The details of the Buddha's life are not known for certain, but most scholars are in agreement that he was an actual historical figure who lived in northern India around the 5th century BCE. The events of the Buddha's life are recorded in Buddhist tradition and are a favorite subject of Buddhist art.
Buddhist tradition divides the life of its founder into 12 glorious events. These defining incidents of the Buddha's life are given visual form in densely packed sequences narrated in a special genre of paintings known as the "Twelve Great Deeds of the Buddha's Life". These artworks not only delineate Buddha's gradual progress towards spiritual enlightenment, but also present a visual depiction of a vast number of abstract philosophical notions underlying esoteric Buddhism.
THE PROMISE TO BE BORN IN HUMAN FORM
Before the Buddha was born into this world as Shakyamuni, he was a bodhisattva in the Tushita heaven (home of the contented gods). His name there was Shvetaketu ("White Banner"). From here he witnessed the dark ages engulfing the human realm, leading to its spiritual impoverishment. Moved to compassion like a true bodhisattva, he vowed to manifest himself in the sentient world and relieve people from their sufferings.
Indeed, in strictly canonical terms, a bodhisattva is defined as an individual who discovers the source of the Ultimate Truth better known as nirvana, but postpones his own enlightenment until he has guided all his fellow beings to this same source of fulfillment. Thus, Buddha, looking down upon the sentient beings suffering in the throes of ignorance, felt a pang of compassion, and in accordance with his bodhisattva status, decided to descend to the earth and spread the word of Dharma.
Visually, Buddha is depicted making this vow surrounded by other sacred beings, holding aloft a lotus flower in his right hand, symbolizing the purity of his intention (see painting, above).
The Lalitavistara (1st cent. AD) says that Buddha himself selected the time, place, and caste of his birth. He finally short listed King Shudhodhana and his wife, Queen Mayadevi, rulers of the Shakya (Lion) clan, as his future parents. This generous couple was well known throughout the land for their just and noble bearing. Scriptures assert that Buddha chose a king as his father since the royal caste was more respected that the priestly one.
It indeed seems strange that the Buddha, who never believed in the caste system, was so particular in the choice of a Brahmin or Kshatriya family for his own birth. In fact, it was precisely to show the futility of the notion of high-birth as an aid in spiritual salvation that this choice was made.
The bodhisattva's descent from the Tushita heaven occurred as a dream to Mayadevi. In this dream, a white elephant approached and touched her right side with its trunk. Through this symbolic act, the bodhisattva entered the womb of Mayadevi and impregnated her.
The choice of an elephant as a symbol of her impregnation is a well-thought out metaphor because elephants are known for their strength and intelligence, and also associated with gray-rain clouds and thus with fertility, since rainwater means that seeds will germinate and vegetables will be able to grow. The white color (of the elephant), adds to this an element of purity and immaculacy. The royal fortunetellers explained that the dream announced the queen's pregnancy, and that the newborn would possess exceptional traits.