The inevitability of death, explained with mustard seeds

The Buddha visited village after village giving discourses on Dhamma (Dharma in Sanskrit), the righteous ways of living.  He was always very well received everywhere he went. Years of penance and pursuit of truth had strengthened his aura so much that people were able to sense him approaching even when he was still miles away from a village. And, on each one his trips, thousands of people were shown the path of the truth and they all benefited from the Buddha’s teachings by being liberated from their worries and grief. In this story, the Buddha delivers a lady from her grief by explaining death to her using mustard seeds.

During one of his trips, a crying lady approached him. She was clutching the lifeless body of her two year old son and was crying inconsolably. The Buddha cast his very kind glance upon this wailing lady, and asked her what the cause of her grief was. Her name was Kisagotami. She told Buddha how she had been childless for almost a decade, and after a lot of prayers to various gods, she had finally been gifted with a beautiful baby boy. Soon, she had become very attached to him and her entire life started revolving around the boy. Her sorrow knew no bounds when suddenly her boy had died. She had refused to believe that her boy was dead. She was not ready to be separated from him yet. Now, somehow her neighbors had found out that this lady was holding on to her dead son and trying desperately to wake him up from his sleep, without even realizing that he had died. They even tried to forcibly separate him from her baby, but the only effort in which they succeeded was in convincing her that the boy was in fact dead and not merely sleeping.

Thus grief-stricken Kisagotami had now come to the Buddha to beg him to use his powers to revive her son, without whom she could no longer live. The Buddha listened to her sad story and very sympathetically conveyed his condolences to her. But she continued to beg the Buddha to revive her boy. The Buddha gently tried to convince her that no matter what powers anyone possesses, there was no way to conquer death. Even the most powerful of the Gods also can’t revive a person who is dead. Even after listening to this, Kisagotami would not stop crying. Now, there was only one way for the Buddha to teach this lady about life, without being very harsh to her. He gave her his begging bowl and asked her to get up. Anticipating that the Buddha was going to perform a ritual to revive her son, she stopped crying momentarily. The Buddha told her to take his begging bowl and bring back a fistful of mustard seeds from any household that was ready to give it to her. This appeared to be very easy. Kisagotami was very happy that she was given an easy task in return for her boy’s life. She was about to take leave of him to commence her mission of bringing back the seeds, when the Buddha reminded her that he had one small condition. He told her that she should only accept mustard seeds from that house which had never experienced any death before, otherwise the ritual that he was going to do would turn out to be unsuccessful. Kisagotami was not discouraged. She accepted the condition and set out expectantly.

She went to the first house she could see on the street. She knocked on the door and an old withering lady greeted her. She explained how the Buddha was doing a ritual to revive her dead son and that she needed a fistful of mustard seeds. The old lady sympathized with her and offered her the entire bag of mustard that she had in the house. Then Kisagotami remembered the condition. She asked the old lady “Has anyone died in your house before?” and the old lady said “My husband of 55 years has passed away, leaving me behind.” Dejected, she refused to accept the mustard seeds and set out to the next house. There, she met a beautiful young girl who said “My mother is dead, and I live with my step-mother”. While one said “My son died last month”, another said, “My daughter died 2 years ago”, and yet another said “My grandmother died when I was very young” and so on.

Dusk approached and Kisagotami had roamed the entire city searching for one house which had no death from where she could get her mustard seeds. But she found not even one! Tired and disheveled, she walked back to where the Buddha was sitting. The all-knowing Buddha smiled, and enquired about the success of Kisagotami’s trip to town. Kisagotami had learnt her lesson. She said “All this while, I thought that no one could take away my son from me. And all this while, I have grown so fond of him and got so attached to him, without even realizing that one day either I would die or he would die and that inevitably we would have to be separated. I have understood how futile this world is. I have learnt the truth about attachment and the grief it results in.” Seeing that she was now ready for the next step in her life, the Buddha very kindly initiated Kisagotami into his order and taught her Dhamma, and becoming a wandering monk herself, Kisagotami spent the rest of her days helping to relieve other people from their sorrows in this transient world.

  1. #1 by vizziee on January 12, 2010 - 11:37 am

    Excellent piece Srividya…nice to see the Shambhala Buddha pic here.

  2. #2 by rajanigandhaa on January 12, 2010 - 7:38 pm

    Matangi here…

    This is a good story! But I found the story of ‘Amrapali’ the best among the Buddhist stories!

  3. #3 by srivi019 on January 13, 2010 - 11:08 pm

    Hi Vijay – Thank you for reading it. And yeah – I needed a post so that I put this picture up 😉

    Hi Matangi, Thank you for the comments. Yes, the story of Amrapali and Upagupta was also in my mind, when I wrote this. But the concept of death attracted me more, and hence I decided to write this one first.


  4. #4 by jujung on April 10, 2010 - 5:33 am

    Now, what would have happened if everyone really followed Buddha’s logic and became a monk?
    There wouldn’t have been any human civilization to speak of. *Desire* may be responsible for misery. But, it’s desire which is responsible for human development, both materially and spiritually. Else, we would all be living like cows, leading a calm apparently misery-less life, till we die.

  5. #5 by Samarkumar Basu on October 12, 2011 - 7:47 pm

    Knowing very well that it is impossible to escape the wheel of time, we still pretend as if our life is safe and secure forever. This false sense of security makes us believe this world as our permanent destination. We forget the fact that we may be called back any time. Poet Kalidas described death as prakiti (primordial) and life as vikriti (distortion). Kabir described this world as “Murdo ka gaon” (dead men’s village):
    Sadho Ye Murdon Ka Gaon
    Peer Mare, Pygambar Mari Hain, Mari Hain Zinda Jogi
    Raja Mari Hain, Parja Mari Hain, Mari Hain Baid Aur Rogi
    He further advises:
    Kaal khada sir upre, jaag viraney meet
    Jaka ghar hai gail me kas soube nischit

    How should we overcome this fear? Infatuated mind is a sign of ignorance and cause of all our misery and sorrow. Once we are able to understand true meaning of death and awaken our soul as a part of our knowledge, we may conquer the fear of death. It is only the mortal body, made up of the five elements, that decays and perishes with the time. Soul is immortal, ever living, and eternal. Delusion about our body can be cleared by recognizing the true nature of our soul. Once this perception becomes deeper, we get the feeling, as if; we are one with the entire creation. Doors of light gradually open for us. Every corner of this creation gets illuminated and finally we become one with the God. Fear of death does not exist anymore. Sant Kabir had wonderfully expressed this message through his saying:
    Hum Na Marihai, Marihai Sansara
    Hum Ko Mila Jiyavanhara
    Ab naa maroon, Marne man mana
    Mare soi Jo Ram naa Jana.
    (Soul is depicted here as Ram)

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