(563 BC - 483 BC)
There is no one like him in History or in legends, and there is nothing else like his legacy. For more than 25 hundred years he has been living in the minds of men and women in their millions all over the world. He is Sidhartha, the Prince of Kapilavastu, Himalayan Kingdom in Nepal. He is also known as Gautama, denoting his family, as Sakya Muni to denote that he was the sage of the Sakya order; and as the Budha, meaning the enlightened. The religion Budhism is known after him, and it continues to be the faith and the path to salvation for millions and millions of humans. The Budha set in motion the wheel of the Law, and proclaimed four noble truths and the eight-fold path. These elements of Budhism have been preserved since the fifth century before Christ.
What makes Budhism live so long like this?
According to Borges, the Nobel winning writer, who made a special study for the sake of a special lecture, there are two basic reasons: the first of which is the religion’s tolerance. He points out it has never resorted to iron or to fire. It has never believed that these means could be persuasive. The best example is that of Ashoka, emperor of India. He did not try to impose his new religion on any one. Borges concludes that a good Buddhist can be a Lutheran or Methodist or Presbyterian or Calvinist or Shintoist or Taoist or Catholic; he may be a proselyte of Islam or of the Jewish religion, all with complete freedom. In contrast, it is not permissible for a Christian, a Jew or a Moslem to be Budhist. The second reason is faith, as is in the case of any other religion or any other ideological institution. Budhism requires a great deal of faith in the four noble truths and the eightfold path that Budha preached.
What is the historical basis of the Budha legend? One is the oral traditions known as Tipitaka, the collection of the teachings of the Budha, in Pali language. Then there are the Budhist texts. Ashoka, the emperor’s edicts give another clue. From all these, modern historians date his life time from 563 B.C. to 483 B.C. Specialists have opined that the Budha must have been born more than 200 years before Ashoka (273-232 B.C.), and they would like to put the year of the death of the Budha 20 years either side of 400 B.C.
The Budha legend says it that there was a prince called Sidhartha, born to king Sudhodana of Vaisali in Kapilavastu and his queen Maya. Astrologers predict that the prince would become either the emperor of the whole of the earth, or the enlightened one destined to save all mankind.
The father, as all other fathers, would not like his son to become a preacher, but to be the emperor of all he surveyed. So he arranged to seclude his son from all the four miseries of life: old age, sickness, death and asceticism. The prince grew up in a rectangular palace of four gates provided with all happiness and luxuries.
But on the predestined day the prince goes out in his coach through the north gate, and after travelling a little distance sees a creature different from anything he has ever seen, says Borges in his lecture. The creature is stooped over, wrinkled; it has no hair. It can barely walk and leans on a staff. He asks who the man is, if he is indeed a man. The coachman answers that he is an old man and that we will all be that man if we keep on living that long. The prince returns to the palace, troubled. He goes out three more times each after a short interval and each time returns to the palace even more troubled because on the second outing he happens to see a strange being of which the coachman describes as a sick man; on the third outing he sees a man who seems to be sleeping and being carried by others whom the coachman described as a dead person. On the fourth occasion what he sees is a man almost naked; but with a face of serenity whom the coachman explains as an ascetic, one who renounced everything and who has attained supreme happiness.
The prince makes up his mind to be an ascetic, now that he has known the life with all its comforts, luxuries and riches. He wants to be the enlightened. At this moment he hears the message that his wife, Yasodhara has given birth to a child. The prince knows that the child is going to be a chain to him with the life in the material world. He names the baby Rahula, to mean a fetter, and then leaves the baby, his wife and the palace and walks out to the open world, seeking out proper teachers in his attempt at seeking after truth.
He picks up lesson in asceticism from a venerable teacher, a great sage, and practices it for long. But he fails to agree to the principles of asceticism and so leaves the hermitage. He sits in meditation on a mountain valley near the palace of the King of Magadha. He comes across Bimbisara, the king, one day and the king develops a great admiration for the young sanyasin who walks among the people and shares their food and tells them simple words of wisdom, unlike other sanyasins. And one day he enters into a deep meditation sitting under a bunyan tree on the banks of the river Niranjana and at the end of the long exercise lasting for six days and six nights, he attains enlightenment and he is now the Budha, one who has reached his ultimate goal. He is saved and so he wants to save the others and for this he decides to teach the Law.
He delivers his first lesson to five of his sanyasin friends at the Deer Park in Benares. It is here that he sets in motion the wheel of the Law, and proclaims the fur noble truths and the eight-fold path to Nirvana. His Law is not of asceticism as he finds that asceticism is an error, ignoble and sorrowful. He preaches a middle way. He continues to live for another forty years. And now he is dying, in the house of a blacksmith who gave him a piece of pork. The disciples surrounding him are in despair: when he is gone what will they do? The Budha says: I leave you my Law. And he dies on their way to Kusinagar, on the banks of the river Hiranyavati, on a bed laid by the disciples under the shade of two huge trees. It was the full moon day in the month of Chaitra. He was eighty.
Let us turn to Borges once again to see what a non-practicing Budhist has to say on Nirvana. He says: What is Nirvana? A large part of the attention that Budhism has gained in the West is due to that beautiful word. It seems impossible it does not contain something precious. Nirvana is, literally, extinction, extinguishing… But Nirvana is not extinction, in the technical Budhist meaning of the term… While we are in this world, we are subject to Karma. Every one of our acts is interwoven into this mental structure called karma. When we have reached Nirvana our acts no longer have shadows; we are free.