His father Suddhodana of the Gautama clan was elected king of the Shakya tribe by its five hundred families just south of the Himalaya mountains in the realm of influence of the powerful Kosala monarchy. The son was born in the Lumbini garden and named Siddartha, which means "he who has accomplished his aim." Many myths and legends surround the birth of Siddartha, but most of these seem to have been developed centuries later in the Jatakas. A famous seer named Asita predicted that the child would either become a great king or, if he left home, a great teacher. His mother Maya died seven days after giving birth, and her younger sister Mahapajapati, who was also married to Suddhodana, became his foster mother.
By all accounts Siddartha was raised amid the finest luxuries of the time. Later he said that three palaces had been built for him - one for hot weather, one for cold, and one for the rainy season. His clothes were of the finest silk. When he walked on the grounds, someone held a white umbrella over his head. Even the servants were well fed, and music was played only by beautiful women.
Having demonstrated his skill in archery, Siddartha chose Yasodhara to be his wife, and they were married when he was about sixteen years old. For the next thirteen years he continued to live in luxury with his wife and concubines. Then about the time of the birth of his son Rahula, the famous four signs occurred. According to legend, his father had tried to prevent his princely son from experiencing any suffering or sorrow or religious contact so that he would become a king rather than a spiritual teacher.
However, one day while traveling outside the palace gates, Siddartha happened to come across an old man for the first time in his life. He was appalled at the wrinkles and decrepitude. On another occasion he happened to observe a sick person and learned about the loathsome nature of disease. The third sign came when he witnessed a funeral procession and was able to see the lifeless corpse that was being carried. The suddenness of these three experiences set him thinking about the transitoriness of human life. Finally he came upon a religious ascetic, who had renounced the world to seek enlightenment, a common occupation for Kshatriyas like himself as well as for Brahmins.
With the birth of his son he had fulfilled his obligation to continue his family line and decided that he too must renounce his kingdom and seek a way out of the human miseries of old age, sickness, and death. So he took off his silk garments and put on the coarse clothes of an ascetic and went south to Magadha seeking enlightenment.
While begging for his food in Rajagriha, the capital city of Magadha, his princely demeanor was observed by King Bimbisara (Shrenika). The king went to see Siddartha to find out who he was and what he was doing. Siddartha told him that he was purifying himself in order to achieve nirvana, and he promised to teach the king after he attained enlightenment.
Like the sages of the Upanishads, Siddartha practiced yoga and meditation. At Vaishali to learn meditative concentration he studied with Alara Kalama, who was said to have had hundreds of disciples. Siddartha soon learned how to reach the formless world, but still having mental anxieties he decided not to become a disciple of Alara Kalama. Nor did he become a disciple of his second teacher, Uddaka Ramaputra, after he attained the higher state of consciousness beyond thought and non-thought.
Still not satisfied, Siddartha decided to practice the path of extreme austerities, and in this quest he was joined by the sage Kaundinya and four others. He pressed his tongue against his palate to try to restrain his mind until the perspiration poured from his armpits. He restrained his breath and heard the violent sounds of wind in his ears and head. He went into trances, and some thought he was dead. He fasted for long periods of time and then decided to try limiting his food to the juice of beans and peas. As his flesh shrank, the bones almost stuck out of his skin so that he could touch his spine from the front; after sitting on the ground his imprint looked like a camel's footprint.
For six years Siddartha practiced such austerities, but instead of achieving superhuman knowledge and wisdom he only seemed to get weaker and weaker. Finally he thought that there might be a better way to attain enlightenment. He remembered how, while his father was working, he would sit in the shade of an apple tree free of sensual desires. Perhaps in concentrating his mind without evil ideas and sensual desires he should not be afraid of a happy state of mind. However, to gain the strength he felt he needed for this concentration he decided to start eating again. When he gave up practicing the extreme austerities, the five mendicants who were with him became disillusioned and left him, saying that Gautama lives in abundance and has given up striving.
Siddartha reasoned that a life of penance and pain was no better than a life of luxury and pleasure, because if penance on Earth is religion, then the heavenly reward for penance must be irreligion. If merit comes from purity of food, then deer should have the most merit. Those who practice asceticism without calming their passions are like a man trying to kindle fire by rubbing a stick on green wood in water, but those who have no desires or worldly attachments are like a man using a dry stick that ignites.
Regaining his strength from normal eating of the food he begged, Siddartha once again practiced meditation. Now he easily attained the first stage of joy and pleasure, then a joyful trance arising from concentration with serenity and the mind fixed on one point without reasoning and investigation. The third stage produced equanimity to joy and aversion in a mindful, happy state. In the fourth stage pleasure and pain were left behind in a mindful purity. With his mind thus concentrated and cleansed he directed it to the remembrance of former existences from previous births, also perceiving cycles of evolution and dissolution of the universe.
Then he directed his mind to the passing away and rebirth of beings, perceiving how the karma of evil actions, words, and thoughts leads to rebirth in miserable conditions and suffering in hell; but those beings leading good lives are reborn in a happy state in a heavenly world. Finally directing his mind to the means of ultimate release Siddartha realized that there is pain, a cause of pain, the cessation of pain, and a way that leads to that cessation of pain. Thus his mind was emancipated from sensual desires, the desire for existence, and ignorance.
According to legend this whole process occurred in one night after he had decided to sit under a tree until he became enlightened or died. It was also said that he was tested by Mara, the tempter, but Siddartha could not be swayed from his purpose. Thus darkness and ignorance were dispelled by the light as Siddartha Gautama became enlightened and was henceforth known as the Buddha.