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Siddhartha Gautama

the founder of Buddhism

the Buddha

Early Life

Siddhartha Gautama was born near the town of Kapilavastu, in the foothills of the Himalaya in what is now Nepal. He spent his youth living in luxury in the palace of his father, the warrior prince Suddhodhana. When he was about 20 years old, he married the princess Yasodhara.

When Gautama was about 29, he had a series of four visions. In the first vision, he saw an old man. In the second, he saw a sick man, and in the third, a corpse. In the fourth vision, he met a wandering holy man. The first three visions convinced Gautama that life involves aging, sickness, and death. The vision of the holy man convinced him that he should leave his wife and son and seek religious enlightenment, which he believed would free him from life's suffering.

The Search for Enlightenment

Gautama spent six years living the life of a wandering monk, and sought enlightenment by practing extreme forms of self-denial and self-torture. He lived in filth and many days ate only a grain of rice. He finally decided, however, that this was not the way to achieve enlightenment.

One day, Gautama wandered into a village near Gaya and sat under a shady bodhi tree to meditate. Several hours later, enlightenment came. He learned from his enlightenment that people could find release from the suffering of life in nirvana, a state of complete happiness and peace. To achieve nirvana, people had to free themselves of all desires and worldly things.

Later Life

As people learned of Gautama's experience they began to call him Buddha, meaning enlightened one. He spent the rest of his life preaching the message of how to overcome suffering. This message he called the dharma, which means saving truth.

Buddha preached his first sermon to an audience of five holy men in a park near the holy city of Banaras (Benares). As the number of his followers increased, he organized them into a religious community of monks, nuns, and laity.

As Buddha's fame increased, stories spread among his followers that dramatically described his magic powers, religious insight, and compassion. His followers believed that Buddha had lived many lives before he was born as Gautama. A number of stories describe events that occurred during these lives. Known as jatakas, these stories helped people understand Buddha's message.

About 483 B.C., at the age of about 80, Buddha became ill and died. His disciples gave him an elaborate funeral, burned his body, and distributed his bones as sacred relics.

The site of the bodhi tree under which Buddha achieved enlightenment is now part of a temple complex known as Bodh Gaya.

World Book Encyclopedia. Chicago:World Book-Childcraft International, Inc., 1979.

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This page was last updated on October 23, 2017.