Troubled by the suffering his parents could not hide from him, Siddhartha Gautama had left a life of worldly power, status, and luxury to break free from the maya (illusion) and seek an answer … to find inner peace and enlightenment.
Siddhartha lived as an ascetic, mortifying his body and virtually starving himself. He almost died in the process. But the answer eluded him. After years of searching, he came to the conclusion that the freedom he sought was not to be found in either the indulgence of his previous lifestyle or the asceticism of his present one.
He left behind the group of ascetics he was living among there on the banks of the Nairanjana River, and they looked upon him as a failure and a weak-willed person who would never achieve the supreme enlightenment of nirvana. Siddhartha walked to a village, where a Brahmin girl fed him a bowl of rice milk, thus ending his fast.
He made a mat from grass given to him by a grass cutter and sat down with his back to a pipal tree with his face to the east, determined not to move until he had achieved enlightenment:
"Here on this seat my body may shrivel up,
my skin, my bones, my flesh may dissolve,
but my body will not move from this seat
until I have attained Enlightenment,
so difficult to obtain in the course of many kalpas.”1
But maya did not want to release him. It struggled against him, distracting him with the illusions of this world, until finally, the Bodhisattva broke through and he achieved the impossible — nirvana during life. After seven days, the Buddha left the shade of the Bodhi Tree to share his message with those who would listen.
Nirvana has a slightly different meaning to followers of different sects and faiths. In Buddhism, the basic sense is that of transitioning into a place of inner peace by releasing all attachments to this world, whether the negative attachments that produce suffering or the usually positive ones of love and relationship. It is also a release from Wheel of Life, the cycle of rebirth and death.
To Theravada / Hinayana Buddhists, nirvana connotes a purification of the mind as one lets go of the defilements, particularly sensuality and “becoming”, and the “three poisons” of ignorance, greed, and anger or hatred.2
Mahayana Buddhists, meanwhile, further view nirvana as doing away with dualities — opposites — and absorbing the enlightened one into a sort of transcendent existence.
One person who, after a life of warfare and conquest, decided to listen to the teachings of Buddha was the Mauryan emperor Ashoka, who created many monuments to his new faith that still stand today. The Bodhi Tree became a place of pilgrimage even during Buddha’s lifetime and was no less so during Ashoka’s reign in the 3rd century BC. There is a story that Ashoka’s wife, Tissarakkha, was jealous of the tree and had it killed.
That pipal tree was replanted, as it has been almost continuously since the time of Buddha, and now has stone railings around it. Located at Bodh Gaya next to the Mahabodhi Temple, it is an important place of pilgrimage for Buddhists from all over Asia, as well as a popular tourist site for visitors from around the world.