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May 2018
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Who was the Buddha?

- Swati Chopra

buddha2This superheroic persona was further enhanced by the legends that wrapped themselves around the man and his life as time went by. One example is the story of his wondrous birth, appearing from his mother’s side rather than through the birth canal. Also, his liberation is said to be a pre-ordained phenomenon brought on through lifetimes of preparation as a ‘Bodhisattva’, a Buddha-to-be, instead of insights gathered through intense, but human, contemplation.

The proclivity of mythology for glorification might, at times, obscure what really happened. As in the case of the Buddha, the humanness of whose quest is compromised in order to present him as an almighty all-knower. This was done, perhaps, to lend his teachings greater authority after his death, when his followers were attempting to plant his dharma as a religion, when it was gradually becoming another ‘ism’.

So, who was this man? How did he come to be the ‘Awakened One’? Was he really a spiritual superman, or was he a human being like you and me, who sought and found a truth?

Siddhartha’s world

The Buddha was born Siddhartha Gautama in 563 B C to Suddhodhana, a chieftain of the Sakya clan, and his wife, Maya. Suddhodhana’s state lay at the foothills of the Himalayas, with the bustling Kapilavastu as its capital. Later Buddhist texts ascribe the status of a great and wealthy king to Suddhodhana, which was probably not so, since the state was a republic, and Suddhodhana an elected ruler. Even so, Siddhartha was born into a life of comfort, with the possibility of succeeding his father if he proved himself able.

Thoughts of governance were, however, far from young Siddhartha’s mind. A pensive child, he would often remain immersed in thought. This caused his father much anxiety since, according to Buddhist mythology, it was prophesied at the time of Siddhartha’s birth that he was destined for greatness, but either as a chakravartin (world-ruler), or a spiritual master. A spiritual life, then as now, meant detachment from worldly conventions, and like most parents, Suddhodhana was alarmed at the prospect of ‘losing’ his son.

The intense young Siddhartha lived in an age not unlike our own. Not only because commerce flourished, but also because there was arising an attitude of questioning towards the dominant religion, Vedic Hinduism. A caste system existed, and its character as a loose organisation of professions in the Rig Vedic period had solidified into a rigid hierarchy that dominated every aspect of life—one’s occupation, marriage, the social relationships one maintained.

Caste also determined one’s upbringing, and being a kshatriya (the ruler/warrior caste), Siddhartha was brought up accordingly. This meant emphasis on learning useful for administration and governance and on physical sport, than on philosophy or metaphysics. A bright mind inclined to deep thought, Siddhartha might have found his environment intellectually unsatisfying, especially since the Brahmins had monopolised scriptural and religious learning by actively excluding non-Brahmins from it.

Young Siddhartha probably felt this keenly, and many years later, as the Buddha, he would denounce the caste system and forbid his sangha (community of seekers) from having anything to do with it. This reform might have come from an understanding of the ultimate interconnectedness, and so a oneness, of all beings.

The caste system was only one symptom of a deeper malaise. Vedic Hinduism had degenerated into a maze of rituals that only the Brahmins claimed to know the meaning of. The dominant religion, therefore, had nothing to offer to serious spiritual seekers, who abounded in the Indian subcontinent in the sixth century BCE.

Of all the new streams of thought at the time, the most radical was possibly that which stemmed from the Upanishads and believed all existence as being pervaded by the One, known as Brahman, and denied the validity of numerous deities. In addition, the ancient ascetic tradition of paribbajakas (seekers) and samanas (strivers) received renewed attention, and their meditative practices were studied with interest.

By the time Siddhartha was born, this movement had become widespread and powerful and was increasingly engaging in fierce debates with ritualistic religion. It is possible that these voices impacted and attracted Siddhartha as a young prince in Kapilavastu.

The stepping forward


When he was 16, Siddhartha was married to Yashodhara, a princess of great beauty. It is said that he lived a life of indulgence; nights of revelry flowed into days filled with all kinds of pleasures. By material standards, ancient or modern, young Siddhartha had it all.

And then…what?

By the time he was 29, he probably began to wonder whether this was all there was to life. He began looking around for avenues to deepen and engage his mind. Some sort of an awakening probably occurred, that brought him to the realisation of the vast, untapped potential that lay within. Expected to live a nobleman’s life, Siddhartha was beginning to acknowledge his own need to move beyond it. The time was approaching when he would have to deal with this inner urge.

This was also the point when Siddhartha began considering issues he had not given much thought to earlier. For instance, ‘the Four Great Sights’ that Buddhist scriptures credit with changing his life—that of an old man, a sick man, a corpse and an ascetic—are perhaps meant to be symbolic of Siddhartha’s thought process, rather than as actual events. It also means that he was looking around with questioning eyes and along with issues of individual fulfillment, was considering circumstances that characterise the human condition, like death and disease.

As Siddhartha’s mind ripened in contemplation, he felt the need to move on to a life of absolute spiritual commitment. The time had come to renounce his identity as Siddhartha Gautama.

Nirvana: The Awakening

Having left his wife and infant son asleep in the palace, Siddhartha cut off his long hair with his sword and donned the robes of an ascetic. Then, he probably inspected the scene for a teacher. There were plenty to be had. A vibrant ascetic tradition had always existed on the margins of Vedic Hinduism. But constant warfare, material prosperity, and the questioning of Brahminical monopoly over religion had swelled the numbers of those opting out of society, to find the truth for themselves.

Siddhartha settled upon Alara Kalama as his first teacher and quickly mastered what he had to teach—disciplining the mind to enter the ‘sphere of nothingness’. Finding his teacher had nothing else to offer, and that what he had learnt was by itself not the realisation he sought, Siddhartha left.

Next, he went to Uddaka Ramaputta, from whom he learnt the Upanishadic concept of the one Absolute that manifests in everything, which he would refute post-nirvana. He also learnt to enter the meditative state that is neither consciousness nor unconsciousness. Yet, this too, was not the fulfillment he sought. Siddhartha left again, and now began a rigorous ascetic practice on his own.

For the next six years, he remained immersed in deep concentration. It was a harsh practice. To subjugate his body, he would eat next to nothing, at times one grain of rice a day. He denied himself protection against scorching summers and harsh winters. Soon, he was more dead than alive.

Six years on, Siddhartha knew he was doing something wrong. He was no closer to realisation than he had been at the beginning. With the question, ‘Might there not be another way to awakening?’ echoing in his mind, Siddhartha ended his penance by accepting a bowl of rice from Sujata, a young woman who initially mistook the hollow-eyed ascetic to be a wood-spirit.

A revived Siddhartha washed in the Nilanjana river that flowed nearby, and sat under a nearby bodhi tree.

Till now, he had been striving for realisation, exerting his will. Now, he remembered, from a time in his childhood an effortless flowing into equanimity. Taking that as his lodestone, Siddhartha felt an ease envelop him. The tightness in his body and mind softened.

‘I will not get up until I find what I am seeking,’ he vowed with quiet determination.

Six days later, over the four watches of night, it is said that Siddhartha realised his true nature, and that of Reality. Although the actual nature of what happened is mysterious, we do know there was a sense of conclusion, and of a supreme connection. This he expressed through a simple gesture of touching the earth when asked for proof of his enlightenment. Through his awakening, the Buddha had realised his connection with everything everywhere.

From under the Bodhi tree, rose one who had awakened to his true, enlightened, nature.

The Buddha Sakyamuni, sage of the Sakyas.

Swati Chopra is the author of Women Awakened: Stories of Contemporary Spirituality in India (HarperCollins, 2011), Dharamsala Diaries (Penguin, 2007), and Buddhism: On the Path to Nirvana (Mercury, 2005).

Last modified on Tuesday, 27 September 2011 11:22


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