The story of the Buddha’s birth is rich with myth and symbolism.
Twenty-five centuries ago, King Suddhodana ruled a land near the Himalaya Mountains.
One day during a midsummer festival, his wife Queen Maya retired to her quarters to rest, and she fell asleep and dreamed a vivid dream. Four angels carried her high into white mountain peaks and clothed her in flowers. A magnificent white bull elephant bearing a white lotus in its trunk approached Maya and walked around her three times. Then the elephant struck her on the right side with its trunk and vanished into her.
When Maya awoke, she told her husband about the dream. The King summoned 64 Brahmans to come and interpret it. Queen Maya would give birth to a son, the Brahmans said, and if the son did not leave the household he would become a world conqueror. However, if he were to leave the household he would become a Buddha.
When the time for the birth grew near, Queen Maya wished to travel from Kapilavatthu, the King’s capital, to her childhood home, Devadaha, to give birth. With the King’s blessings she left Kapilavatthu on a palanquin carried by a thousand courtiers.
On the way to Devadaha, the procession passed Lumbini Grove, which was full of blossoming trees. Entranced, the Queen asked her courtiers to stop, and she left the palanquin and entered the grove. As she reached up to touch the blossoms, her son was born.
Then the Queen and her son were showered with perfumed blossoms, and two streams of sparkling water poured from the sky to bathe them. And the infant stood, and took seven steps, and proclaimed “I alone am the World-Honored One!”
Then Queen Maya and her son returned to Kapilavatthu. The Queen died seven days later, and the infant prince was nursed and raised by the Queen’s sister Pajapati, also married to King Suddhodana.***
Aspects of this story may have been borrowed from Hindu texts, such as the account of the birth of Indra from the Rig Veda. The story may also have Hellenic influences. For a time after Alexander the Great conquered central Asia in 334 BCE, there was considerable intermingling of Buddhism with Hellenic art and ideas. There also is speculation that the story of the Buddha’s birth was “improved” after Buddhist traders returned from the Middle East with stories of the birth of Jesus.
There is a jumble of symbols presented in this story. The white elephant was a sacred animal representing fertility and wisdom. The lotus is a common symbol for enlightenment in Buddhist art. A white lotus in particular represents mental and spiritual purity. The baby Buddha’s seven steps evoke seven directions – north, south, east, west, up, down, and here.
In Asia, Buddha’s Birthday is a festive celebration featuring parades with many flowers and floats of white elephants. Figures of the baby Buddha pointing up and down are placed in bowls, and sweet tea is poured over the figures to “wash” the baby.
Newcomers to Buddhism tend to dismiss the Buddha birth myth as so much froth. It sounds like a story about the birth of a god, and the Buddha was not a god. In particular, the declaration “I alone am the World-Honored One” is a bit hard to square with Buddhist teachings on nontheism and anatman.
However, in Mahayana Buddhism it is said the baby Buddha was speaking of the Buddha-nature that is the immutable and eternal nature of all beings. On Buddha’s birthday, some Mahayana Buddhists wish each other happy birthday, because the Buddha’s birthday is everyone’s birthday.