Around 563 B.C.E. in Kapilavastu (now Nepal), Suddhodhana Gautama, the reigning chieftain of the Shakya clan, had a wife who was with child, and a dilemma: his wife, Maya, dreamed that at the moment of the conception of her child, a white elephant entered her body. Unrestricted by P.T. Barnum's cynical conceptualization of white elephants centuries later, Suddhodhana's wise men interpreted Maya's dream as a prophecy that the child would either grow up to be a mighty king or a great spiritual leader.
Horrified that his progeny could grow up to live the inconsequential life of a mystic, Sudddhodhana did his best to train his son Siddhartha for kingship. He schooled Siddhartha in the arts and sciences, hosted banquets and floor shows for him, surrounded him with pretty young female attendants and robust courtier-buddies, and kept him isolated from poverty and suffering; in short, Suddhodhana did everything to encourage Siddhartha's desire for sensual pleasures and material luxury.
Prince Siddhartha married and had a son, but he was as intellectually restless as the domesticated Shakespeare would later prove to be at that age, and his desire to understand life beyond the four walls of the palace led Suddhodhana to arrange four guided tours outside the palace for him.
By legend, the 29-year old Siddhartha was profoundly moved by the first-time experience of seeing a man bent with age outside the first gate; by seeing a crippled man outside the second gate; by seeing a corpse outside the third gate; and by meeting a humble, peaceful monk outside the fourth gate, metaphorically representing the potential triumph of the soul over age, sickness and death.
His desire for inner peace led him to take one last look at his sleeping wife and child and to steal away from the palace in the dead of night, shaving his head and donning the clothes of a beggar -- a decision which no doubt embarrassed and exasperated Suddhodhana. Siddhartha spent six years living in systematic and extreme self-deprivation among Hindi yogis, but soon realized that the sense of macho pride which he had developed in his ability to withstand the harshness of his self-deprivations had blinded him from spiritual insight. Sitting cross-legged under a pipal tree in Buddh Gaya, India, Siddhartha decided to moderate his diet and meditate until he achieved enlightenment.
In one evening he explored his past incarnations (evidence of Siddhartha's Vedic world view) and broke through the facade of existence to see in all living things the endless cycle of suffering played out in death, life and rebirth. While the yogis faced this through abstinence from earthly pleasures to the point of starvation, the vast majority of people tried to ignore the inevitability of suffering by giving in to sensory experience and its illusory primacy, only to find themselves in misery when their desires went unfulfilled.
Siddhartha, now assuming the identity of the Buddha, sought to teach people a "Middle Way": leading moderate and ethical lives, supplemented by a level of earnest awareness of the impermanence of one's existence, one could end desire and ultimately, one could avoid rebirth into another life of suffering. Roaming the countryside of northern India with his follower Ananda for 45 years, he preached to anyone who would listen the tenets of his "Eightfold Noble Path":
(1) right ideas (recognition of the cycle of suffering and the impermanence of existence);
(2) right resolution (not allowing pain or suffering to restrict one's pursuit of the noble path);
(3) right speech (expressing wisdom, respect and kindness);
(4) right behavior (murder, adultery and abuse of alcohol are prohibited; honesty and self-control are encouraged);
(5) right vocation (employment should not involve harm to others, greed or deceit);
(6) right effort (tending to the goodwill of others in priority over one's own desires with sincerity and perseverance);
(7) right mindfulness (staying clear of dogmatism and considering things in relation to their underlying meanings and not merely their appearance); and
(8) right dhyana (absolute concentration on the path, to be retrieved when lost through meditation).
Around 483 B.C.E., at the age of 80, he declared he would live no more, telling Ananda, "Whatever is born bears within itself the seeds of destruction. Compound things are impermanent. Work out your own salvation with earnestness." Lying on his side, facing west with his head to the north, he achieved the "final nirvana," a state of total extinction.
For many years after Buddha's death, his teachings were followed by only handfuls of people in northern India -- particularly among merchants and start-up entrepreneurs, who saw in Buddhism a way of breaking the stale class relations inherent in the Hindu caste system, and who were attracted by Buddha's action-centered, self-reliant approach. With the conversion of Indian emperor Asoka to Buddhism in the 3rd century B.C., the relatively obscure religion spread quickly throughout southern Asia, fragmenting into thousands of sects; dominant strains include Theravada Buddhism (which recognizes that Buddha was an extraordinary human being but not a god, and that following the Eightfold Noble Path is the way to achieve nirvana) and Mahayana Buddhism (which postulates a transcendent existence beyond the impermanence of the empirical world, and that Buddha himself forms a part of the transcendental realm).
Artistic images and interpretations of Buddha have persisted for 25 centuries, more than most heroes of history, and he has found a most receptive audience among Western artists and thinkers in the 20th century -- perhaps because in the midst of a culturally exotic and enticing context, Westerners can find teachings not all that dissimilar in some respects to those of Jesus in the Sermon on the Mount. Among many modern examples of Western artists finding fascination in Buddha include Herman Hesse's novel Siddhartha (1922); Jack Kerouac's retelling of Buddha's life, Wake Up; and Bertolucci's film Little Buddha, 1993, with Keanu Reeves (of all people) as Siddhartha.