The Sunday Section: Hindu Deities - Vishnu and his Avatars Pt. 4 - Buddha

I was brought up in the belief that Vishnu's ninth avatar, Buddha, was the Buddha of Buddhism. 

But, according to others, they are two different entities.  In Buddhism, Buddha isn’t worshipped because Buddhism doesn’t believe in gods; the ‘relationship’ is that of ‘teacher-student’.  Having said that, there are followers of Gautama Buddha who do worship him, despite the fact that he was a human. 

175ft Buddha statue at Bamiyan, Afghanistan, before it was destroyed by the Taliban

Buddha statues at Gal Viharaya, Sri Lanka

I’m no expert on Buddhism, and don’t know enough to get into any sort of detailed discussion/argument about it, but one of the reasons why these two individuals became merged into one was because the 8th century Hindu philosopher, Adi Sankaracharya, spoke of them as one person, and didn’t differentiate their purposes. 

The word ‘Buddha’ means ‘enlightened one’, and there are three types of Buddha.  First, there are human Buddhas, those who come to be known as Buddha when they have achieved enlightenment, like Gautama Buddha.  Then there are the Bodhisattva Buddhas, who are committed to achieving enlightenment for the sake of others.  These can be ordinary people that have taken part in the ritual of enlightenment thought, and are considered ordinary bodhisattvas; or they can be special bodhisattvas, like Avalokiteshvara, who have progressed through a system of ten levels to achieve complete enlightenment.

Avalokitesvara (China), male form of Guan Yin

Guan Yin (Malaysia)

The third type is ‘Adi’ (‘original’) Buddha, and this is Vishnu’s Buddha avatar.  This avatar founded the philosophy of ‘Ahimsa’ or nonviolence, primarily to stop the practice of animal sacrifice, which went against Vedic customs.

The Buddha of Buddhism was born a prince in, what is now Nepal, to King Suddhodana, and his queen, Maya.  Seven days after the birth, Maya died, and the baby was raised by the queen’s sister, Mahaprajapati.  The baby was named Siddhartha, which means ‘he who has attained his goals’, with ‘Gautama’ being the Sanskrit form of the family name.

A holy man prophesied that the prince would become either a great king or a great spiritual leader.  Being a king himself, naturally Suddhodana wanted his son to become a great king, and resolved to shield the prince from anything that might lead to him wanting to take up a religious life.  As he grew to adulthood, Siddhartha was raised in palaces, surrounded by luxury, shielded from what people would consider life’s experiences. 

As a prince of the warrior caste, Siddhartha trained as a warrior.  At the age of sixteen, he won the hand of the Princess Yashodhara, whose father ruled a neighbouring kingdom.

But Siddhartha’s own curiosity was beginning to intrude on his ordered life.  Already in his late 20s, he demanded that he be allowed to see the people, and his father’s lands.  Realising he could not forbid his son from leaving the palace, Suddhodana ensured that the prince would travel along a carefully selected route that would prevent him seeing any kind of suffering, for he still feared that Siddhartha might yet choose a religious life.

As he was taken through the capital, Siddhartha happened to spy a couple of old men.  Confused at the sight, he insisted on following them to find out what they were.  Then he came across people who were ill, and finally he witnessed a funeral ceremony, seeing death for the first time.  Not understanding anything of what he’d seen, he asked his friend to explain it to him.  His friend obliged, telling him the simple truths that had been kept from Siddhartha – all of us get old, become sick, and eventually die.

Wondering at his friend’s words, the prince happened to see an ascetic, a monk who had renounced all worldly pleasures.  The monk’s peaceful countenance would stay with Siddhartha for a long time.

Returning to his life, Siddhartha no longer found any pleasure in it, not even when Yasodhara gave birth to their son, Rahula.  One night, as he wandered through the palace, he thought of the old age and death that came to all, rich and poor alike.  Realising that he could no longer be content with his life as a prince, he decided to leave.  Shaving his head, he changed his princely clothes for a beggar’s robe and began his search for enlightenment.

Siddhartha first sought out renowned teachers, who taught him religious philosophies and how to meditate, but this knowledge failed to answer his questions.  So he and five others left to find enlightenment elsewhere, through physical discipline, almost starving themselves in the process.  When this approach failed to provide any answers, Siddhartha began to consider if the path to enlightenment might lie midway between the two extremes.  When he accepted some food from a young girl, his companions, believing he had given up, left him.

The sacred fig tree that Siddhartha sat under to meditate became known as the Bodhi Tree, or Bodhi Gaya or Bodhgaya.  Interestingly, it is believed that Vishnu’s Buddha avatar had been born there; aware of the spiritual power of the place, Siddhartha chose that spot to perform his meditation.  The mental ‘battle’ that Siddhartha experienced was mythologised as a battle with Mara, which means ‘destruction’, representing the passions that trap and deceive us.  Monsters were sent to attack Siddhartha, who sat still and undistracted; a beautiful woman tried to seduce him, in vain.  Mara finally claimed that his spiritual accomplishments were greater than Siddhartha’s, and that he had his followers as witnesses.  When asked who would speak for him, Siddhartha touched the earth with his right hand, and the earth answered, “I bear witness.”  As dawn broke, Siddhartha achieved enlightenment, and became a Buddha.

At first, Gautama Buddha was reluctant to teach, because what he’d learned about enlightenment could not be taught in words.  But eventually he decided to prescribe a practice through which people could realise enlightenment for themselves; his first sermon centred on the Four Noble Truths.  He spent the rest of his life, until his death at age 80, devoting himself to teaching.  In time, he made peace with his father, Suddhodana.  His wife, Yasodhara, became a nun and disciple; his son, Rahula, became a monk and remained with him for the rest of the Buddha’s life.  Buddha’s last words to his followers were: “All component things in the world are changeable.  They are not lasting.  Work hard to gain your own salvation.”

As there aren’t many pictures to choose from for the Buddha, thought I’d include some quotes attributed to Gautama Buddha:

   ‘We carry inside us the wonders we seek outside us’

   ‘Doubt everything, find your own light’

   ‘Do not overrate what you have achieved, nor envy others. He who envies others does not obtain peace of mind’

   ‘It is better to conquer yourself than to win a thousand battles. Then the victory is yours. It cannot be taken from you, not by angels or by demons, heaven or hell’

   ‘There has to be evil so that good can prove its purity over it’

I’ll end this post with the last of Vishnu’s avatars, which has not happened yet – ‘Kalki’ avatar – destined to appear at the end of the age we are now in, the ‘Kali Yuga’.  Interestingly, he is depicted on a white horse, wielding a blazing sword with which he will destroy the darkness.

'Kalki' avatar