Siddhartha Gautama ca. 6th–5th centuries B.C.

The founder of Buddhism, considered to be the first person to achieve enlightenment or awakening in the current historical era. Siddhartha Gautama was his human name, and he is known by many other formulations, Buddha Gautama (or Gotama) and Shakyamuni among them. Gautama was the name of his clan, while his tribe were the Shakya. Shakymuni means, simply, sage of the Shakyas. Although the word Buddha, meaning enlightened or awakened one, is a title rather than a proper name, in general usage Buddha is understood to mean the founder. Most Buddhists believe that he lived many lifetimes prior to the one in which he became awakened, and that there are numerous other past or even present Buddhas. Siddhartha Gautama was born in Lumphini in modern Nepal, although during his time it was part of an Indian kingdom. The major Buddhist traditions differ as to the dates of his life, with Theravada Buddhists holding that he lived from 523 to 543 B.C. and Mahayana Buddhists claiming 565 to 486 B.C. Modern scholars, meanwhile, suspect it may have been even later. Nevertheless, the main aspects of the legends of his life, enlightenment, and teachings are accepted by all Buddhists. The classic account of his life, the Acts of the Buddha, was written by Asvaghosa in the first century A.D. A Princely Life Siddhartha’s parents, Suddhodana and Maya, were members of India’s ruling kshatriya caste, and the young Siddhartha was brought up as a prince. His mother died when Siddhartha was seven days old, and his father then married Maya’s sister, Prajapati, who guided Siddhartha’s upbringing. He led a life of great luxury filled with preparation in military and governmental arts, but it was also a life of seclusion. His father wanted to shelter him from the suffering and sorrow of the outside world. Upon growing up, he was married to Yasodhara, a bride chosen by his father. The two eventually had a son, Rahula. Stories of this and all stages of Siddhartha’s life have been much embellished with legend and folklore. Maya, for example, was claimed to have seen in a dream a vision of a white elephant entering her womb from the side the day before he was born. Asked to interpret this, priests told her that she would have a son with a great destiny, either as a universal prince or an enlightened soul. Suddhodana, meanwhile, is said to have tried to keep Siddhartha within his luxurious palace compound and shelter him further by surrounding him with dancing girls, celebrations, and every other pleasure that a young man could desire, in addition to his wife and child. Siddhartha chose a different course, however, as a result of three trips outside the walls of the compound. On the first, he saw a weak, old man. When he asked a servant about him, the servant replied that all men were subject to such a fate. On the second trip, he saw a sick man, and wondered how people could celebrate and be happy when faced with the constant threat of illness. On the third trip he saw a dead person for the first time. The servant reminded him that death was the fate of all people. Contrasting this with his luxurious life of pleasure, Siddhartha wondered how people could ignore the fear of death. Now entirely curious about life outside his palace walls, he traveled about and observed the toil of peasants and the suffering of animals. Finally meeting up with a Hindu ascetic who appeared peaceful, Siddhartha made up his mind to renounce his worldly existence and seek the cause of suffering and whether any possible cure for it might be found. Late one night, he took a last look at his sleeping wife and son and rode out with his loyal servant. After some distance he sent his servant back with a message and his ornaments of status. Siddhartha then cut his hair, put on a tattered robe, and adopted the life of a religious ascetic. He was then about twenty-nine years old. Over the next six years Siddhartha studied under important gurus, learned various forms of meditation, and undertook many austerities. In a final fast, he was joined by five other ascetics and allowed his body to become extremely weak and thin. Realizing, despite his weakness, that he was no closer to his goal than before, Siddhartha finally allowed a young servant girl, Sujata, to give him food. His five companions abandoned him for this indulgence, but Siddhartha had come to the realizations that, not only did austerities lead one away from enlightenment, a healthy body was necessary for the pursuit in the first place. Now suspecting he was on the proper path, and having dreamt that he was soon to become awakened, Siddhartha sat down under a bodhi tree, accepted a final meal from Sujata, and pledged to meditate until he had achieved enlightenment. Meditation and Awakening During that night of meditation, and according to legends that were apparently added fairly late to the overall story, Siddhartha was tempted away from his path by Mara, the Buddhist Lord of the Senses, who used fear, intimidation, and even the promise of the fulfillment of lust to distract Siddhartha from his meditation. He was able to withstand these temptations, and after a series of increasingly deep trances, Sid- dhartha awoke with full knowledge of the Four Noble Truths. He had found the answer to his questions about the source of suffering and the way to overcome it. He had become an enlightened one, a Buddha. Having found five disciples, the Buddha then gave his first lessons at Sarnath, near the north Indian city of Varanasi. There he delineated the Four Noble Truths: that life is full of suffering; that this suffering is caused by desire and ignorance of the transitory nature of things; that it is possible to be liberated from this state; and that the way to do this is to follow the Eightfold Path: right understanding, right thought, right action, right speech, right livelihood, right effort, right mindfulness, and right concentration. The Eightfold Path was the middle path between the extremes of asceticism and sensual overindulgence. It encouraged moderation and, properly perfected, led to the state of being known as nirvana. The Buddha’s five original disciples formed the core of the first sangha, or order of Buddhist monks. They, and their followers, went on to write the first important Buddhist texts, which were later compiled into a collection known as the Tripitaka. The Buddha himself lived fortyfive more years, teaching his message to whomever was ready to listen. During a final journey at the age of seventy-nine, he fell ill and was once again visited by Mara. Mara informed him that it was time for him to achieve final nirvana. The Buddha agreed, and he died three months later to enter the final nirvana, or parinirvana. A Buddhist stupa, or memorial tower, was erected at the site of his death in the town of Kusinagara, as other stupas were later erected at the sites of his birth, his enlightenment, and his first sermons. Although he was cremated on the order of the local ruling family, supposed relics of the Buddha were dispersed far and wide to become venerated objects themselves. SEE ALSO: Buddhism; Confucius; Jesus of Nazareth
Superb carved gray schist Buddha,Gandhara, modern India to … .

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