The Ruins of Rajavihara

An ochre snake of robed, bald-headed figures wound up the road to Rajavihara. Standing at the head of the stairs on the veranda alongside his step-mother, Devadatta watched the monks slither closer and closer through the bay trees that lined the road like attendants holding umbrellas. Beside him, Maya clasped her hands, her sari unwrinkled and spotless.

“It’s been so long.” Her hair, whitened over the past six years, absorbed the light from the sun as it descended from its zenith. “He’s come so far.”

Devadatta squinted against the light, his eyes following his brother, the head of the ochre snake.

“The sage’s prediction was right about him. He really is an enlightened being.” Maya turned her face toward Devadatta, but her eyes didn’t leave the procession, as though a dream she had long kept hidden in some dark corner of her heart were peering into the light for the first time like a flower never taught to grow. “Vessantara’s teachings have already spread further than he’s travelled himself.”

“Have they.”

Maya didn’t hear or ignored the edge in his voice.

“And what about the sage’s prediction for me?”

As her gaze finally turned toward him, Maya’s eyes skimmed across the land and buildings Devadatta had inherited from his father, coming to rest on his face much too quickly. The warmth went out of her face as it turned away from the sun.

“Not all predictions come true.”

“Vessantara, my brother!”

The Tathagata smiled and didn’t correct Devadatta, who clapped his hand on the Tathagata’s shoulder. Standing at the Tathagata’s right hand, Ajita suppressed his cringing at this familiarity, but only by the barest of margins.

“Your wife has been looking forward to your arrival,” Devadatta continued. “I hope you’ll see her.”

The Tathagata inclined his head and adjusted his robe over his shoulder. “At her convenience.”

Devadatta called a servant, who bowed low before the Tathagata and led him toward Maddi’s chambers. As his personal attendant, Ajita followed several steps behind along a columned gallery striped by bars of the setting sun toward the place where Prince Vessantara had once lived with his wife and son. A curtained archway loomed close at the end of the walkway and Ajita felt a sudden, irrational fear that it would swallow the Tathagata up and never relinquish him.

He stopped at some distance at a subtle hand signal from the Tathagata, who continued onward. When the servant drew the curtain aside, Ajita caught a glimpse of a kneeling figure, gaunt in dark, rough spun cloth, her shorn hair like a halo in the light from the open windows. She turned toward the doorway at the dull step of the Tathagata’s rope sandals on the tile mosaics of the floor. Ajita couldn’t see her face in the shadows, but he saw her bow and press her forehead to the floor.

The curtain fell back into place behind the Tathagata. Ajita folded his hands inside his robe. There could be no better wife in this world than Maddi.

“She’s been like that since he left.”

Ajita turned to find Devadatta standing behind him in the shadow of a column and bit back the question of why Devadatta hadn’t led them here in the first place, if he were going to come regardless.

“Living like a widow.” Devadatta’s voice was low and Ajita couldn’t see his face. “When I see her, I wonder what kind of man would leave her behind like that.”

Ajita clenched his hands beneath his robe and reminded himself that Maddi’s suffering was not any greater than that of any woman who had lost her husband. As he tried to formulate a response, Devadatta stepped into the light, smiling, and held out an arm in invitation. A strong feeling of dissonance struck Ajita, and for a moment he was certain that the person who had stood in the shadow was not the same person who stood in the light now.

“Come, cousin. Walk with me.” Devadatta got his arm around Ajita’s shoulders and urged him forward. “I’d like to show you something.”

He led Ajita back down the gallery and through the palace to the mango grove beyond. Or it had been a mango grove when Ajita had last been there. What stood in its place was a rose-granite temple covered in carvings out of proportion to its size. Deities danced from the ground to the domed roof, reaching for the sky and the light of enlightenment.

Or so Devadatta explained it. Ajita wondered as they approached the entrance if any of the wood from the mango trees had gone into the building. He hoped that Devadatta had at least put off the building long enough to harvest the mango crop before clearing the land.

“What kind of universal ruler would I be if I didn’t contribute to my brother’s work?”

Ajita wished that the carved goddesses were dressed more modestly. “I’m certain that he’ll appreciate your patronage.”

“Religion is even more convincing than the sword in growing an empire.” Devadatta crossed his arms and smiled in satisfaction. “I’ve heard of the multitudes Vessantara draws when he speaks. Working together, we’ll be able to—”

“Cousin.” Ajita turned to face Devadatta, the granite ostentation in front of him evaporating from his thoughts. “The Dharma isn’t a tool for empire building.”

Devadatta’s smile was plastic and it meant anything but happiness. “A thing is either a tool or it is an obstacle.”

A chill accompanied several beads of sweat down Ajita’s spine. He found himself mute in the face of his cousin’s ambition.

“What you say isn’t wrong.”

The Tathagata’s voice warmed Ajita like a sunbeam. He turned, feeling limp with relief, and beside him, Devadatta turned as well with a frown creasing his brow. The Tathagata’s smile was gentle and he offered it to both of them. Behind him, Maddi stood with a tear-streaked smile nearly as serene.

“It is your view that makes the difference,” the Tathagata continued. “A prediction of the future is a tool only as long as it does not become an obsession. Spending an entire lifetime trying to grasp at smoke will only leave behind clawed hands.”

The Tathagata climbed the three stairs up to the temple’s entrance and turned in the archway. With his hands palm to palm in front of his chin, he bowed to Devadatta.

“Thank you for this kind gift to those who practice the Dharma.”

Looking up at him, Ajita thought he fully eclipsed the carved figures on the temple’s facade.