He had reached his awakening, his nirvana. He had become enlightened. It is commonly said that he sat down to meditate under the fig tree as Gautama and he stood up under the Bodhi tree as Buddha, the awakened one.
Given the struggles and the deprivations he had endured to achieve the state of Buddhahood one might be forgiven for expecting that Gautama would have been in a state of elation or at the very least joyful bliss commensurate with his new state of enlightenment. We are told instead that characteristically and perhaps now predictably he immediately went into further intellectual torment as to what he should do with his gift. Somewhat contradicting our impression of Buddha as being a compassionate and all-caring person he apparently decided that that the difficulties of attaining enlightenment were of such a magnitude that he doubted he could teach anyone else to be enlightened. According to Buddhist mythology his conviction was so strong in this regard that it took the descent from the heavens to earth of one of the Brahman Gods, Brahma Sahampati, protector of teachings, specifically to convince him that his duty was to teach others. This seems to be a most remarkable event given the clearly momentous significance ascribed to a Brahman god having this power over the propagation of a Buddha’s teachings. It also draws into question the apparent god-lessness of Buddha’s philosophy. Whatever the actual reality of the event Buddha we are told eventually overcame his initial misgivings about his suitability for the role, accepted the responsibility and proceeded on the quest to spread his message of enlightenment to the world. He spent the rest of his life as a wandering monk moving from place to place in northern India spreading his teachings, his dharma.
Many people who have learned much about Buddhist philosophy assume that what they have learned is exclusively Buddhist. What many do not appreciate that there was a great deal in the way of philosophy that Buddhism simply appropriated from the Indian Vedic and Brahman philosophy at the time. Many terms used in Buddhism are actually late Vedic terminology with particular Buddhist interpretations.
According to the Vedas, the basis for all spiritual knowledge in India, present in India for more than a thousand years before Gautama existed, there were two types of existence. The first was spiritual existence. The second was human existence. The first was exalted and divine. The second was one replete with misery and suffering. As a human being you were born into this suffering, you lived through the suffering and then you became ill and died with this suffering. When you died you were reborn to another lifetime of suffering and then into another. As an ordinary mortal there was no escape. There was a significant overlap between the philosophies of Buddhism and the philosophies of ancient India. The idea that life is suffering was a common idea shared by both Buddhism and Brahmanism.
The Vedic concept of maya exemplified the belief in two modes of existence. Maya proclaimed that everyday human life or existence was mere illusion, a fantasy. Belief in this fantasy or illusion led us to a life of unsatisfactory meaningless, a life based on an empty and vacuous pragmatism. This pragmatic reality was filled with pain, suffering and disillusionment. This was not the path of the gods. The gods wanted us to be part of an expansive spiritual reality, a richer and more fulfilling spiritual environment, more enticing than any earthly offering could match. This new reality was called moksha and this heralded the awakening of the Boddhi (a person who awakens) to the true eternal nature of reality, the understanding of maya. The ultimate reward for achieving this state was permanent release from the cycle of suffering, release from samsara.
This we are told was exactly what the young Gautama sought, nothing less than total spiritual liberation. In a sense though Buddha’s reality that one might awaken to was conceptualised as being very different from Vedic reality which was entirely spiritual. In the Vedas one escaped from maya into a heavenly reality. In Buddha’s world it seems one escaped from maya into a human reality. The end-point was nevertheless the same. Both ended the suffering.
All Indians believed that the cycle of rebirth and consequent suffering was interminable not just for one lifetime but for all eternity. Without release from suffering there was no escape which is why all sought moksha or its Buddhist equivalent nirvana. Re-incarnation or rebirth after death was accepted by all Indians as an uncontroversial reality. For traditional Indians at that time everything was in the hands of the gods. One accepted one’s fate. It was the way things were. All seekers at the time sought one thing only and that was some way to end this cycle of despair. There was for the spiritual mind a singular moral imperative, namely to find a way to escape from the suffering of life. Neither the Vedas nor Buddha deviated from this essential point. Universally therefore only the possibility of becoming individually enlightened held out the full promise of the possibility of living without this eternal suffering. In the hierarchy of the Vedas a fully awakened person held a position of supreme spiritual superiority.
Given that oral history was the norm at the time of Gautama’s existence and that the earliest recorded accounts of his life occurred more than 300 years or more after his death it is difficult if not impossible to obtain absolutely accurate details of his personal life. Traditional recording of Buddha's history was facilitated by recurrent restatement from memory with various flourishes added as aide memoire. Taking this uncertain narrative and adding mythology, legend and apocryphal meandering one is left with significant uncertainty. Discerning fact from fiction therefore has understandably proven difficult. Some recurrent themes nevertheless are so recurrent that they cannot be ignored. The sheer repetitiveness of these themes suggests that they may be plausible and hold substance.
It is interesting that most contemporary biographical material on Buddha simply side-steps the fact that he was in reality an Indian. It is my view that it is impossible to understand Gautama’s uniqueness by omitting the one fundamental factor that most influenced and created his philosophy namely the influence of the Vedic-Brahmanic environment whence he came. One can understand Gautama only within the context of both his immediate social environment, the culture and the historical India from where he came together with the philosophical environment which surrounded him there. Contemporary explications of Buddhism consistently seem to omit this fundamental fact. Buddha was in fact an Indian of a class that would have meant that his life was embedded in the Brahman and Vedic philosophies just as it would have been for his peers. Nowhere is this omission so evident as in contemporary South East Asia.