According to Theravada scripture the Buddha (Siddartha Gautama) was born in the 5thcentury BCE. He was the son of King Śuddhodana, the ruler of a small kingdom in what is modern day Nepal. Shortly after his birth, eight Brahmins were called upon to predict the child’s future. Seven Brahmins prophesised that the young prince would either be a great ruler, or renounce worldly pleasures and live the life of a holy man. One however, was sure the child would be a holy man. The King had great worldly ambitions for his son therefore kept the Prince within the confines of the royal palace. At age 29 the prince escaped confinement and had several encounters with the outside world. These encounters became known in scripture as the four sights.

When Siddartha saw an old man, a sick person, a corpse and an aesthetic who had renounced all worldly goods he resolved to embark on a spiritual quest. This quest was to find a permanent end to the suffering he observed. He studied with the best religious teachers but found they could not put a permanent end to suffering. He next practised extreme aestheticism, believing that he could free the human spirit by denying the flesh. Siddartha underwent prolonged fasting, breath-holding, exposure to pain and almost starved himself to death before he realised that this was not the way to put an end to human suffering.

Siddartha did not abandon his quest but decided to trust his own inner feelings and practice meditation. He sat under a fig tree, known as the Bodhi tree, in the town of Bodh Gaya, India, and vowed not to rise before achieving enlightenment. After a number of days he destroyed the restraints of his mind, liberating himself from the cycle of suffering and rebirth, thus becoming a fully enlightened being. It was through this meditation that Siddartha discovered what Buddhists call the Middle Way, a path of moderation between the extremes of self-indulgence and self-mortification. Shortly after enlightenment Buddha (the awakened one) previously known as Siddartha formed a monastic order and spent the rest of his life travelling and teaching the path to enlightenment. The Buddha died at around 80 years of age in Kushinagar, India.

This account is according to the Theravada school of thought and differs somewhat from other accounts. The historical accuracy has also been called into question but according to author Michael Carrithers, “the outline of the life must be true: birth, maturity, renunciation, search, awakening and liberation, teaching, death”.

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