A clan called the Shakyas ruled a small country in what is now southern Nepal. Shuddodhana Gautama was the head of the clan and the King. It was at the time that Mahamaya was expecting her first child that she had a strange dream in which a baby elephant had blessed her with her trunk. This was considered a very auspicious sign at that time.
When the time for her to have the child drew near, she was to travel to her fathers' kingdom for the child's birth. It was during this journey that her labor pain began and she had to give birth in the small town of Lumbini in the nearby groves. A large tree is said to have lowered a branch to serve as support at this time. It is said that the birth was painless despite being delivered from her side. A gentle rain fell on the child and mother to cleanse them.
It is believed that the child was born fully awake, and was able to speak too. He is said to have told his mother that he had come to free all mankind from suffering. As he walked, lotus blossoms appeared. He was named Siddhartha which means he who has attained his goal. Unfortunately, Siddhartha was raised by his mother's sister, Mahaprajapati because of his mother's death just a week after he was born.
King Shuddodhana consulted a well-known sooth-sayer Asita. To his question regarding the future of his son, Asita told him that Siddhartha would either become a great sage and savior of humanity or a great King and even an Emperor. As expected, the King was eager that his son become a king too, so he tried to shield him from anything that might result in him taking up religious life. Siddhartha thus spent a very secluded life only surrounded by health and beauty.
Siddhartha grew up to be a strong and handsome young man who trained in the arts of war. When it was time for him to get married he won the hand of a beautiful princess who belonged to the neighboring kingdom by beating all competitors at a number of sports. Siddhartha and Yashodhara were married at the tender age of 16.
As time passed, Siddhartha grew restless and curious about the world that existed beyond. Finally he demanded that he should be allowed to meet his people and see his lands. Shuddhodana granted him permission after arranging for only the young and the healthy to greet him.
It was on his journey through Kapilavastu that he saw the sights, the first sight that he saw were some old men who had accidentally wandered near the parade route. Next he came across people who were severely ill and last he saw a funeral ceremony by the side of the river. When he saw all this, he asked his squire and friend Chandaka the meaning of all these things. It was at this time that Chandaka informed him about the truth of life, that is the fact that all of us get old, sick and die.
On this same journey, Siddhartha saw an ascetic who had renounced all the pleasures of the flesh. The peaceful look on the monk's face stayed with Siddhartha for a long time in future.
The Great Departure
It was at the age of 29 that Siddhartha discovered that he was not happy the way he was. So one day, he left the palace with his squire Chandaka and horse Kanthaka after kissing his sleeping wife and newborn son Rahula. He cut his hair and gave away his rich clothing. He gave his horse to Chandaka and told him to return to the palace. For a while after this, Siddhartha studied under two famous gurus, who he later left because he found their practices lacking.
Siddhartha began to practice the self-mortifications and austerities similar to one practiced by a group of five ascetics. He went deeper into this practice till he began refusing food and water and nearly reached a state of near death. One day Siddhartha felt that he should follow the middle path, so he ate, drank and then bathed in the river.
It was in Bodh Gaya that Siddhartha decided to sit under a tree as long as it would take him to find the answers to the problem of suffering to come. While he was doing this he began to recall his previous life and was able to see everything that was going on in the universe. It was on a full moon, with the rising of the morning star that Siddhartha finally understood the answer and became the Buddha which means he who is awake.
Buddha remained seated under the fig tree for as many as seven weeks, and realized that the knowledge he had gained would not be easy to share with others. It was at that time that Brahma, king of the Gods convinced him that he should preach it to people because his teachings might be able to awaken some of them who had only a little dirt in their eyes.
One hundred miles from Bodh Gaya, at Sarnath, near Benares, Buddha came across the five ascetics he had practiced with for long. It was in a deer park in this place that Buddha gave his first sermon, which is called setting the wheel of the teaching in motion. These 5 ascetics became his disciples and this was the beginning of the Sangha or community of monks.
Having heard of Buddha's words, King Bimbisara of Magadha granted him a monastery near Rahagriha, his capital, which could be used during the rainy season. Soon members of his family approached him too. His son joined the Sangha as a monk. His wife and aunt too joined the Sangha that was in the beginning meant only for men.
Buddha treated everyone as equals irrespective of their background, birth, nationality or wealth. When Buddha was 80 years of age he told his friend that he would be leaving them soon. It was in Kushinagar, a hundred miles from his homeland, that Buddha ate some spoiled food and became ill. He went into deep meditation under a grove of sala trees where he breathed his last.