Siddhārtha Gautama, (Sanskrit, devanāgarī सिद्धार्थ गौतमा; pāli, Siddhattha Gotama), better known as Gautama Buddha, the historical Buddha, Śākyamuni Buddha (शाक्यमुनि, Śākyamuni, "the sage of the Śākya") or simply Buddha, known in archaic Italian as Gotamo Buddho (Sanskrit and Pāli बुद्ध, Buddha, i.e., "the awakened one" or "the enlightened one."
Lumbini, April 8, 566 B.C. C. - Kushinagar, 486 B.C.), was an Indian monk, philosopher and mystic and ascetic, founder of Buddhism, one of the most important spiritual and religious figures of Asia and the world.
Gautama's existence is traditionally placed between 566 B.C.E. and 486 B.C.E., but, given the contradictory nature of the sources, recent studies place it two centuries later. He came from a wealthy and noble family of the Śākya clan, hence also the appellation Śākyamuni (the ascetic or sage of the Śākya family).
One Gautama Buddha, several names
The Sanskrit and Pāli term Buddha means, in the Indian religious and cultural context, "one who has awakened" or "one who has attained enlightenment."
Other appellations by which Gautama Buddha is often referred to are the Sanskrit terms:
Tathāgata: "The Thus Gone" or "The Thus Came," an epithet by which Gautama Buddha referred to himself in his sermons, equal to the Pāli form that appears frequently in the Pāli canon;
Śākyamuni: "The Sage of the Śākya" (referring to the clan to which Gautama Buddha belonged), used mostly in the literature of Mahāyāna Buddhism (Sakyamuni in the pāli canon);
Sugata: "The Good Gone," used mainly within the scriptures of Vajrayāna Buddhism but also frequent in the pāli canon;
Bhagavān: "Lord," "Venerable," "Illustrious," Blessed, Sublime, Perfect. From the Sanskrit noun bhaga, "wealth," "fortune." In Buddhist literature it indicates the Buddha.
Bodhisattva: "one who is on the path to become a buddha," or "one who seeks to attain 'Awakening'" or "one whose mind (sattva) is fixed on bodhi," used to refer to Gautama before attaining Buddha status.
In Theravāda school literature he is referred to by the Pāli name of Gotama Buddha.
The life of Gautama Buddha according to Buddhist traditions.
Earlier lives of the Buddha
In Buddhist tradition, Gautama's life would have been preceded by countless other rebirths. From a Buddhist perspective, such rebirths do not coincide with the concept of metempsychosis, or transmigration of an individual soul, since the concept of a permanent self (ātman) is explicitly denied with the doctrine of anātman.
These are not forms of reincarnation, but marked by the succession of lives linked together by the transmission of the effects of karma.
These Jātakas ("earlier lives"), which in tradition form an integral part of Gautama's life, were included in the Buddhist canon and consist of 547 uplifting tales in which animals, gods, and men of the most diverse social and caste backgrounds appear.
Numerous canonical traditions exist on the life of Gautama Buddha. The earliest independent biography of Gautama Buddha still available today is the Mahāvastu, a work of the Lokottaravāda school of Nikāya Buddhism dating from the beginning of our Era, written in hybrid Sanskrit.
There are also the Lalitavistara, the Buddhacarita of Aśvaghoṣa and the Abhiniṣkramaṇasūtra. As many as five versions of the latter sutra, titled in Chinese 佛本行集經 Fó běnxíng jí jīng, are available in the Chinese Canon, preserved in the Běnyuánbù.
Later (4th, 5th century CE) is the biographical collection, also self-contained, contained in the Mūla-sarvāstivāda-vinaya-vibhaṅga. Episodes of his life not as autonomous biographies are also preserved in the collections of his speeches given in the Āgama-Nikāya.
According to Erich Frauwallner, all of this biographical material, whether stand-alone or included in the collections of Gautama Buddha's sermons, would be part of an early biography composed a century after his death and included as an introduction to the Skandhaka, itself a Vinaya text.
Of a different opinion are other scholars such as Étienne Lamotte and André Bareau for whom instead the biographies of Gautama Buddha underwent a gradual evolution starting precisely from the episodic narratives contained in the Āgama-Nikāya and the Vinaya and then evolving into the autonomous collections such as the Mahāvastu.
Overall, these traditional biographies tell of his birth that took place in southern Nepal, in Lumbinī (not far from Kapilavastu), and collect numerous tales and legends that aim to highlight the extraordinariness of the event: miracles heralding his conception, clear signs that the child about to come into the world would be a Buddha.
His family of origin (Śākya means "mighty ones") is said to have been wealthy: a warrior lineage that dominated the country and whose legendary progenitor was King Ikṣvāku.
Siddartha's father, the rāja Suddhodana, ruled over one of the many states into which northern India was politically divided. His mother named Māyā (or Mahāmāyā) is described as being of great beauty.
Suddhodana and Māyā had been married for many years and had had no children. In the Buddhacarita it is told that Mahāmāyā dreamed that a white elephant penetrated her body without any pain and received in her womb, "without any impurity," Siddhartha who was delivered in the Lumbinī forest, where her son was born from her side without any pain.
Siddhartha, again according to the Buddhacarita's account, was born fully conscious and with a perfect, luminous body and after seven steps uttered the following words:
"To attain Enlightenment I was born, for the sake of sentient beings; this is my last existence in the world."
(Aśvaghoṣa. Buddhacarita, Canto I, 15)
Also according to the Buddhacarita (canto I) after Siddartha's birth brahmans and ascetics were invited to the court for an auspicious ceremony.
During this ceremony, it is said that the old sage Asita drew, as was customary, the horoscope of the newborn and reported to the parents about the exceptional quality of the newborn and the extraordinary nature of his destiny:
amid tears, he explained that he should in fact become either a Universal Monarch (Chakravartin, sans., Cakkavattin, pāli), or a renunciate ascetic destined to attain awakening, who would discover the Way that leads beyond death, i.e., a Buddha.
When asked for an explanation of the reason for his tears, the old sage explained that they were due both to the joy of having discovered such a being in the world and to the sadness he derived from realizing that his too advanced age would not allow him to hear and benefit from the teachings of such a realized being.
He therefore made his grandson Nālaka swear to him that he would follow the Master once he grew up and learn and practice his teachings.
The father was distraught at the possibility of his son abandoning him, depriving him of the legitimate succession to the throne, and arranged everything to prevent the premonitory event.
Mother Māyā died only seven days after giving birth, and the child was then raised by King Suddhodana's second wife, Pajāpatī, a younger sister of the late Māyā, in the greatest pomp.
The son, therefore, of a rāja, that is, a chief elected by the mayors to whom the responsibility of government was entrusted, he received the name Siddhartha (="the one who achieved the goal") Gautama ("the one belonging to the Gotra branch of the Śākya").
Siddhartha showed an early contemplative tendency, whereas his father would have wanted him to be a warrior and ruler instead of a monk. The prince married young, at the age of sixteen, his cousin Bhaddakaccānā, also known as Yashodharā, with whom he had, thirteen years later, a son, Rāhula.
Although, however, he was raised amidst princely comforts and luxury and made to participate in court life as heir to the throne, the prophecy of the sage Asita punctually came true.
At the age of 29, unaware of the reality outside the palace, he stepped out of his father's royal palace to see the reality of the world and witnessed the cruelty of life in a way that left him astonished.
Meeting an old man, a sick man, and a dead man (other sources tell of a funeral), he suddenly understood that suffering unites all humanity and that riches, culture, heroism, everything he had been taught at court were ephemeral values. He realized that his was a gilded prison and inwardly began to reject its comforts and riches.
Soon after he came across a calm and serene mendicant monk, he decided to renounce family, wealth, glory and power to seek liberation.
According to the Buddhacarita (Canto V), one night, while the palace was shrouded in silence and everyone was asleep, abetted by the faithful charioteer Chandaka, he mounted his horse Kanthaka and abandoned his family and the realm to give himself up to the ascetic life.
According to another tradition he communicated his decision to his parents and, despite their pleas and lamentations, shaved his head and face, discontinued his rich robes and left home.
He took a vow of poverty and went on a troubled path of critical introspection. Tradition has it that he embarked on the quest for enlightenment at the age of 29 (536 BCE).
The practice of meditation
After escaping from society, abhiniṣkramaṇa, Gautama headed to the ascetic Āḷāra Kālāma who was staying in the Kosala region. There he practiced meditation and asceticism under his guidance in order to attain ākiñcañññayatana, the "sphere of nothingness," which for Āḷāra Kālāma coincided with the ultimate goal of liberation, mokṣa.
Dissatisfied with the attainment, Gautama then moved to the kingdom capital Magadha to follow the teachings of Uddaka Rāmaputta. For these, liberation was attainable through meditation, which, practiced through the four jhāna, led to the sphere of nevasaññānāsañññāyatana, the sphere of neither perception nor non-perception.
Although he had reached the goal indicated by the master, Gautama was not satisfied and decided to leave him and settle at the small village of Uruvelā, where the Nerañjarā River (today's Nīlājanā) flows into the Mohanā to form the Phalgu River, a few kilometers from today's Bodh Gaya.
Here he spent his last years before enlightenment, together with five disciples from a Brahmanical family: the venerable Añña Kondañña, Bhaddiya, Vappa, Mahānāma and Assaji, whose spiritual master he had in turn become.
The ascetic, dietary and meditative practices he developed during this period are not known, although later tradition describes them as particularly austere.
At some point even this path proved to be dead-end and, realizing the futility of extreme ascetic practices and automaceration, he returned to a normal diet, accepting a cup of rice boiled in milk offered to him by a girl named Sujatā. This cost him the loss of the admiration of his disciples, who saw in his gesture a sign of weakness and abandoned him.
Desiring to know the causes of the misery present in the world, Gautama understood that saving knowledge could only be found in meditation of deep insight and that this could only be sustained if the body was in good condition, not exhausted by hunger, thirst and self-inflicted suffering.
At the age of 35, in 530 B.C.E., after seven weeks of deep uninterrupted recollection, on a full moon night in May, sitting under a fig tree in Bodh Gaya cross-legged in the lotus position, perfect enlightenment dawned on him: he meditated a whole night until he attained Nirvāṇa.
Through meditation, the Buddha attained increasing levels of awareness: he grasped the knowledge of the Four Noble Truths and the Eightfold Path and at that point experienced the Great Enlightenment, which freed him forever from the cycle of rebirth (not to be confused with the Hindu doctrine of reincarnation, which was explicitly rejected with the doctrine of "non-Self," anātman).
The first week after enlightenment Gautama Buddha remained in meditation under the Ficus religiosa. Another three weeks he spent meditating under three other trees: the first under an ajapāla (Ficus benghalensis or Ficus indica), the second under a mucalinda (Sanskrit: mucilinda; Barringtonia acutangula), and the third under a rājāyatana (Buchanania latifolia).
Under the ajapāla he was joined by a brāhmaṇa who questioned him about the nature of being brāhmaṇa, and the answer was that such is one who has eradicated evil and speaks in accordance with the Dharma, thus implicitly disproving that it was due to a condition dictated by birth and caste membership.
During meditation under the mucalinda, a storm developed that lasted seven days, but a local spirit-serpent, a nāga, protected the Buddha from the rain and cold.
Under rājāyatana the Buddha experienced the joy of liberation from rebirths. On that occasion he was visited by two merchants, Tapussa and Bhallika, who offered him honey cakes and took refuge in the Buddha and his Dharma, thus becoming the first upāsaka, lay followers.
In the following week, the Buddha returned to meditate under the ajapāla, and questioned whether he should spread the doctrine or keep it only for himself, as it was "difficult to understand, beyond reason, comprehensible only to the wise."
The Buddha was also the first to take refuge in the Dharma. Brahmā, the "Lord of the World," came before the Buddha and knelt down and begged him to spread his doctrine "to open the gates of immortality" and enable the world to hear the Dharma.
Having therefore decided to spread his doctrine without any distinction, after excluding his previous teachers, Āḷāra Kālāma and Uddaka Rāmaputta, as he was aware that they had already died, the Buddha decided to first go to Sārnāth near Varanasi (Benares) to his first five disciples, the pañcavaggiyā.
Near Sārnāth he came across the ascetic Upaka, of the Ājīvika school, determinists who did not accept the idea of a cause or in the possibility of altering fate.
Asked whose followers he was, the Buddha replied that he had no more masters and was perfectly enlightened "those who have conquered delusion are like me victorious. I have conquered as much as is evil, and so, Upaka, I am the victorious one.". Upaka retorted "may be" and left.
The setting in motion of the Wheel of Dharma
The Buddha finally reached Sārnāth, in Gazelle Park, where he found the pañcavaggiyā, who had intended to ignore him. But his radiant and completely relaxed appearance immediately won them over. Upon hearing that he had attained Perfect Awakening they welcomed him as a teacher and asked him to share what he had discovered.
The words he spoke then have been preserved in the first short sūtra, the Dhammacakkappavattana-vagga Sutta (The Setting in Motion of the Wheel of Doctrine), which opens with a condemnation of the two extreme ways: extremism connected with mere sense gratification, which is vulgar and harmful, and extremism connected with self-mortification, which is painful, vulgar and harmful.
Instead, the Buddha's is presented as a "Middle Way bringing clear vision and knowledge" that "leads to calm, transcendent knowledge, awakening, nibbāna."
Then the Buddha analyzes the content of the "middle path," illustrating the Eightfold Path, the basis of ethical behavior as the necessary cause for the attainment of awakening. But proceeding backward, the Buddha explains why this Path brings the landing on the opposite shore to Saṃsāra: this is dictated by the Four Noble Truths.
The first of the Four truths is that of sorrow, "union with that which one does not love is sorrow, separation from that which one loves is sorrow, not getting what one desires is sorrow."
This is the first of the Four truths. So the combination of the impermanence of existing and attachment is the cause of pain, the second truth.
This would later be extensively discussed and analyzed by the Buddha throughout his preaching, until he found its formalization in the paṭicca samuppāda, the chain of conditioned co-production, in which every cause has an effect, a seemingly invincible spiral.
But the destruction of the bondage of pain is possible, the third truth: liberation is possible. And how is the theme of the fourth truth, which refers back to the Eightfold Path from which we had started.
The Buddha then proclaims that each of these truths has been recognized, understood and visualized by him, and this threefold moment of the fourfold partition of truth has led him to the "supreme perfect awakening."
At this point Añña Kondañña became Arhat and exclaimed, "everything that is born is destined to perish!" and the ctone gods and all the paradises shouted for joy, the system of ten thousand worlds shuddered and a grand splendor appeared: the wheel of Dharma had been started.
Añña Kondaññña became the first Bhikkhu to be ordained, with the Buddha's famous exclamation "Hey Bhikkhu!" ("Come monk!") becoming the traditional Buddhist ordination formula, and thus giving rise to the Saṅgha.
The Buddha's preaching marked in many respects a point of radical break with the doctrine of Brahmanism (which later took the form of Hinduism) and Indian religious orthodoxy of the time.
Indeed, in a manner not unlike that of the founder of Jainism, Mahāvīra, his teaching did not recognize the dominance of the Brahman caste over the office of religion and the knowledge of truth, but to all creatures who aspire to it by practicing Dharma.
Preaching and teaching
In the years following nirvāṇa, the Buddha moved along the Gangetic plain preaching to the laity, taking in new monks and establishing monastic communities that welcomed anyone regardless of social status or caste, eventually founding the first female mendicant monastic order in history.
Provided the adept accepted the rules of the new doctrine, everyone was admitted into the sangha.
Scansion of the Vassa
Because of the absence of a historiographical and chronological tradition in India, the scansion of its movements was not recorded until many centuries after the events, and that too in a fragmentary manner in the various sutras and Vinayas of the various traditions.
Among the most interesting texts for chronology are two texts translated into Chinese, the Badalingta Minghao jing (T.32:773b) and the Sengqieluocha suoqi jing (T. 4:144b), and a Tibetan text, the Chos-ḥbyung of Bu-ston. Other chronologies are found in the Burmese tradition.
From the comparison of these sources, scanned by the year of the Buddha's life, we enumerate the places where he passed the Vassa, or monsoon period devoted to stopping at the same place that is the norm of the sangha. Despite such spatially and temporally diverse traditions, a remarkably uniform picture by geographical location of the Buddha's life is obtained.
After the conversion of the pañcavaggiyā to Sārnāth, Gautama converted Yasa, son of a wealthy merchant from Vārāṇasī. He was the first non-ascetic to enter the monastic community, soon followed by his friends, Vimala, Subāhu, Puṇṇaji and Gavaṃpati, sons of other wealthy merchant families.
So Yasa's parents became the first lay people to be recognized as such and to take refuge in the Three Jewels, and from there dozens more conversions followed and numerous Vārāṇasī youths entered the Sangha. At this point, a year later, the Buddha headed back to the place where he had attained enlightenment.
In the area of present-day Bodh Gaya at that time three brothers preached there, Uruvela Kassapa, Nadī Kassapa and Gayā Kassapa, who were devoted to fire worship (it is conceivable that this was a Vedic cult, dedicated to Agni, or a local, post-Vedic cult).
After surpassing them in the magical arts they practiced, he converted them along with about a thousand of their followers. Then, having gone the Buddha with all these new sangha members to the capital city of Rajgir, he expounded on Mount Gayāsīsa the Sūtra of Fire.
"Monks! Everything is on fire!" he began, and went on to list the sense organs on fire, flames extending to mental functions, the sensations they experience due to perceptions, and identifying the cause in greed, hatred and delusion (the three poisons). Only with liberation from these poisons could the disciples become liberated and defeat death.
The Buddha's arrival in the capital of the Magadha kingdom provoked a wave of conversions, including that of ruler Bimbisāra, then head of the most powerful state in northern India.
The latter, as a token of devotion, gave the Buddha the monastery of Veṇuvana, located in the Bamboo Woods just beyond the northern gate of the capital Rajgir. This period also saw the conversion, thanks to Assaji, of Sāriputta and Moggallāna, who were to become the Buddha's two main disciples.
In Kapilavatthu and the Kosala
After completing his stay in Rajgir with the conversion, near Gaya, of Mahā-Kassapa (destined to become a famous disciple), the Buddha headed to Kapilavatthu, the capital of the Sakya, his homeland.
There, after begging for food on a house-to-house basis, he was given access to the congress hall of the Sakya nobility to deliver a sermon. Then the Buddha visited his father Suddhodana and his wife Yasodharā and converted them. He then ordained his half-brother Nanda and his son Rāhula.
The conversions included both members of the Sakya nobility and members of the lowest castes, such as the case of the barber Upāli.
It was on this occasion that it became the norm that the order of respect among monks should be based solely on seniority calculated from the day of taking vows, so much so that the young Sakya nobles asked to be ordained immediately after Upāli in order to have to pay homage to him and thus defeat their pride.
Converts who expressed this choice included Ānanda, the Buddha's cousin, and Devadatta.
Leaving his homeland, the noble republic of the Sakya, the Buddha headed to Kosala, the kingdom that held hegemony over Kapilavatthu. Kosala at that time was ruled by King Prasenadi (Sanskrit: Prasenajit), with whom the Buddha had numerous cordial meetings.
In the capital of Kosala, Sāvatthī (Sanskrit: Śrāvastī), the wealthy merchant Sudatta Anāthapiṇḍika (a previous convert to Rajgir) bought from Jeta, a prince son of Prasenadi, a large plot of land on the southern outskirts of the city;
given to the sangha, it became one of the Buddha's main resting places and great center for spreading the Dharma, known as the Jetavana Monastery (the "Park of Jeta").
At this place the Buddha visited the seriously ill monk Pūtigatta Tissa, washed him and took care of him until his death. Here he urged the monks to take care of each other: having no family or means left, having severed their ties with the world, they were to take care of each other.
In another sutra dealing with the same matter, the Buddha makes explicit:
Lists of converts in Kosala show how the caste origin of monks and laymen was predominantly Brahmanical and mercantile (such as Subhūti), with minorities among the warrior caste, to which the Buddha himself belonged, and the lower classes.
In Rajgir, in the capital of the Magadha, in addition to the Venuvana monastery outside the northern gate granted by the ruler Bimbisāra, the saṅgha was given the Jīvakarana monastery near the "Manghi Grove" (Ambavana), a gift from Jīvaka Komārabhacca, the ruler's personal physician, who wished the Buddha to stay closer to his abode.
It was there that the Buddha expounded the Jīvaka Sutta, in which the monks are forbidden to eat meat if they have knowledge that the animal was killed only to be fed to them, and likewise he forbids the laity from killing animals for the purpose of feeding the monks.
Not far from Rajgir, in Gayāsīsa, stayed the monk Devadatta, who enjoyed the favor of King Bimbisāra's son Ajātasattu. In the presence of monks, laymen and the ruler of Rajgir, Devadatta asked the Buddha, now in his old age, to take control of the Sangha.
Among the reforms he wished to introduce all aimed at greater austerity: obligation to dwell in forests; dressing only in clothes found in garbage dumps; not accepting lunch invitations from lay people; abstaining from meat even if offered. The Buddha refused to appoint him as head of the monastic community.
Devadatta, glimpsing Bimbisāra's loyalty to the Buddha as the main obstacle in his rise, convinced Prince Ajātasattu to perpetrate a coup. Bimbisāra was subsequently imprisoned and left to starve to death, despite the fact that he had voluntarily abdicated in favor of his son.
Having obtained the new ruler's support, Devadatta attempted to assassinate the Buddha with the help of some of Ajātasattu's archers, who refused. Then Devadatta himself tried the assassination:
first by throwing a boulder from the Gijjhakūta, the "Vulture's Peak" (the Buddha's injuries were relieved by Jīvaka Komārabhacca's medical treatments), then by getting a royal elephant (Nalāgiri) drunk, which was supposed to crush the Buddha, who instead confronted him, placating him.
The Buddha, returning in the evening to Venuvana Monastery, told the story Cullahamsa Jātaka in honor of Ānanda's loyalty.
Ajātasattu, full of remorse, stopped supporting Devadatta and asked forgiveness from the Buddha, who received him among the lay faithful.
Devadatta, having lost royal support and aware of the impossibility of controlling the sangha, decided on schism, followed by the monks Kokālika, Samuddadatta, Katamorakatissa and Khandadeviyāputta, as well as a few hundred disciples in favor of a more austere monastic rule.
The Buddha did not forbid greater austerity, but felt that it should apply only on a voluntary basis, not as a rule.
The Buddha therefore sent Sāriputta and Moggallāna to Devadatta. These let him believe that they had abandoned the Buddha, and as soon as they had the attention of all his followers they convinced them of the need to break the schism and rejoin the sangha.
Once left alone Devadatta vomited blood. After nine months Devadatta set out to meet with the Buddha, but the ground opened up and he sank into Avīci hell.
The Buddha's parinirvāṇa
After spending the last vassa in Venuvana Monastery, the Buddha again went to Rajgir. There the ruler Ajātashatru, through his minister Varśakāra, asked him for a vaticinium for his planned war against the Vriji republic.
The Buddha replied that as long as they were respectful of the assembly tradition and the people content, they would not be defeated. Then, ascending Vulture Peak, the Buddha preached to the monks the 49 monastic rules that they should follow to keep the sangha alive.
Greeted by the Magadha nobility and Minister Varśakāra, the Buddha and the monks then headed for the Lichchavi territories further north, preaching in the various villages where they stopped. Upon reaching Pātaligrāma, the Buddha thought:
"It happened to me to cross this river [the Ganges] sur a ship; today it is not fitting that by the same means I should return to cross it. The Buddha is now a master in carrying men to the other shore; for he teaches everyone the way to cross the ocean of existences."
So all the monks gathered on the northern bank of the Ganges, at Koṭigrāma. There disease and famine raged, and, controversially, the Buddha was asked why ten of his lay believers had also died. The Buddha foretold that that would be their last existence, and of three hundred others he predicted only seven more rebirths before reaching perfection.
"All the living will die; as in like manner all the Buddhas from times past until the present are now in Nirvāna: and today to me, made Buddha, the same fate is due."
Upon arriving near Vaiśālī he was invited to lunch by the courtesan Amarpālī, along with all the monks, declining a similar invitation from the Lichchavi nobles, who had extended the invitation only later.
The Buddha decided to stay in the vicinity of Vaiśālī but, in order not to weigh too heavily on the local population burdened by famine, he instructed the monks to disperse in all directions, keeping only Ānanda beside him.
There the Buddha announced to Ānanda that within three months he would enter the parinirvāṇa. He also instructed Ānanda to remember all his discourses so that he could repeat them later if any monks forgot them. Then wandering again in the Ganges plain, the Buddha gave numerous discourses recapitulating all the main themes of his doctrine.
On reaching Pāvā he was invited to lunch by a certain Cunda, there he gave a discourse on monks, some of whom "are as wicked as weeds in a field" and admonishing them to regard not the robe but the upright heart as a sign of excellence.
Leaving Cunda's house and heading for Kuśināgara, the Buddha felt ill and, sitting down, asked Ānanda to get him water. A nobleman, Pukkusa, then passed by, who donated a yellow cloth so that the Buddha could lie down in it.
He then told Ānanda that it was Cunda's food that led him to the end, and that he should go the next day to find him and thank him, and that he should not weep for this but rejoice.
Then came the monk Kapphina who asked the Buddha to postpone his extinction, to which the Buddha replied that:
"As men's houses, with the long course of time, ruin, but the ground where they were remains; so the Buddha's mind remains, and his body ruins like an old house."
Meanwhile, monks and laymen arrived from Kuśināgara, warned by Ānanda that by midnight the Buddha would enter total extinction. They asked what the last wishes were regarding the remains.
The Buddha, after answering, asked the monks if there were still any doubts regarding the doctrine, saying that this was their last chance to be able to dispel them. The monks replied that there were no dark points and that everything was clear to them.
According to tradition, Siddhartha Gautama died in Kuśināgara, India, at the age of eighty, in 486 B.C. surrounded by his disciples, including his beloved attendant Ānanda, to whom he left his last dispositions. Traditionally his last words are reported:
"Handa dāni, bhikkave, āmantayāmi vo: "vayadhammā saṅkhārā appamādena sampādethā "ti."
"Remember, O monks, these words of mine: all compounded things are destined to disintegrate! Devote yourselves diligently to your own salvation!"
Then the Buddha lay vaulted to the north, reclining on his right side, and expired.
The description of the funeral rites, sarīrapūjā, that accompanied Gautama Buddha's cremation are closely related to the subsequent veneration for the relics, sarīra (Sanskrit: śarīrāḥ), and are to be understood as a representation of the value these have in the Buddhist sphere.
There is also a semantic shift from Gautama's physical body to the representation of the state of Buddhahood provided by the sarīras.
The Malla clan of Kuśināgara prepared a funeral worthy of a universal ruler: the body was wrapped in five hundred pieces of cotton and immersed in an iron tub (taila-droṇī) filled with oil.
Then, to the accompaniment of a crowd carrying garlands of flowers, dancing and playing music, the body passed through the city. Seven days passed before the funeral pyre was prepared. This gave time for Mahākassapa, the most influential of the monks after the deaths shortly before of Sāriputta and Mahāmoggallāna, to arrive in Kuśināgara and take part in the funeral rites.
Ānanda, having been Gautama Buddha's attendant all his life, also took charge of all the organization of the ceremonies inherent in his body. On the day of cremation, in the last farewell, he gave precedence to the Malla women of Kuśināgara:
they were the first to circumambulate Gautama, throw flowers and bathe his feet with tears. Then, contrary to Brahmanical requirements, the body was carried in procession inside the city (by Ānanda, the king of Malla, Śakra and Brahmā).
The pyre was lit by Mahakassapa, with reverse symbolism, since customarily in India sannyasins are not cremated but released into rivers. He is dressed as a prince, when it was the abandonment of his princely robe that had marked the origin of the spiritual quest that led him to become a Buddha.
Once the fire was extinguished the sarīras were collected and stored in a golden box at the Kuśināgara center.
The news of the Buddha's demise and the permanence of the sarīras attracted intense competition to possess them:
In addition to the Malla of Kuśināgara, the Malla of Pāvā, King Ajātashatru of Magadha, the Bulaka of Calakalpa, the Krauḍya of Rāmagrāma, the Brahmins of Viṣṇudvīpa, the Lichchavi of Vaiśālī, and the Śākya of Kapilavastu also claimed them. The demands were emphasized by sending armies to Kuśināgara.
Brahman Droṇa was chosen as arbiter: he divided the sarīras into eight parts for the eight claimants; for himself he kept the urn (kumbha) with which he had performed the partition; the ashes of the pyre went to Brahman Pippalāyana, who arrived after the cremation.
Once the sarīras were distributed each party built a large stūpa to worship them. There they remained until the Aśoka ruler opened them up to re-subdivide and spread them in stūpas erected throughout the Maurya empire.
The life of the Buddha in the medieval West
Barlaam and Josaphat
The story of the Buddha's life, known as the Story of Barlaam and Josaphat, particularly the part of the prophecy at his birth until his escape from the palace, reached Europe as early as the Middle Ages through a series of translations that included numerous non-Buddhist elements and uplifting parables.
The legend tells of the Indian prince Josaphat, recluse by his father in the comforts of the royal palace to prevent the prediction of his conversion to Christianity from coming true. A brief escape outside allows him a vision of a sick man, a leper, and a funeral.
Upset by the suffering of the world, he meets Barlaam, an ascetic who converts him to Christianity and with whom, at the end of many hardships and the ultimate escape from his father, he will spend many years of asceticism in the desert until his death.
The non-linear phylogeny of translations begins with those into Persian, Arabic and Georgian in the 8th century, then into Greek and Latin 11th century (attributed to John Damascene). Then it was the turn of the Hebrew translation by Abraham ibn Chisnai, a Jew from Barcelona (? - 1240).
From this arose a long tradition of Spanish versions that were widespread in the 13th century. But the spread throughout Europe is clearly evident from the Icelandic translation as early as 1204.
Barlaam and Josaphat have been included among Christian saints since at least the 14th century: the earliest mention is found in the Catalogus Sanctorum of Petrus de Natalibus, bishop of Jesolo between 1370 and 1400. Their canonization was ratified in the Martyriologium of Pope Sixtus V (1585-1590), which assigns them the day of November 27.
In Europe, the first scholar to notice the Buddhist origin of the story was Édouard René de Laboulaye in the article "Les Avâdanas" in the Journal des Debats of July 26, 1859.
Earlier, in 1612, the Portuguese traveler Diogo do Couto, after gathering information in Sri Lanka, was convinced, on the contrary, of the Christian origin of Buddhism, precisely because of the similarity of the Buddha's life with that of St. Iosaphat. Later the Hebraist Steinschneider had guessed, without being able to prove it, the existence of an inverse connection.
The name Josaphat comes from Joasaf, Yodasaph is in turn a corruption (from a Greek error: ΥΩΑΣΑΦ for ΥΩΔΑΣΑΦ) of the Arabic Yūdasatf, in turn from Bodisat, with a mispronunciation of the initial letter "B" (بـ) with the "Y" (يـ) because of the similarity of the Arabic letters.
Bodisat comes from the Sanskrit bodhisattva, a term used in Buddhist literature to refer to the historical Buddha before his enlightenment.
Barlaam, on the other hand, is a mispronunciation from bhagavān, "Lord," a term by which the Buddha is referred to in Buddhist literature. Thus the literary character of the Buddha literally doubles in two while retaining the framework of the story.
The only other source on the Buddha's life for Europeans in the Middle Ages was provided by Marco Polo. In chapter CLXXIX of The Million, devoted to the island of Seilan, present-day Sri Lanka, where Polo stopped on his sea voyage back from China, the Venetian traveler describes in detail the life of Sagamoni Borcan.
The name comes from the mispronunciation of "Śākyamuni bhagavan," meaning the Buddha. In this case the story told is very close to the original traditional Buddhist story, while in the ending it is the father who, after Sagamoni Borcan's death, promoted his cult by erecting golden statues of him and spreading the rumor that:
He died eighty-four times and every time reincarnating in an animal: the first time in an ox, then in a horse then in a dog; at the eighty-fourth time they say he died and became a god. For the idolaters he is the greatest god they have, the first, from whom the others then descended.
Marco Polo, evidently impressed by the story, commented:
he lived there all his life austerely and chastely doing much abstinence. And certainly if he had been a Christian he would have been a great saint in the company of Our Lord Jesus Christ.
Gautama Buddha in Hinduism
Gautama Buddha, i.e., the founder of Buddhism, an ancient religion that stands as an alternative to Hindū religious culture, is understood by the latter to be the avatāra of Viṣṇu, this considered God, the Supreme Person, the Bhagavat.
This reading runs along three theological interpretations: on the one hand, the oldest texts indicate the Buddha avatāra of Viṣṇu manifested to deceive and thus lead to unfavorable rebirths his followers, here understood as traitors to the Vedas; a second interpretation, found in more recent texts, such avatāra is understood in a positive way i.e., to teach non-violence (ahiṃsā, refraining from killing), especially toward animals, and kindness of mind;
in a third interpretation, which complements the second, Viṣṇu manifests himself as Buddha in order to be worshipped by the deniers of his being God, the Bhagavat, that is, those who deny supremacy to divinity.
The life of Gautama Buddha according to contemporary historiography.
Historical-critical investigation of the figure of Gautama Buddha began from the late 19th century. Scholars such as Thomas William Rhys Davids (1843-1922), Caroline Augusta Foley Rhys Davids (1857-1942) and Hermann Oldenberg (1854-1920) by analyzing the Buddhist Canon written in the Pāli language attempted to eliminate its obvious mythical contents in order to attempt a historical reconstruction of the figure of the founder of Buddhism.
However, this approach is now considered outdated, and while even the majority of scholars consider the historical existence of Gautama Buddha an established fact, they consider it extremely difficult to reconstruct his life and even to establish with certainty the period of his existence.
Indeed, there are few historical records about the life of the founder of Buddhism and the dates themselves are controversial. It is therefore arduous to separate legend and reality and to place the events of the Buddha's life historically, since the evidence that has come down to us is not always reliable.
In fact, most of the sources are at least two hundred years later than the events of Siddhartha Gautama's life. In addition, Indian historical chronicles are not rigorous in separating real events from myth and legend.
However, all traditional sources agree that Siddhārtha Gautama lived for eighty years.
According to the Sinhalese chronicles reported in the Dīvapaṃsa and Mahāvaṃsa Siddhartha Gautama was born 298 years before the coronation of the Indian king Aśoka and died (parinirvāṇa) 218 years before the same event. These chronicles list 326 B.C. as the year of this Indian king's accession to the throne.
According to this tradition, which is widespread in Theravāda Buddhist countries (Sri Lanka, Thailand, Burma, Cambodia, and Laos), Siddhārtha Gautama is said to have been born in 624 BCE and died in 544 BCE.
Western and Indian scholars, following Greek sources, shift the date of Aśoka's coronation to 268 B.C.E. and thus believe that Siddhārtha Gautama was born in 566 B.C.E. and died in 486 B.C.E.
Japanese scholars and the German scholar Heinz Bechert following Indian sources reported in the Chinese and Tibetan Buddhist canons that attest to Siddhārtha Gautama's birth 180 years before Aśoka's coronation and his death 100 years earlier, cross-reference them with Greek sources and instead come to believe that the birth year of the founder of Buddhism is 448 B.C. while his death occurred in 368 B.C.
Nothing else can be argued and, as Étienne Lamotte reminds us, the attempt to reconstruct or trace the life of Gautama Buddha is "a hopeless undertaking."
The only thing that can be stated with certainty, therefore, is that the Buddha lived in India sometime between the 6th and 4th centuries B.C. at any rate precisely in that particular period to which Karl Jaspers has given the name "axial period" of world history.
In other words, in the axial period, it seems that humanity made an incredible leap in the deepening of self-knowledge and a global transformation of the human being took place to which, again according to Jaspers, "one can give the name of spiritualization."
Having said that, of Gautama Buddha's life we can reconstruct only a rather general picture: he was a renunciate and ascetic, together with other Indian renunciates he had a "critical" view of the world and its "illusions" and practiced and preached meditative techniques (yoga).
He also preached a community life among renunciates governed by some precise rules and gathered around him other monks as well as lay people who followed his teachings. He was undoubtedly a charismatic personality.
To this picture, historians Frank E. Reynolds and Charles Hallisey add some other information that, in its peculiarity and specificity, they consider hardly "invented" by the later tradition; for these authors it is very likely that Gautama Buddha:
belonged to the kṣatriya caste;
was born into the Śākya clan;
was married and had one son;
embraced the life of an itinerant ascetic without his father's permission;
met with failure when he first communicated his experience of enlightenment;
risked losing the leadership of the community he founded because of a cousin of his who proposed more ascetic rules;
he died in a remote place after eating bad food.
Although Buddhism was never traversed by iconoclastic currents, for the first few centuries it was strictly aniconic, representing Gautama Buddha only through symbols: the footprint, one of the tips of the Triratna, the Wheel of Dharma, a stūpa, a lotus. Each symbol represents a detail of Gautama's biography.
Beginning in the first century, for reasons as yet unexplained, the iconic representation of the historical Buddha's body, based mostly on the thirty-two major signs of a Buddha as they had come to be codified in religious literature, developed, both in bas-reliefs and in full-length statuary. The climate of India did not allow Buddhist paintings to survive, with the notable exception of the Ājanta pictorial cycle.
As Buddhism spread through Central Asia, the Far East and Southeast Asia, the iconography of the Buddha evolved in accordance with the development of local art, maintaining strong conservative and recognizable connotations.
The gestures of the representations, both in mudrā and in body posture, keep the meaning of the representation linked to specific moments in the Buddha's life and action: birth, enlightenment, the first sermon, and parinirvana, making them a perfectly recognizable language in the Buddhist sphere, beyond the specific traditions that have arisen in the course of its historical and doctrinal development.