While both Guatama and Mahavira followed a similar patterns in life, there were small differences in Mahavira’s and Gautama’s life from the beginning. For example, the mothers of Gautama and Mahavira both had dreams that foretold that the boys would either become great religious leaders or great warriors. Mahavira’s mother dreamed that the baby was conceived in the Brahmin Devanda’s womb and then later transferred to her body; Gautama’s mother dreamed that a white elephant holding a lotus flower entered her body. However they were raised differently: Gautama’s father surrounded him with every earthly pleasure to force him to become a warrior; however, Mahavira’s father did not try to force the outcome and allowed the boy to find his own path.
Mahavira was born in 599 BC in Bihar, India (formerly Vaishali Videha) where he lived a normal princely life until the age of 28 when both of his parents died. He, in respect to the wishes of his brother, continued to live at home for two years. During this time, he began his practice of self-denial and meditation. In contrast, Gautama was born in 536 BC in Kapilavastu, India (now called Nepal) where he lived surrounded by earthly pleasures and excesses to the point that his father never allowed him to see anything dissatisfactory with the world for fear Gautama would become a spiritual leader rather than a warrior. Gautama was content with his life, but when he was about 29 years old he became discontent with his life because of what are referred to as the “four sites”. These four sites (age, sickness, death, and mediation) caused him to question his place in life and caused him to fear the same happening in his own family. Soon after, he cast aside the burden of householder life and, leaving his family behind, began his journey to enlightenment.
Mahavira, after his renunciation, began his quest for enlightenment first by joining a group of ascetics, but left them soon after because of differences in opinion. (Oddly, he left because he had angered the other Ascetics by allowed starving cattle to eat the thatch roofs of their huts.) He then spent two years in the town of Nalanda. During the second year he meet Gosala, and the two traveled together for ten years (less 6 months) until Gosala left him. However, Gosala did not leave Mahavira’s life permanently later he tried to kill Mahavira by cursing him; however, the curse backfired and, if the legends are to be believed, Gosala himself died from the same curse 7 years later. Mahavira spent 12 years in meditation to achieve enlightenment; as he progressed his spiritual abilities grew and he achieved perfect enlightenment. After his enlightenment, Mahavira spent the reminder of his life preaching the way to enlightenment he had achieved.
Gautama began his journey by studying with the hermits Arada and later Udraka. They taught him how to meditate and achieve a state of non-existence and to achieve a state not of perception or non-perception respectively. After Gautama mastered both of these techniques, he began practicing asceticism, and he was later joined by a group of wandering ascetics who were impressed by the degree of self-mortification Gautama had achieved. After several years, he remembered the meditative states he had achieved as a boy, and he began to become discontent with the ascetic way. He decided that the ascetics would not help him achieve the enlightenment he desired, so he renounced asceticism, ate some food and began his pursuit of a “middle way”. Gautama then began seeking enlightenment through meditation rather than self-deprivation. After leaving the ascetic way of life, Gautama sat under a bodhi tree and began his meditation; shortly after, he achieved a heightened state of awareness, and by turning this awareness inward, he realized the four noble truths. The truths he realized became known as the Dharma which Gautama spent the remainder of his life preaching to those who would listen.
The paths of these two men are very similar: their life choices follow the same path and the end result was the same. The differences can be traced back to a single point: one was spoiled as a child and one was not. Gautama who lived a life of excess beyond what was normal even for other princes chose a middle path that did not require self-deprivation, Mahavira who lead a “normal” life for a prince chose extreme self-deprivation as a tool. One can only wonder if the roles were reversed would their decisions have been the same.