According to the earliest Buddhist traditions, Gautama was born into a royal family near Lumbini, modern day Nepal. His father was the chief of the small kingdom of Kaplilavastu. He was raised by an adoring father who sought to protect him from the sight and knowledge of suffering. He married early and had a son while he was still a youth.
According to legend, he rode forth from his palace in his chariot at age 29 to parts of the city forbidden to him by his father. This is when he saw the 'four sights' . By the roadside he saw an aged man, a sick man, a corpse on a litter and an ascetic. Shocked by his first experience with old age, sickness, and death, the prince lost all joy in living, realising that wealth and luxury did not guarantee happiness. One night he left his sleeping wife Yashodhara and infant son Rahula and rode away into the forest. Gautama renounced the world, instead choosing to explore the different teachings religions and philosophies of the day, seeking the key to lasting human happiness. The practices he undertook included many ascetic ones which he pursued with such dedication that he came even to the point of almost starving to death. Still insight into life's meanings escaped him.
After six years of study and meditation he finally found 'the middle path' (so called because it eschews extreme asceticism as well as indulgence) and was enlightened. As he meditated in solitude under the Bodhi tree, which Buddhists call the tree of wisdom, he experienced a spiritual awakening, known as "the enlightenment." This happened in Bodh Gaya, India.
After enlightenment, the Buddha spent the rest of his life wandering through India and teaching the principles of Buddhism, called the Dhamma, or Truth, until his death at the age of 80. He established Sangha (monasticism) to preserve and spread his word. Ananda was his chief attendant. His first sermon was at Sarnath now in India. When he died he achieved 'Nirvana' ( to break free from the circle of birth-death-rebirth) at Kushinagar, Northern India. Scholars now generally date his death somewhere around 400 BC.
- 'buddha' is the perfect passive particle of the Sanskrit root 'budh'. The literal meaning of "buddha", therefore, is 'awakened,' or, substantively, 'awakened one'. In Indian tradition, "buddha" is a title rather than a proper name. cf. Gethin 1 ff.