Siddhartha Gautama later known as Buddha was born approximately 563 BCE and historians differ on the year of his death with some suggesting it was 483 BCE while others suggest it may have happened in 486 BCE. The name “Buddha” means “the enlightened or awakened one.”
Siddhartha’s early years are a matter of debate among scholars. Most believe that he was born in Kapilavastu near the Himalayan Mountains in Nepal. Most scholars believe he was raised in the royal Hindu family of King Suddhodana. Much of the information about his birth and years as a child is more a subject of legend than historical fact.
Most scholars believe that his mother died during childbirth. Siddhartha was raised by his mother’s younger sister. Legend states that at his birth a soothsayer prophesied that Siddhartha would grow up to be a great religious leader or a great king. His father chose the path of becoming a king. His father shielded him from the influence of religious instruction and from human suffering.
At the age of 16, Siddhartha was married a cousin as part of royal tradition to marry within the family and through arranged marriages. The two had a son and he spent approximately a decade with his family. Siddhartha was shielded from much of life outside of the palace, but tradition holds that he began to since an inner emptiness that wealth and status could not fill.
Legend holds that at the age of 29 Siddhartha left the palace to visit the outside world. For the first time he encountered people who were sick, suffering, and aging. He encountered an elderly man along the way and his charioteer explained that growing old and suffering were part of life. Siddhartha decided to venture outside of his father’s kingdom. He encountered a diseased man, suffering, and a decaying corpse. The experience left him wondering about the meaning of life and how one could avoid suffering.
Siddhartha decided that self-indulgence was not the path to meaning. Siddhartha decided to leave the palace and abandoned his family in order to become a sage in India. He went to Rajagaha to live the ascetic life. Asceticism is a lifestyle of abstinence from worldly pleasures usually for spiritual or religious goals. He studied Hinduism under two hermit teachers for a time and was still dissatisfied. He studied meditation and yoga under another teacher and he did succeed in achieving high levels of meditative consciousness though he was still felt empty.
Along the way, Siddhartha decided that the key to a life of meaning and an absence of suffering was to achieve higher awareness or enlightenment. Siddhartha decided to seek awareness and freedom from suffering through extreme depravation from worldly goods and from meeting physical needs such as prolonged fasting. This was called self-mortification and involves punishing or purging the body either as penance for sin or in hopes of achieving greater goals.
After a prolonged fast, Siddhartha recognized that extreme depravation was not the key to awakening and increased suffering. Siddhartha already concluded that wealth and pleasure did not bring awareness or end suffering. Siddhartha decided the path to awareness came through a Middle Path.
The Middle Path was the path of moderation away from the extremes of self-indulgence and self-mortification. Siddhartha found a tree to sit under and promised to remain until he achieved enlightenment. Siddhartha had a small group of companions and followers at the time, but they decided this new approach taken by Siddhartha indicated he was no longer looking for truth. His companions left and he remained for 49 days of meditation.
At the age of 35, Siddhartha claimed to receive Enlightenment concerning the truth. The Middle Path was the way to avoid suffering. The teachings that accompany Enlightenment or Awareness are the truths about life that Siddhartha sought. He was so convinced that Siddhartha changed his name to Buddha. The truths that eliminate suffering and lead to the idealistic state of Nirvana are called the Four Noble Truths.
Buddha was reluctant to teach in the beginning because he believed that true Enlightenment would reveal the same truths to all. However, new followers continued to join Buddha and he began sharing his insights about life, truth, awareness, and suffering as a sage. He continued to do so until his death.
Buddha’s followers were responsible for spreading Buddha’s teachings into formal codes of doctrines. Eventually, those who followed the ways of Buddha formed an official religion still practiced today known as Buddhism.