There was, and still is, a belief in India among many of her ascetics that purification and final deliverance can be achieved by rigorous self-mortification, and the ascetic Gotama decided to test the truth of it. And so there at Uruvelâ he began a determined struggle to subdue his body in the hope that his mind, set free from the shackles of the body, might be able to soar to the heights of liberation. Most zealous was he in these practices. He lived on leaves and roots, on a steadily reduced pittance of food; he wore rags from dust heaps; he slept among corpses or on beds of thorns. The utter paucity of nourishment left him a physical wreck. Says the Master: “Rigorous have I been in my ascetic discipline. Rigorous have I been beyond all others. Like wasted, withered reeds became all my limbs….” In such words as these, in later years, having attained to full enlightenment, did the Buddha give his disciples an awe-inspiring description of his early penances.n8
Struggling thus for six long years, he came to death’s very door, but he found himself no nearer to his goal. The utter futility of self-mortification became abundantly clear to him by his own experience. He realized that the path to the fruition of his ardent longing lay in the direction of a search inward into his own mind. Undiscouraged, his still active mind searched for new paths to the aspired for goal. He felt, however, that with a body so utterly weakened as his, he could not follow that path with any chance of success. Thus he abandoned self-torture and extreme fasting and took normal food.
His emaciated body recovered its former health and his exhausted vigour soon returned. Now his five companions left him in their disappointment, for they thought that he had given up the effort and had resumed a life of abundance. Nevertheless, with firm determination and complete faith in his own purity and strength, unaided by any teacher, accompanied by none, the Bodhisatta resolved to make his final effort in complete solitude.
On the forenoon of the day before his enlightenment while the Bodhisatta was seated in meditation under a banyan tree, Sujâtâ, the daughter of a rich householder, not knowing whether the ascetic was divine or human, offered milk-rice to him saying: “Lord, may your aspirations be crowned with success!” This was his last meal prior to his enlightenment.