The Relative Sacrifice
In the lateness of night, amid a palace of scattered sleeping forms, the Prince Siddhartha sits awake and restless. His life upended by recent events, he recognizes that a moment of decision has arrived. Taking leave of his throne, he wades through slumbering servant girls, along hallways dappled with lamplight, to the bedchamber of his wife and son. Pausing at the threshold, his eyes linger over the mother and child, dreaming together on a couch strewn with jasmine flowers. Silently, he turns from his family and leaves his princely life behind forever.
In the biography of the Buddha, this moment of renunciation creates an unmistakable division between his known past and the ambiguous future; between a comfortable existence of acceptance and the challenging life of quest; between a kingdom of relative notions and the realm of absolute knowledge. It also raises questions of character and intention. Was Siddhartha’s rejection of wife, child and empire a selfish reaction, or a selfless endeavor?
Certainly, from a modern Western perspective, it is difficult to view Siddhartha's actions with ready sympathy. In our time and culture, though we prize wisdom and admire the seeker of knowledge, we generally consider a man's responsibility to family and country as paramount. We can come to terms with a man who surrenders one for the other, such as a father who sacrifices family time in order to serve his nation, or as when a king abdicates his throne for the sake of love. But to walk away from both is usually regarded as lowly cowardice, except in a rare occasion when we perceive the motive of a “higher calling”, such as one that serves all humanity.
In Siddhartha’s own time and culture, these ideals were likely similar. Most people struggled along for the survival of their families, while government was the domain of a small number of royals. A man was generally expected to fulfill his role in his respective group. But into this dichotomy arose a new group known as Brahmin priests, the guardians and interpreters of the sacred texts that became the foundation for Hinduism. The Brahmins encouraged the class system, and placed themselves at the top tier. Princes and commoners alike were expected to sacrifice a share of their worldly goods to the priests, making the priestly caste extremely wealthy and powerful.
In reaction to this development, a number of religious sects arose, many of them nonconformist. The period was also distinguished by the appearance of "samanas" or wandering ascetics who were united in their opposition to the Brahmin priests, objecting to the Brahmin claims to cultural superiority, and their practice of ritual sacrifice. Siddhartha’s inspiration to “retire from the world” undoubtedly came directly from exposure to a samana. As the historian Uma Chakravarti writes, "The milieu of the wandering almsmen was the starting point from which Buddhism's evolution commenced" (54). Initially setting out upon the samana path, Siddhartha renounced his family and took up a life of extreme asceticism. To embark on a journey that rejected established, oppressive power would have been considered a brave deed for an ordinary man. For a prince, it was nothing less than heroic.
It is heroism that infuses the entire life story of the Buddha, beginning with his immaculate conception. As it is told in ancient accounts of the Buddha, a white elephant enters the womb of his mother, Queen Maya. When her time is due, the Queen ventures into a secluded garden to deliver her child beneath flowering trees. The radiant baby immediately declares that he has been born for supreme knowledge, and that this will be his final incarnation. At the same time, a prophetic sage visits the majestic household and tells the royal parents that "thy son has been born for the sake of supreme knowledge" (Stryk 18) and "having attained the highest truth by strenuous efforts, he will shine forth as a son of knowledge to destroy the darkness of illusion in the world" (Stryk 19). The King, disturbed by this prediction, determines to thwart it by distracting his son with a life of wealth and pleasure.
For many years, the King’s diversions are successful. Siddhartha is raised within a refuge of opulence and amusement. The King arranges marriage with a beautiful princess, and soon Siddhartha has a son of his own. It would seem that the King’s plan has succeeded – Siddhartha, like his newborn child, knows nothing of the world beyond the palace walls. He views his destiny as an endless life of good fortune.
But a wedge is driven into Siddhartha’s consciousness when he dares to venture beyond the palace. Setting out with his charioteer, he rides through a nearby park where he encounters three disturbing sights: in the forms of other human beings, the Prince is exposed to specters of age, disease and death. A curtain is lifted as the implications of these visions shatter Siddhartha’s psyche: pleasure is temporary, life itself is finite, he – like his wife and child – are all going to die one day. But a fourth specter he encounters, in the form of a monk, offers hope, and Siddhartha realizes that there might be some absolute knowledge, some eternal truth that could bind him forever with the rest of creation, including his wife and child. For any man who loves his family, nothing in the world could match the value or importance of discovering this truth.
And so Siddhartha decides to retire from the world and seek this most vital knowledge. Taking leave of his throne and family, he mounts his horse and flees the city, one of his loyal servants clinging to the horse’s tail. As they approach the edge of the metropolis, the massive gates open miraculously, and the future Buddha casts away with indifference the sovereignty his father has secured for him. It is only by leaving behind his established self and the world he knows that he is able to embark into the unknown, free for becoming.
Now Siddhartha undergoes a hero’s initiation. Outside the city, the future Buddha dismisses his horse and servant, cuts his hair, takes on the garments of a monk and begins the long expedition toward enlightenment. Though this journey is marked by external events, Siddhartha’s real passage is inward, beneath the kernel of the human spirit, to a place where all creation’s innate wisdom lies. On his way to this knowledge, he surmounts extreme impediments and overcomes powerful temptations, starving himself to the very point of death, and rebuking the plagues of the satanic figure of Mara. Having defeated the mortality that these threats represent, Siddhartha enters into the first of three "watches of the night," each one a deeper penetration through the veil of cosmic chaos, to the revelation of Four Noble Truths. Siddhartha has not sacrificed his relatives at all. Instead, he has sacrificed his relative consciousness, the source of his suffering and fear of death. When this sacrifice is fulfilled, just at the break of day (as if the universe itself has emerged resurrected), the perfectly enlightened Buddha is born.
Initially, the Buddha doubts his ability to deliver the wisdom of the Four Noble Truths to others, concerned that the earthly eyes of mankind will be blind to spiritual reality. But the god Brahma, the very creator of the universe, descends from the heavens to implore the Buddha to teach. And so the Buddha returns to his former world, to instruct those who are ready for his message. His own son is ordained as a monk in the Buddha’s teachings. At the end of his life, the Buddha asks his followers three times if they have any final questions for him. They respond with silence. Seeing that they understand his lessons, he takes leave of the earthly realm.
The professor Peter Harvey tells us that "Buddhist tradition sees [the Buddha’s] leaving of his family as done for the benefit of all beings" (18) – by surrendering the relative, mortal life of husband and father, the Buddha victoriously returned with absolute, eternal life for everyone. For 40 years, the Buddha served as a living beacon on the path to understanding, and, thousands of years after his death, his story continues to show mankind the way, one human life at a time. One man may feel compelled to emulate the details of Buddha’s adventure, renouncing the world and adopting an ascetic lifestyle; another may simply recognize in the Buddha’s story the essence of truth that helps him along his own unique path. In fact, we do not need to take the outer journey, because the Buddha has already done it for us. But we must take the inner journey. The Buddha demonstrated for us the heroic adventure of understanding reality, but it is in taking that adventure for ourselves that we discover our unity with the Buddha, his wife and child, and the rest of creation.
Chakravarti, Uma. The Social Dimensions of Early Buddhism. New Delhi: Munshiram
Manoharlal Publishers, 1996.
Harvey, Peter. An Introduction to Buddhism. Cambridge: University Press, 1990.
Stryk, Lucien, ed. World of the Buddha. New York: Grove Press, 1968.