1. The Ganges River flows through a broad flat plain bordered on its northern side by the Mahabharat Hills, beyond which lie the Himalayas. Just where the plain meets the hills was the homeland of the Sakyans, the tribe into which the Buddha was born. The Sakyans belonged to the warrior caste (khattiya) and had a reputation for hot-headedness and pride. Compared with the other states, the Sakyans were rather unsophisticated, on the outer edge, as it were, of the civilisation that was rapidly developing in northern India at that time. The Sakyans had no cities as such but rather large towns and villages, the main ones being Kapilavatthu, the capital, Catuma, Komadussa and Silavati.
2. Like all peoples of the time, the Sakyans had legends about their origins, a mixture of fact and fiction, meant to emphasise their prowess and nobility. They traced their origins back to the mythical King Okkaka. According to the legend, Okkaka had five queens and numerous children but only the offspring of the chief queen, Bhatta, were in line for the throne. These princes were Okkàmukha, Karakanda, Hatthinika and Sinipura. When the chief queen died, Okkaka married a much younger woman and made her chief queen, passing over his other wives and creating much jealousy.1 When the new chief queen delivered a son, Okkaka was so pleased he offered to give her anything she wished. Immediately she replied, “I want my son to inherit the throne.” The king couldn’t do this because his four other sons were legally entitled to the throne, but the queen insisted that he keep his promise. Not being able to back down, he regretfully made his new son Jantu crown prince and expelled his other four sons. Their sisters were disgusted with this decision and as a protest they joined their brothers in exile. The princes and princesses wandered through the jungle looking for a suitable place to stay. Eventually, they came to the hermitage of the sage Kapila who welcomed them and invited them to live nearby, which they did, calling their small settlement Kapilavatthu in honour of the sage. There were isolated villages in the area but the young princes were too proud to marry outside their own tribe and so they made the oldest sister Piya, mother, and married the other sisters, something for which the Sakyans were, in later centuries, often teased. Later Piya married Rama, the king of Benares, and their offspring were the ancestors of the Koliyans, the Sakyans’ relations to the east. It was the learning of this story and others related to the history of the tribe that probably formed a part of the young Prince Siddhartha’s education.
3. The Sakyans had a council (sabha) that was made up of warriors of the tribe respected for their military prowess or wisdom. The council met regularly in Kapilavatthu’s assembly hall (sala) to discuss the running of the state.2 The council would have also settled disputes and acted as a law court. A man who had proven himself in battle, who was rich in land and cattle, and who was known for his wisdom, tact and conciliatory skills would be elected as the president of the council and act as ruler of the Sakyans.
4. Suddhodana, whose name means ‘pure rice’, fulfilled all these requirements and had ruled the Sakyans for many years, as had probably many members of his family before him. He was the son of Sihanu and his wife Kaccana, and was one of five brothers, the others being Dhotodana, Sakkodana, Sukkodana and Amitodana. The Sakyans practised endogamy, marriage between cousins, and polygamy, so Suddhodana married two sisters, Maha Maya and Maha Pajapati Gotami, both of whom were his close cousins. This type of arrangement was encouraged because the Sakyans, being very proud, felt it was beneath their dignity to marry non-Sakyans and also because it kept property within the family.
5. The Buddha was not attached to his tribe but he did have an affectionate regard for them. Once, the young Brahmin Ambattha abused the Sakyans in the presence of the Buddha. When the Buddha asked him why he was so angry with the Sakyans, he said: “Once, I went to Kapilavatthu on some business for my teacher, the Brahmin Pakkharasati, and I came to the Sakyans’ assembly hall. At that time, a crowd of Sakyans was sitting on high seats in their assembly hall, poking each other with their fingers, laughing and playing about together, and I am certain that they were making fun of me. No one even offered me a seat. It is not proper that they do not respect Brahmins.” The Buddha defended the Sakyans saying: “But, Ambattha, even the quail, that little bird, can say what she likes in her own nest.”
Kapilavatthu is the Sakyans’ home. They do not deserve censure for such a minor slight.”3 Many members of the Buddha’s family and other Sakyans became prominent in the Sangha, and it was likely that in some ways the Buddha favoured them, although not when it came to spiritual matters. He made his foster mother, Maha Pajapati Gotami, head of the Sangha of nuns. Of the nine different attendants that the Buddha had during his life, one, Ananda, was a cousin and two others, Nagasamala and Meghiya, were Sakyans.
6. After nearly seven years of having heard nothing of his son, Suddhodana came to know that he was staying at Rajagaha, and that he was claiming to be enlightened. Overjoyed to know that his son was still alive, Suddhodana sent a messenger to ask him to return home. The messenger met the Buddha at the Bamboo Grove in Rajagaha and was so enthralled on hearing the Dhamma that there and then he decided to become a monk, completely forgetting to pass Suddhodana’s message on to the Buddha. More messengers were sent and the same thing happened. Finally, in exasperation, Suddhodana commissioned Kàludàyi to take the message, but told him that he had permission to become a monk only on condition that he passed the message to the Buddha. And so the Buddha came to know of his father’s desire to see him. Shortly after, he set out for Kapilavatthu, accompanied by a large number of monks. When the party arrived, they stayed outside the town in a park and in the morning entered the town to beg for alms. Only then did Suddhodana learn that the Buddha had arrived and was shocked that his son would sleep under a tree rather than in the palace, and beg in the streets rather than feast at the banquet table. “You are degrading your family’s dignity,” Suddhodana said, hardly able to contain his anger. The Buddha replied: “Suddhodana, on becoming enlightened one becomes a member of the family of the Noble Ones and their dignity does not depend upon outward trappings but on wisdom and compassion.” The Buddha did much teaching in Kapilavatthu and other towns, and many Sakyans became monks while others became enthusiastic followers of the Dhamma while remaining in the lay life. After initial resistance, Suddhodana listened to what his son had to say and became a Once-Returner.
7. The Sakyans’ clannishness and pride eventually led to their downfall. Although the Sakyans were free to run their own affairs, they were controlled to some degree by their powerful neighbour to the west, Kosala. By the Buddha’s time, Kosala had so much say in Sakyans’ affairs that once he actually described his homeland as being a part of Kosala. “Now the Sakyans are vassals of the king of Kosala. They offer him service and salute him, stand for him, do him honour and give him deference.”4 The Buddha’s love of personal freedom and independence was probably influenced by his Sakyan upbringing and there is no doubt that he sympathised with the small tribal republics in their struggles to keep their independence from the authoritarian monarchies that were emerging at the time. When he heard that King Ajatasattu was preparing to invade the Vajjian republic, he asked Ananda: “Have you heard that the Vajjians hold regular and frequent assemblies, that they meet in harmony, conduct business in harmony, and adjure in harmony, that they abide by the decisions they have made in accordance with tradition, that they honour, respect, revere and salute their elders and listen to their advice, that they do not abduct others’ wives or daughters and compel them to live with them, that they honour, respect, revere, and salute the Vajjian shrines at home and abroad, and do not withdraw the support given to them and that proper provisions and protection are given to holy men so that they can dwell there in comfort and more will come in the future?” Ananda replied that the Vajjians did do all these things and the Buddha said: “For as long as they do these things, the Vajjians may be expected to prosper and not decline.”5
8. It seems that King Pasenadi of Kosala wished to extend his influence amongst the Sakyans, which he chose to do by demanding a Sakyan noblewoman as a wife for his son. No Sakyans wanted a daughter of theirs to marry outside the tribe, but at the same time they could not ignore the wishes of their powerful neighbour. Mahanama, one of the Buddha’s cousins, came up with a solution. He had fathered a daughter named Vasabhakhattiya by one of his female slaves and he suggested that this girl be passed off as a Sakyan noblewoman and given to King Pasenadi’s son in marriage. The trick worked; Vasabhakhattiya was taken to Kosala, married and accepted into the Kosalan royal family. Eventually she gave birth to a son who was named Vidudabha and who became crown prince. When Vidudabha grew up he wished to visit what he believed to be his Sakyan relatives at Kapilavatthu but his mother persuaded him not to go, knowing that the Sakyans would treat him with contempt. Eventually he did go and was bewildered by the cool reception he received. Not wanting to receive more disrespect he soon left, but just after leaving Kapilavatthu, one of his attendants had to return to get a sword which he had forgotten. When he arrived at the assembly hall he saw a slave woman washing with milk the seat on which Vidudabha had sat – an accepted way of purifying something that had become ritually impure. The warrior asked the slave why she was doing this. “Because the son of a slave has sat there,” she replied. He asked her what she meant and she told him the whole story. When Vidudabha heard the truth, that his mother was not a noblewoman but a common slave, his humiliation and fury knew no bounds and he vowed that one day he would punish the Sakyans for their deception. “Let them pour milk over my seat to purify it. When I am king, I will wash the place with the blood of their hearts.”
9. Towards the end of the Buddha’s life, Vidudabha did become king and on several occasions he marched with his army towards Kapilavatthu, although on each occasion the Buddha was able to persuade him to turn back. Eventually though, Kapilavatthu and several other Sakyan towns were attacked and Vidudabha had the personal satisfaction of having many Sakyans massacred. After the campaign, he marched back to Kosala loaded with loot. On their way back, the army camped for one evening beside the bank of a river and during the night, a heavy rainstorm further upstream sent a huge torrent down the river, drowning most of Vidudabha’s army. The Sakyans who survived the terrible massacre rebuilt a few small towns and tried to continue their lives, but with their numbers decimated and their independence lost, they declined and are remembered today only because of one of their number, the Buddha.