The Buddha-carita of Aśvaghoṣa

Translated by E. B. Cowell

Book V [Flight]

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1. He, the son of the Śākya king, even though thus tempted by the objects of sense which infatuate others, yielded not to pleasure and felt not delight, like a lion deeply pierced in his heart by a poisoned arrow.

2. Then one day accompanied by some worthy sons of his father's ministers, friends full of varied converse, — with a desire to see the glades of the forest and longing for peace, he went out with the king's permission.

3. Having mounted his good horse Kaṁthaka, decked with bells and bridle-bit of new gold, with beautiful golden harness and the chowrie waving, he went forth like the moon mounted on a comet.

4. Lured by love of the wood and longing for the beauties of the ground, he went to a spot near at hand on the forest-outskirts; and there he saw a piece of land being ploughed, with the path of the plough broken like waves on the water.

5. Having beheld the ground in this condition, with its young grass scattered and torn by the plough, and covered with the eggs and young of little insects which were killed, he was filled with deep sorrow as for the slaughter of his own kindred.

6. And beholding the men as they were ploughing, their complexions spoiled by the dust, the sun's rays, and the wind, and their cattle bewildered with the burden of drawing, the most noble one felt extreme compassion.

7. Having alighted from the back of his horse, he went over the ground slowly, overcome with sorrow, — pondering the birth and destruction of the world, he, grieved, exclaimed, ‘this is indeed pitiable.’

8. Then desiring to become perfectly lonely in his thoughts, having stopped those friends who were following him, he went to the root of a rose-apple in a solitary spot, which had its beautiful leaves all tremulous (in the wind).

9. There he sat down on the ground covered with leaves, and with its young grass bright like lapis lazuli; and, meditating on the origin and destruction of the world, he laid hold of the path that leads to firmness of mind.

10. Having attained to firmness of mind, and being forthwith set free from all sorrows such as the desire of worldly objects and the rest, he attained the first stage of contemplation, unaffected by sin, calm, and ‘argumentative.’

11. Having then obtained the highest happiness sprung from deliberation, he next pondered this meditation, — having thoroughly understood in his mind the course of the world:

12. ‘It is a miserable thing that mankind, though themselves powerless and subject to sickness, old age, and death, yet, blinded by passion and ignorant, look with disgust on another who is afflicted by old age or diseased or dead.

13. ‘If I here, being such myself, should feel disgust for another who has such a nature, it would not be worthy or right in me who know this highest duty.’

14. As he thus considered thoroughly these faults of sickness, old age, and death which belong to all living beings, all the joy which he had felt in the activity of his vigour, his youth, and his life, vanished in a moment.

15. He did not rejoice, he did not feel remorse; he suffered no hesitation, indolence, nor sleep; he felt no drawing towards the qualities of desire; he hated not nor scorned another.

16. Thus did this pure passionless meditation grow within the great-souled one; and unobserved by the other men, there crept up a man in a beggar's dress.

17. The king's son asked him a question, — he said to him, ‘Tell me, who art thou?’ and the other replied, ‘Oh bull of men, I, being terrified at birth and death, have become an ascetic for the sake of liberation.

18. ‘Desiring liberation in a world subject to destruction, I seek that happy indestructible abode, isolated from mankind, with my thoughts unlike those of others, and with my sinful passions turned away from all objects of sense.

19. ‘Dwelling anywhere, at the root of a tree, or in an uninhabited house, a mountain or a forest, — I wander without a family and without hope, a beggar ready for any fare, seeking only the highest good.’

20. When he had thus spoken, while the prince was looking on, he suddenly flew up to the sky; it was a heavenly inhabitant who, knowing that the prince's thoughts were other than what his outward form promised, had come to him for the sake of rousing his recollection.

21. When the other was gone like a bird to heaven, the foremost of men was rejoiced and astonished; and having comprehended the meaning of the term dharma, he set his mind on the manner of the accomplishment of deliverance.

22. Then like Indra himself, and having tamed his senses, — desiring to return home he mounted his noble steed; and having made him turn back as he looked for his friends, from that moment he sought no more the desired forest.

23. Ever seeking to make an end of old age and death, fixing his thoughts in memory on dwelling in the woods, he entered the city again but with no feelings of longing, like an elephant entering an exercise-ground after roaming in a forest-land.

24. ‘Happy truly and blessed is that woman whose husband is such as thou, O long-eyed prince!’ So, on seeing him, the princess exclaimed, folding her hands to welcome him, as he entered the road.

25. He whose voice was deep-sounding like a cloud heard this address and was filled with profound calm; and as he heard the word ‘blessed’ he fixed his mind on the attainment of Nirvāṇa.

26. Then the prince whose form was like the peak of a golden mountain, — whose eye, voice, and arm resembled a bull, a cloud, and an elephant, — whose countenance and prowess were like the moon and a lion, — having a longing aroused for something imperishable, — went into his palace.

27. Then stepping like a lion he went towards the king who was attended by his numerous counsellors, like Sanatkumāra in heaven waiting on Indra resplendent in the assembly of the Maruts.

28. Prostrating himself, with folded hands, he addressed him, ‘Grant me graciously thy permission, O lord of men, — I wish to become a wandering mendicant for the sake of liberation, since separation is appointed for me.’

29. Having heard his words, the king shook like a tree struck by an elephant, and having seized his folded hands which were like a lotus, he thus addressed him in a voice choked with tears:

30. ‘O my son, keep back this thought, it is not the time for thee to betake thyself to dharma; they say that the practice of religion is full of evils in the first period of life when the mind is still fickle.

31. ‘The mind of the thoughtless ignorant young man whose senses are eager for worldly objects, and who has no power of settled resolution for the hardships of vows of penance, shrinks back from the forest, for it is especially destitute of discrimination.

32. ‘It is high time for me to practise religion, O my child of loved qualities, leaving my royal glory to thee who art well worthy to be distinguished by it; but thy religion, O firm-striding hero, is to be accomplished by heroism; it would be irreligion if thou wert to leave thine own father.

33. ‘Do thou therefore abandon this thy resolution; devote thyself for the present to the duties of a householder; to a man who has enjoyed the pleasures of his prime, it is delightful to enter the penance-forest.’

34. Having heard these words of the king, he made his reply in a voice soft like a sparrow's: ‘If thou wilt be my surety, O king, against four contingencies, I will not betake myself to the forest.

35. ‘Let not my life be subject to death, and let not disease impair this health of mine; let not old age attack my youth, and let not misfortune destroy my weal.’

36. When his son uttered a speech so hard to be understood, the king of the Śākyas thus replied: ‘Abandon this idea bent upon departure; extravagant desires are only ridiculous.’

37. Then he who was firm as Mount Meru addressed his father: ‘If this is impossible, then this course of mine is not to be hindered; it is not right to lay hold of one who would escape from a house that is on fire.

38. ‘As separation is inevitable to the world, but not for Dharma, this separation is preferable; will not death sever me helplessly, my objects unattained and myself unsatisfied?’

39. The monarch, having heard this resolve of his son longing for liberation, and having again exclaimed, ‘He shall not go,’ set guards round him and the highest pleasures.

40. Then having been duly instructed by the counsellors, with all respect and affection, according to the śāstras, and being thus forbidden with tears by his father, the prince, sorrowing, entered into his palace.

41. There he was gazed at by his wives with restless eyes, whose faces were kissed by their dangling earrings, and whose bosoms were shaken with their thick-coming sighs, — as by so many young fawns.

42. Bright like a golden mountain, and bewitching the hearts of the noble women, he enraptured their ears, limbs, eyes, and souls by his speech, touch, form, and qualities.

43. When the day was gone, then, shining with his form like the sun, he ascended the palace, as the rising sun ascends Mount Meru, desiring to dispel the darkness by his own splendour.

44. Having ascended, he repaired to a special golden seat decorated with embellishments of diamond, with tall lighted candlesticks ablaze with gold, and its interior filled with the incense of black aloe-wood.

45. Then the noblest of women waited during the night on the noblest of men who was like Indra himself, with a concert of musical instruments, as the crowds of heavenly nymphs wait on the son of the Lord of wealth upon the summit of Himavat, white like the moon.

46. But even by those beautiful instruments like heavenly music he was not moved to pleasure or delight; since his desire to go forth from his home to seek the bliss of the highest end was never lulled.

47. Then by the power of the heavenly beings most excellent in self-mortification, the Akaniṣṭhas, who knew the purpose of his heart, deep sleep was suddenly thrown on that company of women and their limbs and gestures became distorted.

48. One was lying there, resting her cheek on her trembling arm; leaving as in anger her lute, though dearly loved, which lay on her side, decorated with gold-leaf.

49. Another shone with her flute clinging to her hand, lying with her white garments fallen from her bosom, — like a river whose banks are smiling with the foam of the water and whose lotuses are covered with a straight line of bees.

50. Another was sleeping, embracing her drum as a lover, with her two arms tender like the shoot of young lotus and bearing their bracelets closely linked, blazing with gold.

51. Others, decked with new golden ornaments and wearing peerless yellow garments, fell down alas! helpless with sleep, like the boughs of the Karṇikāra broken by an elephant.

52. Another, leaning on the side of a window, with her willow-form bent like a bow, shone as she lay with her beautiful necklace hanging down, like a statue in an archway made by art.

53. The lotus-face of another, bowed down, with the pinguent-lines on her person rubbed by the jewelled earrings, appeared to be a lotus with its stalk bent into a half-circle, and shaken by a duck standing on it.

54. Others, lying as they sat, with their limbs oppressed by the weight of their bosoms, shone in their beauty, mutually clasping one another with their twining arms decorated with golden bracelets.

55. And another damsel lay sound asleep, embracing her big lute as if it were a female friend, and rolled it about, while its golden strings trembled, with her own face bright with her shaken earrings.

56. Another lay, with her tabour,

57. Others showed no lustre with their eyes shut, although they were really full-eyed and fair-browed, — like the lotus-beds with their buds closed at the setting of the sun.

58. Another, with her hair loose and dishevelled, and her skirts and ornaments fallen from her loins, lay with her necklace in confusion, like a woman crushed by an elephant and then dropped.

59. Others, helpless and lost to shame, though naturally self-possessed and endued with all graces of person, breathed violently as they lay and yawned with their arms distorted and tossed about.

60. Others, with their ornaments and garlands thrown off, — unconscious, with their garments spread out unfastened, — their bright eyes wide open and motionless, — lay without any beauty as if they were dead.

61. Another, with fully-developed limbs, her mouth wide open, her saliva dropping, and her person exposed, lay as though sprawling in intoxication, — she spoke not, but bore every limb distorted.

62. Thus that company of women, lying in different attitudes, according to their disposition and family, bore the aspect of a lake whose lotuses were bent down and broken by the wind.

63. Then having seen these young women thus lying distorted and with uncontrolled gestures, however excellent their forms and graceful their appearance, — the king's son felt moved with scorn.

64. ‘Such is the nature of women, impure and monstrous in the world of living beings; but deceived by dress and ornaments a man becomes infatuated by a woman's attractions.

65. ‘If a man would but consider the natural state of women and this change produced in them by sleep, assuredly he would not cherish his folly; but he is smitten from a right will and so succumbs to passion.’

66. Thus to him having recognised that difference there arose a desire to escape in the night; and then the gods, knowing his purpose, caused the door of the palace to fly open.

67. Then he went down from the roof of the palace, scorning those women who lay thus distorted; and having descended, undauntedly he went out first into the courtyard.

68. Having awakened his horse's attendant, the swift Chaṁdaka, he thus addressed him: ‘Bring me quickly my horse Kaṁthaka, I wish to-day to go hence to attain immortality.

69. ‘Since such is the firm content which to-day is produced in my heart, and since my determination is settled in calm resolve, and since even in loneliness I seem to possess a guide, — verily the end which I desire is now before me.

70. ‘Since abandoning all shame and modesty these women lay before me as they did, and the two doors opened of their own accord, verily the time is come to depart for my true health.’

71. Then, accepting his lord's command, though he knew the purport of the king's injunctions, as being urged by a higher power in his mind, he set himself to bring the horse.

72. Then he brought out for his master that noble steed, his mouth furnished with a golden bit, his back lightly touched by the bed on which he had been lying, and endued with strength, vigour, speed, and swiftness;

73. With a long chine, and root of the tail and heel, — gentle, with short hair, back, and ears, — with his back, belly, and sides depressed and elevated, with broad nostrils, forehead, hips, and breast.

74. The broad-chested hero, having embraced him, and caressing him with his lotus-like hand, ordered him with a gentle-toned voice, as if he were desirous to plunge into the middle of an army:

75. ‘Oftentimes have evil enemies been overthrown by the king when mounted on thee; do thou, O best of steeds, so exert thyself that I too may obtain the highest immortality.

76. ‘Companions are easy to be found in battle or in the happiness obtained by winning worldly objects or in attaining wealth; but companions are hard for a man to find who has fallen into misfortune or when he flies for refuge to Dharma.

77. ‘And yet all those who in this world are companions, whether in sinful custom or in seeking for Dharma, — as my inner soul now recognises, — they too are verily sharers in the common aim.

78. ‘Since then, when I attain this righteous end, my escape from hence will be for the good of the world, — O best of steeds, by thy speed and energy, strive for thine own good and the good of the world.’

79. Thus having exhorted the best of steeds like a friend to his duty, he, the best of men, longing to go to the forest, wearing a noble form, in brightness like fire, mounted the white horse as the sun an autumnal cloud.

80. Then that good steed, avoiding all noises which would sound startling in the dead of night and awaken the household, — all sound of his jaws hushed and his neighing silenced, — went forth, planting his hurrying steps at full speed.

81. With their lotus-like hands, whose fore-arms were adorned with golden bracelets, the Yakṣas, with their bodies bent down, threw lotuses and bore up his hoofs as he rushed in startled haste.

82. The city-roads which were closed with heavy gates and bars, and which could be with difficulty opened even by elephants, flew open of their own accord without noise, as the prince went through.

83. Firm in his resolve and leaving behind without hesitation his father who turned ever towards him, and his young son, his affectionate people and his unparalleled magnificence, he then went forth out of his father's city.

84. Then he with his eyes long and like a full-blown lotus, looking back on the city, uttered a sound like a lion, ‘Till I have seen the further shore of birth and death I will never again enter the city called after Kapila.’

85. Having heard this his utterance, the troops of the court of the Lord of wealth rejoiced; and the hosts of the gods, triumphing, wished him a successful accomplishment of his purpose.

86. Other heavenly beings with forms bright like fire, knowing that his purpose was hard to fulfil, produced a light on his dewy path like the rays of the moon issuing from the rift of a cloud.

87. But he with his horse like the horse of Indra, the lord of bay horses, hurrying on as if spurred in his mind, went over the leagues full of many conflicting emotions, — the sky all the while with its cloud-masses checkered with the light of the dawn.

[Such is the fifth chapter in the great poem Śri Buddhacarita,
called Flight]