Siddhartha Gautama (also known as the Buddha “the awakened one”) was the leader and founder of a sect of wanderer ascetics (Sramanas), one of many sects which existed at that time all over India. This sect came to be known as Sangha, to distinguish it from other similar communities. The teachings of Siddhartha Gautama are considered the core of Buddhism. 21
Based on all the information available, it does not seem to be possible to date the life of the Buddha in an exact and reliable way. What seems to be certain is that the Buddha died approximately at the age of eighty sometime between 410 and 370 BCE. Any date between these two means that the Buddha passed away about 140-100 years before the reign of Emperor Asoka. 22
After his death, the community he founded slowly evolved into a religious-like movement that was finally established as a state religion in India by the time of Emperor Ashoka, during the 3rd century BCE.
Siddhartha is a Sanskrit personal name which means “He Who Achieves His Goal.” The Sanskrit family name Gautama means “descendants of Gotama.” Gotama is the name of several figures in ancient India, including a poet of the Rig Veda and also Aksapada Gautama (or Gotama), a famous Indian logician. Pali literature normally refers to Siddhartha Gautama as Gotama Buddha.
Traditionally, the meaning of the term Buddha is understood as a person who has awakened from the deep sleep of ignorance. In Indian tradition, the expression was already used before, during, and after the life of Siddhartha by many religious communities, but it became most strongly linked to the Buddhist tradition. (21)
At the time when Siddhartha Gautama lived, Northern India was composed of numerous and small independent states competing for resources. This was a time when the traditional religious order in India was being challenged by a number of new philosophical and religious schools that were not in line with the orthodox Indian religious views. The Vedic philosophy, theology and metaphysics, along with its ever-growing complexity of rituals and sacrificial fees, was being questioned. Materialistic schools were rampant, undermining the reputation and authority of the priestly class, leading to a temporary religious anarchy, which contributed to the development of new religions. By the time Siddhartha Gautama was born, the intellectual decay of the old Brahmanic orthodoxy had begotten a strong skepticism and moral vacuum that was filled by new religious and philosophical views.
The realization that he, like anyone else, could be subject to different forms of human suffering drove Siddhartha into a personal crisis. By the time he was 29, he abandoned his home and began to live as a homeless ascetic.
After leaving Kapilavastu, Siddhartha practiced the yoga discipline under the direction of two of the leading masters of that time: Arada Kalama and Udraka Ramaputra.
Siddhartha did not get the results he expected, so he left the masters, engaged in extreme asceticism, and he was joined by five followers. For a period of six years, Siddhartha tried to attain his goal but was unsuccessful. After realizing that asceticism was not the way to attain the results he was looking for, he gave up this way of life.
Then, after eating a meal and taking a bath, Siddhartha sat down under a tree of the species ficus religiosa, where he finally attained Nirvana (perfect enlightenment) and became known as the Buddha. Soon after this, the Buddha delivered his first sermon in a place named Sarnath, also known as the deer park, near the city of Varanasi. This was a key moment in the Buddhist tradition, traditionally known as the moment when the Buddha “set in motion the wheel of the law.”
The Buddha explained the middle way between asceticism and a life of luxury, the four noble truths (suffering, its origin, how to end it, and the eightfold path or the path leading to the extinction of suffering), and the impersonality of all beings. (21)
Key Buddhist Concepts
The Buddha was not concerned with satisfying human curiosity related to metaphysical speculations. Topics like the existence of god, the afterlife, or creation stories were ignored by him. During the centuries, Buddhism has evolved into different branches, and many of them have incorporated a number of diverse metaphysical systems, deities, astrology and other elements that the Buddha did not consider. In spite of this diversity, though, Buddhism has a relative unity and stability in its moral code.
The most important teaching of the Buddha is known as “ The Four Noble Truths ,” which is shared with varying adjustments by all Buddhist schools. (23) It all begins with the realization of human suffering. (1)
But Buddhism differs in its understanding of suffering from other philosophical and spiritual traditions. For example, in some religions, sin is the origin of human suffering. In Buddhism there is no sin; the root cause of human suffering is avidyā “ignorance.”
In general, the Four Noble Truths are explained as follows:
- The First Noble Truth is generally translated as “ There is suffering .” This can be easily understood when it comes to painful situations like death, illness, abuse, poverty, and so forth. But suffering also may arise from good things because nothing is permanent, everything is changing, and whatever gives us happiness will sooner or later come to an end. It seems that all pleasures are temporary and the more we enjoy them, the more we will miss them when they end. “Nothing lasts forever” is one of the insights of the Buddha.
- The origin of suffering is the second noble truth. (1) This origin of suffering is desire. Suffering comes from desire, also referred to as “thirst” or greed. Our desires will always exceed our resources and leave us unhappy and unsatisfied. All suffering originates in desire, but not all desire generates suffering. Only selfish desire generates suffering; it is directed to the advantage of the part rather than to the good of the whole.
- The cessation of suffering is the third noble truth. (1) By stopping desire, suffering also stops. The idea is not to get too attached to the desire for material goods, places, ideas, or even people. Non-attachment to anything is the main idea behind the third noble truth. It means that since all changes in our attachment is too strong, we will inevitably suffer at some point. After all, we will all get old, decay, and die; this is a natural cycle, and there is nothing wrong with it. The problem comes when, by attaching too much, we do not accept the changes.
- The path to cessation of suffering is the fourth Noble Truth. The Way, “The Eightfold Path” to the cessation of suffering, is comprised of: right views, right intentions, right speech, right action, right livelihood, right effort, right mindfulness and right concentration. (23)
Nirvana is a Sanskrit noun often translated as “extinction,” which signifies the act and effect of blowing at something, to put it out: to blow out or to extinguish. The process itself, along with its outcome, are also part of the meaning of nirvana: becoming extinguished, blowing out, and calming down. The religious use of the word nirvana seems to be earlier than Buddhism itself and may have been introduced into Buddhism along with many other religious elements associated with the Sramanas movements. The concept of nirvana is also present in Jainism and in different Hindu sects; its precise meaning varies, but it revolves around the idea of a state of bliss and liberation from individuality and the suffering of the cycle of birth and death.
The turning point in Siddhartha’s life was attaining nirvana. What is the meaning of nirvana here? What does it mean that Siddhartha Gautama achieved enlightenment, thus becoming the Buddha (awakened)? The precise nature of the Buddhahood is debated by various schools. Despite the fact that “nirvana” is a very popular expression in Buddhism, Buddhists have never reached full agreement on its meaning.
In Buddhism, the concept of nirvana was taken in different directions according to the different schools. The main reason for these differences has to do with the fact that early Buddhist texts do not provide a clear systematic scholarly definition of nirvana, but rather they express its meaning using metaphors and other ambiguous means. A famous example can be found in the Pali Canon where nirvana is interpreted “as when a flame is blown out by the wind.” Here, the metaphor refers to the extinction of the “three poisons” (or primary afflictions): greed/sensuality, hatred/aversion, and delusion/ignorance. After this, one is no longer subject to the cycle of death and rebirth.
A more naturalistic view suggests that nirvana is the culmination of a long process of personal discipline and self-cultivation. Living an “enlightened” life, in touch with the way things truly are, free of delusion, greed and hatred, ultimately gives rise to nirvana, a state of human excellence. (21)
The Middle Path: Neither Affirmation nor Denial of Theistic Models on Philosophical Grounds
The idea that there are no gods and that the material world is all there is was already held by some materialistic schools in India, particularly by the Charvaka school, so in this sense it might not seem an original insight. But the approach of these schools was largely atheist since they all denied the existence of supernatural entities. Both the theistic approach of the Vedic religion and the atheistic approach of the materialistic schools rest ultimately on the same conviction: both hold that we can know whether or not the gods actually exist; one is certain of their existence, the other is certain they do not exist. The Buddha claimed the impossibility of human knowledge of arriving to definite answers regarding this matter, so his view was an agnostic one, suspending judgement and saying that no sufficient grounds exist either for affirmation or for denial. This idea is so strong in Buddhism that even today in some of the Buddhist branches who have incorporated supernatural entities into their traditions, the role of human choice and responsibility remains supreme, far above the deeds of the supernatural. (21)
The Legacy of the Buddha
It would be historically incorrect to say that Siddhartha Gautama saw himself as a religious leader or that he consciously set out to start a new religious movement. He considered himself a teacher who rejected the ways of traditional Hindu religious orthodoxy and offered his followers a different path. He considered the many Vedic rites and ceremonies to be pointless and abusive and he was also against the caste system, stressing the equality among all people.
Siddhartha’s ideas have some similarities with the work of Kapila, an Indian sage who lived probably about two centuries earlier. Both were concerned with providing humanity with a relief from suffering. They discarded the remedies proposed by the Vedic rites, especially the sacrifices; they considered these rites to be cruel because of their strong connection with the slaughter of living beings. Both of them believed that knowledge and meditation were the true means of salvation. Also, they both strived to attain a state of human perfection and their approach was purely agnostic. However, the parallels go no further. Kapila organized his views in a system of philosophy that has not a hint of sympathy for mankind in general. The Buddha, on the other hand, delivered his message with a living, all-embracing sympathy and a deep concern for the poor and the oppressed. He preached in favor of the equality of men (which was largely forgotten in the Indian society during his time) and opposed inequalities and abuses of the caste system.
The meaning of these teachings and message of the Buddha is also a controversial topic. Some Buddhist schools say that its core is non-violence, others say compassion, and some others say it is freedom from rebirth. There are also scholars who claim that the Buddha was looking to restore the pre-Vedic Indian religion, which was buried under centuries of distortion and dead ceremonials. Some of these ideas, whether the true core of the message of the Buddha or not, are not original to Buddhism. Non-violence and compassion was one of the pillars of Jainism long after the times of the Buddha, while freedom from rebirth is presented in the Upanishads, also before the time of the Buddha.
The one aspect of the message of the Buddha that seems original is humanism: the insight that human beings are ultimately responsible for their fate and that no supernatural forces, no magic rituals, and no gods can be held accountable for our actions.
The Buddha, originally considered a human being (wise and extraordinary, but only a man), gradually entered into the pantheon of the Hindu gods and came to be regarded as one of the many manifestations of the god Vishnu. A man of tolerance, intelligence, compassion, peace; what harm could it do to worship him as a deity? His followers perhaps thought that by making him a god, the Buddha would become more special, his image more powerful and unique. However, in a tradition like in India, filled with endless gods and goddesses everywhere, to make him a god was also to make him ordinary, just one more god among thousands. Moreover, his image became to coexist with myth, ritual and superstition that corrupted his original message. Eventually, the Buddha was swallowed up by the realm of Hindu gods, his importance diminished and Buddhism finally died out in the land where it was born.
So complete was the destruction of Buddhism in India during ancient times, that when western scholars rediscovered Buddhism, the records they relied on came from countries near and around India: no valuable records were kept in the home of Buddhism. The message of the Buddha vanished from its homeland, but it remained alive in almost every other part of Asia, and from Asia it spread to the rest of the world. (21)