In the sixth century BCE, north India was home to a dozen or more kingdoms and oligarchies, including the kingdom of Koysala, which in the Ramayana is described asbeing ruled by Dasaratha and his son Rama at one time, their capital located at Ayodhya. The Sakya tribe, which ruled over Koysala in the sixth century, had its capital at Sravasti in the Himalayan foothills, and it is at nearby Lumbini (now in Nepal) that Siddhartha Gautama was born in or around 563 BCE on a full moon night. His birth, like that of Christ, is supposed to have been miraculous, and the sage Asita is said to have declared that the boy would become the greatest monarch of all times or a great renouncer, the teacher of humankind. Anxious lest Siddhartha take to the life of a saint, his father and aunt, in whose care he had been placed after the death of his mother in his infancy, endeavored to hide the realities of life from Siddharta. In his young manhood, Siddhartha was married to Yasodhara, who soon bore him a son.
One day, resolved that he should see more of the world, Siddhartha ordered a chariot to take him out to witness the life led by his subjects. There, for the first time, he encountered an old man bent with age, and so came to the realization that with advancing years one’s strength diminishes. On subsequent trips, he saw an ill man, and was brought to an awareness of disease, and finally a corpse, which brought home the inescapable conclusion that no one can escape death. Upon his return to the palace, Siddhartha resolved to find the cause for the sorrow that afflicts humans, as well as the way to bring the sorrow to an end. Accompanied only by his faithful servant Channa, he set out from the palace one night; and then sending Channa back to Kapilavastu with his jewel, Siddharta cut off hair and assumed the life of a mendicant.
In his quest for the ‘truth’, Siddhartha engaged with the teachings of various sages, and practiced the austerities counseled by these spiritual teachers. Weak from hunger and the pain inflicted on his body, Siddhartha came to the conclusion that extreme deprivation and exposure of the body to pain would in no manner bring him closer to self-realization. Moving underneath a bodhi tree in Sarnath, outside the vicinity of present-day Benares, he resolved to sit and meditate until he achieved enlightenment. Though visions of affluence, power, opulent food, and sexual fulfillment swept past him, Siddhartha remained untempted by all these deviations from the path. It is then that he became the exponent of a specific set of teachings, henceforth known as the “Four Noble Truth”, namely: all existence is suffering (dukha); the cause of suffering is ignorance (avidya) or desire; if there is suffering, there is a cure for it; and the cure for suffering lies in the eight-fold path of right beliefs, right speech, right conduct, right mode of livelihood, right effort, right mindedness, right meditation, and right aspirations.
Siddhartha, or the Buddha, “The Enlightened One”, as he became known, preached his first sermon in the deer park at Sarnath in or around 527 BCE. The very first disciples he acquired became the members of the Buddhist sangha or association, and slowly his fame spread. It is said that Kasshyapa, a renowned Brahmin sage, came to realize the futility of worshipping the fire (agni) upon encountering the Buddha, and similarly the Buddha was able to persuade king Bimbisara, who would become his patron, that the sacrificial killing of innocent animals could not be construed as adding merit or happiness to one’s life. The Buddha became the great exponent of ahimsa or non-violence, but he resolutely refused to claim for himself any miraculous powers. One of the most famous episodes in Buddha’s life relates how, since his fame had spread, a woman once came to him with her dead child, and asked him to bring him back to life. While consoling her, the Buddha asked her to bring him a few mustard seeds from any house where no death had taken place; and though she went from door to door, this woman had to return to the Buddha with the news that she had not been able to find any such house. This would be the great teaching of the Buddha: whatever is born must die, and there is no permanence except sorrow; and to free us from this sorrow, one must become free from desire itself. The Buddha’s last words, in paraphrase, are said to have been, “Growing old is the dharma of all composite things.”
Over the years, though his father endeavored to restore to him the kingdom that he had renounced, the Buddha could not be tempted to abandon his calling; eventually, his own son, Rahula, became his disciple. The oral sources relate how some people conspired to kill him: a huge boulder was thrown down upon him and some disciples gathered around him, but it is said that the boulder split in two, and a piece fell on either side of the Buddha. A wild elephant was set loose in the Buddha’s path, and though it caused havoc everywhere, it knelt at the Buddha’s feet. The Buddha lived to the age of eighty, when he is described as having achieved mahanirvana, or absolute spiritual emancipation. In less than two centuries after his death, his teachings had spread not only in India but over large parts of Asia. The emperor Ashoka, who was to establish the greatest empire India was to know until the advent of the Mughals in the sixteenth century, himself became a convert to Buddhism. Some people have associated the Buddha’s teachings with an excessive intellectualism and agnosticism; others have charged that Buddhism is a form of quietism. [For a more detailed consideration, see Buddhism] However one may view the subsequent history of Buddhism, it is clear that the teachings of the Buddha constitute one of the eminent chapters in the spiritual and intellectual history of humankind.