Siddhartha Gautama, better known as the Buddha, was the founder of a sect of ancient wanderer ascetics whose teachings came to form the foundations of what would become the religion of Buddhism. The movement grew quickly and became the state religion in India during the 3rd century BCE by the time of Emperor Ashoka’s rule (1).
The term “buddha” itself was not unique and was ascribed a diverse range of meanings used by numerous religious groups within ancient India. Over time, however, and with the growth of Buddhism, it became most commonly associated with Buddhist tradition in which it came to mean enlightened being (2). Buddhists believe that Buddha obtained enlightenment and shared wisdom on how to end suffering and the cycle of rebirth.
Historical Context of the Buddha
Scholars date the Buddha’s activity somewhere between the 6th and 5th centuries BCE (3). This was a time in ancient northern India when asceticism was significantly intertwined with religious life. Northern India was a geographical location in which independent states were competing for valuable resources, and there was also an increasing challenge to traditional religious order as new philosophical and religious schools came into existence. These challenges confronted the likes of Vedic philosophy and spiritual practices including sacrificial rituals and ritual fees. Such was an affront to the authority and reputation of the priestly class and this led to a temporary religious anarchy that opened up a space for the development of new religions and spiritual ideas.
Historical Reconstruction of the Buddha’s Life
There are numerous challenges historians have tried to overcome when constructing a biography of Buddha’s life.
Most historians believe that the Buddha existed somewhere between 600 and 400 BCE although many details concerning the time of his birth, activity, and death are historically uncertain (4). The main sources of information are late as they all date several centuries post the Buddha’s life: the Buddhacarita (date of authorship in the 1st century CE), Lalitavistara Sutra (200 CE +), Mahavastu (300 CE +), and the Nidānakathā (400 CE +) century). These accounts reflection legendary and mythological developments based within oral traditions passed down through generations post the Buddha’s life. Additional evidence for Buddha is found inscribed in the Edicts of Ashoka who ruled from 269–232 BC (8). Ashoka’s edicts, consisting of inscriptions on boulders and cave walls, scattered throughout several Asian countries form some of the earliest archaeological evidence for Buddhism. They detail Ashoka’s conversion to the Buddhism, his appreciation and devotion to Buddha, and proved effective in spreading the religion’s ideas to new audiences.
Historians have used this information to deduce that the Buddha was born in Lumbini (located in present day Nepal) and into the Shakya clan (5). Lumbini is believed to be his place of birth on the basis of the Indian Emperor Ashoka who constructed a pillar with an inscription commemorating Buddha’s birth when he visited the area in 248 BCE. The inscription suggests that Buddha’s location of birth was common knowledge and widely believed in earlier Buddhist communities.
According to Buddhist tradition, Buddha was born into a notable family. His father was Suddhodana and his mother was Maya. Suddhodana was a regional leader in the city of Kapilavastu which suggests that they were one of the leading families within this political system. Evidently, Buddha lived a life of comfort and luxury while in Kapilavastu. This was until he grappled with the existential crises of human suffering, including the likes of illness, disease, old age, and death. This led him at the age of 29 to abandon his home and his family to live a life as a homeless ascetic.
Sometime later, Buddha discovered two masters, Arada Kalama and Udraka Ramaputra, under whom he practiced meditative techniques. He ended up leaving them and engaged in asceticism for the following few years. However, living as an ascetic did not help him obtain his goals and he subsequently abandoned living as one. One day, however, after having eaten a meal consisting of rice, the Buddha sat beneath a tree in an effort to meditate until he either reached “enlightenment” or died trying. After some time he achieved enlightenment (Nirvana) and became known as the Buddha.
This marked the point in time when Buddha began preaching, as he would do so for many years to follow. During these years he taught the four noble truths and the eightfold path and begun attracting disciples and followers. Upon traveling to Kushinagar, Buddha visited the mango grove in Pava where he consumed food (sweet rice and possibly meat) he received from a smith called Cunda Kammāraputta. The food poisoned Buddha and he died after arriving at Kushinagar.
Over the centuries numerous miracles were attributed to Buddha. Buddha’s conception, for example, was a miraculous one. Rather than Maya being impregnated by Suddhodana, the Buddha was said to have entered into her womb through her right side in the shape of a white elephant. Other legends accrued including a group of priests predicting that Buddha would either become a powerful monarch or a Buddha, while many stories spoke of previous reincarnations of the Buddha, that he required no sleep, food, or medicine, and possessed omniscience.
1. Popovski, V., Reichberg, G. and Turner, N. 2009. World Religions and Norms of War. p. 66.
2. Encyclopaedia Britannica. n.d. Buddha: Founder of Buddhism. Available.
3. Encyclopedia of Ancient History. 2013. Siddhartha Gautama. Available.
4. Carrithers, M, 2001. The Buddha: A Very Short Introduction. p. 3. Frauwallner, E. 1957. “The historical data we possess on the Person and the Doctrine of the Buddha.” East and West 7(4): 309-312. p. 309; Rawlinson, H. 1950. A Concise History of the Indian People. p. 46.
5. Gethin, R. 1998. Foundations of Buddhism. p. 19.