In the sixth century before the Christian era, religion was forgotten in India. The lofty teachings of the Vedas were thrown into the background. There was much priestcraft everywhere. The insincere priests traded on religion. They duped the people in a variety of ways and amassed wealth for themselves. They were quite irreligious. In the name of religion, people followed in the footsteps of the cruel priests and performed meaningless rituals. They killed innocent dumb animals and did various sacrifices. The country was in dire need of a reformer of Buddha's type. At such a critical period, when there were cruelty, degeneration and unrighteousness everywhere, reformer Buddha was born to put down priestcraft and animal sacrifices, to save the people and disseminate the message of equality, unity and cosmic love everywhere.
Buddha's father was Suddhodana, king of the Sakhyas. Buddha's mother was named Maya. Buddha was born in B.C. 560 and died at the age of eighty in B.C. 480. The place of his birth was a grove known as Lumbini, near the city of Kapilavastu, at the foot of Mount Palpa in the Himalayan ranges within Nepal. This small city Kapilavastu stood on the bank of the little river Rohini, some hundred miles north-east of the city of Varnasi. As the time drew nigh for Buddha to enter the world, the gods themselves prepared the way before him with celestial portents and signs. Flowers bloomed and gentle rains fell, although out of season; heavenly music was heard, delicious scents filled the air. The body of the child bore at birth the thirty-two auspicious marks (Mahavyanjana) which indicated his future greatness, besides secondary marks (Anuvyanjana) in large numbers. Maya died seven days after her son's birth. The child was brought up by Maya's sister Mahaprajapati, who became its foster-mother.
On the birth of the child, Siddhartha, the astrologers predicted to its father Suddhodana: "The child, on attaining manhood, would become either a universal monarch (Chakravarti), or abandoning house and home, would assume the robe of a monk and become a Buddha, a perfectly enlightened soul, for the salvation of mankind". Then the king said: "What shall my son see to make him retire from the world ?". The astrologer replied: "Four signs". "What four ?" asked the king. "A decrepit old man, a diseased man, a dead man and a monk - these four will make the prince retire from the world" replied the astrologers.
Suddhodana thought that he might lose his precious son and tried his level best to make him attached to earthly objects. He surrounded him with all kinds of luxury and indulgence, in order to retain his attachment for pleasures of the senses and prevent him front undertaking a vow of solitariness and poverty. He got him married and put him in a walled place with gardens, fountains, palaces, music, dances, etc. Countless charming young ladies attended on Siddhartha to make him cheerful and happy. In particular, the king wanted to keep away from Siddhartha the 'four signs' which would move him to enter into the ascetic life. "From this time on" said the king, "let no such persons be allowed to come near my son. It will never do for my son to become a Buddha. What I would wish to see is, my son exercising sovereign rule and authority over the four great continents and the two thousand attendant isles, and walking through the heavens surrounded by a retinue thirty-six leagues in circumference". And when he had so spoken, he placed guards for quarter of a league, in each of the four directions, in order that none of the four kinds of men might come within sight of his son.
Buddha's original name was Siddhartha. It meant one who had accomplished his aim. Gautama was Siddhartha's family name. Siddhartha was known all over the world as Buddha, the Enlightened. He was also known by the name of Sakhya Muni, which meant an ascetic of the Sakhya tribe.
Siddhartha spent his boyhood at Kapilavastu and its vicinity. He was married at the age of sixteen. His wife's name was Yasodhara. Siddhartha had a son named Rahula. At the age of twenty-nine, Siddhartha Gautama suddenly abandoned his home to devote himself entirely to spiritual pursuits and Yogic practices. A mere accident turned him to the path of renunciation. One day he managed, somehow or the other, to get out of the walled enclosure of the palace and roamed about in the town along with his servant Channa to see how the people were getting on. The sight of a decrepit old man, a sick man, a corpse and a monk finally induced Siddhartha to renounce the world. He felt that he also would become a prey to old age, disease and death. Also, he noticed the serenity and the dynamic personality of the monk. Let me go beyond the miseries of this Samsara (worldly life) by renouncing this world of miseries and sorrows. This mundane life, with all its luxuries and comforts, is absolutely worthless. I also am subject to decay and am not free from the effect of old age. Worldly happiness is transitory".
Gautama left for ever his home, wealth, dominion, power, father, wife and the only child. He shaved his head and put on yellow robes. He marched towards Rajgriha, the capital of the kingdom of Magadha. There were many caves in the neighbouring hills. Many hermits lived in those caves. Siddhartha took Alamo Kalamo, a hermit, as his first teacher. He was not satisfied with his instructions. He left him and sought the help of another recluse named Uddako Ramputto for spiritual instructions. At last he determined to undertake Yogic practices. He practiced severe Tapas (austerities) and Pranayama (practice of breath control) for six years. He determined to attain the supreme peace by practicing self-mortification. He abstained almost entirely from taking food. He did not find much progress by adopting this method. He was reduced to a skeleton. He became exceedingly weak.
At that moment, some dancing girls were passing that way singing joyfully as they played on their guitar. Buddha heard their song and found real help in it. The song the girls sang had no real deep meaning for them, but for Buddha it was a message full of profound spiritual significance. It was a spiritual pick-me-up to take him out of his despair and infuse power, strength and courage. The song was:
"Fair goes the dancing when the Sitar is tuned,
Tune us the Sitar neither low nor high,
And we will dance away the hearts of men.
The string overstretched breaks, the music dies,
The string overslack is dumb and the music dies,
Tune us the Sitar neither low nor high."
Buddha realized then that he should not go to extremes in torturing the body by starvation and that he should adopt the golden mean or the happy medium or the middle path by avoiding extremes. Then he began to eat food in moderation. He gave up the earlier extreme practices and took to the middle path.
Once Buddha was in a dejected mood as he did not succeed in his Yogic practices. He knew not where to go and what to do. A village girl noticed his sorrowful face. She approached him and said to him in a polite manner: "Revered sir, may I bring some food for you ? It seems you are very hungry". Gautama looked at her and said, "What is your name, my dear sister ?". The maiden answered, "Venerable sir, my name is Sujata". Gautama said, "Sujata, I am very hungry. Can you really appease my hunger ?"
The innocent Sujata did not understand Gautama. Gautama was spiritually hungry. He was thirsting to attain supreme peace and Self-realization. He wanted spiritual food. Sujata placed some food before Gautama and entreated him to take it. Gautama smiled and said, "Beloved Sujata, I am highly pleased with your kind and benevolent nature. Can this food appease my hunger ?". Sujata replied, "Yes sir, it will appease your hunger. Kindly take it now". Gautama began to eat the food underneath the shadow of a large tree, thenceforth to be called as the great 'Bo-tree' or the tree of wisdom. Gautama sat in a meditative mood underneath the tree from early morning to sunset, with a fiery determination and an iron resolve: "Let me die. Let my body perish. Let my flesh dry up. I will not get up from this seat till I get full illumination". He plunged himself into deep meditation. At night he entered into deep Samadhi (superconscious state) underneath that sacred Bo-tree (Pipal tree or ficus religiosa). He was tempted by Maya in a variety of ways, but he stood adamant. He did not yield to Maya's allurements and temptations. He came out victorious with full illumination. He attained Nirvana (liberation). His face shone with divine splendour and effulgence. He got up from his seat and danced in divine ecstasy for seven consecutive days and nights around the sacred Bo-tree. Then he came to the normal plane of consciousness. His heart was filled with profound mercy and compassion. He wanted to share what he had with humanity. He traveled all over India and preached his doctrine and gospel. He became a saviour, deliverer and redeemer.
Buddha gave out the experiences of his Samadhi: "I thus behold my mind released from the defilement of earthly existence, released from the defilement of sensual pleasures, released from the defilement of heresy, released from the defilement of ignorance."
In the emancipated state arose the knowledge: "I am emancipated, rebirth is extinct, the religious walk is accomplished, what had to be done is done, and there is no need for the present existence. I have overcome all foes; I am all-wise; I am free from stains in every way; I have left everything and have obtained emancipation by the destruction of desire. Myself having gained knowledge, whom should I call my Master ? I have no teacher; no one is equal to me. I am the holy one in this world; I am the highest teacher. I alone am the absolute omniscient one (Sambuddho). I have gained coolness by the extinction of all passion and have obtained Nirvana. To found the kingdom of law (Dharmo) I go to the city of Varnasi. I will beat the drum of immortality in the darkness of this world".
Lord Buddha then walked on to Varnasi. He entered the 'deer-park' one evening. He gave his discourse there and preached his doctrine. He preached to all without exception, men and women, the high and the low, the ignorant and the learned - all alike. All his first disciples were laymen and two of the very first were women. The first convert was a rich young man named Yasa. The next were Yasa's father, mother and wife. Those were his lay disciples.
Buddha argued and debated with his old disciples who had deserted him when he was in the Uruvila forest. He brought them round by his powerful arguments and persuasive powers. Kondanno, an aged hermit, was converted first. The others also soon accepted the doctrine of Lord Buddha. Buddha made sixty disciples and sent them in different directions to preach his doctrine.
Buddha told his disciples not to enquire into the origin of the world, into the existence and nature of God. He said to them that such investigations were practically useless and likely to distract their minds.