Editor’s note: We are especially pleased to be able to offer our readers the following installment of Kanthaka, a novel in progress by Jeff Greenwald.
Greenwald is a journalist and author of the book Mr. Raja’s Neighborhood: Letters from Nepal, published last year by John Daniel, Santa Barbara. Kanthaka is a story about the first human incarnation, in modern-day Nepal, of the Buddha’s legendary horse. However, the episodes here are from the beginning of the novel, and take place 2,500 years ago, recounting the conception and birth of Siddhartha. Greenwald weaves the history and folklore surrounding these events into his own imagination, and produces a beautifully human version of the story of Gautama, the Buddha.
We now travel back to the Kapilavastu Palace in Nepal where we meet Siddhartha’s parents, King Suddhodana and Queen Maya. . . .
Normally the couple dined in silence, slowly chewing their food and listening to the street music filtering up through the windows of Kapilavastu Palace. This evening, though, the King pulled out his dog-eared copy of the Kama Sutra and, in between mouthfuls of curried chicken, read his young wife the chapter on fingernails.
Normally, after eating, the King would read over the day’s cases—noting here or there where a compromise might be reached, or a penalty lessened. This evening he waved off the court scribe and summoned instead for a special bowl of exotic sweets, each one wrapped in edible silver foil. He placed them, one after another, on his wife’s long tongue. Maya’s eyes were smoke gray, lined in black and flecked with gold. She could see Suddhodana swelling up under his robe as she licked his fingers.
“I have never desired you more than I do tonight,” he said. As Maya instinctively moved her face toward his, she could smell the rare herbs oiled into his moustache. Sage and camphor hit a high note in her nostrils; a trace of anise made her mouth water.
“Tonight your pleasure means more to me than all the gold in Varanasi,” Suddhodana whispered, running the tip of his nose along the inside of Maya’s ear. “More than the charms of the apsaras . . .” He circled her waist with his arm and raised her slowly to her feet.
She gasped as they entered the bedroom. Bolts of silk, blue and gold, hung from the ceiling. Two attendants kept the air astir with peacock-feather fans, and the cloth danced sensuously. The bed itself was sprinkled with lotus petals.
Suddhodana was known to be a little bit shy in bed, and usually made love to his wife in the darkness—or by the flickering glow of a single candle. Tonight the room was bathed in light. Maya had wondered at the extraordinary activity surrounding the Royal Hives; now she understood. A dozen small elephants, molded from fragrant beeswax, circled the bed. Each lofted trunk ended in a flaming wick. As Suddhodana led Maya into the nimbus, their shadows multiplied.
From some still-dark corner, the drone of a tamboura—subtle as incense—perfumed the air. King Suddhodana knelt before his wife, and kissed her softly on the navel. He stood, kissed her throat, and slid the dining gown from her shoulders.
Once during their lovemaking, Maya opened her eyes and gazed in astonishment at the brilliance of the flames. The elephants seemed to be parading; dancing to the rhythm of her hips. She thought she could hear them trumpeting, but recognized the cries as her own. When she closed her eyes again the light and sound spiraled down inside of her . . . slowly and urgently at first, as if her womb were a bowl on the wheel . . . and then quickly, explosively, radiating through every limb like the core of a newborn star. . . .
Several hours before dawn, Suddhodana felt Maya jerk violently against him. He smiled in his sleep and drew her closer, but she shook herself again and woke up. When he opened his eyes Maya was sitting up in bed, her hands folded over her belly. The candles had long ago blown out; she looked cold and confused in the moonlight.
“Beloved, I had the strangest dream . . . ”
“What dream, princess?” Suddhodana was careful to contain his excitement. “Do you remember any of it?”
“I was here, sleeping with you,” Maya whispered. She looked around for the candles, but their molten remains had long since been removed. “I dreamed I had awoken, and was staring through the window at a bright light—a comet, I thought—but it seemed to get larger every second. Soon I could see the shape. . . it was a flying elephant, as luminous as moonstone! I got out of bed and went to the window, but I had to jump back, for the creature flew right into the room! Husband, he stood right there . . . ” Maya pointed but Suddhodana watched her eyes. “And he had six tusks! Each one a perfect bow of ivory, as perfect as the crescent moon. And then . . . ” But she fell silent.
“You must tell me the whole dream,” implored Suddhodana, holding any trace of command from his voice.
“Beautiful King, I love you so . . . ” Maya was clearly at a loss. “And last night was the most intense pleasure I have ever known. I do not believe even Indra could match your mastery. In fact,” she said, facing him at last, “I am certain we created a child.”
Suddhodana’s eyes gleamed, but he would not be distracted. “And the dream? Please tell me quickly, before it slips away . . . ”
“I felt from our lovemaking that I should be satisfied forever,” the Queen continued. “But when the elephant entered the room, I found myself overwhelmed with desire. I embraced him . . . somehow, Lord, he came into my body.” She glanced at Suddhodana, who seemed composed. “We made love. And yet, it was odd—because in the very act of entering me, he was lost entirely! The whole elephant! As if he had been drawn into my very womb . . . ”
“How do you know that’s where he went?”
“I could feel him, Lord, stirring about inside of me.”
Suddhodana pondered this for a moment in silence. Then, “Was it not painful? Sweet Maya, did those six sharp tusks not tear your belly?”
“I felt no more torn than a tamboura,” Maya replied, “when a note of utmost clarity awakens within its skin.”
The two brahmanas sat in lotus position, facing the King. Their white robes hung slightly open; Suddhodana could see the sacred string crossing each breast. The older brahmana—Prem Bahadur, chief astrologer—could not suppress a superior gleam as he beheld the King’s eager, slightly anxious expression. The other man present—an apprentice only slightly older than Suddhodana himself—sat complacently, accustomed to the subtle banter between the renowned astrologer and the popular King, fifty years his junior.
“You seem to have pulled it off,” Bahadur admitted. “Let us make certain. Was even the slightest detail left unattended?”
“Not one. You spoke of three conditions, and all were fulfilled. I fed her sweets, in which she could see her own reflection; I brought the image of an elephant into the bedroom. . . ”
“With admirable ingenuity,” added Bahadur.
“. . . and made love to her as if she were a goddess.”
“A fact to which all of sleepless Kapilavastu can attest,” said Bahadur. The King reddened. “And it is good that you did, Suddhodana. Because never again in your reign, or even the reign of your great-great-grandsons, will there be a more auspicious climax than the one that Maya so abandonedly enjoyed last night.
“Her dream of course—” Bahadur threw this in almost as an aside—”bears witness to our success. The white elephant; the tusks; really, there can be no doubt.”
“No doubt of what?”
“No doubt of the fact that the seed Maya now carries is destined to become our Chakravartin: the Universal Monarch. No doubt of the place that Kapilavastu will hold in world history. No doubt of the riches and wisdom that will gather around your court. No doubt . . . ”
“No doubt, Your Excellency?”
All eyes turned to the young apprentice, who had spoken to his master. The chief astrologer glared caution, but the young man was staring at his feet. “Master, there is one element of Queen Maya’s dream that I find most disturbing.”
“What might that be?” Suddhodana asked.
“It isn’t important,” snapped Bahadur.
“And why not?”
There was silence. The King turned to the apprentice. “Sanyas, what do you see?”
The apprentice was now blushing brightly, his oversized ears an absurd crimson against his closely tonsured scalp. “It is only one aspect, great King. It is the fact the Maya said the elephant was “lost entirely” inside of her. If the sign were incontrovertibly for the Chakravartin, this omen need not have been manifest.”
“I am only an apprentice. Yet it seems to me that the Universal King could never allow himself to be ‘lost entirely.’ This detail portends a different nature; the possibility of a state inappropriate to a monarch. Your Majesty, I could not be silent. I was compelled to speak.”
“I compel you to continue.”
“So it appears to me, just Suddhodana, that there will be two distinct paths open before your illustrious son. He will either be the Chakravartin, as my learned master contends . . .” He glanced quickly, and with great embarrassment, to his side. ” . . . or he may throw off his royal robes, renounce all the world, and become a Buddha. Wisest of all Kings, either road will see Kapilavastu covered in glory . . . ”
“What do you mean, ‘renounce all the world?’ ”
The apprentice stammered. His Master cut in. “He means,” Bahadur said, ”that your son may give away everything: the throne, the kingdom, his family, his jewels and all your aspirations. Not to mention your astrologers,” he added dryly. “He may forsake this palace and elect to wander unbidden through the land, intent only on the Truth.”
“The Truth has eluded many,” said the King.
“It will not elude the Buddha.”
“But why would he have to forsake the world? Why couldn’t he be the Prince and the Buddha?”
“You’d have to ask him,” said Bahadur. “But it will be in the nature of the Buddha that nothing—neither father nor mother nor a host of gyring apsaras—will keep him from his quest.”
Suddhodana spent a moment in contemplation. How could he enjoy raising a son who might pick up and renounce him some day? And what about Maya? The whole situation seemed absurd; the boy wasn’t even born yet. Assuming it was a boy . . . but at the same time, Suddhodana knew from experience that he could take Prem Bahadur at his word.
“The truth will have to wait,” he said at last. “Tell me, Prem, why didn’t you consider this little detail important?”
“I knew the importance, Suddhodana. But—and I hate to say this—your knowledge of this duality was actually the first step down the path that could lead to your son’s Buddhahood.” He turned his head and, although speaking to the King, addressed his next words to the apprentice. “Of course, I knew you would prefer to see your Prince the Chakravartin. But thanks to Santosh here, the causal chain has already begun.”
“Have I no hope left of stopping it?”
“There’s hope; but it won’t be easy.”
“Nothing is more difficult than being renounced by your own son.”
“Perhaps that is so. In that case, Suddhodana, I advise you to do the following. Are you listening?”
“Go ahead.” The King was despondent.
“Alright. See to it with all your ingenuity that your son never sets eyes on the following sights: an old person; a sick person; a dead person; or a holy mendicant.”
“What will happen if he sees these things?”
“Your son will decide to save the world,” Bahadur answered tartly, “and there will be one very dejected King wishing he had not encouraged my apprentice!”
Prem Bahadur and Santosh walked silently through the bazaars of Kapilavastu. Although it was still early morning, the midsummer heat had already grown oppressive. Still, the stalls and shops they passed were buzzing with activity—literal as well as figurative. Along the Avenue of Glass Beads, dark men squinted into the sun as they hung out their kaleidoscopic displays. Women walked along in pairs, returning from the wells with gleaming cauldrons of brass or copper atop their heads; only the sweat beading on their naked breasts betrayed the effort of their task. A small cloud of bees floated outside a nearby bakery, enraptured by the trove of honey.
The two had been silent since leaving Suddhodana. Neither King nor Master had actually seemed to begrudge the apprentice; nevertheless, Santosh’s mind was gulping nervously. At last he could contain himself no longer. “Master, is it now inevitable that the Prince will renounce the world?”
Prem Bahadur said nothing. “Master, I don’t know what came over me . . . well you know that such boldness is beyond me. And yet . . . ”
“And yet you were compelled to speak,” said the Chief Astrologer. He glanced at a nearby park. “Let’s sit. My robes are sticking to me already, and it’s barely past dawn.” He peered up painfully at the sky. The monsoon had technically arrived, but there had been no rain for some days: The humidity was thick as ghee.
There was a small fountain in the park. Several brahmanas crouched close to the spray, gesturing arrogantly. Prem Bahadur clasped his palms together in brief greeting, but avoided the group. His apprentice sat down beside him and tucked his legs up into the posture of attention.
“My dear Santosh,” the Master began, “I cannot and will not fault you for this morning.”
“But Master, if I had not taken the liberty to tell . . .”
“I will fault you, however, for interrupting me now,” Bahadur snapped. “Be silent and listen.” He waited an intimidating instant, then continued. “First of all, I don’t believe you took the ‘liberty’ of speaking. As you claimed: you were compelled to speak. Just as the King was compelled to follow my directives; just as the Queen was compelled to conceive; just as I was compelled to guarantee, beyond any question, that the future Prince of Kapilavastu will be a Buddha!!”
“But I thought . . . ” The apprentice stammered, ears aflame.
“I know what you thought! And—in a way—you were right. Once the King learned that his future son could become a Buddha, his heart began to strive toward that goal—in spite of what his head was saying.” He paused to watch a family of peacocks stride by. “But his heart would have done a clumsy job,” Bahadur said, and allowed himself a sly smile. “It remained for me to give Suddhodana specific instructions that will make his future son’s Buddhahood—as you so thriftily put it—’inevitable!’ ”
“You told His Majesty exactly what not to do!”
“I was talking to his head, but conspiring with his heart. Do you actually believe Suddhodana will be able to keep the Prince from ever seeing anyone old or sick? Or dead, for Vishnu’s sake? Do you think even the King can afford to clear the streets of saddhus?”
“You’re saying, then, that it will be impossible for the King to meet the conditions you gave him?”
“Not impossible,” said Bahadur. ”I’m sure the Prince will be compulsively sheltered. It will work for a while; that’s part of the plan. Meanwhile—inevitably—the King’s heart will continue to desire that his son become the Buddha. Suddhodana will eventually contrive to expose his son to everything I have cautioned him, at all costs, to avoid!”
“Mmmmmm.” Santosh nodded, running his tongue across the front of his upper teeth. The clamor of the fountain seemed to fill the park. “Uh . . . Master . . . l’m confused. What’s so disturbing about the simple facts of life? I’ve seen the sick and lame since childhood; my earliest memory is of my great-aunt’s cremation. When I was a boy I spent hours in this very park, playing goats and tigers with the saddhus. Those things never made me want to renounce the world.”
“Your birth was auspicious,” Bahadur said, “or you wouldn’t be working for me. But to compare you or I with what’s growing in Maya’s womb would be like comparing a silkworm to a wedding gown. And that, dear apprentice, is the least humbling analogy I can draw.” He regarded Santosh; the young man’s head was a beet against the cloudless blue sky.
“The point, though, is this. If the Prince grows up the way we did—taking these “simple facts of life” in stride—then we, and the whole world, risk nothing less than stagnation and decay!”
Santosh laughed nervously, and picked up a few pebbles. He tossed them aimlessly toward a bird. “Wouldn’t we still get our Chakravartin?”
“Oh, we’d get him, alright. The Universal Monarch would live right here in town! Everybody would be happy as a porpoise—and just as blind.”
The apprentice considered all this in silence, listening to the sounds of the fountain. The entire day had had a weirdly oppressive feeling to him, as if he’d woken into it already out of his depth. He felt like there was a shell around his head. But at the very instant he perceived the shell-like feeling, it burst away, leaving him startled and oddly refreshed; as if, after a climb to great altitude, his ears had popped.
“I understand,” he said slowly. “You hope to shock the Prince with certain realities—like sickness and death—after his intellect is fully formed. Because if he—this force embodied in him—can somehow see these realities objectively, he might see them as problems to be solved; rather than as facts to be taken for granted.”
“You illustrate your worth, apprentice.”
“And you, Sri Bahadur, your mastery. I congratulate you for this brilliant plan. And I apologize for my pride. I believed that I had angered you this morning with my boldness, but it was clearly preordained. You knew in advance everything I was going to . . . ”
“Quit your babbling,” the astrologer cut in sharply. He stood up and peeled the thin cotton robe from his buttocks. “I didn’t know a damned thing in advance. I figured all that out after leaving the palace. You talk about being compelled? Everything I said in the royal chambers issued forth with a life of its own, uncontrolled and unbidden!”
“That’s impossible!” ejaculated the younger. “You are Ramarishi! A True Adept! None can force your hand!”
“None?” Prem Bahadur lay a hand on his ward’s damp shoulder. “Is there nothing or no one who ranks higher than a Ramarishi?”
“Then who is it that confers the rank of Ramarishi?”
“No one,” the apprentice blurted. “It is conferred by . . .” There was a devastating silence, ended by a second popping of his ears—”the gods.”
The girl vanished down the corridor, and Suddhodana felt sorry for anyone in her path.
He stood alone in his study, temporarily in shock. Then he began to pace restlessly, stopping every few laps to pull the crumpled letter from his pocket and read it again. For the moment, that was all he was able to do: read it over and over again. If the letter had been a river, he would have dived naked into its currents; had it been a cliff, he would have hurled himself in flight from its precipice.
The letter was four words long: “Our son is born.”
It had been written the previous evening by Queen Maya. The characters betrayed the Queen’s weakened state, but Suddhodana was not surprised; her pregnancy had extended through ten full months, taxing all the kingdom into a state of retentive anxiety.
Maya’s messenger—a twelve-year-old girl with the equestrian skills of a master—had arrived twenty minutes ago, having set off from the distant grove long before first light. Named Saraswati, after the goddess of learning and music, she had exercised fabulous self-control as she rode into the Palace compound. This evaporated the moment she laid eyes on the King.
“Your Majesty! Your Majesty!” She jumped from her horse, who went immediately to drink from the Sacred Lotus Pond. “There was a miracle! You have a son!” She turned instinctively to chase after the horse, but whipped right around again. “A boy! Oh, it was fantastic, I . . . ” She caught herself and found the letter. “This is from Maya . . .”
Suddhodana had seized it, read it in an instant, and turned upon the girl. “How is Maya? Her hand shakes! And when . . . This was written last night! Where is she? Tell me everything!”
“W . . . ”
“And what do you mean, ‘a miracle?’ ”
“Your Majesty . . . ”
“I beg your pardon,” said Suddhodana, regaining for the moment his composure.
“We had spent the late afternoon at an elephant orphanage, and had nearly arrived back at Lumbini Palace,” Saraswati began. “The Queen-Father—King Bhaati—was expecting our party for dinner. But just outside the palace grounds, in that beautiful grove of sala trees, Queen Maya said she felt sick and couldn’t ride. She said she needed to stretch her legs. The doctor thought it must be the baby, but Maya’s pain was in her side. So Ram helped her out of the palanquin . . .”
“Ram? The second groom? Where was the first? Saraswati, where was Channa?”
“He had to stay behind, Majesty. Yakshi, his favorite mare, has been due to foal for many days.”
“Of course; please continue.”
“Well, once Queen Maya was out of the carriage, she walked around a little, as if she didn’t know where to go. Then she wandered off into the grove.”
Here the girl stopped. She bit her lower lip and looked down with great concentration at the carpet.
“Yes? Yes? What then?” The King took her shoulders and crouched down to look her straight in the face. “What then?”
“I did not see, Your Majesty. I know only what the attendants have told me.”
“Tell me what they told you.”
“They followed Maya into the grove. She walked up to a sala tree and held onto a branch. And her side—somehow—they said her side opened up, and the baby came out from there!”
Suddhodana laughed, tickled by the prudishness of Maya’s attendants. The girl looked puzzled.
“There is more, great King. After your son was born, they placed him down on the ground . . . but he stood up, Majesty! He stood up and walked!”
“What?!” Suddhodana rose.
“I saw this, so I know they weren’t joking! He took a bunch of steps, and every time he lifted up his foot there was a flower! Majesty, it was a miracle!”
“Where is he? Where is she? Why am I the last to know everything?!”
“The party felt it best to stay the night in Lumbini. The full moon was bright enough for travel, but Maya was a little frightened by all the animals.”
“Yes, Majesty. After we went inside, they all came out of the jungle. I’ve never seen so many! Deer, rabbits, bears, rhinos . . . a family of tigers came out of the wood! But—how can I explain it? None of the animals were bothering each other. They all just sat around, watching the palace. By this morning they were gone; at least when I left. Maybe they came back! Dearest King, perhaps you should ride out to Lumbini? Maya may be too weak to travel even if the tigers are gone.”
“I, go? Who will mind the court? Yesterday was a puja day; the Hall of Justice will be full within the hour!”
“Declare a holiday, Majesty! Your son is born! An heir to Kapilavastu! What could be more auspicious than a birth on a puja-day? Yesterday we honored the moon . . . today let us honor your son!”
“Perhaps. . . Of course. Thank you Saraswati, you may go . . . uh . . . are you hungry?”
“Hungry as Holika, your Majesty.” The girl winced the moment she had uttered the cliche; the demoness Holika ate young children. But Suddhodana didn’t take notice.
“Well then, go down to the Royal Chef and have him prepare you the wildest treats you ever dreamed of!”
Saraswati needed no second invitation. She had spent many lazy hours dreaming up wild desserts, just for this occasion.