Facts about the life and times of Siddhartha Gautama, the man who would become the Buddha, are elusive, but scholars are finding answers in Lumbini, Nepal.
Many centuries ago, a wealthy man from Kapilavastu (in today’s Nepal), left behind his family and his wealth to seek a different way. He set out as Siddhartha Gautama and became the Buddha—the Enlightened One. His teachings have become the foundation of a faith that today has 500 million followers.
Religion scholar Karen Armstrong observed in her 2001 biography of the Buddha that “[s]ome Buddhists might say that to write a biography of Siddhatta Gotama [sic] is a very un-Buddhist thing to do.” During his life, the Buddha was known for his teachings, but he did not want a following devoted exclusively to him. His preferences created a challenge for historians. Religious texts on Buddhism abound, but concrete facts about his personal life—including when he lived—are few.
Scholars are turning to archaeology for a fuller picture of the Buddha’s life and exploring sites sacred to the faith. In the past two decades, excavations at the UNESCO World Heritage site of Lumbini, Nepal, where tradition says Siddhartha Gautama was born, have unearthed some astonishing discoveries, including the world’s earliest Buddhist shrine.
These finds are shedding more light on the early development of Buddhism and the role of third-century B.C. Indian emperor Ashoka the Great in its spread. They are also providing crucial information in the quest to determine when Siddhartha was born, when he lived, and when he died.
Becoming the Buddha
Today’s Buddhists practice their faith all over the world, with large concentrations in eastern Asia, especially China, Thailand, and Japan. As the religion spread, it divided into different schools with varying interpretations of the faith and different central texts detailing each branch’s core beliefs.
The sacred texts describe Siddhartha’s early life as part of the rich and powerful Shakya clan who controlled a region in the northeast Indian subcontinent. His parents were a man named Suddhodana and a woman named Maya. In an attempt to protect Siddhartha from the evils of the world, his father isolated him in Kapilavastu to insulate him from pain and suffering.
It was only at age 29 that Siddhartha, who had become a husband and father, became disillusioned with life at the lavish court and ventured out into the world where he confronted for the first time the harsh realities of life: sickness, old age, and death. Leaving behind his parents, wife, and son, he rejected comfort to go into the world to seek wisdom and an end to human suffering.
At Bodh Gaya, today in northeastern India, Siddhartha found his answers as he sat under a sacred fig tree (Ficus religiosa), known as a bhodi. There, he attained enlightenment, or nirvana. In this new state, he became known as the Buddha, which means “awakened one.”
Scholars believe that Siddhartha taught others and a sect, which came to be known as a Sangha. Among its teachings was the advocation to turn away from worldliness and attachment in order to achieve the state of nirvana. A common Buddhist belief is that most people must repeat a cycle of death and rebirth over numerous lifetimes, a process called samsara, before they can reach enlightenment and be free of suffering.
Early Buddhist scriptures provide a common biographical narrative for the Buddha’s life, but they present differing scenarios for when it took place. Some place the events as early as the mid-third millennium B.C., while others are as late as the end of the third century B.C.
Following the Buddha’s death, his teachings slowly accreted into a distinctive new faith. Dedicated followers spread his teachings throughout Asia. At first, it was probably one of many new, small religions in the fertile intellectual and religious atmosphere of northern India of the time.
In the third century B.C., a most unusual king would come to power who would help this new faith burgeon and grow. His name was Ashoka, the grandson of the founder of the Mauryan empire, a powerful dynasty centered on the city of ancient Pataliputra (near modern-day Patna). The Mauryans exploited the power vacuum following Alexander the Great’s death in 323 B.C., expanding Mauryan rule across northern India.
Ashoka the Great became emperor circa 265 B.C. and continued to conquer new territory for his empire. In the eighth year of his reign, he underwent a profound spiritual change. According to his own accounts, this occurred following Ashoka’s conquest of the neighboring Kalinga region.
After observing the suffering caused by his war, the king felt such remorse that he renounced violence and embraced Buddhism. Ashoka imposed Buddhist teachings as a state policy and inscribed his new principles and strategies on landmarks and pillars across his empire.