THE AVATAR BUDDHA

by Suhotra Swami



Siddhartha Gautama was the blessed and beautiful prince of the Sakyas,

a royal family descended from the Suryavamsha (the Solar Dynasty of

ancient Indian kings). He had always been carefully sheltered from the

distresses of life by his father, King Shuddhodana.

In Kapilavastu, his capital near the Himalayan foothills, the king built

three palaces for his son, one specially designed to be comfortable in the

cold season, another for the hot season, and the third for the monsoon.

These palaces towered in ornate splendour above beautiful gardens

adorned with lotus ponds.

The prince was always surrounded by a host of lovely damsels who

rendered him all kinds of personal service; they entertained him day and

night with dance, music and games that were suited to every occasion and

season. Prince Siddhartha wore only the finest cloth imported from

Varanasi, a city which even today remains famous for its silk. His body

was perfumed with the pulp of sandalwood. Day and night, a white

parasol was held over his head. Even the servants in his palaces were fed

sumptuously, so that the prince would not see want in others.

The reason for all this pampering was that when the prince was born, a

famous sage named Asita predicted that if Siddhartha became aware of

the miseries of existence, he would renounce the world and establish a

great religion (dharma). "Out of compassion for suffering humanity,",

said Asita, ".....this prince will lead many people on the way to a holy life.

Thus he will be a chakravartin, one who turns the wheel of dharma." King

Shuddhodana, fearing the loss of his only son to asceticism, did his royal

best to insure Siddhartha would never learn the meaning of the word

suffering. But the outcome of the prince's life was already cast; after all,

the name Siddhartha means "one whose aim is accomplished."

Once, not long after his twenty ninth birthday, Prince Gautama went for a

chariot drive along the royal road towards the palace park. As usual, he

was accompanied by an escort of guards and attendants whose specific

duty was to shield the prince from even the slightest unpleasantness.

Nonetheless, on that day, the young man's eyes fell upon the frail, bent

figure of a sad looking toothless man, so withered by age that he could

hardly stand, his face pallid and his eyes devoid of lustre.

When he inquired from an associate the reason for the decrepit man's

plight, he was shocked to learn that it was simply due to the passage of

time, and that given enough time, everyone would experience the misery

of old age.The prince returned to the palace in a gloom. He pondered how foolish it

was for men to pass their time in the joys of the senses when in the end

they would be reduced to the same condition of stark, trembling

helplessness as he'd seen today.

King Suddhodhana, observing his son's moroseness, ordered punishment

for the escort of guards and attendants, thinking they'd failed in their

duty. He then arranged for a special program of entertainment for the

prince, and after a few days' time, it appeared that Siddhartha was his

same jovial self again. But the impact of seeing that old man had shaken

his inner composure.

On another occasion not long thereafter, Siddhartha Gautama chanced to

see a man groaning and writhing in the throes of some terrible sickness.

He again became depressed when he was told that disease was inevitably

suffered by all beings in the material world.

And though it seemed that the prince once more shook off the grips of

melancholia, on a third chariot ride he came upon a corpse being carried

to the cremation grounds. Learning that death is the ultimate misfortune

from which there is no escape, Siddhartha became inwardly restless. A

profound yearning arose within him for release from the sufferings

imposed upon all beings by the implacable laws of nature.

Lastly, Prince Siddhartha met a sannyasi, a shaven headed renunciate

who wore a simple robe of saffron colour and carried nothing except a

water pot and a danda (stick). The prince was mystified by the saintly

man's aura of inner peace and, ordering his chariot to stop, inquired from

the monk the reason for his adopting this way of life.

"O prince," answered the monk, "seeing the never ending miseries of

worldly existence, I have renounced all family ties for gaining the

permanent peace and happiness of a tranquil mind."

And so did Siddhartha Gautama's disquieted mind come to find the

doorway to new hope. Henceforward the prince's whole attitude towards

life changed. When, soon after his meeting with the sannyasi, he was

informed that his beautiful young wife, Yashodhara, had given birth to a

son, he exclaimed, "Yet another bond! Let this child be called Rahula" (a

diminutive form of Rahu, the name of a malignant planet). The delights of

the senses had become his disgust; he vowed, "I shall go forth into the

struggle of subduing my senses. Therein only shall my mind find

happiness."

In the middle of the night after the birth of his son, the prince awoke to

view in the light of the full moon what he later called "the wretchedness of

lust" around him: his female attendants, after celebrating Rahula's birth

with song and dance into the late hours, had fallen asleep from exhaustionand lay in dishevelled and unseemly poses about the palace. Full of deep

resolve to transcend the allurements of illusion that bind one to birth and

death, Siddhartha Gautama left everything, cut off his hair and donned

the robes of renunciation.

After six years of austerity and meditation, a wondrous insight dawned

upon the prince as he sat under a Bodhi tree not far from the holy city of

Gaya, sacred to devotees of Vishnu. He saw the darkness of the

miserable material world dissolve into the light of divine knowledge, which

revealed the true nature of all beings. Gazing upon them with the pure

emotions of friendship, compassion and benevolence, Gautama saw

clearly that although the living entities suffer in the whirlpool of samsara

(repeated birth and death which is found in all species throughout the

universe), they are of an essence sublime, like unto his own.

For seven days, Siddhartha Gautama sat absorbed in the ecstacy of

transcendence. Four headed Brahma, the chief demigod of cosmic

creation and the guru (teacher) of the sacred Vedas for the whole

universe, then appeared before him. Hailing him as the "All seeing

Buddha," Brahma requested that he preach a new dharma for the

salvation of the fallen souls, "those lost in suffering, overcome by birth

and decay." As described in the Mahavagga, the Buddha then "looked full

of compassion with the Buddhic eye towards sentient beings all over the

universe, and declared 'The door to the realm of the immortals is now

wide open to all those who hear me.'"

Who is the Buddha?

There are many people, even among those claiming to be Buddhists, who

think that the Buddha was an ordinary man who attained a rare level of

self awareness. As a popular treatise on Buddhism explains, "The Buddha

is not a God or a deity who one should pray to for some fulfilment in life.

The Buddha is not an incarnation of God [nor] a prophet nor a messenger

of God........He is a human being but a very special human being, one who

has gained what we call 'Enlightenment'."

But in the Buddhist scriptures we find the Buddha him self declares

otherwise. In the Donasutta he says, "I am not a deva (demigod), a

gandharva (an angel), a yaksha (fierce guardian spirit), nor a human

being." Yet, while declaring himself to be not a human being, does the

Buddha deny that he is God, the Father of all beings? In the Mahavagga

the Buddha says, "The Buddha looks with kind heart equally upon all

beings, and they therefore call him 'Father'. To disrespect a father is

wrong; to despise him is wicked." And in the Saddharma Pundarika, he

clearly announces:

yam eva ham lokapita svayambhu

cikitsakah sarvaprajnan natah"I am the Self born, the Father of the World, the Lord of All Beings and

the Remover of Ills."

Moreover, the Buddha is addressed throughout the scriptures with titles

asserting his divinity, such as Bhagavata (Supreme Person), Lokavid

(Knower of All Worlds), Anuttara (the Unsurpassable) and Shasta Deva

Manushyanam (Lord of Men and Demigods).

In Bhagavad Gita, the ancient Sanskrit text of the transcendental

teachings of Sri Krishna to His disciple Arjuna, we find very similar titles of

address. Krishna is called Bhagavan (Supreme Lord), Lokapita (Father of

the Worlds), Svayamatma (Self Existing), Aja (Unborn), Sarva Loka

Maheshvaram (Lord of all Planets and Demigods), and Buddhir

Buddhimatam (the Enlightenment of the Enlightened Ones).

In Bhagavad Gita, Krishna reveals to Arjuna that He is the original

Vishnu, Who is worshipped as the Supreme Person by the followers of the

Vedas. And in a Buddhist text, Lankavatara sutra, the Buddha is identified

with the self same Vishnu.

The similarities of the portrayals of the Buddha in Buddhist scriptures and

Sri Krishna in Bhagavad Gita has not gone unnoticed by scholars. K.N.

Upadhyaya writes in "Studies in the History of Buddhism." In striking

resemblance to Bhagavad Gita, the very form and atmosphere in which

the Buddha appears in the Sad dharma Pundarika is astonishingly

supernatural. Like the cosmic form of Krishna in the Bhagavad Gita, he is

depicted as shedding resplendent light, dazzling the enormous space from

hell to the 18,000 regions of Buddhas."

It is a common figure of speech to refer to the qualities of a person as

"nature", for example, "he is good natured", or "her nature is very shy."

From Bhagavad Gita we learn that Krishna is the Eternal Supreme Person

and His nature is all pervading pure consciousness, which is the support of

everything. In other words, everything in existence is an aspect of God's

nature, including our own selves.

Krishna's nature has two broad divisions: spirit and matter. Spirit, which

is eternal, full of knowledge and bliss, is reality. Matter, which is

temporary, full of ignorance and suffering, is the shadow of reality. It is

also called maya, illusion.

In Bhagavad Gita, Krsna declares the living souls to be tiny individual

aspects of His self effulgent spiritual nature. Unfortunately, some souls

have fallen into the darkness of maya, Krishna's shadow, just as sparks

fall out of a fire and lose their original brilliance. These fallen souls are

conditioned by karma, the material law of action and reaction. The law of

karma keeps them bound to the cycle of samsara in ever changingphysical bodies, in which they must suffer birth, disease, old age and

death.

A man's shadow always depends upon that man; he is never dependent

upon his shadow. Similarly, though the material existence depends fully

upon Krishna, He is independent from it, because He is purely spiritual.

Therefore, when He descends into the material world to deliver the fallen

souls, He is never conditioned by karma. He declares to Arjuna, "My

appearance and activities in this world are always divyam (divine)." The

cause for His descent is His infinite compassion for the souls suffering

from ignorance.

Krishna's appearances in this world are like the endless flowing of the

ocean waves they are countless, and they flow across all of the countless

universes. Thus He appears throughout all history in unlimited forms

called avatars (descended ones) to teach the way by which the lost souls

may regain their eternality. Indeed, the very name Krishna means "He

who nullifies (na) the cycle (krish) of repeated birth and death."

According to time, place and circumstances, one avatar may teach

spiritual knowledge in a way different from other avatars, but the aim is

always the same to impel the fallen souls to somehow or other enter the

stream of dharma. "He utters different discourses on dharma which may

differ in their principles, to beings who differ in their mode of life and

intentions and who wander amidst various speculations and perceptions,

in order to generate the roots of good in them." (Sad dharma Pundarika)

Out of countless avatars, ten are especially venerated in the Vedic

scriptures. The ninth is the Buddha avatara, who appears in the

beginning of the age called Kali yuga. There are four great ages of history

that pass in cycles lasting for many thousands of years, just as the yearly

seasons of spring, summer, fall and winter pass in cycles of many days.

Five thousand years ago the earth entered Kali yuga, the Age of

Darkness. The Buddha appeared about 2500 years ago. The Kali yuga

will continue for another 427,000 years. But since the great Yugas or

ages are cyclical, the Buddha will surely appear again in the future, as he

has repeatedly in the past.

What was the Buddha's Mission?

There is a controversy about just what the Buddha taught that will be

looked at in more depth shortly. But for the moment, some basic points

of his teachings that are accepted by all Buddhists may be mentioned.

The Buddha taught that material existence is dukha, miserable. He

taught that there is samudaya, a cause of material existence; and

because there is a cause, there is also nirodha, a way to remove materialexistence. That way is marga, the path of righteousness which the

Buddha himself demonstrated by his own example.

Two ancient Buddhist philosophers, Aryadeva and Chandrakirti, have

written that the marga or path of the Buddha can be summed up in just

two words: ahimsa (non violence) and shunyata (extinction).

Non violence is one of 26 qualities that Sri Krishna counts as daivi

sampat, "of the nature divine." The Buddha's mission of non violence in

the cruel Kali age has won him the eternal praise of a great devotee of

Krishna, Jayadeva Gosvami, who wrote in his famous Sanskrit work Gita

Govinda:

nindasi yajna vidher ahaha shruti jatam

sadaya hrdaya darshita pashu ghatam

keshava dhrita buddha sharira

jaya jagadisha hare

"O Keshava (Krishna), Lord of the Universe, who have assumed the form

of Buddha! All glories to You! O Buddha of compassionate heart, you

decry the slaughtering of poor animals performed according to the rules of

Vedic sacrifice."

At the time of the Buddha, wicked minded Brahmins (so called Vedic

priests) who were devoid of spiritual knowledge were engaging in

wholesale animal slaughter in the name of Vedic rituals. In previous ages,

highly qualified priests and kings used to sometimes perform ritualistic