The Mahavastu (great story)

by J. J. Jones | 1949 | 502,133 words | ISBN-10: 086013041X

This page describes apparitions (for the edification of men) which is Chapter XIX of the English translation of the Mahavastu (“great story”), dating to the 2nd-century BC. This work belongs to the Mahasanghika school of early Buddhism and contains narrative stories of the Buddha’s former lives, such as Apadanas, Jatakas and more..

Chapter XIX - Apparitions (for the edification of men)

“For the benefit of men, my pious friend, the Buddhas grant apparitions,[1] as, for example, when the Exalted One produced one for the king of Kaliṅga,[2] for Queen Kusumā, and for the merchant Dhruva.”

Thus, too, in the chief city of Rājagṛha, the Exalted One produced an apparition, (178) and then he who is skilful in his expedients, explained to Upāli[3] the words spoken by the apparition.[4]

In the same way the lion-hearted speaker, the master of those who have won self-mastery, produced another apparition for those assembled on the slopes of Mount Meru, and the Exalted One, the great sage, told of it to his brotherhood of monks.

I shall relate all these edifying apparitions. Listen to the tale of the pleasant diversion of the Chief of Men.

When the Best of Men appeared in the world and the wheel of dharma was set rolling, a king of Kaliṅga was reigning in prosperity and peace.

Abhaya[5] was his name, and this is what he professed. Good and bad acts alike, he said, bear no fruit. Such was his belief.

As there is no world beyond, there is no reward for charity anywhere. There is none to be found who is rid of passion, hatred and folly.

Having come to this belief he assembled his people and preached to them his own views, nor did he afterwards abandon his belief.

“If,” said he, “my own dead father would appear of his own accord before my eyes and speak to me, then and only then should I believe in this other world.

“In his life-time he was always virtuous and benevolent, (179) and if there is any reward for this, his bourne should be the city of the devas.

“And being thus a deva and aware of the belief I hold, he would come and rid me of it, saying, ‘There is another world; abandon that wrong belief of yours.’

“Let my father come from that other world of which we have no experience, and make glad my mind.”

Then the Sage, merciful and strongly confident, cut of compassion for the world, fashioned[6] himself in the form of Kaliṅga’s King.

He went up to the palace and entered the inner court, where he showed himself as Abhaya’s father looked when living.[7]

Then the Supreme of Men, in the guise of a king, and hovering in the air, spoke these words of wisdom to King Abhaya:—

“It does not become a king to neglect his own affairs and concern himself only with the affairs of others. Kingship is only kingship in name when it is associated with false doctrines.

“At present your destiny can only be the great and pitiless hell, as is also the destiny of those whom you have taught.

“Destroyed yourself, you[8] destroy others; ruined yourself, you ruin others. Blind yourself, you make others blind without scruple.

“Deluded yourself, you delude others; dead yourself, you cause others to die. You evil-minded man, you bring happy beings to woe.

“Plunged in the mire of lusts, libidinous, infatuated by sensual desires, (180) you want to see the other world,[9] and yet a king should have insight into all states.[10]

“That is not possible for you, O king, since your whole aim is to gratify your senses. You cannot, my lord, go to this other world just yet.

“But if you will learn to free yourself of lust, recognising the sweet allurement of sensual pleasures, and the wickedness thereof, I know that you will come to me in heaven.”

When he heard this, King Abhaya trembled with fear, and, bowing, he said to that fair vision in the air,

“I believe thee, dev a, that this is so and not otherwise. Be gracious to me, saviour, and deliver me from fear.

“Stay in this palace as my counsellor and teacher, O peerless man, for, trained by thee I shall win mastery, and so shall many others with me.”

In this way then did the perfectly wise one produce an apparition for the edification of men.

Again, there was the famous Kusumā, queen of King Kusumbha,[11] and the best-beloved and chief of his thousand wives.

Her mother and father were infirm with age, and leaning on their staffs. And they spoke and said to their daughter, “Kusumā, dear child, listen.

“We are old, you are young and feeling passion’s stir. (181) We want to be rid of this world and die.”

When she heard this Kusumā thought to herself, “What blame can I incur in killing mother and father? I will give them food drugged with deadly poison. By eating this they both will surely die.”

When Kusumā had formed this cruel design against her mother and father, the Master took pity on her. The Buddha produced two other persons fashioned like her parents and made them stand before Kusumā. Kusumā got ready[12] the poisoned food and bade the phantoms,[13] saying, “Take this food, mother and father.”

The creatures fashioned by the Conqueror took the food without shrinking, but it did not harm their bodies, for they were but phantoms.

And so on the second day, the third, the fourth, and even the fifth, although they ate of the poisoned food, the phantom creatures retained their health.

Then stretching out her joined hands to them, Kusumā spoke to the phantoms and said, “Tell me who you are, if I find favour with you.”

In reply to her humble request one of the phantoms said, (182) “Learn what your fault is, and do as we advise you.

“The Buddha, the man of valour, who bears the thirty-two marks of excellence, has appeared in the world, born of a good family, and endowed with the attribute of omniscience.

“All the inherent virtue of the lion-hearted man of eloquence is known to stand for the future, as it has done in the past. Have no doubt of this.

“Let the king then go up to his palace attended by his women-folk and pray thus: ‘We wish to see him who discerns all that is good.’

“Praising him who is endowed with all good qualities, let him go to him for refuge. The Conqueror will then declare to you what you now ask of us.”

“So be it” said she in obedience to the phantoms, and immediately the king with his women-folk went up to his palace.

Hurriedly, along with his women-folk, and Kusumā too, he bowed, his hands reverently joined, and spoke these words,

“Exceeding great is the joy derived from the homage paid to them who are gifted with all virtues and are full of compassion for the worlds.”

Then the Master addressed the monks who delighted in his teaching, Cāruvarṇa,[14] Siṃhahanu, and blameless Dṛḍhabāhu, Kīrtimān, Mahānāga, Cāturanta, Mahābala, Nīlakeśa, Vṛddha, Śānta, Śāstraviśārada.

And peerless Śārasa, blameless Guptakāma (183), Siṃhanandi, Vīśālākṣa, and Lakṣaneya the incomparable.

“Behold, monks, I go; follow me your Master. I go to convert a great multitude, and Kusumā chief among them.”

“So be it,” said the self-becoming saints in obedience, and gathering round the Buddha, they said,

“O valiant one, our two feet can traverse the air. We will follow wherever the clear-seeing Buddha goes.”

In his compassion for men, the Exalted One attended by his disciples arrived in an instant in Kusumā’s city.

The Leader took on the form of the wielder of the thunderbolt,[15] and sure in his powers of thought,[16] he called to mind a host of devas.

The supremely wise one shed his radiance all around for fourteen yojanas, while devas greeted his progress.

Then Queen Kusumā, bowing, said to the Sugata, “With my hands joined in veneration, I would salute thy feet, O saviour.”

The Master alighted on the roof of the palace, and in his glory flooded all quarters with his radiance. Queen Kusumā, with the King, saluted the Conqueror’s feet, and the queen’s escort, too, bowed down before the strong man.

“O Best of Men,” said she, “we come to thee for refuge, to thee that art adored by Suras. What fruit does that one reap who has killed his mother and father?”

(184) “Hear, Kusumā, what the certain retribution is that awaits the one who has killed his mother and father. Immediately after this life he is reborn in the hell Mahāvīci.”

Then the eloquent Master, the Leader, with a Buddha’s power, described Mahāvīci to Kusumā.

And Queen Kusumā, terrified at this dire hell, shed floods of tears and spoke these words:—

“I was moved by pity for my parents. What then is the retribution that awaits him in the world beyond who kills with evil intent? Pray tell me the truth of this.”;

“He who would do so, Kusumā, out of an evil heart, could not be rid of his disposition. And this is the retribution for his wrong-doing that awaits[17] him in the other world.”

Then in the presence of the king of dharma Kusumā joyfully and gladly renounced her cruel design.

And the Omniscient One spoke of the sweet allurement of the pleasures of sense; the Supreme of Men spoke of the peril of sensual desires.

He whose thought is intrepid spoke of the escape from sensual delights; the discerner of truth spoke of the wonderful blessings of Nirvana.

The Sage converted twelve koṭis of human beings, with Kusumā chief among them. Such then was this apparition.

There was also a merchant named Dhruva in the city of Kāśivardhana,[18] and he held a sinful view concerning the treatment of mothers and fathers.

He held that whoso should invite his aged and decrepit mother and father (185) to a family meal and regale them with food,

And should then burn both his parents on the funeral pyre, would have a reward[19] assigned him, for the merit of such a man would be boundless.

The Leader accordingly created thousands of Rākṣasas, and these stood before Dhruva as he slept in his fine mansion.

In their hands were scourges, whips, swords, hammers, knives and fire-brands,

And clubs and hundreds of arrows, and lances and mallets, as they stood before the merchant.

“Vile man,” said they, “it is indeed an accursed belief that you have formed. As you hold this accursed and perverse view, you are not worthy to be believed.

“Now that misfortunes have come upon them, you wish the death of those who in days gone by succoured you with loving hearts in all your hardships.

“You wish the death of those who would not be adequately repaid by their son even though he gave them all his wealth.

“It were better for you to die than live and hold such a view. You who reject the belief on which the Best of Men acts.

“This day your life comes to an end, as well as that of your wife, of your kinsmen, of your servant, and of your son. And when you die you will pass to hell.

“And there may you and yours be happy, sir! We consign to perdition the merchant Dhruva, with his false belief, his stupid and ignorant mind,

(186) “Who seduces[20] other men with his sinful belief, and despises Āryan teaching.”

When he heard this, Dhruva became distressed, perspiring over all his body; he was humbled and terrified.

He became perplexed, distracted and scared. Then raising his joined hands, he said,

“May the host of the Rāksasas he gracious to me and mine! Be ye my sanctuary, my shelter and my refuge!

“Make known what I can do this day to deliver myself and my people from fear, and not pass to the bourne of ill.”

And those hosts of Rākṣasas hovering in the air thus made answer to Dhruva the merchant: “Come not to us for refuge. Seek rather the refuge of him,

“Who desires the welfare of all beings, the Buddha who is adored by devout men, who is above all worlds, the lion-hearted eloquent Śākyan, the joy of men’s minds.”

“Where now, I pray you, is the Exalted One who is worshipped of men? For I would go for refuge to him, the Sage, the Best of Men.”

“He who is endowed with all good qualities is in the city of Ratanakholaka,[21] in the fragrant park there that is strewn with variegated flowers.

“There, surrounded by ninety-thousand saints, abides the Sage who is wise and proficient in the moral states.[22]

(187) “To that refuge go with all your people. Look on that sun among men and abandon your false belief.

“And consider with understanding the fair dharma that he will teach you by means of examples.[23] Thus will life be yours.

“If you go not to the Buddha, you will not be worthy of the name of Dhruva,[24] for your death will be near.[25] Believe our counsel and act accordingly.”

Then Dhruva, the merchant, with his people, in all humility bowed his head to the ground where the Supreme of Men was standing, and said,

“O Sage, who art gifted with all virtuous qualities, the great, compassionate one, I with my folk come to thee for refuge, O thou of great glory.

“To the fearful thou who endest fear can give fearlessness. And I, with my people, am wholly possessed by fear, O Great Being.

“I desire to extol the ways of the Master, O thou most eloquent. I wish to see the True Man, if so it he that we are worthy of the favour

Then out of his compassion for men the Leader appeared, arriving in an instant and attended by his saints. Seeing him hovering in the air, self-controlled, calm and honoured,

(188) graciously appearing to him and his folk, the merchant went up to the Refuge, the tiger in eloquence, and learned from him what a good son should believe.

The Best of Men, the Tathāgata, the sage, the truthful one, understanding the merchant’s fault, proclaimed the Four Truths.

The Lord, a sun among men, like a lion roaring in the forest, explained at length the fruit of good and bad acts.

The merchant, with his people, hearing that lion’s roar, immediately won the salutary and true fruition.

Such a service as was then rendered by the great Seer is called an upahāra[26] by those expert in philosophy.

Again, there was in a certain island continent a king named Taru,[27] and he had formed a sinful and frivolous view,

Namely that whosoever, after inviting a brāhman, a recluse, or any other wayfarer, did not then give him food, bore an excellent character.

And so with regard to whosoever invited a crowd of any people from śūdras[28] to brāhmans, and then clapped them in prison and let them starve.

(189) At that time there appeared in yet another of his existences, the noble, the mighty and glorious Lord, arrayed in rich garments and jewels.

Now the king was seducing his subjects with that wicked opinion of his, for the crowd listened to him and believed.

The Sage, extolled of devas and Gandharvas, aware of this belief of the king’s, in an instant created five thousand monks.

These saints went to the island where Taru was king, and wandered and roamed through his kingdom.

When the king saw those who had been created in the likeness of monks, he saluted their feet as they sailed down from the air, and said,

“With true joy I invite you, seers, to a repast. Let the seers accept if I find favour with them.”

When he saw that they accepted, he saluted the seers’ feet, hurried away and came to his palace.

And when he saw that night had passed into day, he bade his servant go to the monks and invite them, saying the meal was ready.

The seers were conducted by the king into a wonderful prison, which was perfectly secure and well-fitted with firm bolts.

When the seventh day was past the king went to visit them. (190) They who were in the guise of monks were quietly meditating, serene of countenance.

The king again abandoned the phantom creations, and at the end of the second week he paid them another visit.

And so for the third, the fourth, the fifth, the sixth, the seventh, the ninth, and the tenth week. Then he said,

“Whether you are Nāga devas, Gandharvas, Yakṣas, Guhyakas or Asuras, you have come in the guise of seers to confound me.

“Make known to me who you are, if I find favour with you. In the same way, he who will make himself known to me will find favour with me.”

They replied, “Favour is shown you, O king. Therefore heed the words we truthfully speak.

“In Kāśi’s capital city, in Benares, in the fair forest there, abides the Master, who is perfect in all things, who is the dispeller of all doubt.”

Then the king, with his people, went up to his palace, and bowed and prayed, saying, “We wish to see the Best of Men, the incomparable man.”

The Master, hearing this, forthwith arose, and flying through the air came to the island.

And the four saints[29] Kuñjara, Karabhogaja, (191) Vāraṇa and gracious Mahādhyāyin came thither with him.

When the other monks saw the Buddha shining like the moon, they reverently and enthusiastically sang the praises of the teacher of dharma.

With devotion in their hearts, glad, and endued with all good qualities, they sang, “O saviour of devas and men, homage to thee, O boon of men.[30]

“O mighty being, great in majesty, splendour, knowledge and power, reveal truly who thou art, we pray thee.”

“I, born of a royal race, established as king of dharma, am the refuge of all living things. Men know that I am Buddha.

“I am the saviour of devas and men, guide and physician; I am he who puts an end to doubt. I am perfect Buddha, adored by devas.”

When he heard this King Taru addressed the Buddha, saying, “Homage to thee, O tiger in eloquence, O thou dispeller of doubt.

“Behold me here come to my palace with my folk. I and my realm turn to thee, O true man, for refuge. Be therefore a refuge to us all.”

Then the king described his belief to the great Seer, and when he had heard it the Valiant One said to the king,

“It does not profit you, O king, to believe in the sinful way that leads to the bourne of ill. (192) Renounce this belief of yours.”

The king renounced his belief and said, “O wise one, teach me the dharma whereby ill is suppressed.”

And the Supreme of Men, assured in his Buddhahood, considered how the merit of all those people befitted them to hear dharma.[31]

The king and his people, having learnt dharma, cast off the three fetters,[32] and won the first fruition.

And countless other people won the first fruition. Behold, O worthy king, the incomparable power of love.[33]

Those created as monks here are not to be considered real monks. This is what the Conquerors, confident in their teaching, call an upahāra.

It is impossible, O son of the Conqueror, that the Tathāgatas should attain omniscience before this, when they are still in the low bhūmis.[34]

But once they have passed through the bhūmis, they attain it without loss of time.[35] This is what the tigers in eloquence, the Supreme Men, teach.

When he had come to the forest at Benares, the Leader, honoured for his Buddhahood, expounded the ten bhūmis at length.

The Buddhas, who understand good and bad conduct, know all the thoughts of others. In their various existences they examine the dispositions of all beings.

By the gentle eloquent guidance of him who has insight into worth( 193) many men are converted by the understanding Buddha.

Those who have drawn nigh to the highest friend and are converted by his wisdom, are in no wise reborn, nor grow old, nor die.

All the wise Buddhas, with bodies all radiant, severally discover the profound way of life, which is of infinite light.

Here ends the tenth bhūmi, called the “Consecrational,”[36] of the Mahāvastu-Avadāna.

The introductory instruction contained in the section on the ten bhūmis was proclaimed on Mount Gṛddhakūṭa[37] in an assembly of five hundred saints. Here ends the section on the ten bhūmis.

The doctrine of the ten bhūmis must be taught by those who aspire after enlightenment, and presented to those who trust in the right-thinking Bodhisattvas, but not to others. For the former are ready to believe; those others would doubt.

Here ends the section on the bhūmis from the first to the tenth, being an introduction[38] to the Mahāvastu.

Footnotes and references:


A very inadequate rendering for paropahāra (here) and upahāra (below). These two terms are unknown in this sense either in Pali or in classical Sanskrit. Upahāra properly means “gift” (cf. upaharati, the verb here translated by “grant”), and this meaning underlies the usage here. But the term here also connotes, first, that the “gift” consists of moral or religious instruction, and, secondly, that the instruction is given by “apparitions” miraculously produced by the Buddha. This second connotation is more explicitly expressed by the term paropahāra, “a gift (of instruction in the person of) another.” Vacanopahāram on this page must be changed to ca paropahāraṃ, as it is entirely a question of producing a miraculous apparition, but on page 178 the same word is to the point as it is a question of explaining to Upāli an “apparition of speech”, i.e. the words spoken by an apparition.


Or Kāliṅga, “one of the seven political divisions mentioned in the time of the mythical King Reṇu.” (D.P.N.)


“One of the most eminent of the Buddha’s immediate disciples” (ibid).


See note 1 at end.


Otherwise unknown.


Nirmināti (= Pali nimmināti), with its compound abhinirmiṇāti, is the verb used throughout this passage in the sense of ‘fashioning miraculously’ or ‘conjuring up’.


Literally “in his natural, or ordinary, form,” prakṛtidarśanaṃ.


In the text the verbs of this stanza are 3rd pers. sing., which makes it appear to be a quotation applicable to the case of Abhaya. For the sake of uniformity the 2nd pers. has been used in translating.


I.e., before believing in it.


Literally “is (or should be) the eye of all states,” dharmāṇāṃ nayanaṃ.


Both otherwise unknown.


Āpadyati, an unusual sense, but this is the reading in two MSS., and is better than the āpagatā of others.


Nirmitān, from nirmiṇati. See note p. 141.


All these seem to be unknown to the Pali Canon, nor is it easy to distinguish between epithets and proper names.


I.e. Indra.


Dhyāna, here not used in the strict doctrinal sense of “meditation.” The meaning is that such was the Buddha’s power of thought that he had only to think of the devas for them to appear on the scene.


Sadyam, according to Senart, a Sanskritisation of sajja, “ready,” “imminent.”


Otherwise unknown, but obviously situated in Kāśi.


Upahāra, here used in practically its ordinary sense of “offering,” “gift,” etc., but the reading is very doubtful, apart from the fact that the word is used in these narratives in another and special sense.


Grāhenta, here with two accusatives, of the object and of the means; but at p. 189, text, with accusative of the object and instrumental of the means.


Otherwise unknown.


Vihāra, see note p. 30.


Literally “the dharma arranged in (or supplied with) examples,” dṛṣṭāntavihitaṃ.


A play on the word dhruva, “firm, stable, lasting.” “You do not deserve to be called Mr. Steadfast.”


Sadaya, see note p. 145.


See note p. 146.


Otherwise unknown.


I.e. the fourth or lowest caste.


Vāraṇa appears to be the only one of these names to be found in the Pali Canon; the two persons are not necessarily identical.


Reading naralañcaka with three MSS. for naralambaka. See note p. 90.


? dharmasaṃyuktam kuśalam, “the merit relative to dharma.”


Samyojanāni. The “fetters” or bad qualities that bind men to rebirth are usually given as ten in number, but three are especially grouped together in the Pali texts, as here, viz. sakkāyadiṭṭhi, vicikicchā and sīlabbataparāmasa, i.e. “belief in individuality, doubt, and infatuation with good works” (Pali Dictionary).


This sounds very much like an interpolation.


I.e. in the relatively low or gross bhūmis (sthūlahi bhūmihi) of the Bodhisattvas.


Kālaṃ va na-atināmenti. This verb is so used in Pali also.


The first instance of the naming of a bhūmi in this formula.


For Gṛdhrakūṭa.


? parisara. Unless should read parivarta, “chapter.”

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