The Bodhisatta undertakes self torture with the Group of Five; Indra plays the lute as an analogy
This picture depicts the Great Being undertaking his practices of self-torture. The men sitting in front of him are the Group of Five, consisting of Kondanna, Vappa, Bhaddiya, Mahanama and Assaji. They had all followed the Great Being to serve him. The being sitting in the clouds holding the lute is Indra, King of the Gods.
The leader of the group was Kondanna. He was one of the eight Brahmins who had given predictions based on Prince Siddhattha's attributes. At that time he was young, but by this time he was very old. The other four were sons of the other seven Brahmins.
Self-torture was one kind of practice undertaken by recluses at that time. It ranged from mild through to moderate to extreme, death-defying austerities beyond the ability of ordinary men. "Death defying" means that they required clenching of the teeth, holding of the breath and fasting.
The Great Being experimented with all of these, until, at some times, such as when he had gradually reduced his food intake until he stopped eating altogether, he almost died. His body was haggard, his hair fell out. All that remained was skin and bones, and when he walked he swayed from side to side with weakness.
After experimenting with these practices he realized something. The truth he realized was that described by the poet in the allegory of Indra playing a three-stringed lute to the Bodhisatta. The first string was too tight and as a result snapped. The second string was too loose and didn't make any sound. The third string was neither too loose nor too tight, and when plucked it made a pleasant, resonant sound.
Indra's plucking of the third string (the Middle Way) also told the Bodhisatta that there is no way that wet wood lying in water can be used to rub and start a fire. Even wood that is not lying in water, but is wet, cannot be used to start a fire. Only dry wood on dry land can be used to start a fire. The first kind of wood is like people with defilements living the household life; the second is like people who have gone forth from the household life but whose minds are still "wet" with defilements. The third is like people who have gone forth from the household life and whose minds are "dry" of defilements.
Hearing this, the Great Being gave up his practice of self-torture, which was a physical kind of effort, and began to eat more food in order to begin a more mental kind of effort. When the Group of Five found out they became disillusioned with the Great Being, feeling that he had renounced the practice and reverted to a life of indulgence, so they gave up serving him and left him to go elsewhere.
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