The Three Woes: Of old age, sickness and death


ON Friday, May 5, 2023, people around the world celebrated Vesak Day. On that day, they commemorated the birth and the attainment of enlightenment of Siddhartha Gautama to become the Buddha.

One day that young Prince Siddhartha, who was the heir to a mighty kingdom, decided to come out for the first time from the golden palace in which he has been cloistered since birth.

On that fateful day, he came to know of the reality of the world.

He came face to face with the three calamities of humans.

On that day, he saw what was described as ‘The Three Woes’.

I have written that princely experience as a monologue. I beg the readers’ indulgence.


“This palace that you have given me, my King, my Father, is resplendent with all the luxuries of India. I know you wish me to be happy. All my life I am surrounded by things of beauty, of joy and of pleasure, cocooned within these ivory walls.

But as the chained elephants long for the wilds of the jungles, so do I am eager to see the world, the world beyond these ivory walls. I plead with you my Father, my King, let ‘Channa’ (the royal charioteer) take me on the jewel-fronted chariot with four stately horses that I may see the world as it is.

Oh Channa, how beautiful are these houses of the city, see how they are decorated with curtains and banners, see the people, how they line the street with eager gazes in their eyes.

But let us ride Channa, let us ride this chariot through streets of the city and into the country beyond, into the country watered by rivulets, and covered with pleasant trees.

Yes, how sweet the smell of the air, how green is the grass and how beautiful are the trees.

But what is this I see by the wayside?

A creature, a man bent of frame, wrinkled of face and sorrowful of brow?

Who is this?

His head is white, his eyes are bleared, and his body is withered, and he barely supports himself on his staff.

What is it you said, Channa? Old age? These are symptoms of old age. That this man was once a suckling child, a youth full of sporting life but now, as the years have passed by, his beauty is gone, and the strength of his life is wasted.

Oh, this sight of old age pains me.

What joy and pleasure can people take when they know they must in time wither and pine away?

Let us speed from here, from this place of old age…

But lo! Behold! What is this other man by the wayside, gasping he is for breath, convulsing and groaning is he with pain, and disfigured is his body.

What kind of a man is this?


What is sickness?

That the four elements of his body are concussed and out of order?

Are we all subject to such conditions: the poor and the rich, the ignorant and the wise?

Are all creatures that have bodies liable to this same calamity?

Oh, how staled appear all the pleasures that I have known.

How loathed am I of the joys of life.

Let us speed away from here, Channa, give vent to our fiery horses and leave this dreary place behind.

But what is this that blocks our course?

A procession, with flowers, garlands, and streamers; but the people are overwhelmed with grief. And in front of them being carried is a man, his body is stark, his life is gone; his thoughts are still.

Tell me, Channa, tell me, what manner of a man is this?

A dead man? A dead man, you say?

Is this the only dead man, or does the world contain other such instances?

What? What did you say? All over the world is the same. That he who begins his life must end it. That there is no escape from death.

O worldly beings! How fatal is your delusion! Inevitably your bodies will crumble to dust, yet carelessly, unheedingly, you live on.

Let us move on from here Channa, let us move on.

But where? Where to? I am struck with the emptiness of what l have known.

I have become disgusted with pleasures and lust.

All oppress me, and existence itself seems intolerable.

I have seen everywhere the impression of change; therefore, my heart is heavy. Beings grow old, sicken, and die. That is enough to take away the zest of life.

Alas! All the world is full of darkness and ignorance; there is no one who knows how to cure the ills of existence.

Let me sit down beneath the great ‘jambu’ tree; let me ponder on life and death and the evils of decay.

Let me concentrate my mind and become free from confusion that all low desires may vanish from my heart and tranquillity may overcome me.”


In this state of ecstasy, Siddhartha saw with his mental eye all the misery and sorrow of the world; he saw the pains of pleasure and the inevitable certainty of death hovering over every being; yet men are not awakened to the truth.

And a deep compassion seized his heart. He also saw the path before him.

Siddhartha, with pain in his heart, went to his palace and bade farewell to his beloved wife and son who were asleep.


“Oh, you whom I dearly love above all treasures of the earth, I long to take you in my arms and hold you. Though the pain of parting stabs my heart like a sword, my mind is determined and my resolution unshaken.

I shall seek the path to the bliss of Nirvana. Though the path is strewn with thorns. But I know that my purpose will be accomplished.

My father advises me to enjoy life and to undertake worldly duties, such as will bring honour to me and our house. He tells me that l am too young still, that my pulse beats too full to lead a religious life. Now l know for seeking a religious life no time can be inopportune.

I know that in seven days the wheel of the empire will appear and will make me sovereign over four continents and two thousand adjacent islands, but it is not sovereignty that I desire.

I will seek the path to enlightenment, l shall become a Buddha, I shall enlighten the world and save mankind from perdition.

I must tear myself away from you my loved ones, though pain sears me like fire. I will suppress the feelings but not extinguish my memory.

I will walk into the silent night, though darkness blankets the earth, but the stars shine brightly in the heavens.”