The Life of Buddha/Part Two/12. The Story of Visvantara

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The Life of Buddha by André Ferdinand Herold, translated by Paul C. Blum
12. The Story of Visvantara

12. The Story of Visvantara[edit]

IT was a great distance from Rajagriha to Kapilavastu, and the Master was walking slowly. Udayin decided to go ahead and inform Suddhodana that his son was on his way to see him, for the king would then be patient and would cease to grieve.

Udayin flew through the air, and, in a trice, had arrived at Suddhodana's palace. He found the king in deep despair.

"My lord," said he, "dry your tears. Your son will be in Kapilavastu before long."

"Oh, it is you, Udayin!" exclaimed the king. "I thought that you, too, had forgotten to deliver my message, and I had given up hope of ever seeing my beloved son. But you have come at last, and joyful is the news you bring. I shall weep no more; I shall now patiently await the blessed moment when these eyes shall look again upon my son."

He ordered that Udayin be served a splendid repast.

"I will not eat here, my lord," said Udayin. "Before I touch any food, I must know if my master has been properly served. I shall return to him the way I came."

The king protested.

"It is my wish, Udayin, that you receive your food from me, each day; and it is also my wish that my son receive his food from me, each day of this journey which he has undertaken to please me. Eat, and I shall then give you food to take to the Blessed One."

When Udayin had eaten, he was given a bowl of delicious food to take to the king's son. He tossed the bowl into the air; then he rose from the ground and flew away. The bowl fell at the Buddha's feet, and the Buddha thanked his friend. Each day thereafter, Udayin flew to the palace of King Suddhodana to fetch the Master's food, and the Master was pleased with the zeal his disciple showed in serving him.

He finally arrived at Kapilavastu. To receive him, the Sakyas had assembled in a park bright with flowers. Many of those present were extremely proud, and they thought, "There are some here who are older than Siddhartha! Why should they pay him homage? Let the children, let the young men and young maidens, bow before him; his elders will hold their heads high!"

The Blessed One entered the park. All eyes were dazzled by the brilliant light he diffused. King Suddhodana was deeply moved; he made a few steps in his direction. "My son . . ." he cried. His voice faltered; tears of joy coursed down his cheeks, and he slowly bowed his head.

And when the Sakyas saw the father paying homage to the son, they all humbly prostrated themselves.

A magnificent seat had been prepared for the Master. He sat down. Then the sky opened, and a shower of roses descended on the park. Earth and atmosphere were impregnated with the perfume. The king and all the Sakyas gazed in wonderment. And the Master spoke.

"I have already, in some former existence, seen my family grouped around me and heard them sing my praises as with one voice. At that time King Sanjaya was reigning in the city of Jayatura. His wife's name was Phusati, and they had a son, Visvantara. When he came of age, Visvantara married Madri, a princess of rare beauty. She bore him two children: a son, Jalin, and a daughter, Krishnajina. Visvantara owned a white elephant that had the marvellous power to make the rain fall at will. Now, the distant kingdom of Kalinga was visited by a terrible drought. The grass withered; the trees bore no fruit; men and beasts died of hunger and of thirst. The king of Kalinga heard of Visvantara's elephant and of the strange power it possessed. He sent eight brahmans to Jayatura to get it and return with it to their unfortunate country. The brahmans arrived during a festival. Riding on the elephant, the prince was on his way to the temple, to distribute alms. He saw these envoys of the foreign king. 'What brings you here?' he asked them. 'My lord,' replied the brahmans, 'our kingdom, the kingdom of Kalinga, has been visited by drought and famine. Your elephant can save us, by bringing us the rain; will you part with him?' 'It is little you ask,' said Visvantara. 'You could have asked me for my eyes or my flesh! Yes, take the elephant, and may a refreshing rain fall upon your fields and upon your gardens!' He gave the elephant to the brahmans, and they joyfully returned to Kalinga. But the inhabitants of Jayatura were greatly distressed; they feared a drought in their own country. They complained to King Sanjaya. 'My lord,' said they, 'your son's action was reprehensible. His elephant protected us from famine. What will become of us now, if the sky withholds its rain? Show him no mercy, O king; let Visvantara pay for this folly with his life.' The king wept. He tried to put them off with promises, and at first they would not listen, but they finally relented and asked that the prince be exiled to some remote and rocky desert. The king was obliged to give his consent. 'When my son hears of his exile,' thought Sanjaya, 'he will take it to heart.' But this was not the case. Visvantara simply said, 'I shall leave tomorrow, father, and I shall take none of my treasures with me.' Then he went to look for Madri, his princess. 'Madri,' said he, 'I must leave the city; my father has exiled me to a cruel desert, where it will be hard to find a livelihood. Do not come with me, O beloved; too great are the hardships you will have to endure. You will have to leave the children behind, and they will die of loneliness. Stay here with them; remain on your golden throne; it was I my father exiled, not you.' 'My lord,' replied the princess, 'if you leave me behind I shall kill myself, and the crime will lie at your door.' Visvantara was silent. He gazed at Madri; he embraced her. 'Come,' said he. Madri thanked him, and she added, 'I shall take the children with me; I can not leave them here, to die of loneliness.' The following day, Visvantara had his chariot made ready; he got in with Madri, Jalin and Krishnajina, and as they drove out of the city, King Sanjaya and Queen Phusati wept and sobbed pitifully. The prince, his wife and the children were already far from the city when they saw a brahman approaching. 'Traveller,' said the brahman, 'is this the road to Jayatura?' 'Yes,' replied Visvantara, 'but why are you going to Jayatura?' 'I come from a distant country,' said the brahman. 'I heard that there lived in Jayatura a generous prince named Visvantara. He once owned a marvellous elephant that he gave to the king of Kalinga. He is very charitable, they say. I want to see this kindly man; I want to ask him for a donation. I know that no one has ever appealed to him in vain.' Visvantara said to the brahman, 'I am the man you seek; I am Visvantara, son of King Sanjaya. Because I gave my elephant to the king of Kalinga, my father sent me into exile. What can I give you, O brahman?' When he heard these words, the brahman complained bitterly. He said in a pitiful voice: 'So they deceived me! I left my home, full of hope, and, disappointed, I must now return!' Visvantara interrupted him. 'Console yourself, brahman. Not in vain have you appealed to Prince Visvantara.' He unharnessed the horses and gave them to him. The brahman thanked his benefactor and left. Visvantara then continued on his way. He was now drawing the chariot himself. Presently, he saw another brahman approaching. He was a little, frail old man, with white hair and yellow teeth. 'Traveller,' he said to the prince, 'is this the road to Jayatura?' 'Yes,' replied the prince, 'but why are you going to Jayatura?' 'The king of that city has a son, Prince Visvantara,' said the brahman. 'Visvantara, according to the stories I have heard, is extremely charitable; he saved the kingdom of Kalinga from famine, and whatever is asked of him is never refused. I shall go to Visvantara, and I know he will not deny my request.' 'If you go to Jayatura,' said the prince, 'you will not see Visvantara; his father has exiled him to the desert.' 'Woe is me!' cried the brahman. 'Who now will help me in my feeble old age? All hope has fled, and I shall return to my home as poor as when I left!' He wept. 'Do not weep,' said Visvantara; 'I am the man you seek. You have not met me in vain. Madri, Jalin, Krishnajina, get down from the chariot! It is no longer mine: I have given it to this old man.' The brahman was overjoyed. The four exiles continued on their way. They were now on foot, and when the children were tired, Visvantara would carry Jalin, and Madri Krishnajina. A few days later, they saw a third brahman approaching. He was going to Jayatura to see Prince Visvantara and ask him for alms. The prince stripped himself of his clothes, in order that the brahman should not leave him empty-handed. Then he walked on. And a fourth brahman approached. His skin was dark, his glance fierce and imperious. 'Tell me,' he said in a harsh voice, 'is this the road to Jayatura?' 'Yes,' replied the prince, 'and what takes you to Jayatura?' The brahman wanted to see Visvantara, who was sure to give him a magnificent present. When he learned that he was in the presence of the unhappy, exiled prince, he did not weep; in an angry voice, he said, it was a hard road 1 travelled, and it must not have been in vain. You have undoubtedly brought along some valuable jewelry which you can give me.' Madri was wearing a necklace of gold. Visvantara asked her for it; she smiled and handed it to him, and the brahman took the necklace and went away. Visvantara, Madri, Jalin and Krishnajina kept on walking. They crossed raging torrents; they ascended ravines covered with underbrush; they travelled over rocky plains seared by a merciless sun. Madri's feet were cut by the stones; Visvantara's heels were worn to the bone, and wherever they passed, they left a trail of blood. One day, Visvantara, who was walking ahead, heard some one sobbing. He turned around and saw Madri sitting on the ground, lamenting her fate. He was seized with anguish, and he said, 'I begged and pleaded with you, my beloved, not to follow me into exile, but you would not listen. Come, stand up; however great our weariness, the children must not suffer for it; we must not mind our wounds.' Madri saw that his feet were bleeding, and she cried, 'Oh, how much greater is your suffering than mine! I shall control my grief.' She tried to stand up, but her limbs gave way, and once again she burst into tears. 'All my strength has left me,' she sobbed; 'even the love I bear my husband and my children is not enough to sustain my courage. I shall die of hunger and of thirst in this dreadful land; my children will die, and perhaps my well-beloved.' From the sky, Indra had been watching Visvantara and his family. He was touched by Madri's grief, and he decided to come down to earth. He assumed the form of a pleasant old man, and, astride a swift horse, he advanced to meet the prince. He accosted Visvantara and addressed him in an engaging manner. 'From your appearance it is evident, my lord, that you have suffered great hardship. There is a city not far from here. I shall show you the way. You and your family must come to my home and stay as long as you please.' The old man was smiling. He urged the four exiles to get on his horse, and as Visvantara seemed to hesitate, he said, 'The horse is powerful, and you are not heavy. As for me, I shall walk; it will not tire me, for we have not far to go.' Visvantara was astonished to learn that a city had been built in this cruel desert; besides, he had never heard of the city. But the old man's voice was so pleasant that he decided to follow him, and Madri was so weary that he accepted the invitation to ride with her and the children. They had gone about three hundred paces when a magnificent city appeared before them. It was immense. A wide river flowed through it, and there were many beautiful gardens and orchards full of ripe fruit. The old man led his guests to the gates of a shining palace. 'Here is my home,' said he; 'here, if you wish, you may dwell the rest of your days. Please enter.' In the great hall, Visvantara and Madri sat on thrones of gold; at their feet, the children played on heavy rugs, and the old man presented them with many beautiful robes. Exquisite food was then served to them, and they appeased their hunger. But Visvantara was lost in thought. Suddenly, he rose from his seat, and he said to the old man, 'My lord, I am disobeying my father's commands. He banished me from Jayatura, where he is king, and he ordered me to spend the rest of my life in the desert. I must not enjoy these comforts, for they were forbidden. My lord, permit me to leave your house.' The old man tried to dissuade him, but it was futile; and followed by Madri and the children, Visvantara left the city. Outside the gates, he turned around to take a last look, but the city had disappeared; where it had once stood, there was now only burning sand. And Visvantara was happy that he had not remained longer. He finally came to a mountain, overrun by an immense forest, and there he found a hut that a hermit had once occupied. Out of leaves, he made a couch for himself and his family, and there, at last, undisturbed by remorse, he found rest and peace. Every day, Madri went into the forest to gather wild fruit; it was the only food they had, and they drank the water of a clear, bubbling spring they had discovered near the hut. For seven months they saw no one; then, one day, a brahman passed by. Madri was away, gathering fruit, and Visvantara was watching the children while they played in front of the hut. The brahman stopped and observed them carefully. 'Friend,' he said to the father, 'will you give me your children?' Visvantara was so taken aback that he was unable to reply. He glanced anxiously at the brahman and finally questioned him. 'Yes, will you give me your children? I have a wife, much younger than myself. She is rather a haughty woman. She is tired of doing household work, and she asked me to find two children who could be her slaves. Why not give me yours? You seem to be very poor; it must be hard for you to feed them. In my home they will have plenty to eat, and I shall try to have my wife treat them as kindly as possible.' Visvantara thought, 'What a painful sacrifice I am being asked to make. What shall I do? In spite of what the brahman says, my children will be very unhappy in his home; his wife is cruel, she will beat them and will give them only scraps of food. But since he has asked me for them, have I the right to refuse?' He thought a while longer, then he finally said, 'Take the children with you, brahman; let them be your wife's slaves.' And Jalin and Krishnajina, their faces wet with tears, went away with the brahman. Madri, in the meanwhile, had been gathering pomegranates, but each time she picked one off the tree, it slipped out of her hand. This frightened her, and she hurried back to the hut. She missed the children, and turning to her husband she asked, 'Where are the children?' Visvantara was sobbing. 'Where are the children?' Still no reply. She repeated the question a third time. 'Where are the children?' And she added, 'Answer, answer quickly. Your silence is killing me.' Visvantara spoke; in a pitiful voice, he said, 'A brahman came; he wanted the children for slaves!' 'And you gave them to him!' cried Madri. 'Could I refuse?' Madri swooned; she was unconscious a long time. When she recovered, her lamentations were pitiful. She cried, 'Oh, my children, you who would rouse me from my slumber at night; you who would be given the choicest fruit I had gathered, a wicked man has taken you away! I can see him forcing you to run, you who have just learned to walk. In his home, you will go hungry; you will be brutally beaten. You will be working in the house of a stranger. You will furtively watch the roads, but neither father nor mother will you ever see again. And your lips will be parched; your feet will be hurt by the sharp stones; the sun will burn your cheeks. Oh, my children, we were always able to spare you the hardships we had to endure. We carried you across the fearful desert; you did not suffer then, but now, what will you suffer?' She was still weeping when another brahman came through the forest. He was an old man and walked with great difficulty. He stared at the princess with watery eyes, then he addressed Prince Visvantara. 'My lord, as you see, I am old and feeble. I have no one at home to help me when I get up in the morning or when I go to bed at night; I have neither son nor daughter to look after me. Now, this woman is young; she seems quite strong. Let me take her for a servant. She will help me to get up; she will put me to bed; she will watch over me while I sleep. Give me this woman, my lord; you will be doing a good deed, a saintly deed, that will be praised throughout the world.' Visvantara had listened attentively; he was pensive. He looked at Madri. 'Beloved, you heard what the brahman said; what would you answer?' She replied, 'Since you have given away our children: Jalin, the best-beloved, and darling Krishnajina, you can give me to this brahman; I shall not complain.' Visvantara took Madri's hand and placed it in the brahman's hand. He felt no remorse; he was not even weeping. The brahman received the woman; he thanked the prince and said, 'May you know great glory, Visvantara; may you become the Buddha some day!' He started away, but turned, suddenly, and came back to the hut. And he said, 'I shall look for a servant in some other land; I shall leave this woman here, to remain with the Gods of the mountain, and the Goddesses of the forest and of the spring; and, hereafter, you must give her to no one.' While the old brahman was speaking, his appearance gradually changed; he became very beautiful; his face was gloriously radiant. Visvantara and Madri recognized Indra. They fell at his feet and worshipped him; and the God said to them, 'Each one of you may ask one favor of me, and it shall be granted.' Visvantara said, 'Oh, that I might become the Buddha some day and bring deliverance to those who are born and who die in the mountains!' Indra replied, 'Glory be to you who, one day, shall be the Buddha!' Madri spoke next. 'My lord, grant me this favor: may the brahman, to whom my children were given, decide to sell them instead of keeping them in his home, may he find a buyer only in Jayatura, and may that buyer be Sanjaya himself.' Indra replied, 'So be it!' As he ascended to the sky, Madri murmured, 'Oh, that King Sanjaya might forgive his son!' And she heard the God say, 'So be it!' In the meantime, Jalin and Krishnajina had arrived at their new home. The brahman's wife was very pleased with these two young slaves, and she lost no time putting them to work. She delighted in giving orders, and the children had to obey her slightest whim. At first, they did their best to carry out her wishes, but she was such an exacting mistress that they soon lost all desire to please, and many were the reprimands and the blows they received. The more harshly, they were treated, the more discouraged they became, and the woman finally said to the brahman, 'I can do nothing with these children. Sell them and bring me other slaves, slaves who know how to work and obey.' The brahman took the children and went from city to city, trying to sell them, but no one would buy: the price was too high. He finally arrived in Jayatura. One of the king's counsellors passed them in the street; he stared at the children, at their emaciated bodies and sun-burned faces, and, suddenly, he recognized them by their eyes. He stopped the brahman and asked, 'Where did you get these children?' 'I got them in a mountain forest, my lord,' replied the brahman. 'They were given to me for slaves; they were unruly, and I am now trying to sell them.' The king's counsellor became anxious; turning to the children, he asked, 'Does this servitude mean that your father is dead?' 'No,' replied Jalin, 'both our parents are alive, but father gave us to this brahman.' The counsellor ran to the palace of the king. 'My lord,' he cried, 'Visvantara has given your grandchildren, Jalin and Krishnajina, to a brahman. They are his slaves. He is dissatisfied with their service, and is taking them from city to city, in order to sell them!' King Sanjaya ordered the brahman and the children brought before him at once. They were soon found, and when the king saw the misery that had come to these children of his race, he wept bitter tears. Jalin addressed him in a pleading voice. 'Buy us, my lord, for We are unhappy in the Brahman's home, and we want to live with you, who love us. But do not take us by force; our father gave us to the brahman, and from this sacrifice he expects to receive great blessings, for himself and for all creatures.' 'What price do you want for these children?' the king asked the brahman. 'You may have them for a thousand head of cattle,' replied the brahman. 'Very well.' The king turned to his counsellor and said, 'You who will now rank next to me in my kingdom, give this brahman a thousand head of cattle, and pay him also a thousand measures of gold.' Then the king, accompanied by Jalin and Krishnajina, went to Queen Phusati. At the sight of her grandchildren, she laughed and wept for joy; she dressed them in costly clothes, and she gave them rings and necklaces to wear. Then she asked them about their father and mother. 'They live in a rude hut, in a forest, on the slope of a mountain,' said Jalin. 'They have given away all their possessions. They live on fruit and water, and their only companions are the wild beasts of the forest.' 'Oh, my lord' cried Phusati, 'will you not recall your son from exile?' King Sanjaya sent a messenger to Prince Visvantara; he pardoned him, and ordered him to return to Jayatura. When the prince drew near the city, he saw his father, his mother and his children advancing to greet him. They were accompanied by a great crowd of people who had heard of Visvantara's sufferings and of his virtue, and who now forgave him and admired him. And the king said to the prince, 'Dear son, I have done you a grave injustice; know my remorse. Be kind to me: forget my blunder; and be kind to the inhabitants of the city: forget that they ever wronged you. Never again will your acts of charity give us offense.' Visvantara smiled and embraced his father, while Madri fondled Jalin and Krishnajina, and Phusati wept for joy. And when the prince passed through the gates of the city, he was acclaimed as with one voice. Now, Visvantara was I, O Sakyas! You acclaimed me as they once acclaimed him. Walk in the path that leads to deliverance."

The Blessed One was silent. The Sakyas had listened attentively; they now bowed before him and withdrew. However, not one of them had thought of offering him his meal on the morrow.