Who Was Gautama Buddha?

Gautama Buddha statue.

Gautama Buddha left a profound impact on the progress of human civilization. (Image: via Unsplash)

Gautama Buddha left a profound impact on the progress of human civilization.

Who was Gautama Buddha?

Gautama Buddha, popularly known as the Buddha, was an ascetic, a religious leader, and a teacher who lived in ancient India. He is regarded as the founder of Buddhism and revered by Buddhists as an enlightened being who rediscovered an ancient path to freedom from ignorance, craving, and the cycle of rebirth and suffering.

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He taught for around 45 years and built a large following, both monastic and lay. His teachings are based on his insight into the arising of suffering or dissatisfaction and its ending — the state called Nirvana.

His early life

There remains significant debate regarding the actual birth time of Gautama Buddha, although it is generally agreed he was born sometime around 563 BCE. Some Buddhist scriptures like Vishnu Bhagwat, Sthaviravali, and Harvansh point to his birth in 1760 BCE. 

Gautama Buddha was born into an aristocratic family in the Shakya clan, but he eventually renounced worldly life. Before his birth, his father, King Suddhodhanaâ, was told by astrologers that his son would be a holy man. However, the king wanted his son to live a normal life and ensured that he did not receive any religious teaching. Suddhodhanaâ kept his son in palaces replete with amenities and worldly luxuries, hoping that he would not be concerned with anything else. 

After being disillusioned with earthly life, Gautama Buddha eventually realized a higher spiritual goal and became an ascetic or sramana.

A painting in a Laotian Temple depicting the four encounters on Gautama’s trips outside the palace. (Image: via Public Domain)

He sees the outside world for the first time

When Gautama left his palace to see the outside world for the first time, he was shocked by his encounter with human suffering. Gautama is said to have seen an old man.

When his charioteer Chandaka explained that all people grew old, the prince went on further trips beyond the palace. He encountered a diseased man, a decaying corpse, and an ascetic that inspired him.

Shortly after seeing the four sights, Gautama woke up at night and saw his female servants lying in unattractive, corpse-like poses, which shocked him. He discovered what he would later understand more deeply during his enlightenment: suffering and the end of suffering.

His quest for enlightenment

Moved by all the things he had experienced, Gautama decided to leave the palace in the middle of the night against his father’s will to live the life of a wandering ascetic.

Accompanied by Chandaka and leaving behind his son Rahula and wife Yaśodhara, he traveled to the river Anomiya and cut off his hair. Then, leaving his servant and horse behind, he journeyed into the woods and changed into monk’s robes.

Gautama traveled throughout the Gangetic plain, teaching and building a religious community. He taught a middle way between sensual indulgence and the severe asceticism found in the Indian śramaṇa movement.

He taught training of the mind that included ethical training, self-restraint, and meditative practices such as jhana and mindfulness. He also criticized the practices of Brahmin priests, such as animal sacrifice and the caste system.

Gautama later reconnected with his family, and his son Rahul became a monk and his spouse Yaśodhara a nun, both following his teachings.

Gautama Buddha with his chief attendant.
An East Javanese relief depicting the Buddha in his final days with Ānanda, his chief attendant. (Image: via Wikipedia)

He achieves Nirvana

At age 35, Gautama Buddha achieved enlightenment or Nirvana after a rigorous meditation phase lasting six years. It took place in Bodhgaya, and the tree under which he became enlightened is said to be still alive.

He continued to travel for 45 years spreading the dharma called Buddhism. He stuck to the path of truth all along. He always advised his disciples about the need to be selfless. His view was we should learn to be selfless as nothing is permanent in life. 

Gautama Buddha expired at the age of 80 years, and his funeral occurred at Kushinagar. His mortal remains were taken to eight places post-cremation, and stupas were set up over the ashes. The oldest stupa among these is called Mahastupa.

His teachings spread

A couple of centuries after his death, he came to be known by the term Buddha, which means “Awakened One” or “Enlightened One.” Gautama Buddha’s teachings were compiled by the Buddhist community in the Vinaya, his codes for monastic practice, and the Suttas, texts based on his discourses.

These were passed down in Middle Indo-Aryan dialects through an oral tradition. Later generations composed additional texts, such as systematic treatises known as Abhidharma, biographies of the Buddha, collections of stories about the Buddha’s past lives known as Jataka tales, and other discourses, i.e., the Mahayana sutras. Due to his influence on Indian religions, in Vaishnavism, he came to be regarded as the 9th avatar of Vishnu.

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