Buddhism is a major religion, founded in northeastern India in AD 552. It is based on the teachings of Siddhartha Gautama, who is known as the Buddha, or "Enlightened One." Buddha is the Indian philosopher and the founder of Buddhism, born in Kapilavastu, India. He was the son of the head of the Sakya warrior caste, in later life he was known also as Sakyamuni.
All the surviving accounts of Buddha's life were written many years after his death by followers rather than by objective historians. Therefore, it is difficult to separate facts from the myths and legend in which they are based. From the available evidence, Buddha apparently showed an early interest in meditation and image, angering his father, who wanted him to be a warrior and ruler rather than a religious philosopher. Giving in to his father's wishes, he married at an early age and participated in the common life of the court. Buddha found his carefree, dishonest life boring, and after a while he left home and began wandering in search of "enlightenment." One day in 533, according to tradition, he met an old man, a sick man, and a dead body, and he suddenly realized that suffering is the common part of humankind. He then met a beggar monk who was calm and peaceful and decided to adopt his way of life and family, wealth, and power in the search for truth. This decision, known in Buddhism as the Great Renunciation, is celebrated by Buddhists as a turning point in history. Gautama was then 29 years old, according to tradition.
Wandering as a beggar over northern India, Buddha first investigated Hinduism. He took teachings from some famous Brahman teachers, but he found the Hindu caste system insulting and Hindu cruelty useless. He continued his search, attracting but later losing five followers. About 528, while sitting under a bo tree near Gaya, he experienced the Great Enlightenment, which exposed the way of "salvation from suffering." Shortly afterward he preached his first sermon in the Deer Park near Benares. This sermon, the text of which is preserved, contains the main idea of Buddhism. Many scholars regard it as comparable, in its tone of truth and importance in history, to Jesus Christ's Sermon on the Mount.
Beginning as a religious movement within the important Brahman tradition of the day, Buddhism quickly developed in a strange direction. The Buddha not only abandoned important conditions of Hindu philosophy, but also questioned the priesthood, denied the importance of the Vedic scriptures, and rejected the sacrificial cult. Also he opened his movement to members of all castes, denying that a person's spiritual worth is a matter of birth.
Buddhism today is divided into two major branches known to their individual followers as Theravada, the Way of the Elders, and Mahayana, the Great Vehicle. Followers of Mahayana refer to Theravada using the negative term Hinayana, "the Lesser Vehicle."
Buddhism has been important not only in India but also in Sri Lanka, Thailand, Cambodia, Myanmar and Laos, where Theravada has been important; Mahayana has had its greatest impression in China, Japan, Taiwan, Tibet, Nepal, Mongolia, Korea, and Vietnam, and India. The number of Buddhists worldwide has been estimated at between 150 and 300 million. The reasons the number is so large as because: Throughout much of Asia religious connections do not exclude people; and it is especially difficult to predict the continuing influence of Buddhism in Communist countries such as China.