The Nativity of Buddha
Theosophical Forum, July, 1902
I feel more convinced than ever that Ashva Ghosha’s Sanskrit Life of Buddha will be the Life of Buddha which will hold the attention of the world once it finds an adequate, readable, and popular translation in English. For, though Professor Cowell’s Translation, in the Sacred Books of the East, is certainly adequate, from the point of scholarship, and though we all admit his easy supremacy in the Sanskrit Renaissance Literature, yet it would be flattery to call this formidable volume readable, or, indeed, much more than barely intelligible to anyone who does not follow it with the Sanskrit text in hand. I was fortunate enough to read the Sanskrit version first—several chapters in the middle of the book, that is to say—and only after that I discovered Professor Cowell’s admirable scholarly version, bound up with a rendering of the Sukhavati Vyuha and the Vajrochchhetika, in a volume bearing the accurate but uninviting title “Mahayana Scriptures.” I wonder what chance of popularity a book has with a title like that! I wonder how many readers Professor Cowell has had since his volume was published, or, indeed, will have during the next decade? It is sad to think of the vast quantity of splendid work buried, interred, entombed, in the Proceedings of our Oriental Society, our University Series, our Journals of Research, and the like; and to think how wholly they fail to touch the living world of men. Then comes a writer like Edwin Arnold, with his wonderful facility and his great popular gift, and does more for Buddhism than all the scholars put together—and this without any signal erudition, or any great claim to scholarship at all. And the world is with Edwin Arnold, and the world is right. If we cannot make our work effectual in the world of living men and women, then our work is vain.
But to return to the nativity of Buddha. I know not whether we are to ascribe to Ashva Ghosha the first twenty stanzas with their gorgeous description of the Holy City of Kapila Vastu, in which the heavenly child was born. On the one hand, the Tibetan and Chinese versions leave out this description, while, on the other, it is perfectly in place, and even essential to the completeness and unity of the poem, and is quite in Ashva Ghosha’s style and manner. Let me quote a few verses to show how the poet describes the Holy City of Buddhism:—
“There was a City, the mighty sage Kapila’s dwelling-place; girt with the beauty of broad uplands, as with a chain of clouds; its lofty roofs upreared against the sky.
There, neither darkness nor poverty found a dwelling-place, so bright was it with the radiance of jewels; and smiling fortune gladly dwelt among those righteous men.
And, for that there was not seen the like of the City in the whole world, for the beauty of its arbors and arches, and spires like lion’s ears, the dwellings of it could vie with nothing but each other.
And the sun even at his setting, could not forget the lovely faces of its women, that put the lotus-blooms to shame; and hastened toward the western ocean to slake his passion in the waves.
By night, the silver cupolas, lit up by the moon’s white rays, made a mock of the water-lillies; by day, when the sunbeams shone on the golden domes of the palaces, they took upon them tho beauty the yellow lotuses.”
Even in a prose version, and that by no means a final one, we can easily see the rich, Oriental splendour of writing like this. And here let me anticipate a possible criticism. The whole story of the nativity of Buddha, with its immaculate conception by the Holy Law, its angel visitants, its wise men seeing his sign in the heavens, and coming to visit him, cannot but compel comparisons with the old, familiar story of the heavenly Child of Bethlehem, and the shepherds who watched their flocks by night. And it will doubtless be pointed out how the simplicity, humility, and poverty of the one scene contrast with the almost impossible magnificence of the other,—and thus we shall have prepared the way to a total misapprehension of the Buddhist poet’s aim, in piling splendour upon splendour, and scattering the whole earth with pearls, and cloth of gold, and scented flowers. His aim is in the highest degree worthy, and shows the highest artistic sense. This is only one side of the medal; look at the companion picture, Buddha, homeless, friendless, in a single cloth, his beggar’s bowl in hand, with one aim only—to bring the healing wisdom to the world. Every heightened touch of colour hears with it this refrain:—He left it all to set us free! That is, to the Buddhist writer, and to all sympathetic readers, the true meaning of these gorgeous descriptive stanzas that record the Buddha’s birth.
The description of the Holy City is followed by a courtly picture of its King, Shuddhodana, who plays a very dramatic part in the chapter of the Renunciation, at a subsequent stage of the story. Here we are told, in a passage of most skilful antithesis, that
“though sovereign of all, he was yet surrounded by friends; though very generous, he was not rashly lavish; though a King, he yet dealt equal justice to all; though very gracious, he was full of warlike fire.”
His consort, the Queen Maya, mother of the Master, was not less richly endowed, for
“she was loved as a mother by the simple folk, while the great esteemed her as a friend. She was a very goddess of good luck in the family of the King.”
Ashva Ghosha tells us that the Buddha was born in a garden, amongst flowering trees, and blossoms of the scarlet mandhara, with the hosts of celestials gathered round to bear him up, and streams of heavenly water to purify the new-born teacher of mankind:
“And the babe by the brightness of his limbs, dimmed all other lights, as does the sun; he lit up the whole world by his beauty. And, bright as the seven stars, he took seven steps, firm, unwavering, and thus he spoke:—’For wisdom am I born to save the world; this is my final birth.’”
Then follows a long, and very beautiful passage, in which we are told how all Nature did homage to the new-born child, and how the heavenly visitants gathered round him, and ministered to him. We shall not be guilty of the shallow criticism which bids us reject all this because it savours of miracle; the true miracle is, that a man, born among men, should win such love and reverence from his fellows that, five centuries after his death, the poets should vie with each other in beautiful inventions and arts to do him honour; and that, twenty centuries later, the poet’s words should still be lovingly remembered. It seems to me that much of our criticism of Buddha’s doctrine, which represents the sage’s teaching as hopeless, harsh, and cold, leaves out of account altogether the vital fact that Buddha has held the hearts of nearly a hundred generations, while such a doctrine as his critics attribute to him could appeal to no one, and even repels the critics themselves. What is certain is that Buddha’s personality and words had an immense and immediate influence over his hearers, and a benign influence as well, and no account of his doctrine is trustworthy which does not reckon with this cardinal fact.
Very eloquent, and full of dramatic power, is the episode of the coming of the sage, Asita, who has been the Buddha’s sign in the heavens, and comes from afar to pay him reverence:—
“Then the mighty seer, Asita, through signs and his magical power, perceiving that He was born who should make an end of birth, came to the palace of the Shakya King, eager for the Good Law. And the King’s confessor, himself a sage among sages, received the seer luminous with wisdom, and grace, and the magic of devotion. And he entered the inner chamber of the King, where all was gladness at the Prince’s birth, full of power and holiness, and also full of years. The King then set the saint upon a seat, and had water brought to wash his feet, and hospitable offerings; welcoming him with deference, as Antideva of old welcomed Vasishta:—’Fortunate am I, and favoured is my house, that thou art come to visit us! Let my lord command what shall be done, for I am thy disciple, therefore speak confidently to me.’ Thus the Saint was welcomed by the King, with all honour, as was seemly. And the Saint, with wide-eyed wonder, spoke these words of deepest wisdom:—’This graces thee well, mightly-hearted King, that thy heart is open to me as a dear guest, who have renounced the world, and desire only the law; this becomes thy goodness, thy wisdom, and thine age. Thus did the Kingly sages, they who, for the Law, gave up the wealth that perishes, growing rich in holiness, though poor in this world’s goods. But what is the purpose of my coming—hear thou, and rejoice:—A heavenly voice was heard by me, on the heavenly way, that a son was born to thee for wisdom. And hearing the voice and setting my mind to it, and discerning the signs, I am come here; my desire is to behold Him who shall raise aloft the banner of the Shakya name, as they raise Indra’s banner at the festival.’
‘The King, hearing this word, was tremulous with exultation, took the child from the nurse’s arms, and showed it to the man of penances.’”
I cannot resist the temptation to point out that, in spite of the miraculous element, this is a very human touch. Shuddhodana is the proud papa all over, even though he is a King, and his baby a future sage. The seer verified the miraculous marks of the child—the circle on his palms, the membrane of skin between his fingers, the ring of hair between his brows, as he lay in the nurse’s arms, like Agni’s son in the arms of his goddess mother. And then comes a profound and pathetic touch. The sage, beholding him, and knowing that he was indeed the Teacher, turned aside with tears trembling on his eye lashes, and sighed deeply, looking up to heaven. The King, seeing Asita sorrowing, was greatly terrified, thinking that some evil should befall his son, that early death threatened him, or that misfortune menaced the kingdom. He begged Asita to tell him truly hardly daring to name the calamities he feared “with a sob, and his voice choked by tears.” The sage thus replied:—
“Change not thy faith, O King, for what I have said is fixed and sure. I am full of sorrow, not for any evil that shall befall him, but for my own disappointment. For my time has come to depart, but this teacher of the Law, whose like is hard to find, is but newly born. He shall give up his kingdom, free himself from sensual temptations, and win the truth by strenuous effort. He shall shine forth to slay the darkness of the world, for he is a sun of wisdom.
From the ocean of sorrow, whose scattered foam is sickness, whose waves are age, whose swift tide is death, he shall rescue the world, carried away and afflicted, on the mighty boat of knowledge.
This thirsting human world shall drink his righteous river of the Law, whose tide is wisdom, whose banks are righteousness, whose cool waters are the soul’s peace, and vows the birds upon its stream.
He shall point out the way of freedom to the sorrowing who are wandering in the bye-paths of the world, in the midst of the forests of sense who have lost their way.
To the people in the world who are burned with the fire of passion, whose fuel is lust, he shall bring the refreshing waters of the law, as a great cloud brings rain to a weary land.
He shall open the prison whose bolts are lust, and whose doors are delusion and darkness and shall set the people free. With the blows of the Good Law shall he break it open, the excellent and invincible Law.
He shall free from the bondage of their own delusions the people, bound, and sorrowing and hopeless; the King of righteousness shall set them free.
Therefore be not troubled at my sorrow; grieve only for those who will not hear the Law.
All my holiness is lost, its virtue gone, for that I shall not hear Him. I count it sorrow now to enter Paradise.”
It would be hard to match the eloquence and pathos of this passage by any other throughout the whole of Ashva Ghosha’s work. It would be hard to match them even from the Bibles of the world.