‘What’s so great about this guy?’ an enraged woman demanded while I was promoting my biography of the Buddha in the United States. ‘He’s just some other lousy skunk who left his wife and kids.’ It was a reasonable question and showed the importance of critical interpretation while reflecting on any narrative. In the earliest accounts of his decision to leave home and seek enlightenment, Siddhartha Gautama, the future Buddha, does not seem to have a wife. He simply dons the yellow robe of the renouncer and bids farewell to his distraught parents. It is only in a later version that the Buddha takes a last, lingering look at his sleeping wife and newborn son.
In this more elaborate tale, the Buddha’s father, a chieftain of the Himalayan town of Kapilavastu, invites the local priests to tell his son’s fortune. One predicts that the boy will see four disturbing sights that will impel him to renounce the world. His father, who has more mundane ambitions,