Prince Siddhartha

The Prince Who Became the Buddha

Prince Siddhartha
Wikimedia Commons

The historical Buddha wasn't born the Buddha. According to early scripture his name was Siddhartha Gautama, and he was said to be a prince. In popular biographies, young Prince Siddhartha was raised in opulent splendor in the magnificent palace of his father, King Suddhodana, who ruled a kingdom thought to have been in what is now Nepal.

How much of that pretty picture is true? We don't actually know.

There is no archeological evidence or independent corroboration that there really was a Siddhartha Gautama, although most scholars of history believe Buddhism really did have a founder and didn't just happen. The early scriptures were not written until more than three centuries after the Buddha's death, however, and accounts of his life are obviously mythologized. What follows is what is generally believed about Siddhartha Gautama's early life.

Read More: The Life of the Buddha

Prince Siddhartha's World

Although the dates are in dispute, it is generally accepted that Siddhartha Gautama lived in the 5th century BCE. Siddhartha is a Sanskrit name meaning "one who has accomplished a goal," and Gautama is a family name. He was born into the Shakya or Sakya clan, and there is independent documentation that the Shakya, at least, existed.

The Shakya were said to have established a city-state with a capital in Kapilavastu, which is in modern-day Nepal.

However, in the 5th century BCE this was not exactly a center of civilization. So it's likely descriptions of the opulence of Prince Siddhartha's upbringing have been exaggerated a tad. However, by some accounts Kapilavastu was on a major trading route, so people of many cultures may have passed through it.

Just south of Nepal, in what is now the state of Uttar Pradesh, India, there were long-established cities. These included Varanasi, or Benares, where the Buddha would give his first sermon and which already was centuries old when the Buddha was alive. If the Shakya traveled at all they wouldn't have been complete hayseeds, by 5th century BCE standards.

Prince Siddhartha's Family

Assuming that Prince Siddhartha's father, Suddhodana, was a leader of the Shakya, it's not clear from the earliest texts whether he was really a hereditary king or more of a tribal chief, and possibly an elected one. Suddhodana married two sisters, Maya and Pajapati Gotami, said to be princesses of another clan, the Koliya. Maya was the mother of Siddhartha, her only child, and she died shortly after his birth.

Read More: The Birth of the Buddha

Pajapati, who later became the first Buddhist nun, raised Siddhartha as her own child. She also was the mother of Siddhartha's two half-siblings, Princess Sundari Nanda and Prince Nanda. Siddhartha was the older son and would have been Suddhodana's heir.

By all accounts, Prince Siddhartha and his family were of the Kshatriya caste of warriors and nobles.  Among Siddhartha's more well-known relatives was his cousin Ananda, the son of his father's brother, who later became the Buddha's disciple and personal attendant.

Ananda would have been considerably younger than Siddhartha, however, and they didn't know each other as children.

Read More: The Life of Ananda

Prince Siddhartha's Life

Little is said about Siddhartha's childhood in the early scriptures. As the son of a clan leader, it seems probable Siddhartha would have been trained to be a warrior since leading men in defense of his people would have been one of his responsibilities. Father Suddhodana was said to have been a skilled swordsman who won many battles. However, if Siddhartha did receive such training it is not described in the early texts. By most accounts the Buddha did not read or write, so we can assume Siddhartha's childhood was not taken up by studying.

At the age of 16 he was married to his cousin, Yasodhara, also 16. This was no doubt a marriage arranged by the families.

Yasodhara was the daughter of a Koliya chief, and her mother was a sister to Suddhodana. Yasodhara was also a sister of Devadatta, who became a disciple of the Buddha and then, by some accounts, a dangerous rival. Siddhartha and Yasodhara were childless for many years until the birth of their son and only child, Rahula, who arrived just as Siddhartha had made up his mind to renounce his life as a prince and seek enlightenment.

According to the traditional account of the Buddha's life, young Siddhartha's life had been a sheltered one. It was prophesied he could become a holy man, and his father sought to avoid that possibility by surrounding him with privilege and luxury. So it was that he arrived at the age of 29 curiously oblivious to the realities of sickness, old age and death. After seeing a sick person, an old person, and a corpse, he became heartsick and realized he could no longer be happy living as a prince. One night he left his palace, and his sleeping wife and son, cut his hair, changed into plain mendicant's robes, and began his quest for peace of mind.