London-based actor-writer Advait Kottary's Siddhartha, a fascinating new account of how Siddhartha Gautama became the Buddha is narrated from the prince's viewpoint and brims over with the emotions and compassion for those that suffer as a result of the cruel ways of the world, which led to his awakening.
In this riveting excerpt from Siddhartha, we witness the prince's marriage to Lumbini princess Yashodhara when they both were 16. And after that an eye-opening chariot ride beyond the palace walls with his new wife...
'Just look at them! How they have grown!'
Queen Pamita exclaimed to Queen Prajapati. They sat next to each other on the mandap, as the fire from the havan rose higher and higher every time Siddhartha was prompted to pour ghee into it, by Sage Vachaspati. The sage himself changed shloka after shloka.
Shuddhodana and Prajapati watched, scarcely believing that they were witnessing the marriage of their son.
Every now and again, her son Nanda would pull at her gown, as if to remind her that he was there as well.
Sage Vachaspati was careful to explain the significance of every single ritual to the bride and groom. If he hadn't, Siddhartha would have stopped him to ask about them.
The flickering light from the fire at the centre of the pandal lent the entire temple an ethereal feel.
The air was cool after what was perhaps the last rain of the monsoons.
Carefully hidden from everyone's view, hot tears blinded Devdutt's eyes. The Buddha could tell that he was very drunk. But for Devdutt, even the tongba couldn't blunt the searing pain of losing to his brother yet again.
It should have been him on that mandap, next to Yashodhara. She looked so happy and radiant next to Siddhartha.
Coming second to Siddhartha had become a theme for them after they had grown up. It went against every kshatriya ideal and principle but Devdutt couldn't help the fact that he was in love with Yashodhara; he had been and would be for a long time to come.
It was an extremely chilly morning. In the summer, the sun would have risen by this time, but it was extremely dark. Even Kanthaka, the horse, seemed to be feeling the cold.
Despite being cloaked in fine, woollen shawls, Siddhartha and Yashodhara still shivered, their breath making little clouds of condensation when they exhaled. They were freezing, but Siddhartha was excited.
He was about to leave the palace and the walled city and venture out to see Kapilavastu like he never had before.
'Isn't it funny, how can one simply look at the stars and decide that it is the most auspicious time to leave? I wonder how that works,' asked Siddhartha.
'Your Highness, perhaps you would like to ask the stars themselves?' said Channa, tongue firmly in cheek.
Yashodhara laughed. Siddhartha sometimes realised a little late that Channa was poking fun at him. Before he could react, Channa had spurred Kanthaka on and they were off.
The Buddha smiled as he looked at Channa. What an imp! What a friend! He could not have imagined his childhood without Channa. He had looked out for Siddhartha at every step of the way, though he was gracious enough never to make it obvious. The Buddha could feel Channa's thoughts now, with the sadness that was to follow on Siddhartha's discovery of the ways of the world and the loss of Siddhartha's innocence.
'Are you nervous?' Yashodhara seemed to be able to read his mind at will.
'Excited, but very nervous, yes. I have no idea what I will see.'
'Not you alone. We...'
She reached out and held his hand in hers. He smiled. The moon was still shining in the dark blue sky of the approaching dawn and she looked lovely in its light.
'I have never been outside Kapilavastu, Yashodhara, but I get the feeling that there is something that I need to see for myself. Ever since the war, I have been troubled by many things.'
'I have never seen so much death. The human appetite for destruction shocked me.'
'In the palace, everything is friendly, and there is nothing but love and good wishes flowing everywhere. If we fight, it is only to practice our swordsmanship. If we shoot a bow and arrow, it is only so that we may become better marksmen.'
'But during the war, it was different. There was hatred. Bows and arrows, spears and swords, were all picked up with the sole purpose of ending another person's life in order to save one's own.'
He held her hand like a frightened child.
Of all the people in his life, Yashodhara was the bravest... and the one who understood him; with whom he shared his innermost thoughts and fears. It was common knowledge, the kind of sheltered reality that Siddhartha was raised in.
In hindsight, today, it was brave of her to come with him; perhaps she knew she would have to be there to soften the blows that followed, perhaps she had taken it upon herself to be there with him as one by one, some of the truths he was brought up on would shatter in front of him.
'Channa! Stop the chariot at once!'
As Siddhartha jumped off onto the grass, he nearly slipped; it was still wet with dew. Siddhartha had just seen something bizarre.
Three men were holding what looked like whips in their hands and were clearly thrashing another who stood between them with his hands over his head to protect himself.
Yashodhara had nodded off to sleep, but she awoke immediately on hearing the screams from her husband.
'Why are you whipping this poor man?' demanded Siddhartha. The man in question was now kneeling on the floor, folding his hands in front of Siddhartha for mercy.
Any interruption to the thrashing was a welcome relief. Siddhartha could tell that he had been crying for a long time.
He wore only a loincloth and a turban. As Siddhartha came closer, he could see how gaunt and thin the man looked. He clearly had not been eating very much. Siddhartha was horrified.
'What is wrong with you?' asked Siddhartha.
'Answer him!' one of the men with whips kicked the man in the centre and prodded him to speak, but he could only gasp with tears.
'I was asking you!' yelled an angry Siddhartha, while pointing to the three men. Channa came closer, anticipating that Siddhartha was about to initiate a conflict.
'Your Highness, we apologise if we have perhaps not been clear, but he is a shudra!' One of the men told him. All three of them were breathless. Clearly, they had been whipping this man for a long time.
'And you are whipping him because he is a shudra?'
'He was drawing water from the village well, Your Highness!' said the second man.
'The water becomes impure when shudras touch it. He is not allowed anywhere near the well, let alone allowed to draw water from it,' he continued.
'Who are you?'
'We are merchants, Your Highness. We were on the way to Vaishali when we saw him.'
'Please help me, Your Highness!' The man on the ground folded his hands. His voice sounded parched, and he looked like he was in bad shape.
Siddhartha did not quite understand why he had been beaten. It was only water, after all.
'Who says the water will become impure? Is he dirty?'
'He is dirty by birth, Your Highness. He is an untouchable.'
'Yes. None can touch him, without being sullied in the eyes of God.'
Yashodhara watched Siddhartha trying to grapple with this new knowledge.
'Do you mean to say that he was cursed like this from the day he was born?'
'Indeed, Your Highness,' said the third man.
'This was no fault of his?'
'The fault was in his stars, Your Highness.'
'So if this man needed water to stay alive, he would die before taking the water from the well that belongs to the village?'
'That is the way of the world, Your Highness.'
Siddhartha looked horrified. The three men, meanwhile, looked very pleased with themselves at their personal enforcement of this great cosmic rule.
'You cannot whip a man like this!' '
'But, Your Highness...'
'No! I have spoken. Hand me the whips.'
They looked dumbfounded. Siddhartha realised that his hands were shaking with anger. He felt a hot flush of anger on his face as they handed him the whips, one by one,
'Now be on your way to Vaishali, and fare well.'
'Fare well, Your Highness,' said the men one by one, before proceeding on their way, confused. They were doing nothing wrong, they believed.
Siddhartha turned and walked to the chariot, without looking at the man, still lying on the ground.
He reached into the recesses of the chariot and pulled out his water bag, throwing it onto the road behind them.
'Long live, Prince Siddhartha!'
The praise sounded so painful, coming from that parched throat.
Excerpted from Siddhartha: The Boy Who Became The Buddha by Advait Kottary, with the kind permission of the publishers, Hachette India.