THE BIRTH OF Siddhārtha Gautama
6th Century BC:
The old nurse looked at her radiant Queen, Maya Devi. She still had the same sweet smile on her face, and nothing seemed to have changed since the day she was born, the day the old nurse picked her up as an infant. Pregnancy only made her glow more like the full moon. She still insisted doing things her way in that same charming captivating way like now, when she went bathing all by herself in the Puskarini pool, even though she was about to give birth in a fortnight. Her nurse watched helplessly as Maya played in the pool, with her friends amidst the pink and white lotus flowers. The nurse sighed, and got up to ready the sleeping arrangements for Maya. Maya had wanted to leave for her father’s home for birthing her child as was the custom of those times. But instead of leaving earlier by a month, she spent more time with her affectionate husband, King Suddodhana, the leader of the Shakya clan. On the way to her father’s place, she wanted to spend the night at the beautiful garden in Lumbini, which meant ‘the lovely.’
Just as the nurse was about to walk away towards the tents, she could sense something waswrong. She turned to see Maya’s face contorting in pain for just a moment. Or did she imagine it? She squinted her near-sighted eyes, and watched intently for a longer moment, and noticed the same expression again. Maya met her gaze, and the nurse knew it was time. She waded mid-pool and quickly helped her out of the water. Maya insisted on walking all the way to the tent without support, wincing during every contraction, supporting her hips with her arms. She did not reach the tent. She took a quick detour and halted below a strong and sturdy sal tree, under the full and bright moon of the first lunar month Vesak, of the New Year. She rested for a moment, as her womb contracted in divine agony. Her nurse held out her hand, but the all-time-self-sufficient Maya supported herself by clutching a branch, and birthed her handsome Prince, whom she named Siddhārtha, the one who achieves his goal. The Gods from heaven showered a stream of lukewarm water to clean the baby, and then another cooler shower. She thanked the Gods silently. As she gazed lovingly at her just born beautiful new baby boy, Siddhārtha walked seven steps on the lotus in the pond, as the lore goes.
Maya passed away 11 days later, leaving Siddhārtha in the hands of her sister Prajapati, who was also the second wife of her husband. Prajapati’s motherly love for Siddhārtha never made him realize the absence of his birth mother. The court astrologers predicted that the Prince would either become a great saint of modern times or a mighty Monarch.
As the story of the Buddha goes, Prince Siddhārtha abandoned the palace and the kingly riches in search of meaning for life and wandered away to the forests, at the age of 29. Through the strictest of penance, he eventually attained Nirvana or enlightenment at the age of 35.
Just before passing away at the age of 80, Buddha told his primary disciple and cousin, Ananda, that Lumbini his birth place would be one of the 4 holiest places which would attract Buddhists for all time.
LUMBINI, BIRTH PLACE OF BUDDHA, UNESCO World Heritage site
2500 years later today, the Lumbini garden remains so, as predicted by Buddha. In my eternal quest for all things Buddhist, I was taken to the serene land of Nepal, which is adorned by the whitest and most beautiful Himalayan Range to the north, and by the rather nondescript town of Lumbini to the South. I won’t go into details of how to reach Lumbini by road/air, where to stay once you reach there, or the best things to do there. You can find all of that in travel websites and travelogues written by travelers and tourists who have visited the place before me and who would visit after me.
For the travel-lusting curios, however, I am going to briefly share my experiences of visiting the Maya Devi temple in Lumbini. This temple is housed inside the Lumbini development complex which also has the Monastic zone and a Lumbini village zone. In 1978, many nations came forward to build monasteries depicting the evolution of Buddhist culture in their countries and I am going to share a few pictures of those different monasteries below. To confuse you further, when you visit, there are many gates to this complex, depending on how you plan to enter. Whichever of the 9 gates you choose, be sure to cover all the monasteries. They are absolutely lovely and unique and give you a flavour of their own respective countries.
A few of the monasteries below …
The Thailand Monastery
One of my favorite monasteries. It stands magnificent in snowy, pristine white glory; embodying purity. It is very well maintained with manicured lawns and neatly trimmed trees.
The insides of the Thai monastery is also very beautiful. The decorations of the Buddha, the culture reflecting in the ornate decorations, information on neat bulletin boards, and so on – all gave a very nicely organized monastery.
The Cambodian Monastery
This monastery reminded me very much of the Angkor Wat temple in its looks and structure. It is still work in progress with construction work going on, and dust billowing towards us, in the heat. We were forced to make a hasty retreat to the other monasteries, though this breath-taking beauty did not stop beckoning us…
The Myanmar Monastery
The Golden monastery from Myanmar decorated with green and gold paint, and a maroon balustrade to match, was a splendid sight from outside and inside too. It is a replica of the monastery in Yangon. My husband’s bucket list grew, with Myanmar as one of the places to visit, before the end of this year, as we breathed in the sight of this beautiful monastery.
The German Monastery
As we kept walking, we came across a circular lake, and on one side there is this beautiful German monastery called, ‘The Great Drigung Kagyud Lotus Stupa’. Do not let this humble, yet beautiful monastery mislead you, for you are about to witness wonder inside it.
As we entered this monastery, we were slowed down. There was not enough time in the world, to complete admiring the beautiful murals on the walls. There was a prayerful atmosphere which the monks tried hard to maintain inside the prayer room. It was simply splendid. I recommend, you sit down for a few minutes to meditate here. No photography is allowed inside, for which I am thankful, because our senses were already assaulted enough, just admiring the murals inside.
At times, I was so glad for these “No photography” signs because Nature was giving us a chance to just sit, allow the beauty to descend into you, both in a way of the senses and also into the heart. No more thinking about Portrait mode or Normal mode or other modes, light exposure, and all those umpteen photography things which my husband and son keep discussing about, but just a mind which needs to calm down, and a heart which needs to look inward.
And we moved on, because a noisy group of tourist arrived and were discussing with the care taker, as to how they could seek permission to take pictures inside the prayer room.
The International Nuns Temple of Nepal
On the right side of the International Nuns Temple, you can see that there is a place of stay for the nuns from Nepal, and is maintained by the Government of Nepal. It has a long courtyard where footwear was not allowed, and as our feet were getting burnt, we were reminded of childhood memories of playing hide and seek with our cousins, during summer break, on the hot terrace at midday. We had to make a hasty retreat this time too, because we could not bear the burning of the hot grounds on our naked feet.
(*If I did not tell you earlier, you are requested to leave your footwear outside most of the monasteries, as a sign of respect and cleanliness.*)
The Singapore Monastery
This was closed and we could not learn much about it. So we resorted to taking pictures of it and us.
The Chinese Monastery
The Chinese have built the biggest monastery in the complex. It is very well maintained and organized with a lot of information displayed. There was so much to assimilate about the culture and history of Buddhism in China and about the monastery itself.
The entrance of the Chinese monastery is guarded by their traditional ‘Four Heavenly Kings’ and other deities. There was even a Maitreya Buddha at the entrance. This is a very beautiful and colorful monastery.
Though the entrance looks not so huge, the courtyard was heavenly. The visitors who entered never felt like leaving. You would also notice that the entry and exit of the monastery is structured such that it makes you circumambulate in clockwise around the Buddha which is a holy practice of Hindus and Buddhists.
World Peace Pagoda
We were then directed towards a path by one of the tourists, saying it led to the Eternal Flame, The World Peace Pagoda and the Maya Devi temple. They are all in a straight line.
As you walk on this path, you can find the golden Bodhisattva statue glistening in the sun. It is a fairly recent addition, in 2012. It is supposed to personify that image of the infant Buddha when he took the seven steps on the lotus, as soon as he was born.
The Maya Devi Temple
Our walk brought us to the Sacred Zone at the Maya Devi Temple. There was an ambience of tranquility in the atmosphere. But something else was also missing. I couldn’t quite sense what, yet. There is a pond beyond which the temple stands tall and majestic, in white serenity. It felt that the temple was celebrating Buddha’s mother rather than the Buddha.
There are rows of small stupas outside the temple. Excavations seemed to be happening continuously since the discovery of the Ashoka pillar in 1896.
King Ashoka in the 249 BC is supposed to have originally discovered Buddha’s birth place and built this iconic pillar with detailed inscriptions and the various stupas around it.
Around the temple building, there are numerous small stupas and they have been archaeologically dated back to the second century BC.
We entered the temple, and began walking on the wooden floor, following the signs. People were throwing coins below into the ruins, as offerings for good luck. We stood above and gazed from the railings, there were coins from different countries. As we kept walking, we finally reached the Marker Stone which marks the exact spot where Buddha was born. Devotees were praying, some tourists were gazing intently trying to capture everything in their memory, as you see, photography is prohibited inside the Maya Devi Temple. The path further leads to the Nativity sculpture where you can see mother Maya Devi holding the branch of a Sal tree and Buddha standing on a lotus. As we walked beyond, the path led to the exit of the temple.
The sun was very bright and almost scorching, and glared my eyes, because the temple was very dimly lit, like the insides of a movie theatre. I waited for a moment, for everything to sink in. Everything seemed like nothing.
I noticed the colorful prayer flags in the garden outside. There was a small pond, and a few monks were sitting around a tree, chatting. There were benches for tourists, and some were meditating on it.
I got the feeling that perhaps it was time to leave.
What did I seek in Lumbini?
As we made our way towards the exit, we halted for a drink of water at the watering pool. A few monks were filling up their plastic bottles too, and we waited patiently for them to move. It gave me a moment to reflect.
When we made this journey, all the way from Chennai, South India, what did I anticipate to find? I was allured to Buddha’s birthplace, but I couldn’t find him here. Lumbini is no doubt a very important and holiest of sites for followers of Buddhism and even followers of other religions and I appreciate the beauty of the Lumbini development zone and commend the effort of the Government to preserve this as place of value and heritage.
However, as I fill up my bottle, with the cool water from the tap, I wonder, “What did I get, which I sought from this visit to the birth place of Buddha?”
Did I get enlightenment like Buddha? But did I seek that? I don’t even know what that means…
Did I seek to find Buddha somewhere hidden in the beautiful monasteries constructed by various countries? Or somewhere near the Marker Stone, which claims he was birthed there?
I was not seeking his physical presence – surely not!
Was I seeking to find some meaning to the strong presence he left behind in this world? Perhaps…! But what of it?
Well, whatever I was seeking or not, I surely was trying to find some essence of Divinity in all of this. One could call it peace, or bliss or a meditative calm or any other word… and it all can be identified with something akin to Divine. But I was vaguely disappointed. I felt generally at peace at a superficial level in some of the monasteries, but I still was trying to figure out what I was searching, assuming that I would know once I found it. And here I was experiencing an anti-climax of having found nothing at all.
My water bottle overflowed and I sensed an impatient monk behind me who was being fidgety with his bottle, tapping it against the railing of the water taps. I closed my bottle and allowed him to use it. He smiled his thanks but I did not have the energy to smile back. I was drained by the heat and my own contemplation.
We walked back along the long path leading to one of the exit gates, each of us silent in our hearts and in our own world.
Long after I came home to India, and decided to write about my experience in Lumbini, I felt emotional about not having experienced Buddha’s presence. I just did not feel him or find him anywhere in Lumbini. It felt like ‘time’ had trapped all of Buddha back in the 6th century BC.
It just felt like memories of Buddha lost in time, accentuated by celebrated tales, and an active humanity in the future which tried to relive the enlightenment of a single man (or God) of the past.
The Ethos of the Heart
As I was wondering about my experience, my friend texted me and offered to have a Heartfulness meditation session, where one meditates on the source of light in the heart. I could not say no. After the session, I felt lighter and peaceful in a general way. Later, I remembered something I read long ago, written by Daaji, the Global Guide of Heartfulness. This seemed to be a fitting climax to my experience.
“Imagine for a moment that we don’t have to go anywhere, or to do anything, except simply sit wherever we are, and allow ourselves to be found? Imagine that heavens are waiting to enter our heart, right here and now! What a powerful concept! How do we make this a reality and allow ourselves to be found? How do we create such a state where the higher presence naturally settles within our hearts?”
He goes on to explain as below …
“The answer possibly lies in cultivating the seeds of contentment within our hearts…
It starts with a simple suggestion that everything we need is already present within us. All the love of the world, the beauty of life, the seed of perfection is present in our heart represented as a source of light. This suggestion is strengthened through actual experience in meditation, as the idea of light leads to a feeling of an inner presence. This inner presence becomes a reality as our consciousness expands, and we become aware of a wholeness of being. When we begin to experience this state of wholeness and perfection at our core, the clouds of discontent and ignorance start to dissolve. The heart regains its light and innocent nature.
Under such circumstances, the egoless heart, the humble heart, automatically draws the heavens towards itself. Such a heart is perfectly adjusted to its external circumstances. It creates heaven around itself.”
I felt light instantly. This seemed to be the missing puzzle to my experience-jigsaw. I had read this article almost 2 years ago, more or less agreed with it, and swiped away to the next article, devouring words and ideas. But the joy of the pudding is not merely in the eating, but in the conscious experiencing of the taste, or the sweet of it. The Universe is so vast, and the world of learning and experiencing is also as broad as the Universe and perhaps even more so. As the human soul tries to imbibe everything or parts of the universe in a quest which is directed external – to new places, new understanding of the senses, and new knowledge, there is something limiting to that, as the façade never fully lifts.
As I try to understand what he meant in the article, I also realize that perhaps humanity is unconsciously seeking an ethos of that content heart, which satisfies itself with everything within, which knows with confidence that indeed the Universe is present within.
What do you look for, when you visit holy lands? Tell me, your experiences …
Photo Credit to the Author.