Nine months before Siddhartha’s birth, his mother Queen Mahamaya Devi, who had long been childless, has a strange dream. She dreams being carried forth by the four world deities to the tableland of the Himalayas where the wives of the four guardians welcome her and take her to the lake Mansarovar. They bathe her in [...]


The four omens that inspired Siddhartha’s search for truth

ON THIS THRICE BLESSED DAY OF VESAK, ‘MAY ALL BEINGS BE HAPPY’ - What made the Prince leave his palace pleasures and embark on an unknown journey, in an unknown quest to find an unknown treasure

Nine months before Siddhartha’s birth, his mother Queen Mahamaya Devi, who had long been childless, has a strange dream. She dreams being carried forth by the four world deities to the tableland of the Himalayas where the wives of the four guardians welcome her and take her to the lake Mansarovar. They bathe her in its cool waters and then dress her in robes of exquisite beauty. They deck her with gold ornaments and garland her with heaven scented flowers.

Then through the mist that engulfs the Himalayan plateau, she sees a white silvery elephant of magnificent countenance, approaching her. It walks with measured steps and with noble bearing. It circles her thrice, and, then, with a salutation with its raised trunk, enters the very core of her being. She awakes from her dream and, mystified by what she had just dreamt, shakes her husband, the king, to stir him from his royal sleep; and she relates her dream to him. Mystified as she is by the unknown import of this strange dream, he summons the royal astrologers at the break of morn’s dawn to interpret its import and explain to him, their king, the true significance of the dream.

The royal astrologers’ predict the Queen is destined to give birth to a son who will do his father proud. “He will be,” they proclaim, “a ruler not only of this province, but of the world, an emperor whose empire will last forever.” The Queen, steeped as she is in the knowledge of ancient India, asks them: “But will not death steal the spoils of any empire?”

And, they in turn, give her reply. “Nay, whilst death will indeed rob the accumulation of wealth and power, it is impotent in the face of the eternal. Your son will not rule with arms which are but fleeting but will conquer with his philosophical doctrine which is eternal, one that will outlast empires built on shifting sands.”

King Suddhodana will have none of this rubbish. He flares in rage and says: “What, my son another wandering fakir, babbling stanzas from the Upanishads when he has a kingdom to overlord, defend and administer as any noble Kshatriyan of the warrior caste would be duty bound to do, irrespective of his private predilections?”

“Religion is for the Brahmins,” he declares in an outburst of anger and tells the Brahmin soothsayers. “You can use the monopoly you enjoy having, as you profess to have, sole access to God. But no son of mine is going to be a hermit, a beggar, parroting lines from the Rig Veda in return for a measly bowl of alms. My son is a Kshatriyan, a warrior, born of noble blood, born to rule in the self same way of his ancestors, in the manner his caste dictates and Kshatriyan honour demands.”

“But Your Majesty,” the royal astrologers interrupt to pacify the ire of their king, “there is, however, hope your son will follow the blood line. Two paths lie before your son. One will take him to worldly power. The other will condemn him to the life of an ascetic. But if you can ensure that he does not see the helplessness of the tottering aged, the anguish of the suffering sick, the inertness of inevitable death and the sublime radiance of the unfettered ascetic, then the chances are he will indeed be the Chakravarthi, the emperor of the world.”

The sages are asking the impossible but the king is defiant.
“Leave that to me,” the king replies with confidence, his ire more calmed now with the way out presented to him by the sages, “I will ensure he will see none of these sights you mentioned. From the day he is born, the old, the sick, the dead and the ascetics will be banished from these royal walls. I will ensure that he will not be exposed to those four bad omens. I will see that my son will follow the path of his ancestors,” and he dismisses his royal astrologers with contempt from his sight.
Little does the king know that the path of Siddhartha’s ancestors lie in the way 27 others have trod before. And that though a king can ban, by royal edict, unseemly sights from his royal capital, no royal fiat can exile fate. And that if the omens are barred from visiting the Prince, then Siddhartha will leave his palace walls to visit them.

Siddhartha’s mind is disturbed. He has seen that morning how all life is but heir to inevitable decay and doom. And he realises that he, too, will lose his present vigour and majesty of perpetual youth; and, will in time, end up old and decrepit, perhaps blind and hard of hearing as the old man he had witnessed tottering with a crutch to simply cross the road.

And as he ponders over the event he witnessed that day, he realises again that all life born on earth grow old, that all life forms decay and that youth however so bold, succumb to karma’s sway. That from the womb unto the tomb there’s naught but doom, that all life has a toll to pay.

But even though the seeds of strife now lay siege to storm his heart and his beliefs breach, he is not turned off by what he has seen that day. Instead he decides he must learn more of what mysteries life further hold; find them, not within his palace walls but in the broad acres of life in the open air far beyond the citadel gates. Though his mind is shaken, his curiosity is stirred. And he issues orders to his charioteer to have horse and carriage to adventure again in the light of the rising sun. For the moment, it’s an escape from his boredom. He is fleeing the palace monotony. He little realises that he is merely answering the summons previous births had ordained for him to keep his final tryst with his karmic destiny.

Come morn, the royal prince and the charioteer are off again. They pass through fields and arrive at a small village. It’s market day and the street is full of people. Vendors with their produce giving full throat to advertise their wares and a host of buyers busy haggling madly over the prices demanded. A cacophonic din rends the day’s market air and the hustle and bustle of activity can not only be seen but can also be felt, even if one had passed through the street blindfolded.

Siddhartha is all eyes and ears to the unfolding scene; and imbibes it in full measure for such exhilarating draughts of life, he had never experienced in the quiet regimented halls within his castle walls. He watches in fascination, intoxicated by the spectacle enacted before him, and orders the charioteer to halt so he can gulp more of the scene when a young man, approximately the Prince’s own age, walking the street suddenly drops to the ground and starts to go into spasms with foamy saliva emitting from his mouth.

Siddhartha’s fascination now turns to horror, when he sees the young man’s seizure in the midst of life and robust activity.
“What is that, “he asks his charioteer,” why is that young man on the ground shaking and spouting vomit? Is there nothing we can do to help?”
“No, my prince,” the charioteer calmly but firmly replies, “the people who have gathered around him will do the needful. If we stop here now and the people will recognise you, they will forget the patient and will follow you. And thus for his sake, it’s best we leave as fast possible”.

As the chariot speeds away from the scene, Siddhartha asks the charioteer, “What made him suddenly take ill? He looked a virile youth, perhaps even younger than I. What made him suddenly collapse?”

“Ah, there lies the mystery of life, my lord, “replies the charioteer.” For it’s not only old age that strikes one down but the bloom can be nipped in the bud by the sudden onslaught of sickness. One never knows when or where it will strike. One moment you are walking tall, on top of the world, the next moment you are down and out gasping for life. That’s the way of the world. “

Hearing these words from his humble charioteer, Siddhartha is stricken with silence. And as the chariot makes a hasty return to the city gates, the Prince ponders over the scene he had just witnessed and further realises, the fragile nature of existence.

The fruits that grow on the apple bough
some ripen and then doth fall
But some perish before their hour
when worms decree to call;
No slow decay when ill health’s knife
Stabs one down in the prime of life
and wraps in a purple pall
The sick, the lame, the blind the plagued
All crystallised, life was depraved

Prince Siddhartha, now 29 years old, is in a contemplative mood as he rests on his bed in his royal palace. He has been educated in the Vedas, been trained in the art of warfare and is known for his skills in archery: The classical education of a prince destined to succeed his sire as king. He is also married, married at the age of sixteen to his beautiful cousin, the Princess Yasodhara. And as he turns towards his wife of thirteen years, and sees her sleeping in beauty by his side in marital bliss, he wonders what more can a man want in this earthly life?

Pleasure palaces to live in, royal tanks with blue, red and white lotuses blooming to bathe in; royal gardens to stroll and breathe the scented air of flowers blossoming all around him; the evenings filled with royal banquets with eyes feasted upon the twirling hips and swaying breasts of courtesans as they perform their sensuous dances before the king and his royal court; and the return to the royal chamber and bed to embrace the love that awaits him there — the love of his beautiful wife, Yasodhara. What more, indeed, can a man want in this earthly life?

He ponders tonight in melancholic thought, that blessed as he is with all these riches his royal station has lavished upon him through birth, bequeathed as he is with Yasodhara’s love, love his own loving heart has earned by deed, yes, what more can a man want or need to be happy in this best of all Kapilawastu world?
But yet, something nags him tonight, even as the same thought had troubled him these last few moons. Something’s amiss. He tells himself, “I am delicate, extremely delicate. In my father’s palace three lotus ponds have been made exclusively for me. He has built three palaces for me. One for winter, one for summer and one for me to dwell when the rains set in. Night and day, a white parasol is held over me so that I will not be touched by heat or cold, rain or sun, dust, leaves or even the indiscernible falling dew.”

Siddhartha harbours a troubled mind. In the midst of earthly bliss, he discerns a void. And he determines that night to flout his father’s orders not to leave the city gates and to explore the outer skirts of the city walls and discover whether there is something more to this life than that which he has found within the prison of his palace bars.

Waking early just ere the dawn, he summons his favourite charioteer and orders him to ready horse and chariot to adventure beyond the city gates; and to keep the mission confidential, especially from his sire, the king.

The guards at the gates are hesitant to open it for the prince to pass, for the king has given them strict orders not to let Siddhartha out but at the Prince’s urging, they allow him exit. After all, he is to be their future king. Dare they oppose him?

And, with the gates open, so they ride. Far into the countryside, through farmlands and terraced fields where Siddhartha sees for the first time in his adult life men toiling in their fields and tilling the lands. They ride on, through crowded little villages, through crowded narrow streets. Over narrow makeshift bridges hardly able to bear the weight of the royal chariot. The Prince is overjoyed to see the outer world, to discover the vibrancy of life pulsating in the broad acres of the land. To discover that there was more to life than the staid monotony he had known to exist within the cloistered walls of his kingly palace. This was a revelation and it exhilarates him.
Then suddenly the chariot screeches to a halt. Siddhartha lost in his own world of thoughts, is awoken from his reverie. “What is it?” he asks his charioteer, “Why have we stopped?”

The charioteer points to an old man with a crutch, struggling to cross the road.
‘Who is he?” Siddhartha asks. “And why is he crossing the road so blindly?” Didn’t he see us coming? Didn’t he hear us coming? “
“He is an old man my lord,” the charioteer replies. “Once he was like us. But with age one loses one’s faculties. He can neither see nor hear and he can barely walk. This is the price time inflicts upon us all. One to which each one is heir to. And those who in the prime of life mock the aged do so without realising that they too will end up aged and decrepit.”

Something in the sight of the old man tottering with his crutch and something in what the charioteer said strikes a chord in Siddhartha’s troubled heart. Of course, he has seen old age before. His own sire was old. But he had never realised it. And for the first time he becomes aware that old age awaits all. “That which you are, I once was,” as the old man said to a mocking youth, “and that which I am you will one day be.” The iron law of nature was that. There was no getting away from it. It is tattooed on every foetus born. And it surprises Siddhartha that, until now, he had not realised this simple truth.

The dam indeed was breached that.morn
and doubts did trickle in,
To reveal to him that all life born
contained a curse within;
How hour by hour, life trickled away,
How time’s ravage no force could flay,
not even that of a king;
As he pondered the first truth dawned:
Realised sorrow shadowed the born

Siddhartha’s heart hangs heavy with melancholy. And his once radiant face manifests the degree of turmoil brewing within. Already sorrow seems to have cast its shadow on his countenance. He makes his way to his royal confines to reflect on the mournful day. The day before he’d seen old age, how remorseless time did ravage the beautiful and fair. He had understood then that ageing was a natural process and neither to bliss nor wealth but to decay was all his flesh was heir.

But this morning had been different. As he reminisces over the picture of the young man collapsing to the ground without notice and shaking and foaming saliva from his mouth, he feels even more and more unnerved what the morrow may hold for him. For he had seen how sickness sans delay can dash the dreams of youth and flay the flight of life midair. And Siddhartha realises that, with the Damocles sword overhead arrayed, all life danced on a razor blade.
Isn’t there a way out of this, the Prince ponders and determines to continue his voyage of discovery in the morning.

He wakes before the dawn and after his ablutions proceeds to the royal courtyard to inform his charioteer that he will be in need of his services this morning too. To his surprise, he finds the charioteer waiting for him with horse groomed and carriage spruced.
The Prince steps into the chariot and they proceed to the city gates. No questions are asked by the guards. The gates open and, as the chariot enters the outer field, the charioteer turns round and asks the Prince, “Where to, today, my lord?”

“Take me where the roads lead,” Siddhartha replies. “For I have realised the uncertainty of life. We think we make the decisions. We think we can dictate terms and forge the future in our own fashion. But we are wrong. Some higher being or some other higher force is at work to displace our fond hopes and spoil our dreams. Thus it’s futile for me to say where to go but to say: take me, wherever the road of fate wills to take me. We are nothing but puppets dangling on fate’s strings. “
So they ride through the open countryside where men are tilling the land, through crowded bazaars where goods are sold and bought, pass hundreds of hamlets where children are often seen playing their childish games. And then they come to a park where the charioteer stops the carriage to rest the horse and drink from the stream that flows nearby.

Whilst waiting for the horse to quench its thirst, Siddhartha wistfully stares at the tranquil splendour of the park and finds in its serene beauty, an inner peace. Long time ago, he had been told by his father that he had been born in a park whilst his mother was on her way to her father’s palace for her confinement. Was this the park where he had first seen the light of day, he wonders.

Soon the chariot wheels turn and they ride further and further away from the city. At one point the chariot turns the corner and they come to a clearing. The chariot comes to a halt for there is a procession in front, made of both men and women, with some of the women wailing.
Siddhartha hears the sound and inquires from the charioteer, “What is this? And why are those women wailing?
“It’s a funeral procession, my Lord,” the charioteer says. “They have lost a loved one. Maybe a father, mother, son or daughter who has died. That’s why they are crying.”

As they pass the funeral procession, Siddhartha sees men carrying a body wrapped in a shroud aloft their shoulders.
“Why is he dead,” asks Siddhartha.
“Who can say, my lord,’ the charioteer replies. “It maybe he died of old age, of sickness or perhaps even due to an accident. But whatever the cause, death comes to all, even to kings and princes.”

“And what happens after death?” The Prince asks.
“One is reborn. The cycle goes on and on and on”
“Is there no way out of this endless cycle of birth, death and rebirth?
“No, my lord.”
Siddhartha is distraught. He tells the charioteer, “I have seen enough. Take me home.”

For then came death, the reaper’s scythe
which sans remorse does fall
To mow the old and young alike
enact life’s curtain call.
Birth, decay, suffering and death
Stalk the living each hour by stealth,
the common lot of all:
The shroud that wrapped the dead now showed:
The reaper mowed whate’er one sowed

Siddhartha returns to his palace home and enters his bedroom. He sees his wife Yasodhara asleep, resting heavy with child. The baby’s birth is imminent and is eagerly awaited by not only the royal household led by King Suddhodana but also by the masses living in the land. Already he sees the signs of celebrations taking place in the city to herald the birth of a royal prince, the next in line to the throne after him. The royal astrologers had already determined it would be a boy. Gaiety runs through the royal corridors and anticipation of the baby’s arrival has risen to fever pitch.

But tonight Siddhartha is draped in gloom. Joy incarnate, found in every niche of the palace rooms, finds no room to reside in his heart. Its barred entry. Not even the happy prospect of the imminent birth of his son and heir, can force open the doors. The lock is jammed. And the key is missing, still to be found. But it will not be found tonight.

He ponders over the trilogy of omens he had been fortunate to have seen these last three days. His three sojourns abroad had made him realise that each one born grows old, that the promise of life can be flayed by sickness or even by an accident and that death is the inexorable fate of all. Is this the inheritance, his son will receive at birth? Is it for this that people celebrate the birth of a child? Does none know that sorrow shadows the born?

Now he wonders, having realised the condemned state of all life, whether there is no way out? Is that the reality of life, is there no solution to transcend life’s ordained curse? And he determines to find it. But he hasn’t the foggiest how to do it.
At daybreak Siddhartha is in the chariot again. When the charioteer asks him whether to let the roads lead them on, he says, no, take me to that park we visited yesterday, where we stopped to let the horse quench his thirst.”

They travel in silence. And they arrive at the park. The prince alights from the carriage, walks in the direction of the park, and enters it. He sits under a sal tree and begins to reflect upon the three momentous events he had experienced in these last three days. And then he concentrates his mind on how to overcome the evil three. But answer comes there none. The more he concentrates, the more it eludes him.

But yet he does not give up. Sorrow had held the world to ransom for far too long and this, he realises, is no time to surrender.
He continues to dwell under the tree and ponders over what the trilogy revealed when suddenly a surge of love for man compels him to seek without pause the truths concealed. But is life’s riddle, he wonders, wrapped in lore, does the answer lie beyond faith’s shore to fathom through ordeal? And as he faces the gathering gloom, the rose of hope does suddenly bloom.

For then he sees the vision. A flash of saffron. A sudden movement in the distance alerts him. He focuses his eyes towards the park’s foliage brushed boundaries. He sees a man dressed in saffron robes, the uniform of the ascetic, the wanderer in search of truth. His head is shaved and he is carrying a bowl. And he disappears into the woodlands. But not before giving Siddhartha the answer to his quest to free mankind from eternal woe.

For before him passed a wandering soul
with life’s flag draped full mast
Whose placid presence served console
Siddhartha’s sorrowed heart
The ascetic monk portrayed Truth’s role,
Brought Siddhartha nearer his goal
revealed from whence to start;
The Royal Prince bewitched did watch,
The path ablaze with the pauper’s torch
His quest he knew with rising hopes
Lay in the steps of the one in robes



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