Some books recounting the life of Buddha, especially of Western origin, tell the story of Prince Siddharta Guatama like a fairy tale, a myth.
Not this play, by Paul Carus.
It thoroughly dwells on the mood and the state of mind of Buddha before the enlightenment, before the mystical transformation, the crossing of man from the realm of humans to the realm of gods.
In some tales, Buddha is depicted as a one-dimensional character, shielded from the idea of suffering. His predicament begins after he accidently witnesses a funeral, signs of old age, and a sick man, all in one day, in additiong to glimpsing a monk, a man of God who seemed detached from the world, after which he decides to leave the palace of his father (the King) in search for answers.
But Carus takes us into the mind of the Buddha, before he became one, and hints that his journey had started long before that fated encounter with death, sickness, and decay. It started when Buddha became disenchanted with the old gods, realizing they brought him no peace, when his mind started to wander outside of the walls of the palace, long before his body did.
Carus puts it simply, speaking of Buddha’s first step on the path, he says “He ponders on the problems of the world. He ponders on life’s meaning much, investigates the origin of things.”
But those around Buddha were worried; they didn’t understand what burdened his heart. He had a wife, riches, a new-born son, and a “religion” that should save him. In vain, they tried to pull him back into their world.
But apart from spiritual and mental burdens, on the personal level, I find great signficance in the fact that we get to see through this play that enlightnment does not begin with a desire for knowing but begins with character.
One needs to carry certain attributes … before God or the Light could ever enter him or her, before they ever decide that departure from their old world is essential.
Enlightened beings are not born in piety but in revolution; awakening comes first in recognizing one’s need to stray from the crowd, come what may. Enlightenment begins with a measure of indepenence, and a fierceness in refusing false security and authority.
And as we see, social norms and the powers that be, embodied in Visakha the minister of state in this play, fights this blossoming independence with all their might.
Because free thought is “dangerous,” because in Visakha’s words, it’s a threat to “the sanctioned order of our institutions,” says he, who is at once a man of state and a man appointed to guard the religious institution of the time.
A man, like Buddha, who rejects the socially accepted, government-sanctioned godly “practices” and views of the time is bound above all, to leave “the Brahman ritual in deep contempt.” The Brahmans were the priests of the ancient Hindu/Vedic religion, who were responsible for ritualistic sacrifice. They were the first to fight Buddha tooth and nail post-enlightenment.
God has no place in Visakha’s arguments, or the Brahmans’. It’s order that concerns them; mainting the distinction between ranks of this Hindu echelon. It’s about running a tight ship; it is as simple as that.
Those who have not experienced such turmoil that Carus speaks of when he speaks of Buddha––the God-shaped void and the need for answers, or more likely the right questions––or never faced such resistance by the Visakhas of the world may never know how it feels.
For those who do or did, the following may be relatable.
From the play “Buddha: A Drama in Five Acts” by Paul Carus:
Suddhodana, the king [Buddha’s father]: My son Siddhartha [Buddha’s name before enlightenment] truly loves his wife,
And since their wedlock has been blessed by this
Sweet, promising, this hale and healthy child,
His melancholy will give way to joy,
And we reclaim his noble energies
To do good service for our race and state.
New interests and new duties give new courage
And thus this babe will prove his father’s saviour
For he will tie his soul to life again.
Pajapati, the queen [the King’s wife but not Sidharta’s mother]: I fear his grief lies deeper than you think
Suddhodana, the king: What sayest thou, my trusty counselor?
Visakha, the minister of state: This is the last hope which I have for him,
I followed your advise and tried all means
To cure Siddhartha of his pensive mood.
I taught him all that will appeal to man:
The sports of youth, the joy of poetry
And art, the grandeur of our ancient lore,
The pleasures even of wanton sense; but naught
Would satisfy the yearnings of his heart.
Suddhodana, the king: Yet for religion he shows interest: He ponders on the problems of the world.
Visakha, the minister of state: Indeed he ponders on life’s meaning much,
Investigates the origin of things.
But irreligious are his ways of thought.
He shows no reverence for Issara,
And Indra is to him a fairy tale.
He grudgeth to the gods a sacrifice.
And sheddeth tears at immolated lambs.
Oh no! he’s not religious. If he were,
His ills could easily be cured by faith,
By confidence in Issara, the Lord.
Suddhodana, the king: What then is your opinion of the case?
Visakha, the minister of state: Siddhartha is a youth of rarest worth,
And he surpasseth men in every virtue
Except in one. ––He is too independent:
He recognizeth no authority,
Neither of men nor gods.
[More and more impressively]
From the incurable disease of thought.
Suddhodana, the king: Cure thought with thought, teach him philosophy,
Show him the purpose of our holy writ.
Instruct him in the meaning of the Vedas,
Reveal to him their esoteric sense.
Visakha, the minister of state: My lord, I did, but he is critical,
He makes objections and will not believe.
He raises questions which I cannot answer,
And his conclusions are most dangerous.
Pajapati, the queen: It seems to me that you exaggerate;
Siddartha is not dangerous.
He is As gentle as my sister was, his mother,
And almost overkind to ever one.
Visakha, the minister of state: I know, my gracious lady, but even kindness
May harmful be, if it is out of place.
Suddhodana, the king: I see no danger in his gentle nature.
Visakha, the minister of state: But he lacks strength, decision, warlike spirit.
Suddhodana, the king: That cometh with maturer years.
Visakha, the minister of state: I doubt it ––
Your so, my Lord, not only hath no faith In holy writ, neither does he believe
In caste-distinction, and he would upset
The sanctioned order of our institutions.
He would abolish sacrifice and holdeth
The Brahman ritual in deep contempt.
Suddhodana, the king: Your words alarm me.
Visakha, the minister of state: Rightly so; I fear
That he will stir the people to rebellion;
But since a child is born to him, his mind
May turn from dreams to practical affairs.
There are some men who care not for themselves,
Who scorn high caste, position, wealth and honor,
So far as they themselves may be concerned,
But they are anxious for their children’s fortune,
And so Siddhartha soon may change his views.
Suddhodana, the king: Let us be patient for a while yet longer.
Keep everything unpleasant out of sight,
Invite him merry company. Remove
His gloomy cousin Devadatta. He tries
To reach a state of bliss by fasts,
His very play is penance and contrition.
I leave you with this thought. Peace and Amituofo.
Note: According to lore, Buddha lost his mother either in childbirth or when he was a week old, and was raised by his aunt. So the queen in this play is his father’s wife or his aunt, but not this mother.
This is the second post in a series by yours truly meditating on the life of Buddha. The first is right here.