The gods of northern Buddhism

their history, iconography and progressive evolution through the northern Buddhist countries

by Alice Getty | 1914 | 98,662 words

Indispensable reference for art historians, scholars of Eastern philosophy and religion. Wealth of detailed scholarly information on names, attributes, symbolism, pictorial representations of virtually every major and minor divinity in Mahayana pantheon, as worshipped in Nepal, Tibet, China, Korea, Mongolia, and Japan. 185 black-and-white illustrat...

Part I - Buddha

It is towards the end of the sixth century B.C. [1] that the majority of historians place the birth of Siddhartha, future founder of Buddhism, the son of Prince Suddhodana and of his wife Maya. Prince Suddhodana was one of the chiefs of the tribe of the Sakya in the kingdom of Magadha and belonged to the clan (Gotra) of Gautama. For this reason the name of Gautama Buddha is often, especially among the Southern Buddhists, applied to Siddhartha, in the same way as among the Northern he is generally called Sakya-muni ('muni' having the significance simply of 'wise' or 'saint' in Sanskrit).

The Buddhist books give as the birth-place of Sakyamuni the garden of Lumbini near Kapilavastu, the capital of the little principality of which Suddhodana was chief. It is situated in the north of India at the foot of the Himalaya, near the present frontier of Nepal. In the literature of Buddhism there is no complete biography of Sakya-muni, and one is obliged to reconstruct it from fragments contained in various documents, [2] which have only a single common characteristic — the surrounding of the actual facts by a haze of legends.

The life of Sakya is divided by the Buddhist theologians into twelve 'acts' [3] which can be summarized according to Northern Buddhists as follows:

(I) The Bodhisattva; Sakya-muni descends from the higher heaven (Tushita) to earth in the form of a young white elephant.

(2) He enters into the body of his mother, Maya, by the right side without causing her any pain.

(3) Ten months later he reappears from his mother's body, but with human aspect. His birth, signalized by various prodigies, is honoured by Brahma, Indra, and the other Brahman divinities.

(4) Despite the supernatural powers shown by this child who, at the time of his birth, took seven paces in the four directions corresponding to the four miseries of life (see later), he receives the education reserved for the sons of princes. Losing his mother seven days after his birth, Prince Siddhartha is brought up first of all by his aunt, MahaprajapatI, then taken to school. There, however, he astonishes all his masters by reciting to them everything they desire to teach him and much else besides. In like fashion he proves himself pre-eminent at sports. Nevertheless melancholy pervades his being, and he surrenders himself more and more to meditation.

(5) To dispel his sadness his parents conceive the idea of giving him a wife, and he marries a princess of the Koliya clan, to whom the Buddhist texts ascribe the name of Yasoda or of Gopa. By her he becomes father of a son Kahula. But not the joys of wedded life, nor the pleasures of the harem, nor his love for his son can overcome in the young prince preoccupations of a philosophical and moral kind. The evolution of his thought is well represented in the legend by the symbol of 'the four meetings'. Harassed by the question of the purpose of life, Siddhartha leaves the city in his chariot and falls in with an old man whose decrepit air strikes him. 'We live then to grow old and decrepit!' he cries. In the course of similar wanderings he comes upon a sick man and a funeral procession. 'So this is life', he meditates, 'suffering — then final annihilation!' Fortunately the fourth meeting dissipates his pessimism. Seeing a hermit perfectly calm in his retreat, perfectly happy in his contemplation, the prince divines that the true way of salvation lies in the renunciation of the joys of life, causes of three great evils, old age, sickness, and death, [4] and in the surrender of oneself to contemplation which frees one from the ties of earth.

(6) At the age of twenty-nine or thirty, having failed to obtain from his father leave to adopt the ascetic life, Siddhartha secretly leaves the palace, and abandons wife, children, kinsfolk, concubines, and all his possessions. The legend tells the story of his journey at some length. He sets out on his horse, Kanthaka, under whose shod hooves the gods place their hands lest the noise should waken the guard. At a certain distance from his native town he discards his princely attire for rough garments of orange colour, cuts his hair, and so forth. From this moment Prince Siddhartha deserves the sacred name of Sakya-muni or Gautama. He goes forward on foot 'to seek salvation'; but where is salvation to be sought? At this period India did not lack various sects and schools, metaphysical, religious, and mystical. Among the most widely spread was the school of Sankhya, which taught the doctrine of deliverance from the cycle of renewed births recognized by all the creeds of India. Not less known was the school of Yoga, which was derived from the above, and principally developed the ascetic side of its doctrine. To one of the initiated of this latter school, the monk Alara (or Arada)-Kalama, Sakya-muni applies on reaching the town of Vaisali. Dissatisfied, however, with the monk's teaching, he continues his journey and comes to Rajagriha, the capital of the kingdom of Magadha, where, after refusing the offer made by King Bimbisara of a share of the throne, he retires to the mountains and follows the teaching of a celebrated Yogist, the ascetic Udraka Ramaputra. In its desire to emphasize the originality of the doctrine of Buddha, the legend describes him as equally little satisfied with the instructions of this philosopher, but we are forced to believe that as a matter of fact the young ascetic benefited by the teaching of several masters, for we find in Buddhism more than one fundamental feature of the doctrines of Sankhya, of Yoga, and of other contemporary schools (see later).

(7) The legend shows us Sakya-muni, wearied at last of all these false teachers, seeking in the mortification of the body the solution of the problems which vex him. Leaving the country of Magadha, he retires with five disciples whom he has succeeded in gathering about him, to a desert place in the small district of Urubilva near Gaya. There for six years he gives himself over to the most painful mortifications; he attains to the consumption of a single grain of rice in the day, and ends by reducing himself almost to the condition of a skeleton.

However, finding in asceticism no help towards the solution of the problems of metaphysics and moral philosophy, he changes his system and returns to ordinary life, a course which wins for him the contempt of his five pupils, who stigmatize him as glutton and voluptuary because he accepts a little milk and honey offered by two young village women, the sisters (according to certain versions) Nanda and Nandabala.

(8) Unmoved by these reproaches, Sakya-muni goes forth to the town to-day called Bodh'-Gaya. There he seats himself at the foot of a tree and declares that, though his body may wither away in this position of meditation, he will not leave it until he has attained the 'Bodhi' or perfect knowledge.[5] And one night the miracle happens; Sakya-muni has attained the Bodhi; an inward illumination lays all things open to his understanding.

Successively he gains

  1. the knowledge of previous existences;
  2. the destruction of evil desires;
  3. knowledge of the nexus (incatenation) of the twelve interrelated causes; and finally
  4. complete knowledge in its three divisions (see later).

In a word from his former state of being Bodhisattva he becomes Buddha.

(9) But at what price of superhuman effort has he won this supreme knowledge! To all the causes of difficulty inherent in his task has been added the malevolence of Mara, the Genius of Evil and his personal enemy. Alike during the ascetic life of Sakya at Urubilva and during his sojourn under the Bodhi tree this maleficent being spares no effort, according to the legend, to prevent Sakya from becoming Buddha. At first he tries to turn him from the way of holiness by threats and by loosing against him all the elements of nature and the fury of the armies of evil spirits. Then he seeks to reach him by the attractions of three virgins and numberless beautiful women. But Sakya comes victorious from these trials. It will be recognized that these narratives are a parable, easily comprehensible by the multitude, of the inward strife waged in the soul of Sakya between natural attachment to the outer world and pleasures of life and the total renunciation of the ascetic. In the same way the refusal of Buddha when Mara offers to make him at once into the heavenly Buddha without his passing through the stage of Manushi-Buddha (see p. 9), implies the desire of Sakya to propagate his teaching, to make known to men the true path of salvation, and thus to deliver them from the fated circle of renewed births.

(10) The possession of the Bodhi once attained, Sakya remains yet seven (or seven times seven) days at the foot of the tree in order fully to enjoy his beatitude. Afterwards he goes forth under other trees and walks by the side of rivers and streams where the nagas (serpents) shield him from the rays of the sun with their heads miraculously multiplied and enlarged. This legend, which is of purely Hindu origin (Vishnu was shielded by serpents in exactly the same way), clearly reflects the period of early hesitations and experiments which preceded the actual propagation of the teaching. According to the texts of the Southern Buddhists, this propagation opened with the conversion of two merchants, Trapusa and Bhallika, who are considered by the theologians of Buddhism not as the first disciples, but as lay adherents to the faith (Upasaka in Sanskrit). Just at first the preaching of the new gospel does not seem to have had much success. The environment, it would appear, was not very favourable, for Buddha decided to set out for Benares. On the road towards that city he met an aged 'monk', Upaka, to whom, for the first time, he declared his quality of Arhat (the Saint or 'Worthy') and of Jina (the victorious).

(11) The real propagation of the faith and the foundation of a school and of a community (sangha), after the fashion of the other 'churches' of contemporary India, only began with the arrival at Benares, where Buddha found once more his five original disciples. At first they receive him with contempt, but are quickly converted by the preaching known as dharmacakrapravartana, i.e. the preaching 'of the foundation of the reign of the Law', or literally, 'the turning (or setting in motion) of the wheel of the Law'. For the first time in this discourse Buddha sets forth the foundation of his teaching on 'the four truths' (see later). Conversions become numerous after this success; there is the rich young man Yasas, with his kinsfolk and dependants; then at Urubilva we find the thousand Brahmans whose leaders, the brothers Kasyapa, become the first apostles of the new faith; and many more besides. Lastly, Bimbisara, king of Magadha, with the majority of his people, adopts the Buddhist doctrine, and presents to Buddha the 'Park of bamboos' (Veluvana) near Rajagriha, which becomes the head-quarters of the community. There are converted Sariputra and Maudgalyayana, the two chief followers of Buddha.

(12) The Buddhist documents are sparing of detail about the forty-five later years of Buddha's life, consecrated to the propagation of his teaching and to the organization of the monastic communities. They give, however, the description of his division of his day; narratives of the attacks directed against him by his cousin, the renegade Devadatta, who was eventually converted, and by the six jealous enemies designated collectively as Tirthika; the story of his journey to the city of his birth, Kapilavastu, where he converts his father, and where all the inhabitants become monastics; the foundation of a community of nuns in this city by Gautami, aunt of Sakya; the conversion of Rahula, the son of Buddha; the donation by the courtesan Amrapali; finally, the wars which brought ruin to the fatherland of Sakya. On the other hand, there are in the Buddhist works abundant details about the death of Sakya-muni. When over eighty years of age, Buddha sets out for the town of Kusinagara, capital of the Malla tribe.

Thence he goes to the village of Pava, where he eats a meal offered him by the blacksmith Cunda. Unable to digest the unhealthy food, Buddha falls ill, and, feeling death at hand, he lays him down on his right side, his head turned towards the north, and gives to his faithful disciple and lieutenant, Ananda, his last instructions for the organization of the community. Warned by Ananda, the people of the Malla tribe (and even the beasts, avers the legend) assemble around the dying master, who speaks a last word on the vanity of all things that are, and on the necessity of seeking salvation in meditation and the renunciation of worldly pleasures. After seven days of prayer, music, and ceremonies, in which all the living creatures share, the body of Buddha is burnt, and the ashes, distributed among several kings and peoples, are preserved in eight funerary monuments (see Stupa in the Glossary).[6]

One of these groups of relics has recently been discovered (in 1908) in its reliquary of silver, which was the work of a Greek artist, and bears inscriptions. The precious casket was buried under a Stupa, raised by King Kanishka, near the city of Peshawar. The date of Buddha's death was probably 477 b. c.

Footnotes and references:


For details see p. 15.


The 'Jataka' or 'Adventures of Buddha in previous Incarnations', with their introduction and commentaries in the Pali language (a dialect intermediary between Sanskrit and Prakrit, the sacred language of the Southern Buddhists), carry us only to the moment when Sakya-muni, after attaining perfect knowledge (Bodhi), begins his preaching. The Lalita Vistara (in Tibetan Rgya-cer-rol-pa) and the Mahavastu of the Northern Buddhists supply us with only very few new elements. Some fragments touching on the end of the life of 'Bhagavat' (the Blessed One) are to be found in the Vinaya (the most ancient portion of the Pali canon), &c.


Cf. Foucher — Une liste indienne des Actes du Buddha. Paris, 1908 (Ecole prat. des hautes etudes).


In certain Buddhist writings birth is added, thus making the evils of life four.


There is still shown at the present time in Bodh'-Gaya, a fig-tiee bearing the name of 'The Tree of Bodhi', under the shadow of which legend declares the founder of Buddhism to have sat.


Certain Buddhist texts divide this last 'act' into two — the death nnd the distribution of the relics, while they make into a single 'act' those events here given under numbers 9 and 10. Our present division is the more orthodox for Northern Budhists. It figures, for instance, in the catechism taught to Mongol children. Properly to emphasize all the details of the life of Buddha a division into sixty-four paragraphs should be made of the story, as was done by Foucher in the memoir cited dabove (p. xviii, n.).

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