Buddhism is one of the oldest and greatest religions of our world. It originated in the life and teachings of Siddhartha Gautama, an Indian Prince. Although he taught primarily in southeastern India, it spread to Central Asia, Southeast Asia, China, Korea, Japan, and eventually the rest of the world. Its teachings stress achieving enlightenment and escaping the cycle of life, death, and rebirth, which generate suffering. After his Awakening, or epiphany, he discovered the Four Noble Truths that would eliminate suffering and achieve Nirvana. His teachings were very popular because he taught a middle way, as opposed to the severe asceticism, or abstinence from worldly pleasures, that Hinduism taught. It was also popular due to its position against the Hindu caste system, teaching an inclusive enlightenment for all, as opposed to an exclusive salvation for the affluent. However, before one can understand Buddhism and the Buddha, one must understand the Buddha’s life, and how he impacted the ancient and modern worlds.
The Buddha was born as Siddhartha Gautama in Kapilavastu, or the foothills of the Himalayas in present day Nepal, around the year 563 B.C. He was born as a prince to a royal family, son of King Suddhodana and Queen Mayadevi, leaders of the Shakya state. According to Buddhist legend, what was special about the period of time before his birth was that his mother had a dream that a white elephant with six tusks visited her. Several months later, Siddhartha was born. After his birth, it is said that the hermit, seer Asita, prophesized great fortune in his future. If he stayed home, he would become a chakravartin, or a great political and military world ruler. If he left home, he was destined to become a universal spiritual leader. In any case, he exhibited the marks of a great man.
Seven days after Siddhartha’s birth, his mother died, so during his childhood, he was brought up by his mother’s sister and father’s second wife, Pajapati. He had three palaces built for him for seasonal occupation so he could switch during each season. He fulfilled the prophecies and great expectations foretold of him by perfecting himself in the knowledge, techniques, and sports of his time, known collectively as the kalajnana, or the 64 arts. At the age of 16, a marriage was arranged between him and his cousin, Yasodhara. They had a son named Rahula.
During Siddhartha’s stay at his palaces, he was not familiar with the religious teachings of his time, specifically, the Hindu caste system. This was because although he was from a royal family of the Kshatriya, or warrior class, of the Gotama clan, his community was formed into more of an oligarchy than a monarchy. Furthermore, his father was determined to have him become a king and world political and military ruler rather than a spiritual one. So, he was often left isolated in his palaces and separated from the rest of the world. After 29 years of isolation, despite his father’s efforts, Siddhartha took a trip beyond his palace where he saw sickness and suffering. First, he saw an old, arthritic and diseased leper. Next, he saw a decaying corpse. Lastly, he saw an ascetic man, who seemed a lot happier than the two previously mentioned. When his charioteer explained to him that everybody grew old and died, he took more trips further away from his palace. This revelation of pain and suffering in the world shocked Siddhartha Gautama so much that it drove him into a depression where he was determined to overcome ageing, sickness and death. He was so determined, that after a short while he snuck out of his palace and ran away to live an ascetic life. This is known as the Great Departure. After his departure, Siddhartha Gautama arrived at a forest and traded his royal clothing with a hunter’s clothes. Then, he set off to wander the forests of India for six years, seeking enlightenment, or wisdom. He started as an ascetic mendicant, begging for alms on the street. At one point,...
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