Life of Gautama Buddha and his Teachings
Buddha, the light of Asia, was one of the greatest men of all times. Great was his teaching which the mightiest religion of humanity became.
The name, of Gautama Buddha, has enriched the history of India more than any other name.
The founder of the largest religion on earth, he was the only man in history to be regarded as God by a larger part of mankind.
Gautama was born in the Kshatriya Sakya clan of the state of Kapilavastu, situated in the Tarain region of modern Nepal. The exact place of his birth was the garden of Lumbini-Grama near the city of Kapilavastu. At a much later date, Emperor Asoka Maurya erected the famous Rummindei pillar at that place to make it ever memorable. Lumbini is now known as Rummindei or Rupandehi.
Gautama was the son of the Sakya chief of Kapilavastu, Suddhodana. His mother was Maya Devi who died seven days after the birth of her son. The child thereupon was nursed by his step-mother and mother’s sister, Mahaprajapati Gautaini. According to her name, the child was named as Gautama. The family also belonged to the Gautama gotra. Another name of Gautama was Siddhartha.
The exact dates of the birth and death of Gautama Buddha are not yet definitely known to history, though it is known for certain that he lived a life of 80 years. There are two theories about these dates, supported by #arguments. According to a calculation derived from the Sinhalese tradition, Buddha was born in 623 B.C. and died in 543 B.C. at the age of eighty. These dates are supported by some historical evidences. But, by another calculation derived from the established dates of Asoka’s life, the dates of Buddha are seen to be different from the above noted dates.
According to this calculation, the coronation of Asoka took place 218 years after the death of Buddha. The established dates of Asoka show that he came to the throne in 273 B.C. and was coroneted after four years in 269 B.C. If Buddha had died 218 year before Asoka’s coronation, the date of Buddha’s death falls in 487 B.C. and his date of birth thus comes to 567 B.C.
These dates are supported by another historical evidence of great value. At Canton, a dot was put on a record for each year after the death of Buddha.
This was continued till the year 489 A.D. The total number of the Canton Dots is seen to be 975. When the number of the years of the Christian Era, namely, 489 is taken out from the total number of dots, that is, 975, it brings the number to 486. Thus, according to the calculation from the famous Canton Dots, the date of the death of Buddha falls in 486 or 487 B.C.
Thus, from view point of Asoka’s coronation date and the Canton Dots, the year of birth of Buddha may be taken as 566 or 567 B.C. and the year of death as 486 or 487 B.C.
Much of the life of Buddha is shrouded in mystery. But much of it also appears clearer from the Buddhist sources. It is said that from his childhood young Gautama showed signs of detachment towards the worldly life. Yet as a khyatriya prince he was given the customary training in the use of arms and weapons, in riding horse and driving chariot.
Father Suddhodana paid enough attention to keep the mind of his son engaged in the stately activities. The palace of Kapilavastu also presented enough of pleasures and luxuries for enjoyment. But, Gautama was seen to have possessed no attraction for the so-called happiness of life. Everything appeared rather painful to him.
When he was sixteen, he got married to Yosodhara, also named as Subhadraka, Gopa or Bimba. Marriage was yet another bond for the thoughtful prince. For several years thereafter Gautama enjoyed the usual pleasures and comforts of the palace like other youthful princes elsewhere.
Four great signs:
At last, he came across four scenes of man’s existence which left a deep impression on his thought. One day, as his charioteer, Chhanna, took the prince through the streets of Kapilavastu, Gautama saw on old man, bent with age, and having wrinkled face, and presenting a pathetic appearance. He came to understand that the miseries of the old age were natural in life.
Subsequently, when be saw another man, suffering from disease with extreme pain, he was told by the charioteer that sickness and disease were like the companions of life. The third scene was yet more shocking, when the prince came across the sight of a dead man, being carried by his sorrowful relatives, weeping and lamenting. He came to know that man had no escape from death which was inevitable.
Regarding the futility of life which ends in death, prince Gautama is said to have thought about the indifferences of living man towards that absolute reality.
One day the following feeling came to his mind:
“How senseless the man appears to me
whose neighbour ill and old and dead.
He sees and yet holds fast
to the good things of this
life and is not thrilled with anxiety.
It is as if a tree divested of all flower and fruit
must fall or be pulled down – unaffected remaining the
While overtaken by distressing thoughts of old age, disease and death, Gautama came across yet another scene. It was the sight of a sannyasi who had renounced everything and was walking alone without any sign of worries or anxieties on his happy face.
These four experiences of prince Gautama had been described as the Four Great Signs. They proved like a turning point in his life, causing him to think seriously on the meaning of human existence. While a change of mind was thus taking place, Gautama was blessed with a son at the age of 29. To him, it was yet another bond to tie him to worldly life.
Without waiting further, Gautama decided to renounce the world. So, at the age of 29, in the silent hours of a dark night, he came out of the palace, leaving behind his sleeping wife and the son, as well as his old father, and accompanied by his faithful charioteer Chhanna, disappeared into darkness “from a home to a homeless life”. This event in Gautama’s life is famous as the Great Renunciation.
At the boundary of the Sakya territory, Gautama asked Chhanna (or Chauna) to return to Kapilavastu and tell his father “not to make efforts to find his whereabouts, because he had now accepted, once and for all, the homeless way of life of a wandering monk”. When the most devoted charioteer insisted that he should stay with the prince, Gautama persuaded him to go back saying that “man is born alone and he must pass away alone. And in aloneness the whole truth of life was hidden”. Gautama wanted to search the truth alone.
The prince proceeded to Rajagriha and tried to satisfy his inner hunger at the feet of two learned saints named Alara and Udraka. For some time there after he tried to seek guidance from various wise teachers, but got no satisfaction. Thereupon he decided to subject his body to extreme physical pain. Going to dense forests, far from human beings, he practised hard penance. For six years he was thus wandering from place to place in the quest of answers to his doubts. At Uruvilwa near Gaya, he practised the most severe penance by reducing his body almost to bones and skins. That, too did not bring any result.
So, finally, there at Uruvilwa, after taking a bath in river Niranjana, he sat down under a pipal tree with the supreme resolve: “I will not leave this place till I attain that peace of mind which I have been trying for all these years”. As he sat in deep meditation, there at last came to him the great knowledge from the ‘Great Unknown’. Prince Gautama Siddhartha got the Enlightenment and became the Buddha or the Enlightened One. He also came to be known as Tathagata or one who attained the Truth and the Sakya-Muni or the Sage of the Sakyas. Buddha was then 35 years in age.
The Pipal Tree under which he got enlightenment became famous as the Bodhi Tree, and the place came to be known as Bodh Gaya.
The truth which Buddha got was the “Truth underlying life as a whole, namely, Life is full of Suffering, Desire is the cause of Suffering, Suffering ends at the destruction of Desire and Desire is destroyed by Right Living.”
It is worth noting here the words of Buddha at this moment as contained in the Buddhist texts:
“This Truth will not be easy to understand by beings that are lost in lust and hatred. Given to lust, surrounded with thick darkness, they will not see what goes against the current of their thoughts. This Truth is abstruse, profound, difficult to perceive, and very subtle”.
“When I pondered over this matter, my mind became inclined to remain quiet and not to preach the Truth to anyone.
“Then something happened. Two merchants from Orissa and travelling on the road with their wagons observed me seated under a tree. They offered me food in the form of rice-cakes and lumps of honey in a stone-bowl. They gave their names as Tapassu and Bliallika”.
“They evinced great interest and asked questions which I answered. To my great surprise, I found them very receptive. I felt sure that they understood the essence of the new teaching. And on their insistence I agreed to accept them as my disciples. They became my first lay disciples. They told me that they would propagate the truth themselves as best they could and also through their many travelling merchant friends”.
“This proved to be a great event. It brought about a change in my resolve not to propagate the truth. My encounter with the two travelling merchants convinced me that there were men in the world who could understand the truth”.
Dharma Chakra Pravartana:
After deciding to preach the truth, Buddha proceeded from Bodh Gaya to the Deer Park in Sarnath where he gave his first sermons to five Brahmins. This event is famous as the Dharma Chakra Pravartana or the Turning of the Wheel of Law. Thus began the mission of Buddha as a preacher. There also began the rise of the Buddhist Order of Monks or the Buddhist Sangha.
For long 45 years Buddha travelled with his disciples to preach his doctrines. He visited many places including Kapilavastu where his own son Rahul was taken to the new faith and became a monk. As Buddha moved, princes and people alike felt attracted towards his teachings.
At places like Benares, Uruvilva and Rajagriha, hundreds of people became his disciples. At Shravasti, Kapilavastu, Vaisali and Magadha, Buddha’s message spread among myriads of men. Among his famous disciples, the names of Sariputta, Moggalayana, Sanjuya, Rahula (Buddha’s own son), Aniruddha, Ananda, Upali and Sudatta occupy permanent places in Buddhist history. A new wave of religious thinking soon swept over the country.
Describing his daily life as a preacher, historian Oldenberg writes:
“In the days when his reputation stood at its highest point, and his name was named throughout India among the foremost names, one might day by day see that man, before whom kings bowed themselves, walking about, begging alms, bowl in hand, through streets and alleys, from house to house and without uttering any request, with downcast look, stand silently waiting until a morsel of food was thrown into his bowl”.
Buddha died at the age of 80 at a place named Kusinagar in the present day Gorakhpur district of modern Uttar Pradesh. Till the last moment of his life he was a wandering preacher. At the very moment of death, he gave the following instruction to his faithful disciple Ananda:
“Therefore, O Ananda, be ye lamps unto yourselves. Betake yourselves to no external refuge. Hold fast to the Truth as a lamp. Hold fast as a refuge to the Truth. Look not for refuge to any one besides yourselves”.
While uttering these words, he closed his eyes. The Nirvana of Buddha took place in the year 486 B.C. The Great Decease of Buddha is known as the Parinirvana.
It was Buddha’s renunciation, his search for truth, his valuable discoveries regarding the earthly sufferings of man, his earnest endeavour for liberation of man from the bondage of desires, and his ultimate advice for a nobler and better life for salvation, made deep appeals to human mind. The story of his life has ever remained a source of spiritual inspiration to millions. In a world of sufferings, he suffered himself to know the means of eternal happiness. And, he lived to teach man the meaninglessness of worldly affairs.
Buddha’s own life was a life of supreme dedication. At a time when his fame was at its height, and when his name was on the lips of millions of men all over India, and when monarchs bowed before him in veneration, he was himself moving with a begging bowl in hand for a morsel of food just for survival. That is how lived the greatest Indian ever born and the founder of world’s largest religion.
Teachings of Buddha:
The religion of Buddha is famous as Buddhism. The followers of that religion are known as Buddhists. In his teachings, Buddha showed a new path. In his religious mission, he did not give value to the so-called sacred rites and rituals. Instead, he showed the way for a life of ethics and spirituality. He preached in simple language and to the common people. His doctrines were simple as well as practical for adoption.
He preached against the extreme means of worldly life which led to man’s self indulgence, pleasures and unending desires. At the same time, he did not prescribe for the common man extreme hardship of ascetic life by physical punishment and self torture. His was the noble ‘Middle Path’ which was possible for every man to follow. Between the two extremes of pleasures and penance, he showed the path of a really virtuous life.
The following main doctrines constitute the substance of his teachings:
The Four Noble Truths or the Arya Satya:
In his enlightenment, Buddha discovered the real causes of the miseries of human existence. He also discovered the way to escape from those miseries which followed endlessly in the wheel of Karma, birth and rebirth. These discoveries were called the Four Noble Truths.
The first truth was the Truth of Pain or Sorrow. “Birth is pain, old age is pain, sickness is pain, death is pain.” felt Buddha. Everything in the world was transient, sorrowful and full of pain. The existence of this sorrow was in the nature of life.
The second truth, according to Buddha, was the Truth of the Cause of Pain or Sorrow. This cause was the Desire. The desire or the Trishna was the lust and the thirst for all worldly things. It was the root of all evils leading to pain.
The third truth was the Truth to end the Pain or Sorrow. This end or cessation of pain was possible by ending desires. Elimination of desires was to lead to the end of sorrows. Perfect bliss was to follow the end of the sorrows. It was like the end of life and death. It was the real freedom or emancipation.
The fourth truth was the Truth to End the Desires. This was possible by a noble way to attain the real bliss without desires. Extreme penance was not necessary for this, while extreme pleasure was unnecessary by all means. Avoiding both, it was the noble middle path which was the right way to end the Desires. This path was to lead to the real state of freedom or emancipation. Buddha described this path as the Arya Astangika Marga or the Noble Eight-fold, path. This Path was the real path to end the cycle of Karma and the rebirth.
The Noble Eight-fold Path:
Buddha gave eight principles to follow as his noble eight-fold path. They were: the Right Vision, Right Aims, Right Speech, Right Action, Right Livelihood, Right Efforts, Right Mindfulness, and Right Meditation.
By right vision or views, Buddha meant that man should realise how sorrowful was this world for man’s greeds, desires and selfishness. Man should, therefore, rise above for a new vision for his own happiness and for the happiness of all. By right aims or aspirations, man should not run behind his power and wealth, and should not run for passion, pleasures and enjoyment. Instead, he should aim at loving other fellow men and giving them happiness. By right speech, man should give up falsehood, lies, criticism of others and quarrels which spoil the peace of others and of the society.
Instead, man should be truthful in his words and friendly and kind in his talks. By right action or conduct, man should avoid violence and killing, give up harmful acts like theft, and stealing, and instead could work for the good of all in a virtuous way. By right livelihood, Buddha advised man to live by harmless means, not by selling or taking wine or butchering animals for himself or others.
Instead, he should live an honest and simple life for peace within and peace outside. By right effort or exertion, Buddha meant a correct discipline in mind and action not for any evil thought or practice, but for a proper exercise towards all that was good. Man was asked to give up evil designs from his thought and to develop nobler feelings for better efforts.
By right mindfulness or awareness, Buddha wanted man to be conscious of the unrealities of his existence, unrealities of the body and the bodily pleasures, the meaninglessness of the worldly bonds and attachments. Instead, he was to search for the real happiness beyond the flesh and material existence which had no substance. Finally, by right meditation or contemplation, Buddha wanted man to concentrate his mind on the real truth of existence. It was necessary for the discipline and training of the mind towards the higher goal.
The Noble Eight-fold Path was thus a code of conduct for every man. It became the basis of Buddhism as a religion. It was a religion for social happiness of all. Buddhism has been rightly described as ‘the most social of religions’.
Buddha taught the householders:
“Honouring mother and father, cherishing of child and wife,
And a peaceful occupation: This is the best good omen.
Giving of alms and righteous life, to cherish kith and kin,
Doing deeds that bring no blame: This is the best good omen.
Ceasing and abstaining from sin, to shun intoxicating drinks,
Not neglecting religious duties: This is the best good omen”.
The Path which Buddha showed was a practical path to follow. This path was meant for the common people as the lay disciples of the faith. For the Buddhist monks there were other strict regulations like celibacy which were not binding on the lay followers.
Non-violence and Morality:
Buddha was the prophet of non-violence. “Let not one kill any living being”, he said. Ultimately, the philosophy of non-violence became a cardinal principle of Buddhism. The Buddhists rejected animal sacrifice and killing of animals in every form. Non-violence also called for kindness towards all creatures. It denied man to hate man. “Let a man overcome anger by kindness, evil by good….Never in the world hatred ceases by harted. Hatred ceases by love”, said Buddha.
Social morality was given the highest priority in Buddhist thought. “Let not one take what is not given to him; let not one speak falsely, let not one drink intoxicating drinks; let not one be unchaste”, were Buddha’s guidelines for moral living.
Buddha did not preach the Fatherhood of God. Instead, he preached the Brotherhood of Men. His religion thus rested on ethics, morality and virtue. It rejected worships, rituals and rites. It has thus no respect for the priestly class and the so-called high-born. Buddha opened the doors of his Sangha to all men.
He asked his followers to preach the Noble Path by advising them: “Go into all lands and preach this gospel. Tell them that the poor and the lowly, the rich and the high, are all one, and that all castes unite in this religion as do the rivers in the sea”.
Karma and Rebirth:
In the Buddhist thought, the doctrine of Karma and rebirth was given great prominence. It was the Karma of the creature which caused its transmigration. Man’s action in life could be bad or good. For Karma, he was destined to suffer when reborn in form of any living creature. The chain of birth, death and rebirth was thus endless. To Buddha, the supreme purpose of consciousness was to attain liberation from that endless chain of misery.
In view of the danger of Karma, Buddha left a serene message to men to understand the value of a good life and of good actions.
“Happy the solitude of the peaceful; who knows and beholds truth
“Happy is he who stands firmly unmoved, who holds himself in check at all times.
“Happy he whose every sorrow, Whose every wish is at an end.
“The conquest of the stubbornness of the egoity is truly the supreme happiness”.
In his search for that ultimate liberation, Buddha brought the concept of Nirvana. Nirvana was the eternal salvation from the misery of existence. To enjoy the bliss of Nirvana, he advised man to follow the Middle Path or the Noble Eight-fold Path of a purer life. It should be a life of no possessions, no desires and no worldly attachment. It should also be a life of compassion, goodness and kindness.
As Buddha said:
“When one sees sorrow, suffering or misery as the first and the most fundamental Truth underlying human existence, while one is walking on the ‘Middle Path’, one also becomes aware of the fact that, there is only misery and no one miserable ; there is only action and no doer of action.
This awareness, friends, is the indication of the fact that when one has started to walk on the Middle Path one becomes aware that it leads to Nirvana or liberation from all bondage. And, when one now looks at the world around him, one sees that most men feel miserable and are driven to do this, that or any other thing to be free from misery.
This doer, with which men identify themselves, is the generator of all misery. The doer is the ego. But to one who is walking on the Middle Path, there is only misery and not the miserable, there is action and not the doer of action”.
To Buddha, “the Eight-fold Path would bring the realisation that everything was transitory, full of misery and unreal. The sense of nothingness would take away the sense of ‘I-ness’ or ‘me’, and destroy the ego. It would bring a state of happiness, far above selfish desires and worldly attachment. That would liberate the man from his self-consciousness and from rebirth. With desires gone and with the annihilation of the self, the Nirvana comes as the final liberation from all pains, and the pain of worldly existence once for all.”
Thus, the Four Noble Truths, the Noble Eight-fold Path and the realisation of Nirvana were the basic fundamentals of Buddha’s teachings.
Spread of Buddhism:
A messiah of the poor and the down trodden, Buddha believed in equality of status and freedom for all. He wanted to improve the existing pattern rather than replace it with a new one.
The ethics and morality which Buddha propounded as the true religion of mankind created a deep impression on the Indian mind. Both the learned and the common men saw in Buddha’s teachings a remarkable way of life for true happiness. During his life, as he preached, his words attracted princes and the poor alike. A new mental ferment was marked, with far reaching consequences.
Soon after the death of Buddha, the First Buddhist Council was held at Rajagriha where 500 Buddhist monks gathered from different Sanghas. The Council adopted the sayings of Buddha as the canonical texts for future guidance of men. They were divided into two parts, namely, the Vinaya Pitaka and the Dhamma Pitaka. Mahakassapa, the President of the council, and two other disciples of Buddha named Upali and Ananda conducted the works of the Council and guided the Sangha.
The Second Buddhist Council met one hundred years after the death of Buddha at Vaisali under the patronage of the king of Magadha. The Third Buddhist Council was held at Pataliputra during the reign of Asoka. It was presided over by Moggaliputta Tissa. The Fourth Buddhist Council was held in Kashmir under the guidance of Vasumitra and Asvaghosha during the time of Kanishka. It was the last Buddhist Council.
The religion of Buddha spread as a popular religion. The simple and practical tenets of the faith carried appeal to the mass mind. It was preached in the simple language of the people, the Pali, The equality of men, as upheld by the Buddhists, brought the lowly and the downtrodden to its fold. No ceremonies and costly rituals were necessary.
There was also no need for priests. The tireless efforts of the Buddhist Sanghas, and the missionary zeal of the monks and preachers carried the gospels of Buddha to every corner of the country.
But, it was the conversion of Emperor Asoka after his Kalinga War which gave Buddhism a new dimension. Under the patronage of that monarch, grounds were prepared for the spread of Buddhism far and wide. Inside India and outside India’s frontiers, the spread of the religion became rapid. In course of time Buddhism became the religion of the Asian humanity and Buddha became the Light of Asia.