published on 09 December 2013
Siddhartha Gautama (also known as the Buddha “the awakened one”) was the leader and founder of a sect of wanderer ascetics (Sramanas), one of many sects which existed at that time all over India. This sect came to be known as Sangha, to distinguish it from other similar communities. The teachings of Siddhartha Gautama are considered the core of Buddhism: After his death, the community he founded slowly evolved into a religious-like movement which was finally established as a state religion in India by the time of Emperor Ashoka, during the 3rd century BCE.
Siddhartha is a Sanskrit personal name which means "He Who Achieves His Goal". The name is best known in English as the title of the novel by Hermann Hesse, in which the main character (who actually is not the Buddha) is named Siddhartha. The Sanskrit family name Gautama means "descendants of Gotama". Gotama is the name of several figures in ancient India, including a poet of the Rig Veda and also Aksapada Gautama (or Gotama), a famous Indian logician. Pali literature normally refers to Siddhartha Gautama as Gotama Buddha.
Traditionally, the meaning of the term Buddha is understood as a person who has awakened from the deep sleep of ignorance. In Indian tradition, the expression was already used before, during, and after the life of Siddhartha by many religious communities, but it became most strongly linked to the Buddhist tradition.
At the time when Siddhartha Gautama lived, Northern India was composed of numerous and small independent states competing for resources. This was a time when the traditional religious order in India was being challenged by a number of new philosophical and religious schools that were not in line with the orthodox Indian religious views. The Vedic philosophy, theology and metaphysics, along with its ever growing complexity of rituals and sacrificial fees, was being questioned. Materialistic schools were running wild in India, undermining the reputation and authority of the priestly class, leading to a temporary religious anarchy which contributed to the development of new religions. By the time Siddhartha Gautama was born, the intellectual decay of the old Brahmanic orthodoxy had begotten a strong skepticism and moral vacuum which was filled by new religious and philosophical views.
Siddhartha’s ideas have some similarities with the work of Kapila, an Indian sage who lived probably about two centuries earlier. Both were concerned with providing relief from suffering for humanity. They discarded the remedies proposed by the Vedic rites, especially the sacrifices; they considered these rites to be cruel because of their strong connection with the slaughter of living beings. Both of them believed that knowledge and meditation were the true means of salvation. Also, they both strived to attain a state of human perfection and their approach was purely agnostic. However, the parallels go no further. Kapila organized his views in a system of philosophy that has not a hint of sympathy for mankind in general. The Buddha, on the other hand, delivered his message with a living, all-embracing sympathy and a deep concern for the poor and the oppressed. He preached in favour of the equality of men (which was largely forgotten in the Indian society during his time) and opposed inequalities and abuses of the caste system.
The Historical Buddha
Reliable factual data on the life of Siddhartha Gautama is very scarce. His historical biography can be, to some extent, pieced together by comparing early Buddhist texts from different traditions. These accounts are filled with myth and legendary stories that slowly but surely changed the initial attributes of the biography of the Buddha. The final form of these texts were written down many centuries after the death of the Buddha. The true words and accounts of the Buddha were merged with legendary additions from oral traditions. Moreover, it seems obvious that the editors of the final versions of the many biographies of the Buddha made their own additions and shaped the contents of the texts according to their own interests in order to support their own philosophical and religious ideas.
Siddhartha’s life can be divided into two different stages: The time before his enlightenment and the time after that moment. Buddhist literature uses the term Bodhisattva (someone who is on the way to obtaining enlightenment) to refer to Siddhartha before he attained enlightenment, and the word Buddha is used to refer to Siddhartha from the time of his enlightenment.
There is no agreement on when Siddhartha was born. This is still a question mark both in scholarship and Buddhist tradition. Several dates have been proposed, but the many contradictions and inaccuracies in the different chronologies and dating systems make it impossible to come up with a satisfactory answer free of controversy. The dates of Siddhartha’s life, according to the different sources available, are as follows:
- Long chronology (Ceylonese): 624-544 BCE
- Corrected long chronology: 566-486 BCE
- Short chronology (Indian chronology): 448-368 BCE
- Modern Scholar consensus: 490/450-410/370 BCE
Modern scholarship agrees that the Buddha passed away at some point between 410 and 370 BCE, about 140-100 years before the time of Indian Emperor Ashoka’s reign (268-232 BCE). Both scholars and Buddhist tradition agree that the Buddha lived for 80 years. More exactness on this matter seems impossible.
Siddhartha’s caste was the Kshatriya caste (the warrior rulers caste). He belonged to the Sahkya clan and was born in the Gautama family. Because of this, he became to be known as Shakyamuni “sage of the Shakya clan”, which is the most common name used in the Mahayana literature to refer to the Buddha. His father was named Suddhodana and his mother, Maya. There is some controversy surrounding the background of the Shakyas. All we know about the Shakyas is through Buddhist sources, and the historical facts in it have been clouded by many additions and editions over the centuries. Some accounts say that the Shakya princes were exiled from a previous state (identified as the kingdom of Ayodhya according to some accounts) and they moved on and found the state of Shakya. Despite the fact that Suddhodana Gautama is often described as a king, it is believed that his status was actually that of a regional leader, similar to a tribe’s chief. The Shakyas’ government was organized as a republican system, not a monarchy: They held regular meetings where the members of the most influential families took part. Almost certainly, the family of Siddharhta was one of the leading families within this political system.
The Shakya state was located at at the foot of the Himalayas and Siddharta’s family was based in a city called Kapilavastu. Suddhodana was married to Maya and he also had (at least) a second wife, Mahaprajapati, who was Maya’s younger sister. It is probable that Suddhodana also had some concubines. It is believed that Siddhartha was born in Lumbini, also in present day Nepal, not far from Kapilavastu. Lumbini has been identified thanks to the Indian Emperor Ashoka, who visited the area in 248 BCE and erected a pillar with an inscription commemorating the birth of Siddhartha. He also built a wall around the village and ordered the building of four stupas to mark the spot. It is not absolutely certain that Siddhartha was actually born in Lumbini, but at least we know for certain that this was widely believed by the Buddhist community at the time of Ashoka and even earlier.
Maya died soon after Siddhartha was born, perhaps within days; the child was raised by Mahaprajapati. All accounts stress the extreme luxuries that surrounded Siddhartha while living in Kapilavastu. Yasodhara, possibly a cousin, was Siddhartha’s wife and they had only one son, Rahula.
The realization that he, like anyone else, could be subject to different forms of human suffering (disease, old age, and death) drove Siddhartha into a personal crisis. By the time he was 29, he abandoned his home and began to live as a homeless ascetic. Even though it is normally held that Siddhartha left home in secret, this legend is a later addition; early scriptures explicitly agree that he abandoned his home, “though his parents did not conscent and wept full of affliction”.
After leaving Kapilavastu, Siddhartha practised the yoga discipline under the direction of two of the leading masters of that time: Arada Kalama and Udraka Ramaputra. Siddhartha did not get the results he expected, so he left the masters, engaged in extreme asceticism, and he was joined by five followers. For a period of six years Siddhartha tried to attain his goal but was unsuccessful. After realizing that asceticism was not the way to attain the results he was looking for, he gave up this way of life. After eating a meal and taking a bath, Siddhartha sat down under a tree of the species ficus religiosa, where he finally attained Nirvana (perfect enlightenment) and became known as the Buddha.
Soon after this, the Buddha delivered his first sermon in a place named Sarnath, also known as the deer park, near the city of Varanasi. This was a key moment in the Buddhist tradition, traditionally known as the moment when the Buddha “set in motion the wheel of the law”. The Buddha explained the middle way between asceticism and a life of luxury, the four noble truths (suffering, its origin, how to end it, and the eightfold path or the path leading to the extinction of suffering), and the impersonality of all beings.
The Buddha’s first disciples joined him around this time, and the Buddhist monastic community, known as Sangha, was established. Sariputra and Mahamaudgalyayana were the two chief disciples of the Buddha. Mahakasyapa was also an important disciple who became the convener of the First Buddhist Council. From Kapilavastu and Sravasti in the north, to Varanasi, Nalanda and many other areas in the Ganges basin, the Buddha preached his vision for about 45 years. During his career he visited his hometown, met his father, his foster mother and even his son, who joined the Sangha along with other members of the Shakya clan. Upali, another disciple of the Buddha, joined the Sangha around this time: he was a Shakya and regarded as the most competent monk in matters of monastic discipline. Ananda, a cousin of the Buddha, also became a monk; he accompanied the Buddha during the last stage of his life and persuaded him to admit women into the Sangha, thus establishing the Bhikkhuni Sangha, the female Buddhist monastic community.
During his career, some kings and other rulers are described as followers of the Buddha. The Buddha’s adversary is reported to be Davadatta, his own cousin, who became a follower of the Buddha and turned out to be responsible for a schism of the Sangha, and he even tried to kill the Buddha.
The last days of the Buddha are described in detail in an ancient text named Mahaparinirvana Sutra. We are told that the Buddha visited Vaishali, where he fell ill and nearly died. Some accounts say that here the Buddha delivered his last sermon. After recovering, the Buddha travelled to Kushinagar. On his way, he accepted a meal from a smith named Cunda, which made him sick and led to his death. Once he reached Kushinagar, he encouraged his disciples to continue their activity one last time and he finally passed away.
Myths and Legendary Accounts
The original biography of the Buddha has been merged with many legendary accounts and myths. Siddhartha’s conception and birth are associated with several miracles. The legend says, for example, that Maya did not have sexual intercourse with Suddhodana; the Buddha entered into the womb of Maya through her right side in the shape of a white elephant. The fate of the child was anticipated: A group of priests predicted that Siddhartha would become either a powerful monarch or a Buddha. Suddhodana knew this prophecy, so he did his best to prevent Siddhartha from witnessing any form of human suffering, keeping his son inside the palace all the time.
As Siddhartha was approaching his enlightenment while meditating, a devil named Mara tried to stop him, but in the end Mara was defeated. This particular moment is often represented in art: The Buddha seated in meditation, one hand on his lap, the other pendant in a gesture known as earth-witness, which represents unshakability or steadfastness when being subject to the demons' temptations.
Miracles stories were also introduced into the biography of the Buddha. The following example aims to highlight the courtesy of the Buddha:
The Buddha must cross the desert at midday. The gods, from their thirty-three circles, each throws down a parasol to him. The Buddha, not wishing to offend any of the gods, multiplies himself into thirty-three Buddhas, so that each of the gods sees, from above, a Buddha protected by the parasol which he threw him.
(Borges, Chapter 4)
Early Buddhist community attempted to demonstrate that what the Buddha taught was nothing new, but rather that he rediscovered a timeless truth. Therefore, a number of claims entered the Buddhist literature to support this view, including the doctrine of the existence of past Buddhas. This allowed the Buddhists to claim an authority similar to that of some rival schools such as the Vedic and Jain traditions, both of which supported their authority by claiming to be originated a long time ago. The stories about past Buddhas follow the same general plot and structure: They all sit cross-legged in their mother’s womb; they all take seven steps to the north immediately after they are born; they all renounce the world after witnessing an old man, a sick man, a dead man, and a mendicant; they all attain nirvana seated on the grass; they never die before their teaching is complete; they all die after eating meat.
Buddhist literature also presents stories about the previous reincarnations of Siddhartha Gautama. One of the most famous accounts of this kind is a text named “Sutra of the Wise and the Foolish”, where many past lives of Siddhartha Gautama are described. A well known example is the popular story where prince Mahasattva (who is actually the Buddha during one of his previous lives) inspired by compassion, selflessness, and generosity, offers his body as food to a starving tigress to prevent the tigress from eating her new born cubs, and he dies devoured by the cat.
The turning point in Siddhartha’s life was attaining nirvana. The image of the Buddha meditating under a tree is as important in Buddhism as the image of Jesus Christ on the cross is to most Christians. What is the meaning of nirvana? What does it mean that Siddhartha Gautama achieved enlightenment thus becoming the Buddha (awakened)? The precise nature of the buddhahood is debated by various schools. Despite the fact that “nirvana” is a very popular expression in Buddhism, Buddhists have never reached full agreement on its meaning.
Nirvana is a Sanskrit noun often translated as “extinction” which signifies the act and effect of blowing at something, to put it out: to blow out or to extinguish. The process itself along with its outcome are also part of the meaning of nirvana: Becoming extinguished, blowing out, calming down. The religious use of the word nirvana seems to be earlier than Buddhism itself and may have been introduced into Buddhism along with many other religious elements associated with the sramanas movements. The concept of nirvana is also present in Jainism and in different Hindu sects; its precise meaning varies, but it revolves around the idea of a state of bliss and liberation from individuality and the suffering of the cycle of birth and death.
In Buddhism, the concept of nirvana was taken in different directions according to the different schools. The main reason for these differences has to do with the fact that early Buddhist texts do not provide a clear systematic scholarly definition of nirvana but rather, they express its meaning using metaphors and other ambiguous means. A famous example can be found in the Pali Canon where nirvana is interpreted “as when a flame is blown out by the wind”. Here, the metaphor refers to the extinction of the “three poisons” (or primary afflictions): greed/sensuality, hatred/aversion, and delusion/ignorance. After this, one is no longer subject to the cycle of death and rebirth.
A more naturalistic view suggests that nirvana is the culmination of a long process of personal discipline and self-cultivation. Living an “enlightened” life, in touch with the way things truly are, free of delusion, greed and hatred, ultimately gives rise to nirvana, a state of human excellence.
The meaning of the teachings and message of the Buddha is also a controversial topic. Some Buddhist schools say that its core is non-violence, others say compassion, some others say it is freedom from rebirth. There are also scholars who claim that the Buddha was looking to restore the pre-Vedic Indian religion, which was buried under centuries of distortion and dead ceremonials. Some of these ideas, whether the true core of the message of the Buddha or not, are not original to Buddhism. Non-violence and compassion was one of the pillars of Jainism long after the times of the Buddha, while freedom from rebirth is presented in the Upanishads also before the time of the Buddha. The one aspect of the message of the Buddha which seems original is humanism: the insight that human beings are ultimately responsible for their fate and that no supernatural forces, no magic rituals, and no gods can be held accountable for our actions.
The idea that there are no gods and that the material world is all there is, was already held by some materialistic schools in India, particularly by the Charvaka school, so in this sense it might not seem an original insight. But the approach of these schools was largely atheist, since they all denied the existence of supernatural entities. Both the theistic approach of the Vedic religion and the atheistic approach of the materialistic schools rest ultimately on the same conviction: both hold that we can know whether or not the gods actually exist; one is certain of their existence, the other is certain they do not exist. The Buddha claimed the impossibility of human knowledge of arriving to definite answers regarding this matter, so his view was an agnostic one, suspending judgement and saying that no sufficient grounds exist either for affirmation or for denial. This idea is so strong in Buddhism that even today in some of the Buddhist branches who have incorporated supernatural entities into their traditions, the role of human choice and responsibility remains supreme, far above the deeds of the supernatural.
It would be historically incorrect to say that Siddhartha Gautama saw himself as a religious leader or that he consciously set out to start a new religious movement. He considered himself a teacher who rejected the ways of traditional Hindu religious orthodoxy and offered his followers a different path. He considered the many Vedic rites and ceremonies to be pointless and abusive and he was also against the caste system, stressing the equality among all people.
It seems ironic that a man whose career was largely based on believing and teaching the oneness of mankind and the equality among people, ended up being worshipped and elevated to the status of a god by some of his followers. As strange as this may sound, this is what happened in some Buddhist circles, particularly in India. The Buddha, originally considered a human being (wise and extraordinary, but only a man), gradually entered into the pantheon of the Hindu gods and came to be regarded as one of the many manifestations of the god Vishnu. A man of tolerance, intelligence, compassion, peace, what harm could it do to worship him as a deity? His followers perhaps thought that by making him a god the Buddha would become more special, his image more powerful and unique. However, in a tradition like in India, filled with endless gods and goddesses everywhere, to make him a god was also to make him ordinary, just one more god among thousands. Moreover, his image became to coexist with myth, ritual and superstition that corrupted his original message. Eventually, the Buddha was swallowed up by the realm of Hindu gods, his importance diminished and Buddhism finally died out in the land where it was born.
So complete was the destruction of Buddhism in India during ancient times, that when western scholars rediscovered Buddhism, the records they relied on came from countries near and around India: No valuable records were kept in the home of Buddhism. The message of the Buddha vanished from its homeland, just as Jesus Christ failed to perform his miracles in his own home town, but it remained alive in almost every other part of Asia and from Asia it spread to the rest of the world.
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- Buswell, R.E. The Princeton Dictionary of Buddhism. Princeton University Press, 2013.
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- Frye, S. Sutra of the Wise and the Foolish. Library of Tibetan Works and Archives, 1981.
- Irons, E. A. Encyclopedia of Buddhism. Checkmark Books, 2008.