Previewing next week in Thailand is a new opera on the Buddha, two years after its critically acclaimed world premiere in Houston, USA, where it was produced by Indian-born Viswa Subbaram of OperaVista. The creation of Thai composer-conductor-writer Somtow Sucharitkul, it’s called ‘The Silent Prince’, set in Varanasi, based on the Temiya Jataka, also known as ‘Mugapakkha’, Jataka No. 538 from the Pali Canon.
Once upon a time, goes the Temiya Jataka, Chanda Devi, the queen of Kashi, was miserable because she was childless. Indradev, lord of the celestials, took pity on her because “she was a virtuous woman” (nice irony there, since he breaks all the ‘rules’ himself). He entreated the Bodhisattva to do something about it. The Boddhisattva then “entered the womb of the queen”. Just like it happened with a certain Blue Bhagwan, it rained heavily on the night of his birth and the prince was named ‘Temiya’.
When Temiya was just a month old and lying in his father’s lap, he heard the king pronounce judgment on some dacoits who had been captured and brought to justice. This made him recall a previous birth as Kashi Naresh. He had ruled Varanasi for twenty years and suffered twenty thousand years thereafter in a category of hell called ‘Ussada Niraya’. This memory made him appeal to the devas for guidance on how to evade being king again.
The devas advised him to play dumb and unintelligent. Accordingly, Prince Temiya never spoke nor showed adeptness, to the grief and chagrin of his parents. At age sixteen, he was officially pronounced unfit to rule and Sunanda, the royal charioteer, was told to take him away to the woods, club him to death and bury him there (which recalls the banishment of a certain princess of Mithila, who was pronounced unfit to be queen).
While Sunanda dug the grave, Prince Temiya stood behind him and told him his story. Deeply moved, the charioteer wanted to join him in the ascetic life. But Temiya asked him to first inform the king and queen, who arrived in utter disbelief. Temiya preached a sermon that made everyone want to give up everything (we can only imagine the feelings of that poor queen). Soon, three kingdoms around Kashi, became Prince Temiya’s followers.
A terrifying tale that seems to tell us that it’s best not to want anything too much for we never know how our wishes will turn out.
Renuka Narayanan writes on religion and culture.