At the age of twenty-nine Siddhartha Gautama, prince of a ruling house in Nepal, abandons the luxuries of home, and the affections of a wife and a young son, to become a wandering ascetic. He is following a pattern not uncommon in India at this time, when the rigidities of a priest-dominated Hinduism are causing many to seek a more personal religion. Only a few years previously, in a nearby district, a young man by the name of Vardhamana has done exactly the same – with lasting results in the form of Jainism. (The conventional dates for both men, revised by modern scholarship, have been a century earlier.)
Gautama differs from Vardhamana in one crucial respect. He discovers that asceticism is almost as unsatisfactory as luxury.
1According to the traditional account (first written down in the 3rd century BC) Gautama follows an ascetic life for six years before deciding that a middle path between mortification and indulgence of the body will provide the best hope of achieving enlightenment.
He resolves to meditate, in moderate comfort, until he sees the light of truth. One evening he sits under a pipal tree at Buddh Gaya, a village in Bihar. By dawn he is literally buddha, an ‘enlightened one’. Like any other religious leader he begins to gather disciples. He becomes known to his followers as the Buddha.
For the remainder of his 80 years, Buddha traveled, preaching the Dharma (the name given to the teachings of the Buddha) in an effort to lead others to and along the path of enlightenment. When he died, it is said that he told his disciples that they should follow no leader.
The Buddha is undoubtedly one of the most influential figures in world history, and his teachings have affected everything from a variety of other faiths (as many find their origins in the words of the Buddha) to literature to philosophy, both within India and to the farthest reaches of the Western world.