Maha Prajnaparamita Sastra

by Gelongma Karma Migme Chödrön | 2001 | 941,039 words

This page describes “origins of rajagriha” as written by Nagarjuna in his Maha-prajnaparamita-sastra (lit. “the treatise on the great virtue of wisdom”) in the 2nd century. This book, written in five volumes, represents an encyclopedia on Buddhism as well as a commentary on the Pancavimsatisahasrika Prajnaparamita.

Part 2 - The origins of Rājagṛha

Question. – The great cities such as Chö p’o t’i (Śrāvastī), Kia p’i lo p’o (Kapilavastu) and Po lo nai (Vārāṇasī) are all royal residences (rājagṛha). Why does this city alone bear the name of Rājagṛha?

Answer.[1] – 1. Some people give the following explanation: A king of Mo k’ie t’o (Magadha) had a son who, although he had but a single head, had two faces and four arms. The people took this as a bad omen; the king therefore cut off the baby’s head and abandoned the body in the jungle (kāntāra). Li lo (Līlā) rejoined the two parts of the body and nursed the child with her own milk. In the course of time, he grew up and became a man; his strength was so great that he was able to conquer the kings of other kingdoms; he owned the whole world and took all the kings, in the number of 18,000 men, and established them in the midst of five mountains;[2] by means of his great power, he governed Yen feou t’i (Jambudvīpa). This is why the inhabitants of Jambudvīpa give these mountains the name ‘City of the kings’ residence’ (rājagṛha).[3]

2. Others say the following: In the city in which the king of Magadha lived, there were fires; each time the city burned down, it was rebuilt. This happened seven times. The people of that country were overwhelmed by the work imposed upon them. Saddened and fearful, the king assembled all the wise men (paṇḍita) and asked their advice. Some said that he should change the location of the city. The king therefore sought out a place where he could settle; he saw these five mountains which formed an enclosure like a wall; he built his palace (rājakula) there and settled in the center of this place. This is why this place is called ‘City of the king’s residence’ (rājagṛha).[4]

3. Here is another explanation: In times past, there was in this kingdom a king called P’o seou (Vasu) who renounced worldly things (lokadharmanirviṇṇa), went forth from home (pravrajita) and became a recluse (ṛṣi). At that time, the brahmins who were still householders (gṛhasthabrāhmaṇa) and the hermits who had left the world (pravrajirarṣi) had a debate. The gṛhastabrāhmaṇas said: “According to the sacred texts, in the offerings to the gods (devayajña), living beings must be killed and their flesh must be eaten (māṃsa).”[5] The pravrajitarṣis answered: “When sacrifices are made to the gods, living beings must not be killed and their flesh should not be eaten.”[6] The debate went on between them. The pravrajitarṣis said: “There is a great king here who has left the world to become a recluse. Would you trust (śraddhā) him?” The gṛhasthabrāhmaṇas replied that they would trust him, and the others said: “We will take this man as arbitrator and tomorrow we will go to question him.”

That same night, the gṛhastatabrāhmaṇas went in advance to the hermit Vasu and, after having asked him all the questions about customs, they said to him: “In [76b] tomorrow’s discussion, you must help us.” Thus, the next day at dawn, at the beginning of the discussion, the pravrajitarṣis asked the hermit Vasu: “In the sacrifices to the gods, should or should one not kill living beings and eat their flesh?” The hermit Vasu answered: “The rule of the brāhmans is that living beings must be killed in sacrifices to the gods and their flesh eaten.”[7] The pravrajitarṣis replied: “According to your own judgment, should living beings be killed and their flesh eaten or not?” The hermit Vasu answered: “As it is a matter of sacrifice to the gods, one should kill living beings and eat their flesh; indeed, these living beings, having died in sacrifice to the gods, will be able to be reborn in the heavens.”

The pravrajitarṣis exclaimed: “You are greatly mistaken! Your words are untruthful (mṛṣāvāda)!” and they spat upon him, saying: “Criminal, disappear!” Immediately the hermit Vasu sank into the earth up to his ankles (gulpha) because he had been the first to open the door to great sins (mahāpatti). The pravrajitarṣis said to him: “You should speak the truth; if you persist in lying, your whole body will sink into the earth.” The hermit Vasu answered: “I know that it is not a sin to kill sheep (eḍaka) and eat their meat when it is done for the gods.” Immediately he sank into the earth as far as his knees (jānu). In this way, he disappeared gradually as far as his thighs (kaṭi), then up to his neck (kaṇṭha). The pravrajitarṣis said: “Now your deceitful speech has received its punishment in this world. If, however, you decide to speak the truth, even though you are under the ground, we can pull you out and allow you to escape from punishment.” Then Vasu thought thus: “As a noble person, I should not say two different things. Besides, in the Wei t’o (Veda) of the brāhmans, the sacrifices to the gods are made in all kinds of different ways. If I myself die, would that be worthwhile?” Then he said singlemindedly (ekacittena): “In the sacrifices to the gods, it is not a sin to kill living beings and eat their flesh.” The pravrajitarṣis shouted: “You are a hardened sinner! Then disappear completely, we don’t want to see any more of you.” Then he was swallowed up completely by the earth. From that time until today, the rule given by the recluse Vasu has always been observed: When a sheep is killed in the sacrifices to the gods, at the moment when the knife descends on the animal, one says to it: “Vasu is killing you.”[8]

Vasu’s son was called Kouang tchö (Vipularatha?). He succeeded his father as king. In turn, he also renounced worldly things but he did not become a monk (pravrajita). Then he thought: “My father, the former king, was swallowed alive by the earth even though he had gone forth from home; if I continue to rule the world, I might render myself guilty of a great sin again. Where then should I go?”At the moment he had this thought, he heard in the air a voice that said to him: “If, as you travel, you see an extraordinary (adbhuta) place that is hard (durlabha) to reach, you should establish your home there.” When these words had been spoken, the voice was silent. A little later, having gone out into the country to hunt, the king saw a deer (mṛga) that fled as swift as the wind; he ran after it but was unable to reach it. As he pursued it without resting, the members of his [76c] retinue were able to stay with him. In front of him he saw a place where five mountains formed a steep and well-sheltered basin; the ground there was level and produced fine soft grass; beautiful flowers covered the earth; there were forests of all kinds of perfumed trees which bore flowers and fruits in abundance; hot springs (uṣṇodaka) and cold pools (śītaḍāga) everywhere presented their purity; this was a marvelous place. On all sides there grew celestial flowers (divyapuṣpa) with heavenly perfumes (divyagandha) and celestial music (divyatūrya) was heard. When the gandharva musicians saw the king, they all withdrew. [The king thought]: “This place is extraordinary (adbhuta) and nobody has ever seen its like (apūrvadṛṣṭa). This is where I should establish my residence.” When he had thought thus, all his ministers and his officials who had been following him arrived. The king declared: “The voice that I heard in the air told me: ‘If you see on your journey an extraordinary place that is difficult to find, that is where you must establish your residence. Now I have just discovered this extraordinary place; it is here that I must establish my residence.” Then he abandoned the city where he had lived previously and settled in these mountains. This was the first king to become established there and starting with him, his successors, one after the other, lived there. Since this king first had a palace built there, thence came the name ‘City of the royal residence.’

The explanation of the origins of Rājagṛha in summary is finished.

Footnotes and references:


In this paragraph Lamotte follows the translation of E. Chavannes, Cinq cents contes et apoplogues, III, p. 285–290, with a few modifications.


These five mountains were called in Pāli Vebhāra, Paṇḍava, Vepulla, Gijjhakūta and Isigli. Cf. Majjhima, III, p. 68 (= Tseng yi a han, T 125, k. 32, p. 723a); Suttanipāta Comm., III, p. 285–290). But previously they bore another name.


Same explanation in Suttanipata Comm., II, p. 413; Rājagṛha is called thus because many kings, such as Mandhātā and Mahāgovinda, lived there.


This tradition is also related by Hiuan tsang, Si yu ki, T 2087, k. 9, p. 923a (tr. Beal, II, p. 165–166): Frequent fires erupted at Kuśāgra, former capital of Magadha, which totally destroyed the city. After having rebuilt it many times, king Bimbasāra, on the advice of his ministers, issued an edict banishing any inhabitant in whose house the fire had broken out and forcing him to withdraw into the Śītavana, the ‘Cold Forest’, used until then as a cemetery. A new fire having erupted in his own palace, the king abdicated in favor of his son Ajātaśatru and withdrew into the Śītavana. His neighbor, the king of Vaiśalī, judged the time to be propitious to invade Magadha. The frontier princes fortified the Śitavana quickly and, as Bimbisāra was the main inhabitant, the new city was called the City of the king (Rājagṛha). – The old city, which Hiuan tsang called Kuśāgra because of its excellent vegetation, is better known by the name Girivraja (Vimānavatthu Comm., p. 82). It is also called Vasumatī (Rāmāyaṇa, I, 7, 32). Bārhadrapura (Mahābhārata, II, 24, 44), Bimbisārapurī and Magadhapura (Suttanipāta Comm., II, p. 584). – Hiuan tsang (l. c.) and Fa hien in his Account of the Buddhist Kingdoms (tr. Legge, p. 81; Giles, p. 49) tell another tradition attributing the founding of Rājagṛha to Ajātaśatru.


Śāṅkhāyana, II, 16, 1 permits the killing of animals on the occasion of the ceremony of reception of a host (madhuparka) [according to Monier-Williams, madhuparka is an offering of honey and milk] or of an offering of soma to the gods. In other cases, the killing of animals is prohibited.


On the prohibition of meat in the Vinayas, see the note by P. Demiéville in Benveniste, Textes Sogdiens, p. 189, n. 1.


“It was an argument of the brāhmins that one has the right to kill living beings for sacrifice because the animals thus burned are reborn in the heavens. In the Mo teng k’ie king (T 1300) where there is a strange discussion on the equality of the castes, this argument is cast in the teeth of the brāhmins: they should see that, in fact, if their claim is true, they ought to be all the more eager to sacrifice themselves or those dear to them since the bliss of the devas would thus be assured for them or their dear ones. For an analogous argumentation, see Sūtrālaṃkāra, story 24: Transl. Huber, p. 125–131.” (Chavannes, Contes, IV, p. 241)


The Ta fang teng t’o lo ni king, T 1339, k. 1, p. 644, gives quite a different version of this story which the Hôbôgirin, Baso, p. 58 summarizes in these words: At the time when the Buddha was dwelling in Tuṣita heaven, Vasu was the head of 6,2000,000 merchants whom he was taking to sea to search for jewels. On their return, the fleet was assailed by the makaras, waves, wind and the yakṣas. Each of the merchants promised Maheśvara to sacrifice a being and in this way they avoided these four dangers. On their return, they wanted to go to the temple to fulfill their vow; but on the way, Vasu reproached them for being party to such an evil practice and proposed to save the sheep. To this end, he produced by metamorphosis a brāhmin and a monk; the brāhmin set himself at the head of the merchants; he was questioned by the monk who accused him of committing a sin by killing beings; the debate was brought before Vasu himself, changed into a Seer. Vasu ridiculed the monk who asserted that by making bloody sacrifices, rather than going to heaven, one falls into hell: “You will see that for yourself”, cried the monk, and at these words, Vasu fell into hell alive. Frightened, the merchants released the sheep and all became seers; in their subsequent lifetime they were born in Śrāvastī where the Buddha converted them. As for Vasu, he was drawn out of hell by the luminous power of the Buddha Houa-tsiu ‘Flower-Collection’ coming from the east. Vasu went to pay homage to the Buddha with the innumerable beings whom he had converted in the hells. To Śāriputra, who was astonished at having previously heard it said by the Buddha himself that Vasu had been condemned to remain in hell forever, the Buddha replied that such a belief is false; and he added various interpretations of the name Vasu, all tending to prove his non-infernal nature: va means ‘heaven’, su means ‘wisdom’; a being who possesses heavenly wisdom cannot be infernal.

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