By Syed Manzoor Alam, New Age Islam
October 24, 2013
“In the sky, there is no distinction of east and west; people create distinctions out of their own minds and then believe them to be true.” Buddha, the Enlightened One
“Mankind will not go astray after having found the right road, unless from disputation.” Prophet Muhammad
To know about Buddhism we have to ask first of all the most basic question- Who was the Buddha? Who was this person who set this incredibly rich and complex religious tradition in motion? And if you are at all curious about the impact that this person had on the lives of people in India, where he was born and in all the other countries in Asia and modern America, where Buddhism has become an important part of the religious landscape, it is also natural to ask another question- how did the life of this person, we call the Buddha, become so deeply woven into the lives of the people who called themselves Buddhists.
Historically we have just a few facts about the life of the Buddha. We know or we think we know that he was born in the family of King Shuddhodana and Queen Maya about the year 566 B.C.E in Southern Nepal. Now some historians put the date to around 5th Century, so we notice that at the very beginning there is some uncertainly about Buddha’s life.
Buddha was a member of the Shakya Tribe. His clan name was Gautama and his given name was Siddhartha. He is also referred to as ‘Shakyamuni’, which means the sage of the Shakya Clan.2 Out the Buddhist tradition we have very little about Buddha, so we have to turn to Buddhist tradition to find out about the man; we have to see the Buddha through Buddhist eyes.
To begin from the beginning, in the case of the Buddha would be impossible because we don’t have to begin from his birth but from his previous births! Buddhist tradition too believed in the Doctrine of Reincarnation. People assumed that human being did not live just one life; rather they believed that they cycled around again and again in a perpetual process of death and rebirth. This process was known as Samsara- which means to travel from one life to the next.
This process of Samsara, sages thought, was too crude and they wanted to find a way out to get rid of it. The idea was not to die and then take birth again, even in a good condition, but it was to bring an end to this process. The stories of the Buddha of his previous lives are told in a body of texts known as the ‘Jataka’ or “birth tales”. 4 Many of the stories are almost childlike and it can be best enjoyed if a child would read with his innocent voice.
Take For Example This Story:
Once upon a time there were three animals: a monkey, an elephant and a partridge. And they began to discuss which one of them was the oldest (the oldest would be given special respect). The elephant pointed to a fig tree and said ‘I am such an old elephant that when I was little I could walk over this tree and its leaves would barely touch my belly’. The monkey said ‘You may be old but when I was a young monkey, I could reach and pluck leaves from the top-most branches of that tree’. And the partridge said ‘when I was young I ate a seed, the seed passed through my body, it fell to the ground and it grew up to become that fig tree, that’s how old I am!’ So the elephant and the monkey bowed down and paid homage to the partridge. The Jataka tales end with the famous line ‘and I was the ...’ (in this case- partridge). 5
The story of his birth is full of miraculous signs. According to tradition, Buddha was born from the sides of his mother, took seven steps to the north and said ‘I am the best of the world and this is my last birth and I will never be born again’. Siddhartha’s father became anxious, just like the others, as it was unusual to say such a thing: “I will never be born again”. His father called the sages to explain the event and they said that Siddhartha is a ‘Chakravartin’- a turner of the wheel. 6
Siddhartha was destined to become the sage of the sages but his father King Shuddodana had different plans.
1. The Penguin History of Early India, Romila Thapar. Ch 5
2. An Advanced History of India, R.C.Majumdar. Ch 6, Pg 87
5. To have access to more stories please refer to these sites: http://ignca.nic.in/jatak.htm
6. Great World Religions: Buddhism, Professor Malcolm David Eckel, 2003