This installment is the second in a series of excerpts from The Buddha-charita or Life of Buddha, the first complete biography of Shakyamuni Buddha, written by the poet Ashvaghosha, probably in the first century C.E. The Buddha-charita is made up of twenty-eight songs recounting events in the Buddha’s life up to the time of his great awakening. The previous installment described Shakyamuni’s family and the events that surrounded his birth. In this episode we hear Shakyamuni’s first words and witness the arrival of Asita, the great seer, who pronounces the Buddha’s fate. This excerpt was adapted from Edward B. Cowell’s 1893 translation (Cosmo Publications, New Delhi, India). Original spellings, usages, and punctuation have been retained throughout.
With glory, fortitude, and beauty [the newborn Buddha] shone like the young sun descended upon the earth; when he was gazed at, though of such surpassing brightness, he attracted all eyes like the moon.
Unflurried, with the lotus-sign in high relief, far-striding, set down with a stamp,—seven such firm footsteps did he then take,—he who was like the constellation of the seven rishis [holy seers].
‘I am born for supreme knowledge, for the welfare of the world,—thus this is my last birth,’—thus did he of lion gait, gazing at the four quarters, utter a voice full of auspicious meaning.
When he was born, the earth, though fastened down by (Himalaya) the monarch of mountains, shook like a ship tossed by the wind; and from a cloudless sky there fell a shower full of lotuses and water-lilies, and perfumed with sandalwood.
Having learned by signs and through the power of his penances this birth of him who was to destroy all birth, the great seer Asita in his thirst for the excellent Law came to the palace of the Sakya king.
The king, having duly honoured the sage, who was seated in his seat, with water for the feet and a [sacrificial] offering, invited him (to speak) with all ceremonies of respect, as did Antideva in olden times to Vasishtha:
‘I am indeed fortunate, this my family is the object of high favour, that thou shouldst have come to visit me; be pleased to command what I should do, O benign one; I am thy disciple, be pleased to show thy confidence in me.’
The sage, being thus invited by the king, filled with intense feeling as was due, uttered his deep and solemn words, having his large eyes opened wide with wonder:
‘Hear now the motive for my coming and rejoice there-at; a heavenly voice has been heard by me in the heavenly path, that thy son has been born for the sake of supreme knowledge.’
Thus the great seer beheld the king’s son with wonder,—his foot marked with a wheel, his fingers and toes webbed, with a circle of hair between his eyebrows, and signs of vigour like an elephant.
Having beheld him seated on his nurse’s side, he stood with the tears hanging on the ends of his eyelashes, and sighing he looked up towards heaven.
Seeing Asita with his eyes thus filled with tears, the king was agitated through his love for his son, and with his hands clasped and his body bowed he thus asked him in a broken voice choked with weeping,
‘One whose beauty has little to distinguish it from that of a divine sage, and whose brilliant birth has been so wonderful, and for whom thou hast prophesied a transcendent future,—wherefore, on seeing him, do tears come to thee, O reverend one?
‘Is the prince, O holy man, destined to a long life? Surely he cannot be born for my sorrow. I have with difficulty obtained a handful of water, surely it is not death which comes to drink it.
‘Tell me, is the hoard of my fame free from destruction? Is this chief prize of my family secure? Shall I ever depart happily to another life,—I who keep one eye ever awake, even when my son is asleep?’
Knowing the king to be thus agitated through his fear of some impending evil, the sage thus addressed him: ‘Let not thy mind, O monarch, be disturbed,
‘I have no feeling of fear as to his being subject to change, but I am distressed for mine own disappointment. It is my time to depart, and this child is now born,—he who knows that mystery hard to attain, the means of destroying birth.
‘Having forsaken his kingdom, indifferent to all worldly objects, and having attained the highest truth by strenuous efforts, he will shine forth as a sun of knowledge to destroy the darkness of illusion in the world.
‘He will deliver by the boat of knowledge the distressed world, borne helplessly along, from the ocean of misery which throws up sickness as its foam, tossing with the waves of old age, and rushing with the dreadful onflow of death.
‘The thirsty world of living beings will drink the flowing stream of his Law, bursting forth with the water of wisdom, enclosed by the banks of strong moral rules, delightfully cool with contemplation, and filled with religious vows as with ruddy geese.’
Having heard these words, the king with his queen and his friends abandoned sorrow and rejoiced; thinking, ‘such is this son of mine,’ he considered that his excellence was his own.
Then the sage Asita, having made known the real fate which awaited the prince to the king who was thus disturbed about his son, departed by the way of the wind as he had come, his figure watched reverentially in his flight.
When ten days were fulfilled after his son’s birth, with his thoughts kept under restraint, and filled with excessive joy, he offered for his son most elaborate sacrifices to the gods with muttered prayers, oblations, and all kinds of auspicious ceremonies.
Then he, with his soul under strict restraint, having performed all kinds of ceremonies which rejoiced his heart, on a fortunate day, in an auspicious moment, gladly determined to enter his city.
Then the queen with her babe having worshipped the gods for good fortune, occupied a costly palanquin made of elephants’ tusks, filled with all kinds of white flowers, and blazing with gems.
Having made his wife with her child enter first into the city, accompanied by the aged attendants, the king himself also advanced, saluted by the hosts of the citizens, as Indra entering heaven, saluted by the immortals.
The Sakya king, having entered his palace, like Bhava well-pleased at the birth of Karttikeya, with his face full of joy, gave orders for lavish expenditure, showing all kinds of honour and liberality.
Thus at the good fortune of the birth of the king’s son, that city surnamed after Kapila, with all the surrounding inhabitants, was full of gladness like the city of the lord of wealth, crowded with heavenly nymphs, at the birth of his son Nalakuvara.
Excerpt from the biography of Shakyamuni Buddha, written by Ashvaghosha, translated by Edward B. Cowell.
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