Story of the Buddha - Edith Holland

The Great Renunciation

In the last chapter you heard of the Prince's marriage to Yasodhara, and of the warlike games in which he overcame all his opponents, and won back the good opinion of the Sakya lords. Of Siddhattha's life during the ten years following these events we know nothing—the old stories are silent—until at the age of twenty-nine we find him still living in the midst of all the luxury with which his father had thought to bind his affections to earthly glories. For Suddhodana still fondly hoped that his son might become one of the greatest rulers the world had ever seen. "If he does not leave his home in twelve years, he will become king of the whole earth"—so had a wise man spoken, and the time was nearly passed.

We cannot doubt that during these ten years Siddhattha had thought deeply over many things. The Indians have very inquiring minds and wonderful imaginations, and the great questions of religion have always been discussed by their learned men. Perhaps the idea that he was born to help the world had already dawned on Siddhattha's mind, though he might not understand how he was to do this. From his earliest years he had shown a tender compassion toward all living beings, whether men or animals, but of real suffering and misery the Prince as yet knew nothing. So well had the King watched over his son that Siddhattha had never seen any sad or terrible sight, had never heard anything of sorrow, sickness, and death. When he drove through the city in his chariot he saw only the people who looked happy and contented, for the maimed, the sick, the blind, were commanded to remain hidden from his sight.

You will wonder why it was that Suddhodana was filled with anxiety lest his son should see anything that might distress his mind. It was because it had once been prophesied that the Prince would not leave his hone until he had seen four things which would so impress him with the sadness of our mortal life that he would renounce the world. "If he does not see these things," the King argued, "he will not think of going into homelessness, and so will become the greatest monarch the world has ever seen."

At some distance from the palace were the beautiful gardens to which Siddhattha sometimes drove in his chariot. Trees covered with sweet-scented blossoms made a pleasant shade during the noonday heat, and various kinds of lovely lotus flowers bloomed round the edge of a crystal lake, in which the Prince bathed on summer evenings. One day Siddhattha, wishing to go to the gardens, called Channa, his faithful charioteer, and told him to make ready his chariot, for he would drive through the city to the pleasure grounds. The Prince mounted his gilded chariot, drawn by four milk-white horses covered with trappings of gold. As he passed through the streets the people crowded to see him, and bowed down before him, for they all loved him for his beauty and gentle manners. And Siddhattha looked graciously at his people, and was glad to see them look so happy.

Suddenly into the middle of the road, just in front of the Prince's chariot, tottered an old man. His body was bent with age, and he leaned upon a staff, for his legs were so weak and shrunken that he could scarcely stand. The few hairs on the old man's head were white, his eyes were dim and bleared, and he stretched out a shriveled hand, begging for alms.

Siddhattha had never seen so pitiful a sight, and was quite overcome. Turning to Channa, he said: "Why is this man so different from other men? what thing has so changed him that even his hair is of a different colour to that of ordinary men? or has he always been thus?" Channa, whose answer was inspired by the angels, replied: "Prince, this is old age; this man has lived many years. All men become like him if they live long enough."

Siddhattha ordered Channa to drive back to the palace. He was in no mood to enjoy the delights of the pleasure grounds, and became silent and thoughtful. He could not forget the sight of the helpless old man, and felt as though the sun were darkened and all the beauties of earth had faded away. When he arrived at the palace Suddhodana asked the attendants why the Prince had so soon returned from his drive. When he heard that his son had seen an old man—the first of the four omens—he was filled with dismay. Hoping to distract Siddhattha's mind and make him forget his sadness the King ordered the beautiful dancing girls to perform their most graceful dances and sing their sweetest songs before the Prince; and guards were posted round the city, at the four points of the compass, with strict orders to stop the Prince if he should try to make his escape.



By degrees the vision of the old man faded somewhat from Siddhattha's mind, as the recollection of anything sad or disagreeable' is apt to do as time passes. So one day he ordered his chariot, and took the way to the gardens. But he had not gone far when he saw a man lying by the roadside who seemed' to be suffering great pain; his body was swollen and discoloured, and he lay groaning aloud in his agony, being too weak to raise' himself from the ground. Siddhattha, moved with compassion, sprang from his chariot to' see how he could help the poor man. Calling to Channa he exclaimed: "What has come': to this man that he cannot stand? How is it: that he has lost the use of all his powers, and why is he so distressed?" Channa replied: "This is sickness; from day to day we cannot tell if we shall be struck down by disease and? be even as this man." And the Prince returned to the palace as before, for he felt that all pleasures were vain when such deep sadness shadowed the world.

Again, after a while, the Prince drove out in his chariot, and this time he saw some men carrying a still and lifeless form on their shoulders; women with their hair all disordered followed them, wailing aloud and weeping bitterly. Siddhattha gazed at them in awe and wonder. "What are these men doing?" he asked Channa, "and what, is that still shape they are carrying?" Channa replied: "O Prince, all men will be like that still shape when life shall have passed away; that which you see is Death." And the Prince returned to the palace very sad and thoughtful; one by one the glories of earth seemed to be fading away, and happiness was but a dream—a passing vision—scarce seen before it vanished.

The King was now in despair, all his care and watchfulness had been of no avail, and Siddhattha had beheld three of the four omens which it had been prophesied he would see before renouncing the world. There remained but one more, and Suddhodana felt he was undone if he could not prevent his son seeing the last.

Fearing that Siddhattha might try to escape during the night, the King had the guards increased at every point. He himself watched the eastern gate of the city, while his three brothers, each with a numerous guard, posted themselves at the northern, southern, and western gates. A detachment of troops under the King's nephew, Mahanama, was stationed in the centre of the city, and patrolled the streets all night.

Yet another day the Prince drove out in his chariot attended by Channa, and when on his way to the gardens he noticed a man quite unlike anyone he had ever seen before. He wore plain clothes of a dull orange colour, and his hair and beard were shaved; he carried a bowl in his hand, and went from house to house begging for scraps of food. Siddhattha was so struck by the beggar's peaceful and happy expression that he asked Channa about him. Channa, whose answers to the Prince's inquiries had always been inspired by the angels, replied "The man that you see, O Prince, is a good and righteous man who has forsaken the world, and, having given up all he had, is obliged to beg his food from day to day."

Siddhattha stopped and spoke to the man, and suddenly all his doubts and difficulties cleared away and what he ought to do became plain to him. He thought to himself, "I will do as this man has done; I will give tip everything I possess and go into homelessness. So shall I find peace of mind and learn the wisdom which shall teach mankind how to overcome the miseries of mortal life." So resolved, Siddhattha drove on to the gardens, feeling a peace he had not known for many days. He spent the day enjoying the beauties of the pleasure grounds, and toward evening bathed in the lake. After this he lay resting on a large flat stone, while his attendants brought perfumes and ointments and magnificent robes of various colours. The Prince allowed himself to be adorned with great splendour, and his turban, which was wound round his head in countless folds, was fastened with glittering jewels. "This is the last time," he thought, "that I shall wear these robes of state."

Just as Siddhattha was ready to mount his chariot, a messenger arrived with the news that a son had been born to the Prince's wife, Yasodhara. Siddhattha became thoughtful, and said: "I shall find it hard to break this new tie—it is an impediment." His meaning was that the birth of his child would make it all the harder for him to leave his home and those he loved. When Suddhodana heard, what his son had said on receiving the news, he called his grandson 'Rahula,' which means 'Impediment.'

On his return to the city the Prince found all rejoicing over the glad news of the birth of a successor to the throne, for Rahula was the King's only grandson. Hailing him with shouts of joy, the people followed the Prince's chariot, wondering the while at his glorious appearance. There was a young girl, Siddhattha's cousin, who watched the procession from her house-top, and sang a pretty verse to greet him, saying how blessed were the mother, father, and wife of so glorious a Prince. Siddhattha thought, "Blessed is he who overcomes all troubles of the mind, for such a one is the blessing of peace," and he sent the girl a pearl necklace as thanks for her pretty song.

That night the sound of music and sweet songs floated through the palace halls, and dancing girls, beautiful as heavenly beings, moved gracefully to and fro, their anklets jingling as they moved, while a hundred lamps shed a light as of fairyland upon the scene. But Siddhattha, wearied with all he had gone through, heeded none of these things, and fell asleep. The musicians and the dancers, waiting till the Prince should wake, at last fell asleep too.

At midnight Siddhattha awoke; le rose, and stepping softly to the door of the chamber called in a low voice, "Channa." Channa, who was sleeping on the threshold, answered, "My lord, here am I." "Go," said the Prince, "and saddle me a horse; to-night I will leave my home!" And Channa obeyed his master's orders. Siddhattha now felt a great longing to hold his child in his arms before he went away, and going softly to the entrance of Yasodhara's room, he looked in. By the light of a dim lamp he could see his wife sleeping on a bed of jessamine flowers, while her hand rested on the babe's head. And Siddhattha thought, "If I move her hand I shall wake her, and then she will not let me go." So he dared not touch his child, but stood and watched the two for some time, then, mastering himself with a great effort, he turned and went away.

Out into the white moonlight Siddhattha stepped—into the palace court, where Channa was waiting for him with his favourite horse Khantaka. It was the 1st of July; the moon t was full, and shone with so white a light you might have thought the snows of Himalaya covered the land. It was unusually still, there was no sound but the croaking of the frogs, by the river bank. The Prince sprang on to Khantaka's back, and Channa caught hold of the horse's tail and followed his master. They passed through the narrow streets of the city, by day filled with clamour and bustle, now silent and deserted. None heard the tramp of Khantaka's hoofs, for the devas, scattered flowers in his path so that no sound might be heard; none knew that Prince Siddhattha was riding forth from his royal home into homelessness.



As he neared the city gates a dark shadow appeared in the moonlit sky. This was Mara the Tempter, the Spirit of Evil, who sought to turn the future Buddha from his course. "Stay, my lord," he cried, "go not hence and in seven days I will give you all the kingdoms of the earth, and you shall rule over them." Siddhattha answered: "I know well that I might possess the kingdoms of the earth, but I am not seeking earthly greatness. I will strive to become a Buddha, and so gladden the heart of the whole world." Mara could not turn him from his purpose, but he followed Siddhattha closely as a shadow, watching his opportunity; for he thought, "Directly an angry passion or an evil desire shall arise in his mind, it will be easy to overcome him."

Now the gates of the city were so massive that it took many men to move them, but when Siddhattha arrived at the eastern gate he found it open, for the angels, rejoicing over the future Buddha, made his flight easy. And they sent a heavy sleep on all the men of the guard, so the Prince and Channa passed quietly out into the country.

They travelled far that night, and when the moon had set and the eastern sky gleamed golden with the light of day, they had reached the banks of the river Anoma, beyond the land of Koli. On the sandy beach the Prince stopped his horse and dismounted. Taking off his royal ornaments he gave them to Channa, and bade him return to Kapilavatthu. Though Channa begged hard that he might stay with his master and serve him, the Prince would not allow it. "You must go back," he said, "and tell my father and my family what has become of me." Siddhattha now drew his sword and himself cut off his long hair and his beard; he then exchanged clothes with a, poor man who happened to pass by, as he thought his dress of fine Benares muslin not fit for a beggar.

Thus was accomplished the 'Great Renunciation'—the renouncing, or giving up, of home, kingdom, riches, wife and child.

And Channa returned to the city weeping and wailing, having left his royal master standing by the river-side in the clothes of a beggar.