There is uncertainty as to when exactly the Buddha lived. Bechert states the Buddha lived between 448-368 BCE. Whilst Cush reports the Buddha as living from 562-483 BCE. The Pali Canon is believed to not have been written until over a hundred years after the Buddha’s death and was not written in chronological order, making the story of the Buddha’s life unclear and misleading. Although the story of the Buddha’s life is believed to be based on historic facts, it is argued that there have also been many historical embellishments over time, making it difficult to distinguish between fact and myth.
The Buddha was born with the name Siddhartha Gautama and is also referred to as Shakyamuni after his enlightenment.
The spiritual leader, Asita predicted that Siddhartha would become a great king or a spiritual leader. Siddhartha was bought up in the Kshatriya class; where Kings and warriors originated. Because of Asita’s prediction Siddhartha’s father, Suddhodana, made sure that Siddhartha lived the life of luxury. The Buddha was educated along with children of other noble families. He was skilled in many areas including sports such as wrestling, he was schooled in mathematics, languages, music etc. He was tall, strong and handsome. His well-mannered and kind manner attracted people to him. To shield Siddhartha from the harsh realities of life and to prevent spiritual yearnings, Siddhartha had three palaces built for him (one for each season). He was surrounded with beautiful parks, gardens, music etc. In some versions of the story he had a harem of dancing girls surrounding him. This part of his life is significant as it represents his naivety towards the real world.
At the age of 16 Siddhartha married the ‘neighbouring’ princess, Yasodhara, and when he was 29 Yasodhara gave birth to a baby boy named Rahula (meaning bond). Everything seemed idyllic. However, Siddhartha became bored and restless. So he beckoned his charioteer, Channa, to take him for a drive. On this journey Siddhartha came across an old weak man. Siddhartha was astonished and Channa explained that the man was old and old age happens to us all. Siddhartha as upset so returned to the palace. ‘When I considered this the vanity of youth left me’. This insinuates that once Siddhartha realised that youth is neither indefinite nor permanent. Therefore being/feeling young should not be taking for granted. A second trip was made. This time he saw a person suffering from great pain, his eyes bloodshot. This sight filled Siddhartha with compassion. On the third trip, he came across mourners carrying a corpse to a river during a funeral procession. Siddhartha was astonished to learn that everyone and everything must die. Then on the fourth trip, Siddhartha met a man with a shaven head, wearing a simple robe and in meditation. Siddhartha learnt that this man was an ascetic (someone who rejects society and lives a simplistic life in a forest to find a freedom form suffering).
These four experiences are known as the Four Signs. These 4 signs represent how Siddhartha stopped to think about suffering. It is unlikely that the Buddha literally witnessed the Four Signs and even if he did it is not likely he reached the age of 29 without witnessing old age, sickness or death. However this part of his life is significant as it indicates that this is when the reality of suffering became real to him. Siddhartha like many of us lived a very sheltered lifestyle, being protected from the harsh realities of life. Although we may be surrounded by images of illness, poverty etc. they don’t emotionally move us. Suggestively, human suffering becomes real when someone close to us becomes seriously ill or dies. Which is a vital part of the Buddha’s life as this is when he properly realised the extent of human suffering.
Although, Ling argues that there were actually 5 signs. It is said the birth…