These six poems assume the voice of Devadatta. Devadatta lived in the 6th century BC in India. He was a cousin of Siddhattha Gotama, the Buddha. Devadatta joined the Buddhist Order, but as time passed he became ambitious and tried to murder the Buddha three times in order to take control of the Order. On the first attempt, he tried to persuade some mercenaries to kill the Buddha but they were unable to carry out their orders and instead converted to Buddhism. On the second occasion, Devadatta himself tried to kill the Buddha by throwing a rock at him on high. As this also failed, he then set the rogue elephant, Nalagiri, onto the Buddha while he was on an alms round, but the Buddha’s loving-kindness disarmed the elephant. Devadatta then decided to create a schism in the Order so that he could assume control this way.
These poems are part of a book-length sequence that I am writing which follows this basic story. The book begins in Kapilavatthu, the capital of Sakiya, where both Siddhattha and Devadatta lived. It then follows Devadatta’s journey to the monastery in Sarnath and later in Rajaghaha where another monastery was established and eventually evokes the attempted murder scenes. My book is not a verse novel, but more a character study, akin to Geoffrey Lehmann’s Nero’s Poems and Dorothy Porter’s Akhenaton.
Some commentators say that Devadatta was the brother of Yasodhara, Siddhattha’s wife, but I have also read that Devadatta was a suitor to Yasodhara but failed to win her hand and part of his animosity towards the Buddha was based on jealousy. This is the line I am adopting in my sequence. While I am following the basic narrative, I am using a great deal of poetic licence, adding invented scenarios and interpreting the character of Devadatta through my own lens, so the sequence is highly fictionalised and dramatised. The poem ‘One Plan’ is an early poem in the sequence and has Devadatta planning how he will insinuate himself into the monastery in Sarnath. ‘Alms Round, Sarnath’ reveals his hypocritical and false nature. ‘The Past’ reminisces about days in Sakiya before Yasodhara came onto the scene. ‘The Comb’ reveals Devadatta’s ongoing obsession with Yasodhara. ‘In Rajagaha’ has Devadatta ruing the fact that he hasn’t yet put any of his plans for taking over the Order into action. In ‘Angulimala’ Devadatta is plotting how he can turn to his advantage the conversion to Buddhism of this notorious robber and murderer. All six poems come from different points in the narrative in which there are other poems in between. Though I have read many books and articles, my main and favourite source of information for this sequence has been HW Schumann’s The Historical Buddha, (Arkana 1989), which is a factual, non-hagiographic account of the life and teachings of the Buddha.
I’ll arrive at the monastery with my hair like wind-matted
oat grass, my beard long as a donkey’s tail. I’ll arrive thin,
half-naked, my ribs like the sunken rafters of an old house.
I’ll tell the monks that once, unable to stand, unable to sit,
I had to endure life on a bramble palliasse. I’ll say misfortune
dogged my heels, that I was a merchant robbed and beaten,
that only mules and curs befriended me, extending their tongues
toward my hands, then they’ll pity me and invite me to stay.
I’ll offer to sweep the monastery floors, carry water pots
from the well each morning and in kitchen dampness, peel
the squash until the brass bells ring. I’ll sit through Discourses,
inhale the incense, nod and smile often. No-one will know
as I stare down the aisles of the Order who I am, or what
thoughts I harbour. Perhaps the hardest of all tasks, the hardest
story not to tell will be when Siddhattha, who all the monks
call Buddha, strides by—then I’ll have to stop from
calling out: ‘Traitor! Betrayer of Sakiya and of Kapilavatthu!’
Ah, somehow I’ll have to refrain from tearing my robes.
ALMS ROUND, SARNATH
I smell figs, pomegranates, apples; onions and spices
sizzling in hot oils. There are piles of sesame and honey cakes,
teas scented with cinnamon and cloves, but we must wait
along the town’s outskirts, keep our eyes downcast,
try to be grateful for whatever’s given. Mostly all I’m given
are scrawny parings of stalks, maggoty wheat crawling
in the centre of my hands. Don’t these other monks
want to look these folk squarely in the eyes and demand
mangos, melons and handpicked beans? Don’t they want
to stuff their mouths full of rice and roasted coconut,
with almonds, cashews and pickled beets? Aren’t they tired
of seeing their bowls as bare as their shaved heads?
I want to tell Buddha to chew his rules about patience
and frugality into a sloppy cud. I want to hold my bowl out
as boldly as a symbol and clang it loudly with my spoon.
I want to tell these miserable, skinflint, pinch-fisted folk
to stop tossing us husks, rinds, cores, thorns, rats’ tails,
roosters’ claws—and oh!—so many stinking lepers’ thumbs!
Hard to believe I loved Siddhattha once; now I stare
at him with a gaze as heated as an arrow in a pan
of burning coals. But I remember how we’d swing
our saddlebags over our shoulders
and scamper out of the city gates with linked arms;
how we’d stroll the path to where our ponies waited
under the apple boughs; how we’d find the grove
where the ice spring burbled
and hide in Boar’s Cave and listen to squirrels
eating their hoards of whortleberries, then we’d run out,
brawling under the laurels. Sometimes when I hear
children playing with trinkets
and gimcrack, when I hear jackasses bray
as they lift their faces to the wind to smell the sheaves
of freshly cut sorghum, aromatic herbs, sassafras,
I long for our boyhoods,
the time when we made up tales about a place
we called the Forest of Bliss—where sparrows nestled
against cats, where cats slept peacefully in the feathers
of peacocks, where otters
left the fish alone, where hawks paid
no attention to the quail, where jackals lay down in the grass
with the spotted antelopes. Hard to believe we were
ever such youths, boys
with such affection and no losses yet to mourn.
Hard to believe we hardly quarrelled, that many years
passed before we stood facing one another, dressed
in horsehair plumes,
buckling swords to our tunics, ready to fight
for Yasodhara’s hand. Now, I wonder when Siddhattha
shuts his eyes, does he remember the clop
of our ponies’ hooves
along the sheep tracks, the sky over Kapilavatthu
when it seemed to be raked clear by a plough? Does the beauty
and bounty of Yasodhara’s hair ever bedevil him
like a vulture’s dark wings?
Perhaps one day I’ll throw away my bag
of carved nuts and gilded shells and never again
beseech the temptress goddesses or the presiding deities
of the gambling house. Perhaps never again
will I long for the rattle of nuts and shells
across a table or floor, for their clicking weight against
my hip as I tote them round town looking to win
what I’ve always wanted to win: not cows,
horses, gold; not jewels, perfumes or parasols,
but a hundred-toothed pearl and deer-horn comb.
Then perhaps I’ll return home and I’ll see
what I’ve always wanted to see, hear
what I’ve always wanted to hear: Yasodhara
running her thumb down all its length,
feeling the softness of its sarcenet, drawstring sheath,
then weeping for joy when she tallies the teeth.
Sariputta and Mogallana are talking on the Four
Noble Truths. Men and women come out from the market
and bazaars. In the square, someone plays a veena,
someone else a sitar. The monks will talk well
into the night. I watch the sky grow cinnabar,
in the distance I listen for the call of the nightjar,
but I only hear the turkey buzzards and the koels.
From the crowd, a woman sings, her voice
is sweet as nougat. Sariputta and Mogallana
speak about the Eightfold Path, the woman is singing
of love, deceit, misery and desire; in the square
someone plays a veena, someone else a sitar.
Finally the buzzards fly off to the sycamores;
the koels are still fluting. In the street, a woman
closes the windows and cedar shutters of her house.
Buddha’s word is spreading now through Rajagaha.
But I grow sorrowful and I grow glum, wondering
if I’ll ever inspire anything but windy dissonance,
if I’ll ever bring to pass my coup d’etat? In the square
someone plays a veena and someone else a sitar.
Angulimala, thug and robber, who once wore
a necklace made from the knuckles of those he’d murdered,
has joined the Order. Angulimala is now shaven-headed
and yellow-robed! How did Buddha swing him over?
Ah, but perhaps it’s a ruse. Angulimala would know
the monastery is free from the law, he may think
he can hide here. But if he has changed, if the Buddha
has made him meek as a calf, it’s a great coup;
the townsfolk will be so thankful, they’ll give us
more alms, put less in other mendicants’ bowls, then every
beggar will turn cloak, come over to us and the Order
will be bigger, all the better for me to finally
take hold of. So perhaps I’ll look after Angulimala,
stay by his side on his rounds, watch no-one tears his robes,
stones him, shatters his bowl … One day, I may even
give him the purse full of Siddhattha’s knucklebones.