Gautama made a momentous decision which indubitably reflected the intensity of his reaction to the greatest crisis of his life. Tradition dictates that he took his horse in the middle of the night and fled. He had decided to abandon the opulence of his father’s home and become a sramana, one of the wandering religious men of India who roamed the countryside homeless living by begging for food on the streets.
The extreme and dramatic contrast between the two lifestyles could not be more marked. The plains and forests replete with poisonous insects, snakes, wild animals, thieves and murderers surrounding the holy river of the Ganges were to be Gautama’s new home. The prospect must have been to Gautama less than inviting. He would however spend the next forty-five years wandering in it, a man of wealth and privilege now in his father’s eyes a beggar and a disgrace to his family and his people. A greater transformation may well be unimaginable; more particularly so when the choice was made voluntarily and deliberately!
Initially unclear as to what direction he should pursue Gautama decided to study yoga under the two pre-eminent teachers of the period. He became expert in both forms of yogic meditation. His teachers taught him everything they knew and pronounced him a success. They viewed him as having reached the heights of spiritual attainment namely moksha the Vedic equivalent of enlightenment. Gautama himself however remained as before unhappy and unfulfilled. He was looking for a moksha, an awakening or an enlightenment that resonated with his own personal spiritual need and resonated with his own concept of self.
Yoga was in its origins a group of disciplines that included spiritual, mental and physical practices that existed in India some three to five thousand years ago. The ultimate aim of these practices was to produce a merging of individual consciousness with universal consciousness which resulted in enlightenment. There is evidence that yoga existed in the Indus Valley civilisation in three thousand BCE. The Indus valley civilisation, the origin of the name India, was believed to be the immediate precursor of the great Vedic civilisation which developed in ancient India. There were four types of yoga. Karma yoga is selfless action performed for the benefit of others. Bhakti yoga is the path of devotion to a personal God. Jnana yoga is the path of knowledge and self-realisation. These first three types of yoga were the paths to moksha which for pre-Hindus was enlightenment in the form of self-realisation, self-actualisation and self-knowledge. Only Kriya yoga, perhaps now worshipped predominantly in the west, concentrates on the physical expression of spiritual self-realisation. The three classic paths to enlightenment were all originally conceived as paths of yoga so the connection is as intimate as you can get.
We are informed that every spiritual endeavour that Gautama became involved with he mastered more quickly than most. We are then told nevertheless that after every success his dissatisfaction quickly returned and then continued unabated. One could almost speculate that he was a person who could never be satisfied with anything. Even when his teachers assured him that he had reached his goal of moksha, he continued to feel dissatisfied and disappointed.
He then proceeded to try forms of self-purification as propagated by the Jains. The original meaning of karma was action. The Jains believed that all action led to karma. It followed therefore that the aim of a spiritual life was to rid oneself of karma. If action in other words created karma then the way to rid oneself of karma was to completely avoid action. A traditional way of ridding oneself of karma was to engage in self-purificatory practices such as fasting self-abuse etc. It is understood in fact that the leader of the Jains, Mahavira, a contemporary of Buddha actually fasted himself to death.
Having become dissatisfied with his attempts to deepen his consciousness with yoga and meditation Gautama then obsessively pursued self-mortification as pursued by the Jains. He fasted in fact till he was close to death. He subjected his body to every form of abuse and torture possible over the next seven years and some likened his appearance to that of a ghost. In this endeavour once again he failed to find the release for which he yearned. He remained unsatisfied.
Eventually discovered in a perilous semi-conscious state close to death by the village-girl Sujata on the banks of the Niranjana river he was fed with milk rice. All his inclinations were to refuse the offered food but for some reason he accepted it. Sujata slowly nursed him back to health. The spiritual self seekers who had hitherto accompanied him in his quest were appalled by what they saw as betrayal. They abandoned him to his fate believing that he would now live a life of self-indulgence and material self-satisfaction. In their view he had clearly given up on his priciples and his search for moksha or enlightenment.
In their assumption that the experience would change Gautama into a totally different kind of person they were of course entirely correct. From that moment onwards Gautama perceived punishment of the body as being of no value and having no place in the pursuit of enlightenment. He gave up fasting and disavowed renunciation as a way to liberation. The Buddhist literature suggests that the experience of succour from Sujata allowed him to re-experience the only period in his life when he had felt truly at peace, when as a child he sat under a rose-apple-tree and watched his father at work. His instincts told him that the enlightenment or nirvana he was seeking demanded a different kind of striving from that with which he had been engaged, a different path altogether. This path he intuited was a more compassionate one, a more tolerant one. He had begun to believe that this new path felt closer to the path that was the right one for him.
The scriptures tell us that he came to the place now known as Bodh Gaya and sat under a fig tree, now known as the Bodhi tree. He vowed that he would not leave until he had determined the ultimate path he was looking for, the path to his nirvana. The discourses describe the torment and conflict that raged unabated in his mind as he attempted to resolve the dilemmas, the conflicts tearing his mind apart. The extremes of good and evil battled within him. When he finally awakened from his meditative contemplations he believed he had at last discovered his way, the right path for him to follow. He had at last discovered what he had long sought, the true path to his destination. He had finally come to the end of his long struggle.