Enlightenment is child’s play

The eight-year old serpent girl proves it by becoming a man and then a Buddha, all in a jiffy

October 12, 2017 04:20 pm | Updated 04:20 pm IST

I have met many young children through being a children’s writer. I was brought up with the dictum that children should be seen and not heard. But as I’ve grown older, I’m often amazed at the subtle insights that children offer, when they are encouraged to speak, and what they are capable of understanding — and how in turn, they illumine my own understanding.

A couple of years ago I retold the story of the courtship of Shantanu and Ganga in the Mahabharata to a young boy, who told me, as soon as Ganga had laid down her conditions, that it wasn’t true and that the relationship wouldn’t last. A year ago, in Mysore, after listening to the story of Nachiketa from Katha Upanishad, a young girl told me that one should always listen and act from one’s heart and not one’s mind.

The Lotus sutra

I have thought of these children when I recently read the Lotus Sutra, which features one of the most fascinating Bodhisattvas, Manjushri, who grants wisdom and lightening-quick enlightenment, and bears a sharp sword, through which he cuts through the darkness of the mind and dispels ignorance.

Here, in the Lotus Sutra, the Buddha is gathered with an assembly of Bodhisattvas. Manjushri is late to the gathering — and he mentions that he has just come from the abode of the king of the Nagas, Sagara, where he has been attempting to bring enlightenment through the Lotus Sutra to those who reside there.

One of the Boddhisattvas present is curious and asks — out of all the creatures that Manjushri has brought on to the path of enlightenment, which one attained Buddha-hood most quickly? Manjushri replies — to the great surprise of those gathered there — that the one who gained enlightenment in an instant, was an eight year old child — a girl, the daughter of the Serpent King.

The Boddhisattva, who has queried Manjushri, is astonished. How can a child — and a snake-girl at that, in a ‘polluted’ female body — be capable of attaining enlightenment so quickly? But Manjushri is insistent. The young serpent girl, who has attained enlightenment through his aid, has deep understanding; she is eloquent and articulate, she is infinitely compassionate — “subtle, wonderful, comprehensive and great!”

It is impossible, the other Bodhisattva claims, it cannot be believed for Shakyamuni Buddha himself toiled for so many aeons and lives! How could a girl achieve it so quickly? To prove Manjushri’s point and to contest the words of the Bodhisattva who disputes with him, the eight year old girl appears and before the assembly claims that she has indeed achieved enlightenment, and the Buddha himself can prove this! But still the other Boddhisattva does not believe this — for how can one in the female body know dharma and pass it on? How can she, without performing austerities, or penances, and without the body of a man become a Buddha?

In an instant, the serpent girl transforms into a man, and then, swifter than anyone else before, she becomes a Buddha. Thus the young girl, by herself, overturns all prejudice and assumptions, demonstrating the doctrine of shunyata , that form is emptiness and that forms and identities are constructs, that regardless of body or birth anyone can achieve enlightenment – and instantaneously at that. And as a consequence of her act, three thousand other living beings are put on the path of enlightenment.

The writer is the author of ‘The Mahabharata - A child’s View’, ‘Sita’s Ramayana’ and ‘The Missing Queen’

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