Counting against these arguments though is the historical fact that at the time that Gautama lived and Buddha begged, the Ganges basin was in impressive expansion. Agriculture was spreading rapidly. Businessmen had multiplied and traders reported booming business. It seems that rather than it being a time of particular deprivation or suffering it was in fact a time of relative prosperity for the region. In fact we are led to believe that the area was one of the most prosperous areas in India at the time. We know that many very wealthy businessmen and kings supported Buddha very generously. He was bequeathed significant tracts of land to house himself and his supporters. Buddhist monks with him received great support. Great feasts were put on in his honour.
The answer may be more evident if we take into consideration the biographical details that we have in relation to what is believed to be Gautama’s actual life. Here we are consistently informed that he appears to have come from a family which was significantly materially advantaged compared to others in the area. His father was a senior leader who would have been ambitious for his son. We are told that he trained his son in all the arts of leadership so as to follow in his footsteps. The suggestion is that he also surrounded him with luxury and perhaps excess. It seems however that Gautama was consistently unhappy. He appears to have been a person who had abnormal sensitivities especially in relation to his perception of the suffering of others. One could speculate that this may have reflected an excessive sensitivity to his own feelings which led to an expanded empathetic reaction in response to others especially those who were less privileged than he was.
One can only imagine the level of internal turmoil that would have forced him to leave such a settled and comfortable existence one to which he had become accustomed since birth. Ultimately he abandoned his inheritance and his status to wander alone and friendless in the surrounding uninviting and dangerous jungle. In the story of Gautama it is often glossed over that he apparently also abandoned his young wife and newly born son. To a sensitive person driven by universal compassion that seems at the very least an intensely uncompassionate act. What would have driven such a compassionate person to such an extreme of behaviour? The answer can only lie in the extent of the psychological torment he experienced at the time.
I would suggest he was in significant crisis at the time of leaving his father's home. At the time it was relatively normal for older men after having provided for their families to take on the role of a spiritual holy man or Sramana. For a younger man or man of his status it was almost unknown. The Buddha makes that very statement in the discourses when he talks of himself as still being a young man “with black hair endowed with the blessing of youth in the prime of his life” when he left the family home against the wishes of his parents. Whatever existential crisis forced Gautama on this path it was atypically extreme and would have shocked not only his parents but also the community from which he came. The evidence suggests furthermore that after leaving home he lived in increasingly extreme ways. He constantly went beyond what could reasonably be expected of a human being and when he did achieve his goals he displayed a chronic dissatisfaction that seemed to have been his perpetual driver. This chronic dissatisfaction seemed to be his inevitable companion. He was obviously not a man who was to be easily satisfied. His standards were extreme. What seems evident is that he did not make these choices of his own volition. He was driven to them by forces clearly outside his conscious control. One could say, perhaps dramatically, that he was driven by the unconscious demons that raged within him, but it seems in reality that this was probably indeed the truth.
On leaving his home we are told that he sought out the foremost yogis, specialists in meditation and spiritual masters of the period to take their advice and counsel. He worked hard, conquered their techniques, was accepted as a complete success and was welcomed into their communities as a potential leader. No sooner had this happened Gautama immediately felt dissatisfied with his achievement, rejected his advisors and was driven to wander on looking for some further unknown aspiration. The graphic torments within his mind are everywhere reflected in the Buddhist scriptures displayed in unquestionable detail. The intensity of his fervour and self-imposed depredations resulted in him often being close to death. He lived in the most dangerous environments with poisonous snakes, insects and wild animals. Children urinated on him. He lived amidst people who were criminals and the criminally insane as well. It was almost as if he was deliberately tempting fate. He seemed determined to face every one of the fears that his own psychology and the spiritual superstitions of the time could present to him. The most compelling conclusion that one could come to from the evidence offered is that this was someone who was unnaturally drawn to a self-torment that was excessive. One could of course speculate that the conflicts in his mind, and the torments in the scriptures were the exaggerated literary inventions of subsequent Buddhist writers. The fact however that they are so omnipresent and so inescapably present in so much Buddhist literature strongly suggests that they do hold some inherent truth about the behaviour and the character of the man who would become the Buddha. It defies belief that these conflicts in his mind, so ubiquitously recorded as part of Buddhist history, do not in some way reflect the reality of the existence of the actual living man.
Buddha’s story makes little logical sense from a contemporary perspective. Indeed it probably made even less sense 2500 years ago. It could only makes sense if there was some unexpressed driving force that forced his departure from his father’s palace. We have been given no evidence however for any external motivation forcing his behaviour. The causation is consistently given as internal. If this is true then it means that the internal conflicts that drove Gautama out of his father’s home were so strong, so incorrigible and so irresistible that they drove him into behaviour that would be considered ill-judged by many and close to lunacy by the majority of his fellow Shakyans. The only conclusion that could reasonably be reached was that the twenty-eight year old Gautama was experiencing an existential crisis of inexplicable proportions at the time of his leaving home. The enormity of the consequences for himself and his family suggests that the conflicts that had driven him had been present over an extended period. This would suggest that Gautama suffered with chronic psychological conflicts so intense that he could find no reasonable alternative action to alleviate his distress. He simply fled, according to legend, in the dead of night. He escaped and as we know that is what the anxious always do. They run away from their anxiety. They are compelled to flee from their pain.
Gautama then spends some seven years in the wilderness searching for peace and contentment. When he finally, after years of pain, discovers it, he uses it to develops a theory, a philosophy and a practice that just happens to be the most effective psychological treatment for anxiety that has existed in the last 2500 years.