In the year 624 BC, in Kapilawaththu (Nepal) Siddhartha Gautama was born as a prince. His father was King Suddhodana and his mother was Queen Mahamaya. When he was sixteen he finished his education and he married Princess Yasodara. King Suddhodana handed over his kingdom to his son Siddhartha. They had a baby name Rahula.
The prince reached his late 20s with little experience of the world outside the walls of his opulent palaces, but one day he ventured out beyond the palace walls and was quickly confronted with the realities of human frailty: He saw a very old man, and Siddhartha’s charioteer explained that all people grow old. Questions about all he had not experienced led him to take more journeys of exploration, and on these subsequent trips he encountered a diseased man, a decaying corpse and an ascetic. The charioteer explained that the ascetic had renounced the world to seek release from the human fear of death and suffering. Siddhartha was overcome by these sights, and the next day, at age 29, he left his kingdom, wife and son to lead an ascetic life, and determine a way to relieve the universal suffering that he now understood to be one of the defining traits of humanity.
Siddhartha began by seeking out renowned teachers, who taught him about the many religious philosophies of his day as well as how to meditate. But after he had learned all they had to teach, his doubts and questions remained. so he and five disciples left to find enlightenment by themselves.
The six companions attempted to find release from suffering through physical discipline–enduring pain, holding their breath, fasting nearly to starvation. Yet Siddhartha was still unsatisfied. It occurred to him that in renouncing pleasure he had grasped pleasure’s opposite–pain and self-mortification. Now Siddhartha considered a Middle Way between those two extremes.
He remembered an experience from his childhood, when his mind had settled into a state of deep peace. The path of liberation was through discipline of mind. He realized that instead of starvation, he needed nourishment to build up his strength for the effort. But when he accepted a bowl of rice milk from a young girl, his companions assumed he had given up the quest and abandoned him.
That night, Siddhartha sat under the Bodhi tree, vowing to not get up until the truths he sought came to him, and he meditated until the sun came up the next day. He remained there for several days, purifying his mind, seeing his entire life, and previous lives, in his thoughts. During this time, he had to overcome the threats of Mara, an evil demon, who challenged his right to become the Buddha. When Mara attempted to claim the enlightened state as his own, Siddhartha touched his hand to the ground and asked the Earth to bear witness to his enlightenment, which it did, banishing Mara. And soon a picture began to form in his mind of all that occurred in the universe, and Siddhartha finally saw the answer to the questions of suffering that he had been seeking for so many years. In that moment of pure enlightenment, Siddhartha Gautama became the Buddha (“he who is awake”).
Armed with his new knowledge, the Buddha was initially hesitant to teach, because what he now knew could not be communicated to others in words. According to legend, it was then the king of gods, Brahma, who convinced Buddha to teach, and he got up from his spot under the Bodhi tree and set out to do just that.
About 100 miles away, he came across the five ascetics he had practiced with for so long, who had abandoned him on the eve of his enlightenment. To them and others who had gathered, he preached his first sermon (henceforth known as Setting in Motion the Wheel of the Dharma), in which he explained the Four Noble Truths and the Eightfold Path, which became the pillars of Buddhism. The ascetics then became his first disciples and formed the foundation of the Sangha, or community of monks. Women were admitted to the Sangha, and all barriers of class, race, sex and previous background were ignored, with only the desire to reach enlightenment through the banishment of suffering and spiritual emptiness considered.
For the remainder of his 80 years, Buddha traveled, preaching the Dharma (the name given to the teachings of the Buddha) in an effort to lead others to and along the path of enlightenment. When he died, it is said that he told his disciples that they should follow no leader.
The Buddha is undoubtedly one of the most influential figures in world history, and his teachings have affected everything from a variety of other faiths (as many find their origins in the words of the Buddha) to literature to philosophy, both within India and to the farthest reaches of the Western world.