Siddhartha Gautama, the Buddha

Buddha statue on a mountain top. Moment via Getty Images

Prince Siddhartha Gautama, who became the Buddha or "the Enlightened One," was almost certainly a real historical figure.  However, the passage of time and the accumulation of legends around him make it impossible to give a totally accurate biography of Buddhism's founder.  Scholars have to sift through the Buddhist scriptures and traditions, and compare them with archaeological evidence even to guess at the dates of Gautama's birth and death.

  Here, then, is the traditional biography of the Buddha; the dates and details are all subject to debate, however.

Early Life:

The Buddha was born some time around 400 BCE, likely in Lumbini or Kapilavastu, in what is now Nepal.  His father Suddhodana was the ruler of the Shakya people; his government was an early form of republic, with a 500-member high council headed by a popularly elected raja.  The council advised the king on all matters of state.

The little prince's mother, Maya, was from the Koli people of what is now northern India.  She was on her way back to her father's kingdom to give birth, as was customary, but according to legend her son was born under a sal tree along the way. 

Nine different Brahmin holy men predicted to the new parents that the boy would be either a great warrior-king or a great holy man.  King Suddhodana was a proper Kshatriya, and much preferred that his son follow in his footsteps.

  He had the child raised by an aunt, secluded away in a series of three lavish palaces, with no exposure to either religious teachings or the lives of ordinary people.  The young man married at 16, and had a son named Rahula.  Siddhartha was trained in politics and military studies; until he was 29 years old, he never ventured beyond of his luxurious palaces.

The "Great Departure":

According to tradition, Siddhartha grew increasingly restless, curious, and discontented with his cloistered life.  At 29, he began to explore the villages near his palace, where he encountered some of the grittier aspects of life for the first time.  He saw sickly, feeble, elderly, and suffering people, all of which was new to him, and the prince was extremely shocked.  The sight of a decaying corpse so horrified Siddhartha that he resolved to leave the palace and become an ascetic, or holy man, to seek an escape from death.

The prince wandered from town to town, begging for alms and studying with different hermit masters.  Siddhartha took his ascetic practice to an extreme, depriving himself of all food except a single nut or leaf each day.  On this starvation diet, he collapsed into a river and nearly drowned while bathing.  This experience led him to reject both self-indulgence and self-mortification, and seek moderation or what is now called the Middle Way.

When he was 35, Siddhartha seated himself under a bodhi tree and vowed to remain there until he learned the truth.  After 49 straight days of meditation, he attained enlightenment.  He understood the causes of suffering, and how to eliminate it through the Four Noble Truths.

  This newly enlightened being was now called the Buddha.  He began to teach his truths to those who could recognize them.

The Buddha:

The Buddha gave sermons to his five companions in Sarnath, a small town near Varanasi; they became the first sangha or assembly of Buddhist monks.  These teachings set in motion the Wheel of Dharma, according to Buddhist belief, meaning that the heavenly beings heard Buddha's truth and began to proclaim it as well.  More historically, the five ascetics became the Buddha's first converts, and began to teach others about the path to enlightenment. 

When the Buddha was 37, his father began to send messengers to him asking him to return home to rule his people.  The first nine messengers ended up becoming disciples of the Buddha and did not return to King Suddhodana.

  The tenth also converted, but did return home with a message that the king's son would travel home. 

Two months later, Suddhodana encountered the Buddha begging for alms in the streets of his capital city.  He chastised his son, telling him that their proud warrior family did not beg.  The Buddha replied that his Buddha lineage had always sought alms.  The king invited his son and his followers to dinner at the castle; the former Prince Siddhartha ended up converting many of his relatives and other courtiers, including King Suddhodana himself.

Tradition teaches that the Buddha lived to the age of 80.  He continued to travel all over northern India and Nepal, teaching interested truth-seekers.  His students are even supposed to have included murderers and cannibals.  The Buddha decided to enter parinirvana at 80 years old, meaning that he would abandon his physical body and enter a final state beyond the cycle of death and rebirth.  His body was later cremated, and the remaining bits of ash, bone, and tooth became relics.  Many of those relics still exist today, and are housed in stupas in Sri Lanka, China, Myanmar, and elsewhere.

Today, approximately 2,500 years after the Buddha's passing, an estimated 350 to 550 million people around the world practice Buddhism.  All of these years after its founding, it is one of the fastest-growing religions on Earth.