Sample – Theme and Variations

Theme: The Buddha

As soon as Kisa woke up she realised something was wrong.

She turned over automatically in the straw to find Siddhattha and give him her breast. In the half-light she groped for her baby, but found a bundle that was heavy and inert. Her heart suddenly pounding, she gently shook him: there was no response. His face was still and set. His flesh was cold and rigid.

Kisa sprang up with a cry, clutching her baby to her. Surely he just needed some milk, or a cuddle? He would come round. Not her first-born! Not the fine, healthy baby that all her neighbours had admired!

Her husband stirred, then went back to sleep. But her mother-in-law, across the room, sat up at her cry.

“Kisa, what is it?”

“It’s Siddhattha! He’s cold. He won’t move!”

Her mother-in-law came up to her and felt the child.

“I’m sorry, Kisa. He’s dead.” In the dim morning light Kisa could just see her eyes, which were full of compassion. “Sometimes the gods take them and we don’t know why. It happened to me. Three of my babies died before Vasettha was born.”

Kisa looked at the earthen floor.

“You will have more,” her mother-in-law went on.

In a few moments a succession of ideas passed through Kisa’s mind: her joy at the birth of a healthy boy, after her painful labour, only a few weeks before; her belief that he would grow into a fine man; intense mortification at the joy that had been suddenly denied here; then, finally, guilt. It must be a punishment for something she had done wrong. But what?

“It’s a mistake!” Kisa cried abruptly, “He can’t be dead. I don’t deserve this!”

With that she tore out of the house and down the street, still clutching her dead baby. She didn’t know where she was going, only that she had to get away and find someone to fix this mistake. She cried out and muttered to herself as she ran.

“Kisa! Why are you making so much noise?”

A familiar harsh voice had hailed her from a rooftop. She turned in confusion. It was Dona, the corpulent Brahmin who employed her to clean his house. He sat on his roof-top every morning to recite prayers to the rising sun.

“It’s my baby,” she managed to say, “My mother-in-law says he is dead.”

She looked up towards the Brahmin for a moment, but did not meet his eyes. She recalled how Dona had unsuccessfully tried to seduce her about a year ago, though he had resentfully left her alone after she became pregnant.

“Ha! All you deserve, girl, for neglecting your duty! It is your own karma!”

She could not defy him, but nor could she accept his judgement. She fled further down the street and squatted beneath the banyan tree by the well, moaning softly to herself. She became wrapped up in her own self-pitying world for a while, abstracted from all contact with others. Some women of a different caste, who were drawing water from the well, ignored her.

Finally there came a touch at her elbow. It was Rupa, her closest friend since childhood. She seemed to have heard the news. “I’m sorry,” She said.

Suddenly the torment from which Kisa had fled re-awakened in her. “He’s not dead!” she cried, “I don’t deserve this! I’m not guilty!”

 “Perhaps it is a sin from a past life, not from this one,” Rupa gently suggested.

“No, no, I have done no sin.” Here she thought again about the sin she had avoided with Dona. “I will find a real holy man who knows this, that I have done no sin. He will understand, then he can make Siddhattha all right again!” She was suddenly resolved, her heart beating fast again.

“But he’s dead…. “ began Rupa, then realised that her friend was in no state to accept this. Then an idea occurred to her. “I do know a holy man….”

“Who? Where?” demanded Kisa eagerly.

“He came to the mango grove yesterday, a very famous holy man. They call him Buddha, and they say he can read people’s minds and do great miracles. But the Brahmins hate him. Dona will forbid you to see him.”

“In the mango grove?” The hairs prickled on the back of Kisa’s neck.


Kisa immediately ran off, still with the bundle in her arms, straight for the mango grove outside the town. Rupa called after her, warning her of her parents’ and employer’s disapproval, but soon saw it was no use, and went back to her work.

When Kisa arrived at the mango grove, the Buddha and his followers had just risen from their morning meditation, and were about to go into the town on their alms-round. One of the followers intercepted her as she entered the grove.

“Please could I see Buddha?” she begged, “It’s important.”

“Not now,” said the follower, “The Master is about to begin his alms-round. Come back this afternoon.”

But the Buddha was already coming towards them, and Kisa ran away from the follower and up to him, falling on her knees before him.

“Please,” she said, “My name is Kisa, and they say my baby has died, but it’s all a mistake. I’ve done nothing wrong! Please can you bring my baby back to life?”

She was shaking, too nervous to observe the Buddha’s serene, compassionate expression, or the animation of his disciples, who were gathering around them. Bring her baby back to life? The Master did not do cheap tricks like that. This woman ought to know better than to ask him for such a thing.

The Buddha pondered for a few moments, then at length he said, “I teach the way to end all suffering.”

Kisa’s spirits rose. Did that mean he could end hers?

“But there is only one way I can suggest to end your anguish.”

He paused. Surely that meant he could bring her baby back to life!

“Fetch me a grain of mustard seed. Just one single grain will do. But it must come from a house where no-one has ever died.”

She immediately leapt up. “Yes sir, I’ll do that. It won’t take long. I’ll be back very soon, sir.”

Mad with anxiety, she thought that the Buddha would soon depart on his alms-round, and she must get the mustard-seed straight away before then.

She ran to the nearest house, close to the mango grove. She did not know the people there, but surely they could not refuse her simple request?

A woman opened the door.

“Please – I know this is strange – but could I have a grain of mustard seed? The Buddha’s about to go on his alms-round and he needs it for my baby.”

The woman looked extremely puzzled, and did not move.

“Oh, and there mustn’t have been anybody died in the house. The mustard seed must come from a house where nobody has died.”

The woman smiled mirthlessly, “Then I’m sorry, I can’t help you there. My father died in this house only a few months ago.”

Before she reached the next house, Kisa had begun to realise that the requirement of someone not having died in the house was likely to be important. This time she began with, “Please could you tell me whether anyone has died in this house?”

“Yes, miss, my granddaughter died here only last year.”

“The gods took my mother from here five years ago.”

“My uncle died here only last week. You must know him, he sold vegetables in the town. Have you not heard?”

“Died? People die all the time. Why do you ask?”

After twenty houses, Kisa was once again distraught. How could she get back to the Buddha in time now? She went back to the well and sat down again beneath the banyan tree. She looked again at the frozen face of her child. People died all the time. And he was dead.

The words of the Buddha came back to her: “There is only one way I can suggest to end your anguish,” he had said. She suddenly realised that he hadn’t actually promised to bring her child back to life. Of course, if she had thought about it she would probably have realised that lots of people die, but she had been too upset to think. She began to realise, though, that Siddhattha was one of the people who had to die. Maybe she didn’t deserve it, but the fact was that he was dead. As acceptance gradually filled her she slowly began to weep tears of relief.

After a while she got up and went back home. The little body was cremated by the river bank that very afternoon, with Dona officiating.

That evening, as the sun was sinking, she returned to the mango grove to see the Buddha again. She found him deep in discussion with his disciples, but they broke off as she approached. She bowed respectfully before the Buddha, with a heavy heart but composed mind.

“I did not find the mustard seed, sir, for I believe there is not one house in the whole town where no-one has died. I believe you sent me on that errand so I should learn that I’m not the only one. Am I right?”

“You are right, my daughter. It is good that you have understood this.”

“I have another question, sir.”

“Please ask it.”

“You said that you teach the way to end suffering. Please teach me what that way is. How is it possible to end suffering?”

“I cannot take away old age, sickness, withering and death, but I can help you overcome the anguish these things bring with them. The first step in that way you have already gone, which is to recognise that suffering exists.”

“Did I deserve it? Is it a punishment?”

“Maybe, maybe not. That is not important. But once you have accepted that suffering exists, you can begin the Path which ends anguish. The Path is a long and difficult Path, but if you become my disciple, I will teach you more of this Path.

Variation 13: Kant

I used to be a good friend of Immanuel Kant’s. In our youth we were students together at the university, and when he was a young tutor we used to play billiards together. Kant used to empty my pockets in the most civilised manner possible, simply by applying his skill, and I never had the heart to refuse to bet, knowing how useful he found the money. As we got older, I moved away to Berlin. Kant stayed in Königsberg, and our contact grew less frequent. Whenever I came back to Königsberg to visit friends and relatives, though, he always gave me a warm welcome. He would entertain me to dinner, always eager for news from the capital, where he had never been.

It was on one such occasion later in our lives, when I found myself asking Kant’s moral advice. We had been out of touch for some time – at least two years – when I visited on this occasion, and as I met him again I realised how much I regretted this and valued contact with my upright friend. He was delighted to see me after such a long interval, and extremely hospitable, despite being much occupied with his work. He had recently published his first important book on ethics, his Groundwork of the Metaphysics of Morals, but I could never have the patience for reading such heavy stuff myself. I wanted his advice for a more practical reason, without lots of theory, and I had a sense that he might be able to help me. The problem was one that lay close to my heart, though, and at first I was not quite sure how to approach it.

“Do you really believe, my friend, that your moral philosophy can provide guidance to every man in every circumstance?” I asked, between mouthfuls of liver sausage.

“If it could not guide every man in every circumstance, it would not be a moral philosophy!” Kant replied. “No duty is moral if it is not universal. It must be incumbent on all, equally, without exception, if it is to be a moral duty. In my view that is the whole difference between moral duties and other kinds of duties. A moral duty is a universal duty, but a non-moral duty is one that only applies in some particular set of circumstances.”

“Then, as my situation is one where I would like to know my moral duty, I wonder if I could ask your advice about one particular case.”

“How could I refuse such advice to such an old friend! Go ahead, Walter.”

“It is about my wife.”

Kant’s eyes widened slightly in surprise, and I realised that I had never told him about my marriage. I remembered thinking of writing to him to let him know, but then feeling uncomfortable about doing so and doing something else instead.

“I don’t believe I have met the good lady,” said Kant. “And I don’t think you can have been long married, can you? For when I saw you last, as far as I remember, there was no mention of marriage.”

“We were married in Berlin last year. It is late in my life to give up being a bachelor, I know, but I had begun to see old age ahead, and believe that I would need a young wife to help me through it. Then I met Kisa, a very pretty and spirited young thing, who seemed quite happy to marry a dull old fellow like me. I was flattered by how eagerly she accepted my proposal, and we got married very quickly. But she’s not much of a traveller –like yourself, Immanuel – so I’ve never brought her to Königsberg.”

For a moment I almost fancied I saw a flicker of emotion in Kant’s eyes, which I might have ascribed to a touch of envy, had I not known him better. I knew he would never marry, for I could never imagine what wife would be able to live with so much stern rectitude and precision, tempered though it often was with kindness. Nor would he ever allow thoughts of female company to distract him from the discipline of his work.

“Still, you have made the marriage now, so presumably it is not your marriage that you wish to ask my advice about?”

“Indeed not. There is more to tell. Very soon after we were married, Kisa fell pregnant, and earlier this year a baby was born: a handsome boy in good health.”

“I had no idea you were a father as well. My congratulations!”

“I’m afraid congratulations are now no longer appropriate. Two weeks ago the baby died, very suddenly and mysteriously.”

“I’m very sorry to hear that.”

“The trouble is, that when I left Berlin two days ago, Kisa had still not got over this. She has been absolutely destroyed by the death. I had to leave because I could not bear to be in the house with her any longer. She still carries the corpse of the baby around with her, and will not let it go.”

“Good heavens! After two weeks!”

“The flesh has been rotting, and the corpse has begun to stink, but she still carries it around with her and speaks to it, and tries to feed it from her breast. She will not listen to any reason, and when I try to take the baby away she becomes absolutely savage and clings onto it fiercely.” The pain of recalling all this, so recent, began to rise to my throat, and I had to cover my face with my hands. “I’m sorry.” When I looked up again, Kant was looking directly at me with eyes full of compassion.

“It sounds like madness, Walter. Have you seen a physician?”

“Yes, several. They all said that the baby should be taken from her forcibly, and she should be taken to a hospital for the insane. But I cannot bear to do it, for I feel that it is my fault that she is like this, that I brought her to this by marrying her.”

“Come, come! How could it be your fault?”

“If I had not married her so young, she would not have had to face this. I feel that I married her for my comfort, not hers, and somehow this has been my punishment.”

“No, Walter, this is irrational. You cannot be to blame.” Kant got up and began to pace the room, somewhat stiffly, leaving his potatoes uneaten. “For who would blame any man for acting as you did? You did not marry her against her will, but she freely entered into the contract. You have not treated her as a means to an end.”

“I don’t think you understand. Before we were married, yes, she was free enough: free as a bird that willingly flies into its cage, to have the door shut on it. But after we were married, when she became pregnant, she began to change.”

“In what way?”

“She began to lose interest in things. She did not sleep. She became listless. When I asked her what was the matter, she would not tell me. But looking back at it now, I believe she felt trapped.”

“But she did not tell you so?”

“No. She would never admit it. Then when her baby was born, suddenly she was so happy again, she was so devoted to it. She had a new interest in life. I began to think that what she had been through was just a phase women go through after marriage, and that now she was a mother we would all be happy. And so it seemed – until the baby died.”

“I see. Well, perhaps she did feel trapped. But I still do not think you are to blame at all. When we enter a contract like marriage, freely, we are using our practical reason. It is our responsibility to consider such a step carefully, and to ensure that we are acting in accordance with duty, not simply in accordance with desire. If we act rashly in making such a contract, nevertheless we are responsible for our step and should act in accordance with our commitments. As long as she was an adult in possession of her reason, it was her responsibility to act autonomously in deciding whether to marry you. So you have not abused her in any way. Your conscience should be clear, Walter.”

I nodded, and realised that I felt relieved. With such an upright man before me, I could believe what he said, and feel more fully absolved than any Christian priest could have made me. “But Immanuel,” I went on, “It is not just that I feel guilty. I cannot bear to send her to an asylum. I do not know what to do next.”

Kant paused in his pacing. “What to do next? Hm. Well, you asked me about my moral philosophy. This is my moral philosophy: act according to that maxim which you can will to be a universal law. So, look at yourself and your situation. Try to leave your feelings behind and use reason alone, for feelings will not lead you to do your duty. Think what you would wish every man in your situation to do, what principle you would wish him to follow.”

“I do not know.”

“Think of the possible courses of action before you. What could you do?”

“I could take the baby away from her by force and bury it, and send her to the hospital.”

“And if you did that, what principle would you be following?”

“I do not understand.” I became confused.

“What would you be trying to do? What would be the intention behind that action if you were to do it?”

“I would be trying to help her, and release her from suffering; and myself too, I suppose.”

“And would you not want every man to act in that way in similar circumstances?”

“Yes, I suppose so.”

“Then you would be following a universal maxim. You would be doing your duty. I believe that you should follow what your reasoning tells you to do, not your feelings of guilt. In any case, what else could you do? What alternative course of action is there?”

“I could leave her to carry on like this – with this mad pretence.”

“And if you did that, what maxim would you be following?”

I paused, confused again. “I’m not sure.”

“Then let me tell you, Walter. You would be indulging your irrational feelings of guilt. If you would not want every man in your circumstance to indulge his irrational feelings of guilt, then do not act in that way.”

I swallowed. “Yes, I think I see. It is hard, but I think you have given me the right advice. Indeed, you have told me what I ought to have known for myself.”

“It is not just your duty to yourself that is involved, Walter; it is your duty to her. You are bound to her by a contract for the rest of your days. It is your duty to do what will be best for her.”

“Yes, yes, I see. I think I have to go. Yes, I must get the next stagecoach back to Berlin, without delay. Thank you, Immanuel: I am immensely indebted to you for what you have made clear to me this evening.” I looked into his eyes and saw only stern friendship. “I don’t know why I had to come as far as Königsberg to start thinking straight, but I am grateful to you nevertheless. I will write and let you know the issue of this business.”

Leaving my long-neglected liver sausage half-eaten, I rushed from the room.

Variation 14: Bentham

Jeremy Bentham to James Mill, esquire

Dear James,

In your last letter you ask me a vexing question which it has been much my trouble to try to answer, though I think I have it now. You ask me whether it is truly for the greatest good of the greatest number that everyone should judge by utilitarian principles, given that some will not judge them justly. At first I found this question in your letter, but put it by for a while upon more pressing business. However, a most vexing incident recently has made me once more conscious of it, and meant I most instantly required a solution of it. I will explain the circumstance.

There is a young man, the son of my neighbour, Sir William Hunt, who is also called William and has always been a most credulous youth. He was much struck with the doctrines of utilitarianism when listening to me talking to Sir William as a boy, and would often ask me about them. When he got a bit older though, he started to go into the city and do the things that young gentlemen do, in company with his friends. Sometimes his father wouldn’t see him for days on end, but he didn’t seem too concerned.

Then one day, when I called upon Sir William upon some other business, I found him very downcast. He explained that he was very disappointed in young William, who had always been so much his father’s favourite, and so eager about utilitarianism. He had just heard some very disappointing news about him (and here he begged my secrecy), that he had got a wench with child! All this sporting in London had clearly done him no good, and his dubious friends no better. I expressed my disapprobation of his behaviour.

But the news got worse as the months went by. It seemed that the girl was not just some serving maid, but come from quite a respectable family, though fallen on hard times and not well-off. Her parents, on hearing the news, threw her out of the house and would have nothing more to do with her. Sir William insisted that his son find her a place to live, and paid for it from his own expenses, to save her from the workhouse. All this bad news came to me in instalments from Sir William, who badly needed a confidant. I was very happy to relieve him and sympathise, but it never occurred to me at this time that the business would come to more closely concern myself.

Then, last week, I heard that the baby had been born: a sickly and fretful baby. Sir William continued to ensure that the girl was quietly taken care of, and it seemed that young William was remorseful and wanted to marry her, but Sir William would not hear of him throwing away his prospects and his reputation in such a way.

Then just yesterday, to my astonishment, I received a call from young William. He came in with a furtive, hunted expression and said immediately, “Mr Bentham, please, I need your help. You must hide me!”

“Hide you? Whatever for? And who from? If this is some game….”

“No, no,” he insisted, “I am in earnest. The constables are looking for me. I have done no wrong, but I have broken the law. I know you will help me, for I have only followed the principles you always taught.”

At this point a foreboding of the young man’s real naïveté and its effects struck me, but I still pretended mere astonishment. “Followed the principles I always taught? But the constables are after you? What have you done?”

“I killed the baby, Kisa’s baby. I thought she would be pleased, but she didn’t understand at all. She went and told the constables. It was all to produce the greatest happiness of the greatest number, you see. I was unhappy, Kisa was unhappy, the baby was unhappy, my father was unhappy, her father was unhappy. What was the life of a sickly child, like to die anyway, compared to all that unhappiness it was causing? I was sure I was doing the right thing.” He went on like this at some length, justifying himself in the most ludicrous fashion imaginable, until I interrupted him.

“You fool!” I cried, “You absolute fool! I never taught you this! Can’t you see that if the state were to bring in a law for the killing of sickly and illegitimate infants, that would be one thing, but to take it into your own hands another! Dear God! Now you are a murderer and may be hanged! If it were left to the judgement of every man who begets a bastard that he might kill it, where would the country be! Full of infanticides and bloody babes! Utilitarianism does not override the law, but bids you follow the law for the greatest happiness of all, and where it wants alteration argue your case in parliament! If you break the law you must meet its penalties. You will go to the scaffold!”

The boy looked absolutely terrified. His whole security had collapsed in a moment, for he seemed to have absolutely believed that I would support him in a secret moral crusade against the law. At length he cried, “Please, help me! I have been such a fool. I felt it was wrong when I plunged in the knife, but I made myself do it for the greater good. Please help me!”

“I will not defend you.” I replied, “If you give your naïve utilitarian justification as defence, you will be laughed out of court.” Then it occurred to me that utilitarianism would also become the laughingstock of London, and many good purposes we have for reform, which would indeed really bring greater happiness, would be set back for many years. “I have a good mind to let you hang for this” I said, not quite truly, “but I will help you as much as I can for your father’s sake. Go and hide in the cellar for now: if the constables call I don’t think they will search this house when I give my word falsely, breaking the law myself for your sake. I will try to make arrangements to get you abroad, and I will tell Sir William what has passed secretly after you are gone, but no-one else. You must make a new life for yourself, giving up all expectation of inheritance, all familiar habits, and count yourself lucky to be alive. Go!”

So, having explained the circumstances, it is now that I must ask your help, dear James. Please could you use your position at the East India Company to find him a secret passage out of London on a ship? It does not matter where. A ship bound for India might drop him en route, perhaps in Lisbon, with little trouble, I think. I will undertake to get him to the docks in a closed carriage, if you will arrange a discreet passage on board ship. As soon as possible, for he cannot stay hiding in my cellar for ever, and I have already put off two constables and Sir William.

But my tale is not yet done, for it is not only the boy that had to be considered if the reputation of utilitarianism is to be saved. I also had to see the girl and ensure her silence. I travelled in haste to the lodgings I knew had been found for her by Thames Street, and found to my relief that she had told no-one else but the constables. My relief on this score, however, was tempered by distress at the distracted state I found her in, still holding the dead baby. At first I started to explain to her why William had done the deed, why I was also concerned, and why it was important to maintain silence, but I soon realised this was useless, for she was not taking in my words. All I could get out of her was that she loved the baby, that William was evil, but that she felt she had done the killing too.

“How can you have done it?” I asked, “Wasn’t it William who killed the child?”

“But I was complaining!” She cried, “When really the baby was the best thing that ever happened to me, the greatest thing I ever loved! It was me who did it really!”

Suddenly I was struck by another thought, and no longer attempted to remove this idea from her mind. Her confusion might do what her clarity could not.

I then did the hardest thing I have ever done, though with mature consideration and, I think, a clear conscience. I went and told the constable that it was my regrettable duty to inform him that, on talking to Miss Kisa in relation to the legal aspects of the case, she had herself confessed to killing the baby, meaning that her accusation against young Mr William Hunt must be false. I may have to commit perjury in court before all this is finished, but in a good cause. If you wonder at me, James, think of all the thousands, nay millions, who will benefit from the utilitarian reforms we are proposing. What is the life of a girl compared to all that unhappiness relieved?

I then immediately returned home, so have not yet been informed whether Miss Kisa has been arrested, or how that case is progressing. You may think that if it succeeds, then young William can be saved from his exile. I would not agree with this line of thinking, for to remove all risk he must not be in the country when this case goes to court, and there is also a risk that the case may fail because her testimony will be so inconsistent. Perhaps he can return after a few years when it has all blown over. I think we can rely upon Sir William’s discretion particularly in that case, and of course I know I can rely absolutely on yours.  

I think that I now probably no longer need to answer the question you posed in your last letter. Certainly those who do not judge justly should not attempt to judge by utilitarian principles. Heaven save utilitarianism from those who do not judge it justly! We must make a stronger point from now on, I believe, of stating that utilitarianism is a principle for legislators, not for personal conduct. For personal conduct we should follow law and common morality, the following of which is in general for the greatest happiness of the greatest number, and thus indirectly supported by our principles.

                                                Yours etc.

                                                            Jeremy Bentham

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