Maha Prajnaparamita Sastra

by Gelongma Karma Migme Chödrön | 2001 | 940,961 words

This page describes “buddha’s subjugation of the elephant nalagiri (or dhanapala)” 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.

Appendix 4 - Buddha’s subjugation of the elephant Nālāgiri (or Dhanapāla)

Note: This appendix was extracted from Chapter XLII part 8.4 (the traces of passion are destroyed in the Buddha):

A-chö-che (Ajātaśatru) unleashed drunken elephants intending to kill the Buddha, but the latter was not afraid and tamed the mad elephants. When the inhabitants of Rājagṛha, redoubling their respect (gurukāra), came out with perfumed flowers and ornaments (ābharaṇa) to offer to the Buddha, the latter experienced no joy”.

A brief allusion to the miracle of the subjugation of the elephant Nālāgiri or Dhanapāla. The stories of this miracle can be arranged into three groups: 1) the sources that present it as a miracle of loving-kindness; 2) those that make it into a miracle of magic; 3) the late versions, somewhat aberrant, where the meaning of the miracle does not appear clearly.

I. The subjugation as a miracle of loving-kindness

The earliest sources have it that the Buddha converted the animal by means of the radiation of his loving-kindness (maitrī). There is an old belief that fierce animals, especially snakes, are sensitive to the good feelings expressed towards them.

1. Pāli Vinaya, II, p. 194–196:

In Rājagṛhā at that time there was the elephant Nālāgiri, fierce (caṇḍa) and a killer of men (manussaghātaka). Devadatta went to find its mahouts and, taking advantage of his influence over king Ajātaśatru, ordered them to loose the animal against the Buddha when the latter entered Rājagṛha. This was done. The next day, surrounded by many monks, the Buddha came to the city to beg his food. The elephant was unleashed and, with its trunk erect (saṇḍaṃ ussāpetvā), ears and tail rigid (pahaṭṭhakaṇṇavāla), rushed against the Teacher. The monks begged the Buddha to go back, but the latter reassured them that no aggression coming from the exterior could deprive him of his life.

Frightened, the population of Rājagṛha took refuge on the roof-tops and made wagers as to who would win, the man-elephant (the Buddha) or the animal-elephant (Nālāgiri).

Then the Blessed One penetrated Nālāgiri with a mind of loving-kindness (Nālāgiriṃ mettena cittena phari) and, lowering its trunk (soṇḍaṃ oropetvā), the animal stopped in front of the Buddha who caressed its forehead with his right hand (dakkhiṇena hatthena hatthissa kumbhaṃ parāmasanto), saying:

O elephant, do not attack the Elephant; this attack would be shameful.
There can be no good destiny in the beyond for the one who kills the Elephant.
Flee from drunkenness (mada) and laziness (pamāda); the lazy miss the good destinies.
Act in such a way as to attain a good destiny.

At these words, Nālāgiri gathered the sand-grains covering the feet of the Blessed One in his trunk and spread them on top of its head; then, still kneeling, it backed away, always keeping the Buddha in sight.

It was on this occasion that the people chanted the following stanza (see also Majjhima, II, p. 105; Theragāthā, v. 878):

Some tame them with blows of the stick, with pitchforks or with whips;
With neither stick nor weapon was the elephant tamed by the Great Sage.

2. Jātaka, V, p. 333–337:

The Cullahaṃsajātaka (no. 533) reproduces the preceding source, not without adding numerous details. When the Buddha made his entry into Rājagṛhā, he was accompanied by many monks coming from the eighteen monasteries situated in the neighborhood of the city. Seeing the rush of the elephant, the eighteen great abbots, Śāriputra, etc., suggested that they would tame the animal, but the Buddha refused thir offer and asked them to remain in their place. The good Ānanda insisted on staying beside the Blessed One in order to be killed before him, and the Blessed One had to use his magical powers to put him back beside his colleagues.

The sources that follow have it that, at the approach of the elephant, all the arhat monks except for Ānanda fled shamefully, and they will contrast their cowardice with the complete devotion of the preferred disciple, It is possible that this not very edifying incident was part of the original story but that the Pāli texts passed over it in silence so as not to cause any trouble in the Saṃgha. However, the Ceylonese Theravādins were aware of it by way of an indiscretion (?) of the Milindapañha, the Pāli version of an original Prakrit seemingly coming from the north-west of India. In this version (p. 207–208), king Milinda (Menander) asked Nāgasena how it was possible that arhats supposed to be free of all fear took flight before the elephant.

3. Mahīśāsaka Vinaya:

(T 1431, k. 3, p. 19b24–c26)

This source is very close to the Pāli Vinaya, but here it is King Ajātaśatru himself who urged the mahouts to loose the mad elephant after having made it drunk. All the disciples abandoned the Buddha with the exception of Ānanda.

4 and 5. Kaśmirian Vinaya and Sarvāstivādin Vinaya:

Kaśmirian Vinaya (T 1464, k. 5, p. 871c20–872b17);
Sarvāstivādin Vinaya (T 1435, k. 36, p. 262a11–263a6)

A longer version than the preceding ones. Warned by Devadatta seven days in advance, the mahout watched for the Buddha’s coming and was warned of his approach by a series of wonders which are usual whe the Blessed One enters the gates (indrakīla) of a city: the elephants trumpet (hastinaḥ kroñcanti), the horses neigh (aśvā heṣante), the bulls bellow (ṛṣabhā garjanti), etc., etc. This is a stock phrase occurring frequently in the texts (Divyāvadāna, p. 250–251; 364–365; Avadānaśataka, I, p. 109; Mahāvastu, I, p. 308). To convert the elephant Dhanapāla, the Buddha entered into the concentration on loving-kindness (maitrīsamādhi), caressed its forehead and taught it the Dharma. Finally, for the edification of the crowd who were cheering him, he entered into the concentration of the brilliance of fire (tejodhātusamādhi) and, emitting all kinds of rays, he accomplished the twin miracle (yamakaprātihārya) of water and fire. This miracle, accomplished by the Buddha in other circumstances, is described here in stereotyped terms: see, e.g., Catuṣpariṣatsūtra, p. 318; Divyāvadāna, p. 161; Mahāvastu, III, p. 115–116; Sumaṅgalavilāsinī, I, p. 57.

For the Theravādins, only the Buddhas are able to perfom the yamakaprātihārya: it is a privilege they do not share with the śrāvakas: asādhāraṇaṃ sāvakehi (Comm. of the Dhammapada, III, p. 213, l. 18; Jātaka, IV, p. 265, l. 12–13; Visuddhimagga, p. 331, l. 14) and actually, in the Pāli sources, we never see a disciple accomplish this miracle. For the Sarvāstivādins, on the other hand, the yamakaprātihāra is common to the Tathāgata as well as all the śrāvakas: Tathāgatasya sarvaśrāvakasādharaṇā ṛddhiḥ (Divyāvadāna, p. 161, l. 13; Mūlasarv. Vin., T 1451, k. 26, p. 332a27, and in the Sanskrit sources, many disciples accomplish it: Yaśas or Yaśodha (Mahāvastu, III, p. 410, l. 5–10), Kālodāyin (P’ou yao king, T 186, k. 8, p. 534c6–15), Urubilvākāśyapa (Saṃyukta, T 99, k. 38, p. 279b29–c5; Catuṣpariṣatsūtra, p. 348), Panthaka (Divyāvadāna, p. 494, l. 18–23), the five hundred co-sisters of Mahāprajāpati (Ekottara, T 125, k. 50, p. 822a3–9).

– Returning to Dhanapāla, the Kaśmir Vinaya, l.c., has it that once it was converted, it abstained from eating grass for seven days and, after its death, it was reborn among the Cāturmahārājikas.

6 and 7. Buddhacartita by Aśvaghoṣa and Buddhacarita compiled by Saṃgharakṣa:

Buddhacartita by Aśvaghoṣa (T 192, k. 4, p. 40a2–41b3; E. H. Johnson, The Buddha’s Mission and Last Journey, Acta Orientalia, XV, 1937, p. 57–60);
Buddhacarita compiled by Saṃgharakṣa (T 194, k. 2, p. 136a21–c5).

In their poetic tales of the deeds of the Buddha, these two authors, supposedly contemporaries of Kaniṣka, again insist on the miraculous power (prabhāva) of the Buddha’s loving-kindness.

II. The subjugation as a miracle of magic.

In his Vie du Buddha, 1949, p. 289, A. Foucher makes the following comment:

“Count on the devotees to spoil all the charm (of this episode) while claiming to embellish it. According to the informants of Hiuan-tsang, as also according to the Nepali miniatures and the Chinese drawings, it was the five lions that sprang from the outstretched fingers of Śākyamuni that were charged with keeping the elephant at bay. Neither can the deeds and the mind of the Great Being be basely betrayed nor be exalted.”

I [Lamotte] share the indignation of my illustrious teacher, but I am somewhat less severe in respect to the humble cicerones of Rājagṛha who, by informing Hiuan-tsang in this way were only repeating a lesson based on a long literary tradition.

Indeed, there are numerous texts that have it that Śākyamuni tamed Dhanapāla, not so much by his spiritual power, but by the brute force of his magic. To support this new version of the facts, it sufficed for them to use a banal cliché in the words of which the Blessed One tamed wild animals “by making five hairy maned lions appear, with two masses of fire on the right and on the left and above a huge iron rock” or else a fiery ditch. The cliché often appears in the Sanskrit collections of tales such as the Avadānaśataka, I, p. 331, l. 12–13: Tato bhagavatā purastāt pañca keśariṇaḥ saṭadhāriṇaḥ siṃhā nirmitā vāme dakṣine ca pārśve dvāv agniskandhāv supariṣṭān mahaty ayomayī śīlā.

The sources that exploit this cliché – mostly Sarvāstivādin in origin – do not fail to insist on the flight of the arhats and on Ānanda’s devotion; they are also interested in the fate of the elephant after its conversion.

1) Mūlasarvāstivādin Vinaya.

The episode of Dhanapālaka in its original text appears in the manuscript of the Saṅghabhedavastu (fol. 491b–493b) found by G. Tucci in Pakistan in 1957. He was kind enough to send me [Lamotte] a copy prepared by the care of Prof. Raniero Gnoli, to both of whom I am indebted for their kindness. The essence of the story has been translated into Italian by G. Tucci, Il trono di diamante, 1967, p. 265–266. See also the Chinese translation by Yi-tsing in T 1450, k. 19, p. 197b28–198c6.

At the invitation of a wealthy householder, the Buddha accompanied by five hundred monks went to Rājagṛha. He was challenged from the heights of the ramparts by Ajātaśatru and Devadatta who had plotted his death. The Teacher announced to them that he was going to manifest his marvelous power. When the elephant Dhanapālaka rushed against him, the Blessed One on the palm of his right hand created by magic five maned lions with ribbons on their heads; having smelled their scent, the elephant began to flee, releasing urine and excrement. By virtue of the Blessed One, all the directions in space began to flare up into one great mass of fire with the exception of the spot where the Blessed One was standing where there was perfect calm. After a moment of panic, Dhanapālaka approached the Blessed One slowly and the latter caressed his head with his hand marked with the marks of the wheel and the svastika, a hand resulting from many hundreds of merits and capable of reassuring the frightened. Speaking to the elephant in stanzas, the Buddha reproached him for his past behavior and taught him the three seals of Dharma, sarvasaṃskārā anityāḥ, etc.

The Buddha then entered into the house of the householder who had invited him. The elephant who was following him tried to enter as well but only succeeded in demolishing the house. The Blessed One changed the house into rock crystal so that the elephant could see him without difficulty.

When the meal was over, the Blessed One left the walls of Rājagṛha to go back to his monastery. Dhanapālaka tried to follow him but was seized by the mahouts (hastidāmaka) and put into iron chains. Thus deprived of the sight of the Buddha, the animal crushed its trunk with its foreleg and died asphyxiated (sa bhagavantam upaśyam pādena śuṇḍām avaṣṭabhya kālagataḥ).

Dhanapālaka was reborn aming the Cāturmahārajika gods and, in this paradise, went to the Veṇuvana to meet the Buddha again and covered him with flowers. The Blessed One preached the Dharma to him and this ‘son of the gods who had been an elephant’ (nāgapūrvī devaputraḥ) saw the noble Truths and obtained the srotaāpattiphala.

2) Mahāvibhāṣā:

(T 1545, k. 83, p. 429a12–b2)

On the invitation of a vaiśya, accompanied by a crowd of monks, the Blessed One came down from Gṛdhrakuṭaparvata and went to Rājagṛha. King Ajātaśatru, instigated by Devadatta, loosed the mad drunken elephant Dhanapāla against him. The Tathāgata extended his right hand and, from the ends of his five fingers, there sprang forth five lions. At the sight of them, the elephant looked about, took fright and fled. At once the Buddha created magically a deep ditch five hundred cubits in width. Seeing this, the astonished elephant looked from right to left, but from right to left the Buddha magically created high walls ready to collapse. The panic-stricken elephant then looked upward, but the Buddha created magically in the air a huge flaming rock threatening to fall down. Seeing this, the terrified elephant looked everywhere, but the Buddha everywhere magically created burning fires. Only near the Buddha was there any coolness and calm. (tato bhagavatā dakṣiṇe karatale pañca siṃhāḥ kesariṇaḥ paṭṭadhāriṇo … pādamūlaṃ śantaṃ śantībhūtam adhiṣṭhiṭam). The elephant awoke from its drunkenness, approached slowly and the Buddha made the five lions disappear. The elephant rubbed the Buddhas feet with its trunk, the Buddha caressed its forehead and, borrowing the language of elephants, preached the Dharma to it: sarvasaṃskārā anityāḥ, etc.

Dhanapāla became disgusted with its animal destiny and abstained from eating and drinking. He died and was reborn among the Trāyastriṃśa gods. Remembering the benefits of the Buddha, he went to him: the Blessed One preached him the Dharma and the new god saw the four noble Truths.

[For the punishment of the flaming wheel of fire (jvalitānalaṃ cakram āyasam) armed with double-edged swords (asidharam) turning above the head of the guilty, see the legend of Maitrakanyaka (Maitrāyajña) in Divyāvadāna, p. 605; Mahākarmavibhaṅga, ed. S. Lévi, p. 54; Avadānaśataka, I, p. 202, etc.]

3) Ekottarāgama:

(T 125, k. 9, p. 590a8–591a7)

The Buddha was at Rājagṛha in the Kalandaka Veṇuvana and was expecting to go the next day into the city on his begging-round. Devadatta proposed to king Ajātaśatru to loose the fierce elephant Nālāgiri against him. The king agreed and proclaimed that the animal would be loosed the next day and that consequently traffic in the city would be forbidden. Devadatta commented to the king that if the Buddha were truly omniscient he would be careful not to leave his monastery.

Buddhist sympathizers went in a crowd to the Veṇuvana; they warned the Buddha of the plot and begged him not to enter the city. The Teacher reassured them: “Let the upāsakas not be worried. The body of the Tathāgata is not an ordinary body. Nothing can harm him.” And the Buddha went into a long explanation of cosmography where he described the entire cosmic system from the Caturdvīpaka up to the Trisāhasramahāsāhasralokadhātu. He concluded: “If the Airavaṇa elephants, equal in number to that of all the plants and trees, filled all these universes and came to attack the Tathāgata, they would be unable to shake a single hair on his body. The magic power (ṛddhibala) of the Tathāgata is inconceivable.

The next day, accompanied by five hundred monks, the Buddha went on his alms-round to Rājagṛha. Thousands of myriads of deities came to join him: the four Caturmahārājikadevas (Dhṛtarāṣṭra, Virūḍhaka, Virūpakṣa, Vaiśravaṇa), Śakra and Brahmā Devarāja, accompanied by their respective entourages. The fourfold community of Rājagṛha went to welcome him and the sound of their shouts reached the king’s ears. When the Buddha enterd the city gate, the heaven and the earth trembled and from the skies the deities threw flowers.

However, the elephant Nālāgiri, drunk on arack and holding a sword in its trunk, rushed against the Buddha. The five hundred monks fled headlong and the good Ānanda, not keeping to his place, took refuge behind the Buddha. To the left and right of Nālāgiri, the Buddha made lions appear by metamorphosis, (the number is not given) and behind him, a fiery pit. The animal urinated and dropped excrement, but not finding any way to escape, approached the Buddha who addressed a stanza to it. At once, Nālāgiri dropped the sword, bent its knees, prostrated on the ground and with its trunk, licked the Buddha’s feet.

Myriads of men and women were converted by this prodigy. As for the drunken elephant, it contracted the sickness of ‘cutting winds’ (in Pāli, satthakā vātā), died and was reborn in the palaces of the Cāturmahārājakāyikas.

[In the present sūtra, the Ekottarāgama once again betrays its Mahāyāna attachments or interpolations by means of the dizzying perspectives of its cosmogony and the luxuriance of its theophanies.]

III. Late versions

It is not to the texts examined hitherto that the Traité seems to be referring in its brief allusion to the miracle of Rājagṛha, but to shorter and later sources where the original meaning of the miracle of maitrī seems to have become blurred and where the rôle of the individuals is modified noticeably. Henceforth the responsibility for the plot against the Buddha’s life rests mainly, no longer on Devadatta, but on king Ajātaśatru. He unleashes not just one elephant (Nālāgiri or Dhanapāla) but a number of elephants, the number of which is usually given as five hundred. In order to tame them, the Buddha magically creates five hundred lions. At the approach of the elephants, the five hundred arhats accompanying the Buddha again take flight, but the good Ānanda, instead of exposing his master, remains nailed in place by fear. Finally king Ajātaśatru, impressed by the magic miracle, excuses himself to the Buddha by placing the blame onto Devadatta.

1) Ta feng pien fo pao ngen king (Chinese translation made under the Heou (Han)):

(T 156, k. 4, p. 147b23–c7)

At that time, a messenger from king Ajātasatru came to invite the Tathāgata. The Buddha and five hundred arhats accepted the king’s invitation and entered the city of Rājagṛha. Then the king loosed five hundred drunken elephants. They attacked savagely, breaking trees, upsetting walls and, with loud bellows, they rushed towards the Tathāgata. Seized by great fear, the five hundred arhats flew up into the air and whirled about the Buddha. Ānanda, who was accompanying the Buddha, was so frightened that he could not move. Then by the power of his loving-kindness and compassion, the Buddha raised his right hand from the fingers of which sprang five lions that opened their throats and roared. The five hundred elephants, panic-stricken, fell face down to the ground. Then surrounded by the great assembly, the Tathāgata entered into the king’s palace. King Ajātaśatru came out respectfully to meet him and begged the Buddha to be seated. When the Buddha sat down, the king asked for pardon and confessed his wrong-doing, saying: Bhagavat, it is not my fault but that of Devadatta. The Buddha said to the king: I too know that well. Devadatta has always wanted to harn me and not just today. Even before this he wanted to hurt me and I saved him by the [power of my loving-kindness and compassion].

2) Fa kiu p’i yu king (Chinese translation mad between 290 and 306):

(T 211, k. 3, p. 596a5–27) (passage reproduced by Pao-tch’eng of the Ming in the Che kia jou lai ying houa lou: cf. L Wieger, Les vies chinoises du Buddha, Cathasia, 1913, p. 139)

This source reproduces the preceding one in substance, but here it is five hundred lions that the Buddha makes appear ferom his finger-tips. Instigated by Devadatta, Ajātaśatru had prevented the inhabitanats of Rājagṛha from offering anything at all to the Buddha and the Saṃgha. Not receiving anything, Śāriputra, Maudgalyāyana, Subhūti, Prajāpati and their disciples had gone to foreign lands. But the Buddha and his five hundred arhats remained on Gṛdhrakūṭaparvata.

3) Tsa pao tsang king:

(T 203, k. 8, p. 488c25–489a2)

Speaks about the elephant Dhanapāla, but five hundred lions were needed to tame it.

4 and 5) Fa hien tchouan and Si-yu ki:

Fa hien tchouan (T 2085, p. 862c16);
Si-yu ki (T 2087, k. 9, p. 920c13–16).

During their voyage to Rājagṛha, at the beginning of the 5th and the first part of the 7th century respectively, the two Chinese masters, Fa-hien and Hiuan-tsang, were able to visit the place where the miracle had taken place.

Figurative representations

At Gandhāra: A. Foucher, AgbG, I, p. 189, fig. 74; p. 543, fig. 267–269.

At Swat: G. Tucci, Il trono di diamante, p. 267.

At Amarāvatī and at Andhradeśa: A. Foucher, AgbG, II, p. 571, fig. 510, or Revue des arts Asiatiques, V, no. 1, pl. X, 2. – D. Barret, Sculpture of Amarāvatī in the British Museum, London, 1954, pl. XIVa. – A. H. Longhurst, The Buddhist Antiquities of Nāgārjunakoṇḍa, MASI, no. 54, 1938, pl. XXXIIb. – T. N. Ramachandran, Nāgārjunakoṇḍa, MASI, no. 71, 1938, pl. VIIA5 (identification doubtful). – Idem, Buddhist Sculptures from a Stūpa near Goli village, Bull. Madras Gov. Museum, I, 1929, pl. IIIH.

Stela from Benares, Gupta style, representing the eight Great Miracles: A. Foucher. AgbG, p. 539, fig. 498; Beginnings of Buddhist Art, 1917, pl. XIX. – B Majumdar, A Guide to Sārnāth, 1937, pl. XIIId.

Stela from Magadha, Pāla style, showing the eight great amiracles: A. Foucher, AgbG, II, p. 545, fig. 500.

Nepali miniatures from the 11th century: A. Foucher, Étude sur l’iconographie bouddhique de l’Inde, I, 1900, pl. X 5.