Siddhartha Gautama: How The Father of Buddhism Walked From Suffering to Enlightenment
Siddhartha Gautama, also known as the Buddha or “Enlightened One,” is probably one of the most influential individuals to come out of India through the incidental founding of Buddhism. Siddhartha Gautama, in his opposition to the ruling religious establishment and his teachings of compassion and renunciation of worldly wealth, is often compared to Jesus of Nazareth, later called the Christ or “Anointed One.” Siddhartha Gautama and the movement known as Buddhism are similar to Jesus and the Christian movement in the renunciation of rituals and religious hierarchy in favor of a deeper spirituality involving personal responsibility for one’s spiritual condition.
Siddhartha Gautama’s Life Before Buddhism
According to tradition, Siddhartha Gautama was born in Lumbini in modern day Nepal. His parents were of the Shakya clan and members of the ruler/warrior caste. As a result, Siddhartha had a comfortable life in his early years. Buddhist stories accentuate the opulence of his early years living in the palace. According to one legend in Buddhism, his father heard a prophecy that his son would either become a powerful king or the Buddha. Not wanting his son to become the Buddha, he did all he could to keep his son from encountering suffering.
Infant Buddha Taking a Bath Gandhara 2nd Century AD. ( CC BY SA 4.0 )
This plan worked for a while. Siddhartha enjoyed a palace lifestyle and was married to a woman named Yasodhara. They had a son named Rahula. Rahula, would later become one of Siddhartha’s followers. After Siddhartha reached adulthood, he became more aware of the suffering that was present outside the palace walls. Buddhist legends say he also came to the realization that this sort of suffering could happen to him as well. This, and the suffering of others in the world, caused him great distress and, eventually, he decided that he could not continue living such a luxurious lifestyle when so many others were suffering.
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Departure of Prince Siddhartha. ( Public Domain )
At a certain age, about 29, Siddhartha left his former life to become a wandering ascetic. Buddhist tradition says that he left in secret, but this is not certain. He joined the Sramanas, wandering ascetics who had formed sects all over India at the time who renounced the world and conventional religion. For years, Siddhartha lived as an ascetic, searching for something, a way to make sense of human suffering. His asceticism was very severe and at one point he almost died. After trying such extreme asceticism, however, he still had not found the answer. Followers of Buddhism believe that he eventually decided that the answer was not to be found in extreme asceticism any more than it was to be found in living an excessively luxurious lifestyle.
Picture of a wall painting in a Laotian temple, depicting the Bodhisattva Gautama (Buddha-to-be) undertaking extreme ascetic practices before his enlightenment. A god is overseeing his striving, and providing some spiritual protection. The five monks in the background are his future 'five first disciples', after Buddha attained Full Enlightenment. ( Public Domain )
The Emergence of Buddhism
According to tradition, Siddhartha was sitting under a fig tree meditating one day when, suddenly, the answer came to him. It is at this point that he attained what Buddhists call Nirvana . At this point, Siddhartha became the Buddha, the Enlightened One. It was shortly afterwards that he gave his first sermon at Sarnath and began to expound on what would later become central to Buddhism today.
The exact answer that Siddhartha found is not entirely clear as even Buddhists today still debate over it. The word nirvana comes from a word meaning “blown out” or “snuffed out.” It gives the idea of extinction or cessation. Many Buddhists today think of it as the cessation of desires. Central to the Buddha’s teachings is the idea that attachment to things led to suffering. Siddhartha realized that things like wealth, good health, and even friends and family would all fade or die away, and that attachment to these things would only make parting with these things more painful and thus lead to suffering. Buddhist tradition says that Siddhartha believed that the solution was to not allow oneself to be attached these things and for all such desires to cease to exist.
Buddha's Nirvana. Color on silk. Located at Kongōbu-ji, Mt. Kōya, Wakayama, Japan. ( Public Domain )