Theme 1 - A - Accounts of the birth of the historical Buddha and the Four Sights


The historical Buddha: social, religious settings


  • The Buddha was born into Hindu culture
  • At the time of the Buddha, religious and philosophical ideas were no less complicated
  • Christianity, Islam and Sikhism were not yet founded

Social Setting:

  • The area where the Buddha was active is the north-east of India
  • At the time the Buddha emerged, major social changes were taking place e.g. opposition to caste system
  • The caste system was split into four social categories: priest (Brahmin), warrior (Kshatriya), professional or skilled worker (Vaisya/merchant) and unskilled labourer (Sudra).
  • Brahmin's were at the top of this class system and led the people in the traditions of worship and social order

Religious Setting:

  • Samanas rejected Brahmin's religion because they disliked the social elitism and idea of ritual sacrifice
  • Jainism was a Samana group whose aim was to free the Jiva from the cycle of samsara
  • Two more influential groups: Materialists (rejects supernatural) and Skeptics (questions everything)
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Hagiography and Myth

Introduction to the Buddha:

  • The Buddha's name was Siddhartha Guatama, he was of noble birth and born in Southern Nepal, Himalayan region.
  • His father was called Suddhodana, his mother was called Maya.
  • Gautama was a Sammasambuddha (fully self-enlightened or universal Buddha)

How Buddhists view these narratives:

In Buddhism, the quest for the historical buddha has never been a major pursuit. For Paul Williams, it is not the person of the Buddha that is of significance but rather what the Buddha actually discovered.

It is not WHO Guatama was but more what he REPRESENTS. He is not divine or some supreme being to worship. 

Theravadans see the Buddha as a human being + talented religious leader who reached Enlightenment.

The historical Buddha is significant because he tells us about both the world around us and ourselves

Buddha is viewed differently by various Buddhist traditions in terms of how the mythical element is understood, but in all traditions, priority is given over to the hagiographical reading of the Buddha's life that expresses truth revealed for all. 

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The conception and birth of the Buddha

  • When the world had lost the Dharma there was (after 1000 years) there was a cyclic uproar for a new Buddha.
  • Buddha decides to re-enter the realm of existence and selected Maya because of her purity.
  • Queen Maya had a vivid dream about being taken to the Himalayas by angels and the Buddha disguised as a white elephant bearing a lotus flower circled her and entered her womb through her side to conceive her.
  • At the moment of conception there were earthquakes and 32 miraculous signs around the world ranging from rivers stopping their flow to heavenly music heard from the sky
  • Throughout pregnancy the Buddha was protected by four angels 
  • Maya gave birth standing upright, he was born clean as a jewel and two streams of water spurted forth from the sky.
  • Angels caught the Buddha in a golden net and after surveying all four corners of the world, the Buddha took seven steps and spoke. He also brought medicine in his hand to cure the blind and the lame.

The mythical elements become essential to the understanding of Buddhist narratives and cannot be dispensed in search ofn a historical account, without detriment to the hagiography.

Two ways to understand the birth of the Buddha: hagiographical (enshrouded in mythical elements) or allegorically (having a hidden meaning beyond a literal understanding of the text).

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Prophecy and early life

Conception and birth narratives:

  • The first understanding to glean from the narratives is the Buddha is unique.
  • Another understanding would be that he was pure and untained by karmic weighting and in total harmony with his natural environment. This is indicated by the fact that he was born under a tree, attained englightenment under a tree and died between two trees.
  • Many view the Buddha's birth as full of mythical elements and understand the elaborations as significant.

Prophecy and early life:

  • Seven holy men predicted that he would be a strong ruler like his father, Suddhodana.
  • Another, called Asita, predicted that he would reach full and complete enlightenment
  • His father has to ensure that the prince lived a life of happiness and luxury that avoided any unpleasantness
  • Siddhartha was not to encounter: old age, sickness, death or a wandering ascetic
  • For Buddhist readers, this tells them not about the nature of the Buddha but more about the nature of Buddhism
  • The prediction that the young ruler could lose his way from his father's path and end up with the life of a homeless ascetic was a devastating blow for Suddhodana.
  • Sickness, old age and death are inevitable to a human being, so Suddhodana could not deter from the very things nature has in course for his son.
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The Four Sights

  • The four sights were to act as a catalyst for his 'religious quest':
  • 1. Old age - his first sight was an old, weak man, bent over with age. Realised life is impermanent
  • 2. Sickness - second sight was a man ravaged by disease, existing as mere skin and bone
  • 3. Death - third sight was of grieving relatives carrying the corpse of their beloved on their shoulders
  • 4. Wandering ascetic - fourth sight was of a wandering holy man, walking calmly and contentedly in pursuit of truth and an answer to life's problems. This sight provoked him more deeply than the others. 

The impact of such experiences were heightened due to the sheltered nature of his life. The ascetic impacted him most because he was intrigued as to how he was in detachment from society and where this sense of peace was derived.

Meaning of this in terms of dukkha, anicca and anatta:

  • dukkha = 'that which is difficult to endure', suffering, frustration etc.
  • anicca = impermanence. The Buddhist teaching that all existence involves change
  • anatta = 'no-self'. There is no substantial essence beyond the empirical self

A Buddhist would say that it is human nature to live with the hope that we will not suffer or age and death is not real or final.

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AO2 - Importance of the biography

The importance of the biography of the historical Buddha for Buddhists today:

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AO2 - Relative significance of interpretations

The relative significance of different ways in which the biography may be interpreted:

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Quotes to learn for this section

The historical Buddha

'Buddhism has always coexisted with other religious beliefs and practices' - Cousins

Hagiography and Myth:

' For what we find when we look at the life story of the Buddha is not a historical narrative but a hagiography' - Williams

'Suffice to say, all stories indicate that the Buddha was unique' - Cush

Conception and birth of the Buddha:

'He shone as if he had come down from heaven, he who had not been born in the natural way.' - Ashvaghosa

Four Sights:

'Lacking nothing of the earthly joys of life, he lived amid song and dance, in luxury and pleasure, knowing nothing of sorrow' - Piyadassi

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