Siddhārtha Gautama, the Buddha, was the founder of a sect of ancient wanderer ascetics and 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 BC by the time of Emperor Ashoka’s rule (1).
The term “buddha” itself was not unique. It was ascribed a diverse range of meanings and was used by numerous religious groups within ancient India (2). Over time, however, and with the growth of Buddhism, it became most commonly associated with Buddhist tradition coming to mean enlightened being (3). Buddhists believe that Buddha obtained enlightenment and shared wisdom on how to end suffering and the cycle of rebirth (4).
Scholars date Buddha’s activity to somewhere between 6th and 5th centuries BC (5). This was a time in ancient northern India when asceticism was significantly intertwined with religious life (6). 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 the spiritual wisdom which included sacrificial rituals and ritual fees. This resulted in a confrontation to the authority and reputation of the priestly class which led to a temporary religious anarchy, and thus opened up a space for the development of new religions and spiritual ideas.
There are numerous challenges facing historians seeking to construct a historical biography of Buddha’s life. Most historians believe that he existed somewhere between 600 and 400 BC although many details concerning the time of birth, activity, and death are historically uncertain (7). The main sources of information are the Buddhacarita (date of authorship in the 1st century AD), Lalitavistara Sutra (200 AD +), Mahavastu (300 AD +), and the Nidānakathā (400 AD +) century) all of which were penned several centuries after Buddha’s life. These accounts reflection legendary and mythological developments based within oral traditions passed down through generations after 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 propose that Buddha was born in Lumbini (located in present day Nepal) and into the Shakya clan (9). 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 BC. 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 (10). His father was Suddhodana and his mother was Maya. His father, Suddhodana, was a regional leader in the city of Kapilavastu which suggests that they were one of the leading families within this political system (11). Evidently, Buddha lived a live 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.
Some time 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 Buddha obtain his goals and subsequently abandoned living as one. One day however, after having eaten a meal consisting of rice, 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) that 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. Other stories include previous reincarnations of the Buddha, that he required no sleep, food, or medicine, and possessed omniscience.
1. Popovski, V., Reichberg, G. & Turner, N. 2009. World Religions and Norms of War. p. 66.
2. Encyclopaedia Britannica. Buddhism. Available.
3. Lopez, D (Encyclopaedia Britannica). Buddha: Founder of Buddhism. Available.
4. Violatti, C (Encyclopedia of Ancient History). 2013. Siddhartha Gautama. Available.
5. Warder, A. 2000. Indian Buddhism, Delhi: Motilal Banarsidass. p. 45.
6. Violatti, C (Encyclopedia of Ancient History). 2013. Ibid.
7. Rawlinson, H. 1950. A Concise History of the Indian People. p. 46.; Carrithers, M, 2001. The Buddha: A Very Short Introduction. p. 3.
8. Kulkarni, S. 1990. Inscriptions of Ashoka: A Reappraisal. Annals of the Bhandarkar Oriental Research Institute. p. 305-309.
9. Gethin, R. 1998. Foundations of Buddhism. p. 19.
10. Violatti, C (Encyclopedia of Ancient History). 2013. Ibid.
11. Violatti, C (Encyclopedia of Ancient History). 2013. Kapilavastu. Available.