Gautama Buddha


Gautama Buddha : biography

c. 563 BCE – c. 483 BCE

A disciple named Vakkali, who later became an arahant, was so obsessed by Buddha’s physical presence that the Buddha is said to have felt impelled to tell him to desist, and to have reminded him that he should know the Buddha through the Dhamma and not through physical appearances.

Although there are no extant representations of the Buddha in human form until around the 1st century CE (see Buddhist art), descriptions of the physical characteristics of fully enlightened buddhas are attributed to the Buddha in the Digha Nikaya’s ‘ (D,I:142).Maurice Walshe, The Long Discourses of the Buddha: A Translation of the Dīgha Nikāya, 1995, Boston: Wisdom Publications, "[DN] 30: ‘: The Marks of a Great Man," pp. 441-60. In addition, the Buddha’s physical appearance is described by Yasodhara to their son Rahula upon the Buddha’s first post-Enlightenment return to his former princely palace in the non-canonical Pali devotional hymn, Narasīha Gāthā ("The Lion of Men").

Among the 32 main characteristics it is mentioned that Buddha has blue eyes.Epstein, Ronald. Buddhist Text Translation Society’s Buddhism A to Z. 2003. p. 200

Traditional biographies

Primary biographical sources

The primary sources for the life of Siddhārtha Gautama are a variety of different, and sometimes conflicting, traditional biographies. These include the Buddhacarita, Lalitavistara Sūtra, Mahāvastu, and the Nidānakathā.Fowler, Mark. Zen Buddhism: beliefs and practices. Sussex Academic Press. 2005. p. 32 Of these, the Buddhacarita is the earliest full biography, an epic poem written by the poet Aśvaghoṣa, and dating around the beginning of the 2nd century CE. The Lalitavistara Sūtra is the next oldest biography, a Mahāyāna/Sarvāstivāda biography dating to the 3rd century CE.Karetzky, Patricia. Early Buddhist Narrative Art. 2000. p. xxi The Mahāvastu from the Mahāsāṃghika Lokottaravāda tradition is another major biography, composed incrementally until perhaps the 4th century CE. The Dharmaguptaka biography of the Buddha is the most exhaustive, and is entitled the Abhiniṣkramaṇa Sūtra, and various Chinese translations of this date between the 3rd and 6th century CE. Lastly, the Nidānakathā is from the Theravāda tradition in Sri Lanka, was composed in the 5th century CE by Buddhaghoṣa.Swearer, Donald. Becoming the Buddha. 2004. p. 177

From canonical sources, the Jātakas, the Mahapadana Sutta (DN 14), and the Achariyabhuta Sutta (MN 123) include selective accounts that may be older, but are not full biographies. The Jātakas retell previous lives of Gautama as a bodhisattva, and the first collection of these can be dated among the earliest Buddhist texts.Schober, Juliane. Sacred biography in the Buddhist traditions of South and Southeast Asia. Motilal Banarsidass. 2002. p. 20 The Mahāpadāna Sutta and Achariyabhuta Sutta both recount miraculous events surrounding Gautama’s birth, such as the bodhisattva’s descent from Tuṣita Heaven into his mother’s womb.

Nature of traditional depictions

Traditional biographies of Gautama generally include numerous miracles, omens, and supernatural events. The character of the Buddha in these traditional biographies is often that of a fully transcendent (Skt. lokottara) and perfected being who is unencumbered by the mundane world. In the Mahāvastu, over the course of many lives, Gautama is said to have developed supramundane abilities including: a painless birth conceived without intercourse; no need for sleep, food, medicine, or bathing, although engaging in such "in conformity with the world"; omniscience, and the ability to "suppress karma".Jones, J.J. The Mahāvastu (3 vols.) in Sacred Books of the Buddhists. London: Luzac & Co. 1949–56. Nevertheless, some of the more ordinary details of his life have been gathered from these traditional sources. In modern times there has been an attempt to form a secular understanding of Siddhārtha Gautama’s life by omitting the traditional supernatural elements of his early biographies.

Andrew Skilton writes that the Buddha was never historically regarded by Buddhist traditions as being merely human:Skilton, Andrew. A Concise History of Buddhism. 2004. pp. 64-65

The ancient Indians were generally unconcerned with chronologies, being more focused on philosophy. Buddhist texts reflect this tendency, providing a clearer picture of what Gautama may have taught than of the dates of the events in his life. These texts contain descriptions of the culture and daily life of ancient India which can be corroborated from the Jain scriptures, and make the Buddha’s time the earliest period in Indian history for which significant accounts exist.Carrithers, page 15. British author Karen Armstrong writes that although there is very little information that can be considered historically sound, we can be reasonably confident that Siddhārtha Gautama did exist as a historical figure. Michael Carrithers goes a bit further by stating that the most general outline of "birth, maturity, renunciation, search, awakening and liberation, teaching, death" must be true.Carrithers, M. 2001. The Buddha: A Very Short Introduction. Oxford University Press


Depiction in arts and media

  • Little Buddha, a 1994 film by Bernardo Bertolucci
  • Prem Sanyas, a 1925 silent film, directed by Franz Osten and Himansu Rai
  • The Light of Asia, an 1879 epic poem by Edwin Arnold
  • Buddha, a manga series that ran from 1972 to 1983 by Osamu Tezuka
  • Karuna Nadee, a 2010 oratorio by Dinesh Subasinghe
  • The Light of Asia, an 1886 oratorio by Dudley Buck