Buddhism is one of the world’s great religions; its adherents, worldwide, are counted in the hundreds of millions. The founder of this religion was Siddhartha Gautama, a man who lived in what is now the northern part of modern India. The Buddha, as Gautama came to be known, was a prince, the son of King Suddhodana and Queen Maha Maya, she died shortly after his birth, born sometime in the 6th century B.C. The actual year of the Buddha’s birth is uncertain. 560 B.C, 563 B.C. and 567 B.C. are dates that have been put forth; indeed, certain publications have put the date of the Buddha’s birth as late as 632 B.C. This, it would seem, is an error. Most scholars are generally agreed that his birth took place in the 6th century B.C. and not in the 5th century B.C.
Most accounts of the Buddha’s life are late accounts, in the sense that they were put into writing many hundreds of years after his death; and they range, as one would expect, from the mundane to the fantastic. A particularly interesting account is found in the Jakata, written in the 2nd century B.C. The Buddha’s mother dreamt of being attended by angels and, when the dream was submitted to 64 priests for analysis, was informed that she would give birth to a universal monarch. Following the analysis, various miracles (32 in all) occurred; including the quaking of all created worlds and the quenching of all the fires in all of the hells.
We may put aside all of the miraculous stuff for, going by the facts that are more or less ascertainable, the Buddha was, above all things, a man rooted in practicality. Brought up in a life of luxury, Gautama was first exposed to the realities of life when, after 13 years of blissful marriage with his cousin, the Princess Yasodhara, he first saw in quick succession a sick man, an old man, and a dead man! Nothing in his life had prepared him for these stark realities. Coming just after his son, Rahula, was born, Gautama underwent a period of intense soul-searching. What, he thought, was the purpose of life if the end was sickness, age and death? Birth, obviously was inextricably tied to decay. Was there a way to stop this decay process? He decided that he would find a solution to this problem.
So, at age 29, Gautama renounced all the princely pleasures that he had been wont to enjoy. Being Hindu, he was well-versed in the theory of karma; he was now determined to find a way in which this seemingly unending cycle could be broken and stopped. He became an ascetic. He cut his hair, donned simple garments and set out in search of Truth.
Truth was not that easy to find; for six years, the prince was a wanderer. Meditation and self denial brought no solace; to this seeker after truth it seemed that all was a lie! It was clear to him extremes of behavior were unable to bring about any real solace to the issues of life that concerned him. The way, he concluded, must lie in the god-given mind with which every being is endowed. The Truth came to him when, after sitting under a pipal tree in meditation for several weeks (4 or 7 depending on which authority one follows).
The revelation was as profoundly simple as it was deep. A middle way, Gautama felt, was all that man required. Extremes, one way or the other, could not serve. On that day, the former prince became a buddha, i.e. one who had achieved Nirvana, the ultimate goal that humans can seek: perfect peace and enlightenment.
Clearly, by this time, Gautama had already acquired some following, for, immediately enlightenment came to him, he expounded the principles that underlie the belief system that is now known as Buddhism: the four “noble truths” to five disciples in a deer park in Benares. Summarized simply, the four truths are that (1) all existence is suffering; (2) this suffering is a result of human desire or craving; (3) a cessation of desire results in a cessation of suffering; and (4) cessation of desire is achieved if one follows an eight-fold path which is a code of conduct for living one’s life.
Following his enlightenment, the Buddha was essentially engaged in spreading the knowledge he had gained. Indeed, in addressing himself, he was wont to describe himself as Tatagatha, i.e. one who came to teach. The work of the Buddha and those first five disciples created what is known now as Buddhism.
Preaching his creed through the length and breadth of the Ganges valley, the Buddha drew people from all classes and social strata to his view. By the time he died at the age of 80, Buddhism had become a major force in the Indian sub-continent from where missionaries carried the new creed to other parts of India and into Sri Lanka, China, Japan and other points afar.
It is interesting to note that today, Buddhism plays very little part in the religious affairs of its birthplace, India. Buddhists are found in Sri Lanka, China, Japan, Tibet, Korea and other places; there are comparatively few in the homeland.