Is Buddha A Vishnu Avatar?
Regular readers will know that we have been writing about Lord Vishnu’s incarnations, known as Dashavatar, by dedicating a separate written piece to each one. You can read about them here. But is Buddha a Vishnu avatar?
There is a lot of debate and controversy over who was Vishnu’s 9th avatar. Some oppose the idea that it was Buddha, as he himself had stated he was not a god or an incarnation of god.
Also, some scholars say that as he effectively started his own religious movement, whether or not deliberately, he went against dharma and the Vedas and could not be an avatar of Vishnu.
It has been a heated topic for generations, and there is no definitive answer. However, Buddha being Vishnu’s ninth avatar remains the most popular and commonly accepted belief.
The Life Story Of Buddha
Gautama Buddha is thought to have lived sometime between 450 BCE and 400 BCE, somewhere in North East India or present-day Nepal. He is believed to have been born in Lumbini, in present-day Nepal.
Gautama Buddha’s Childhood
He was born as Prince Siddhartha, to King Suddhodana, of a small prosperous kingdom called Kapilavastu. Gautama was the family name, which is why in future he would come to be known as Gautama Buddha.
Shortly after he was born, the great sage of the time, Sage Asita, came to see the king and queen and welcome the new baby. He prophesied that the child would be a great saint, rather than a king. This troubled Suddhodana a lot.
As Siddhartha was growing up, he would prefer the company of animals and nature to his friends. He found his friends cruel and unkind, especially to animals.
One well-known example was when he found a dove that had been shot by an arrow, in the palace grounds. He removed the arrow and tended to the bird. A short while later, his cousin Devadatta appeared and claimed the bird as his own, as he had shot it.
The prince said that as he had removed the arrow and saved the bird’s life, he had in effect given it life and the bird should belong to him.
Prince Siddhartha Gets Married
Dandapani, a nobleman in a nearby kingdom held a swayamvar (ceremony where the bride chooses a husband) for her daughter Yashodhara and many royal families attended, including Prince Siddhartha and his father.
Yashodhara chose the young prince, but many of the other princes present felt this was not a good move as he wasn’t a trained warrior. This included Yashodhara’s own father.
Siddhartha offered Dandapani the chance to hold an archery and horse riding challenge so that he may prove his skill and he beat all other competitors in both events.
They lived in the palace and the king tried to provide them with all the luxuries possible. Soon they had a son together, Rahula.
Prince Siddhartha Leaves The Palace
His father was still troubled by the sage’s prophecy at his birth and kept Siddhartha confined to the palace as much as possible to make sure he would become a king. Siddhartha however grew frustrated with life within the walls of the palace and wanted to see more of the outside world.
Suddodhana eventually yielded and ordered a golden chariot and four white horses to take the prince around. He had also ordered that all sights of unhappiness – age, illness, poverty – all be removed from within the city.
So Siddhartha and his charioteer, Channa, set out to explore the city. Siddhartha was impressed with the city but insisted on going further out of the city and Channa gave in to the prince’s desire.
They came across a weak, elderly man as they went out of the city and this shocked Siddhartha – he had never been exposed to that sort of sight and at first didn’t understand that everyone gets old.
On other days when they rode out of the city, he saw others suffering from illness and a funeral procession, all of which made him feel ill. It was overwhelming for the young prince to experience that.
When returning to the palace, he saw a sage meditating and noticed that he looked healthy, calm and peaceful. Channa explained that he had given up a life of pleasure and pain in search of truth.
The images he saw troubled him deeply and he soon decided that he must leave his current life in the search of the ultimate truth, like that saint. So one night, he left the palace and Channa accompanied him.
As soon as they were out of the city, he gave his horse, robes and jewels to Channa and told him to return to the kingdom. He then cut his long hair and swapped the clothes he left with a beggar.
He carried on with his journey and soon he reached the Rajagriha, the capital of the kingdom of Magadha.
Buddha In Rajagaha
When he reached Rajagaha, he went from house to house, politely asking for food. The king observed him from the palace grounds and ordered one of his servants to find out who this handsome beggar was.
When he found out that this ‘beggar’ was from a noble family, King Bimbishara went to see him and offered him a high position in his administration.
Buddha politely declined and explained he is in the search of a way to end all sorrow and suffering. The king wished him well and Siddhartha promised to return to visit the king at Rajagaha one day to share his wisdom.
Siddharth In Urubilva
From Rajagaha, Siddharth went to Urubilva to meet the great sages of the era and learn from them.
He spent some time meditating under Alara Kalama and also under Udraka Ramaputra. However he was not entirely satisfied after his time either, and he moved on on his own.
In the forest, five hermits, led by Kaundinya, saw him meditating with such power and concentration that they believed they should join him. They suggested suffering was the path to truth and engaged in fasting to the point of starvation, and self-flagellation (similar to self-harm).
Eventually, Siddharth was only drinking water and only eating a single hemp grain each day. After nearly drowning in a river due to weakness and starvation, and being saved by a herdsman’s daughter named Sujata, he started eating again and believed extreme austerity was not the way to discover the end of sorrow.
The five hermits were disappointed with this and left his side, leaving Siddhartha to search for the ultimate truth on his own.
Buddha Reaches Enlightenment
Siddhartha sat down under a bodhi tree nearby and vowed to remain sat there meditating under the tree until he discovered the truth.
After 49 days of constant meditation, he awoke in an enlightened state. From this moment on, he was to be known as Buddha the enlightened one, instead of Siddharth.
After this, he decided to seek out the five hermits. He met them near the holy city of Benares and explained what he had discovered from enlightenment. They immediately became his disciples, and the first sangha, or the company of Buddhist monks, was formed.
After spending a night with a great Brahman sage in Urubvila, named Kashyap, Buddha explained his concept of peace and happiness and Kashyap also joined the sangha.
Together they returned to Rajagaha, where King Bimbishara was about to hold a great prayer ceremony, involving sacrificing lambs. Buddha and the sage Kashyap advised against it and explained that it is not a way to free yourself from sorrow.
Once Buddha explained enlightenment to the king, he also became a follower and invited Buddha and his disciples to stay in his palace.
Soon word reached Kind Suddhodana of his son’s great fame and following and the king sent for his son.
Buddha Returns Home
Buddha returned to Kapilavastu to be greeted by his ageing father. Although the king wanted his son to stay in the palace, he chose not to and the king arranged for him to stay in a nearby grove.
During his time at the palace, his son Rahula, his father and his cousin Devadatta all became followers and joined the sangha.
Devadatta however became fuelled by jealousy and attempted to have Buddha killed. Once by asking King Ajatasatru (who had imprisoned King Bimbishara and taken over the rule of Rajagaha) to have his men throw a boulder at him from above, and once by releasing a wild elephant, Nalagiri towards him.
The boulder split in two before reaching him, and by raising his hand, Buddha was able to calm the elephant.
Eventually, both Ajatasatru and Devadatta both became troubled spiritually, sought refuge from Buddha and joined the sangha.
Buddha Reaches Parinirvana
As time went on, Buddha’s following and influence grew more and more.
Around the age of 80, Buddha felt his time on earth was coming to an end and proclaimed that he was near the state of parinirvana or ultimate enlightenment, and he would soon be leaving his earthly body.
After eating his last meal, he became violently ill and knew his time was near. He asked his disciples if they had any other questions or doubts. They had none.
His final words are thought to have been:
All composite things (Saṅkhāra) are perishable. Strive for your own liberation with diligence
He is also thought to have told his disciples to follow no leader.
So Is Buddha A Vishnu Avatar?
It is commonly believed that he is indeed the 9th avatar of Vishnu, despite his transgression, which according to many at the time, was against the Vedic principles of dharma.
We will never know for sure.
However, it is also interesting that Buddha is noted as a prophet in the Ahmadiyya sect of Islam, a manifestation of god in the Baha’i faith, and Chinese Taoist-Buddhists believe him to be an incarnation of the deity Lao Tzu.
As well as that, the life of Saint Josaphat, in Christianity, is thought to be based on the life of Buddha.