Murli Melwani

Siddharta’s Dilemma

Siddharta’s skin tingled at the touch of water as he stepped into the Phalgo River. He closed his eyes and felt the walk-weary ache in his body ease. Six long years ago he had left his prince’s life. He had walked, sometimes alone, sometimes in the company of seekers. He had asked holy men questions. He had practiced meditation under two of the best known teachers in India.

As Siddharta got out of the Phalgo River, he saw a huge peepal tree, a species of banyan fig, shading a grove. The heart-shaped leaves of the peepal tree dangled on graceful stalks, the long tapering tips swaying gently. He walked to the grove.  Hills on three sides horse-shoe-ed the grove. The silence was soothing as was the rhythm of the river’s wash against the bank. Siddhartha decided to take a leisurely walk before sitting down to meditate under the peepal tree.

A soft breeze ruffled Siddharta’s robe as he walked to a low brick wall to the north of the peepal tree. The wall had been built to retain earth from being eroded by heavy rains. Siddhartha touched its rough surface and marveled at the ability of man to build material safeguards for himself.  He wished man devoted the same energy to ministering to his inner life.  He walked twice more round the grove before lowering himself into the lotus position at the base of the peepal tree.

His travels, discussions with holy men, study under teachers pointed to one conclusion: he had learnt all the lessons the outside world had to teach him. The answers to the mystery of the Ultimate Reality had to come from within. His intuition told him that he was close to the end of his journey.

Convinced of this certainty, he promised himself that he would not rise until he had found what he sought – no matters how many days, weeks, months it took.

From the time he left his palace, Siddharta shut out all memories of his past. Not because he was afraid that they might weaken his resolve, but because he feared that they would distract him, and could push his goal further back.  Now he opened the stage to his memories, knowing, in his detachment, that they had no power to affect him.

Siddhartha saw himself standing at the entrance to his chamber, looking at his wife Yasodhara holding his son, the baby Rahula, her face in calm repose. He could have taken three steps and lay down beside them.  He knew that once he took those three steps he would close for himself the option his horoscope said was his. At his birth the astrologers predicted that Siddharta would choose the path of his greatness: to be a king who would rule with benevolence and justice or become a holy man and lead multitudes to spiritual fulfillment.

With one backward look at his wife and son, Siddharta rode out with Channa, his charioteer and companion, to a clearing in the forest. He felt no emotion as he stripped off his prince’s robes, rings and ornaments or when a reluctant Channa acceded to his request to cut his hair.

The memory of his first morning as a monk caused a slight stir in him. Siddharta had shivered in the cold of dawn. His body had been covered with mosquito bites. As he walked, the rough surface of the road had pinched his feet. He was thirsty and hungry by the time he came upon a hut at the edge of a village.

He did not know how to ask for alms.

The villager, Khahsha, recognized the prince but did not reveal the fact. Khahsha invited him into the house, fed him, brought him two saffron lengths of coarse cloth, a begging bowl and ashes to rub on his body to keep away mosquitos. Khahsha instructed Siddharta in the culture of the seekers as they moved from place to place.

The road was a long one. The weather, whatever the season, was seldom kind to the wanderer. Siddhartha ate the food he was given, unappetizing, sometimes stale, because not exercising choice was part of his discipline as a seeker.

He was often surprised at the low goals most seekers set themselves –the fulfillment of a vow, escape from a personal tragedy, rebirth to a better station in life. Siddharta made himself a student to fellow travelers. He approached every holy man he heard of with his questions. In time he came to Alara Kalama, one of best teachers of meditation in the country at the time.

Alara Kalama’s hermitage lay on the outskirts of Vaisali, popularly called The City of Courtesans. The irony did not escape Siddhartha. The metaphor of the lotus flower that grows in the dirt but is unsullied by it, crossed his mind.

Siddharta reached the hermitage just before the monsoons broke.  He submitted himself to Alara Kalama’s regimen of breathing exercises, long hours of meditation, and an occasional lecture.

Kalama’s discipline took Siddhartha to the seventh level in meditation. After mastering the technique, Siddharta asked Alara Kalama whether he could teach him anything more.

“No, that is how far my experience extends.”

The teacher blessed him as Siddharta left his hermitage and renewed his search.

Siddhartha heard of another teacher, Udaka Ramaputta, when he approached the city of Rajgraha, where once, as his father’s representative, he had travelled in pomp. Udaka Ramaputta taught a technique that took a meditator a stage higher than Alara Kalama’s.

Udaka Ramaputta’s hermitage, a series of small interlinked caves with flat stones as meditation seats, was on a plateau on the side of a hill. Siddharta joined the five other novices of Ramaputta.

Siddhartha lost count of time as the days and hours of meditation carried him into states between the conscious and the unconscious. His mind told him – as it had when he left Alara Kalama – that he was moving closer to what he sought.

Udaka Ramaputta’s parting advice was: “Wisdom arises from within. You cannot discover what you don’t have”

These words remained with Siddharta as he went on the road again and were, perhaps, the inspiration for the thought that the spirit emerges as the bondage of flesh is shed. He had tried the path of meditation. It was time to give asceticism a try.

Rising above the village of Uruvela, outside the city of Gaya, was the Gayasirsha Hill. Its terraced formation afforded many ledges. Siddharta choose a small cave with a ledge. It turned out that five seekers who had been his fellow students under Udaka Ramaputta – Kondanna, Bhaddiya, Vappa, Mahanama and Assaji – occupied a larger cave further up the hill.

While the five undertook to eat a small meal once a day Siddharta kept extending the interval between meals: a meal every two day, a meal every three days, till it became a meal once a fortnight. Then he moved on to wild roots and herbs. He reached a stage where if he touched his abdomen he could feel his backbone. He had become a ribcage on stilts.

“New light cannot be gained by him who has lost his strength and is wearied with hunger and thirst, his mind no longer self-possessed through fatigue.”

Siddharta did not know whether these words were a whisper from outside or a thought in his head.

A village elder’s daughter, Sujata, found Siddharta lying on the road when he ventured down the hillside. Sujata and her father, Senani, carried Siddhartha home and nursed and fed him. He remained in their care for four months during the ensuing monsoon season. These months gave Siddharta time to reflect and recuperate.

“How could he who is not absolutely calm reach the end that is to be attained by his mind? True calm can come when the body’s wants are satisfied.”

And now under the peepal tree, his memories played out, Siddharta shut his eyes and settled down to begin his long, aditthana meditation. He concentrated on his breath. He observed it glide noiselessly like a butterfly’s wing on his upper lip. In no time the breath vanished. Siddharta became aware of sensations in his body. The sensations grew subtler and subtler, till they too vanished. Only space, vast, limitless existed.

Siddhartha was lost to the world of the senses for forty nine days.

When he returned to it, nature wore the garb of a different season. The moon, almost full now, told him that it was the month of Vesak, April-May.

He became aware of movement, of the subdued sounds of the forest, the casual brush of an animal against grass, the hum of insects, the occasional shrieks of monkeys. Sometimes two huge snakes slithered in his line of vision but did not disturb him.

The denizens of the forest had no fear of him nor he of them.

Siddharta felt that he was a different person now. The questions he had asked himself and others on the road did not trouble him; indeed they did not arise. Insight had been gifted to him.

On the night of the full moon, he saw not far from him a form sitting in the lotus position.

“You have suffered much. You have seen and heard much. Did you find what you were looking for?” the form asked Siddharta.

Before Siddharta could answer, delightful, sensuous music filled the forest. Three dancers, indescribably beautiful, dressed in the most colorful costumes choreographed fluid movements and gestures. The message of their dances was that penance and suffering had no meaning; there was no past or future; life had to be lived in the present.

“I can give you any worldly gifts you ask. I have more power than God, than the gods.”

At these words the forest changed into a landscape of palaces, open fields, sparkling streams, youthful men and women with happy expressions.

Siddharta recalled the teachings of the priests: Mara was the tempter of mankind. He was Evil personified.

“Mara,” said Siddharta. “You are my last test. I’ll pass that too.”

Mara paraded a kaleidoscope of delights. Siddharta was unmoved.

There was silence in the gorgeous world.

After a few minutes, Siddharta said, “We are our own tempters. We hide our Maras within ourselves. We are own deceivers. I have shed you from within myself. Mara, you don’t exist.”
The gorgeous world shrank to a haze. Mara, the form sitting opposite, Siddharta dissolved. There remained only the forest, the peepal tree, and silence.

In his final test, Siddharta told himself, he had neither overcome evil nor embraced good. He had detached himself from both, as he had from joy, pain, anger and ignorance. His state was one of pure emotionless clarity.

Among the first of Siddharta’s words after his enlightenment were: “Seeking but not finding the house builder, I traveled through the round of countless births. Oh, painful is birth ever and again! House builder you have now been seen. You shall not build the house again. Your rafters have been broken down; your ridge-pole is demolished too. My mind has now attained the unformed Nirvana and reached the end of every kind of craving.”

It was the night of that significant symbol of his life, the full moon, the same moon that had witnessed his birth under a tree thirty five years ago, the same that would preside over his passing on forty five years later.

Siddharta sat for a number of days under the peepal tree, pondering a dilemma. He could devote himself to his personal perfection on earth.

Siddharta re-phrased the thought. He had set out to find out why we are born, why we suffer, why we are reborn to suffer again and again. Had he surrendered everything in life, comfort, the love of  Yasodhara, his wife, the joy of raising a child, Rahula, his high rank, his personality to lead his people to peace, justice and prosperity, so that the fruits of his quest should  be his alone?

How much more noble would it be if that surrender had been made for the sake of others, to discover knowledge and share it with them, so that other Siddharthas did not leave their Yasodharas and Rahulas to discover meaning for themselves. Shouldn’t his decision be to gift away what he had discovered?

It would take a moment to enter Nirvana. Shouldn’t he once again surrender all that was his now, his spiritual wealth, and walk the road again and scatter his certainty like seed on fertile and even on infertile ground?

Siddhartha sat under the peepal tree, pondering his dilemma – for a number of days.

An image came into his mind: a teacher standing on a hilltop; the base of the hill surrounded by people who suffered. The teacher had distilled wisdom, understood suffering and the means to remove it. Should not compassion move him to share his answers with the less fortunate?

In the end he decided he would walk the road again.

But his decision birthed another dilemma.

How much of what he knew should he share? Men and women of sharp intelligence would come to listen to him; so would men and women whose understanding was limited; so would men and women whose perception lay between these two extremes.

Men and women who through their own efforts or because of teachers had attained a certain rung on the ladder of spiritual evolution would come to evaluate their experience against his words; men and women of no attainment, out of idle curiosity, would  also come to hear his words.

A teacher who was motivated to help others had as much choice in selecting his listeners as did a monk in refusing the food that was placed in his bowl – none.

These questions related to the substance, the matter of his teachings. What about the manner? How to determine the common denominator of communication for listeners who ranged from illiterate villagers to scholars?

Then there was the matter of established traditions and religious beliefs. “It is hard for men to free themselves from the entanglement of God and soul. It is hard for mankind to give up its beliefs in rites and ceremonies.”

True, rituals and ceremonies gave men and women solace but they also tied them up in blind, sometimes irrational, custom.  There was a need to refine these traditions and beliefs; they could then be of greater value to the followers. It took ages to build up institutions and traditions; change, therefore, had to come with a chisel, not a sledge-hammer. Siddhartha did not see himself as an iconoclast. He was at best a reformer.

Siddhartha’s dilemma extended to specifics too.

How, for example, to explain the mystery of creation, of the existence of eternal laws of reality and illusion to men and women of varying levels of experience and understanding?

Issues of religion, morality and ethics led to much speculation. Speculation often became an end in itself. And speculation clouded understanding.

Next he considered the angle he should take to share his message.

The forest was full of leaves. A man could gather, and hold, only so much in his fist.

That was it. The metaphor expressed the boundaries within which he would confine his message.

Such an approach would teach people to watch their thoughts and actions. Such men would avoid evil. They would grow spiritually. Their experience would blossom into knowledge. With knowledge would come wisdom. With wisdom would come an intuitive understanding of life. When that intuitive understanding was born, all the leaves of the forest would be theirs’.

Once Siddhartha had resolved his dilemma, his first wish was to share his knowledge and the core of his teaching with the two teachers from whom he had learnt much, Alara Kalama and Udaka Ramaputta. He thought of them and his spiritual perception told him that they were dead. He then thought of the five seekers, Kondanna, Bhaddiya, Vappa, Mahanama and Assaji, who had fasted with him on the hillside in Uruvella. He would like them to be the first to hear his teaching.

He saw that were in the Deer Park in Sarnath.  Siddhartha set out to meet them.

He found the five men on the edge of the Deer Park. They saw Siddhartha but did not greet him because they felt that he had broken the unstated understanding of fasting their way to enlightenment.   But as he approached, they saw majesty in his face and bearing. They forgot their anger and welcomed him.

“I have found the way to deathlessness. Let me tell you. And if you listen, learn and practice, very soon you will know for yourselves, not in some future life, but here and now, in this present lifetime, the state that is beyond all life and death.”

“Where is the way?’ Kondanna asked.

“It is here. It is everywhere. It is the Middle Way. Neither abstinence from fish nor flesh, nor going naked, nor shaving the head, nor wearing matted, nor dressing in a rough garment, nor covering with dirt,  will cleanse a man who is not free from delusions.”

The five asked Siddharta to tell them about the Middle Way.

“The Middle Way follows the Wheel of Dharma, the Wheel of Law. We are what we think, having become what we thought. Like the wheel that follows an ox pulling a cart, sorrow follows an evil thought. And happiness follows a pure thought like a shadow attached to a man.”

Siddharta expounded on the Four Noble Truths: the origin of suffering; the cause of suffering; the cessation of suffering; the path that frees us from suffering.

The five seekers listened with rapt attention as Siddhartha talked about the path that frees us from suffering. It was the Eightfold Path: Right Outlook, Right Intention, Right Speech, Right Action, Right Livelihood, Right Effort, Right Mindfulness, Right Concentration.

Siddharta was no more.  The Buddha had spoken.  And, with the Sermon at Sarnath, delivered  in July, 528 B.C., the Buddha had, with his message of tolerance, non-violence, compassion, reason, change and the belief that we have freedom to choose our fate , opened a new chapter in the religious  and spiritual history of the world.


Siddhartha’s Dilemma was first published in Literature Studio Review (fiction editor: Kathyn Bettrell). Here’s the link to the original: please scroll down to page 23

Kathryn Brettell               Siddhartha’s Dilemma touched my soul. Expertly written. I am so proud you trusted me with your words Mr. Melwani. Thank you.