The Buddha-carita of Aśvaghoṣa

Translated by E. B. Cowell

Book III [The Prince's Pertubation]

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1. On a certain day he heard of the forests carpeted with tender grass, with their trees resounding with the kokilas, adorned with lotus-ponds, and which had been all bound up in the cold season.

2. Having heard of the delightful appearance of the city groves beloved by the women, he resolved to go out of doors, like an elephant long shut up in a house.

3. The king, having learned the character of the wish thus expressed by his son, ordered a pleasure-party to be prepared, worthy of his own affection and his son's beauty and youth.

4. He prohibited the encounter of any afflicted common person in the highroad; ‘heaven forbid that the prince with his tender nature should even imagine himself to be distressed.’

5. Then having removed out of the way with the greatest gentleness all those who had mutilated limbs or maimed senses, the decrepit and the sick and all squalid beggars, they made the highway assume its perfect beauty.

6. Along this road thus made beautiful, the fortunate prince with his well-trained attendants came down one day at a proper time from the roof of the palace and went to visit the king by his leave.

7. Then the king, with tears rising to his eyes, having smelt his son's head and long gazed upon him, gave him his permission, saying, ‘Go;’ but in his heart through affection he could not let him depart.

8. He then mounted a golden chariot, adorned with reins bright like flashing lightning, and yoked with four gentle horses, all wearing golden trappings.

9. With a worthy retinue he entered the road which was strewn with heaps of gleaming flowers, with garlands suspended and banners waving, like the moon with its asterism entering the sky.

10. Slowly, slowly he passed along the highway, watched on every side by the citizens, and beshowered by their eyes opened wide with curiosity like blue lotuses.

11. Some praised him for his gentle disposition, others hailed him for his glorious appearance, others eulogised his beauty from his fine countenance and desired for him length of days.

12. Hump-backed men coming out from the great families, and troops of foresters and dwarfs, and women coming out from the meaner houses bowed down like the banners of some procession of the gods.

13. Hearing the news, ‘the prince is going out,’ from the attendants of the female apartments, the women hastened to the roofs of the different mansions, having obtained the leave of their lords.

14. Hindered by the strings of their girdles which had slipped down, with their eyes bewildered as just awakened from sleep, and with their ornaments hastily put on in the stir of the news, and filled with curiosity, they crowded round;

15. Frightening the flocks of birds which lived in the houses, with the noise of their girdles and the jingling of their anklets which resounded on the staircases and roofs of the mansions, and mutually reproaching one another for their hurry.

16. Some of these women, even in their haste as they rushed longing to see, were delayed in their going by the weight of their hips and full bosoms.

17. Another, though well able to go herself, checked her pace and forbore to run, hiding with shame her ornaments hitherto worn only in seclusion, and now too boldly displayed.

18. There they were restlessly swaying about in the windows, crowded together in the mutual press, with their earrings polished by the continual collision and their ornaments all jingling.

19. The lotus-like faces of the women gleamed while they looked out from the windows with their earrings coming into mutual proximity, as if they were real lotuses fastened upon the houses.

20. With the palaces all alive with crowds of damsels, every aperture thrown open in eager curiosity, the magnificent city appeared on every side like heaven with its divine chariots thronged with celestial nymphs.

21. The faces of the beautiful women shone like lotuses wreathed in garlands, while through the narrowness of the windows their earrings were transferred to each other's cheeks.

22. Gazing down upon the prince in the road, the women appeared as if longing to fall to the earth; gazing up to him with upturned faces, the men seemed as if longing to rise to heaven.

23. Beholding the king's son thus radiant in his beauty and glory, those women softly whispered, ‘happy is his wife,’ with pure minds and from no baser feeling.

24. ‘He with the long sturdy arms, who stands in his beauty like the flower-armed god visibly present, will leave his royal pomp and devote himself to religion,’ thus thinking, full of kindly feelings towards him, they all offered reverence.

25. Beholding for the first time that high-road thus crowded with respectful citizens, all dressed in white sedate garments, the prince for a while did feel a little pleasure and thought that it seemed to promise a revival of his youth.

26. But then the gods, dwelling in pure abodes, having beheld that city thus rejoicing like heaven itself, created an old man to walk along on purpose to stir the heart of the king's son.

27. The prince having beheld him thus overcome with decrepitude and different in form from other men, with his gaze intently fixed on him, thus addressed his driver with simple confidence:

28. ‘Who is this man that has come here, O charioteer, with white hair and his hand resting on a staff, his eyes hidden beneath his brows, his limbs bent down and hanging loose, — is this a change produced in him or his natural state or an accident?’

29. Thus addressed, the charioteer revealed to the king's son the secret that should have been kept so carefully, thinking no harm in his simplicity, for those same gods had bewildered his mind:

30. ‘That is old age by which he is broken down, — the ravisher of beauty, the ruin of vigour, the cause of sorrow, the destruction of delights, the bane of memories, the enemy of the senses.

31. ‘He too once drank milk in his childhood, and in course of time he learned to grope on the ground; having step by step become a vigorous youth, he has step by step in the same way reached old age.’

32. Being thus addressed, the prince, starting a little, spoke these words to the charioteer, ‘What! will this evil come to me also?’ and to him again spoke the charioteer:

33. ‘It will come without doubt by the force of time through multitude of years even to my long-lived lord; all the world knows thus that old age will destroy their comeliness and they are content to have it so.’

34. Then he, the great-souled one, who had his mind purified by the impressions of former good actions, who possessed a store of merits accumulated through many preceding aeons, was deeply agitated when he heard of old age, like a bull who has heard the crash of a thunderbolt close by.

35. Drawing a long sigh and shaking his head, and fixing his eyes on that decrepit old man, and looking round on that exultant multitude he then uttered these distressed words:

36. ‘Old age thus strikes down all alike, our memory, comeliness, and valour; and yet the world is not disturbed, even when it sees such a fate visibly impending.

37. ‘Since such is our condition, O charioteer, turn back the horses, — go quickly home; how can I rejoice in the pleasure-garden, when the thoughts arising from old age overpower me?’

38. Then the charioteer at the command of the king's son turned the chariot back, and the prince lost in thought entered even that royal palace as if it were empty.

39. But when he found no happiness even there, as he continually kept reflecting, ‘old age, old age,’ then once more, with the permission of the king, he went out with the same arrangement as before.

40. Then the same deities created another man with his body all afflicted by disease; and on seeing him the son of Śuddhodana addressed the charioteer, having his gaze fixed on the man:

41. ‘Yonder man with a swollen belly, his whole frame shaking as he pants, his arms and shoulders hanging loose, his body all pale and thin, uttering plaintively the word "mother," when he embraces a stranger, — who, pray, is this?’

42. Then his charioteer answered, ‘Gentle Sir, it is a very great affliction called sickness, that has grown up, caused by the inflammation of the (three) humours, which has made even this strong man no longer master of himself.’

43. Then the prince again addressed him, looking upon the man compassionately, ‘Is this evil peculiar to him or are all beings alike threatened by sickness?’

44. Then the charioteer answered, ‘O prince, this evil is common to all; thus pressed round by diseases men run to pleasure, though racked with pain.’

45. Having heard this account, his mind deeply distressed, he trembled like the moon reflected in the waves of water; and full of sorrow he uttered these words in a low voice:

46. ‘Even while they see all this calamity of diseases mankind can yet feel tranquillity; alas for the scattered intelligence of men who can smile when still not free from the terrors of disease!

47. ‘Let the chariot, O charioteer, be turned back from going outside, let it return straight to the king's palace; having heard this alarm of disease, my mind shrinks into itself, repelled from pleasures.’

48. Then having turned back, with all joy departed, he entered his home, absorbed in thought; and having seen him thus return a second time, the king himself entered the city.

49. Having heard the occasion of the prince's return he felt himself as deserted by him, and, although unused to severe punishment, even when displeased, he rebuked him whose duty it was to see that the road was clear.

50. And once more he arranged for his son all kinds of worldly enjoyments to their highest point; imploring in his heart, ‘Would that he might not be able to forsake us, even though rendered unable only through the restlessness of his senses.’

51. But when in the women's apartments his son found no pleasure in the several objects of the senses, sweet sounds and the rest, he gave orders for another progress outside, thinking to himself, ‘It may create a diversion of sentiment.’

52. And in his affection pondering on the condition of his son, never thinking of any ills that might come from his haste, he ordered the best singing-women to be in attendance, as well-skilled in all the soft arts that can please.

53. Then the royal road being specially adorned and guarded, the king once more made the prince go out, having ordered the charioteer and chariot to proceed in a contrary direction (to the previous one).

54. But as the king's son was thus going on his way, the very same deities created a dead man, and only the charioteer and the prince, and none else, beheld him as he was carried dead along the road.

55. Then spoke the prince to the charioteer, ‘Who is this borne by four men, followed by mournful companions, who is bewailed, adorned but no longer breathing?’

56. Then the driver, — having his mind overpowered by the gods who possess pure minds and pure dwellings, — himself knowing the truth, uttered to his lord this truth also which was not to be told:

57. ‘This is some poor man who, bereft of his intellect, senses, vital airs and qualities, lying asleep and unconscious, like mere wood or straw, is abandoned alike by friends and enemies after they have carefully swathed and guarded him.’

58. Having heard these words of the charioteer he was somewhat startled and said to him, ‘Is this an accident peculiar to him alone, or is such the end of all living creatures?’

59. Then the charioteer replied to him, ‘This is the final end of all living creatures; be it a mean man, a man of middle state, or a noble, destruction is fixed to all in this world.’

60. Then the king's son, sedate though he was, as soon as he heard of death, immediately sank down overwhelmed, and pressing the end of the chariotpole with his shoulder spoke with a loud voice,

61. ‘Is this end appointed to all creatures, and yet the world throws off all fear and is infatuated! Hard indeed, I think, must the hearts of men be, who can be self-composed in such a road.

62. ‘Therefore, O charioteer, turn back our chariot, this is no time or place for a pleasure-excursion; how can a rational being, who knows what destruction is, stay heedless here, in the hour of calamity?’

63. Even when the prince thus spoke to him, the charioteer did not turn the chariot back; but at his peremptorily reiterated command he retired to the forest Padmakhaṇḍa.

64. There he beheld that lovely forest like Nandana itself, full of young trees in flower with intoxicated kokilas wandering joyously about, and with its bright lakes gay with lotuses and well-furnished with watering-places.

65. The king's son was perforce carried away to that wood filled with troops of beautiful women, just as if some devotee who had newly taken his vow were carried off, feeling weak to withstand temptation, to the palace of the monarch of Alakā, gay with the dancing of the loveliest heavenly nymphs.

[Such is the third chapter in the great poem Śri Buddhacarita,
called The Prince's Pertubation]