Maha Prajnaparamita Sastra

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

This page describes “origin of shariputra’s name” 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 4 - Origin of Śāriputra’s name

Note: This paragraph has been translated by Chavannes, Contes, III, p. 290–294, the translation of which is reproduced here. – Śāriputra, also called Upatiṣya, was the son of Tiṣya and Śārī. The latter’s father was Māṭhara, a brāhmin from Nalanda, and her brother was Mahākauṣṭhila, surnamed Dīrghanakha. Cf. Mūlasarv. Vin. (N. Dutt, Gilgit Ms. of the Vinaya Piṭaka, IHQ, SIV, 1938, p. 422–423; Ken pen chou… tch’ou kia che, T 1444, k. 1, p. 1022b seq.; Rockhill, Life, p. 44): Avadānaśataka, II, p. 186; Po yuan king, T 200, k. 10, p. 255a; Treatise, I, p. 47–51F.

Question. – Where does the name Śāriputra come from? Is it a name given [to Śāriputra] by his father and mother, or is it a name coming from some meritorious action that he had accomplished?

Answer. – It is a name given to him by his father and mother. In Jambudvīpa, in the very fortunate [region], there is the kingdom of Mo k’ie t’o (Magadha); there is a great city there called Rājagṛha; there was a king there named P’in p’o so lo (Bimbisāra) and a brāhmin, master of teaching (upadeśa) [137b] named Mo t’o lo (Māṭhara). Because this man was very skillful in debate, the king had given him as a privilege a large village situated not far from the capital. This Māṭhara married and his wife bore a daughter; because the eyes of this young girl resembled those of the Chö li (śāri, the heron) bird, she was called Śāri; later the mother bore a son whose knee-bones were very big, and for that reason he was called Kiu hi lo (Kauṣṭhila). After this brāhmin married, he was busy raising his son and daughter; he forgot all the holy books he had studied and he did not put his mind to acquiring new knowledge.

At that time, there was in southern India, a brāhmin, a great master of teaching, named T’i chö (Tiṣya); he had penetrated deeply into the eighteen kinds of great holy books. This man came to the city of Rājagṛha; on his head he was carrying a torch[1] and his belly was covered with copper sheets; when he was asked the reason for the second peculiarity, he answered: “The holy books which I have studies are extremely numerous; thus I fear lest my belly will burst and that is why I have covered it with metal.” When he was asked why he carried a torch in the daytime on his head, he answered that it was because of the great darkness. “But”, the crowd answered him, ”the sun has appeared and illumines us; why are you talking about darkness?” He replied: “There are two kinds of darkness: one is produced when the light of the sun does not illumine us; the other is the evil that comes from the shadows of stupidity (moha). Now, although there is the brightness of the sun, the shadows of stupidity are still profound.” The crowd continued: “Have you then not seen the brāhmin Māṭhara? If you see him, your belly will be constricted and your torch will be obscured.” When this brāhmin heard these words, he went to the drum (dundubhi) that calls to debate and sounded it.

When the king heard this sound, he asked who had caused it. His ministers said to him: “It is a brāhmin from the south of India named Tiṣya; he is a great master of teaching; he wishes to ask for a subject of debate and that is why he has sounded the drum.” The king was delighted; he gathered the people together at once and said to them: “Let whoever is capable of confounding him debate with him”

When Māṭhara was informed of this, he mistrusted his power, for he said: “I have forgotten everything and I have not busied myself with acquiring new knowledge. I do not know if I am capable of undertaking a debate with this man.” However, he forced himself to go to meet him; on the road there were two bulls that were fighting using their horns; he had this reflection: “This bull here is me; that bull over there is this other man. I shall have a portent of who will be the winner.” It was the first bull that was the winner and Māṭhara felt very sad, for he said to himself: “According to this portent, it is I who will lose.” When he was about to join he crowd, he saw a woman directly in front of him who was carrying a pitcher of water; she stumbled on the ground and broke her pitcher; he thought once again: “That too is not a good omen”, and he was very displeased. When he was in the crowd, he saw the master of teaching whose face and aspect had all the marks of triumph. He recognized then that he was defeated, but as he could not do otherwise, he agreed to debate with him. As soon as the discussion had begun, he fell into contradictions (raṇasthāna).

The king, who was very happy, thought: “An intelligent man endowed with great wisdom has come from afar to my kingdom.” He wanted to give him a privilege; but his ministers [137c] reprimanded him, saying: “If, because an intelligent man has come, you at once give him as privilege a large village whereas you do not reward your ministers who have served you well and if you reserve all your favors for those who debate, we are afraid that that is not appropriate behavior to ensure the peace of the kingdom and the welfare of your family. Now Māṭhara has been defeated in the debate; you must remove his privilege and give it to the person who has triumphed over him. If another man comes and in turn is victorious, the same privilege should again be given to him.” The king followed this advice and took away Māṭhara’s privilege to give it to the man who had come lately.

Then Māṭhura said to Tiṣya: “You are an intelligent man; I give you my daughter in marriage; my son will be your assistant. As for me, I wish to retire afar in a foreign land to pursue my own projects.” Tiṣya then took this girl as his wife.

Having become pregnant, this woman saw in a dream a man who, wearing a breastplate and a helmet and carrying a thunderbolt (vajra) in his hand, crushed the ordinary mountains and stood upright at the side of a very high mountain. When she awoke, she told her husband the dream she had had. Tiṣya said to her: “It is a sign that you will give birth to a son who will crush all the masters in the art of debate; there will be only one man whom he will not be able to overcome and he will become his disciple.” During her pregnancy, because of the son she was carrying, Śāri herself became very intelligent and very skillful in debate.[2] Each time that her younger brother Kauṣṭhila debated with her, he was defeated; he said to himself: “The son whom my sister is bearing is certainly of high intelligence; if he shows himself in this way even before he is born, what will he be like when he is born?” Then Kauṣṭḥila left his family, gave himself up to study and went to the south of India; he did not cut his fingernails until he had read the eighteen kinds of holy books and had completely mastered them; this is why the people of that time surnamed him the Brāhmin with Long Nails (Dīrghanakha).[3]

Seven days after he was born, the baby boy was wrapped in white cotton to be shown to his father who thought: “I am called Tiṣya; [this child] will drive out my name; therefore I will call him Yeou po t’i chö (Upatiṣya), he who casts out Tiṣya.”

Such was the name given to this child by his parents. But other people, considering that it was Śāri who had given him birth, with one accord agreed to call him Chö li fou (Śāriputra), the son of Śāri.

Later, thanks to the previous vows he had made in many successive lifetimes, Śāriputra became foremost of Śākyamuni’s disciples in his wisdom; his name was Śāriputra; this name thus came to him from the causes and conditions that consist of his previous vows. That is why he is called Śāriputra.

Question. – Why not say Upatiṣya and why limit oneself to saying Śāriputra?

Answer. – People then highly honored his mother (Śāri) who was the most intelligent of all women, and that is why they called this man Śāriputra.

Footnotes and references:


On the theme of the brāhmin who carries a torch in full daylight, see Chavannes, Contes, I, p. 392–393.


On the theme of the woman intelligent because she is pregnant with a sage, see Chavannes, Contes, I, p. 241–244; Treatise, I, p. 47–48F.


The story of Kauṣṭhila, alias Dīrghanakha, has been told above: Treatise, I, p. 47–51F.

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