Buddha. According to the Buddhist theory (see Buddhism), a "Buddha" appears from time to time in the world and preaches the true doctrine. After a certain lapse of time this teaching is corrupted and lost, and is not restored till a new Buddha appears. In Europe, Buddha is used to designate the last historical Buddha, whose family name was Gotama, and who was the son of Suddhōdana, one of the chiefs of the tribe of the Sākiyas, one of the republican clans then still existent in India.
We are accustomed to find the legendary and the miraculous gathering, like a halo, around the early history of religious leaders, until the sober truth runs the risk of being altogether neglected for the glittering and edifying falsehood. The Buddha has not escaped the fate which has befallen the founders of other religions; and as late as the year 1854 Professor Wilson of Oxford read a paper before the Royal Asiatic Society of London in which he maintained that the supposed life of Buddha was a myth, and "Buddha himself merely an imaginary being." No one, however, would now support this view; and it is admitted that, under the mass of miraculous tales which have been handed down regarding him, there is a basis of truth already sufficiently clear to render possible an intelligent history.
The circumstances under which the future Buddha was born were somewhat as follows. In the 6th century B.C. the Āryan tribes had long been settled far down the valley of the Ganges. The old child-like joy in life so manifest in the Vedas had died away; the worship of nature had developed or degenerated into the worship of new and less pure divinities; and the Vedic songs themselves, whose freedom was little compatible with the spirit of the age, had faded into an obscurity which did not lessen their value to the priests. The country was politically split up into little principalities, most of them governed by some petty despot, whose interests were not often the same as those of the community. There were still, however, about a dozen free republics, most of them with aristocratic government, and it was in these that reforming movements met with most approval and support. A convenient belief in the doctrine of the transmigration of souls satisfied the unfortunate that their woes were the natural result of their own deeds in a former birth, and, though unavoidable now, might be escaped in a future state of existence by present good conduct.
While hoping for a better fate in their next birth, the poor turned for succour and advice in this to the aid of astrology, witchcraft and animism - a belief in which seems to underlie all religions, and still survives even in England. The inspiriting wars against the enemies of the Āryan people, the infidel deniers of the Āryan gods, had given place to a succession of internecine feuds between the chiefs of neighbouring clans. In literature an age of poets had long since made way for an age of commentators and grammarians, who thought that the old poems must have been the work of gods. But the darkest period was succeeded by the dawn of a reformation; travelling logicians were willing to maintain these against all the world; whilst here and there ascetics strove to raise themselves above the gods, and hermits earnestly sought for some satisfactory solution of the mysteries of life. These were the teachers whom the people chiefly delighted to honour. Though the ranks of the priesthood were for ever firmly closed against intruders, a man of lay birth, a Kshatriya or Vaisya, whose mind revolted against the orthodox creed, and whose heart was stirred by mingled zeal and ambition, might find through these irregular orders an entrance to the career of a religious teacher and reformer.
The Sākiya clan was then seated in a tract of country probably two or three thousand square miles in extent, the chief town of which was Kapilavastu, situate about 27° 37′ N. by 83° 11′ E., some days' journey north of Benares. Their territory stretched up into the lower slopes of the mountains, and was mostly in what is now Nepal, but it included territory now on the British side of the frontier. It is in this part of the Sākiya country that the interesting discovery was made of the monument they erected to their famous clansman. From their well-watered rice-fields, the main source of their wealth, they could see the giant Himālayas looming up against the clear blue of the Indian sky. Their supplies of water were drawn from the river Rohini, the modern Kohāna; and though the use of the river was in times of drought the cause of disputes between the Sākiyas and the neighbouring Koliyans, the two clans were then at peace; and two daughters of a chieftain of Koli, which was only 11 m. east of Kapilavastu, were the principal wives of Suddhōdana. Both were childless, and great was the rejoicing when, in about the forty-fifth year of her age, the elder sister, Mahā Māyā, promised her husband a son.
In due time she started with the intention of being confined at her parents' home, but the party halting on the way under the shade of some lofty satin-trees, in a pleasant garden called Lumbini on the river-side, her son, the future Buddha, was there unexpectedly born. The exact site of this garden has been recently rediscovered, marked by an inscribed pillar put up by Asoka (see J.R.A.S., 1898).
He was in after years more generally known by his family name of Gotama, but his individual name was Siddhattha. When he was nineteen years old he was married to his cousin Yasodharā, daughter of a Koliyan chief, and gave himself up to a life of luxury. This is the solitary record of his youth; we hear nothing more till, in his twenty-ninth year, it is related that, driving to his pleasure-grounds one day, he was struck by the sight of a man utterly broken down by age, on another occasion by the sight of a man suffering from a loathsome disease, and some months after by the horrible sight of a decomposing corpse. Each time his charioteer, whose name was Channa, told him that such was the fate of all living beings. Soon after he saw an ascetic walking in a calm and dignified manner, and asking who that was, was told by his charioteer the character and aims of the Wanderers, the travelling teachers, who played so great a part in the intellectual life of the time. The different accounts of these visions vary so much as to cast great doubts on their accuracy; and the oldest one of all (Anguttara, i. 145) speaks of ideas only, not of actual visions.