Sacred Texts  Buddhism  Index  Previous  Next 



{p. 2}

{p. 3}




ALTHOUGH the numerous legends respecting the life and works of Sâkyamuni, the reputed founder of the Buddhist faith, contain much that is fabulous, yet most of the incidents mentioned therein, when deprived of the marvellous garb with which early historians invariably used to embellish their tales, seem to be based on matters of fact. At present scientific researches have put Sâkyamuni's real existence beyond a doubt;[1] but the period in which he lived will ever remain somewhat vaguely defined.

[1. See for details the biographies published by Csoma de Körös, "Notices of the life of Shakya," in the Asiatic Researches, Vol. XX., pp. 285-318; Hardy, "Manual of Buddhism," pp. 138-359; Schiefner, "Eine tibetanische Lebensbeschreibung Sâkyamuni's," in the "Mémoires des Savants étrangers," Vol. VI., pp. 231-332. For Tibetan and Singhalese traditions about the Sâkya race, see Foe koue ki, English translation, Calcutta, 1848, p. 203.]

{p. 4}

Sâkyamuni was born at Kapilavastu in Gorakhpúr. The legends tell us that his father, the king Suddhodana (in Tibetan Zastang), requested one hundred and eight learned Brahmans to inform him of his son's destiny; the Brahmans, the legends say, after a careful examination of the prince's body, expressed their conviction that, "if he remained a layman during his lifetime, he would become a powerful monarch of vast territories; but in the event of his turning recluse, he would enter the state of a supreme Buddha or wise man: and in solemn assembly they declared that this prince would hereafter prove a blessing to the world, and that he himself would also enjoy great prosperity." It was in consequence of this answer, that the prince received the name of Siddhârtha, "the establisher."[1]

Siddhârtha proved to be endowed with extraordinary faculties, and the legends even go so far as to assert that, when he was about to be taught his letters, he could already distinguish them, and his eminent qualities were manifest, not only in his mental, but also in bodily perfection. It is added as particularly characteristic that already in his youth he was inclined to retirement and

[1. In the sacred legends he is generally characterised by other names. Those of Sâkyamuni--in Tibetan Shakya Thub-pa, "Sâkya, the mighty"--Gautama, or Sramana, Gautama, "the ascetic of the Gautamas," refer alike to his family and career. The names of Bhagavat, "the fortunate," Sugata, "the welcome," Buddha, "the wise," designate his supreme perfection. A name which is very frequently given to the Buddhas in sacred books is Tathâgata, in Tibetan Dezhin, or Dezhin shegpa, "he who has gone in the manner of his predecessors." See Abel Rémusat, "Note sur quelques épithètes descriptives de Bouddha." Journ. des Savans, 1817, p. 702. Burnouf "Introduction," p. 70 et seq. Barthélemy St. Hilaire, "Le Bouddha et sa Religion", p. 75.]

{p. 5}

solitude: he abandoned his gay, playful comrades and buried himself in the dark recesses of dense forests, where he gave himself up to profound meditation. Suddhodana, the father, however, wished his son to become rather a powerful monarch, than a lonely ascetic. When, therefore, after a renewed consultation with the Brahmans, he learned that Siddhârtha would certainly leave his magnificent palace and become an ascetic, in the event of his seeing four things, viz. decrepitude, sickness, a dead body, and a recluse, he placed guards on all sides of the palace, in order that these, dreaded objects might not come near his beloved son. Moreover, in order to weaken his love of solitude and meditation, he married him to Gopâ (in Tibetan Sa Tsoma), the daughter of Dandapâni, of the race of the Sâkyas, and gave orders that he should be provided with every kind- of pleasure. But all these precautions proved futile. Siddhârtha, though living in the midst of festivities and in the enjoyment of all wordly {sic} pleasures, never ceased to reflect upon the pains which arise from birth, sickness, decay, and death; upon their causes, and upon the remedies to be used against them. He found that existence is the real cause of these pains, that desire produces existence, and that the extinction of desire causes cessation of existence. He then determined--as he had already done a hundred times before-to lead human beings to salvation--by teaching them the practice of virtues :and by detaching them from the service of the world. Although he had hitherto often hesitated, his resolution to renounce the world and to become an ascetic was, finally put into

{p. 6}

execution, when he happened, on his walk to a garden in the vicinity of the palace, to meet at four different periods an old man, a leper, a dead body, and a man in a religious garb. He had attained the age of twenty-nine years, when he left his palace, his wife, and the infant son to whom she is said to have given birth at the very moment of her husband's meeting with the recluse.[1]

Siddhârtha began his ascetic life by assiduously studying the doctrines of the Brahmans and by becoming the disciple of the most learned of them. Being, however, dissatisfied with their theories and practices, which, he declared, did not offer the true means of salvation, he left them altogether, and gave himself up during the next six years to earnest meditation and the exercise of great austerities; the latter, however, he soon renounced, perceiving from his own experience, that the mortifications practised by the Brahmans were not of a nature to lead to the attainment of perfection. The six years past, he proceeded to the holy spot Bôdhimanda, where the Bôdhisattvas become Buddhas; and it was here, that, having seated himself upon a couch of grass of the kusa species, he arrived at supreme perfection, which became manifest by his remembering the exact circumstances of all human beings that had ever existed; by his obtaining

[1. It is more probable, says Wassiljew, in his "Buddhismus," p. 12, that Sâkyamuni was led to view existence as the cause of pain and sorrow in consequence of a war in which the Sâkya tribe was defeated, and which obliged him to wander about, rather than by his seeing the four dreaded objects mentioned; for there is a legend which says that the Sâkya race was almost entirely exterminated during the life of the Buddha.]

{p. 7}

the divine eye, by the aid of which he could see all things within the space of the infinite worlds, and by his receiving the knowledge that unfolds the causes of the ever-recurring circle of existence.

Sâkyamuni being now endowed with all these wonderful and marvellous faculties, became the wisest man, the most perfect Buddha. But having arrived at this state of perfection, he still hesitated whether he should make known his doctrines and propound them to men, his principles being, in his opinion, opposed to all those then adhered to. He was, at first, afraid of being exposed to the insults of animated beings, who are unwise and filled with evil designs. But, moved by compassion, and reflecting, that there would remain nevertheless many beings who would understand him and be delivered by him from existence--the cause of pains and sorrows--he at once resolved to teach the law that had been revealed to him.[1]

Sâkyamuni died, the books say, after having attained an age of eighty years. The data contained in the sacred books as the year of this event, differ considerably, the most distant periods mentioned being the years 2422 and 544 B.C. Lassen, in his examination of these materials, gives preference to the literature of the southern Buddhists, which places his death in 544 or 543 B.C. Westergaard, however, in a recent essay on this subject, believes even this epoch to be by far too early, and calculates his death to have taken

[1. Barthélemy St. Hilaire, "Le Buddha et sa Religion," p. 32.]

{p. 8}

place in the period from 370 to 368 B.C., or about one generation before Alexander the Great took the throne.[1]

[1. Lassen "Indische Alterthumskunde," Vol. II., p. 51. Westergaard, "Ueber Buddha's Todesjahr;" German translation, p. 94.]

{p. 9}

Next: Chapter II. Gradual Rise and Present Area of the Buddhist Religion