Buddhism- notes of the historical Buddha


Where are they dound?

Where are they found:

  • Accounts found in Buddhist scripture (Pali Canon) written down in 1st century after death of Buddha.
  • Also found in other early texts such as the Buddhacarita (’acts of the Buddha’)
1 of 5

Conception dream

  • On the night of a full moon, Queen Maya had a dream.
  • Felt herself being carried away by four devas (spirits) to Lake Anotatta in the Himalayas
  • After bathing in a lake and being bedecked in flowers by the devas a white elephant with a lotus flower in its trunk circled her 3 times finally entering her womb through her right sid

Symbolism in the conception dream

•       White elephants are auspicious (lucky, good and pure) in Indian thought. The elephant coming down – descending from Tusita. According to Brahmanic belief, if a monarch possessed one or more 'white' elephants, it was a glorious and happy sign. In Buddhism the elephant is a symbol of mental strength. At the beginning of one's practice the uncontrolled mind is symbolised by a grey elephant who can run wild any moment and destroy everything on his way.

•       Lotus Flower – symbol of awakening (In Buddhist symbolism the lotus is symbolic of purity of the body, speech, and mind as while rooted in the mud, its flowers blossom on long stalks as if floating above the muddy waters of attachment and desire. It is also symbolic of detachment as drops of water easily slide off its petals.)

•       Entering her side and birth from her side – significant because the vagina/birth canal is considered ritually impure in Indian thought

2 of 5

Birth Story

  • The Buddhacarita tells us that Maya was en route to her natal family when “sorrow and fatigue set her mind [o]n visiting that faultless [Lumbini] grove.”
  • Maya was overcome with labour pains while in the grove, where she gave birth to the Buddha standing up, holding onto the branch of a sacred sal tree. (after 10 months of gestation)
  • Experienced a special, pure vision in which she stood holding the branch of a tree with her right hand while the gods Brahma and Indra took the child painlessly from her side. Offering the baby ritual ablutions.
  • He (child) looked in each of the 8 directions. He then took seven steps to the east, symbolizing the future path of Buddhism, while a lotus flower, signifying enlightenment, sprang up at each of his steps.
  • The child proclaimed, “I am the Leader of the World; I am the guide of the World. This is my final birth.”
  • The ten months suggests that the Buddha was not born too early or impulsively/quickly/rushed; the description of 
  • The detailed description of Maya’s gestation, delivery, and death could be intended to ward off suspicions that Maya’s death was accidental rather than spiritually significant and may have served as a safeguard against fears that Maya’s death was due to her being unworthy. (died 7 days after birth
  •  By making Maya’s death necessary (as happened after all Buddha's) and Maya’s character faultless, the narrative appears to dispel doubts about why a benevolent and nonviolent Buddha would be born through a process that killed his mother.
  • Traditional literature’s lengthy list of Maya’s faultless actions during pregnancy and her perfect delivery of an unsullied Buddha could be read as an attempt to ward off confusion about her sudden and inexplicable death.
3 of 5

Are these stories historically accurate?

Very hard to determine – conception/birth and early life of Buddha stories are found in different places including the Pali canon and the Buddhacarita. The Pali canon written in 1st Century after death of the Buddha and before then transmitted orally.

The miraculous elements in this story suggest that they cannot be historically accurate – after all Buddhists agree that the Buddha was a man. E.g. standing/walking and talking immediately after birth.

4 of 5

Does it matter if they're historically accurate or

The pursuit for the historical Buddha has never been of major importance in Buddhism. Paul Williams stated: ‘it is only self-evidently appropriate to start the sturdy of a religion with the life story of its founder IF we hold that the life story of the founder is in some sense a crucial preliminary to understanding what follows.’ For Williams IT IS NOT THE HISTORICAL BUDDHA THAT IS OF IMPORANT BUT WHAT HE DISCOVERED. For Williams the biography of the Buddha is a HAGIOGRAPHY or a religious biography NOT a historical record. The purpose of a hagiography is to illustrate who this person was – i.e. the stories were written to show that Siddhartha was a self-enlightened Buddha who taught the Dharma. As a result the stories are laden with imagery and reflect the interest of the writers at the time.

Most would not feel the need to examine it as a historical account and therefore run into the same issues of believing in the Immaculate Conception and virgin birth as in Christianity with Jesus. Virgin birth is NOT a tenet (rule/teaching) of Buddhism.

Many Buddhists are not concerned with the life of the historical Buddha (he is peripheral (on the outside) in many Mahayana traditions.

Buddha himself referred to his teachings as Dharma Vinaya therefore suggesting this more imp than info about his life.

5 of 5


No comments have yet been made

Similar Religious Studies resources:

See all Religious Studies resources »See all Buddhism resources »