Maha Prajnaparamita Sastra

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

This page describes “story of the naga-king elapatra” 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.

Note: This appendix has been extracted from Mahāprajñāpāramitāśāstra chapter XL part 1.4:

“Great yakṣas such as A-lo-p’o-kia (Āṭavaka), Pi-cho-kia (Viśvakarman?), etc., great nāga-kings such as A-po-lo (Apalāla), Yi-lo-po-to-lo (Elapatra), etc., evil men such as Yang-k’iun-li-mo-lo (Aṅgulimāla). etc., submitted and took refuge in him”.

A famous nāgarāja, called Elapatra, Elāpatra, Airāvaṇa in Sanskrit, Erapata in the inscriptions at Bhārhut, Erāpatha, Erakapatta, Erāvana, Erāvaṇa in Pāli, a name invoking both the eraka plant, ‘cardamom’, used to make blankets, and Airāvaṇa, Indra’s mount, who was an elephant and not a snake.

The monster animal still merits a monograph although it has already claimed the attention of historians: see H. Lüders, Bhārhut, p. 165 seq.; J. Ph. Vogel, Indian Serpent Lore, p. 207 seq.; and especially the Bhārhut Inscriptions, Corpus Inscriptionum Indicarum, vol. II, part II, 1963, p. 110 seq. I [Lamotte] will limit myself to adding a few more to an already heavily loaded dossier.

A. Elapatra in folklore.

A late source, the Commentary on the Dhammapada, III, p. 230–236 (tr. Burlingame, III, p. 56–60) tells that at the time of the Buddha Kassapa, the young monk Erakapatta, traveling along the Ganges, passed by a thicket of cardamom (eraka) and seized a leaf which tore off while the boat was passing by. This was a serious wrong-doing, but he neglected to confess it; the result was that he was reborn in the Ganges in the form of an enormous snake-king called Erakapatta. Waiting for the future Buddha, he tried to find out when the latter would appear in the world. To this end, he taught his daughter a gāthā containing questions which only a buddha would be able to answer. Each evening he had her dance on his hood and sing this gāthā, promising his daughter and all his goods to whoever could solve the questions asked. In the long space of time separating the Buddha Kassapa from his successor Śākyamuni, many attempted to decipher the enigma, but without success. One day however, Śākyamuni was sitting in a grove of seven śīriṣa trees not far from Benares and heard that a young brāhmin, Uttara, had resolved to attempt it and, wanting to help him, he revealed the correct answers to him. Uttara communicated these to Erakapatta who thus knew that a new Buddha had appeared. Joyfully, he struck the waters of the Ganges with his tail, not without causing a flood. Then the nāga went to visit the Buddha, received his teachings and, but for his animal shape, he would have attained the fruit of srotaāpanna.

A fragment of this legend has passed into the Mahāvastu, III, p. 383, l. 19 – 386, l. 7. It is found, in a much more developed form, in the Chinese sources, with the difference that the young brāhmin who communicated the solution of the enigma to Elapatra was not Uttara but his brother Nārada (Naradatta), nephew of Asita and sometimes identified with Kātyāyana. Among these sources are:

1. Abhiniṣkramaṇasūtra, T 190, k. 37–38, p. 825a138–831b9 (transl. Beal, Romantic Legend, p. 275–280).

2. Mahīśāsaka Vin., T 1421, k. 15, p. 106a14–107a11.

3. Dharmagupta Vin., T 1428, k. 32, p. 791a6–792c15.

4. Mūlasarvast. Vin., T 1451, k. 21, p. 303a6–305a17 (cf. Rockhill, Life, p. 46–47).

5. Fou kai tcheng hing so tsi king, T 1671, k. 11, p. 741b6–742a9, sūtra attributed to Nāgārjuna.

The legend is represented on the balustrade of the Bhārhut stūpa with two inscriptions: Erapato nāgarājā and Erapato nāgarājā bhagavato vadate; cf. Bhārhut Inscriptions (Corpus), p. 110, pl. 19 and 39; A. Coomaraswamy, La sculpture de Bhārhut, p. 48–49, pl. 8, fig. 25 center. It appears also on a bas-relief at Gandhāra; Foucher, Art Gréco-bouddhique, I, p. 505, fig. 251a.

Prof. Waldschmidt has pointed out the complete agreement between the Bhārhut sculpture and the Pāli version of the legend.

B. Elapatra in magical phrases.

In the words of the earliest sources, this nāga king is invoked in the case of snake bites. Three groups of texts are to be considered: the texts telling of the death of Upasena, Śāriputra’s younger brother; the texts about the death of an anonymous bhikṣu; a passage of the Mūlasarvāstivādin Vinaya.

I. Texts about the death of Upasena.

1. Upasenasutta, of Saṃyutta, IV, p. 40–41. – In a cave of the Sitavana at Rājagaha, Upasena was bitten by a snake. Since he had long ago eliminated notions of me and mine, the snake-bite in no way changed his body or his senses. Nevertheless, he caused himself to be borne up into the sky, and there his body was scattered like a fistful of straw (bhūsamuṭṭhi).

2. Hien yu king, T 202, k. 10, p. 417b10–418a5. – Story of the death of Upasena along with a jātaka giving an explanation.

3. Upasenasūtra of Saṃyuktāgama, T 99, no. 252, k. 9, p. 60c14–61b28; original Sanskrit published By E. Waldscmidt, Das Upasenasūtra, ein Zauber gegen Schlangenbiss aus dem Saṃyuktāgama, Nachrichten der. Akad. Der Wissens. in Göttingen, 1957, no. 2, p. 27–44. – Corresponds to the Pāli Upasenasutta, but with an important addition: Informed of Upasena’s death, the Buddha declared that he would not have died if he had recited certain stanzas (gāthā) and certain magical syllables (mantapada).

The stanzas, nine in number, express the loving-kindness (maitrī) of the wounded one towards all beings in general and to eight families of snakes in particular: 1) Dhṛtirāṣṛṭra, 2) Airāvaṇa, 3) Chibbāputra, 4) Kaṃbalāśvatara, 5) Karkoṭaka, 6) Kṛṣṇagautamaka, 7–8) Nandopananda.

The magical syllables are a dhāraṇī: Otuṃbile, tuṃbile, etc.

4. Mūlasarv. Vinayavibhaṅga, T 1442, k. 6, p. 654b28–657b22. – Corresponds essentially with no. 3, with the same gāthā and the same mantrapada.

5. Souei jong tsouen tchö king, p. 773. – Same comment as for the preceding.

II. Texts about the death of the anonymous bhikṣu.

1. Anguttara, II, p. 72–73. – At Sāvatthi, a bhikṣu whose name is not given is bitten by a snake and dies. The Buddha declares that he would not have died if he had included in his loving-kindness four families of snake-kings (ahirājakula): 1) Virūpakka, 2) Erāpatha, 3) Chabyaputta, 4) Kaṇhāgotamaka. The Buddha then formulates a Parittā ‘charm”’ to ward off snake bites.

2. Vinaya, II, p. 109–110. – Same as preceding.

3. Mahīśāsaka Vin., T 1421, k. 26, p. 171a16–28. – Similar to the two preceding texts with the difference that eight, not four, families of snakes must be involed: 1) Dhṛtirāṣṭra, 2) Tan-tch’e (?), 3) Airāvaṇa, 4) Chibbā, 5) Kaṃbalāśvatara, 6) Virūpākṣa, 7) Gautamaka, 8) Nandopananda.

4. Dharmagupts Vin., T 1428, k. 42, p. 870c22–871a7. Here also eight families of snakes are to be invoked: 1) Virūpākṣa, 2) K’ie-ning (?), 3) Gautamaka, 4) Chibbāmitra, 5) To-che Airāvaṇa, 6) Kalambalāśvatara, 7) Dhṛtirāṣtra, 8) (missing).

All these texts propose gāthās to be recited as Parittā, but none make any mention of mantrapada.

III. A passage of the Mūlasarvāstivāda Vinaya.

(in Gilgit Manuscripts, III, Part 1, p. 285, l. 8–2888, l. 20.)

The hero of the story is a newly ordained monk named Svāti (cf. Anavataptagāthā, ed. Bechert, p. 158–161). Wishing to be of service to the Buddha, he went to cut wood in the forest and was bitten on the big toe by a snake. The physician prescribed a vile food (vikṛtabhojana), i.e., excrement and urine of young calves, ash from five kinds of trees, earth taken from a depth of four fingers. The unfortunate Svāti derived no relief from it. The Buddha was consulted and the latter, without mentioning any nāgarāja to be conjured by these stanzas, advised Ānanda to memorize and to go and recite the Mahāmāyūrī vidyā near the sick monk. It consisted of an homage to the Buddha, the Dharma and the Community, followed by a dhāraṇī: amale, vimale, nirmale, etc. Svāti was cured immediately.

C. Elapatra’s residence and treasure.

Fa-hien (T 2085, p. 864a10–20) locates the place where the nāga Elapatra asked the Buddha when he would be free of his dragon form at Mṛgadāva in Benares, but Elapatra had his usual home in the north-west of India. The evidence of Huian-tsang (T 2087, k. 3, p. 884c4–12) is formal: The pool where the nāga-king Elapatra lives is more than 70 li north-west of Takṣaśilā. This nāga is the bhikṣu who, at the time of the Buddha Kāśyapa, had torn off a caradamom (eraka) leaf. From then on, when the native people pray for rain or fine weather, they should go to the pool in question with a śramaṇa: by addressing the Nāga, they are sure to see their prayers answered in the time of a finger-snap. More than 30 li south-east of the pool, a stūpa built by Aśoka marks the place where, at the coming of Maitreya, one of the four great treasures is to appear. We may add that archeologists identify this stūpa with the ruins at Baoti Pind (cf. Marshall, Taxila, I, 1951, p. 348).

The four great treasures (mahānidhāna, mahānidhi) which the Buddhist tradition speaks of bear the names of their guardians, the catvāra mahārājāś caturmahānidhisthāḥ (Divyāvadāna, p. 61, l. 1–2) or catvāro nidhānādhipatayo nāgārājānaḥ (Mahāvastu, III, p. 383, l. 20). According to most sources (no. 4 and 5 below), they still exist and are used by the indigenous people on the 7th day of the 7th month:

1) A stanza locates them:

Piṅgalaś ca Kaliṅgeṣu, Mithilāyāṃ ca Pāṇḍukaḥ |
Elāpatraś ca Gāndhāre, Śaṅkho Vārāṇasīpure ||

Cf. Divyāvadāna, p. 61, l. 3–4; Mūlasarv. Vin., T 1448, k. 6, p. 25a12–15; Maitryavyākaraṇa, T 455, p. 426c1–4.

2) As in 1), except that Piṅgala is placed at Surāṣṭra: cf. Tseng yi a han, T 125, k. 44, p. 788a14–18; k. 49, p. 818c6–18; 819a16–17; Maitreyavyākaraṇa, T 453, p. 421b19–22; T 454, p. 424a25–28; T 456,p. 430a10–13.

3) As in 1), except that Pāṇḍuka is located at Bcom-brlag = Mathurā: cf. the Tibetan version of Maitreyavyākaraṇa, ed. S. Lévi, Mélanges Linossier, II, p. 384, v. 25; ed. N Dutt, Gilgit Manuscripts, IV, p. 194, l. 13–14.

4) As in 1), except that Pāṇḍuka is located at Vidiśa: cf. Upāsakaśīlassūtra, T 1488, k. 5, p. 1063.a.

5) As in 1), except that Elapatra is located at Takṣaśilā: cf. Mahāvastu, III, p. 383, l. 18–19: catvāro mahānidhayo: Saṃkho Vārāṇasyāṃ, Mithilāyāṃ Padumo, Kaliṅgeṣu Piṃgalo, Takṣaśilāyāṃ Elapattro.

6) Elāpatra in the northern region, at the city of Takṣaśilā; Pāṇḍuka in the land of the Kaliṅgas in the city of Mithilā; Piṅgala in the land of Vidiśā, in the city of Surāṣtra; Śaṅkha in the sountry of Kāśī in the city of Vāraṇasī: cf. Sūtra of the conversion of the seven sons by Anāthapiṇḍada, T 140, p. 862b.

7) Treasure of gold at Gandhāra, guarded by the nāga Elāpatra; treasure of silver guarded by the nāga Pāṇḍuka; treasure of maṇi at Surāṣṭra guarded by the nāga Piṅgala; treasure of vaiḍūrya at Vārāṇasī: cf. Maitreyavyākaraṇa, T 457, p. 434c.

8) Simple mention of four treasures in Pūrvāparāntasūtra in the Tchong a han, T 26, k. 14, p. 53a15.

According to the Vimalakīrtinirdeśa, p. 278, the four great inexhaustible treasures (akṣayamahānidhāna) were also found in the house of Vimalakīrti in Vaiśālī. The same text compares the bodhisattvas as well to inexhaustible treasures.

Daridrāṇāṃ ca satvānāṃ nidhānā bhonti akusayāḥ |
teṣāṃ dānāni datvā ca bodhicittaṃ janenti te ||

This is a well-known stanza often quoted by the Madhyamika scholars such as Śāntideva (Śikṣāsamuccaya, p. 326, l. 5–6; Bodhicaryāvatāra, III, v. 9).

The Chinese have taken it literally and are entitled by it to institute currency of the Inexhaustible Treasure (wou tsin tsang yuan): see J. Gernet, Les aspects économiques du bouddhisme, 1956, p. 210.

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