Schumann on the Birth of the Buddha

Following the theme of the Buddha’s birth, I will briefly present Schumann’s reconstruction of the events from The Historical Buddha.  The source of his reconstruction is the Nidānakathā, the introductory narrative to the book of takas.

Māyā, the Buddha’s mother, set out for the home of her parents in Devadaha in order to have her child there.  The rough journey along the way brought the birth on before Devadaha was reached.  She stopped near the village of Lumbinī.  There, with no medical assistance and with only the shade of a Sāl tree to protect her, the young Siddhattha was born in May of the year 563 BC.

Most likely Māyā gave birth to the young Siddhattha standing up since standing births were the custom at the time.  But the birth itself must have been strenuous for Māyā.  Exhausted, she was brought back to Kapilavatthu.  As Schumann puts it: “Joy over the birth of the newest member of the Gotama family was soon overshadowed by worry over the increasing weakness of the mother.”

For divinatory purposes, the wise man named ‘Asita’ was called in.  He inspected the three-day-old child and prophesied, on the basis of bodily marks, that the young Siddhattha would become a Buddha and set the Wheel of the Law in motion.  Realizing he would not live to see Siddhattha as the Buddha, Asita wept and impressed on his nephew Nālaka that he should become a disciple of the future Buddha.

Two days later, eight Brahmins performed the ceremony of naming Siddhattha.  They too prophesied great things for the young Siddhattha.  Either he would grow to become a Buddha or a mighty king.

But for Māyā, the end was near.  As Schumann recounts: “Seven days after giving birth, like so many mothers in tropical countries, she died, quietly and uncomplainingly.”

What strikes me about this account is the Buddha’s mother.  Māyā’s pain and struggle is unearthed.  The hardship she must have gone through to give birth to the Buddha is brought to view.  Although it is common to trace our common practice to the Buddha since it was he who became enlightened and turned the Wheel of Dharma to wipe the dust away from our eyes, it should not be forgotten that the Buddha came from Māyā.  There, at the coming into being of the young Siddhattha, there was also the passing away of Māyā, the Buddha’s mother.  In that great coming and going we have a glimpse of the Dharma.

Schumann’s reconstruction stands in stark contrast to the cosmic and mythic portrayal of the Buddha’s birth from the Acchariya-abbhūta Sutta.  But either one would be incomplete without the other.  There is beauty and wonder in the cosmic portrayal that can ignite the mystery in our practice.  There is stark realism and hardship in the other that can awaken us to the great matter of birth and death.

(Note: This brief presentation of Schumann’s reconstruction is taken from his The Historical Buddha, pp. 6 – 9.  For problems with dating the Buddha’s birth to 563 BC, see pp. 10 – 13 in the same book.)

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2 thoughts on “Schumann on the Birth of the Buddha”

  1. Do you think that the fact that Siddharta was a motherless child might have influenced his path to Enlightenment? Does the mother’s name have any significance?

  2. Hello! On your first question, I can only imagine it did. But, as far as I have read in the Pāli canon, there is no mention of this influence. After Māyā died, Mahāpajāpatī (her sister) took care of the young Siddhattha. So, he was not “motherless” in this sense.

    On the name ‘Māyā’, I am not sure. I have read that it means illusion, but whether this is significant with respect to the development of the Buddha’s teaching or in any other sense is an interesting question. I am also not sure what sense of ‘illusion’ is meant here. Sometimes, the body is said to be an illusion, but this could be because it continually arises and passes away, not because it does not exist at all.

    More to look into!

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