Maha Prajnaparamita Sastra

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

This page describes “explanation of the parable ‘as numerous as the sands of the ganges’” 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.

Act 1.7: Explanation of the parable ‘as numerous as the sands of the Ganges’

Question. – In Jambudvīpa there are many kinds of great rivers (mahānādi); there are some that surpass even the Ganges. Why do you always use the expression ‘as numerous as the sands of the Ganges’ (gagaṇānadīvālukopama)?

Answer. – 1) Because the Ganges is sandier than the other rivers.

2) Furthermore, the Gangetic region is the birthplace of the Buddha and was the place where he moved about. Since his disciples knew it by sight, we use it as comparison.

3) Furthermore, the Buddha is a native of Jambudvīpa. In Jambudvīpa, four great rivers come from the northern (uttarānta) boundaries and empty into the oceans in the four directions of space (caturdiśasamudra).[1]

At the northern boundaries, in the Snowy Mountains (Himavat), there is lake A na p’o ta to (Anavatapta); in the lake there is a lotus golden in color and made of the seven jewels (suvarṇavarṇānisaptaratnamayāni padmāni), as large as a chariot wheel.[2] [Its master], Anavatapata, king of the nāgas (nāgarāja), is a great bodhisattva of the seventh bhūmi.[3]

At the four corners of the lake there are four [mouths] from which the water flows out: i) at the east, the Elephant’s Mouth (Siang t’eou = hastimukha); ii) at the south, the Ox’s Mouth (Nieou t’eou = vṛṣabhamukha); iii) at the west, the Horse’s Mouth (Ma t’eou = aśvamukha); iv) at the north, the Lion’s Mouth (Che tseu t’eou = siṃhamukha).

a) In the east, the Elephant’s Mouth empties into the Heng (Gaṅgā). Its bed consists of golden sand (suvarānavālukā).

b) In the south, the Ox’s Mouth empties into the Sin t’eou (Sindhu). Its bed also consists of golden sand.

c) In the west, the Horse’s Mouth empties into the P’o tch’a (Vakṣu). Its bed also consists of golden sand.

d) In the north, the Lion’s Mouth empties into the Sseu t’o (Sītā). Its bed also consists of golden sand.[4]

These four rivers all come from the mountain in the north. The Gaṅgā comes from the mountain in the north and empties into the eastern ocean (pūrvasamudra). – The Sindhu comes from the mountain in the north and empties into the southern ocean (dakṣiṇasamudra). – The Vakṣu comes from the mountain in the north and empties into the western ocean (paścimasamudra). – The Sītā comes from the mountain in the north and empties into the northern ocean (uttarasamudra).

The Ganges is the most important of these four rivers; people come there from the four directions of space and consider it to be a sacred river, the sins (āpatti), stains (mala) and faults (pāpa) of those who bathe there are completely removed.[5] Since all people venerate and know this river, the sands of the Ganges are taken as comparison.

4) Finally, the other rivers change their name vying with one another, but the Ganges keeps its name from generation to generation; this is why the sands of the Ganges are taken for comparison and not the other rivers.

[114b] Question. – How many grains of sand are there in the Ganges?

Answer. – No mathematician is capable of knowing the number;[6] it is known only by the Buddhas and dharmakāya bodhisattvas who are able to number the atoms (paramāṇu) that arise and cease in the whole of Jambudvīpa and therefore they can also know the number of grains of sand in the Ganges!

Thus the Buddha was seated under a tree in a forest near the Jetavana. A brahmin approached him and asked: “How many leaves (pattra) are there in this forest?” The Buddha immediately replied: “There are such-and-such a number.” The brahmin wondered how to prove that. He went behind a tree, tore off a few leaves and went to hide them. He came back and asked the Buddha: “Exactly how many leaves (pattra) are there in this forest?” The Buddha answered by subtracting from the original number the number of leaves he had torn off. The brahmin recognized [the precision of his calculation] and was filled with respect and faith; he asked the Buddha to accept him as a monk and later he became an arhat.[7]

This proves that the Buddha is able to know the number of grains of sand in the Ganges.

Question. – What is the number of those who became destined (niyata) to supreme complete enlightenment in contact with the Buddha’s rays? If it is enough to be touched by the Buddha’s rays to find the Path, why does the Buddha, who is so benevolent (mahāmaitrī), not always emit his rays so that everyone will find the Path? Why should it be necessary to observe morality (śīla), samādhi and wisdom (prajñā) in order to finally find the Path?

Answer. – Beings find salvation by all sorts of different means. Some are saved by concentration (samādhi), others by morality (śīla) and preaching (deśanādharma), still others because the Buddha’s rays touched their body. It is like a city (nagara) with many gates (dvāra); the entry-ways are different but the point of arrival is the same. Some people whom the Buddha’s rays have touched find salvation; others who see the rays and whom the rays have touched do not find salvation.

Footnotes and references:


The four great rivers of Jambudvīpa have already been mentioned. The main sources are: Tch’ang a han T 1, k. 18, p. 116c; separate versions of the Cosmography of the Dīrgha: T 23, k. 1, p. 279a; T 24, k. 1, p. 313a; T 25, k. 1, p. 368a; Sa po to sou li yu nai ye king, T 30, p. 812a; Tseng yi a han, T 125, k. 21, p. 658b–c, and k.34, p. 736b; Sin ti kouan king, T 159, k. 4, p. 307b; P’i p’o cha, T 1545, k. 5, p.21c–22a; Kośa, III, p. 147; Si yu ki, T 2087, k. 1, p. 869b (tr. Watters, Travels, I, P. 32–34). – In his commentaries on the Nikāyas, Buddhaghosa describes at length where these rivers take their source: lake Anotatta has four mouths: sīhamukha, katthimukha, assamukha and usabhamukha, from which the four great rivers flow. Two of these rivers, those of the east and the south, go around the lake three times before continuing in their course. Buddhaghosa tells us that the Ganges changes its name five times in its course: āvaṭṭagaṅgā, kaṅhagaṅgā, ākāsagaṅgā, bahalagaṅgā and ummaggagaṅgā. All of this information has been gathered by Malalasekera, s.v. Anotatta (I, p. 96) and Gaṅgā (I, p. 733). Iconographic study, J. Przyluski, Le symbolisme du pilier de Sarnath, ML, p. 481–498. (I, p. 733).


According to the Si yu ki, l.c., Anavatapta is located at the center of Jambudvīpa, south of the Perfumed Mountain (Gandhamādana) and north of the great Snowy Mountain (Himavat). This is evidently a mythical lake which would be sought in vain on a map (Watters, I, p. 35); this however did not prevent the kings of Ceylon from trafficking in its waters (Mahāvaṃsa, XI, v. 30).


For this nāgarāja, see Hôbôgirin, s.v. Anokudatsu, p. 33; in Si yu ki, he is a bodhisattva of the eighth bhūmi.


On the identification of the Sindhu, the Vakṣu and the Sītā with the Indus, the Oxus and the Tarim, see references of L. de La Vallée Poussin in Kośa, III, p. 147, 148 as note.


Cf. Hopkins, Epic Mythology, p. 6. Buddhism condemns this superstition (cf. Therīgathā, v. 236–251; tr. Rh. D., Sisters, p. 117–119).


The Saṃyutta has already affirmed this (IV, p. 376): Taṃ kiṃ maññasi mahārāja. atthi te koci gaṇako vā … vālukasatasahassānti vā ti. – No hetam ayye.


I [Lamotte] know this episode in the Buddha’s life only from a mixed Sanskrit stanza from the Lalitavistara, p. 166:

Syamu ṛṣi upagatu puri drumanitlaye … tatha tava avitatha samagira racitā

“Once, having gone to the ṛṣi Syama who lived under a tree, he said: ‘I want you to count the number of leaves that this tree has’, after having counted them and knowing how many there were, you told him the number in an even voice.” (tr. Foucaux, p. 130).

In the corresponding passage in the Chinese translation entitled Fang kouang ta tchouang yen king, T 187, k. 5, p. 566b10, the ṛṣi is called Chö mo (37 and 8; 64 and 11), which gives Śyamu in Sanskrit.

Like what you read? Consider supporting this website: