Leading an Ascetic Life

Siddhartha’s disenchantment with life increased after he came across the Four Noble Signs. Finally, he decided to take a drastic step – he renounced the worldly pleasures by leaving behind his loving wife Yashodara and son Rahula, his wealth, fame, and the inherited throne. This renunciation took place when he was twenty nine years of age.

At the time of his renunciation, there were already six famous ascetics searching for the answers in life. They were Purana kassapa, Makkhali Gosala (founder of the Ajivakas), Ajita Keshakambala (founder of the Lokayata or Charvaka tradition), Pakudha Kacchayana (founder of Vaisesika school of thought), Sanjaya Bellatthiputta, and Mahavira (one of the tirthankaras of Jainism).

After shaving his head and clothing himself in yellow robes, he marched towards Rajgriha (the capital of Magadha). Among the many hermits living in the caves in the neighboring hills, Siddhãrtha chose Alara Kalama to be his first teacher. Though he learned the technique of meditation, he was not satisfied with his teachings. After refusing Bimbisara’s offer to the post of a minister, Siddhãrtha then sought discipleship under Uddaka Ramaputta. From him he learnt the technique to attain the state of nothingness through meditation. But, finding his teachings lacking, Siddhãrtha resolved to undertake severe penance/ austerities (Tapas) and Pranayama (controlling the breath).

Along with Kondanna, Bhaddiya, Vappa, Mahanama, and Assaji, Siddhãrtha entered the forests with intent to practice the severest austerities of self-mortification. In his effort to gain wisdom and freedom through these practices, he would often clench his tongue between his teeth; try to stop breathing by closing his nose and mouth and often fast for days. Over the passage of time, he became frail and weak. A peasant girl by the name Sujata, happened to come across him. After seeing him starving, she took pity on him and begged him to partake some of her milk-rice.

Siddhartha, after realizing that these extreme austerities were not leading him anywhere, compromised that a middle way between the extremes of luxury and self-mortification would be better to keep a person sound and satisfied. Indeed his endurance of all pains has disappointed him in realizing that they cannot help one to gain wisdom nor could he attain the state of happiness he was searching for. But, after he ate, drank, and then bathed in the river, his other companions who saw concluded that Siddhartha had given up asceticism, and they left him.

Unmoved by this, Siddhãrtha finally decided that he would not move from the shade of a pipal tree (now known as the Bodhi tree, the tree of enlightenment) at Gaya (Bihar) till he found an answer to man’s sufferings. He is believed to have sat there for many days in concentration and meditation until he attained enlightenment. This happened in the sixth year of fruitless wandering years in search of the final bliss.