Much of the life of Buddha is shrouded in mystery. But much of it also appears clearer from the Buddhist sources. It said that from his childhood young Gautama showed signs of detachment towards the worldly life. Yet as a Khyatriya prince he was given the customary training in the use of arms and weapons, in riding horse and driving chariot.
Father Suddhodana paid enough attention to keep the mind of his son engaged in the stately activities. The palace of Kapilavastu also presented enough of pleasures and luxuries for enjoyment. But, Gautama was seen to have possessed no attraction for the so-called happiness of life. Everything appeared rather painful to him.
When he was sixteen, he got married to Yosodhara. Marriage was yet another bond for the thoughtful prince. For several years thereafter Gautama enjoyed the usual pleasures and comforts of the palace like other youthful princes elsewhere.
Four great signs
At last, he came across four scenes of man’s existence which left a deep impression on his thought.
- One day, as his charioteer, Chhanna took the prince through the streets of Kapilavastu, Gautama saw on old man, bent with age, and having wrinkled face, and presenting a pathetic appearance. He came to understand that the miseries of the old age were natural to life.
- Subsequently, he saw another man, suffering from disease with extreme pain, when he was told by the charioteer that sickness and disease were like the companions of life.
- The third scene was yet more shocking, when the prince came across the sight of a dead man, being carried by his sorrowful relatives, weeping and lamenting. He came to know that man had no escape from death which was inevitable. Regarding the futility of life which ends in death, Prince Gautama is said to have thought about the indifference of living man towards that absolute reality. One day the following feeling came to his mind.
- While overtaken by distressing thoughts of old age, disease and death, Gautama came across yet another scene. It was the sight of a sannyasi who had renounced everything and was walking alone without any sign of worries or anxieties on his happy face.
These four experiences of Prince Gautama had been described as the Four Great Signs. They proved like a turning point in his life, causing him to think seriously on the meaning of human existence. While a change of mind was thus taking place, Gautama was blessed with a son at the age of 29. To him, it was yet another bond to tie him to worldly life.
Without waiting further, Gautama decided to renounce the world. So, at the age of 29, in the silent hours of a dark night, he came out of the palace, leaving behind his sleeping wife and the son, as well as his old father, and accompanied by his faithful charioteer Chhanna, disappeared into darkness “from a home to a homeless life.” This event in Gautama’s life is famous as the Great Renunciation.
At the boundary of the Sakya territory, Gautama asked Chhanna (or Chauna) to return to Kapilavastu and tell his father that he has accepted to lead the homeless way of life and not to make efforts to find him. When the most devoted charioteer insisted that he should stay with the prince, Gautama persuaded him to go back saying that man was born alone and he must pass away alone. The Truth of life is hidden in aloneness. Gautama wanted to search the truth alone.
The prince proceeded to Rajagriha and tried to satisfy his inner hunger at the feet of two learned saints named Alara and Udraka. For some time thereafter he tried to seek guidance from various wise teachers, hat got no satisfaction. Thereupon he decided to subject his body to extreme physical pain. Going to dense forests, far from human beings, he practiced hard penance. For six years he was thus wandering from place to place in the quest of answers to his doubts. At Uruvilwa near Gaya, he practiced the most severe penance by reducing his body almost to bones and skins. That too did not bring any result.
Enlightenment of Buddha
So, finally, there at Uruvilva, after taking a bath in river Niranjana, he sat down under a pipal tree with the supreme resolve: “I will not leave this place till I attain that peace of mind which I have been trying for all these years”. As he sat in deep meditation, there at last came in him the great knowledge from the ‘Great Unknown’.
Prince Gautama Siddhartha got the Enlightenment and became the Buddha or the Enlightened One. He also came to be known as Tathagata or one who attained the Truth and the Sakya-Muni or the Sage of the Sakyas. Buddha was then 35 years in age.
The Pipal Tree under which he got enlightenment became famous as the Bodhi Tree, and the place came to be known as Bodh Gaya.
The truth which Buddha got was the ‘Truth underlying life as a whole’ namely, Life is full of Suffering, Desire is the cause of Suffering, Suffering ends at the destruction of Desire and Desire is destroyed by Right Living.
Dharma Chakra Pravartana
After deciding to preach the truth, Buddha proceeded from Bodh Gaya to the Deer Park in Sarnath where he gave his first sermons to five Brahmins. This event is famous as the Dharma Chakra Pravartana or the Turning of the Wheel of Law. Thus began the mission of Buddha as a preacher. There also began the rise of the Buddhist Order of Monks or the Buddhist Sangha.
For long 45 years Buddha travelled with his disciples to preach his doctrines. He visited many places including Kapilavastu where his own son Rahul was taken to the new faith and became a monk. As Buddha moved, princes and people alike felt attracted towards his teachings. A new wave of religious thinking soon swept over the country. Describing his daily life as a preacher, historian Oldenburg writes:
Buddha died at the age of 80 at a place named Kusinagar in present day Gorakhpur district of modern Uttar Pradesh. Till the last moment of his life he was a wandering preacher. At the very moment of death, he gave the following instruction to his faithful disciple Ananda:
The Great Decease of Buddha is known as the Parinirvana.