Buddhist scholars agree that a historically accurate picture of the Buddha's life is impossible to reconstruct. When narratives about him were finally written down some four hundred years after his death, devotees greatly embellished the accounts of his life, actions, and words. Take, for instance, the following story of the Buddha's birth:
The child comes forth from his mother while she is standing up and holding on to the branch of a sacred sal tree. He is completely free of any afterbirth and is immediately able to walk and talk. He takes seven steps in each of the cardinal directions and proclaims himself ruler of the universe.
Despite exaggerations about the Buddha, a rough outline of his life can be made. One must continually bear in mind, however, that beyond archaeological evidence proving his historical existence, "we know very little about the circumstances of his life." What we do know is that the India into which he was born had been shaped religiously by Brahmanism, an ancient religion established there more than three thousand years ago by the Aryan conquerors of the indigenous people of the subcontinent. The Aryans were "a powerful group of Indo-European-speaking people" who unified the myriad religions and people groups under an umbrella of religious philosophy that became Hinduism.
These invading conquerors of the Indus Valley forced their vanquished foes to adopt Brahmanism (which later developed into part of Hinduism) for two reasons: (1) to maintain Aryan ethnic purity; and (2) to subjugate the native Indians both spiritually and socially. Brahmanism was able to accomplish these goals because of its caste system, a rigid set of distinctions that divided all persons into the following social/religious classes:
(1) brahmins (Aryan priests);(2) kshatriyas (warrior-nobility);(3) vaishyas (the bourgeois, or middle class [businessmen/farmers], viewed as low class by those above them);(4) sudras (servants, not allowed to recite or listen to the Vedas [Hindu scriptures]); and(5) outcasts (the illegitimate, criminals, and those in unclean jobs [e.g., leather workers, barbers, etc.]).
Into this culture was born Siddhartha Gautama, the son of King Suddhodana Gautama, a chieftain (raja) of the Shakya clan, a family within the kshatriya caste. It is believed that Siddhartha ("he who has accomplished his objectives") was born around 563 BC His father apparently reigned over Kapilavastu, "a small district on the Indian slope of the Himalayas in a region that borders between India and Nepal [Northeastern India]."
Shortly after Siddhartha's birth, a hermit named Asita allegedly had a vision of "the rejoicing of the gods at the birth of the man supreme, who was born for the welfare and bliss of all the world." Asita subsequently traveled to Suddhodana's royal court where he was shown the child. The hermit allegedly prophesied the following:
This Prince, if he remains in the palace, when grown up, will become a great King and subjugate the whole world. But if he forsakes the court life to embrace a religious life, he will become a Buddha, the Savior of the world.
King Suddhodana — believing that contact with human misery would prompt Siddhartha to leave home in search of spiritual truth — immediately ordered his servants to forever shield the prince from all contact with evil and suffering. Siddhartha would be a prisoner of luxury. It is said that in order to distract Siddhartha from the cares of this world, King Suddhodana gave his son many possessions, including three palaces and 40,000 dancing girls.
Legend has it that when Siddhartha reached the age of sixteen, five hundred women were sent to him as prospective brides. Eventually he chose as his bride his cousin Yasodhara. According to one account, he won her hand by performing "twelve marvelous feats in the art of archery."
Siddhartha's life was unfolding as his father had planned until the young prince, out of either curiosity or inner discontent, eluded his royal attendants and ventured into the outside world. Over a succession of several days he visited nearby Lumbini Park, where he made some disturbing observations.
He first beheld an old man, broken and bent by age. On the next day, Siddhartha saw a diseased person, possibly a leper. During his third excursion, the prince viewed a corpse. When he took another trip on day four, he met an ascetic (a monk who practices self-denial).
Siddhartha was never the same. He concluded that life is nothing but an experience plagued by sorrow. Why is there so much suffering? How can men escape what seems to be an inescapable round of torment? Is there no end to pain and sorrow? To answer these and other questions, Siddhartha left home and began a spiritual quest for truth. Some say he departed on the very night Yasodhara gave birth to their son, Rahula ("hindrance").
For about six years, young Gautama wandered about as a poor beggar, studying meditation and philosophy. His pilgrimage led him to two yogis (spiritual teachers). He attempted to follow their path of spirituality by eating nothing but seeds and grass, gradually reducing his diet to only a single grain of rice each day. In one experiment, "he ate only dung."
Then he met and joined a company of five monks with whom he practiced various methods of asceticism. He lay on thorns, wore rough-textured clothing, and refused to sit, choosing instead to always crouch on his heels. He "gave up cleansing his body until the dirt was so thick that it would fall from his body of its own weight." He would hold his breath "until it felt as though someone were forcing a heated sword through his skull." He even "slept in a yard where rotting human corpses were laid out to be eaten by vultures and scavengers."
Siddhartha hoped to attain an understanding of life through his self-denial, but failed. He did, however, gain a realization — neither asceticism (what he was then enduring) nor extravagant living (as he had experienced in the royal court) brought "truth" any nearer. There existed a better path — the Middle Way. A good illustration of this path can be drawn from a stringed musical instrument: "If the strings are strung too loose, they will not play. On the other hand, if they are strung too tight, they will break."
When Siddhartha demonstrated this realization by eating a normal meal in front of his fellow monks, they deserted him. Undaunted, Gautama headed for Gaya (a major city in the northeast of India). There, beneath a full moon in May, he spread a mat under a fig tree on the banks of the Meranjana River and assumed the "lotus" position (sitting in a modified cross-legged position). He vowed to remain there until he understood life's mysteries. It was his thirty-fifth birthday.
After stilling his mind "like a hummingbird poised in mid-air," Siddhartha began meditating. Within several hours he allegedly saw an "infinite succession of deaths and births in an ever-flowing stream of life." In other words, he had a vision that supported the doctrine of reincarnation, a foundational teaching of the Brahman religion in which he had been raised:
Thus, with mind concentrated, purified, cleansed ... I directed my mind to the passing away and rebirth of beings. With divine, purified, superhuman vision I saw beings passing away and being reborn, low and high, of good and bad color, in happy or miserable existences, according to their karma (in other words, according to that universal law by which every act of good or evil will be rewarded or punished either in this life or in some later incarnation).
Siddhartha continued meditating until he reached complete enlightenment: "I realized that rebirth has been destroyed, the holy life has been lived, the job has been done, there is nothing after this." Along with his vision came an internal perception of how to obtain liberation from samsara, or the cycle of rebirths. The young prince had lost his ignorance about the nature of this world. He understood everything. He had become the "awakened one," the "enlightened one" — the Buddha.
According to Buddhist scriptures, Siddhartha remained under that tree in a state of bliss for seven weeks, after which he faced his first dilemma: Should he share what he had learned with others or keep his knowledge to himself? This may seem like an odd predicament to the Western reader, but in the Eastern world, especially in the Buddha's day, it was common for monks who had obtained wisdom to retreat from society with their knowledge. Gautama chose to remain in the public and impart what he had learned.
Two months later and nearly one hundred miles from where he had achieved enlightenment, the Buddha gave his first sermon. Near the holy city of Benares (modern Veranasi) at Isipatana in the Deer Park, he presented an address called the "Wheel of the Doctrine." It contained the Four Noble Truths, which would serve as the foundational teachings of Buddhism.
For more than forty years the Buddha continued instructing all who would listen. Then, tragedy struck at Kusinara in the district of Gorakhpur. Chunda the blacksmith fed the Buddha either spoiled pig's flesh or poisoned mushrooms (truffles). The Buddha quickly fell ill with dysentery and died at the age of eighty.
(from Kingdom of the Cults, Copyright © 1997 The Estate of Walter Martin.)