On this day, Buddhists celebrate the commemoration of the birth of Gautama Buddha, the founder of Buddhism, thought to have lived in India from 563 B.C. to 483 B.C. Actually, the Buddhist tradition that celebrates his birthday on April 8 originally placed his birth in the 11th century B.C., and it was not until the modern era that scholars determined that he was more likely born in the sixth century B.C., and possibly in May rather than April.
According to the Tripitaka, which is recognized by scholars as the earliest existing record of the Buddha’s life and discourses, Gautama Buddha was born as Prince Siddhartha, the son of the king of the Sakya people. The kingdom of the Sakyas was situated on the borders of present-day Nepal and India. Siddhartha’s family was of the Gautama clan. His mother, Queen Mahamaya, gave birth to him in the park of Lumbini, in what is now southern Nepal. A pillar placed there in commemoration of the event by an Indian emperor in the third century B.C. still stands.
At his birth, it was predicted that the prince would either become a great world monarch or a Buddha–a supremely enlightened teacher. The Brahmans told his father, King Suddhodana, that Siddhartha would become a ruler if he were kept isolated from the outside world. The king took pains to shelter his son from misery and anything else that might influence him toward the religious life. Siddhartha was brought up in great luxury, and he married and fathered a son. At age 29, he decided to see more of the world and began excursions off the palace grounds in his chariot. In successive trips, he saw an old man, a sick man, and a corpse, and since he had been protected from the miseries of aging, sickness, and death, his charioteer had to explain what they were. Finally, Siddhartha saw a monk, and, impressed with the man’s peaceful demeanor, he decided to go into the world to discover how the man could be so serene in the midst of such suffering.
Siddhartha secretly left the palace and became a wandering ascetic. He traveled south, where the centers of learning were, and studied meditation under the teachers Alara Kalama and Udraka Ramaputra. He soon mastered their systems, reaching high states of mystical realization, but was unsatisfied and went out again in search of nirvana, the highest level of enlightenment. For nearly six years, he undertook fasting and other austerities, but these techniques proved ineffectual and he abandoned them. After regaining his strength, he seated himself under a pipal tree at what is now Bodh Gaya in west-central India and promised not to rise until he had attained the supreme enlightenment. After fighting off Mara, an evil spirit who tempted him with worldly comforts and desires, Siddhartha reached enlightenment, becoming a Buddha at the age of 35.
The Gautama Buddha then traveled to the deer park near Benares, India, where he gave his first sermon and outlined the basic doctrines of Buddhism. According to Buddhism, there are “four noble truths”: (1) existence is suffering; (2) this suffering is caused by human craving; (3) there is a cessation of the suffering, which is nirvana; and (4) nirvana can be achieved, in this or future lives, though the “eightfold path” of right views, right resolve, right speech, right action, right livelihood, right effort, right mindfulness, and right concentration.
For the rest of his life, the Buddha taught and gathered disciples to his sangha, or community of monks. He died at age 80, telling his monks to continue working for their spiritual liberation by following his teachings. Buddhism eventually spread from India to Central and Southeast Asia, China, Korea, Japan, and, in the 20th century, to the West. Today, there are an estimated 350 million people in 100 nations who adhere to Buddhist beliefs and practices.