Gautama was born in Northern India about 2,500 years ago. The exact place of his birth is understood to be the Lumbini garden, which nowadays lies just inside the border of the Himalayan Kingdom of Nepal.
Gautama’s father, King Suddhodana, was the ruler of the kingdom of the Sakyas. Naturally, he was delighted to have an heir who could follow him on to the throne. He was not very pleased when a wise man predicted, upon seeing the new arrival, that if he did not become a great world ruler he would become ‘a great religious teacher’. King Suddhodana knew that it would be experience of the hard, painful things of life that would turn Gautama’s mind in the direction of religion, so he did everything in his power to keep them out of the young prince’s life. Gautama was thus brought up in a sealed world of security and luxury. He lived in beautiful palaces, wore clothes of the most splendid materials, ate only the finest foods, and was generally entertained and waited upon in the best style.
Gautama grew up and eventually married a young princess, Yasodhara, who bore him a son, Rahula. One day, however, he persuaded his charioteer, Channa, to drive him down to the nearby town, where he had not been till then. In all, he was to make four trips to the town which were to totally change his life. On the first trip, he met an old man, on the second a sick man, and on the third he met a party of people carrying a corpse to the cremation ground. Not having seen old age, sickness and death before, he was naturally deeply shocked; so shocked that palace life was no longer pleasant or even bearable for him. He became very concerned with the fact of suffering and with finding a way of ending it. On a fourth trip to the town, he came upon a possible way of finding an answer to his problem. He met an ascetic, a holy man: one who had given up everything to follow the religious life. Despite having nothing, this man radiated a calmness that suggested to Gautama that he had somehow come to terms with the unpleasant fact of suffering.
So Gautama decided to follow the example of the ascetic. He slipped out of the palace in the dead of night, exchanged his splendid silken robes for the simple orange one of a holy man, and cut off all his beautiful black hair. Then, carrying nothing but an alms bowl for people to put food in, he set off on his great search.
Gautama went to all the most famous religious teachers of his day and learned all they had to teach. In the process, he subjected his body to great hardship through fasting and ascetic practices. He lived in terrifying forests, burning in the heat of the midday sun and freezing at night; he slept on beds of thorns; sometimes he lived in cemeteries. He starved himself until he became so thin that if he touched his stomach he could feel his backbone. But still he could not find an answer to his fundamental question – which would be an insight into the cause of human suffering. He realised that if he kept on that way he would probably die before finding the answer.