When the religion of the Vedas became weakened due to the influence of less intelligent men who blindly performed ritualistic ceremonies and wantonly killed animals in the name of Vedic injunctions, Buddha appeared on the scene as a great reformer. Totally rejecting the Vedic literatures and substituting his rational, atheistic views, Buddha advocated the path of ahimsa (non-violence) and nirvana (the negation of reality as we know it) as the ultimate goal of life.
The actual date of the Buddha’s birth is unknown, but according to some authorities, he was born in the fifth century B.C. in a small province in Bihar, on the border of Nepal and India. The Buddha was born to King Suddhodana and his queen, Mayadevi, a woman of pure character. It is said that at the birth of the divine child, four angels appeared from heaven and proclaimed his future glory as one who would redeem the world. Upon the birth of Buddha, Suddhodana’s kingdom prospered like a great river whose waters were swollen by many tributaries. Each day new riches poured into his treasury. His stables were too small to hold the horses and elephants that were presented as gifts. Everyone in the kingdom felt great joy and satisfaction.
On the day after the child’s birth, a sage named Asita Rishi came to the palace of King Suddhodana. Delighted by the arrival of the sage, the king brought the child before him. Asita shed tears of love at the sight of the child and spoke of the child’s previous birth as an Indian brahmana named Sumedha, and of his becoming a great renunciate in this life. He said that one day, as Sumedha sat absorbed in thought, he received a revelation unto himself: “Behold, I am subject to birth, death, old age, and disease. Certainly I shall have to discover the path of enlightenment and reveal it to all mankind.” The story of the Buddha told by the sage Asita was foretold in the ancient Sanskrit scriptures and was revealed to the king at that time.
On the fifth day after the child’s birth, a festival was held on the auspicious occasion of his name-giving ceremony. Eight astrologers were summoned to tell the child’s future. The child was named Siddhartha, and seven of the astrologers foretold his future as a great king who would rule the world. The eighth astrologer said that the young prince would one day give up his royal dress and take to the path of renunciation. He foretold that the prince would become the Buddha —the Knower, the Enlightened One. King Suddhodana did not want his son to leave home to become the Buddha. “What will my son see that will be the cause of his renouncing worldly life?” he inquired. The astrologer replied, “Four signs. He will see a man worn by age, a sick man, a dead body, and a mendicant. Moved by compassion for the suffering of humanity, your son will leave the royal household and walk the path of enlightenment.” At that moment the king resolved that no such sights would ever come before the eyes of his son.
On the seventh day, misfortune fell upon King Suddhodana. His wife Mayadevi passed away from the world. The grandmother of Siddhartha, Anjana, took good care of the small child and raised him with love and affection.
So it was that the young prince never experienced anything except the finest pleasures life could offer. When Siddhartha turned 16 years of age, the king decided that it was time for his son to marry. “Yes, I will marry,” said Siddhartha, “But only to a girl of perfect manners, who is wholly truthful, modest, and congenial to my temperament. She must be of pure and honorable birth, young and fair, but not proud of her beauty. She must be charitable, contented in self-denial, affectionate as a sister and tender as a mother to all living creatures. She must be sweet and free from envy. Only such a girl can I take as my wife.”
It was no easy task, but after a long time the king finally found the ideal girl to become his son’s wife: Yashodhara, the daughter of Dandapani. The wedding was performed and after some time, Yashodhara became pregnant and gave birth to a male child. It also happened at this time that Siddhartha desired to visit the royal pleasure gardens. King Suddhodana ordered that all aged, sick, or otherwise distressed people should be hidden away so that the prince may not see them on the way to the gardens. But the hand of fate proved more powerful than the devices of the king. For it would be en-route to the pleasure gardens that Siddhartha would see the ‘four signs’ which the astrologer foretold would move him to the path of renunciation.
The city was nicely decorated for the occasion. Only young and beautiful people lined the streets; all others were kept out of sight. Suddenly, as though moved by destiny, Siddhartha ordered his chariot driver, Channa, to take an alternate route through the city. Within a short distance Siddhartha saw something he had never seen before —an old man bent over and worn by time. “What is this?” asked Siddhartha, “And why does he bend so?” Afraid to speak but obligated to reply to his master, Channa said, “It is a man bent over by old age, sir.” “Must all men grow old?” asked Siddhartha. “Yes,” replied Channa, and the chariot drove on.
Again Siddhartha ordered Channa to stop when he saw a man with leprosy lying by the road. “What is this?” asked Siddhartha.
“It is a man stricken with disease,” Channa replied.
“Are all men subject to disease?”
“Yes, sir. All men in this world are subject to disease.” And the chariot drove on.
Again the chariot stopped when Siddhartha saw a funeral procession. “What is this?” asked Siddhartha, “And why does that man lie motionless?”
“He is dead,” replied Channa. “The energy of life has left his body.” “Must every man die?” “Yes, sir. Everyone in this world must die.” And the chariot drove on.
Siddhartha’s mind was very much troubled by the sight of old age, disease, and death. “Is there not a solution to these problems? Is there not a way to attain freedom from all anxieties?” Siddhartha thought deeply to himself as the chariot moved on. Then a mendicant appeared. “What is this?” asked Siddhartha, “And why does this man seem so contented?” “Sir,” replied Channa, “He is a mendicant. He has given up all material possessions to dedicate himself to the attainment of absolute knowledge —that which gives freedom from all the miseries of material existence.”
Hearing this, Siddhartha immediately took hope within his heart and ordered Channa to return the chariot to the palace. When news of the event reached King Suddhodana, he was very distressed at the thought of losing his son. In a vain attempt to occupy his son’s mind with worldly pleasure, the king sent the most beautiful girls in the kingdom to dance for Siddhartha and to please him by any means. The girls, whose beauty was unparalleled in heaven or on Earth, danced and sang to please the prince. But Siddhartha could not be distracted. He was now resolved to seek the path of supreme enlightenment.
As the girls danced and sang, Siddhartha, whose mind was far away, fell asleep. Seeing that the prince was no longer attentive, the girls also laid down and went to sleep. During the night, Siddhartha awoke from his sleep and decided to quit the palace and take up a life of renunciation. He went to see his wife and child. When he looked into the royal bed chambers he saw his son, his wife Yashodhara, and her many female attendants sound asleep. Their bodies laid here and there and their hair was in disarray. Some of them twisted and turned as they slept. Some of them groaned, some drooled, and some passed air. “This is disgusting,” thought Siddhartha. “The illusion of pleasure in material life is very deep, yet I see that it is only a breeding ground for old age, disease, and death.”
Resolved as he was, Siddhartha left that very night. He got into his chariot and ordered Channa to drive him away from the royal palace. The next morning, by the banks of the Anoma River, Siddhartha gave up his royal dress, cut his beautiful locks of hair from his head, and prepared to enter the forest alone. Before departing, he said, “Grieve not for me, but mourn for those who stay behind, bound by longings of which the fruit is only sorrow.” Weeping, Channa returned to the palace to tell King Suddhodana of the great ‘disaster.’ What followed was the widespread conversion of the Indian masses from sophistry, ritualism and hedonism to Buddhism. In the Buddha’s sermon at Saranath, he taught his disciples ‘The Four Noble Truths:’ Duhkha, there is suffering; samudaya, suffering has a cause; nirodha, suffering can be surpassed; and marga, there is a method by which one can attain freedom from all suffering. “This, my disciples, is the truth of suffering: Birth, old age, disease, and death. This is the cause of suffering: Lust and desire; the thirst for sensual pleasure and the thirst for power. This is the extinction of suffering: Extinguishing lust and desire, letting it go, expelling it, separating oneself from it, giving it no room. And this, my disciples, is the path of freedom from all suffering: Right belief, right aspiration, right speech, right living, right effort, and right rapture.” For 80 years, until his death, the Buddha traveled and preached his many sermons known as ‘The Turning of the Wheel of Law.’ He taught that above the world of misery there is peace or nirvana —only to be attained by the pure. And only those who restrained themselves from violent life on both the physical and mental plane could know the truth.
The philosophy of the Buddha has been disseminated widely since the time of its founding patron saint. Although there are many forms of Buddhism prevalent in the world today, all of them hold certain basic common tenets which may be traced back to the founding father. For instance, all Buddhists seek a ‘negative’ solution to life’s problematic scenario. They are silent on the issue of self-realization. They seek the dissolution of our temporal existence by way of empiric exercise. Thus the core of Buddhism is much akin to that of a modern scientific approach.
Buddha is revered by both the theists and the atheists for different reasons. The atheists who constitute his actual ‘followers’ revere him for his condemnation of immorality and simultaneous conviction that moral life in and of itself was ultimately unable to produce any positive permanent results. His advocacy of empiric exercise with a view to cross over the hurdle of action and reaction (karma) ultimately culminated in self annihilation (prakriti-nirvana). The theists laud his insistence that rationalism cannot lead to any positive transcendental existence or God consciousness. Buddha described the natural course of events resulting from empiric speculation but did not directly comment on the existence of God. He set himself against all hypothetical speculations about transcendence, but never denied the existence of transcendence or the possibility of attaining it. In effect he taught that a transcendent reality could not be realized by intellectual exercise. However, the question of the existence of such a reality was not entertained by him. Thus he appeared to be an atheist or agnostic.
Buddha is also thought to be atheistic because of his denial of the authority of the Vedas. At a closer look, however, this may be explained as a tactical maneuver to reestablish the principles of religion. As the old saying goes, “It may be easier to build a new house than attempt to recondition an old one.”
At the time when Buddha took birth, the people in general were atheistic and preferred eating animal flesh to anything else. On the plea of performing Vedic sacrifices (karma-kanda), even temples were turned into slaughterhouses and animal killing was indulged in without restriction. Thus Buddha preached nonviolence, taking pity on the poor animals.
Seeing the atrocities that were the norm at the time, and the petitioning of demigods with a view to enjoy heavenly delights, the Buddha reasoned that if this was the people’s understanding of the Vedas, then this particular class of people would do better to put the Vedas aside. Buddha actually preached a portion of the Vedic principles in a manner suitable for the time. In this way we see that while appearing as an atheist, he cleverly set the stage for the development of future theistic thought.
“Arise and delay not,
follow after the pure life!
Who follows virtue rests in bliss,
alike in this world and the next.”