Siddhartha Gautama (the Buddha): a biography

Nov 20, 2009

Photo of the bo tree considered to be a descendant of the tree under which Siddhārtha was enlightened

The descendant of the bo tree under which the Buddha was reputedly enlightened
Do not believe in anything simply because you have heard it.
Do not believe in anything simply because it is spoken and rumored by many.
Do not believe in anything simply because it is found written in your religious books.
Do not believe in anything merely on the authority of your teachers and elders.
Do not believe in traditions because they have been handed down for many generations.
But after observation and analysis, when you find that anything agrees with reason and is conducive to the good and benefit of one and all, then accept it and live up to it.
(Kalama Sutra)

Siddhartha Gautama (Pali: Siddhattha Gotama) was a spiritual teacher in the north eastern region of the Indian subcontinent who became known to his followers as Shakyamuni Buddha or just the Buddha (the Awakened One). His life-span is often stated as circa 563 BCE to 483 BCE, though there is some dispute about this (one Indian historian reckons Gautama was born in 1887 BCE!).

Accounts of his life, discourses and monastic rules are believed to have been summarized after his death and memorized by his followers. Various collections of teachings attributed to Gautama were passed down by oral tradition and first committed to writing, it is thought, about 300-400 years later.

These texts consititute the primary source of information on Gautama's life. According to these, Gautama and his monks spent four months each year discussing and rehearsing the teachings. After Gautama's death, his monks set about preserving them. Two councils were held, during which the monks attempted to establish and authenticate the extant accounts of his life and teachings.

The teachings were transmitted orally, not actually being committed to writing until three or four hundred years after the Gautama's death. By this time, it is possible that monks had added or altered some material themselves, maybe elevating the figure of Gautama in the process. (Buddhist texts contain descriptions of the culture and daily life of ancient India which can be corroborated from the Jain scriptures.)

Buddha's stomping ground

The plain of the Ganges, through which the Buddha wandered, attracting followers

A multitude of kingdoms and city-states seems to have existed in ancient India during the time of Siddhartha Gautama, with a variety of power structures ranging from republics to chiefdoms. Siddhartha's own community in Kapilavastu - in what is now Nepal - was at or beyond the boundary of Vedic civilization, the dominant culture of northern India then. So it does not appear to have been structured according to Brahminical theory and thus had no caste system. This more egalitarian form of government may have influenced the development of the Jain and Buddhist sanghas, whereas monarchies perhaps tended toward Vedic Brahmanism.

The story has it that Siddhartha, being the son of a king, experienced the luxury of palace life with his wife and child. At the age of 29, he left the palace for the first time to have a look-around. He was shocked at the sight of old age, illness, and death. During his excursion, he met an ascetic. These experiences had so much impact on him that he left his princely lifestyle to become a mendicant.

He studied under two hermit teachers and went on to practise extreme asceticism. Having found both the teachings and the asceticism unsatisfactory, he decided on a "Middle Way" - a path of moderation away from the extremes of self-indulgence and self-mortification. Having accepted a little milk and rice pudding from a village girl, he sat under a pipal tree, now known as the Bodhi tree in Bodhi Gaya, India, and vowed never to arise until he had found the Truth. After 49 days meditating, at the age of 35, he became "enlightened". Gautama, from then on, was known as the Buddha or "Awakened One."

At this point, he is believed to have realized complete awakening and insight into the nature and cause of human suffering (which is ignorance) along with steps necessary to eliminate it. This was subsequently categorized into 'Four Noble Truths'

The Buddha journeyed to Deer Park near Vārāṇasī (Benares) in northern India, where he is said to have delivered his first sermon to the group of five companions with whom he had previously sought enlightenment. They, together with the Buddha, formed the first saṅgha, the company of Buddhist monks. In a relatively short time, the sangha swelled to over 1000 people, and they were dispatched to explain the dharma to the populace.

For the remaining 45 years of his life, the Buddha is said to have traveled in the Gangetic Plain, teaching an extremely diverse range of people, from nobles to street sweepers, criminals such as the mass murderer Angulimala and cannibals such as Alavaka. This extended to many adherents of rival philosophies and religions. His religion was open to all races and classes and had no caste structure. He was also subject to attack from opposition religious groups, including attempted murders and framings.

Gautama died aged 80 after falling ill following a meal that had been offered to him by a blacksmith. At his death, he told his disciples to follow no leader, but to follow his teachings (dharma). However, at the First Buddhist Council, Mahakasyapa was held by the sangha as their leader, the Gautama's two chief disciples Mahamoggallana and Sariputta having already died.


Some of the fundamentals of the teachings of Siddhartha Gautama are:

  • The Four Noble Truths: that suffering is an inherent part of existence; that the origin of suffering is ignorance and the main symptoms of that ignorance are attachment and craving; that attachment and craving can be ceased; and that following the Noble Eightfold Path will lead to the cessation of attachment and craving and therefore suffering.
  • The Noble Eightfold Path: right understanding, right thought, right speech, right action, right livelihood, right effort, right mindfulness, and right concentration.
  • Dependent origination: that any phenomenon 'exists' only because of the ‘existence’ of other phenomena in a complex web of cause and effect covering time past, present and future. Because all things are thus conditioned and transient (anicca), they have no real independent identity (anatta).
  • Rejection of the infallibility of accepted scripture: Teachings should not be accepted unless they are borne out by our experience and are praised by the wise.
  • Anicca (Sanskrit: anitya): That all things are impermanent.
  • Dukkha (Sanskrit: duḥkha): That all beings suffer from all situations due to unclear mind.
  • Anatta (Sanskrit: anātman): That the perception of a constant "self" is an illusion.

In some Mahayana schools, these points have come to be regarded as more or less subsidiary. There is some disagreement amongst various schools of Buddhism over more esoteric aspects of what are held to be Gautama's teachings, and also over some of the disciplinary rules for monks.

A quote from the video below (a BBC / Discovery Channel co-production):
" It is a great irony that, after the Buddha's death, the person who had preached of the uselessness of ritual and also the uselessness of a personality cult became the object of ritual worship and as big a personality cult as has ever existed in history."

Video clip: The Life of the Buddha (widescreen)