Shakyamuni Buddha was born around the 5th century BCE, into a royal family of the Shakya clan that lived in ancient India in a region that is now part of Nepal. He was named Siddhartha Gautama, and is therefore known by a variety of names, including Gautama Buddha, Shakyamuni Buddha (“Sage of the Shakyas”), or simply the Buddha.
Prince Siddhartha’s extraordinary qualities were foretold by an auspicious dream that his mother had prior to his conception. Soon after his birth, soothsayers also predicted that the young prince would become either a universal monarch, or supreme spiritual guide. Although his mother died just days after he was born, Siddhartha was lovingly raised by his aunt, and grew up in the lap of luxury.
In fact, his father, who wanted a great successor, made every effort to steer the young prince away from spiritual concerns, offering a wealth of pleasurable experiences and distractions. Basking in the comforts of palaces and a regal lifestyle, Siddhartha had no reason to question the deeper meaning of life. He married at age 16, and there seemed to be little cause for him to veer from the path set by his father, that of a powerful king.
And yet, in his late twenties, Siddhartha followed an urge to explore beyond the palace walls, and what he discovered would alter his course, and eventually lead to the birth of Buddhism. Upon seeing an old man, a sick person, and a corpse, the sheltered prince abruptly encountered the truth of old age, illness, and death for the first time. A fourth encounter – with an ascetic (monk or yogi) – also struck a chord, suggesting that there may be a way out of the inescapable suffering of life.
At the age of 29, despite having a newborn son – his first child – Siddhartha fled from the palace and its false promise of lasting happiness. Embarking on an ascetic path, he wandered for 6 years as a homeless yogi seeking truths that could liberate sentient beings. Unable to find liberation by practicing austerities, he turned to meditation. And, at age 35, having vowed to exert himself completely until reaching enlightenment, after 49 days of sustained meditation, Siddhartha attained Buddhahood.
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