May 17, 2008

Lumbini—the birthplace of the Buddha, the death place of his mother

Lumbini—the birthplace of the Buddha, the death place of his mother

Mahamaya or Maya Devi as they refer to her in Nepal, was the mother of the Buddha. She gave birth to him (and this is historical, not mythological) at Lumbini in the Terrrai area of Nepal, in the foothills of the Shiwalik range. To the visitors’ eye, this terrain is so much like Gorakpur across the man-made border in India. Fields plowed by bullock carts, bicycles aplenty in the small towns, occasional mango or sal groves providing respite from dusty roads. Yes, very much like India.

So we ventured to Lumbini, calling ourselves the Lumbini Ladies. Actually we were planning a trip to Lhasa but the Chinese repression of Tibetan activism put a halt to those plans, so no, it was Lumbini instead. We flew to Bhairahawa on a tiny 16 seater Buddha-Air plane. Unfortunately clouds obscured the magnificent peaks of Fishtail and Everest that day.

Now what I really want to write about is this woman who gave birth to this infant who became enlightened, taught, and started a religion (is it a religion? Yes. If you go to Lumbini and see the balkanization of this site into Theravada, on one side of the river, and Mahayana on the other, you’d definitely say it was a religion.) So many temples and monasteries standing rather pompously representing countries, rather like a UN of Buddhists. But monks are hardly begging, the trappings of money are everywhere.

Maya Devi, the queen of Sakya king Suddhodana of Kapilavastu was on her way to her maternal hometown Devadaha for the birth of her child. According to the pamphlet distributed at the site “While walking through the Lumbini Garden Maya Devi took a bath in the Puskarini and felt labor pains, took the support of the branch of a tree and gave birth to the Holiest prince.”

Three things stand out in this story. First, which I had known before, was that Siddharth was born out of Maya Devi’s side, not the more mundane passage, the birth canal. Supposedly this rather un-physiological phenomenon signifies that the child/male born in this manner is supra-human--so he must be born in a special way. Interestingly, Indra, in the Rig Veda, was also born from his mother’s side—even though his mother begged him not to, saying that it would kill her.

Secondly, which I did not know before, was that Maya Devi died within a week of his birth. Disturbingly, this hearkens back to Indra’s mother’s plea. Do mothers of special male figures often have to die? Or are we to read this maternal death in another fashion? Also interesting is the fact that in the poster images of Maya Devi distributed at the sight, one in calendar art style and another a beautiful marble sculpture, she is depicted as more coquettish than maternal! Actually, as far as I can see there is absolutely no difference between the representations of Maya Devi and those of the Yakshi so common in Indian art. The Yakshi figure is also holding a tree, is svelte and voluptuous.

Thirdly Maya Devi was on her way to her maternal home when she birthed and died. Evidence suggests that her other sisters-in-law, who were also from the same area, Devadaha, did not return to their maternal homes for their deliveries.

What are we to make of all this?

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