Gautama Buddha

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Standing , ancient region of , northern ,  CE.
Standing Buddha, ancient region of Gandhara, northern Pakistan, 1st century CE.
Siddhartha redirects here. For other meanings, see Siddhartha (disambiguation).

Gautama Buddha was a South Asian spiritual leader who lived between approximately 563 BCE and 483 BCE, although Buddhist legends stated that he was born on April 8, 1029 BCE, and died on February 15, 949 BCE.

Born as Siddhartha Gautama (Sanskrit: "descendant Gautama whose aims who achieves aims effectively") he became "the Buddha" after embarking on a quest for spiritual meaning. He is universally recognised by Buddhists as the Supreme Buddha (literally Enlightened One or Awakened One) of our age. He is also commonly known as Shakyamuni or Sakyamuni ("sage of the Shakya clan") and as the Tathagata ("thus-come-one").

Gautama is the key figure in Buddhism, and a Accounts of his life, discourses, and monastic rules were summarized after his death and memorized by the sangha. Passed down by oral tradition, the Tripitaka was written about four hundred years later.


Buddha's life

Few of the details of the Buddha's life can be independently verified, and it is difficult to determine what is history and what is myth. Therefore this article will describe the life of Siddhartha Gautama as told in the earliest available Buddhist texts.

Conception and birth

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Queen Maya's white elephant dream. Gandhara, 2-3rd century.

Siddhartha Gautama was born in Lumbini (a town situated in what is now Nepal, near the Indian border) under the full moon of the sixth lunar month, in the spring. His father was Suddhodana, a chief among the Shakyas, a warrior tribe. His mother was Queen Maya, one of Suddhodana's wives. The day of the Buddha's birth is widely celebrated in Buddhist countries as Vesak. Gautama was born a prince, destined to a life of luxury.

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The birth of Siddharta, Gandhara, 2-3rd century.

According to legends, before his birth, Gautama had visited his mother during a vision, taking the form of a white elephant. During the birth celebrations, a seer announced that this baby would either become a great king or a great holy man. His father, wishing for Gautama to be a great king, shielded his son from religious teachings or knowledge of human suffering.


As the boy reached the age of 16, his father arranged his marriage to Yashodhara, a cousin of the same age. In time, she gave birth to a son, Rahula. Although his father ensured that Gautama was provided with everything he could want or need, Gautama was constantly troubled and internally dissatisfied.

The Four Sights

At the age of twenty-nine, Siddhartha was escorted by his attendant Channa on four subsequent visits outside of the palace. There, he came across the "four sights": an old, crippled man, a diseased man, a decaying corpse, and finally a wandering ascetic. Gautama realized then the harsh truth of life—that death, disease, age, and pain were inescapable, that the poor outnumbered the wealthy, and that even the pleasures of the rich eventually came to nothing.

The Great Departure

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The Great Departure from the Palace, Gandhara, 2-3rd century.

Thus inspired, Gautama determined to leave his home, his possessions and his family at age 29. He chose to become a monk.

Abandoning his inheritance, he dedicated his life to learning how to overcome suffering. He pursued the path of Yogic meditation with two Brahmin hermits, and although he achieved high levels of meditative consciousness, he was not satisfied with this path.

Gautama then chose the robes of a mendicant monk and headed to southeastern India. He began training in the ascetic life and practicing vigorous techniques of physical and mental austerity. Siddhartha proved adept at these practices, and was able to surpass his teachers. However, he found no answer to his problem and, leaving behind his teachers, he and a small group of companions set out to take their austerities even further. After nearly starving himself to death with no success (some sources claim that he nearly drowned), Siddhārtha began to reconsider his path. Then he remembered a moment in childhood in which he had been watching his father start the season's plowing, and he had fallen into a naturally concentrated and focused state in which time seemed to stand still, and which was blissful and refreshing.


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The end of ascetism, Gandhara, 2-3rd century.

After discarding asceticism and concentrating on meditation, Siddhartha discovered what Buddhists call the middle way—a path of moderation away from the extremes of self-indulgence and self-mortification. He accepted a little buttermilk from a passing goatherd, Sumedha. Then, sitting under a pipal tree, which is now known as the Bodhi tree, he vowed never to arise until he had found the Truth. He, at the age of 35, attained Enlightenment; by some traditions, this occurred in approximately May, and, by others, December. Siddhartha was then on known as "the awakened one", the Buddha.

He stated that he had realized complete Awakening and insight into the nature and cause of human suffering, along with steps necessary to eliminate it. His understanding manifested the Four Noble Truths, and the state of supreme liberation—possible for any being—was called Nirvana.

According to one of the stories in the Āyācana Sutta (Samyutta Nikaya VI.1), a scripture found in the Pāli and other canons, immediately after his Enlightenment the Buddha was wondering whether or not he should teach the Dharma. He was concerned that, as human beings were overpowered by greed, hatred and delusion, they wouldn't be able to see the true Dharma which was subtle, deep and hard to understand. A spirit, Brahma Sahampati, however, interceded, and asked that he teach the Dharma to the world, as "There will be those who will understand the Dharma". With his great compassion, the Buddha agreed to become a teacher. At the Deer Park near Benares in northern India he set in motion the Wheel of Dharma by delivering his first sermon to the group of five companions with whom he sought for enlightenment before. They, together with Buddha, formed the first sangha, the company of Buddhist monks.

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The Buddha preaching at the Deer Park in Sarnath, Gandhara 2-3rd century.

The Buddha emphasized that he was not a god, he was simply enlightened. He stated: there is no intermediary between mankind and the divine; distant gods are subjected to karma themselves in decaying heavens; and the Buddha is solely a guide and teacher for the sentient beings who must tread the path of Nirvana themselves to attain spiritual awakening and see truth and reality as it is. The Buddhist system of insight, thought, and meditation practice was revealed not divinely, but by the understanding of the true nature of the human mind, which could be discovered by anybody..

For the remaining 45 years of his life (or 50 by some accounts), the Buddha traveled in the Gangetic Plain of central India, teaching his doctrine and discipline to an extremely diverse range of people—from nobles to street outcaste sweepers, including many adherents of rival philosophies and religions. The Buddha founded the community of Buddhist monks and that of nuns (the Sangha) to continue the dispensation after his Parinirvana or complete Nirvana and made thousands of converts. His religion was open to all races and classes and had no caste structure. On the other hand, Buddhist texts record that he was reluctant to ordain women as nuns: he eventually accepted them on the grounds that their capacity for enlightenment was equal to that of men, but he gave them certain additional rules to follow.

The Great Passing

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The death of the Buddha, or parinirvana, Gandhara 2-3rd century.

At the age of eighty, the Buddha ate his last meal, which, according to different translations, was either a mushroom delicacy or pork, which he had received as an offering from a blacksmith named Cunda. Falling violently ill, Gautama Buddha realized that his end was fast approaching. He told his attendant Ananda to prepare a bed between two Sal trees at Kushinagar, and then finally passed away. The Buddha's final words were, "All composite things pass away. Strive for your own salvation with diligence."

The Buddha's body was cremated and the relics were placed in monuments or stupas. Some of which are believed to have survived until the present.

Personality and character

The Buddha as presented in the Buddhist scriptures is notable for such characteristics as:

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Gandhara Buddha, 1st-2nd century CE.
  • Both a comprehensive education and training in those fields appropriate to a warrior aristocrat, such as martial arts, agricultural management, and literature, and also a deep understanding of the religious and philosophical ideas of his culture.
  • Siddharta Gautama was reported to have been athletic and fit throughout his life, competent in martial arts such as chariot combat, wrestling, and archery, and later easily hiking miles each day and camping in the wilderness. Images of a fat "Jolly Buddha" or Laughing Buddha are actually depictions of a different character, sometimes called Hotei or Hoti.
  • A superb teacher, with a fine grasp of the appropriate metaphor, and tailoring his teachings to the audience at hand.
  • Fearless and unworried at all times, whether dealing with religious debate, a patricidal prince, or a murderous outlaw. He was not, however, past exasperation when monks of his order misrepresented his teachings.
  • Completely temperate in all bodily appetites. Lived a completely celibate life from age 29 until his death. Indifferent to hunger and environmental conditions.

Physical characteristics

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Seated Buddha, Gandhara, 1st-2nd century CE. Tokyo National Museum.

Although the Buddha was not represented in human form until around the 1st century CE (see Buddhist art), his physical characteristics are described in one of the central texts of the traditional Pali canon, the Digha Nikaya. They help define the global aspect of the historical Buddha:

  • The Buddha had an elongated, lengthy body with long appendices (long arms with a span equal to body length, long fingers, long hands, elongated face, protruding and well-formed nose).
  • His hair was fine, dark and with soft, long curls.
  • His eyes were wide, and "very blue".
  • His body was light-colored and golden, with a pinkish color under the nails.

Interpretations may vary, and the reliability of the Sutras may be questioned, but these characteristics are generally indicative of an Indo-European body type. This can also be related to the tradition describing the historic Buddha as a member of the Indian Kshatriya warrior cast, for which Indo-European origins have also often been suggested (Aryan invasion theory).


The teachings of the Buddha are covered in the articles on Buddhism and Buddhist philosophy. Many Buddhist sects disagree as to what the Buddha actually taught. There seems to be major agreement on these points:

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Painting of the first sermon depicted at Wat Chedi Liem in Thailand
  • The Four Noble Truths: that suffering is an inherent part of existence; that suffering is caused by craving; that craving can be ceased; and that following the Eightfold Path will lead to the cessation of craving (and suffering).
  • The Eightfold Path: proper understanding, proper thought, proper speech, proper action, proper livelihood, proper effort, proper mindfulness, and proper concentration.
  • The law of dependent causation: that events are not predestined, nor are they random, but that events are caused by the actions that preceded them.
  • Rejection of the infallibility of accepted scripture: teachings should not be accepted unless they are borne out by our experiences.
  • Anicca: That all things are impermanent.
  • Anatta: That the perception of a constant "self" is an illusion.

The Buddha in other religions


It is said in Srimad-Bhagavatam, an important Purana, that the Buddha is the ninth Lila avatar of Lord Vishnu, and that he took form as Siddhartha Gautama to guide the people of India away from ritual animal sacrifice, which was prevalent at the time. To this end he advocated Ahimsa, or non-violence, a principle first found in the Upanishads, toward sentient beings.

Buddhists in general do not consider the Buddha to be God or an avatar of any god, and view such notions as Hinduism's (largely successful) attempt to "absorb" Buddhism. The general decline of Buddhism in India has been attributed to this "absorption" not only of the Buddha as a religious figure but of development in parallel Vedanta philosophy which began challenging Buddhism's logical and philosophically strong image.


Some Muslims believe that Siddharta Gautama is the same person who is referred to in the Koran as Dhul-Kifl, and that he was therefore a prophet of Islam. The meaning of the Dhul-Kifl is unclear, but, according to this view, it means "the man from Kifl", where Kifl is the Arabic pronunciation of Kapilavastu, where the Buddha spent thirty years of his life. More common views, however, hold that Dhul-Kifl was a different person and not a prophet at all, or that he was the prophet called Ezekiel in the Bible.

Gautama Buddha in fiction

External links


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