The Four Sights and the Middle Way:
The Upbringing of Siddhartha Gautama
It is rightly said that ‘coming events cast their shadows before’ […] The actions of childhood remain deeply ingrained in a person’s personality.
-Udit Sharma, Teachings and Philosophy of Buddha
One of the central concepts of Buddhism is that of the Middle Way: a philosophy of life based in moderation, eschewing not just sensual excess but also the flamboyance of self-mortification or extreme asceticism. This paper contends that the Middle Way has its philosophical roots not in any particular theological tradition, but in conflicts inherent Siddhartha Gautama’s unique upbringing as a prince and a Hindu.
According to legend, when Siddhartha was born to King Suddhodhan on a sunny day in the sixth century B.C., different sages predicted that he would either become a great king or a teacher and a holy man (Bechert). Determined to ensure the former, the king confined his son to the palace grounds, sheltering him from knowledge of sickness and age and surrounding him with earthly pleasures. The Buddha describes the refinement of his childhood in the Sukhamala Sutta, where he recalls that his father had constructed lotus ponds in the palace:
One where red lotuses bloomed, one where white lotuses bloomed, one where blue lotuses bloomed, all for my sake. I used no sandalwood that was not from Varanasi […] I had three palaces: one for the cold season, one for the hot season, one for the rainy season. During the four months of the rainy season I was entertained in the rainy-season palace by minstrels without a single man among them […] (Bhikku)
This is the world that Siddhartha was born into, the first world he encountered; he knew nothing but riches, splendor, art, and leisure. But there is another dominant element that must be acknowledged as having serious implications for his worldview: Siddhartha was born a Hindu, to a line of Hindus, in Hindustan. Thus, Sharma writes, “certain basic concepts of Hinduism were deeply ingrained in his psyche” (5).
At the time of Siddhartha’s birth and upbringing, however, Hinduism—particularly urban Hinduism--was in a state of flux. A series of new traditions, the sramana traditions, placed an increasing emphasis on detachment from the material and social worlds by means of ascetic practices, celibacy, and poverty. “While the renouncer of sramana traditions differ on points of doctrine and method, they generally agree that life is characterized by suffering […]” (Flood 81).
Thus, one imagines that contradictions—or at least the makings of them—swirled, latent and submerged, under the placid surface Siddhartha’s sheltered life. After all, how could someone dwelling in a world of such opulence possibly conceptualize the need for detachment from the material world; when that need was based on loss and suffering? How could he remain pious and dedicated to a faith based renunciation, never having known—or even witnessed—suffering?
One day, when he was 29 years old, Siddhartha decided to leave the palace grounds. Tradition is vague on what drove him, but it is not unreasonable to suppose that the most obvious explanation is perhaps the most likely: he was curious. He was curious because he adhered to a faith that described a human condition he could not characterize. For whatever reason, he ventured outside.
On his trip, “Gautam one day saw the darker side of life […] He saw four things that forever altered his life: an old man, a sick man, a dead man, and a beggar” (Bhaskar 188). What he saw was new to him: inevitable age, physical sickness, material destitution, and death—in short, suffering. They had no place in his world; yet clearly they existed. Distraught, he returned home.
There, his father—perhaps knowing, at least in a general fashion, what his son must have witnessed outside the palace walls—had arranged an event of luxury remarkable even for Siddhartha in order to ease his mind and lure him once more into delightful palace life. Beautiful women surrounded him, playing music and dancing; when he fell asleep, they lied with him. Though, he woke up and looked at them as they slept. “Some of them are drooling, others snoring and grinding their teeth. Suddenly the women, whom he had seen as sexually arousing, appear to him like corpses […] Everything before him speaks of transience, suffering, and death” (Trainor 29). That day, Siddhartha decided to leave his old life behind.
Unsurprisingly, his first attempt to reconcile his two worlds—that of his upbringing and the one he had witnessed outside the palace walls—followed the tradition and dogma of his religion. For six years, he wandered the countryside in poverty, practicing a severe asceticism in hopes of achieving enlightenment. “Legend has it that he finally learned to exist on one grain of rice a day, which reduced his body to a skeleton” (Bhaskar 188). According to some sources, he even retrained his breathing process as he meditated (Sharma 22). He had moved from one extreme to another. Finally understanding the competing demands of his religion and his social position, he had renounced one half of his identity in favor of the other.
Yet even this did not bring Siddhartha Gautama enlightenment. Instead, the lack of food simply made him weak.
Let us take a moment to review. Siddhartha was born with two dominant traditions informing his worldview: the Hindu tradition, and that of his royal family. In some ways, these two identities were inherently contradictory: one emphasized opulence, the other poverty. His father attempted to prevent these contradictions from gaining salience by sheltering Siddhartha from the “dark side of life”—an exercise ultimately doomed to fail. If Siddhartha did not witness old age, sickness, and death on his trip outside, he certainly would have encountered them inside the palace. If nowhere else, he would see them expressed by the very man who spent such effort to protect him: his father. Thus, Siddhartha’s upbringing necessarily created a situation in which he had abruptly and consciously to make a choice between two identities—identities, which, at the point, were effectively polar opposites. Should one accept material comforts and live a life of satiety—or reject them and starve?
Given this narrative, then, a third path seems to be the only answer: a path of moderation, a lifestyle neither lavish nor overly austere—a Middle Way. Given the ascetic trend of Hinduism during this period, it is unlikely that Siddhartha appropriated this philosophy from a fellow sage or recluse. If such a philosophy of moderation has been promulgated, then it is difficult to imagine a more appropriate champion.
If the legends of Siddhartha’s upbringing are understood at a literal level, then the dramatic reinterpretation of Hindu dogma that was Middle Way was not product of scholarship or theology at all. Instead, it was derived directly from one man’s upbringing—the product of dueling identities and their ultimate reconciliation.