Buddhism originated with Siddhartha Gautama, who was born around 563 B.C. The name may sound unfamiliar because he is best known as Buddha. However, Buddha or "Enlightened One" is not a proper name, but a potential state of being. Gautama was born to a warrior clan from the Kshatriya caste, the Shakyas, in the Himalayan foothills between present-day India and Nepal. Many versions of his life story abound, yet emphasis is given to four events in his life: birth, enlightenment, first sermon, and death.
Gautama was born after his mother, Queen Maya, had a dream in which a six-tusked white elephant descended from heaven and entered her womb from the side. This extraordinary vision led to an equally miraculous childbirth. Queen Maya stopped at a garden to rest during a trip. In the midst of blooming trees, she grasped a tree branch and a child was born instantaneously from her side. Some Brahmin priests had predicted Gautama would grow up and join the wandering ascetics, a group of men who lived like nomads without any material pleasures. So the boy's parents gave Gautama a life of luxury meant to protect him.
Eventually, the pain and suffering outside his sheltered palace confronted Gautama. Urged by a need to understand existence, Gautama decided to abandon his princely life and search for enlightenment. At age twenty-nine, he left his wife, son, and family. He joined five ascetics and for nearly six years they practiced the mortification of the flesh as a means to enlightenment, but to no avail. He then decided to leave the ascetics and try to find enlightenment alone. One day, Gautama sat under a fig tree and, assuming the lotus (cross-legged) position, decided not to move until he had attained enlightenment.
While Gautama sat in meditation under the bodhi tree (tree of enlightenment), Mara, the Lord of Death and Desire, sent his daughters, Lust, Desire, and Thirst, and a host of demons to tempt Gautama, but they failed. Gautama defeated Mara through an intense, unbreakable meditation. Victorious, he sank into a deep trance and thereby gained knowledge of his previous lives, understood samsara, and realized the Four Noble Truths: 1) life is suffering, 2) the reason for suffering is desire, 3) suffering can be extinguished by overcoming desire and 4) the Eightfold Path is the way to Nirvana, freedom from samsara. Gautama had attained enlightenment and thus became a Buddha.