• Judith Beveridge


These six poems assume the voice of Devadatta. Devadatta lived in the 6th century BC in India. He was a cousin of Siddhattha Gotama, the Buddha. Devadatta joined the Buddhist Order, but as time passed he became ambitious and tried to murder the Buddha three times in order to take control of the Order. On the first attempt, he tried to persuade some mercenaries to kill the Buddha but they were unable to carry out their orders and instead converted to Buddhism. On the second occasion, Devadatta himself tried to kill the Buddha by throwing a rock at him on high. As this also failed, he then set the rogue elephant, Nalagiri, onto the Buddha while he was on an alms round, but the Buddha’s loving-kindness disarmed the elephant. Devadatta then decided to create a schism in the Order so that he could assume control this way.

These poems are part of a book-length sequence that I am writing which follows this basic story. The book begins in Kapilavatthu, the capital of Sakiya, where both Siddhattha and Devadatta lived. It then follows Devadatta’s journey to the monastery in Sarnath and later in Rajaghaha where another monastery was established and eventually evokes the attempted murder scenes. My book is not a verse novel, but more a character study, akin to Geoffrey Lehmann’s Nero’s Poems and Dorothy Porter’s Akhenaton.

Some commentators say that Devadatta was the brother of Yasodhara, Siddhattha’s wife, but I have also read that Devadatta was a suitor to Yasodhara but failed to win her hand and part of his animosity towards the Buddha was based on jealousy. This is the line I am adopting in my sequence. While I am following the basic narrative, I am using a great deal of poetic licence, adding invented scenarios and interpreting the character of Devadatta through my own lens, so the sequence is highly fictionalised and dramatised. The poem ‘One Plan’ is an early poem in the sequence and has Devadatta planning how he will insinuate himself into the monastery in Sarnath. ‘Alms Round, Sarnath’ reveals his hypocritical and false nature. ‘The Past’ reminisces about days in Sakiya before Yasodhara came onto the scene. ‘The Comb’ reveals Devadatta’s ongoing obsession with Yasodhara. ‘In Rajagaha’ has Devadatta ruing the fact that he hasn’t yet put any of his plans for taking over the Order into action. In ‘Angulimala’ Devadatta is plotting how he can turn to his advantage the conversion to Buddhism of this notorious robber and murderer. All six poems come from different points in the narrative in which there are other poems in between. Though I have read many books and articles, my main and favourite source of information for this sequence has been HW Schumann’s The Historical Buddha, (Arkana 1989), which is a factual, non-hagiographic account of the life and teachings of the Buddha.




I’ll arrive at the monastery with my hair like wind-matted

oat grass, my beard long as a donkey’s tail. I’ll arrive thin,

half-naked, my ribs like the sunken rafters of an old house.


I’ll tell the monks that once, unable to stand, unable to sit,

I had to endure life on a bramble palliasse. I’ll say misfortune

dogged my heels, that I was a merchant robbed and beaten,


that only mules and curs befriended me, extending their tongues

toward my hands, then they’ll pity me and invite me to stay.

I’ll offer to sweep the monastery floors, carry water pots


from the well each morning and in kitchen dampness, peel

the squash until the brass bells ring. I’ll sit through Discourses,

inhale the incense, nod and smile often. No-one will know


as I stare down the aisles of the Order who I am, or what

thoughts I harbour. Perhaps the hardest of all tasks, the hardest

story not to tell will be when Siddhattha, who all the monks


call Buddha, strides by—then I’ll have to stop from

calling out: ‘Traitor! Betrayer of Sakiya and of Kapilavatthu!’

Ah, somehow I’ll have to refrain from tearing my robes.





I smell figs, pomegranates, apples; onions and spices

sizzling in hot oils. There are piles of sesame and honey cakes,

teas scented with cinnamon and cloves, but we must wait


along the town’s outskirts, keep our eyes downcast,

try to be grateful for whatever’s given. Mostly all I’m given

are scrawny parings of stalks, maggoty wheat crawling


in the centre of my hands. Don’t these other monks

want to look these folk squarely in the eyes and demand

mangos, melons and handpicked beans? Don’t they want


to stuff their mouths full of rice and roasted coconut,

with almonds, cashews and pickled beets? Aren’t they tired

of seeing their bowls as bare as their shaved heads?


I want to tell Buddha to chew his rules about patience

and frugality into a sloppy cud. I want to hold my bowl out

as boldly as a symbol and clang it loudly with my spoon.


I want to tell these miserable, skinflint, pinch-fisted folk

to stop tossing us husks, rinds, cores, thorns, rats’ tails,

roosters’ claws—and oh!—so many stinking lepers’ thumbs!





      Hard to believe I loved Siddhattha once; now I stare

at him with a gaze as heated as an arrow in a pan

   of burning coals. But I remember how we’d swing

            our saddlebags over our shoulders


      and scamper out of the city gates with linked arms;

how we’d stroll the path to where our ponies waited

   under the apple boughs; how we’d find the grove

            where the ice spring burbled


      and hide in Boar’s Cave and listen to squirrels

eating their hoards of whortleberries, then we’d run out,

   brawling under the laurels. Sometimes when I hear

            children playing with trinkets


      and gimcrack, when I hear jackasses bray

as they lift their faces to the wind to smell the sheaves

   of freshly cut sorghum, aromatic herbs, sassafras,

            I long for our boyhoods,


      the time when we made up tales about a place

we called the Forest of Bliss—where sparrows nestled

   against cats, where cats slept peacefully in the feathers

            of peacocks, where otters


      left the fish alone, where hawks paid

no attention to the quail, where jackals lay down in the grass

   with the spotted antelopes. Hard to believe we were

            ever such youths, boys


      with such affection and no losses yet to mourn.

Hard to believe we hardly quarrelled, that many years

   passed before we stood facing one another, dressed

            in horsehair plumes,


      buckling swords to our tunics, ready to fight

for Yasodhara’s hand. Now, I wonder when Siddhattha

   shuts his eyes, does he remember the clop

            of our ponies’ hooves


      along the sheep tracks, the sky over Kapilavatthu

when it seemed to be raked clear by a plough? Does the beauty

   and bounty of Yasodhara’s hair ever bedevil him

            like a vulture’s dark wings?





Perhaps one day I’ll throw away my bag

of carved nuts and gilded shells and never again

beseech the temptress goddesses or the presiding deities

of the gambling house. Perhaps never again


will I long for the rattle of nuts and shells

across a table or floor, for their clicking weight against

my hip as I tote them round town looking to win

what I’ve always wanted to win: not cows,


horses, gold; not jewels, perfumes or parasols,

but a hundred-toothed pearl and deer-horn comb.

Then perhaps I’ll return home and I’ll see

what I’ve always wanted to see, hear


what I’ve always wanted to hear: Yasodhara

running her thumb down all its length,

feeling the softness of its sarcenet, drawstring sheath,

then weeping for joy when she tallies the teeth.





Sariputta and Mogallana are talking on the Four

Noble Truths. Men and women come out from the market

and bazaars. In the square, someone plays a veena,

someone else a sitar. The monks will talk well

into the night. I watch the sky grow cinnabar,


in the distance I listen for the call of the nightjar,

but I only hear the turkey buzzards and the koels.

From the crowd, a woman sings, her voice

is sweet as nougat. Sariputta and Mogallana

speak about the Eightfold Path, the woman is singing


of love, deceit, misery and desire; in the square

someone plays a veena, someone else a sitar.

Finally the buzzards fly off to the sycamores;

the koels are still fluting. In the street, a woman

closes the windows and cedar shutters of her house.


Buddha’s word is spreading now through Rajagaha.

But I grow sorrowful and I grow glum, wondering

if I’ll ever inspire anything but windy dissonance,

if I’ll ever bring to pass my coup d’etat? In the square

someone plays a veena and someone else a sitar.





Angulimala, thug and robber, who once wore

a necklace made from the knuckles of those he’d murdered,

has joined the Order. Angulimala is now shaven-headed

and yellow-robed! How did Buddha swing him over?


Ah, but perhaps it’s a ruse. Angulimala would know

the monastery is free from the law, he may think

he can hide here. But if he has changed, if the Buddha

has made him meek as a calf, it’s a great coup;


the townsfolk will be so thankful, they’ll give us

more alms, put less in other mendicants’ bowls, then every

beggar will turn cloak, come over to us and the Order

will be bigger, all the better for me to finally


take hold of. So perhaps I’ll look after Angulimala,


stay by his side on his rounds, watch no-one tears his robes,

stones him, shatters his bowl … One day, I may even

give him the purse full of Siddhattha’s knucklebones.