Like many famous religious figures, the birth and childhood years of Gautama Buddha have associations with many miraculous stories. One such version is about the time of the Gautama Buddha’s conception. In a dream, Gautama’s mother Mahamaya saw a large white elephant entering her side. The seers interpreted that the child would become either a powerful king or a highly revered holy man. In another version, the Buddha is believed to have emerged from the side of his mother’s womb without causing her to experience pain.
However, apart from these extraordinary versions, historical traditions tell that Siddhartha Gautama was born in 563 BCE in a mango grove at a place called Lumbini (located in the foot hills of Nepal in the region bordering the present day India). His father, Suddhodana, was the chief of a powerful Sakhya Clan during the 6th century BCE. While “Gautama” was his clan name; “Siddhartha” means “one who has achieved his meaning/aim”. His mother, Mahamaya, is said to have passed away seven days after his birth, and he was raised by his aunt who became the king’s second wife.
Shortly after his birth, a seer is said to have prophesied that Siddhartha would either become a great king or a holy man. Fearing that Siddhartha might be inclined to embrace a spiritual path due to any dissatisfaction in his life, his father tried his best to ensure that Siddhartha was given the best possible comfort and luxury in his upbringing. However by the age of seven, his father made provisions to train him in athletic skills, instruct spiritual disciplines of their day, advices for good governance and anything to do with a noble and royal upbringing to make him a worthy successor.
His parents ordered that he be shielded from sadness and be raised in a state of luxury. They hoped this would ensure that he would become more attached to comforts, luxuries and pleasures and refrain from choosing a religious life.
But all these luxuries were of no use to prevent a prophecy from happening. Since his childhood, there were indications that Siddhartha had nurtured a humane trait though he was at the same time bold and fearless.
A Human Child
Traditions recall an extraordinary miracle in Siddhartha’s charmed life. Once, when he was out having a walk in the country with Devadatta, his cousin, Devadatta happened to shot down a swan. With the swan fluttering down painfully wounded, both boys ran towards it to pick it up. Siddhartha, having reached earlier, held the bird gently and pulled out the arrow from its wing. He applied some soothing leaves on the wound to prevent further bleeding, and then with his soft hand, he stroked the hurt and frightened bird. Devadatta was much annoyed when Siddhartha refused to return the swan to him which he claimed, belonged to him, since it was his arrow that had brought down the swan. But Siddhartha insisted that since the bird had not been killed, it belongs to the one who first secured possession of it.
The ambiguities of life
Another tradition says that every year, there was a custom when the King like any common man was to go out to the fields and plough a field with his own royal hands. This was followed by a feast. When the feasting began and the attendants went off to partake the feast leaving the prince alone, Siddhartha wandered off quietly by himself until he came to a nice, shady apple tree. He happened to see a series of happenings; he saw a lizard dart its tongue licking up and eating the little, harmless ants; a snake then came along and swallowed the lizard; and then an agile hawk swooped down, picked up, killed and devoured the snake. The prince then began to ask himself why all the beautiful creations of life possess something that is not beautiful at the same time.