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Sujata's great gift of madhupayasa

Khao Phansa or Buddhist Chaturmasya is on in Thailand, commencing with the long holy weekend that ended with Monday's official holiday. What many of us in India may not know or have possibly forgotten is the slight, girlish figure that proved to be a turning point in the birth of this great world religion. Renuka Narayanan writes.

india Updated: Jan 24, 2012 19:49 IST

Khao Phansa or Buddhist Chaturmasya is on in Thailand, commencing with the long holy weekend that ended with Monday's official holiday. What many of us in India may not know or have possibly forgotten is the slight, girlish figure that proved to be a turning point in the birth of this great world religion. We know that Queen Maya was the Sakyamuni's mother, that Queen Gautami was his loving aunt-step-mother whom King Suddhodana married after Queen Maya's tragic death. We know that Princess Yashodhara was the Buddha's wife, from whose chamber he stole away into the night to begin his great journey of discovery; that Amrapali (Ambapali in Pali) was the beautiful dancer of the mahajanapada of Vrijji who renounced her worldly life to become a bhikkuni and serve the Sangha. But it's possible that we pass over the little girl under the Bodhi tree in a hurry as almost incidental, as someone who happened to go by and seeing a gaunt ascetic lying in a faint, simply did her duty as a well-brought-up girl would.

There are several versions of this tale, including the story that Sujata was a rich villager's daughter who had prayed to the tree-deity of the banyan for a suitable husband. The milk pudding/kheer ('madhupayasa', as they still call it in the Buddhist world - oh, the thrill of that ancient word), was meant to be Sujata's offering to the vriksha devata. At first she thought that the tree deity had manifested and made him the offering. But when she learnt later of whom she had helped and of the consequences of her act, she was delighted to have acquired such merit. One of the nicest retellings of this episode is in the Venerable Thich Nhat Hanh's Buddacharita in English, 'Old Path, White Clouds'. I am thrilled to own a signed copy.

I go back to it often, especially when troubled by something that won't go away even when I try a spot of vipassana and simply watch my thoughts go past.

I have gone past Sujata several times in Thailand, carved over the entry to a wat (temple) in the region of Ayutthaya or bending anxiously in the corner of a mural or in a bright calendar-artpainting lining the pravesha (approach) to a big shrine. Surely she is one of the dearest persons in world history. Let's think of her next time we eat madhupayasa ourselves.

Renuka Narayanan writes on religion and culture