saying with a subtle smile on his face.
Paternal benefaction! Yes, paternal benefaction. Escape from worldly responsibilities – the lure of freedom! A begging bowl! Was it this that I had wished for?
There, not very far away is Tathagata; a glow of glory in his eyes. Or is it some heavenly serene light that is drawing me to him!
In order to run away from the truth and untruth, from the enchantment, I sought my river. Where is that endless flow, my ancient river!
Here I am, standing on the bank of the Rohini after a long time. The sun has set. The core of the river has assumed a heavenly hue with the magnificent golden light. Is this not the appropriate moment to relieve myself, to surrender myself to the wonderful cool water?
Just as I was about to let myself loose in the river current, a strange truth that I had discovered long ago without any penance, presented itself before me with intense brightness.
From where are you running away? the truth asked me.
From where? I asked myself this time.
The truth now glowed in my soul as enlightenment.
At that extraordinary sentient moment of sunset I realised once again that like the river life too undergoes change again and again. My husband Sakya Prince Gautama and Buddha Tathagata are not the same person. My son Rahul and Tathagata’s disciple, monk Rahul with a tonsured head are different from each other.
Then, how can Kapilavastu’s crown Queen Yashodhara, mother Yashodhara and the Yashodhara who has come running to give herself up in the bosom of the Rohini in order to escape from suffering, be the same person?
Shattering the mild darkness and silence gathered around me, the holy mantra came floating in like a burst of light –
Buddhang sharanang gacchami
Dharmang sharanang gacchami
Sanghang sharanang gacchami…
Who is reciting this mantra of initiation?
The sky, this river, or my dormant consciousness?