Special Supplement, Heroes of History

Gautam Buddha

The Light of Asia

Published : 13 Feb 2020 09:12 PM | Updated : 07 Sep 2020 05:43 PM

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.

He was a teacher, philosopher and spiritual leader who is considered the founder of Buddhism. He lived and taught in the region around the border of modern-day Nepal and India sometime between the 6th to 4th century BC.

We are shaped by our thoughts; we become what we think. When the mind is pure, joy follows like a shadow that never leaves.

We are shaped by our thoughts; we become

 what we think. When the mind is pure, 

joy follows like a shadow that never leaves.

It is better to conquer yourself than to win

 a thousand battles. Then the victory is yours.

It cannot be taken from you, not by angels or

 by demons, heaven or hell.

According to the most widely known story of his life, after experimenting with different teachings for years, and finding none of them acceptable, Siddhartha Gautama spent a fateful night in deep meditation beneath a tree. During his meditation, all of the answers he had been seeking became clear, and he achieved full awareness, thereby becoming Buddha.

Early Life

Buddha was born in the 6th century BC, or possibly as early as 624 BC, according to some scholars. Other researchers believe he was born later, even as late as 448 B.C. And some Buddhists believe Gautama Buddha lived from 563 BC to 483 BC.

But virtually all scholars believe Siddhartha Gautama was born in Lumbini in present-day Nepal. He belonged to a large clan called the Shakyas.

In 2013, archaeologists working in Lumbini found evidence of a tree shrine that predated other Buddhist shrines by some 300 years, providing new evidence that Buddha was probably born in the 6th century BC

Gautama grew up the son of a ruler of the Shakya clan. His mother died seven days after giving birth.

A holy man, however, prophesied great things for the young Siddhartha: He would either be a great king or military leader or he would be a great spiritual leader. 

To protect his son from the miseries and suffering of the world, Siddhartha's father raised him in opulence in a palace built just for the boy and sheltered him from knowledge of religion, human hardship and the outside world. 

According to legend, he married at the age of 16 and had a son soon thereafter, but Siddhartha's life of worldly seclusion continued for another 13 years.

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 humanity with a relief from suffering. 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.

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. 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, 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. 

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.

The legacy of the Buddha

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.

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.

    Source - Internet