The Birth of the Buddha

Legend and Myth

Queen Maya's retreat to Lumbini to gave birth to Prince Siddharta Gautama (Buddha), the panel of Lalitavistara, Borobudur, Central Java, Indonesia.
Queen Maya's retreat to Lumbini to gave birth to Prince Siddharta Gautama (Buddha), the panel of Lalitavistara, Borobudur, Central Java, Indonesia. Gunawan Kartapranata/Wikimedia Commons

Aspects of the story of Buddha's birth may have been borrowed from Hindu texts, such as the account of the birth of Indra from the Rig Veda. The story may also have Hellenic influences. For a time after Alexander the Great conquered central Asia in 334 BCE, there was a considerable intermingling of Buddhism with Hellenic art and ideas. There also is speculation that the story of the Buddha’s birth was “improved” after Buddhist traders returned from the Middle East with stories of the birth of Jesus.

The Traditional Tale of the Buddha’s Birth

Twenty-five centuries ago, King Suddhodana ruled a land near the Himalaya Mountains.

Symbolism

There is a jumble of symbols presented in this story. The white elephant was a sacred animal representing fertility and wisdom. The lotus is a common symbol of enlightenment in Buddhist art. A white lotus, in particular, represents mental and spiritual purity. The baby Buddha’s seven steps evoke seven directions—north, south, east, west, up, down, and here.

Buddha's Birthday Celebration

In Asia, Buddha’s birthday is a festive celebration featuring parades with many flowers and floats of white elephants. Figures of the baby Buddha pointing up and down are placed in bowls, and sweet tea is poured over the figures to “wash” the baby.

Buddhist Interpretation

Newcomers to Buddhism tend to dismiss the Buddha birth myth as so much froth. It sounds like a story about the birth of a god, and the Buddha was not a god. In particular, the declaration “I alone am the World-Honored One” is a bit hard to reconcile with Buddhist teachings on nontheism and anatman.

However, in Mahayana Buddhism, this is interpreted as the baby Buddha speaking of the Buddha-nature that is the immutable and eternal nature of all beings. On Buddha’s birthday, some Mahayana Buddhists wish each other happy birthday, because the Buddha’s birthday is everyone’s birthday.

Format
mla apa chicago
Your Citation
O'Brien, Barbara. "The Birth of the Buddha." Learn Religions, Sep. 13, 2021, learnreligions.com/the-birth-of-the-buddha-449783. O'Brien, Barbara. (2021, September 13). The Birth of the Buddha. Retrieved from https://www.learnreligions.com/the-birth-of-the-buddha-449783 O'Brien, Barbara. "The Birth of the Buddha." Learn Religions. https://www.learnreligions.com/the-birth-of-the-buddha-449783 (accessed December 3, 2021).