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Siddhartha was alone in the world for the first time. On the bank of a nearby river, he drew his sword:

Siddhartha cuts off his hair
Siddhartha cuts off his hair
British Library
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“Although my father and step-mother were grieving with tears on their faces, I cut off my hair, I put on the yellow robes and went forth from home into homelessness. I had been wounded by the enjoyment of the world, and I had come out longing to obtain peace.”

Siddhartha wandered south, toward the holy Ganges River. Once a great prince, now he became a beggar, surviving on the charity of strangers. He slept on the cold ground in the dark forests of banyan, teak, and sal that covered the northeastern plain, frightening places where wild animals roamed and dangerous spirits were said to live.

D. Max Moerman, scholar: "He’s going out to see what there is. He’s a seeker. He doesn’t have teaching yet. He doesn’t have an understanding yet. He doesn’t have an insight yet. He doesn’t have a solution yet but he recognizes the problem."

Siddhartha could not expect help from the religion of the time the ancient Vedic religion, steeped in ceremony and ritual. Some of its rituals still live on in ceremonies conducted by Hindu priests, who chant Vedic formulas more than twenty-five hundred years old.

Hindu priests
Hindu priests
David Grubin Productions
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Stayendra Kunar Partek, Hindu priest: "This ritual is from long ago when civilization was first developed here. Through this chanting, we worship our Gods and the planets in order to provide inner peace to all living creatures."

For centuries, the Vedic rituals had commanded respect for the gods and inspired conviction. But by Siddhartha's time, the rituals no longer spoke to the spiritual needs of many Indians, leaving a spiritual vacuum, and a sense of foreboding.

Kevin Trainor, scholar: "The Gods become less important than the rituals themselves. It’s a period of great unrest, a period of social upheaval, social change."

Cities were growing, generating new wealth, and spiritual hunger. As one ancient voice cried out in despair:

“The oceans have dried up; mountains have crumbled; the Pole Star is shaken; the earth founders; the gods perish. I am like a frog in a dry well."

Moerman: "A lot of people aren’t satisfied with the religion that they grew up in. And when prince Siddhartha decides to give up his life, he’s doing something that lots of other people were doing."

Siddhartha joined thousands of searchers like himself—renunciants, men and even a few women who had renounced the world, embracing poverty and celibacy, living on the edge—just as spiritual seekers still do in India today.

Moerman: "Now at this time in India there were lots of renunciants out there. It's a flourishing, renunciant tradition. There are many different people who have given everything up and practice austerities and meditate in order to escape from the cycle of death and rebirth. The notion of reincarnation is something that is part of Indian culture, part of Indian civilization, part of Indian religion that was there long before the Buddha, and it was the, in a sense, the problem that the Buddha faced."

Suffering didn’t begin at birth, and finish with death. Suffering was endless. Unless it was possible to find a way out—become enlightened, become a Buddha.

Mark Epstein, psychiatrist: "In his time there was a sense of death not being final but of death leading inexorably to rebirth and of being, suffering beings, bound to the wheel of death and rebirth."


Major funding provided by: National Endowment for the Humanities, PBS, Corporation for Public Broadcasting, and the Robert H. N. Ho Family Foundation. Additional funding provided by: the Arthur Vining Davis Foundations, the Shinnyo-en Foundation, the Shelley and Donald Rubin Foundation, the Bumper Foundation, and viewers like you.