This essay considers the life of Siddhārtha Gautama as a religious modality that finds expression in various contexts, including Buddhist culture, ritual, and art. Some Buddhists consciously emulate his hagiography in the ways in which they conduct their own lives. Familiar fragments of the Buddha’s biographical narrative also inform powerfully evocative representations in visual and performative art, including temple murals, theatrical performances and so forth. For discussions of historical and textual biographies of the Buddha, readers should consult entries on Buddha, story of; Hagiographies; and Jātakas and other narrative collections.
For about 100 million Buddhists who comprise the Theravāda world today, the life of Siddhārtha Gautama, the Buddha, is a foundational narrative that describes for the community his model for mastering enlightenment. As such it is a master narrative shaping the imagination of all Buddhist communities, while continually undergoing local reinterpretations in Sri Lanka, Myanmar, Thailand, Laos, and Cambodia. Its numerous versions are commonly known and its paradigmatic significance is refracted in just about every aspect of popular Buddhist belief and practice. Prominent themes of the Buddha’s final life include his miraculous birth, the predictions Brahmin sages offered about his future, the privileged life he led as a prince, his renunciation of attachment, the ascetic trials, his temptation by Māra, the King of Hells, his ultimate enlightenment, his sermon to set the Wheel of Law into motion, his ministry to his community, and his Final Departure from the world, pārinirvāṇa. The life of the Buddha, and the tradition of his sacred biography more generally, constitute an encompassing cultural idiom or a root metaphor, in Victor Turner’s terms, that continues to engage the imagination of Buddhist communities and creates meaning in practice, doctrine, and belief.
In 1977, Frank Reynolds noted that the narrative structures of the Buddha’s sacred biography informed emergent doctrinal and institutional formations in the early Buddhist tradition. The mythic qualities of the Buddha’s sacred biography helped shape the process by which the early community moved from a focus on the Buddha’s charisma to the cultural institutions that emerged after his death. In the story of the life of Gautama, court Brahmins predict upon his birth that he will become either a world-conquering universal monarch (cakkavatti) or renounce worldly matter to attain Buddhahood. These complementary biographical themes are expressed in terms of the dual Buddhist roles of a world conqueror and a world renouncer. This division of social roles lies at the core of traditional Theravāda cultural practices. The religious practice of a Buddhist king (dhammarāja) and of his subjects was focused on making merit by providing material support for the monastic community of world renouncers, the sangha. Those who join the sangha are ordained into a community of world renouncers. In an analogy to the Buddha’s son, Rāhula, who became ordained, the sangha is sometimes also referred to as the Sons of the Buddha. Some Theravāda Buddhist kings and monks have also been inspired to emulate the life of the Buddha in the conduct of their own lives. The hagiographies of Buddhist saints frequently evoke analogies with salient events or themes in the life of the Buddha. By implication, such analogies imply that the saintly person’s spiritual achievements are in some ways comparable to those of the Buddha and legitimated by the paradigm and significance of his story.
The story about Siddhārtha Gautama Śākyamuni is not just about the founder of the tradition, it also frequently conveys the foundation of knowledge about the Buddhist tradition. There is no single or original version of the story of the life of the Buddha and the Buddhist traditions encompass numerous authoritative versions of the narrative. The life of the Buddha is commonly the subject of storytelling, sermons, mural paintings, and even popular entertainment like movies and children’s literature. The narrative teaches listeners about mastering the path to enlightenment and invites interpretations and illustrations of his message. Many Buddhists are taught, at an early age, the narrative episodes and moral values conveyed in this story and Buddhist audiences are generally familiar with its salient episodes. A modern version by the Burmese monk Ashin Janakabhivamsa (1951) including captivatingly didactic illustrations is accessible online at http://nibbana.com (http://web.ukonline.-co.uk/buddhism/).
The text that accompanies these illustrations is easily accessible to young audiences and others unfamiliar with this story. Its narrative structure follows a familiar pattern, while rendering this particular version in a cultural style that is specifically Burmese. The illustrations are depicted in a modern artistic style characteristic of the 1930s and retain many of the story’s mythic and miraculous elements.
Narrative episodes of this story are commonly represented in Buddhist iconography and through visual and performative media. Such frames are themselves reminders of the broader biographical paradigm of the Buddha’s life. They illustrate specific teachings of the Buddha. A catalog of standardized representations provides a symbolic index to central events in this story. Buddhist iconographic art such as the Buddha’s footprint or Buddha images may bring to mind specific episodes in the biographical narrative. Such representations index his particular achievement as well as the possibility of enlightenment in general (See Figure 36).
Murals carved in stone or painted on plaques often depict scenes from the Buddha’s life on the walls of temples or surrounding the base of a stūpa. The earliest illustrations of narrative frames taken from the life of the Buddha appear in the Buddhist art found at Bhārhut and dating to the second century bce. Artistic representations of the life of the Buddha are also commonly found in later Buddhist temples, like those at Borobudur and Pagan.
Buddha images depicting the moment of his enlightenment typically show him in a cross-legged posture, seated on a lotus throne, and with his right hand extended toward the earth (mudrā). Icons of Gautama’s parinirvāṇa, the moment of his departure from the world of impermanence, show him reclining on his side and resting his head in his right hand. Some icons, like the Emerald Buddha in Bangkok or the Mahāmuni Image in Mandalay, are believed to embody Gautama’s extraordinary powers. Burmese myths recount that, while on a visit to southern Burma, Gautama enlivened and conversed with the Mahāmuni Image that is now enshrined in Mandalay. The image is said to have advised many kings, but has fallen silent because of the moral decline of the world.
The cultic celebration of the life of the Buddha allows Buddhist communities to incorporate into their own lives mythic times, places, and events associated with the Buddha. Such rituals allow Buddhists to create karmic links between the life of the Buddha and their own lives. In the same way, they also bring the universal message of the Buddha into the local contexts of Buddhist communities. Rituals that focus on the Buddha and his biography give him a presence among Buddhist communities in religiously meaningful ways, despite his absence from the world of rebirth.
Theravādins participate in the life of Gautama through various kinds of ritual performances. These may include pilgrimages to places associated with his relics, famous stūpas, or images. Pilgrimage destinations may also include traveling to places associated with biographical events, such as the place of the Buddha’s birth at Lumbinī, the place of his Enlightenment at Bodhgayā, the Deer Park in Vārānasi (Benares) where he preached his first sermon, and the village of Kusinārā where the Buddha passed into pārinirvāṇa. Calendrical rituals also commemorate his enlightenment, his first sermon and his pārinirvāṇa.
Ritual veneration of the Buddha’s presence may also consist of meditating on and emulating Ānanda’s service to the Buddha. Communal rituals celebrating the Buddha’s ritual presence generally involve the veneration of his physical remains (sārīra), stūpas, and icons. Novice initiation in Burma similarly emulates biographical themes from the last life as the young boys begin their ritual initiation dressed in the garments of princes who ride on horses in procession. During the Shinbyu (White Lord) initiation to novicehood, the boys attend the rituals dressed in the royal garments and honors that the tradition ascribes to the life of Prince Siddhartha. They then have their heads shaven and change into the orange robes of the sangha.
In contrast to other religions of the world, the Buddhist biographical genre extends beyond the life of its founder to encompass his countless rebirths that lead up to his culminating and final rebirth, as well as the lives of many of his disciplines and companions who traverse with him the cycle of rebirth (saṃsāra). In that sense, the final life of Siddhārtha Gautama is merely the culminating episode within an encompassing narrative of many lives. The foundational life of Siddhārtha Gautama thus engenders a biographical genre within the Theravādin tradition that spans not merely the life of the founder but, more significantly, the many rebirths that link moments in his unfolding dispensation to the dispensation and lineages of Buddhas of the past and the future.
See also: Famous Buddhists and ideal types; India, Buddhism in.
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