The Mahavastu (great story)

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

This page describes ordination of the five-hundred shakyans which is Chapter XVIII 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 XVIII - The ordination of the five-hundred Śākyans

(176) King Śuddhodana called the Śākyans together and said to them, “Gentlemen, if Prince Sarvārthasiddha[1] had not left home and wandered forth to the homeless life,[2] he would now be a universal king, sovereign over many thousand kings, and you all would be his followers. But if he has now renounced his universal kingship, left his home in a kṣatriyan family, wandered forth into the homeless life and awakened to the unsurpassed perfect enlightenment, and if he, a kṣatriyan, has a following of brahmans, then that would not[3] be fitting.” The Śākyans said, “Sire, ordain what is to be done.” King Śuddhodana said, “Let one young kṣatriyan from each family leave home. Where there is only one son, he is not to go. Where there are two brothers, let one go, and where there are several brothers, still only one is to go. Cast votes[4] as is generally[5] the custom among the Śākyans[6] when they send[7] their young away to take up the religious life.” So they cast votes to select one man from each family as was generally the custom among the Śākyans. When King Śuddhodana had thus ordered that the Śākyan youths, one from each family, should leave home for the religious life, but that where there was only one son he should be exempted, such a selection of one son from each family resulted in five hundred young Śākyans going forth to the religious life.[8]

Now Śuddhodana had two sons, the Exalted One and Sundarananda.[9] As the Exalted One had already left home, Sundarananda was excused. Śuklodana’s[10] sons were Ānanda, Upadhāna and Devadatta. Of these Devadatta went forth. Ānanda also wanted to leave home but his mother Mṛgī, a Śākyan woman, would not let him. So he went to the country of Videha (177) and lived there under a vow of silence. Śukrodana’s[11] sons were Nandana and Nandika, and these went forth.[12]Amṛtodana’s sons were Anuruddha,[13] Mahānāma and Bhaṭṭika.[14] Mahānāma asked Anuruddha, “Will you go forth, or will you think of your duty at home?” The meritorious[15] Anuruddha asked him,[16] “What is the duty of one who goes on staying at home, and what is the duty of one who has gone forth to the religious life?”

(The meritorious Anuruddha, in the possession and enjoyment of the five strands of sensual pleasures, played with the women at their dancing.[17] At night when the sun had set one thousand lamps were lit for him. Once, in order to test whether he was befuddled[18] or not, only nine hundred and ninety-nine were lit. But so clear was his sight that, when those nine hundred and ninety-nine lamps were lit, he was aware that all the lamps were not burning. And all the servants in attendance were amazed. “Ah!” said they, “how perfectly clear is the young man’s sight. For when the thousand lamps were short of one, he detected that the light was imperfect.”)

He then[19] asked his elder brother Mahānāma, “What is the duty of one who stays at home, and what is the duty of one who has gone forth to the religious life?” His brother replied to him and said, “He who stays at home must rise betimes to give morning greetings[20] to the king and the Śākyan chieftains. He must look after their beloved ones, and make due offerings to the dead. He must supervise[21] the people of the household, the female and male slaves and the servants. He must see to it that they get[22] food and emoluments,[23] and extra holiday pay[24] on all holidays. (178) He must see to it that the elephants, horses, goats, cows, sheep, chariots and carriages are looked after.[25] He must see to it that land and property are carefully guarded. He must regularly inspect all the work that is being done. He must see to it that the fruits are brought in. He must see to it that the various crops are sown, enclosed and inspected. When the crops are ripe he must see to it that they are reaped[26] at the right time, brought to the threshing-floors and winnowed.[27] He must perform every household duty, both indoors and out of doors.”

Anuruddha then asked, “What is the duty of one who has gone forth to the religious life?” Mahānāma replied, “In the mornings he must go in quest of[28] alms. When he has properly made a meal with the food obtained,[29] whether it be coarse[30] or fine,[31] he must then control and calm and extinguish his own self.”[32] Anuruddha said, “No householder’s life for me. You practise it. I will go forth to the religious life.”

Then the Śākyan young men to the number of five hundred, with great royal majesty and splendour, each according to his means, left home. Some rode on elephants with trappings of gold and hoofs like coral;[33] others in golden palanquins studded with divers precious stones; others in golden chariots drawn by four horses, covered with a network of jewels, beflagged, merrily rattling along with sunshades and pennons raised aloft, and others rode on horses decorated with all sorts of adornments and covered with network of gold.

Now Devadatta set out riding in a high howdah on a well-adorned elephant covered with a network of gold. And as he rode out his diadem struck against the arch[34] over the gateway. When the arch thus knocked down Devadatta’s diadem the huge crowd laughed loudly, and a diviner and an astrologer[35] foretold of him that Prince Devadatta would not achieve the purpose for which he was leaving home. He would fail in his highest object, just as from the highest part of his person his diadem was knocked down by the arch over the gateway.

(179) Thus then did those five hundred Śākyan young men, in great royal majesty and splendour, and accompanied by all kinds of dancers, minstrels, musicians and drummers,[36] leave the city of Kapilavastu and set out for the Banyan Grove. When they had proceeded in their conveyances as far as the ground allowed, they alighted. Then, accompanied by several thousand people, they approached the Exalted One, bowed their heads at his feet and stood to one side.

Now of these Śākyan young men one was named Upāli. He was a barber’s assistant, who had acquired the root of virtue under previous Buddhas, had retained the impressions of his former life,[37] had broken his bonds, was not liable to rebirth, enjoyed Āryan states in his last existence and was master of the meditations and the super-knowledges. He had been sent to the Exalted One, by his mother, who said, “He will cut[38] the hair of the Exalted One.” And the Exalted One agreed. So Upāli cut the hair of the Exalted One. His mother asked the Exalted One, “Lord, does Upāli cut hair satisfactorily?” The Exalted One replied, “Yes, but he comes rather too close[39] to the Tathāgata.” She then said, “My boy, do not stand too close to the Exalted One.” It was then that Upāli entered upon the first meditation.

Thereupon his mother asked the Exalted One again, “Lord, does my boy Upāli cut hair satisfactorily?” The Exalted One replied, “Yes, the boy cuts hair satisfactorily, but he oils[40] the razor too much.” So she said, “My boy, do not oil the razor too much.” And then he entered upon the second meditation.

Upāli’s mother again asked the Exalted One, “Lord, does my boy Upāli cut hair satisfactorily?” The Exalted One, “Yes, the boy Upāli cuts hair satisfactorily, but his breathing annoys the Tathāgata.” So she said, “My boy, do not annoy the Exalted One with your breathing.” Then, having passed through the first and second meditations, (180) he entered upon the third and fourth. The Exalted One said to the monks, “Take the razor from Upāli’s hand so that it does not fall to the ground.” And the monks took the razor from Upāli’s hand.[41]

Then the Śākyan princes took off their clothes and trinkets, and threw them down before Upāli, saying, “Let these be your possessions, Upāli. As we are going forth to the religious life we have no need of them.” But Upāli reflected, “These Śākyan princes have renounced their kingdoms, and given me their clothes and trinkets. They are going forth from home into the homeless state. Why should not I, too, though earning my living with the razor, go forth to the religious life? Yes, I will go forth. I shall not make any use of these discarded things.”[42]

And Upāli the barber went to the Exalted One, bowed at his feet and said to him, “Let the Lord admit me to the religious life. Let the Sugata ordain me.” The Exalted One pronounced over Upāli the barber the formula of “Come, monk,” saying to him, “Come, Upāli the barber, come, monk, and live the brahma-life under the Tathāgata.” When the formula of “Come, monk” had been pronounced over Upāli by the Exalted One, every mark, badge, emblem and sign of the householder disappeared from his person, and he was seen to have three robes, a sumbhaka[43] bowl, his hair in its natural state and his deportment established. In short, the admission and ordination of the venerable Upāli were just like those of a monk who had been ordained a hundred years.[44] So while the five hundred Śākyan princes were bidding farewell to their parents, friends, relatives and kindred, Upāli took up the religious life ahead of them all. (181) Then the five hundred Śākyan princes went to the Exalted One, bowed at his feet, and each said to him, “Let the Lord admit me to the religious life. Let the Sugata ordain me.” And the Exalted One pronounced the formula of “Come, monks” over the five hundred princes, with the exception of Devadatta, saying, “Come, Śākyan princes, come, monks, live the brahma-life under the Tathāgata.” When the formula of “Come, monks,” had been pronounced by the Exalted One over them, every mark, badge, emblem and sign of the householder disappeared from their persons. They were seen to have three robes, sumbhaka bowls, their hair in its natural state, and their deportment established. In short the admission and ordination of the venerable five hundred Śākyan princes were just like those of monks who had been ordained a hundred years.

The Exalted One then addressed them, saying, “The monk Upāli is senior to you. Therefore bow at his feet and stand in due order.[45] He who will first bow at the feet of the Tathāgata and Upāli and stand in due order, will become the next in seniority.” So all the hundreds of monks bowed at the feet of the Exalted One and Upāli and stood in their proper order. This became known[46] and the great crowd of people cried, “The Śākyans have overcome pride and anger; they have put down pride and arrogance.”

King Śuddhodana, also, his retinue and the Śākyans bowed at the feet of Upāli the monk. And the venerable Upāli said, “Hail and welcome to King Śuddhodana.” But the counsellors and attendants, seeing the venerable Upāli address King Śuddhodana by name,[47] reflected, “How can it be that the lowly born Upāli the barber uses the words[48] ‘King Śuddhodana’ in addressing him?” (182) But King Śuddho-dana said to those counsellors and attendants, “Gentlemen, do not speak of the Āryan Upāli as a lowly born man.[49] For one thing there is a former birth of his, and for another there is now his royal power as a recluse. He must no more be said to be of lowly birth.”

Footnotes and references:


A variant of the more usual Siddhārtha.


The whole paragraph, syntactically, hangs badly together. Yadi, “if” has no finite verbs, but only past participles; the apodosis is introduced by tam,“then,” and has the finite verbs bhavet and bhavetha. Immediately following is another conditional sentence introduced by sace, “if,” (as in Pali), which again has participles for finite verbs, and, besides, does not appear to be complete. For the apodosis, with which the paragraph ends, really belongs to a third conditional clause introduced by the coordinating ca, “and.” In his notes Senart is inclined to prefer so ca for sace. In that case, the whole paragraph consists of a series of conditional sentences introduced by yadi. The Śākyans, of course, were not brāhmans.


No, negative.


Śalākāni cāretha. Cf. Pali salākāni gāheti or vāreti.


Yobhūyena. Cf. Pali yebhuyena.


Śākyagaṇasya utpadyati; so read for utpadyatu. But Senart takes kathaṃ... utpadyatu as a clause of purpose, “de façon qu’il vienne à l’esprit.”


Literally, “to send etc.”, reading, with Senart, pravrājitum for pravrajitum.


Literally, “with that one man from each family, five hundred young Śākyans went forth, etc.”, tena kulapuruṣakeṇa pañca kumāraśatā abhiniṣkramanti.


Text has Sundaravanda (sic).


See Vol. I, p. 298, and so for other brothers of Śuddhodana mentioned here.


Senart refers to Kern: Der Buddhismus, I, p. 310, for the distinction between Śuklodana and Śukrodana.


This is contrary to the instructions of Śuddhodana.


In vol. 1, pp. 54, 59 (trans.), as in northern Buddhist texts generally, spelt Aniruddha.


Usually called Bhadriya. In the Pali texts he is called Bhaddiya, and there he is said to be the son of Kāligodhā, or Kālī of the Godhas. See D.P.N. and I. B. Homer: Bk. of Disc., vol. 5, p. 255 n.


The “deeds of merit” performed by Anuruddha in previous lives as a result of which he came to be pre-eminent among those possessing the deva-eye (A. 1. 23) are recounted, e.g., at AA. 1.189-90 and DhA. 4.124ff. The story here related seems to be peculiar to the Mhvu. It is clearly an interpolation taken from some account, probably commentarial, of Anuruddha in a former life, and inserted in the text in order to explain the epithet “meritorious” (puṇyavanta). As the interpolation breaks the sequence of the present narrative it is enclosed in brackets in the translation.


Reading nam for na (sic).


Niṣpuruṣeṇa nāṭakena. Cf. p. 160, n. 5.


Mohanasya jijñasanārtham. But the former word is Senart’s very doubtful restoration for the impossible māharase and moharese of the MSS.


In resuming the narrative the question at which it was broken off is repeated.


Literally, “(the hope that they have had) a comfortable night must be given by him having risen at daybreak,” kalyato evotthitena... sukharāiri dātavyā.

At Cullavagga VII (F. 2. 179) the duties of a householder as described by Mahānāma to Aniruddha are entirely agricultural. For a similar list of occupations cf. J. 1. 215; A. 1. 241 and I. B. Horner, Bk. of Disc., 5, p. 253 n.


Veṣṭetavyā, from veṣṭeti, “to manage, supervise, etc.,” caus. of denom. to veṣṭi = Amg. veṭṭhi = Sk. veṣṭi, “labour (forced),” “work.” See Edgerton B.H.S.D.


Literally, “they are to be considered with,” samanvāharitavyā, gerundive of samanvāharati. Cf. the BSk. use of this verb in the sense of “to concentrate the mind on,” “to pay attention to” (Pali, samannāharati).


Ācchāda, “reward.” See p. 36, n. 2.


? Vyayakarmena utsavikena pārivyayikena.


Veṣṭāpayitavya. See n. 3.


Lavāpayitavya, Pali lavāpetabba (Cullavagga VII), gerundive of the causative of .


Opunāpayitavya, Pali opunāpetabba (Cullavagga VII), gerundive of the causative of ava-pū.


Or “follow,” aṇvitavya, from aṇvati (ṛṇvati), which here is obviously taken as equivalent in meaning to anveti (anu-i). See p. 140, n. 2.


Āhāreṇa āhāraṃ kāryaṃ kṛtvā, where āhāreṇa is difficult to explain.


Lūkha. See vol. 2, p. 63, n. 1.


Praṇita. This distinction is evidently the same as that made by the two terms oḷarika, “gross,” and sukhuma, “fine,” in Pali. (See P.E.D.).


Cf. A. 1.168; D. 3. 61.


Sakhurapravārehi for °pravāḷehi.


Karkaṭaka. Cf. Sk. karkaṭa. “a crab,” “curved end of the beam of a balance.” P.E.D., s.v. kakkaṭaka, “crab,” cites BSk. karkaṭaka in the meaning of “a hook.” Evidently some kind of curved structure or decoration over the gate is meant. Edgerton (B.H.S.D.) cites karkaṭakāṅghri “a kind of moulding or joinery resembling the crab’s leg,” from Acharya, Diet. Hindu Arch.


Horapāṭhaka, from hora for horā, late Sk. from Greek, and pāṭhaka, “skilled in.”


Sarvanṛttehi sarvagītehi sarvatūryatāḍāvacarehi. These three words are treated in translation as one compound, the case termination of the first two being ignored. We then have avacara (BSk. and Pali, “conversant with”), governing each element, i.e. persons conversant with dances, etc.


Vāsitavāsana, Cf., e.g., Sn. 1009.


Otāreti, literally, “bring” or “take down.” We might more naturally, perhaps, expect ohāreti or oropeti, but the reading of the MSS. appears to be certain here and elsewhere in the passage where the verb appears. Also B.H.S.D. has sufficient examples to show that otāreti, avatarayati was a recognised BSk. verb for “cutting” the hair and beard.




? Pilipalipāyeti, taken to be api and causative of a reduplicated lip “to smear”. Edgerton (B.H.S.D.) takes the whole to be an onomatopoeic verb, “to rattle,” but adds a question mark.


These incidents in the story of Upāli seem to be peculiar to the Mhvu. The introduction of the theme of “meditation” (dhyāna) is abrupt, and possibly the story is taken from some text or tradition containing a series of examples of the practice of meditation by a variety of men in a variety of circumstances. In the Cullavagga (VII) the story of Upāli begins with the other Śākyan young men giving him their clothes and jewels.


Reading vāntānām for vāntantam. A gen. pl. is needed to go with eteṣām as object of paribhuñjiṣyāmi.


See p. 67, n. 3.


For this passage see the references in the preceding note. The comparison here and immediately below, and also at 2. p. 234 (text) is not so clearly expressed as it is above, p. 65 (text), where it runs, sayyathāpi nāma varṣaśatopasampannānām bhikṣūṇām, “all just like those of monks who had been ordained a hundred years.”


Patipāṭikāye, oblique case of the BSk. and Pali paUpāṭika, adjectival derivation from patipāṭi, Sk. paripāti “succession.” At i. p. 3 (text) we have the form patipāṭiya as in Pali.


Jitam,? for jñātam. See vol. 2, p. 122, n. 4, and foil. pp. Edgerton (B.H.S.D.) suggests that the word is an interjection or particle expressive of astonishment. But this meaning hardly suits all the passages in which the word occurs.


Reading, as Senart suggests in a note, nāmnā or nāmena for ātmanā of the text.


Literally “speaks with (the words) King Śuddhodana,” rājñā Śuddhodanena bhāṣati.


... Upālisya hīnajātyena samudācaratha. The meaning is clear, but the conjunction of a gen. (direct object) and an instr. (indirect object) with samudācarati in the same sentence is remarkable.

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