The Kingdom of Sakya, 563 BCE
One crisp spring day King Suddhodana turned in his saddle to survey the battlefield. He needed a weakness to exploit, and he was confident the enemy had left one for him. They always did. His senses were closed to everything else. Screams of the wounded and dying were heightened by the hoarse commands of his officers bellowing orders and calling on the gods for help. Torn by hooves and elephants’ feet, cut by iron-rimmed chariot wheels, the land oozed blood as if the earth itself were mortally wounded.
“More soldiers! I want more soldiers now!” Suddhodana didn’t wait for anyone to obey. “If any man within the sound of my voice runs away, I will kill him personally!” Charioteers and infantry moved toward the king, battered figures so filthy with fighting they could have been demiurges fashioned from the mud of the field. Suddhodana was a warrior king, and the first thing to know about him is this: he mistook himself for a god. Along with his army, the king would kneel in the temple and pray before he went to war, but he put no trust in divine help. Leaving the gates of the capital behind, Suddhodana turned his head for one last look at home. But as the miles lengthened from Kapilavastu, his mood changed. By the time he came to the battlefield, its roiling activity and the smells that assaulted his nostrils—straw and blood, soldiers’ sweat and dying horses—carried Suddhodana into another world. It smothered him completely in the belief that he could never lose.
The present campaign wasn’t of his doing. Ravi Santhanam, a northern warlord along the Nepalese border, had taken one of Suddhodana’s trade caravans in a surprise attack. Suddhodana’s retaliation came almost immediately. Even though the warlord’s men had the advantage of the high ground and home terrain, Suddhodana’s forces steadily chewed into their holdings.
Horses and elephants trampled over the fallen, dead or still alive but too weak to escape. Suddhodana guided his mount next to the belly of a rearing bull elephant, narrowly avoiding the massive feet as they plunged downward. Half a dozen arrows had pierced it, driving the beast into a frenzy. “I want a new line of chariots, close file!” He had seen where the enemy front was exhausted and ready to buckle. A dozen more chariots pulled up in advance of the infantry. Their metalbound wheels clattered across the hard ground. The charioteers had archers standing behind them who unleashed arrows into the warlord’s army.
“Make a moving wall,” Suddhodana shouted. “I want to crush their line.”
His charioteers were experienced veterans; they were hardfaced, merciless men. Suddhodana rode slowly before them, ignoring the strife only a short distance away. He spoke quietly. “The gods command that there can be only one king. But I swear that I am no better than a common soldier today, and you are as good as kings. Each man here is part of me. So what’s left for the king to say? Only two words, but they are the two that your hearts want to hear. Victory. And home!” Then his command cracked like a whip. “All together—move!” Both armies rushed screaming into the breach like opposing oceans. Violence brought contentment to Suddhodana. His sword whirled as he split a man’s head with a single blow. His wall was advancing, and if the gods willed it, as they had to will it, the enemy forces would open, one corpse at a time, until Suddhodana’s infantry moved in, a tight wedge gliding forward on enemy blood. The king would have scoffed at anyone who denied that he was at the very center of the world.
At that hour Suddhodana’s queen was being carried in a litter through the depths of the forest. She was ten months pregnant, a sign, the astrologers said, that the baby would be extraordinary. But in Queen Maya’s mind nothing was extraordinary except the anxiety that surrounded her. She had decided, much too impetuously, to travel back to her mother’s home to have her baby. Suddhodana hadn’t wanted to let her go. It was the custom for new mothers to go home to deliver, but he and Maya were inseparable. He was tempted to refuse, until in her guileless way Maya asked his permission in front of the assembled court. The king couldn’t refuse his queen publicly, despite the dangers involved. “Who will accompany you?” he asked with an edge of harshness, hoping to frighten her away from this foolhardy plan.
He raised his hand in grudging assent. “You’ll have some men, whoever can be spared.”
Maya smiled and withdrew. Suddhodana didn’t want to argue, because in truth his wife mystified him. Making her afraid of danger was futile. The physical world was like a thin membrane she glided over, as a midge glides over the surface of a pond without breaking the water’s skin. Therefore, the world could touch Maya, move her, hurt her, but never change her.
The queen departed from Kapilavastu a day before the army. Kumbira, the eldest court lady, rode at the head of the procession as it moved through the forest. It was a meager company, consisting of six soldiers too old to serve in the war astride six nags too weak to charge the enemy. After them came four litter bearers, who had taken off their shoes to negotiate the stony path, shouldering the tasseled and beaded palanquin bearing the young queen. Maya made no sound hidden behind the swaying silk drapes, except for a stifled moan whenever a bearer stumbled and the litter took a sharp jolt. Three young ladies-in-waiting, who grumbled in low voices about having to walk, brought up the rear.
“She can’t hold out much longer,” Kumbira said. “And I can’t make the road any shorter,” Balgangadhar grumbled.
“What you can do is hurry,” she snapped. Kumbira knew he was ashamed at not being with the king in battle, but Suddhodana wanted one elite guard to honor his wife. With the slightest bow from the shoulders that etiquette permitted, the guard said, “I’ll scout up ahead for camp. The locals say there’s a woodcutter’s clearing with some huts in it.”
“No, we move together,” Kumbira protested.
“There are other men here to protect you while I’m gone.”
“Really?” Kumbira cast a critical eye over her shoulder at the ragged band. “And who will protect them, do you suppose?”
They will tell you that Maya Devi—the goddess Maya, as she became known—arrived by moonlight in Lumbini Grove, one of the most sacred sites in the kingdom. They will tell you that she did not give birth in the forest by accident. Destiny guided her there. She expressly wanted to visit the sacred grove because a huge tree stood there like a pillar to the mother goddess. Maya’s premonition had told her that this birth would be sacred. In reality she was a frightened, fragile young woman who barely escaped being lost in the wilderness. And the sacred tree? Maya clung to the trunk of a large sal tree because it was the closest and most common tree in the clearing. Balgangadhar had found a sheltered place beside the trail, and the royal palanquin arrived there only moments before Maya went into the final stages of labor. The court ladies formed a close circle around her. She held on tight, and deep in the night she was delivered of the son her husband the king so desperately wanted.
Kumbira died long before the legends grew, so she is not pictured in them, barking commands to the scurrying women, shooing away the men, nearly scalding herself to bring a kettle of water on the run from the bonfire. It was she who first held the baby. Tenderly she scrubbed the blood from his tiny body, making the squalling newborn ready to show to Maya. The queen lay quietly on the ground, almost listless. The first nursing, an important ritual in the native custom, would come in the morning. Despite the baby’s apparent good health, Kumbira was worried, made anxious by every nocturnal sound but most of all by Maya’s labor, which had been too long and painful. “Now my husband can die happy,” Maya whispered in a tired, weak voice. “And I will not be cursed when I am gone.” Kumbira started. How could Maya think about death at that moment?
Kumbira’s eyes searched the darkness surrounding their stranded camp. The younger court ladies were full of praise for the brave new mother, relieved that the ordeal had come to an end, buoyant at the prospect of returning home to their soft beds and paramours.
Their happiness increased when the full moon, an auspicious omen, rose over the treetops. “Here, Your Highness,” said Utpatti, one of the handmaidens, leaning close. “There is something you must do.” Before anyone could stop her, Utpatti opened Maya’s robe and exposed her breasts. Embarrassed and confused, Maya quickly pulled her robe together again with one hand. “What are you doing?” she demanded. Utpatti drew back. “It will help with the milk, Your Highness,” she whispered, looking unsure of herself. She gave sidelong glances at the other women. “Having moonlight on your breasts. Country women all know that.”
“Are you from the country?” Maya asked. The others tittered. Making a show of not being bothered by them, Utpatti said, “Once.” Maya leaned back again and exposed her full breasts to the moon. They were heavy with milk already. “I feel something,” she murmured. Her mood had changed; a note of ecstasy was in her voice, clearing away the pain. If she wasn’t a goddess herself, she exulted in being touched by a goddess, the moon. She took her infant and held him up.
“See how quiet he is now? He feels it too.” At that moment Maya believed in her heart that her wishes had been fulfilled. There is a name in Sanskrit that expresses this idea. She lifted the baby higher. “Siddhartha,” she said. He who has attained all desires. Recognizing the solemnity of the moment, the court ladies bowed their heads, even the ever-wary Kumbira.