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Origins

Buddhism has its roots in India around 2,500 years ago and was founded by an Indian Hindu prince, Siddhartha Gautama, who became known as 'the Buddha' i.e. 'the Enlightened One'. Siddhartha Gautama was born in what is now Nepal near the border of India. He lived for 80 years, and his life, like that of other founders of religion, has become a profound example to millions of his fellow people.

The Buddha

In the forests of northern India in around 560 B.C., there was a rich county ruled by an important King, Suddhodana. One night the Queen, Maha Maya, had a very strange dream. She dreamed that she saw a huge white elephant come into the room, carrying a lotus flower. The elephant trumpeted while it walked around her bed three times and pierced her right side with one of its tusks.

In the morning, the King called the wise men of the land to the palace, to find out the meaning of this dream. The wise men said that a great and Noble son will be born to the Queen. The King and Queen were very happy. Soon the Queen gave birth to the prince, and it was said he walked seven steps as soon as he was born. His skin was the colour of gold.

The King was so happy and proud that he called his little son Siddhartha, which means 'a wish fulfilled.' When Siddhartha was a few days old the King asked eight famous fortune-tellers to examine the baby. They looked on his body for special signs - such as if his ears were long, if there was hair between his eyebrows, if round marks appeared on the soles of his feet. Seven of the fortune-tellers agreed with each other and said that this child was no ordinary boy - it was written in the stars that if he stayed in the palace he will become a great emperor, but if he left the court he will be a Buddha, a fully awakened one, overflowing with wisdom and goodness. (A Buddha means an enlightened person.)

Kondanna,the eighth fortune-teller said that the markings on the child showed that his future can go in only one way - a time will come when he will see four special signs. He will become a Buddha.

When Buddha Was A Boy

After a few years Siddhartha was sent to school. He become good at languages and arithmetic. In sport he loved archery and wrestling. He was tall, strong and handsome. His kindness and good manners made everybody like him.

Siddhartha loved all living creatures. One day he was walking in the woods with his cousin, Devadatta, who carried a bow and arrows with him. Seeing a swan fly overhead, he took aim and shot it. Both boys ran quickly to where the swan had fallen, Siddhartha reaching it first. The swan was still alive and Siddhartha gently drew the arrow out of its wing. Taking some leaves he squeezed the juice from them on to the wound to stop the bleeding. Then he spoke comforting words to calm the frightened bird.

Devadatta came up and said the swan was his and that he must have it.

Siddhartha refused. 'If you had killed it, it would have been yours,' he said, 'but it is only wounded and since I have saved its life it belongs to me.'

They argued on and on until Siddhartha suggested asking the wise men of the palace. When they heard the story, the verdict was: 'A life must belong to him who tries to save it. A life cannot be claimed by one who wants to destroy it. Siddhartha has the right to take the wounded swan.'

So Siddhartha looked after the swan until it flew away.

The Young Man

When Siddhartha was grown up, the King became worried about the four signs which the fortune-teller had predicted. He did not want Siddhartha to become a Buddha 'I will not allow my son to be a holy man, a homeless wanderer. He must rule the world, not forsake it', he said to himself. So one day he sent for seven of the fortune-tellers. The eight, Kondanna became one of the five disciples.

They told him, 'Your son will become a Buddha if he sees four things - an old man, a sick man, a dead man and a forest monk.'

The King thought 'I must make sure my son does not see these things.' At once he ordered that no old or sick people and no sign of death should be allowed near the prince. Special guards were posted to enforce this. No monk was allowed within a mile of him. Even fading flowers and leaves were removed from gardens and parks so that the prince should not see anything that might make him think of death.

At the same time everything he could possibly want was given to him. Three palaces were built for him, one for the hot season, one for the rainy season and one for the cool months of winter. Beautiful parks, with ponds decorated with water-lilies and full of fish, were made.

Getting Married

Even in such happy surroundings Siddhartha became a young man of great intelligence, strength and beauty, but still he was unsettled and restless so the King decided he should marry. All the most lovely girls in the kingdom were called to the palace for Siddhartha to make his choice. Among them was his cousin,Yasodhara, a pretty and charming girl. Siddhartha fell in love with her and they were married with much ceremony and rejoicing. Some years went by and Yasodhara had baby boy. The King began to think that everything was turning out, after all, as he wanted.

But in spite of his pleasant life, Siddhartha continued to be thoughtful and troubled. Were parties and feasts what life was about? Was that all? Was all this splendid luxury to be the whole meaning of his life?

Early life | Four signs | Bodhi tree | Enlightenment | Noble Truths | Life & Death | Asoka | Books | Buildings | Festivals | Practices | Rites | Glossary