By Venerable Piyadassi Thera
When the prince grew up, the father’s fervent wish was that his son should marry, bring up a family, and be his worthy successor; for he often recalled to mind with dread the prediction of the sage Kondañña, and feared that the prince would one day give up home for the homeless life of an ascetic. According to the custom of the time, at the early age of sixteen the prince was married to his cousin, the beautiful Princess Yasodharâ, the only daughter of King Suppabuddha and Queen Pamitâ of the Koliyas. The princess was of the same age as the prince.
His father provided him with the greatest comforts. He had, so the story tells, three palaces, one for each of the Indian year’s three seasons. Lacking nothing of the earthly joys of life, he lived amid song and dance, in luxury and pleasure, knowing nothing of sorrow. Yet all the efforts of the father to hold his son a prisoner to the senses and make him worldly-minded were of no avail. King Suddhodana’s endeavours to keep away life’s miseries from his son’s inquiring eyes only heightened Prince Siddhârtha’s curiosity and his resolute search for truth and Enlightenment. With the advance of age and maturity, the prince began to glimpse the woes of the world.
On one occasion, when the prince went driving with his charioteer Channa to the royal gardens, he saw to his amazement what his eyes had never beheld before: a man weakened with age, and in the last stage of ageing, crying out in a mournful voice:
“Help master! lift me to my feet; oh, help! Or I shall die before I reach my house!”n5
This was the first shock the prince received. The second was the sight of a man, mere skin and bones, supremely unhappy and forlorn, “smitten with some pest. The strength is gone from ham, and loin, and neck, and all the grace and joy of manhood fled.”n6 On a third occasion he saw a band of lamenting kinsmen bearing on their shoulders the corpse of one beloved for cremation. These woeful signs, seen for the first time in his life, deeply moved him. From the charioteer he learned that even he, his beloved Princess Yasodharâ, and his kith and kin,all, without exception, are subject to ageing, disease, and death.
Soon after this the prince saw a recluse moving with measured steps and down-cast eyes, calm and serene, aloof and independent. He was struck by the serene countenance of the man. He learned from Channa that this recluse was one who had abandoned his home to live a life of purity, to seek truth and answer the riddle of life. Thoughts of renunciation flashed through the prince’s mind and in deep contemplation he turned homeward. The heart throb of an agonized and ailing humanity found a responsive echo in his own heart. The more he came in contact with the world outside his palace walls, the more convinced he became that the world was lacking in true happiness. But before reaching the palace he was met by a messenger with the news that a son had been born to Yasodharâ. “A fetter is set upon me,” uttered the prince and returned to the palace.