I have been watching The Buddha on Netflix, and although I came well-prepared to scoff, there is a surprising amount of food for thought from a Pureland perspective. What follows is a review of the Pureland touches in the episode, coloured inevitably by my upbringing in India, although I have now lived in Britain for more than half my life.
The scene opens in the republic of Kapilavastu, depicted as a green and pleasant land, with the Himalayan mountains as a backdrop. (I was surprised at the opulence and bold colours of the sets; this series certainly does not have the local-theatre look of the 1980s Indian productions of the Ramayana and the Mahabharata.)
The king, Suddhodhana, is shown riding home at the head of a victorious army, having put down several rebellious tribes.
The town crier announces the news throughout Kapilavastu and the younger queen, Prajapati, rushes to tell her sister and principal queen, Mahamaya ('Great Illusion'). Maya is shown playing blind man's buff with a number of children, but when she catches one of them and takes off her blindfold, there is only a single child - Devdutt, who is, of course, the Buddha's older cousin and will be his great rival. It turns out that Maya has envisioned the many children out of her longing to be a mother, and she makes Devdutt fulfil his promise to call her 'Mother', so that she can briefly imagine that she has a child. Prajapati, greatly saddened, witnesses her sister's grief.
Maya does not want to receive the king at the city gates, protesting that she is barren and therefore 'inauspicious'. However, Prajapati too has failed to bear him children, so she convinces her sister to keep calm and carry on, as it were.
When the queens are reunited with the king, he too expresses his sorrow at this one lack in his life, although he is very loving towards Maya (this is certainly not the traditional way of things in India, where a woman who fails to bear sons is considered not fit for purpose - the traditional marriage blessing being 'May you be the mother of a hundred sons').
The king, together with the queens, decides to conduct the Heir-Bearing sacrifice to propitiate the Sun God, his original ancestor. The Sun God blesses the royal family, and for cinematic purposes, it appears to be a 'one night' deal. Prajapati voluntarily yields her place to her sister, and Maya gets her long-cherished wish to become a mother.
What is touching about the scenes between the sisters is that the affection between them as adults feels very real. The traditional Indian woman had to leave her family home and all her relatives when she married, not being able to visit her birth family without the permission of her 'new' family. Indian weddings were an occasion for much sorrow in the bride's family, and in all the trials that a wife was expected to submit to, one's sisters - even if only contactable by the occasional phone call or letter, as in Vikram Seth’s novel A Suitable Boy - are a vital source of support. Tradition disapproves of two sisters marrying into the same family, since they might form an organised front and challenge the mother-in-law's established order. Maya was therefore very astute to convince the king to marry Prajapati, rather than an unknown woman, when she felt she could not give the king children (according to the episode anyway, I remember no such intrigues detailed in the Pali canon).
Maya is the good and beautiful wife, Prajapati is the dutiful and loving sister…and at this point the episode takes a sharp turn off the Pali canon and introduces (drum roll) the favoured scapegoat of the Indian epic. This is the scheming mother, corrupted by ambitions for her son, who brings about the destruction of the entire family. As a child learning the Buddha’s story in India (every Hindu child does) nowhere did Devdutt’s mother figure in the story, but here she is named Mangala and figures prominently. This seems a direct importation from the Ramayana, where Kaikeyi is the corrupted queen who causes the death of the king, the exile of the god Rama, and the eclipse of the dynasty.
The episode is tedious in the number of ‘She’s behind you!’ moments, with Mangala as the pantomime villain repeatedly trying to harm Maya, so as to prevent the new heir coming between Devdutt and the throne. She even persuades Maya to travel all the way to her parents’ kingdom for the birth, whereas in canon, this is the accepted custom. I suppose the directors had to have what we Indians call masala (spice) – generally wall-to-wall drama with conflict and emotions in bold primary colours exploding all over the place. No British understatement here, thank you very much.
Poor Mangala is noticeably darker than the fairer queens – in line with the traditional skin colour of Hindu demons. (The first question asked of any prospective bride is: is she fair? Whatever other assets an Indian woman may have, dark skin will always be an enormous liability when she attempts to marry. I have no difficulty believing that this was so in the Buddha’s time as well, and one can only wonder at the scale of his achievement in creating the world’s first order of nuns, giving women of all classes a worthy alternative to marriage.)
Luckily for me, the episode reverted to canon for the depiction of the much-loved moment of the Bodhisattva’s conception, with Maya dreaming of a red-caparisoned elephant, pure white and adorned with golden ornaments, flying towards her with a red lotus in its trunk. The crucial moment is somewhat bowdlerised, because the episode’s Disney-looking elephant chastely drops the lotus on her stomach, whereas in canon it pierces her flank and enters within. But I am not complaining, I promise. As a child, I thought it a charming detail (which child doesn't love a flying elephant?) and it has lost none of its charm with the passage of time.
This vision somehow feels extremely Pureland, and it makes complete sense that it is a result of Maya’s bhakti, or devotion, and anguished longing for a child.
There are also some very moving Pureland moments as the episode closes.
There is the joy of Maya and Prajapati when the baby is born in Lumbini gardens, with the thick black hair and large black eyes of all Indian babies. The baby is shown smiling lovingly at Maya.
Far away in the Himalayas, the sage Asita who has been waiting and praying for the Deliverer is granted a vision. This is depicted in a highly stylized manner. The sage sees the royal company in Lumbini gardens. It is night, but the brilliance of the full moon low in the sky lights up a very young, curly-headed boy in a white robe, laughing and running towards him. The child is surrounded entirely by a white halo and with each step that he takes, lotuses bloom in the grass.
The moment reminds me of the presentation of Jesus in the temple. According to the narrative in Luke, Simeon was a devout Jew who had been promised by the Holy Spirit that he would not die until he had seen the Messiah. He takes the baby Jesus in his arms and utters the famous words in the Canticle of Simeon:
Nunc dimittis servum tuum, Domine, secundum verbum tuum in pace:
Quia viderunt oculi mei salutare tuum
Now dismiss, O Lord, thy servant, in peace according to thy word:
For mine eyes have seen thy salvation.
What is very moving is the longing of Maya and of Asita, and their ecstasy at the fulfilment of all their hopes.
When the king is informed, he does not have any truck with visions, but reveals his ambitions. He expresses his determination that his heir will be a great warrior. There is much approving sabre-rattling at this pronouncement, so the king repeats it, adding for good measure that he himself is only a king, but this child will be the king of all kings.
Some parents will always have grand ambitions for their children; whether or not they are ultimately disappointed is not in their hands.
We are left with the contrast between Suddhodhana's and Mangala's ambitions and Maya's and Asita's visions.
A very Pureland end to the episode. Namo Amida Bu.
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