Patacara

‘Patacara set out on her own, heavy with child, carrying her young son on her back. It was the start of the rainy season. Her husband caught up with her as a great storm arose and her labor pains began. Lightning flashed all around, and great thunderclaps echoed in the sky. Rain began to fall in an unending torrent.
“My lord,” she said, “Please find us a place that is sheltered from the rain.”
Her husband went looking here and there and found a thicket, where the ground was covered in dry leaves. Quickly he built a rough shelter and led her there. Then, taking his axe, he went to cut some sturdy branches.

Meanwhile, Patacara gave birth on the bed of dry leaves, while the rain continued to fall. All night, she huddled there, holding her newborn child and her young son close to her and waited for her husband to return. When daylight came, there was still no sign of him. Weak from giving birth, she went in search of him and found him, dead, by an anthill, bitten by a poisonous snake. In great grief, Patacara continued on her journey to Savatthi, blaming herself: “It is because of me that my husband has died.”

Towards midday day they came to the banks of the Aciravati. The river was swollen with rain following the storm. Patacara knew she hadn’t the strength to carry both children across at the same time. She took her older son and sat him down a good distance from the water, on the bank, telling him to wait for her. Then, with her newborn wrapped close and high on her chest, she waded into the raging river, taking care with each step. Reaching the other side, she climbed the bank, sat down and nursed her son. Tenderly, she set him on the ground. As she went down to the river, she kept looking back to where her infant lay. How could she leave him there, unprotected? Halfway across the stream she saw a great hawk circling, drawn by the sight of the flesh-colored bundle lying on the ground. Fearful, Patacara raised both hands in the air and called out, “Su! Su! Be gone!” Again and again she cried out, making a great sound. But the hawk paid no attention. Swooping down, it gathered the infant up in its talons and carried it away.
Meanwhile, Patacara’s older son, hearing his mother call out, and seeing her raise her hands in the air, thought she was calling to him. Joyfully, he ran down the bank and into the river, where the current swept him away.

Patacara wept and wailed. She made her way to shore and climbed the bank to rejoin the road to Savatthi, sobbing and repeating, “My husband has died on the road. Both of my sons are dead: one was swept away by the river; the other was taken by a hawk.” As she went along, she saw a man approaching.
“Good sir, are you a resident of Savatthi?” she asked, clinging to the thought of her family and the comfort they would give her.
“Indeed I am,” he replied.
“In Savatthi,” she continued, “there is a certain street. Do you know it? In that street is the house of my family. My father is the treasurer of the city. Do you know him?”
“I do,” he said quietly, “But please, do not ask for news of your family. Ask for news of any other family in Savatthi.”
Terrified, Patacara insisted, “But they are my family. I am asking you for news of my family.”
“Dear woman, did you see how the heavens poured down all night long?”
“Indeed, I did, sir. Why do you ask this question?”
“I will explain. Something has happened in the house of the treasurer.”
“Tell me!”
“In the storm last night, the house collapsed, crushing and killing the treasurer, his wife, and son. All three are burning on the funeral pyre as we speak. From here you can see the smoke.” He pointed towards a dark cloud in the distance.

It was at that moment that Patacara lost her mind. She began to wander, unaware that her clothes were falling from her, muttering and repeating:
“Both of my sons…..their time is done.
And on the road, my husband, dead;
My mother, father, and brother
Lie burning on the funeral heap.”

Seeing her, men called her “Madwoman,” and threw sweepings at her, clods of earth and other refuse. Stumbling and weeping, driven here and there, she came to the outskirts of the city where she wandered into the grounds of Jetavana, the Buddha’s monastery.

It was the rainy season, and the Buddha was in residence. Seated in the midst of a great assembly, he was teaching the Dhamma. He saw Patacara at the edge of the gathering, naked and filthy, her breasts swollen with milk for the child she had lost. Despite her appearance, the Buddha perceived her readiness for insight. Drawn by the Buddha’s voice, Patacara ceased her babbling and approached. The crowd saw her and cried out, “Do not let that madwoman come any closer.” But the Buddha said, “No. Do not prevent her. Let her come.” As she stood before the Buddha, he spoke to her directly, saying, “Sister, come to your senses.” So it happened. Through the power of the Buddha, she recovered her mind.’ (excerpted from here)

I thought of this story when I read about Óscar Alberto Martínez Ramírez and his daughter Valeria, whose photographs in death appeared around the world, not only for their tragedy (the link shows the photo; don’t click if you would prefer not to see it), and all that it represents about the problems of America – problems the US has only exacerbated over decades of interventions and policy decisions – but also for the tragedy of the woman left behind, Tania Vanessa Ávalos, now back in El Salvador, understandably wishing to be left alone with her grief.

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