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Part I: Chapters 1-7

Dramatis Personae for Part I


Chapter 1: Necessary Background

This is the story of the historical buddha. He was born into the Gautama family of the prominent Shakya (Śākya) tribe, and today he is sometimes called Shakyamuni (Śākya-muni), which means the “sage of the Shakya (Śākya) tribe” or “the Shakyamuni Buddha.” He was probably born somewhere between 566 and 430 BC. Shakyamuni lived in what is today the border region where northern India meets eastern Nepal.

Northern India at the time was divided into a great many tiny states run as kingdoms or as loose alliances of “tribal” or “clan” territories, with the always slippery terms “tribe” and “clan” tending to dissolve into each other. In many cases, “kingdoms” were so small that the same name was applied both to a mini-state and to the town or village that was its “capital,” since boundaries might or might not be clearly defined, and when they were clear, they still changed with the fortunes of war.

One of the smaller states/towns, located at the foot of the Himalayas, was called Kapilavastu. Shakyamuni was born and raised here, but the town was apparently destroyed during his lifetime. It is thought to have been located a little to the northwest of present city of Gorakhpur near the Indian border with Nepal, although there are disagreements about the exact location.

Just to the south of Kapilavastu lay the much more powerful kingdom of Koshala (Kośala), with a capital at Shravasti (Śrāvastī). The Jetavana Hermitage (chapter 25) was located here.

Farther south yet was the much larger kingdom of Magadha. The capital was at Rajagaha (Rājagṛha, modern Rajgir). This great state was ruled by King Bimbisara (Bimbisāra), a patron of Shakyamuni. Under Bimbisara’s son Ajata-shatru (whose troubled history we shall encounter in chapter 24), Koshala was absorbed into Magadha. The Magadha state was to continue assimilating adjacent territories until it became the Mauryan empire of the famous emperor Ashoka (Aśoka) in the 200s, which covered most of the northern half of India.


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