Siddharta Gautama’s Early Life

As you can expect from a religious tradition like this one, the story of the Buddha’s birth is full of miraculous signs. According to Buddhist tradition the future Buddha sprang right out of his mother’s side and took seven steps to the North and announced in a commanding voice: “I am the best of the world. This is my last birth. I will never be born again.”

The Wheel Turner

These were not usual events even in ancient India, and it seemed to have gotten his father’s attention. Suddhodana called all the palace’s sages and asked them to explain the meaning of what has just happened.

They saw that there were wheels inscribed on the palms of Siddharta’s hands and on his feet. They told the father that the child was destined to become a chakravartin, a “wheel turner”, someone who turns a wheel.

The wheels could mean either that he would turn the wheel of conquest around India and become a great king, or he could turn the wheel of religious teaching and become a great sage. Either way, the wheel was the symbol of his status as a Maha Purusha, a great person, someone who was truly a hero.

The eight-spoked wheel is still used as a symbol of Buddhism in temples, Buddhist sculpture and the 20th century Buddhist flag.

The Life in The Palace

Siddharta’s father tried to protect him from the suffering of the world in the hope that he would not choose what to him was the rather troubling option of becoming a religious ascetic, in the style of renunciation that we already talked about.

The prince Siddharta

For a while, the young men’s father was successful. Siddharta was married, he had a child and seemed for a while to be quite content with his life in the palace. But one day he was out riding in a park and he saw four sights. These are crucial sights in the history of Buddhist tradition.

He saw someone who was sick, someone who was old, a corpse, and a wandering ascetic. According to the story, this young guy was shocked by what he saw, he really had been protected from anything like this before.

He was shocked by the vision of suffering that it conveyed to him and he decided to leave the palace to become an ascetic. This was the defining moment in the early career of this young man.

Siddharta As a Monk

His process of leaving the palace, of shaving his head, giving away his possessions and take up the robe and begging ball of a wandering monk is a crucial event for traditional Buddhists.

As a monk, Siddharta did not find much success, at least immediately. He joined a group of other ascetics and tried to confront the problems of old age and death by starving himself until he was nothing but skin and bones.

There are powerful Buddhist images of this phase of Siddharta’s life, that show him with his eyes sunk deep in their sockets, and the veins standing out on his rib cage. It wasn’t particularly a pleasant time for him, and it didn’t bring the results that he wanted.

The Buddha as an ascetic

In the next article we will cover the next stage in his quest for enlightenment.

This article is part of the series about The Life of the Buddha.

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