Prince Siddhartha Gautama (also known as the Buddha) was the founder of Buddhism. He was born into the Kshatriya caste (the warrior rulers caste) in the middle of the 6th century BCE. The traditional date for his birth is 563 BCE, although some scholars have recently proposed placing the Buddha’s birth around 490 BCE. He was the son of king Suddhodana Gautama (a member of the Gautama clan of the Shakya tribe), the ruler of Kapilavastu, a kingdom that was located in present day southern Nepal.
Historical data about Siddhartha Gautama is very scarce. His place and date of birth along with his background is all that seems to be relatively certain: the rest is pure legend. From an historical perspective, however, the legend of prince Siddhartha is critical to understand the origins, development, and the key ideas of Buddhism. Hindu literature and a great part of the Eastern religion tradition would also be hard to understand without knowing the legend of the Buddha.
The legend of the Buddha
For twenty years, king Suddhodana and Queen Maya had no children. One night, Maya dreamt of a white elephant entering into her womb painlessly through her right side. The king gathered the ministers and astrologers to inquire about the meaning of the dream: the queen was pregnant. According to their custom, the queen returned to her parents’ home for the birth, and on her way, she gave birth painlessly to Siddhartha. Some Buddhist traditions claim the birth took place on the eighth day of April. Shortly after Siddhartha's birth, queen Maya died. and her young sister, Mahaprajapati, became the child’s foster mother.
The king was warned by his astrologers that two destinies were awaiting the young prince: he would either become an emperor or renounce the world for a great spiritual destiny. King Suddhodana had no interest in seeing his son and sole heir wander off into the forest in the pursuit of spiritual perfection. He ordered his ministers not to expose the boy to any form of tragedy or allow him to lack anything he desired. Prince Siddhartha remained, then, all the time inside the palace, away from any glimpse of misery and suffering, growing up unaware of the reality of the outside world.
Prince Siddhartha was a gifted child. He received the best education, he excelled in sports and physical exploits, he was the best archer. He had a quick, clear intellect combined with tenderness, and he showed both during an incident with Devadatta, his cousin. A bird was shot down by the arrow of Devadatta. Siddhartha took the bird with him, removed the arrow and looked after the bird until it recovered and became healthy. Devadatta was furious and took Siddhartha to the king, “I shot the bird, it belongs to me”, he explained. Siddhartha responds “To whom should any creature belong: to him who tries to kill it, or to him who saves its life?”
During the annual ploughing festival, Siddhartha was disturbed by the vision of the ceaseless toil of the bullocks and ploughmen and especially by the plight of the tiny creatures who were losing their homes and lives. He was now seven or eight years old and he had become aware of the transience of life. Questions entered into the young prince’s mind. Pleasures now seemed to him fragile and something not quite real enough to hold on to. Perhaps he began to think that life passes swiftly and leaves very little behind.
King Suddhodana was committed to one goal: nothing unpleasant should be allowed to enter Siddhartha’s vision. He was willing to do anything in order to distract his son and keep his mind occupied. This point was stressed so much by some versions of the legend that there are those who say Siddhartha was provided with a harem of eighty four thousand women on attaining manhood.
By the age of sixteen or nineteen, Siddhartha was told that a lovely cousin named Yashodhara will choose her husband from the princes and chieftains who vied for her hand in a contest of archery. Siddhartha showed up, full of confidence. One of the suitors hit the bull’s-eye. Siddhartha stepped forward boldly and with one shot split the rival’s arrow down the middle.
Yashodhara became a lovely wife and in time the couple had a son, Rahula. Siddhartha was now 29 but the questions of his youth were still in his head. Does life have a purpose?, Is there nothing more to hope for than a few friends, a loving family and some memories to savour before one goes?
Siddhartha managed to convince his father to agree to a day outside the walls of his states. The king made sure the city was ready: not a single poor, no one sick, no one unhappy was to be present along the prince’s route. Despite these efforts, the young prince caught sight of a decrepit old man, a diseased man, a dead man, and a monk.
Back in the palace, Siddartha’s mind was full of questions as never before. Is there nothing else in the future but decline and death? why all the suffering? What can be done against sorrow and frustration? He decided to leave the palace and to go forth from the life he knew, not to see his family again until he found a way to go beyond age and death. He travelled eastwards until dawn, he slipped the rings and ornaments of royalty form his body, and removed his robes and sandals.
Siddhartha wandered around and practised meditation with the best teachers he could find. With each lesson he learnt quickly, mastering their disciplines and matching their austerities. But he did not achieve the goal he sought. He wandered in the forest for six years, his body suffered all sorts of mortifications. He engaged in an extreme asceticism and austerity, he believed starvation could be the answer. Day by day he reduced his intake of food until he only ate one grain of rice a day. His body became so emaciated that he could reach into the cavern of his stomach and feel his spine. He attracted the attention of other seekers and a group of five ascetics became disciples of Siddhartha.
The health of Siddhartha became fragile. He did not feel well and he could not practise meditation as he used to. He felt this was not the way. On the banks of a river, he tried to think what could be wrong. His thoughts were interrupted by a musician who was teaching one of his students to play a stringed instrument. “if you wind the string too tight it will break and if you have the string too loose, there will be no music". On hearing these words, Siddhartha came to the realization of a new approach to life: the middle way. Luxury and material attachments are not the way. Self-mortification and extreme asceticism is not the way either.
Sujata, the daughter of a nearby house holder, offered food to Siddhartha. He accepted and slowly gained back his strength. He found a tranquil spot under a fig tree, he sats down, folded his legs, drew himself straight for meditation and took a solemn vow: “Come what may ― let my body rot, let my bone be reduced to ashes ― I will not get up from here until I have found the way beyond decay and death”. Siddhartha passed into deep meditation: his senses closed down and concentration flowed undisturbed by awareness of the outside world. The demons wanted to break the young prince, they tempted him, they attacked him. Siddhartha ignored them. The dark waters of councious closed over Siddhartha, he slipped into that profound stillness in which thought stops and the distinctions of a separate personality dissolves. He was now the Buddha “he who is awake” and he now understood the way to that realm of being which decay and death can never touch: nirvana.
He now went forth and taught others what he had learned. The place he chose was the Deer Park near the city of Varanasi on the Ganges. This event is traditionally the moment when the Buddha “set in motion the wheel of the law”. He explained the Four Noble Truths and the Eightfold Path, the core teachings in Buddhism to a group of disciples.
The Buddha taught through conversations, lectures and parables. He claimed “ enlightenment”, but not divine inspiration. He did not pretend to be a god or that the gods were speaking through him. He walked from town to town, accompanied by his disciples. His teachings are purely ethical, he only cared about human conduct, nothing about ritual, worship, metaphysics or theology. He denounced the notion of sacrificing to the gods, and looked with horror upon the slaughter of animals for these rites. His message is to be kind to all creatures. He rejected all cult and worship of supernatural beings, all prayers and asceticism. Quietly, without controversy, he offered a religion absolutely free of dogma, pries-craft and superstition. He proclaimed a way of salvation open to infidels and believers alike.
After teaching for forty-five years, he died at the age of eighty. Some versions say his funeral pyre was self-ignited and the residue of his body was a heap of pearls. His final words were directed to his disciples “I address you; subject to decay are compound things: strive with earnestness”.
Donate and help us!
We're a non-profit organisation and we need your help! This website costs money and research material isn't cheap either. We are supported only by our donors. Please consider donating; even small amounts help. Thank you!
Are you qualified to peer review ancient history information? Apply now and help provide quality ancient history information on the web!
You might also find the following pages interesting...