The Human Journey
The Axial Age

Axial Age Thought


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Siddhattha Gotama 490-410 BCE

During what has been called the second urbanization of north-eastern India, emerging small kingdoms caused upheaval in all areas: economic, social and religious. Brahmin priests no longer retained the level of prestige and power they had as Vedic rituals and religious traditions lost their value, and more people turned their focus inwardly. They sought to know the true nature of reality that was at the bases of religious practice and the very foundation of life.

Men and women of all castes gave up everything to live a life of meditation, yoga, contemplation, starvation, self-mortification and deprivation of all kinds, in order to find this freedom, self-knowledge and fulfillment. Known as Samanas, there were so many of them that they were regarded as a fifth caste. These ascetics and sages lived alone in caves or forests, or with their families in communities. They were supported by those who felt unable to do the same but who, by helping them, believed that they gained
Karmic benefits.

Standing Buddha
Gotama Buddha, 1st century CE,
Kingdom of Gandhara (northern
Pakistan and eastern Afghanistan)

One Samana was Siddattha Gotama (Siddhartha Gautama), who would eventually become known as Buddha – the “Awakened One.”

“Having it all is not Enough” – the legend of Siddattha Gotama

Siddattha Gotama, legend has it, was a royal Prince whose father had protected him from any kind of suffering. From the time of his birth until the age of 29, he was given everything that one could possibly want: looks and riches, a beautiful wife, a healthy son. Then, at 29 he encountered sickness, old age, and death for the first time. Overcome by what he saw, Gotama recognized that all beings were subject to these things, no matter how much they had of worldly goods and splendor. He could no longer ignore the realities of life: suffering and death. Then he met a Samana who had renounced everything but appeared happy nonetheless, so, following his example, he left his home forever, and took up the begging bowl and staff of the Samana, to seek the end of his samsara the constant cycle of births, deaths and rebirths. Tradition refers to this episode as the “Four Sights.”

Buddha, Jesus, Zoroaster, Izkhiel, Guru-Nanak – stories about them all say that their transformative insights took place around the age of 30.

For six years Gotama practiced the ascetic arts, traveling throughout the cities of the Ganges basin, studying with teachers who could impart the disciplines that would end his samsara. He learned yogic meditation and other practices but refused to believe that the temporary states arrived at were the highest realization possible to man. He deprived himself of food until he became emaciated, but concluded that this method only intensified suffering, it did not release one from it.

Map of the Ganges Basin

He realized that neither the pleasures of life nor the ascetic practices of the Samana offered him the wisdom he sought. He needed to find a way between these two extremes – this he called the Middle Way.

According to the Buddhist tradition, Gotama sat beneath a huge tree that was later called the “wisdom,” or “Bodhi” tree and vowed not to leave it until he achieved the liberating knowledge he sought.

Bodhi Tree at the Mahabodhi Temple
The Bodhi Tree at the Maha Bodhi Temple.
Propagated from the Sri Maha Bodhi, which
in turn is propagated from the original
Bodhi Tree at this location.

Unlike his teachers, whose practices focused on achieving extra-sensory perceptions of the mind, Gotama’s emphasis was on the quality of ‘mindfulness’ – awareness, without judgment, of mind, body and environment. He remembered that as a child he had meditated and focused on his breath and that this had brought him a sense of both pervading calmness and awareness. He undertook a long and arduous period of meditation and contemplation that culminated in his acquiring deep insights into the human condition. Finally, in overcoming the temptations of the demonic Mara, he believed he did attain nibbana (or nirvana) – the understanding that liberated him from samsara.

“In that instance the knowledge and the vision arose in me, unshakable is the realization in my mind, this is my last birth,” At this moment he earned the title Buddha – the Awakened One.

For 49 days, we are told, he enjoyed this liberation, and pondered whether he could teach others how to attain it. Finally, he traveled on foot to Benares to seek the five ascetics who had deserted him when he gave up the samsara way. They recognized that something had changed in him, and, following his Dhamma (Dharma: teachings) became the first arahants of Buddhism. Buddha taught for several decades throughout the cities of the Gangetic basin, building a community of followers. In 410 BCE at the age of 80 he became mortally ill, his last words, tradition has it, being:
“All compounded things are subject to decay, work out your salvation with diligence.”

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