History and Sources

Who was the Buddha and what does tradition say about his early life?

According to widely accepted tradition, a child called Siddhartha (“he who has achieved his goal”) Gautama was born around 563 B.C.E. Recent scholarship has begun to offer various views as to the chronology of the Buddha’s life, but this text will retain the more traditional account since it conveys an important sense of the “feel” of Buddhist lore. Siddhartha’s father, Shuddhodana, was a wealthy member of the ruling elite, a prince of sorts. When the child was born, his father consulted religious specialists to see what portents the boy’s body might communicate. They told him the child was destined to become either a world-renouncer or a “wheel-turner” (chakra-vartin, an expression roughly equivalent to “mover and shaker” and sometimes extended to mean “king of all India”). Shuddhodana resolved that his son would take the path of power and influence, so he contrived to shelter the boy from any experience that might incline him another way.

Gautama lived a life of ease and pleasure in his father’s palace, surrounded by wealth and beauty and the trappings of authority. He married at sixteen and had a son. As it turned out, Gautama’s father failed to insulate his son from contact with the harsher side of life. Eventually Gautama would leave the palace, as well as his own wife and child, and seek his own path. The traditional story is clearly meant to underscore certain dramatic elements in the Buddha’s spiritual development. His son, Rahula, reappears later in the story as one of the early monks, and his wife is said to have become one of the first nuns.


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