Who Was Buddha and Why Do We Worship Him?

Who was Buddha? Aside from discussing the historical figure, Siddhartha Gautama, we will look deeper into a great variety of Buddhist figures and the stories the world tells about them.

Nov 9, 2022By Aurora Passarini, BA Anthropology, MA Int'l Cooperation w/ Intercultural Heritage Concentration
who was buddha


The Buddhist religion has attracted followers and disciples all around the world thanks to the pragmatism and sincerity of the Buddha’s teachings. It offers a way of living, feeling, and behaving. But who was Buddha? In this article, we will discover who the Buddha was, and how he first undertook the way toward Nirvana and liberation. We will also explore the life and worship of those who walked the same path, taking into consideration Buddhism as a wholesome and rich life philosophy.


Who Was Buddha? A First Insight into Buddhism

avalokiteshvara amitabha who was buddha painting
Avalokiteshvara as Guide of Souls, ink and colors on silk, 901/950 CE, via Google Arts & Culture


Buddhism as a religion was born in the 6th century BCE, in Southeast Asia. It is considered a school of thought, more than a religion, for it is a path that leads us through all aspects of life. According to early Indian religion, every man is subject to an endless cycle of death and rebirth, called samsara in Sanskrit. Buddhism offers an escatological way to free oneself from it, and from all of the pain and suffering living demands.


First of all, one must acknowledge that each action (karma) produces fruit, and that fruit is the key that makes reincarnation continue. The main objective of this philosophy is to get rid of these fruits, and finally achieve Nirvana, the spiritual awakening in freedom from earthly life. Buddha himself revealed the Four Noble Truths; they revolve around the fact that life is suffering and pain derives from ignorance. To free oneself from ignorance, one must pursue wisdom. This can be done by following the teachings of the Noble Eightfold path, the middle way of cultivating oneself that will eventually lead to liberation.


Buddhism’s Historical Roots: Siddhartha Gautama or Shakyamuni? 

eighteen arhats buddhist painting
Buddha Shakyamuni and the Eighteen Arhats, 18th century, Eastern Tibet, Kham region via Google Arts & Culture


Siddharta Gautama lived between the 6th and 4th century BCE in the Lumbini region, currently in Nepal. He was son of a clan leader, from the Shakya tribe, and his family was part of the warrior caste. According to ancient manuscripts, when he was born it was prophesied that he would become a great leader and, for this reason, he was raised shielded from all of the world’s suffering.

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Later in his adult life, he came across real pain. Leaving his palace, he met an old man bent by the years, a sick person, a corpse, and an ascetic. These encounters were named “Four Passing Sights”, and they symbolize, respectively, old age, disease, death and the practice of compassion towards these afflictions.


Afterwards, he abandoned his royal garments and decided to begin his quest towards enlightenment. During this period of mediation and deprivation, he discovered that to renounce pleasure and live a life of self-mortification does not bring the satisfaction he sought, and so he proposes to find a Middle Way.


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Illuminated Pages from a Dispersed DharanI Manuscript, 14th–15th century, Tibet, via the MET Museum


Buddha’s enlightenment happened underneath a fig tree, where he settled into meditation. Said tree would later be called a Bodhi and the fig species ficus religiosa. During this time the demon Mara tried to dissuade Buddha by showing him pleasure and pain, but he remained steady and meditated on the subject of suffering and desire.


Enlightenment came and he reflected on how reincarnation is fueled by desire and desire is what forces people to repeat the cycle of death and suffering. To free oneself from it means to have found Nirvana, the state of liberation. He acknowledged the Four Noble Truths and started preaching to more and more disciples. Buddha’s teachings focused greatly on practical action rather than on theory, for he thought that people without direct experience of enlightenment would distort it. He preached the way toward Liberation by exposing the pragmatic way of the Noble Eightfold Path.


Siddharta Gautama passed away at 80 years of age and entered into Parinirvana, the death state reached after having attained Nirvana. In this way, he abandoned the cycle of samsara. Tradition remembers him as Buddha Shakyamuni, meaning “the sage of the Shakya clan”.


Enlightened Beings in Buddhism: Bodhisattva

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Pair of Buddhist Manuscript Covers: Scenes from the Buddha’s Life (c), Buddhas with a Bodhisattva (d), 1075-1100, India, Bihar, via Google Arts & Culture


In the Buddhist tradition, there are many figures, whose wisdom and compassion are the equal of the Buddha himself; they descend to the earth in order to help relieve the suffering of mankind. Three roles in particular, are relevant to different Buddhist philosophies; the Arhat, the Pratyekabuddha, and the Bodhisattva.


First of all, the Arhat (or Arahant) is the highest form of Buddhist monk, one who has reached enlightenment thanks to the Noble Eightfold Path. The name refers to someone who has reached a state of grace and perfection. According to Chinese Tradition, there are Eighteen Arhats, but the Buddha’s follower are still waiting for the Buddha of Future, Maitreya. Secondly, there is the Pratyekabuddha; which means “Buddha on their own”, someone who achieves enlightenment without the help of a guide, may it be a text or a teacher.


seated arhat buddhist statue
Seated Arhat (Nahan), Probably Bhadra (Palt’ara) with a Tiger, Joseon dynasty (1392-1910), 19th century, Korea, via Google Arts & Culture


At last, the most notorious personality is the Bodhisattva. Over time, people started to oppose the agnosticism and individualism shown in Arhat worship, and declared the need for a Buddhist reform surrounding the values of mercy and selfishness. Thus, from the Mahayana tradition (largest Buddhist school of thought), the Bodhisattva figure was born with their role of service, renunciation and missionary work. While the Arhat cult focused on Nirvana and individual achievement, the new message was more charitable and less prone to selfishness.


In fact, a Bodhisattva is someone who has taken on the Nirvana quest but, facing final liberation, he turns back and devotes himself to the suffering world. This act is the ultimate Buddhist statement, for, if enlightenment is desired, to renounce it means to accomplish the Buddhist teaching of non-attachment. This delineates someone who achieves the Bodhi, the spiritual awakening, but renounces Nirvana, choosing to serve humankind. The Bodhisattva does not aim for his own Nirvana, but will shelter and guide the world towards it.


pensive bodhisattva buddhist statue
Pensive Bodhisattva, Early 7th century, via Google Arts & Culture


Bodhisattva as a term that conceals several meanings because it literally refers to “one whose goal is awakening”, designating in this way an individual who is on the path to becoming a Buddha. This terminology is due to the fact that, in early Buddhism, this word was used with reference to previous incarnations of Siddharta Gautama. A narration of these early lives is held in the Jataka Tales, a collection, in the Buddhist canon of 550 anecdotes. Later, the Bodhisattva characterization broadened to include everyone who vowed to reach enlightenment and become a Buddha.


In the Buddhist tradition, there are thus many Bodhisattvas, wise and compassionate the same as Buddha himself; they intervene with their powers in different salvation tales.


A further Step in the Tradition: Amitabha’s Heaven 

amitabha who was buddha painting
Amitabha, the Buddha of the Western Pure Land (Sukhavati), ca. 1700, Central Tibet, via the MET Museum


One of the most diffused cults in buddhism is the cult of Amitabha. His name means “immeasurable light” and he is known as the Buddha of eternal life, and of light.  He is one of the Five Cosmic Buddha, a group of saviors often venerated together in Exoteric Buddhism. According to legend, he was born as a ruler, and later decided to live as a monk.


During that time he pronounced forty-eight great vows for all living beings’ salvation. The eighteenth declared the creation of a sort of Paradise, a Pure Land (also called the Western Paradise) where anyone who would call his name sincerely would be reborn. This land is described as a delightful and joyful place, filled with music from birds and trees. Mortals arrive here through the lotus flower, first kept in the bud, and when they’re fully purified, arising from the open flower.


Amitabha has two attendants, Avalokiteshvara and Mahasthamaprapta, both of them Bodhisattvas. The first one, in particular, holds a wide cult and is known as the Bodhisattva of infinite compassion and mercy. He is the earthly emanation of Amitabha and guards the world in waiting for the future Buddha, Maitreya. However, the Eastern tradition in China and Japan worships this figure at the level of a divinity, calling it Guanyin and Kannon respectively and often representing it as female.


Who Was Buddha and Who Will Be the New Buddha?

buddhist monk budai maitreya who was buddha
Buddhist monk Budai, Qing dynasty (1644–1911), China, via MET Museum


Maitreya is the Buddha that will come after Shakyamuni. He is believed to reside in the Tushita heaven, the fourth of six heavens in the world of desire, from which he will descend to earth in the future. When Buddha’s teachings are forgotten, he will take his place on earth and come to preach the Dharma anew.


According to the prophecy, an enlightened being (Maitreya) will come as the true successor of Siddharta Gautama, and his teaching will spread endlessly, planting its roots in all of humankind. His cult is one of the most widespread in different Buddhist schools worldwide; it was the first ever preached in Buddhist history, starting from the 3rd century CE. The peculiarities of the Maitreya tradition are two: first, his story is depicted as similar to the early forms of the Shakyamuni cult, and, secondly, his figure has analogies with the western idea of a messiah. In fact, King Ashoka (the Indian ruler who spread Buddhism and used it as a state religion) employed it as a revolutionary political tool for the diffusion of the religion.


Moreover, the Maitreya cult underwent some changes as Buddhism grew abroad. The clearest example is the Chinese version, in which he is depicted as “the laughing Buddha” (Budai), with a fat belly and a joyful expression, worshiped as a God of good luck and prosperity.

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By Aurora PassariniBA Anthropology, MA Int'l Cooperation w/ Intercultural Heritage Concentration Aurora is a university student based in Italy. She holds a BA in Anthropology, Religion and Oriental Cultures and is an International Cooperation student from the University of Bologna. She is passionate about social and cultural anthropology, religious studies and political sciences. She also enjoys European literature and learning oriental languages.