This weekend we have an excerpt from Pages from the Textbook of Alternate History, by Phong Nguyen. At critical moments in world history, every political, spiritual, and cultural leader foresaw a different destiny. Columbus planned a Western sea route to Asia; Hitler applied to art school twice; Joan of Arc prophesied that she would become a mother. It is out of their failures that history itself is made. But what if the history-makers succeeded in the fulfillment of their best-laid plans? This excerpt follows the alternate history of Siddhartha Gautama. Go here for an interview with the author.
Siddhartha Gautama, “Emperor of Kapilavastu” (c. 563–483 BCE), is known as the ancient world’s most successful conqueror, whose empire spans two continents and encompasses millions of citizens, soldiers, and slaves. Yet accounts from his early life suggest that Siddhartha was once tempted by a different destiny.
Ananda, cousin to Siddhartha, gave this account of the strange circumstances of his birth: “Before Prince Siddhartha Gautama was born, Queen Mahamaya dreamt of giving birth to a white elephant. From this auspicious dream, the 100 astrologers prophesied that her son would become either a great conquerer, or a holy man. But the Queen Mahayama died during the birth of her son, before she could know anything of his fate.
“Suddhodana, the king, hated the thought of his son as an ascetic—self-denying and content with nothingness—a pretender to godliness. So Suddhodana shuttered away his son in a palace as large as a city, away from the sight of human suffering, and gave him every comfort, as long as he vowed never to venture beyond the palace walls.”
Our selection, excerpted below, was written by Channa, Siddartha’s groom, charged with protecting the Prince’s innocence.
It is called the Guardian’s Scroll, as it records Channa’s efforts to protect Prince Siddhartha from the influences of moral and intellectual corruption.
In our home, instead of tears, we had proverbs. Instead of windows, we had murals high as the ceiling and wide as the walls. The great hall was filled with statuary, engraved columns, and bas-reliefs depicting Sakyamuni’s history, each war, each triumph and tragedy in its remote, ancestral glory. In the stories of the ancients, say the court poets, the innocent and proud-hearted prevail over the corrupt.
The palaces in our stone archipelago were lit by a courtyard through which we could see the walls of the palace that stood directly across (one palace for each season of the year). But there were no openings at all that faced outward, toward the world.
Above the Autumn Palace could be seen the head of a tall banyan tree. It was the farthest object the Prince’s eyes had ever witnessed. The banyan tree became the symbol for all of life’s limitations: he could conceive of nothing farther, larger, or more ancient than the old banyan tree. For the Prince and the world had never been introduced.
Instead, the world was brought to him—object by object, pleasure by pleasure. A wreath of jewels, a sculpture of ice, exotic musical instruments and exotic performers to play them. Everywhere were refinements of the soul, fine food and tasteful art, the best of everything made by man—all of it purchased by his oath of isolation—and the best of everything made by god: the beauty of women in the bud of youth; high-flying acrobats and gymnasts performing unnatural feats of flexibility and strength; conjurers weaving impossible illusions; animal curiosities and rare orchids from distant jungles.
The most formidable challenges I faced, as guardian of Siddhartha Gautama, the Sakyamuni, were the most common human acts—the ebb and flow of everyday feeling that threatened at any moment to burst forth like a cracking dam. The longer we deferred the grieving of that child—motherless, free of any suffering that might cause him to compare his present state of contentment with the dawning realization of the world’s temporality—the more I feared its inevitability.
But that tidal wave never came. And every dawn the dying rose was plucked, the dead leaves hid, all evil sights removed: For said the King, “If he shall pass his youth far from such things as move to wistfulness and brooding on the empty eggs of thought, the shadow of his fate, too vast for man, may fade, and I shall see him grow to that great stature of fair sovereignty, when he shall rule all lands—if he will rule—The king of kings and glory of his time.”
In my care, under his father’s roofs, the Prince would indeed become the king of kings and glory of his time, and need never brood on the empty eggs of thought.
Siddhartha’s library was vast and varied, and he had read nearly everything in it. By his eighteenth year, he knew every word of wisdom uttered by every wise man the world had known. Whenever his cousin Ananda came to him with some dilemma or mystery, Siddhartha would always have an answer, but recited it impassively, as though it were merely life’s instructions, evident to anyone with enough clerical acumen to find them.
Since Siddhartha spent so much time cloistered in the library, I too spent my days among the rough hide covers and the oversized scrolls upon which the ancient words were written—the frail and dusty textures of the Prince’s youth. But on the rare occasion when I would cross the threshhold into the world at large, leaving Siddhartha behind, I often returned to find him wandering among the books, pale and hungry from neglect. My other duty was to remind the Prince of his obligations to the body.
I lacked the discipline to know the texts intimately, so I begged Siddhartha to tell me the histories found there. In exchange, Siddhartha asked me to tell him stories of the wider world. Against my better judgment, I indulged the Prince. The most mundane detail could ignite the deepest rapture within the Prince’s heart, coming as it did with the authority of experience, that it was an event to which I had borne witness, and not a relic of the ancients.
But if I anticipated danger in these exchanges, it proved unfounded. It was not possible for Siddhartha to see any connection between the stories in books, and those I told to him about the world. For him, the whole world seemed to exist within the walls of the Four Palaces. And the whole of life seemed to exist in the span between his ears.
There had been moments before in his life when I felt my duty as protector of His Majesty’s innocence was in jeopardy. The first was when Siddhartha was introduced to his teacher, Visvamitra, who, seeing the boy’s innate powers of mind, bowed before the child all the way to the floor, as though he were a god. There was a spark of recognition in the eyes of the Prince, so swift that it passed without notice among all in our company. But, in that moment between the teacher prostrating himself before the Prince as he would a holy man, and his removal, Siddhartha must have secretly glimpsed his other destiny.
Then there was the Prince’s first meeting with Yasodhara, his betrothed, in the circular garden, surrounded by bellflowers. Until this encounter, all the women the Prince had known existed merely for his amusement, but Yasodhara, rather than teasing and titillating the Prince, conversed with him, asking who was responsible for the care of his precious gardens. “I am,” the Prince replied, for he had no way of knowing that each night the garden was tended for him by his servants.
Yasodhara, the King admitted, was unpredictable; her sly instinct for rebellion had been noted, but after all, she herself had had the most sheltered youth of all of Siddhartha’s prospective wives, the most like his own. Yasodhara’s father joked with Suddodhana that he feared his daughter might be too innocent, and unsure of what to do in the marriage bed. But in the end the business of women and men took care of itself.
At the age of 29, Siddhartha became a father. His first wife Yasodhara gave birth to a healthy, flawless boy. No auspicious dreams were recorded. No astrologers were summoned to prophesy his future. And the baby did not stand up and speak as Siddhartha himself was said to have done upon his birth. But when Siddhartha offered to his infant son his hand, the boy seized one finger with unusual force and held it in front of him with both hands. His grip was so powerful that it closed over the finger and locked like a shackle, and so Siddhartha named the boy Rahula, or “fetter.”
When Rahula was but a few days old, he opened his eyes and fixed them on his father’s face. The two princes stared long and long, absorbed in each other’s mutual innocence. The visage of the elder prince—usually deadened with some new pleasure or momentary fancy—was alive with pain.
I do not know what Siddartha felt at that moment. The Prince kept his counsel. But I know what any man must feel when he beholds the fruit of his loin, marking the distance between his unremembered origins and his aging body. It requires no special insight or education to feel life’s quickening, and to apprehend, physically, its import.
But whereas Siddhartha’s birth had filled his father with a fierce resolve to mold him into a man of untold greatness, the revelation brought on by his own son took the form of an uncertainty which would not be reconciled until death.
The greatest threat to our Prince’s purity was a simple chariot ride through the Prince’s pleasure park, not long before the events recounted here. By the will of the gods, an elderly man had found his way inside the palace walls to the park, and looked meaningfully toward us as we trotted in his direction. There were grooves in his forehead and cheeks like rivers cutting gorges into dry land; eyes that were heavy-lidded on top and bottom, so that you could see the full shape of each globe encased within its wrapping; a grizzled brown-gray beard with spots of deep shadow like currants in a bowl of porridge. “What is the matter with that man?” Siddhartha asked, pointing at the old man, innocent of modesty. “Has he been burned, or was he born that way?”
Knowing that the Prince intended to spend the afternoon in the pleasure park, but observing how the gods sought to interfere with my sacred duty, I was struck mute with indecision. But in protecting the Prince’s innocence, I have learned that hesitation in a lie is worse even than steadfastness in the truth. If you reveal any uncertainty, man’s curiosity will prevail.
I answered, “It is a problem afflicting that man only. It is a family curse, and has nothing to do with Your Majesty or his kin.” Then I reined in the mighty horse Kanthaka and turned it around, heading into the palace where there was no old age, sickness, or death.
A hand on my shoulder shook me awake. I looked up from midst a dream of some strange war. In this dream, beasts were turned to children, children were turned to soldiers, and soldiers were turned to demons. For a moment I dwelled in half-dream, shrinking from the approach of a many-toothed demon, until I recognized the voice of Prince Siddhartha. “Channa, I am leaving the palace. I have lived for too long in a decorous prison, and I am thirsty to drink from a fountain that does not flow from Suddodhana’s streams. I must fly. And you must help me. Fetch Kanthaka, and wait for me at the gate.”
“We can leap over it. In all the land, a better steed has never stamped the earth.” Siddhartha made for the door, and I stepped in his way.
“Your Majesty, there are 1,000 guardsmen outside the palace walls, all of whom are sworn to keep us. And beyond the 1,000 guardsmen, there are 1,000 foot soldiers, and beyond the 1,000 foot soldiers, 1,000 cavalrymen.”
“When they see my determination,” said the Prince, “they will part like a river at a crossing.”
My eyes darted around in the darkness, fixing on nothing but shallower depths of the selfsame darkness. “And the King?” I asked.
To this, there was a hair’s width of hesitation. “He was wrong,” said the Prince, as if the King were but another hurdle in his path. “The future cannot be prophesied.”
Donning robe and sandals, I lit a lamp. I could hardly focus, but for the fact that I’d spent my life in fear of this moment and was roused by the thought of my execution.
In the lamplight I continued to search the room for an explanation. “But, Master, why?”
To this inquiry the Prince had already devised an answer. “Because I left my mother’s womb, though it killed her. But I have never left my father’s womb.”
But if it does not kill your father, I ached to say, he will surely kill me. Yet I knew of only one set of hands strong enough to hold the Prince’s reins. “Yes, Your Majesty. The Sakyamuni is righteous, his decrees are just, and wisdom is his birthright. But do this: go to Rahula. Bid farewell to your son, as he will be but an orphan to your memory.”
The Prince wore a smile that was not a smile.
I followed the Prince into his chambers. There lay Rahula, more peaceful than a sage, untroubled by any knowledge that makes one restless in sleep.
Dawn gathered through the windows. In the reddening light, Siddhartha appeared as a sillhouette, a blur, like a double image, a man cleaved in two by the sun’s rays. Half of him reached toward the child and lifted him into his arms; half of him shut his eyes and turned his chin away.
The illusion persisted long enough to convince my senses of its absolute veracity, until the Prince finally coalesced and appeared as he would in the natural world, holding the infant son as he awoke to the morning sounds.
Those wakeful eyes! Those world-absorbing eyes! The infant’s stare had an animal fascination that rendered the Prince’s quest for the self (or the loss of self) irrelevant; what soul was to be found, could be found here; what immortality was to be found, could be found here; what knowledge, what wisdom, what mindfulness . . .
“I am your student,” the elder prince said to his son, his eyes becoming loose and liquid in a way that came upon him unbidden and unforeseen.The child had rendered him into stone, as I had predicted. I thanked the gods, knowing that Siddhartha would not leave the palace as planned. That he would never abandon the world that he knew.
Then came Suddodhana, the king with silent mouth and deafening eyes. Siddhartha turned away and felt still his father’s gaze, as though it were the heat of the sun: a light that skin can feel. He stood in his night garment, a scant wrap that only served as a reminder that the King stood in the arched doorway without his clothes. His face was line-worn from the uneasy sleep of kings, and his body showed all the texture of age. Yet still he projected royalty.
The King was no orator. He began every address to the people by saying, “Speeches are the refuge of men who have failed in action.” But in this moment the King’s silence was greater than the absence of sound—it flowed outward, encompassing the Prince Siddartha, and the young Prince Rahula, who bathed in the warm light of dawn, reflecting it from his infant skin like the curve of the new moon. And when the father spoke, it was without its usual commanding tone.
“Now,” he said, “you know,” and his very voice seemed to hold each of them aloft like a jeweller lifting precious stones one by one to the torchlight.
Because of Channa’s guardianship, Siddhartha would become the ruler that he was ever destined to become.
Though Channa ceased to be active in the court soon after Siddhartha assumed the mantle of King of Sakyas, then Emperor of Kapilavastu and its vast colonies, it was by his influence that the fate of the young Prince did not stray from his father’s path. Few scholars have recognized what careful stewardship it took to protect the Prince from the merest hint of sickness, old age, and death. But if the Prince’s father was its commissioner, then Channa was its executor. Just as the boy Siddhartha grew up learning the great war stories of his forebears, his own victories would, in turn, become a thing of legend, his conquests immortal; his martial legacy unsurpassed in the annals of history.
Suggestions for Class Discussion:
Knowing his infamous bloodlust on the battlefield, could Emperor Siddartha actually have become a sage, as the 100 astrologers predicted? Why was it necessary to keep the Prince away from any evidence of human frailty? How might this have led to a misfire of fate? What does King Suddodhana’s experiment in mental and bodily indulgence say about the soul of man?
This story first appeared in The Mississippi Review