The word ‘Buddha’ is a title and not a name in itself. It means ‘one who is awake’ (in the sense of having ‘woken up to reality’). The title was given to Siddhartha Gautama, who was born in Lumbini (Nepal), approximately 2,500 years ago. He did not claim to be a God and he has never been regarded as such by Buddhists. He was a human being who became Enlightened, understanding life in the deepest way possible.
Siddhartha was born into the royal family of a small kingdom, on the Indian-Nepalese border. According to the traditional story, he had a cloistered upbringing, but was jolted out of complacency when he encountered the harsh realities of life, such as old age, sickness and death.
He left His home in search of the real meaning of life. He practiced meditation under various teachers and then took to asceticism. The rigorous asceticism that He followed virtually led Him to the verge of death. But, true understanding seemed as far away to Him as ever and eventually, He abandoned this path. He sat down beneath a pipal tree and vowed that “flesh may wither, blood may dry up, but I shall not rise from this spot until Enlightenment has been won”. After forty days, the Buddha finally attained Enlightenment.
Buddhists believe that He attained a state of being that goes beyond anything else in the world. If normal experience is based on conditions – upbringing, psychology, opinions, perceptions, and so on – Enlightenment is Unconditioned. It was a state in which the Buddha gained insight into the deepest workings of life and therefore, into the cause of human suffering, the problem that had set Him on His spiritual quest in the first place.
During the remaining 45 years of His life, he traveled through much of northern India, teaching the way to Enlightenment to others. The teaching is known as the Buddha-dharma – ‘the teaching of the Enlightened One’, in the East. Traveling from place to place, the Buddha taught numerous disciples, who gained Enlightenment in their own right. They, in turn, taught others and in this way, an unbroken chain of teaching has continued, right down to the present day.
The Buddha was not God and neither did He make any claim to divinity. He was a human being who, through tremendous efforts, transformed Himself. Buddhists see him as an ideal and a guide, who can lead them to Enlightenment.