This passage is from the Buddha-charita, the first complete biography of the 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 Shakyamuni Buddha’s life up to the time of his great awakening. These verses speak of Shakyamuni’s family and the events that surrounded the birth of the historical Buddha. Original spellings and usages from this 1893 translation by Edward B. Cowell have been retained throughout. This installment marks the first in a series of excerpts from The Buddha-Karita or Life of Buddha, reprinted with permission from Cosmo Publications, New Delhi, India.

Buddha Feet Pic
Wat Mahatat, Sukhothai, Thailand, 1993. Photograph by Marcia Lippman.

 

The Arhat is here saluted, who has no counterpart—who, as bestowing the supreme happiness, surpasses (Brahman) the Creator—who, as driving away darkness, vanquishes the sun—and, as dispelling all burning heat, surpasses the beautiful moon.

There was a city, the dwelling-place of the great saint Kapila, having its sides surrounded by the beauty of a lofty broad table-land as by a line of clouds, and itself, with its high-soaring palaces, immersed in the sky.

By its pure and lofty system of government it, as it were, stole the splendor of the clouds of Mount Kailasa, and while it bore the clouds which came to it through a mistake, it fulfilled the imagination which had led them thither.

In that city, shining with the splendor of gems, darkness like poverty could find no place; prosperity shone, as with a smile, from the joy of dwelling with such surpassingly excellent citizens.

With its festive arbours, its arched gateways and pinnacles, it was radiant with jewels in every dwelling; and unable to find any other rival in the world, it could only feel emulation with its own houses.

There the sun, even although he had retired, was unable to scorn the moon-like faces of its women which put the lotuses to shame, and as if from the access of passion, hurried towards the western ocean to enter the (cooling) water.

Yonder Indra has been utterly annihilated by the people when they saw the glories acquired by the Sakyas,—uttering this scoff, the city strove by its banner with gay-fluttering streamers to wipe away every mark of his existence.

After mocking the water-lilies even at night by the moonbeams which rest on its silver pavilions—by day it assumed the brightness of the lotuses through the sunbeams falling on its golden palaces.

A king, by name Suddhodana, of the kindred of the sun, anointed to stand at the head of earth’s monarchs,—ruling over the city, adorned it, as a bee-inmate a full-blown lotus.

The very best of kings with his train ever near him,—intent on liberality yet devoid of pride: a sovereign, yet with an ever equal eye thrown on all—of gentle nature and yet with wide-reaching majesty.

Falling smitten by his arm in the arena of battle, the lordly elephants of his enemies bowed prostrate with their heads pouring forth quantities of pearls as if they were offering handfuls of flowers in homage.

Having dispersed his enemies by his preeminent majesty as the sun disperses the gloom of an eclipse, he illuminated his people on every side, showing them the paths which they were to follow.

Duty, wealth, and pleasure under his guidance assumed mutually each other’s object, but not the outward dress; yet as if they still vied together they shone all the brighter in the glorious career of their triumphant success.

He, the monarch of the Sakyas, of native pre-eminence, but whose actual pre-eminence was brought about by the numberless councilors of exalted wisdom, shone forth all the more gloriously, like the moon amidst the stars shining with a light like its own.

To him there was a queen, named Maya, as if free from all deceit (maya)—an effulgence proceeding from his effulgence, like the splendour of the sun when it is free from all the influence of darkness—a chief queen in the united assembly of all queens.

Like a mother to her subjects, intent on their welfare,—devoted to all worthy of reverence like devotion itself—shining on her lord’s family like the goddess of prosperity—she was the most eminent of goddesses to the whole world.

Verily the life of women is always darkness, yet when it encountered her, it shone brilliantly; thus the night does not retain its gloom, when it meets with the radiant crescent of the moon.

This people, being hard to be roused to wonder in their souls, cannot be influenced by me if I come to them as beyond their senses,—so saying, Duty abandoned her own subtile nature and made her form visible.

Then falling from the host of beings in the Tushita heaven, and illuminating the three worlds, the most excellent of Bodhisattvas suddenly entered at a thought into her womb, like the Naga-king entering the cave of Nanda.

Assuming the form of a huge elephant white like Himalaya, armed with six tusks, with his face perfumed with flowing ichor, he entered the womb of the queen of king Suddhodana, to destroy the evils of the world.

The guardians of the world hastened from heaven to mount watch over the world’s one true ruler; thus the moonbeams, though they shine everywhere, are especially bright on Mount Kailasa.

Maya also, holding him in her womb, like a line of clouds holding a lightning-flash, relieved the people around her from the sufferings of poverty by raining showers of gifts.

Then one day by the king’s permission the queen, having a great longing in her mind, went with the inmates of the gynaceum into the garden Lumbini.

As the queen supported herself by a bough which hung laden with a weight of flowers, the Bodhisattva suddenly came forth, cleaving open her womb.

At that time the constellation Pushya was auspicious, and from the side of the queen, who was purified by her vow, her son was born for the welfare of the world, without pain and without illness.

Like the sun bursting from a cloud in the morning, so he too, when he was born from his mother’s womb, made the world bright like gold, bursting forth with his rays which dispelled the darkness.

As soon as he was born the thousand-eyed (Indra) well-pleased took him gently, bright like a golden pillar; and two pure streams of water fell down from heaven upon his head with piles of Mandara flowers.

Carried about by the chief suras, and delighting them with the rays that streamed from his body, he surpassed in beauty the new moon as it rests on a mass of evening clouds.

Having thus in due time issued from the womb, he shone as if he had come down from heaven, he who had not been born in the natural way—he who was born full of wisdom, not foolish—as if his mind had been purified by countless aeons of contemplation.

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