Siddhartha Gautama

Little consensus can be found among scholars on the historical facts of the Buddha's life. This is due in part to the lack of biographical detail he shared in his teachings that later became the Pali Canon. A few key moments in the Buddha's story are known. Up until recently, the year of the Buddha's death was taken to be either 483 or 486 B.C.E. However, new evidence suggests that it might have been as late as 400 B.C.E. His birth would have been 80 years prior to the earlier or later date (either 566 or 563 B.C.E. or as late as 480 B.C.E.). Many of the details of the Buddha's biography come from the poem Buddhacharita by Ashvogosa, which was written in the second century C.E.

Myth and Metaphor

The myth of the Buddha is colorful and strains our contemporary scientific view of reality. For example, Siddhartha Guatama was not the first buddha nor will he be the last. The Buddhist cosmology does not adhere to a linear sense of time, such that there have been an infinite number of buddhas from the past and into the future. Taken literally, such a view would violate the laws of physics that say time only moves in one direction — forward — and that the age of the universe is a finite amount of time. Fortunately, here and in every other place where myth meets reality, a literal belief in traditional ideas does not have to be held to derive benefit from the Buddha's teaching or from the example of his life.

While Siddhartha Gautama is often described as a prince and his parents as Queen Mahamaya and King Suddhodhona, it is more likely that his parents were part of the nobility but not monarchs. His father was a magistrate of a smaller state in the Himalayan foothills. The elevation of the family to the highest royalty may be part of the mythology that has developed around the life of the Buddha.

As with the man himself, the life story of the Buddha can likewise be seen from different perspectives. Taken literally, it speaks of magic, wonder, and prophecy; viewed metaphorically it is a parable of sacrifice in the service of ultimate attainment. Certain elements of the narrative appear to provide drama to the story, but probably little in the way of historical fact. Siddhartha Gautama was born to a noble family in the Himalayan foothills, on the border of northern India and southern Nepal. Siddhartha's mother was Mahamaya, his father Suddhodhana, and he was a blessing to the childless couple as they would now have an heir to rule over the Shakya clan, their small but prosperous region of the kingdom. They named their son Siddhartha, which means “every wish fulfilled.”

The Birth of the Buddha

There are many mythologies and stories surrounding the birth of the Buddha. His mother, Mahamaya, dreamt of a white elephant that entered her womb from the right side of her body. According to the legend, Mahamaya experienced a virtually pain-free delivery with the assistance of a tree that bent to offer its branches. The future Buddha exited the womb unbloodied and able to walk and talk. In some accounts, Siddhartha emerged from her right side, avoiding the “pollution” of the birth canal. Sounding much like Muhammad Ali twenty-five centuries later, the infant proclaimed, “I am the king of the world.” His mother died a week later.

It is generally agreed upon (with some variation) that when Siddhartha was but days old, his father, Suddhodhana, invited a large group of Brahmins to a feast at the palace so that they could tell the future of the newborn baby. Eight of the Brahmins concurred on the prediction that Siddhartha would either become a great and powerful ruler of all the land or a great spiritual teacher.

What is a Brahmin?

The Brahmins were the priests, the highest class in the hereditary caste system of India. According to the caste system of Hinduism in ancient India, there were four classes of people: Brahmins, rulers and warriors (the Kshatriyas), business people and artisans (the Vaishyas), and finally the unskilled laborers or untouchables (the Shudras).

They warned that if Siddhartha left the palace and saw what the real world was like, he might have an existential crisis and turn towards a spiritual life. If he remained within the cloistered palace walls, he would become a great ruler of the world. One of these Brahmins, Kondanna, was convinced, however, that the young boy would become an enlightened one and warned of four signs that would influence the young Siddhartha and spur him to leave his home and commence a spiritual journey.

The Raising of the Would-Be King

Suddhodhana had no wish for his son to become a spiritual teacher, but dreamed of a son who ruled over the land, the most powerful man as far as the eye could see.

He decided to protect Siddhartha from the possibilities of a hard but spiritual path and vowed to keep him cloistered in the palace, lavishing riches and luxuries beyond imagination on the young boy.

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