The Birth of Buddha: Historical or Symbolic?

Buddha tree

Organised religions have a backstory which involves a historical founder. Yet curiously there is always a lack of evidence to support these people actually existed.

Furthermore, some of the stories surrounding the legends are so far-fetched they are not believable. For example, when the historical Buddha, Prince Siddhartha Shakyamuni, was born he is said to have taken seven steps and said: “I alone am the World-Honoured One.”

This part of the story is clearly a fable. A new-born baby can neither walk nor talk. In Buddhist symbology, this story is reflected by statues of an infant Buddha with one finger pointing upwards and another downwards. It is taken quite seriously, although is purely symbolic.

The event clearly didn’t happen immediately after birth. Even as an infant, not yet enlightened and only predicted to become a Buddha only if he left the Royal Palace, it is a stretch to believe Siddhartha declared he alone is the world-honoured one?

I’m not suggesting the historical Buddha did not exist. My thought on the matter is that it does not matter. What I am sure of is that enlightened men like Buddha Gautama have lived throughout history. My view is that accounts such as the birth of Siddhartha Shakyamuni and the subsequent legends of his life reflect these men.

Essentially, myths are stories that teach us all how to become enlightened like the revered heroes from the past.

Many Buddhas

Buddhist lure shares similarities with both Hindu and Hellenic mythology among others. A Homeric poem written in the 6th Century BCE explains the God Apollo was born with superhuman strength. At the age of four days, Apollo kills the serpent, Python. In another Greek myth, the hero Hercules, son of Zeus, also strangles serpents whilst still a baby in the crib.

Nobody suggests the two Greek gods ever existed or that these “histories” are true. Is that perhaps because Greek Gods are no longer part of modern religion?

Yet the concepts within the Hellenic stories are the same as we find in the legend recounting the birth of Buddha. And there are many other familiar patterns embedded as historical fact in modern religions that share striking similarities with ancient myths.

The Birthplace of the Historical Buddha

The historical evidence of Siddhartha’s existence is thin, to say the least. All we really know is that he was the son of a man named King Suddhodana – except he wasn’t a monarch, but an oligarchy.

The name Suddhodana means, ‘he who grows pure rice.’ This implies Siddhartha’s father was a merchant rather than a king. Without any hard evidence of the families existence, we just have to accept the family had some authority in the province of Shakya and Siddhartha became Buddha Gautama, the founder of Buddhism.

In reality, it is probable that many enlightened men existed long before Siddhartha was born.

In relation to Siddhartha’s birth, Buddhist legend explains his mother, Queen Devi Maya, was travelling from the family home in Kapilavatthu to her parent’s home in Devadaha. Midway she is said to have stopped in a grove in modern-day Lumbini, Nepal. That evening she gave birth.

Today this location is the site of the Maya Devi temple, a primary pilgrimage for Buddhists.

The only historical evidence we have confirming Lumbini as the birthplace of Prince Siddhartha is a stone pillar erected by Emperor Asoka of India when he visited the region in 249BCE, some 200 years or more after the death of Siddhartha.

Ashoka pillar. birthplace of buddha, Lumbini

It’s hardly categorical proof! Certainly not when you consider Asoka was on a mission to help spread the religion of Buddhism across Asia.

Scholars don’t even know in which epoch Siddhartha lived. For many years, the general consensus was that Buddha Gautama lived between 490-410 BCE or 450-370 BCE. Either of these dates was accepted by the wider community.

That date changed in 2013. A timber structure discovered by a team of archaeologists in the Maya Devi shrine at the Lumbini pilgrimage site was carbon-dated to the 6th-century BCE. 

However, the discovery doesn’t prove this location was the birthplace of the Buddha. It just proves this location was used as a Buddhist shrine at least 100 years before the accepted dates Buddhism began,

The Buddhist monk and writer, Geshe Kelsang Gyatso states Siddhartha was born in 624BCE. Archaeologists say 550BCE. The Chinese say Buddha lived around 949BCE. Who knows.

The archaeological team that found the fragment of tree suggest a shrine was built to mark the spot Buddha Gautama was born. When the modern temple was built as a dedication to Maya Devi, the brick structure was built directly over it as a shrine.

If that is the case, why did the builders not keep the tree on display for people to come and pay homage to?

They didn’t. They buried it under the temple floor because the piece of timber has no significance whatsoever.

It seems scholars here are trying to claw out historical facts to fit the story. But the evidence is so thin, you have to wonder what archaeologists are actually taught in University. It certainly isn’t logic. Yet ironically, this is one of the qualities the legend of Buddha’s birth spells out.

The Legend of Buddha’s Birth

Some people believe this account really happened:

Buddhist legend states Queen Maya Devi had a vivid dream in which she was visited by a white elephant holding a lotus flower in its trunk. The elephant circled her three times before striking her right side with its trunk.

When the Queen stopped to rest at the grove in Lumbini, she bathed in the pond then went across to admire the blossoms on a tree. It is at this point she went into labour and gave birth to the future Buddha Gautama.

A plaque in the Maya Devi temple shows the pregnant queen holding on to the trunk on a tree in the throes of labour pains (the details are not that obvious, I am merely scene setting).

Also featured in the artwork are two female characters and two other, somewhat mysterious characters. The official literature at the Maya Devi temple reveals the two other women are the queen’s sisters, and the other characters are the Hindu gods, Brahma and Indra.

The piece of art is also used as evidence of Buddha’s birth. Whilst it is unlikely Indra and Brahma were actually in attendance is nonsense given they don’t exist, Buddhist legend states Maya Devi did have sisters.

In actual fact, records reveal the queen died seven days after giving birth and Siddhartha was raised by her younger sister, Pajapati who was also married to King Suddhodana.

Scholars acknowledge Buddha Gautama actually existed, and I am in no position to dispute their claims. However, when I read the story of Siddhartha’s birth, I noticed the same patterns of symbolism that are present in myths of other cultures. There is certainly more symbolism than historical evidence.

Symbolic Similarities in the Birth of Buddha

The story pertaining to the birth of Prince Siddhartha is rich in symbolism. But not just any symbolism. It has significant numbers, images and concepts that are found in creation stories from many cultures.

We touched upon the story recounting the birth of the historical Buddha earlier. Now we’re going to take a closer look at and examine the symbolism in more detail.

One evening whilst resting in her chambers, Queen Maya had a prophetic dream. In the dream, she saw a white elephant carrying a lotus flower in its trunk. The elephant walked around her three times before entering her right-hand side.

First of all, let’s examine the white elephant, a symbol of purity, patience, intelligence and mental strength. These are qualities you need to become a Buddha, or indeed, create what you want from life.

The elephant entered Queen Maya’s womb from the right side of her body. Prince Siddhartha was also born from the right side of her body. The right side of the body is controlled by the left side of the brain, mostly associated logic, analytical thought and reasoning.

It’s interesting to note at this point that the Hindu God Indra also emerged from the right side of his mother when he was born.

Just after his birth, Indra kills his father who is trying to murder him – just like Cronus does with each of his children in Greek myth – and also slays the demon snake Vritra.

As I mentioned earlier, Hercules and Apollo also kill serpents as infants. The two characters from Greek mythology bear resemblance to the sun; Apollo means sun, and the story of Hercules involves him overcoming twelve labours which represent the twelve signs of the zodiac.

Indra was originally identified as a sun god. The “thunder” god of Hindu mythology also carries a Vajra, a lightning bolt, another direct comparison with the Greek God, Zeus, the father of Apollo and Hercules.

Although there is no denying there are close relationships between Hindu and Greek myth, these connections seem very loose. And when considered side-by-side without a fundamental glue, it is clear to see why the similarities appear to be a coincidence.

But as the great yogis say: there is no such thing as coincidence.

Why is the God Indra Present at Buddha’s Birth?

Hindu myth inspired Buddhism. Buddhist legends tell us that the God Indra appears at the moment Siddhartha was born.

The connection with all the gods I mentioned above and the birth of Buddha is that all gods represent aspects of energy and human nature. The sun, and thus sun gods, represent the mind, intelligence and man’s capacity for logical and analytical thinking.

The sun is symbolic of enlightenment. Buddha means “the enlightened one.”

Big Buddha

Let me explain.

All energy has potential. And each of the gods I mentioned are infants that show extraordinary potential. In the story of the historical Buddha, King Shuddhodana summons 64 Brahmans to interpret the Queen’s dream.

The Brahmans tell the king and queen their son will either become a great leader or an enlightened being. This is his potential. Upon hearing this, the king decided their child would be called Siddhartha, meaning ‘Perfect Fulfilment.’

The myths are basically explaining the transformation of energy from potential into manifestation. This is how energy works.

Now compare this with Apollo, Hercules and Indra. Apollo is the sun, representing enlightenment; Hercules successfully completes the 12 labours and becomes a god, and Siddhartha becomes Buddha. He mastered his mind.

All three characters fulfil their potential, just as energy fulfils its potential. In nature, the potential of energy is synergy, symmetry and beauty. It creates (Brahma), destroys (Shiva) and manifests (Vishnu).

Every experience we have is created by how we transform energy. If you keep having bad luck it is because you are manifesting bad energy, so you need to change your habits to avoid bad experiences and create better experiences. You can do this when you understand how energy works.

So what of Indra, and why does Indra appear in the story of Siddhartha?

The opening verse of the Hindu myth that recounts the story of Indra’s birth, Rig Veda, Mandala 4, Hymn 18 says:

This is the ancient and accepted pathway by which all Gods have come into existence. Hereby could one be born though waxen and mighty. Let him not, otherwise, destroy his Mother.”

Remember, Indra and Buddha are both born from the right side of their mother, representing the analytical aspect of the brain. Queen Maya dies seven days after giving birth.

One aspect of the feminine principle is emotions, therefore the analogy here is to think things through before acting on impulse – traits that are driven by emotions.

Indra on the other hand, kills his father, replacing him just as a thought replace earlier thoughts and ideas. Indra also kills a serpent which represents emotions. Indra’s mount, the white elephant Airavata represents the qualities you need to overcome subconscious programs that impact your emotions.

Emotions cause craving, temptation; just as the serpent in the Garden of Eden tempts Eve into eating the fruit from the Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil.

Craving causes suffering.

One of the cornerstones of Buddhism is to overcome attachment. In doing so, you abandon desires towards material possessions and are able to control your emotions and bring peace to your mind.

In his book, Introduction To Buddhism, Geshe Kelsang Gyatso explains that Shakyamuni means the “Able One” of Shakya – the province which his father ruled.

The symbolism in the birth of Buddha teaches us that we all have the potential to become enlightened. Furthermore, we are all able.

When the baby Buddha declares “I alone am the world-honoured one,” Siddhartha is expressing the Buddha nature that is inherent in each of us. The Absolute. Energy. And Buddhism also declares we are connected.

We are connected by the same energy. We are unique because we transmute energy differently. The seven steps taken by the baby Buddha represent the seven chakras and the seven stages of alchemical transmutation. This how we transform energy as explained by the hermetic alchemists of the middle-ages.

So is the creation story of Buddha Gautama historical fact, or a symbolic analogy that explains our True potential?

Do you want to know more about ancient symbolism?

Master Mind Content offers online symbolism courses. We have several in-depth guides that explain how symbolism relates to the body-mind-energy connection. Understanding symbolism can help you make important decisions, improve your quality of life and understand more about the world.

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