The Light That Enlightened Millions (The life of Buddha in the popular mind)

Article of the Month - Jun 2016

This article by Prof. P.C. Jain and Dr Daljeet.

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Table of Content

  •  Introduction

  • Lumbini Miracle

  • Death of Mayadevi

  • Marriage

  • His encounter with three truths

  • A ray of light in utter darkness : Siddhartha’s fourth encounter

  • Mahanishkramana – Great Departure

  • Transformation and journey ahead, though the goal yet far off

  • River Niranjana : the last destination of the seeker of light

  • The Light

  • From Sakyamuni to Buddha

  • Buddha, the teacher

  • Final Extinction

'None else but fear is thy enemy, thy death, disease and distress. Overcome fear and then for thee there is no death, no disease, no distress. Not death, fear of death is thy problem and redemption from fear is thy redemption from death', said Buddha, the Enlightened. Compassion for suffering mankind was the Buddha’s inspiration and removing the veil of darkness – ignorance that enshrouded the ‘light’ within, the Buddha’s crusade against death and all that frightened the mind. Buddha taught that the light was within everyone, inherent and inborn; he said, remove the veil of darkness, defeat fear, and thou art all light. ‘Live thy way’, he said. Not strict austerities or path of renunciation, a middle path will do. This middle path lies in between extreme asceticism on one side, and extreme indulgence on the other. Walk in between, in the middle, temperate, quiescent and tranquil. Buddha does not object to acquiring or stocking wealth but one should acquire what he truly needs. Similarly he should not be tempted by others’ things nor take any without its owner’s permission. His middle path was ordinarily the path of a normal ethical man requiring him to be truthful, not indulging in theft and to have due control of his senses.

Superfine Large Inlay Buddha On Lotus Seat - Tibetan Buddhist

Buddha incorporates into his doctrine also such Vedic tenets as Brahmacharya and has in common with Jainism tenets like those as ‘asteya’, ‘aparigraha’ among others, He talked of a three-fold path for all – monks or lay-followers : ‘Buddham sharanam gachchhami, Dhammam sharanam gachchhami, Sangham sharanam gachchhami’, that is, let Buddha be thy refuge, let Order be thy refuge, let Community of seekers of Light be thy refuge. As the Buddha is the Light, not individual unless such individual has attained Enlightenment, ‘let Buddha be the refuge’ meant dedicating oneself to the Light – ultimate knowledge and freedom from ignorance and fear of death. Apart, it was the magic of Buddha’s model of life that even in his lifetime he had millions of followers who could lay at his feet everything, even life. Sudatta, one of his disciples known as Anathapindaka – sustainer of orphans, once prayed him to have at Savatti, his place, his ‘chaturmasa’ – four months camp for rains. Buddha consented. Jet-vana, a grove outside Savatti, was selected for the camp. However, the landlord wanted for his land as many gold coins as would cover his entire land. As illustrated in Buddhist sculptures, Anathapindaka paid him as many gold coins for the land.

Thus, the Buddha’s life was itself the ‘light’. It is said the night Mayadevi, Buddha’s mother, conceived, dreamt of a white baby elephant descending from heavens, and after circumambulating her bed thrice entering into her womb. Besides its divine links in Indian tradition elephant symbolises auspiciousness. White symbolises purity, and its tender age, innocence. When in the morning Mayadevi narrated her dream to her husband king Suddhodana, the chieftain of Sakya clan who ruled Kapilavastu, he summoned wise of his state known for their ability to interpret a dream. They concluded that the queen had conceived and that her son would be a ‘chakravartin’, the king of kings and shall rule millions of people across the land.

Lumbini Miracle

A mandate of the tradition, Queen Mayadevi proceeded to her father’s house for her first delivery though when passing across Lumbini in Himalayan foothills a grove of Sal trees on the roadside drew her mind and she wished to rest there for a while. When standing under a Ashok tree, tired and exhausted, she raised her right hand for seeking support of a branch of the tree.

Though being too high her hand could not reach it, the other moment all its branches lowered covering her canopy-like. With a branch in her hand, Queen Mayadevi delivered her child later named Siddhartha, and finally the Buddha. Immediately after its birth the child stood up and walked seven steps.

The Tall And Gracious Queen Mayadevi

On all seven spots he laid his feet at grew lotuses. Dumbstruck the maids accompanying her saw the miracle. When back to their senses they put on the child proper apparels and bed. As was obvious, from Lumbini the queen returned to Kapilavastu.

Lumbini episode was a picture of the child’s future life. He preferred emerging where neither his father nor his maternal grandfather ruled – away from palaces he chose the nature’s kingdom calm and quiet. Later the Buddha – the Enlightened, also emerged under a tree. Ashok, one beyond passions – grief or delight, ever defined him – his Buddhahood he attained later. With the sky his roof, and the earth, his bed, the child was born not for pleasures of palace-life. In palace but far beyond it he was nature-born. The unique balance that defined his entire life was pre-determined in this duality. He shared also material aspects of the palace-life but discovered himself – the Buddha, in the forest. Age was irrelevant in his case. A few minutes his age, he stood up and walked. Even after more than 2500 years of his ‘nirvana’ for millions he still lives. Wherever the newborn laid his feet lotuses grew; wherever he went he infused into mankind grace and glory of gods.

Death of Mayadevi

When only few days his age, his mother passed away leaving him into his aunt’s care. His own observation apart, the king received reports that his son was often seen immersed into deep meditation. Around then Asita, the known sage those days, came to his court. He observed that Siddhartha possessed all 32 auspicious marks, a rare thing happening once an eon. He spontaneously declared that the young prince was born to rule a world with no borders to circumscribe it – kingdoms of minds of millions of suffering mankind. Child Siddhartha’s introvert nature and sage Asita’s forecast deeply upset the king who always wished that he inherited him and as predicted was a ‘chakravartin’. To keep him to the worldly path he made all arrangements in the palace itself to evade his interaction with the outside world and its bitterness.


However, Siddhartha’s mind did not change. One day, in the palace garden he frightened his attendants. He mounted a roundabout around a jambu tree, and sat in padmasana and immersed in meditation. Absolute calm and utter serenity enshrined his face and his mind seemed to have reached the state where all worldly thoughts cease to exist. Amazed they witnessed the shadow of the jambu tree gathering umbrella like over him though the sun had moved into other direction. When reported, king Suddhodana did not fail to see its underlying warning. The wise and the family’s elders thought a wife and children would tie him to worldly path. Siddhartha agreed to the proposal and after due tests he was married to a Sakya nobleman’s daughter Gopa, also known as Yashodhara.

Besides marriage, his palace was packed with luxuries, comforts, opulence, pleasures… He lived with Yashodhara for several years and had from her also a son named Rahul but neither the luxuries of palace-life nor the son’s or the wife’s fascination, or the authority of the kingship, could engage his mind.

Life of Buddha (Tibetan Buddhist)

His encounter with three truths

One day, sometime after Rahul’s birth, Siddhartha went out for a round from the eastern gate of the palace. There he saw a man unable to walk straight and without support. He carried a stick he leaned on when walking. A mere skeleton that his loosely hung skin was unable to contain he could hardly walk a step and heaved pitiably. Broken, decayed and deep socketed eyes, he looked miserable. Question in eyes, he turned his face to Dunpa, his charioteer. Dunpa told that he was an aged man; with age everyone decayed. The youth was only a passing phase.

Siddhartha realized that the old age was inherent and neither the king’s command nor the palace-walls, could revert its passage. Similarly, one day when on a round on the southern side he saw a man ailing and crying with pain. He had lost his glow, his face bore a piteous look and was in rags. Deserted by all he looked at everyone for help. Dumpa told that he was sick and fearing that his disease could entrap them all had deserted him. Siddhartha realized that sickness was part of life and everyone was destined to suffer from it sometime or other. A third time when he was on the western side of the palace, he saw a procession of wailing and lamenting crowd following a human body wrapped in cloth and tied along a bamboo frame that four persons carried. The body lied motionless. This was his ever first encounter with death. Dunpa told that the crowd in the procession was mourning the death of someone close to them. They were taking the corpse for last rites. The prince realized that however dear life had finally to terminate into death. The compassionate Siddhartha was buried within determining how the suffering mankind could be redeemed of old age, disease and death.

A ray of light in utter darkness : Siddhartha’s fourth encounter

One day when on a round on the northern side of the palace, his eye fell on a saffron-clad man walking in full confidence and fearless. He was well contented and his face burst with some light within. The curious prince turned to Dunpa. Dunpa told he was an ascetic. He had renounced the world and now he was beyond its passions, infatuations and desires. He had no possessions and lived on whatever people gave him. Back in palace Siddhartha concluded that whatever its form the ascetic’s was the way wherein lied answer to his questions. He was convinced that all luxuries and possessions, even his wife and the son, were fetters that bound him to this illusive world. He had a feeling that he should see how far the saffron-clad man’s path went – would it redeem mankind from old age, disease and death.

Tibetan Buddhist Superfine Thangka - Shakyamuni Buddha Seated on the Six-Ornament Throne of Enlightenment

Mahanishkramana – Great Departure

King Suddhodana had doubled Siddhartha’s security; however, one day at midnight he decided to leave the palace. He summoned Chandak, he confided most, and left the palace with him and with his favourite horse Kanthaka without others knowing it though the Buddhist tradition claims that he went to his wife’s chamber and bade her and his son a silent goodbye before leaving. The Buddhist literature  and art have identified the event as Mahanishkramana’ – Great Departure. Adding mythical element the Buddhist tradition claims that divine powers managed that the king’s men securing the gates had fallen into deep sleep and the gate had opened of its own and even the horse’s hoops were not heard. So far a prince, he dismounted his horse only after the territories of the Sakya kingdom had passed.

Here he removed all his ornaments and cut his hair and handed them to Chandak to take them to his father along the message that his son had chosen a new path. Myths contend that a team of celestial beings emerging from heaven carried away the prince’s crown when he removed it. A long time companion, he bade Kanthaka goodbye before handing it to Chandak. When the grateful prince pated the horse, it put its head over his shoulders and bade him goodbye. With wet eyes Chandak and Kanthaka saw the prince departing and after he disappeared with heavy feet they began moving towards Kapilavastu.

Transformation and journey ahead, though the goal yet far off

Taking their leave Siddhartha moved ahead but in royal clothes his transformation was yet incomplete. Suddenly he saw a poorly clad hunter. He requested him for exchanging with him his ensemble that he happily did and now Siddhartha was completely transformed : the Sakya prince vanished and the Sakyamuni emerged. With singleness of objective the Sakyamuni moved ahead. He heard of a known teacher and philosopher Kalapa Arad. With 300 pupils Arad had his seat at Vaishali. He headed towards Vaishali and joined Arad’s academy. In little time he learnt all that the great sage had to teach and whatever injunction he imposed. However, he soon realized that Arad’s was not the path he sought. After taking his leave he left Arad. From Vaishali he came to Rajagriha in Magadha. Calmness and divine glow on his face attracted everyone. When king Bimbasara, Magadha’s ruler, heard of him, he sent his ministers to invite him at his court. However, when they reached, Sakyamuni’s meditation had begun and they returned empty handed.

In the morning king Bimbasara himself went to invite him. Highly impressed with his divine look he prayed him for making Rajagriha, his seat. However, the Sakyamuni declined the offer. He, however, assured to visit Rajagriha soon after he had attained his goal. Near Rajagriha the great sage named Ramputra Rudrak had his seat. He had seven hundred disciples. The Sakyamuni also joined them. He mastered Rudrak’s system of meditation and whatever he instructed but he soon realized that Ramputra Rudrak’s was not the path he sought. After his permission he left his seat also. Five of Ramputra Rudrak’s other disciples also left with him. With them the Sakyamuni reached Gaya and stayed here at Gayashirsha hill for some time. He was convinced that torturing body by rigorous penance was not the path to enlightenment. Rather, in meditative moments he often realized that a still and tranquil mind fully detached from material desires alone could harbor it.

River Niranjana : the last destination of the seeker of light

After Gaya they reached the village Uruvilva. Here a kind of gentle tranquility around river Niranjana flowing passed the village caught his mind. Though he had rejected rigorous penance as a means of enlightenment, he felt an inner force dragging him to it. As of his own, on the Niranjana’s bank he sat under a tree. As spontaneously his figure resorted to ‘padmasana’. In disagreement his five companions left him.

However, unperturbed the Sakyamuni kept seated in absolute calm. Days, weeks, months and years passed, as also shivering cold, parching heat and torrential rains, but he sat unmoved. He ate less and less till his diet reduced to a sesame seed, and himself, to a mere skeleton. He had sat for six years but only to realize that sever penance was not the path to enlightenment. He hence broke his fast with a little pudding that a tribal girl Sujata offered. He bathed and then again moved on his errand though now he was always around river Niranjana.

The Light

He had regained his lost health and strength. His six years of austerities have shown that his rejection of such methods was not a mere thought of mind but a conclusion arrived at after indulging into it for long six years. Contrarily, it also showed that absolute detachment from material desires was the only path to enlightenment. He hence decided to submit himself to meditation – transcending the world while being in it. Choosing a spot on Niranjana’s bank under a Peepal tree he sat down in ‘padmasana’ on grass that a grass cutter gave him.

When close to his attainment of ‘light’, temptations of different kinds with fascinating faces, as well as awful, emerged for disrupting the oneness of his mind. In the Buddhist tradition they have been identified as Mara, and his sons and daughters – embodiments of demonic forces. When ineffective in disrupting the oneness of the Sakyamuni’s mind Mara commanded all his daughters and sons to launch a joint attack and confound his mind. This time the Sakyamuni invoked the mother-earth to testify that he remained fixed into his objective with an unswerving mind and did not falter. The Buddhist tradition contends that the mother earth emerged and Mara along its sons and daughters was dispelled and there emerged the ‘light’.

Temptation of Buddha by Mara (Tibetan Buddhist)

From Sakyamuni to Buddha

With the attainment of ‘light’ the Sakyamuni was the Buddha, the Enlightened. As the tradition contends, the material being of the Enlightened was in his seat at Niranjana’s bank for a week more. However, his all-knowing self was on a journey across three thousand regions of the world – earth, ocean and sky.

Seven days after the attainment of enlightenment gods sent food for breaking his fast. As provided, a caravan of five hundred bullock carts of two traders, named Trapusha and Bhallika, was passing across. Here the bulls driving the leading cart refused to move ahead and dragged the cart, and thus the entire caravan, to the Peepal tree. The curious eyes of the traders saw a divine presence with glowing countenance seated under it. Some kind of inner compulsion they unknowingly bowed their heads in reverence. They offered him food, honey, sugarcane etc and with that the Buddha broke his fast.

The Introspecting Shakyamuni

Buddha, the teacher

Compassion for suffering mankind had designed Siddhartha’s journey from darkness to light – from Siddhartha, a mere composition of some elements to an all-knowing Buddha beyond elemental existence. Now with the mission of defeating the darkness – ignorance, and spreading the light – right knowledge, he went from one place to other. He first went to Sarnath near Banaras where at Deer Park those five fellow pupils who had left Ramputra Rudrak along him were engaged in austerities. The divine look and serene tranquility that enshrined the Buddha’s face left them spell bound. They bowed to him, washed his feet and offered him a seat and sat on the ground facing him. The Buddha spoke of the Four Noble Truths and Eight Fold Noble Path – the core principles of the Buddha’s doctrine, as also of his Middle path, the path of temperance, calmness and tranquility. The sermon continued the whole night. By the morning the five were the first converts to Buddhism. With these five Buddha established the Buddhist Sangh for taking his message to entire mankind. Spontaneously they chanted ‘Buddham Sharanam Gachchhami, Sangham Sharanam Gachchhami, Dhammam Sharanam Gachchhami’. This gave birth to the Buddhist ‘tri-ratnas’ – three jewels, the Buddha, the Sangh and the Dhamma.

The Buddha did not perform miracles nor granted boons; he simply talked of some simple codes with ethical thrust. They sought to correct man’s overall conduct and made him nobler. His simple corrective principles, not even injunctions or taboos, attracted everyone who heard him. A young nobleman Yasha, rich and well-provided but sensitive to human suffering, heard him speak and was so overwhelmed that he joined the Sangh as its seventh member. Mother, father and other family members of the young man came to persuade him to return; but the moment they heard the Buddha they too got converted to his path. They were the first lay-followers of the Buddha. Thus, there came hundreds of men and women, young and old, and joined the Buddha’s path, some, the Sangh itself, while others, as lay followers. Among them were also converts from other lines. The Buddha commanded them to take the message to other parts of the land, even beyond; and, thus, the Wheel of Law set in motion at Sarnath had begun gaining momentum.

Gautama Buddha- Life and Teachings (In Question and Answer Format)

He also went to Uruvilva. At Gaya, he delivered his famous sermon, ‘burning fire’ – the fire of lust and worldly desire that inflicted suffering. He said, extinguish it with a restraint and chaste life and that would be the end of suffering and of the cycle of births and deaths. Recollecting the words he had given to king Bimbasara he went to Rajagriha. Here he stayed for some time. Deeply impressed by his doctrine king Bimbasara became not only his lay follower but offered him a bamboo grove that Buddha accepted and promised to spend his ‘chaturmasa’ – four months of monsoons, at Rajagriha. It was at Rajagriha that his three best known disciples, Sariputra, Katyayana and Maudgalyayan, joined the Buddha’s Sangh. On an invitation from his father king Suddhodana Buddha visited Kapilavastu. King Suddhodana also joined Buddha’s Order though only as lay-follower, though his son Rahul joined the Sangh. Noticing that his wife Gopa did not come out to greet him, he himself went to her chamber. Seeing him she bowed at his feet and along Buddha’s foster mother Prajapati joined the Sangh and were the first to found the Buddhist Order of nuns.

However, the Buddha’s fame also activated his one-time rival Devadatta, his cousin, who wanted to kill him but with strong support of king Bimbasara he could not. He hence got king Bimbasara killed by his own son Ajatashatru. After the assassination of king Bimbasara Buddha shifted to Shravasti, not for fear of death but for peace. Later, with thirty-one servants of Ajatashatru he attempted to kill Buddha though when the soldiers of Ajatashatru saw Buddha, a serene, quiescent calm face, they bowed their heads on his feet. Devadatta made a number of other attempts on the Buddha’s life but did not succeed. Later even Ajatashatru joined Buddha’s path and confessed about killing his father and attempting to kill Buddha.

Final extinction

For forty years, Buddha along his disciples moved from one place to other spreading his message. He was now quite old as also weak. As the Buddhist tradition has it, Buddha had emerged to keep the world lighted with his presence for the whole eon and had thus an eon’s life-span, yet he wished he relinquished this mortal body. However, he postponed his ‘nirvana’ for three months till he visited the places he had reminiscences of. The first place that struck his mind was Rajagriha he had longest association with.

Bitone Mahaparinirvana Buddha

When returning from here he mounted on a square rock on the banks of river Ganges and turning his face towards Rajagriha he murmured ‘this is the last I am visiting the city’ and thus bade it an emotional farewell. He then visited Vaishali and bade the town similar farewell. When on his way to Kushinagara, almost close to it, his vital energies began failing. He halted, laid some grass for a bed between two Sal trees and facing the north lied on his right side. He had instructed all not to weep but every eye welled with tears. Ananda was in his constant attendance. He spoke to all who accompanied him but to Ananda in special : ‘Behold now, brethren, I exhort you, saying, Decay is inherent in all component things. Work out thy salvation with diligence’.


For Further Study:

1. Life of Buddha in Indian Sculptures – Ratan Parimoo
2. Life in Sanchi Sculptures – A L Srivastava
3. Buddha, the Enlightened, Dr Daljeet
4. Buddhism, the path to Nirvana – Swati Chopara
5. The Life of the Buddha –A Floucher
6. The Life of the Buddha, Retold from Ancient Sources – De Silva Vigier
7. The Image of the Buddha – ed. David L Snellgrove
8. Indian Buddhist Iconography – B. Bhattacharya
9. India : Land of the Buddha – Chhaya Haesner
10. The life of the Buddha and his legend – NHK, Japan
11. The Light of Asia – E Arnold

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