Some of the misconceptions about the Buddha are so common that you’ll find them in just about every book on Buddhism. The problem is that most of these books are merely rehashes of other books on Buddhism, so that misconceptions get passed on for decades and even centuries.
So here I’d like to debunk some myths about the Buddha. I’m not talking about myths like “The Buddha was a god” (he was a historical human figure) or that the Buddha was fat (that’s an entirely different figure, Budai, who was a Chinese monk). I’m going to debunk things that even many savvy Buddhists believe to be true because they’ve read them so often.
So here we go:
Myth #1: The Buddha Was Indian
The country of India didn’t exist at the time of the Buddha, of course, but when people talk about the Buddha being Indian they mean that he was born in a place that is now part of present-day India. However, he was born (according to tradition) in a town called Lumbini, which was in the Sakyan country. Lumbini is in present-day Nepal, not India. Of course the Buddha spent much of his life in what is now India, but he wasn’t Indian. He was Nepalese—or at least he was born in a part of the world that is now known as Nepal.
Myth #2: The Buddha’s First Name Was Siddhartha
In the scriptures the only name given to the Buddha is “Gautama,” which was his family name. We know the names of his father, mother, son, aunt, cousins, and so on, but we don’t know his own given name! This is a very odd omission, which is perhaps why in the later tradition he was given the name Siddhartha (Siddhatta in Pali). But there’s no evidence that this was actually the Buddha’s name.
As far as I know, the only places in the Pali scriptures where the Buddha is given the name Siddhattha are in some very late texts called the āpadānas, and other late texts like the Jātakas. Here’s a text, for example, where “Siddhatta” is being recalled by a monk who had been a crocodile in a past life when the two had met! These texts seem to have been added to the canon many, many centuries after the Buddha died.
Myth #3: The Buddha Was Born Hindu
There was no religion called Hinduism at the time the Buddha was born, and so it would be anachronistic to say that the Buddha was born a Hindu. There were many religious traditions that were around at that time. There was one common one that we call Brahminism, which was a hereditary sacrificial tradition based on ancient Indian texts called the Vedas. This is one of the traditions that evolved into contemporary Hinduism. However, there is no evidence whatsoever that the Buddha followed this Vedic tradition at any time in his life. In fact he probably didn’t. We know that the Sakyans argued that they were superior to the Brahmins, and so it seems unlikely that they followed their religious tradition.
There’s mention in the scriptures that in Kosala and Magadha (territories close to Sakya) there were “Brahmin villages.” According to Bronkhorst (“Buddhism in the Shadow of Brahmanism”) there is evidence that Brahmins tended to cluster together in villages. I thought I’d at some point seen a reference to a Brahmin village in Sakya, although I haven’t been able to track that down. Whether or not there was such a village, the implication is that if Brahminism was present in Sakya it wasn’t ubiquitous and probably wasn’t the dominant religious tradition.
In one discourse a Brahmin talks about visiting the Sakyan capital, Kapilavatthu, and being shocked that brahmins were not honored there. It is “neither fitting, nor is it seemly, that the Sākyas, menials as they are, mere menials, should neither venerate, nor value, nor esteem, nor give gifts to, nor pay honour to Brahmans,” he complains. It’s all too easy for us to think that India is a Hindu country. Therefore it has always been a Hindu country. But in doing so we’re projecting the present (and a rough approximation of the present at that) into a very different past.
In the scriptures there’s simply no mention of the Buddha practicing any religion until after he left home and became a follower of first Alara Kalama and then Uddaka Ramaputta. These teachers were not followers of the Vedas. They seem to have rejected Vedic authority and ran forest renunciate communities based on seeking the truth through meditation. There were presumably philosophical aspects to Alara and Uddaka’s teachings, however, since the Buddha talks about having “memorized” them and having mastered “lip-recital and oral recitation.”
The Vedic tradition was not meditative, but involved rituals of sacrifice and purity in order to influence the gods. There’s no evidence, either, that the Buddha ever worshipped any of the Brahmins’ gods, which are now Hindu gods.
So there’s no evidence that the Buddha was ever a Hindu, or a follower of any tradition rooted in the Vedas, or a worshipper of Hindu deities.
Myth #4: The Buddha Was a Prince
The Sakyan territory was one of a number of republics in the north of the Indian subcontinent. These republics had no kings, and instead were governed by representatives of the people. Some of them may have been democratic, but as far as we know the Sakyans were governed by a council of the heads of the major families that lived there. The Buddha’s father was not a king, but more like a senator.
There are a few reasons why people might have later assumed that the Buddha was the heir to a kingdom. Even during the Buddha’s lifetime, the small republics started being swallowed up by neighboring monarchical kingdoms. After a few generations of being ruled by kings, people may have tended to assume that things had always been like that, and assumed that if his father had been a Sakyan ruler, he must have been a king.
But there’s also a tendency for religious traditions to want to see their founders as having had extraordinary lives and pedigrees, and it’s much more grand to say that the Buddha was the son of a king than heir to the head of one of the leading Sakyan families.
And in trying to obtain patronage from actual kings (who could make or break a religious tradition) it would have been a good PR move to say that your founder was also of royal stock.
I can think of one discourse where the Buddha is referred to as a prince, but it’s an odd one. The sutta is in two parts, the first—with the prince reference—being heavily mythological and narrated by some unknown person. The second part is a question from a disciple followed by a very practical response from the Buddha. There’s no reference in the second part to the Buddha being from a royal family. Given that historically the Buddha could not have been a prince, it seems likely that the mythological introduction was added later. Moreover, the word translated as “prince” is “kumāra”, which merely meant “boy.” The Buddha’s father isn’t referred to as a “king” here, so I assume it’s just habit that leads people to translate kumāra as “prince.” The term for a royal prince would be “rājakumāra”.
There’s another discourse, principally about the previous life of a mythical Buddha called Vipassi—see Myth #5—where the Buddha is portrayed as describing his parents as a king and queen. Again, this is at odds with the historical reality, and it’s interesting that once again we have a mythical context for this royal reference. And here again there’s a translation issue. The word for a royal king was “mahārājā,” while the Buddha’s father is called a “rājā” in this sutta. At the Buddha’s time the word rājā was (according to the Pali Dictionary) “primarily an appellative (or title) of a khattiya [member of the aristocratic warrior class], and often the two [khattiya and rājā] are used promiscuously.
Myth #5: The Buddha Saw Four Sights
Just about every book on Buddhism will tell you about the so-called Four Sights that prompted the Buddha to leave home on a spiritual quest. It goes like this: The Buddha was brought up in three palaces and not allowed to go outside. However, he insisted on going on a series of chariot rides to explore the capital, and saw 1) an old person, 2) a sick person, 3) a dead person, and 4) a beatific homeless wanderer. These Four Sights provoked a spiritual crisis, and so he left home in search to find a way to overcome suffering.
This story is certainly found in the scriptures. It’s even told by the Buddha himself. But he tells it about someone else! This is a tale that the Buddha tells about a legendary former Buddha called Vipassi. So these events are clearly not presented as something that happened to the Buddha himself. Sometimes people try to make sense of the story as it applies to be Buddha by psychologizing it: it was as if he saw an old person, sick person, and so on for the first time. But there’s no need to interpret this supposed episode from the Buddha’s life, since there’s no reason to think it ever happened.
The Buddha talks very movingly in one scripture about the spiritual crisis that provoked him to leave home:
I’ll tell you about the dreadful fear
that caused me to shake all over:
Seeing creatures flopping around,
Like fish in water too shallow,
So hostile to one another!
— Seeing this, I became afraid.
This world completely lacks essence;
It trembles in all directions.
I longed to find myself a place
Unscathed — but I could not see it.
Seeing people locked in conflict,
I became completely distraught.
This, in my eyes, is much more human and relatable than the legend of the four sights.
We know that the Buddha’s people, the Sakyans, had contentious relations with some of their neighbors, and there were battles over things like access to water for irrigation. They literally were like fish fighting over too small a quantity of water, and that may be what he was referring to here. It was probably this kind of strife that impelled the Buddha to leave home. He certainly didn’t see four sights in any literal way, although he did talk about how he saw through the “intoxication” of youth, wellness, and life, which correspond to the first three sights.
Myth #6: The Buddha Lived in Three Palaces
Although the scriptures have the Buddha talking about how in his youth he lived in three “palaces,” this almost certainly isn’t the case. Excavations of Kapilavastu show the dwellings there to have been rather modest. Sakya wasn’t a rich country, and there seem to have been no palaces. The word translated as “palace” (pāsāda) can mean anything from the residence of a king, to a building on high foundations, all the way down to a “raised platform.” The “palace” translation is probably shaped by the myth that the Buddha was from a royal family. In fact Bhikkhu Sujato translates pāsāda as “stilt longhouse,” which is historically and archaeologically more accurate, although admittedly less grand.
Myth #7: The Buddha Left Home In the Middle of the Night
Legends detail how the Buddha “went forth” in the middle of the night, tiptoeing through the sleeping concubines who were strewn over his harem so as not to wake them up. He left without saying goodbye to anyone—not even his father, step-mother, or his wife, who had a young child to take care of. How rude!
In the scriptures, however, he talks about how he said farewell to his parents. It’s less dramatic, but again more human and believable. We can’t know for sure, but he probably spent a lot of time talking over his desire to leave home.
When I was still young, black-haired, endowed with the blessings of youth in the first stage of life, having shaved off my hair and beard — though my parents wished otherwise and were grieving with tears on their faces — I put on the ochre robe and went forth from the home life into homelessness. [Mahasaccaka Sutta and Ariyapariyesana sutta.]
The reference to “parents” is interesting, since the Buddha’s mother is supposed to have passed away not long after giving birth to him. It could be that “parents” refers to his father and stepmother (his dad married his mother’s sister). Or it could be that the legend of the Buddha’s mother dying after his birth is just that—a legend.
Anyway, the story of the Buddha sneaking out in the middle of the night just doesn’t match with what’s in the early scriptures.
People Get Mad About This Sort of Stuff
When I’ve written about this kind of thing in the past I’ve ended up getting a fair amount of hate mail. Some Hindus don’t like it if you say there’s no evidence that the Buddha was ever a Hindu. Some Buddhists don’t like it if you say the Buddha wasn’t a prince, or in fact contradict anything they believe in. I get called names.
One of the emphases in the Buddha’s early teachings was not clinging to views. When we cling to beliefs, he pointed out, we end up disputing and fighting with each other.
It’s not that we shouldn’t have views, but that we should hold them lightly, not fight over them, and be prepared to change our views in response to new evidence. You might want the Buddha to have been a prince, for example, because that’s what you’re used to hearing. And you might get angry when you hear otherwise. But if the scriptural and historical evidence points in other directions then it’s wise for us to change our views.
If you found yourself getting indignant while reading this article, that’s a fair indication that there’s some clinging going on. That’s normal. But clinging leads to suffering. So let go. Adapt. You’ll be happier!
PS. Here’s an article by scholar Peter Harvey, called In Search of the Real Buddha, that covers some of the same ground and debunks some of the other mythology surrounding the Buddha.