According to tradition, his mother dreamed that a radiant white elephant descended to her from heaven. Signs such as this led a prophet to predict that the boy would someday become a wandering holy man. To prevent that from happening, Gautama's father kept him in the family's palaces, surrounded by comfort and luxury. Gautama married a beautiful woman, had a son, and enjoyed a happy life.

Over several days, as Gautama rode beyond the palace gardens, he saw for the first time an old person, a sick person, and a dead body. Suddenly, Gautama became aware of human suffering. Deeply disturbed, he bade farewell to his family and left the palace, never to return. He set out to discover “the realm of life where there is neither suffering nor death.”

Gautama Gains Enlightenment

Gautama wandered for years, seeking answers from scholars and holy men whose ideas failed to satisfy him. He fasted and meditated. Eventually, he sat down to meditate under a giant Bodhi tree, determined to stay there until he understood the mystery of life.

For weeks, according to legend, evil spirits tempted Gautama to give up his meditations. Then, suddenly, he believed he understood the cause of and cure for suffering and sorrow. When he rose, he was no longer Gautama. He had become the Buddha, or “Enlightened One.”

Photo of ancient outdoor statue of the Buddha seated in lotus pose with a calm countenance.


This ancient statue of the Buddha in a meditating pose is in Sri Lanka. What does the Buddha's facial expression show?

The Four Noble Truths

The Buddha spent the rest of his life teaching others what he had learned. In his first sermon after reaching enlightenment, he explained the Four Noble Truths that stand at the heart of Buddhism:

  • All life is full of suffering, pain, and sorrow.
  • The cause of suffering is rooted in evils such as greed, desire, and hatred.
  • The only cure for suffering is to overcome desire and other evils.
  • The way to overcome desire and other evils is to follow the Eightfold Path.

The Buddha described the Eightfold Path as “right views, right aspirations, right speech, right conduct, right livelihood, right effort, right mindfulness, and right contemplation.” The first two steps involved understanding the Four Noble Truths and committing oneself to the Eightfold Path. Next, a person had to live a moral life, avoiding evil words and actions. Through meditation, a person might at last achieve enlightenment. For the Buddhist, the final goal is nirvana, or union with the universe and release from the cycle of rebirth.

The Buddha saw the Eightfold Path as a middle way between a life devoted to pleasure and one based on harsh self-denial. He stressed moral principles such as honesty, charity, and kindness to all living creatures.

Buddhism and Hinduism

Buddhism, like Hinduism, grew out of the Vedic religious traditions. Both Hindus and Buddhists accepted the law of karma, dharma, and a cycle of rebirth. Ahimsa, or nonviolence, was central to both religions.

Yet Buddhism differed from Hinduism in several ways. The Buddha rejected the priests, formal rituals, and the existence of the many gods of Hinduism. Instead, the Buddha urged each person to seek enlightenment through meditation. Buddhists also rejected the Indian caste system as practiced at that time. Buddhism offered the hope of nirvana to all regardless of birth.

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Table of Contents

World History Topic 1 Origins of Civilization (Prehistory–300 B.C.) Topic 2 The Ancient Middle East and Egypt (3200 B.C.–500 B.C.) Topic 3 Ancient India and China (2600 B.C.–A.D. 550) Topic 4 The Americas (Prehistory–A.D. 1570) Topic 5 Ancient Greece (1750 B.C.–133 B.C.) Topic 6 Ancient Rome and the Origins of Christianity (509 B.C.-A.D. 476) Topic 7 Medieval Christian Europe (330–1450) Topic 8 The Muslim World and Africa (730 B.C.-A.D. 1500) Topic 9 Civilizations of Asia (500–1650) Topic 10 The Renaissance and Reformation (1300–1650) Topic 11 New Global Connections (1415–1796) Topic 12 Absolutism and Revolution Topic 13 The Industrial Revolution Topic 14 Nationalism and the Spread of Democracy (1790–1914) Topic 15 The Age of Imperialism (1800–1914) Topic 16 World War I and the Russian Revolution (1914–1924) Topic 17 The World Between the Wars (1910–1939) Topic 18 World War II (1930–1945) Topic 19 The Cold War Era (1945–1991) Topic 20 New Nations Emerge (1945–Present) Topic 21 The World Today (1980-Present) United States Constitution Primary Sources 21st Century Skills Atlas Glossary Index Acknowledgments