The Mahavastu (great story)

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

This page describes questions of nalaka which is Chapter XXXVII 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 XXXVII - The questions of Nālaka

Note: See vol. 2, pp. xi, 27, 30; D.P.N.; and B.H.S.D.

The Exalted One, perfectly enlightened and having realised the aim he had set himself, was staying in Benares, in the Deer Park at Ṛṣivadana, teaching devas and men, and so on.[1]

In the land of the Avantis[2] there was a town called Markaṭa[3] where there lived a wealthy brahman, who was the household priest and tutor of King Ujjhebhaka Toṇehāraka. He was rich and opulent, having great possessions and property, money, treasuries and granaries, abundance of gold and silver and other resources, a large number of female and male slaves and servants, elephants, horses, goats and sheep. He belonged to the Kātyāyana clan, and had two sons, one named Nālaka[4] and the other Uttara.

Uttara was the elder. Nālaka, the younger, was clever, skilful, intelligent, of quick understanding and keen wit. Their uncle was named Asita,[5] a seer who dwelt in a hermitage in the Vindhyas, in the land of the Avantis, with a company of five hundred pupils. He lived on wild roots and fruits and on gleanings, and taught the five hundred young men to recite the mantras[6] and the Vedas.

(383) Uttara went there and studied the Vedas. When he had recited them, he came to his father and before him and other brahmans proficient in the Vedas he underwent an examination.[7] And while he was being examined[8] Nālaka picked up all the Vedas.[9] And when he had thus heard the Vedas recited by his brother, he, too, was examined before his father and the brahmans who were proficient in the Vedas. They were amazed, and exclaimed, “Behold the intelligence of this young man.”

His parents then told him that a Buddha had appeared in the world, and said to him, “Go and take up the religious life.” So he went to the Vindhyas and embraced the religious life of a seer in the hermitage of his uncle, Asita the seer. By devoting himself all the time to endeavour, effort, exertion and vigilance, he achieved the four meditations and attained the five super-knowledges.

Now the Exalted One had awakened to the supreme perfect enlightenment and had set rolling the noble wheel of dharma. He was staying in Benares, in the Deer Park at Ṛṣivadana, living a life of service to devas and men and enabling hundreds of thousands of beings to attain immortality. Then Asita the seer said to his pupil, “A Buddha has appeared in the world. Go east and take up the religious life.” So he left the seer’s retreat and in due course reached Benares.

In Benares there lived six self-styled teachers,[10] Kāśyapa Pūraṇa, Maskarin Gośālikāputra, Ajita Keśakambalin, Kakuda Kātyāyana, Sañjayin Veraṭṭikāputra and Nirgrantha Jñātiputra.[11] Nālaka went to these six self-styled teachers, but they did not satisfy his mind.

Now there are four great treasures, the “shell” in Benares, the “lotus” in Mithilā, the piṅgala in Kaliṅga and the elapatra in Takṣaśilā.[12] Just then the monthly festival in honour of the “shell” was being held. To it there came as guests the Nāga kings, the guardians of treasures. (384) There the Nāga king Elapatra posed questions, saying that whosoever could answer them would be given his daughter and a thousand pieces of gold.[13]

Through being sovereign of what is a man a king? How does he become a slave of passion?[14] How does he become free of passion? And how does he come to be called a weakling?

The Exalted One replied:

A man is a king when he is sovereign in relation to the six senses.[15] When he is excited by his senses[16] he becomes the slave of passion. When he is not excited he becomes rid of passion. He who is excited is said to be a weakling.

Elapatra asked:

By what is the weakling carried away? What does the wise man shake off? How does a man come to have freedom from bondage?[17] This I ask thee: do thou tell me.

The Exalted One replied:

The weakling is carried away by the ties of attachment,[18] The wise man shakes off his bondage. He who is not tied by any bond is said to have freedom from bondage.

Elapatra asked:

Buddha, Buddha, art thou called. Is this a dream or is it as it does appear? Speak and dispel my doubt,.

A deva replied:

Here you have beholden face to face the Great Hero who abides in the Deer Park, like a lion in a mountain cave, proclaiming the best of dharmas.

(385) Verily, after a long time we now shall see the body of the nobly wise Buddha bright with the starlike marks.

Verily, after a long time we now shall hear the speech that sounds like Brahmā’s voice, proclaiming what is impermanent, ill and without self, and annihilating all the vices.

Hearing the fresh sound of this Brahmā-like voice, we shall win deliverance from false sects by drawing near to the Valiant Man.

Now[19] that we have beholden the great Seer who lives for the sake of the world’s welfare, the greatly glorious Kāśyapa, who has insight into the good, who is the root of all that is fair,[20] we will guard our morality and keep it serene like the young moon.[21]

Hewing our way through the trackless jungle and taking the Seer as our master. . .[22]

But he who breaks up the teaching of him who discerns the highest good, falls away from the Way and passes to the dire hell of Avīci.

On his body there falls like a mountain...,[23] like an unending shower of rain, which mangles[24] the limbs of the woe-afflicted wight. From this deliver us, O thou whose fame is widespread.[25]

I hear of the dharma, although, as one who has lost his sight, I see not him who is like the rising sun. O thou whose splendour is like the comforting sun,[26] (386) when will there be deliverance for those in the world of brutes? Who, seeing this body mutilated as the result of vice, would not sob and weep and live a life of virtue? No more would he delight in pleasures. . .[27] but he would be steadfast in morality as one who cannot be moved. Do thou proclaim it who dost behold the truth, who art intelligent, of the clan of Maitreya, and dost rout the passion for existence.[28]

Nālaka Kātyāyana[29] bowed his head at the Exalted One’s feet and said to him:

My father is the household priest of King Toṇehāra. He is well versed in augury[30] and adept[31] in astrology.

In his compassion and moved by desire for my welfare, my father[32] said to me, “A Buddha has appeared in the world. Go east and take up the religious life.”

And so, Lord, here I have come. Well would it be if thou wouldst ordain me”. The Tathāgata replied in words that were full of assurance.

He addressed the brāhman of Kātyāyana’s clan and said to him, “Come, monk.” Such was his initiation and ordination.

The venerable Kātyāyana[33] said:

I fully understood[34] all that Asita said to me, that it was the truth.[35] Now I ask thee, O Gotama, who art accomplished in all things.

(387) To one who has taken up the homeless life and seeks the life of a monk, tell, O Sage, what is this state of being a sage,[36] man’s highest destiny?

The Exalted One replied:

The state of a sage that you ask about, O Nāla, is hard and difficult to attain. But come, I’ll tell you what it is. Be steadfast and strong.

Maintain your equanimity[37] whether you be reviled or spoken well of[38] in the village. Keep ill-will away from your mind. Be calm and humble,[39]

Women high and low, like flames of fire in a wood, come forth to seduce the sage, but let them not succeed in doing so.[40] Abstain from sexual indulgence, and abandon pleasures high and low.[41] Be frank and free[42] with both the timid and the stout.[43] Regarding others like yourself and yourself like others, cause no one to be harmed or killed.

Give up even your small desire. Nay, be wholly without desire, and therefore freed.

Abandon desire and greed to which the common herd are addicted. The wise man will follow the right path[44] and pass beyond the danger of hell.[45]

Then[46] at dawn he will go down to the village to beg for alms. He will not indulge in loud begging[47] nor rejoice in what the village offers.[48]

When he has descended on[49] a village the sage will not rush about in a hurry from house to house. (388) Chary of words[50] as he begs for food,[51] he does not make a speech when he has obtained it.[52]

He will wander alone with his bowl in his hand, not dumb,[53] though he seem to be so. He will not scorn a gift whatever it is,[54] nor slight the giver.

He will say to him, “You have given; good was it of you. Y ou have not given; good fortune be yours.” In both cases he will keep the same frame of mind[55] and avoid all harsh feelings.[56]

When the sage has finished his alms-round, he should keep to the edge of the forest. Though his stomach be empty he should eat sparingly, have little desire and be not greedy.

And when the sage has come to the foot of the tree and sat down on his seat, he then meditates on what is to be,[57] and should not enjoy himself too much.[58]

For him in whom there is no flow[59] of desire, for the monk[60] who has cut off the stream[61]and who has acquitted himself of all duties and tasks, there is no torment of desire.

Thus has the life of repose been described by the allknowing Buddha. In solitude you will find joy. Thus will you go through the ten regions.[62]

Thus will you attain the state of a sage. Become keen as a razor’s edge. Press your tongue against your palate, and thus be restrained of appetite.[63]

Taintless,[64] unfettered,[65] leaning against the foot of the tree, let him train himself in solitariness, in the duties of a recluse.

When he has heard of the honest and worthy[66] meditation of those who meditate and have abandoned sensual desire,

(389) let my disciple[67] train himself in modesty and faith.

The Beyond is not a future twice-repeated, nor is it merely a future once-repeated.[68] Various are the courses of conduct revealed by the state of a recluse.

This is what a man learns by observing the streams in chasms and ravines; their flood makes a loud roar. But the great ocean rolls on in silence.

What is empty makes a noise: what is full is silent. The fool is like a pot not quite full;[69] the wise is like a full pool.

When the sage speaks much it is all on and about the goal. Because he knows nirvana he speaks much for the realisation of it.

He who is wise and moderate of speech, and though he knows, does not speak much, is a sage who merits the state of a sage, is a sage who has attained it.

Here end the Questions of Nālaka.

Footnotes and references:


Kṛtvā nidānam.


To the north of the Vindhyas. Its capital Ujjeni was the Greek Ozēnē. See D.P.N. and E. J. Thomas, The Life of Buddha, p. 14.


Cf. Pali Makkarakatā, which also was associated with Kātyāyana. (Kaccāna). See D.P.N.


In vol. 2, p. 43 (text) it is Nārada who belongs to this clan, while on p. 63 of the same vol. he is said to belong to the Kauśika clan. For the confusion between the two see above references to Nālaka.


See Vol. 2, p. 27 ff.


See vol. 2, p. 27, n. 3.


Anuyogaṃ deti. Here not exactly “passed an examination,” as Edgerton (B.H.S.D.) has it. Cf. n. 3.


I.e., while he was reciting the Vedas.


I.e., by listening to his brother. See next sentence.


Śāstarapratijñā. For pratijña, Pali patiñña, see B.H.S.D. and P.E.D.


See vol. I, p. 208ff, and B.H.S.D. for BSk. references and D.P.N. for Pali.


Cf. the four great treasures mentioned in DA. 1.284, each presided over by a Nāga king presumably of the same name as the treasure he guarded. The treasures are there named saṅkha (shell), ela (?), uppala (blue lotus) and puṇḍarīka (white lotus). Elapatra is also the guardian of a treasure in Divy. 61, but there he is styled simply “king”, not “Nāga king”. He is evidently identical with the Elapatra mentioned, but without allusion to the treasure, in Mvyut. 3271, Suv. 162, Mmk. 452, Kv. 2, May. 222, 247. See B.H.S.D., where reference is also made to the nine treasures of Kubera, and the nine treasures of the Jains, three of the latter being identical with three in the BSk. and Pali lists. The Nāga king Elapatra, under the name Erakapatta, appears also in DhA. 3. 231ff. (see D.P.N.), but without allusion to the treasure he guarded, although the questions he poses, and the replies to them, are identical with those in the Mhvu. The episode of Elapatra appears also in the Chinese. (See Beal, Romantic legend, 275 f.). The precise nature of these treasures is not certain. Śaṅkha and paduma are possibly a wonderful shell and lotus respectively. Piṅgala as a substantive has too large a variety of meanings to afford any clue. Ela is a “high number”. It would appear that the names of the guardian kings were prior to those of the treasures.


In DhA., l.c., the questions are asked by Erakapatta’s daughter, and answered by Uttara on the Buddha’s instruction, not directly by the Buddha himself as here. But the latter circumstance is clearly a mistake in our text, for the prelude has prepared the way for the clever Uttara to figure as the answerer.


Taking rajasvaro as being a corruption of raja-iśvaro, “having passion as his master.” (So Edgerton B.H.S.D., s.v.). This would correspond to the rajissaro of DhA. 3.231, 238, and would also be more apposite to the context. Rajasvaro, of course, could possibly be taken as equivalent to Sk rajasvallo, “full of passion,” but there is an implied contrast between a king who is a sovereign and a king who is a slave (to passion).


Reading with Edgerton (B.H.S.D. s.v.) ṣaṣṭo (= ṣaṣ-tas) for saṣṭho of the text. Cf. DhA. 3. 233, cha-dvārādhipatī rājā, where the allusion is to the “six doors of the senses.”


Reading rakto for rājye. The latter cannot be correct here, for it would give the irrelevant sense “he becomes a slave of passion in his kingdom.” The sentence rather is meant to be antithetical to the first, which alludes to a man who is dominant over his senses. In contrast to him there is the man who is rakto “excited” by them. DhA. 3.233 has the corresponding pres. part. pas. rajjamāna. The verse goes on to speak of the man who is arakto “unexcited”, just as DhA. speaks of one who is arajan (neg. of mid. part, corresponding to pass, rajjamāna).


Yogakṣemin BSk., Pali yogakkhemin.


Yoga, of which there are four, identical with the four oghas—or “floods”, namely, kāma, bhava, diṭṭhi and avijjā. See P.E.D. for references.


Here begins another set of verses in a different metre in eulogy of Kāśyapa. The only explanation of their insertion here is that the compilers may have remembered that the history of Elapatra (Erakapatta) as recounted in the original tale preserved in DhA. (l.c.) began with his life as a monk under the Buddha Kāśyapa.


But there is a lacuna in the text here.


Reading candram iva for camarīva (= “like the deer.”).


Although the MSS do not indicate it, Senart is right in saying that there is a lacuna here. The context requires a sentence to express the result of the actions denoted by the two participles. Instead it abruptly goes on to speak of what happens to those who pursue a different line of conduct.


A lacuna representing the subject of the sentence, which the MSS. give as the inexplicable sābālikā.


Śāṭeti, BSk. and Pali, “to destroy”, “cut”.


There would seem to be here an omission of some verses in which the luckless man (or men) in hell is made to pray for release. Senart rightly points out the impropriety of these words in the mouth of a deva, and he would assign the words to Elapatra. But it seems better to regard the whole passage as entirely independent of the tale of Elapatra. See p. 382, n, 3.


? āśvāsayādityamarīcitejā.




This verse is obscure, as indeed is the whole passage on account of its abrupt introduction into the narrative. The verb vyākarṣa has no object. If we are right in assuming that the passage consists of a eulogy of the Buddha Kāśyapa, it would seem out of place to appeal to him to proclaim Maitreya. It was for him to proclaim rather Śākyamuni Gotama. Besides Maitreyagotro is nom. agreeing with tvam the subject of vyākarṣa. But even if Śākyamuni is the subject of the eulogy, it is difficult, as Senart admits, to understand why at this point he is urged to proclaim a future Buddha.


We now return to the story of Nālaka which was interrupted by the story of Uttara his brother. But the following verses are a dialogue between him and the Buddha, and not all his own words.


Or “omens”, utpāda BSk., Pali uppāda.


Gatiṅgata. See p. 180, n. 7.


It was his uncle Asita who gave him this direction.


I.e., Nālaka.


Ajñāsi (= ājñāsi aor. of ājñā) restored by Senart for anyāsi of the MSS. But there are other instances of ny (= ññ) for in BSk. See Edgerton, Gram., § 2. 15.


Allusion to Asita’s advice to Nālaka to seek out the Buddha is made in vol. 2 (see p. 39 trans.). His prophecy with regard to Gotama is also given in Sn. 679ff, by way of prologue to Nālaka’s questioning of the Buddha. This latter text has afforded Senart many clues for the restoration of the text of this part of the Mhvu.


Or “sage-hood,” dharmam mauneyam.


Samānabhāga = Samānabhāva in Sn. 702.


Reading, as Senart suggests, vanditaḥ for vanditam of the text. He also suggests that the Pali (Sn. 702) vanditam should be changed to the nom. pl. vanditā. As the text in both versions stands, the meaning would be “the equanimity which is reviled and praised”. It is obvious that Senart’s emendation gives a far better sense, for it makes the point that the monk is to preserve his equanimity whether men praise or revile him, and not his attribute. E. M. Hare, Woven Cadences, p. 105, unaccountably takes samānabhāvam as though it were equivalent to sāmaññabhāvam, and translates “Induce the quiet state of a recluse—mocked at and praised alike by the village.”


Reading anunnata “not raised” = anuṇṇata (Sn. 702), instead of anumata, “approved of”, which clearly makes no sense here.


Literally “let them not seduce him,” taṃ mā pralobhaye, where pralobhaye is the augmentless aorist, 3rd pl. Cf. lobhaye, vol. 2, p. 425 (text) and see Edgerton, Gram., p. 229.


Parovara = Pali, id.


Literally, “not obstructed and not impeded,” aviruddho asaṃruddho. Sn. 704 has aviruddho asāratto, which Hare translates “gentle and dispassionate.” “Gentle” surely is a loose paraphrase for aviruddha. Fausboll (S.B.E., X, p. 127 of Sn. trans.) renders the word “inoffensive”. Viruddha, among its secondary meanings, can have that of “hostile” or “adverse”, that is, it can have an active force, but saṃruddha can only be used, apparently, in its formal passive sense of “completely stopped or checked”, etc. If the reading is correct, therefore, both participles equally must be taken in a passive sense, and the verse interpreted to mean that the sage must not withhold himself in opposition to or aloof from the timid and the stout. There is another Pali parallel at Dh. 406. aviruddhaṃ viruddhesu, which Mrs. Rhys Davids (Min. Anth., 1. p. 130) translates “whoso among with-standers, withstands not,” while Fausboll (op. cit., p. 93 of Dh. trans.) translates “who is tolerant among the intolerant.” At Sn. 365, Hare translates aviruddha by “foe of none”.


Trasasthāvarā, properly of animals and plants, but here metaphysically used.


Pratipajjeya, from pratipadyate “to enter on a path”, restored by Senart after the Pali paṭipajjeyya of Sn. 706, for prativarjeya of the MSS. But the latter would give quite a good sense: “the wise man will avoid them.”


Tare narakaṃ imam, “will surmount that hell,” sc. which awaits the covetous and greedy, not necessarily as Hare, p. 105, renders, “cross man’s purgatory here.” The good man suffers no hell in this world or the next.


The order in which this verse comes is different in Sn. There are other instances of variation in the order of verses as between Sn. and Mhvu.


Āhvaya, Pali avhāna. See B.H.S.D. and P.E.D. If this is the sense of the word the verb abhinandeya must be translated twice over, “indulge”, and “rejoice”. It is hardly appropriate in English to speak of “rejoicing” in loud begging. It is possible to avoid this duplication by taking āhvaya in the sense of “invitation”, as Fausboll does. Hare loosely translates the corresponding Pali (Sn. 710). “Nor be o’erjoyed by alms offered or borne away,” where “alms offered” presumably are the alms the monk is “invited to take.” At Vism. 68 these two rules of a monk’s conduct are expressed somewhat differently, namely as consisting of avhānānabhinandanā and abhihārena anatthikatā, translated by Pe Maung Tin (Path of Purity, p. 78), “non-acceptance of invitation” and “absence of wish for a meal to be served.”




Āsādya is more than” come to” simply.


Chinnakatha “of broken speech”.


It is surely better to read ghāseṣaṇo rather than have two negatives (na) in the sentence, the second of which Senart is forced to explain as expletive or emphatic.


Senart’s text has vācā (for vācām) prepsutām, and he explains the line as meaning “Que dans son désir d’obtenir de la nourriture, il n’interrompe pas ses exhortations pour mendier,” an interpretation which is neither easy to gather from his text nor appropriate to the context. The MSS. are definitely in favour of some form of prāpnoti, so that it is not justifiable to replace prepsutām with payutām, corresponding to payutam of the corresponding Pali verse (Sn. 711). The emendation prāptavān “one who has obtained” which has been adopted for the translation here, is near enough to the MS. tradition and gives a reasonable sense.


Amūga, Pali id., Sk. a-mūka.


Taṃ taṃ, “this or that”. But Sn. has appam, “little”.


Literally “(He will be) like”, sadṛṣo, sc. what he was before.


Rukṣatva, subst. from rukṣa, “harsh”, “rough”, etc. Senart claims that the text here, rukṣatvaṃ vinivartaye is superior to that of Sn. 712, rukkhaṃ va upanivattati, “he returns to his tree.” In support of Senart’s claim it may be pointed out that the reading of the Pali would seem to imply that the text is done with instructions for the sage’s conduct on his alms-round. But the very next verse (Sn. 713) is still concerned with the same subject, urging the sage to go about dumb, neither scorning the small gift nor despising the giver of it. It is out of place, therefore, for Sn. 712 to speak of his returning to his home at the foot of the tree.


Reading dhyāyati ato bhavyam. Senart prints dhyāpayati, etc., and translates “il détruit l’avenir Two MSS. have dhyāyeti and dhyāyanti respectively.


Ātmānaṃ nātitoṣaye. The corresponding verse in Pali (Sn. 709) is jhāyetha rukkhamūlasmiṃ attānam abhitosayam—he will meditate at the foot of the tree enjoying himself.


Saritā, “fig. applied to desire or greed, as in Pali Sn. 3, etc.” (B.H.S.D., citing MSV. 3.54; 57, but not this instance in the Mhvu.). Senart says that this word is more suitable here than the obscure Pali visatā in the corresponding verse of Sn. (715), arguing that it accords better with the end of the verse—paridāgho na vijjati, “où il n’y a pas d’eau il n’y a pas d’asséche-ment.” But such an argument is beside the point. Senart is mistaken in taking the whole verse in a literal sense. Paridāgha is not “heat” or “dryness” but the burning torment of desire.


Reading bhikṣuṇo, gen. sg., for bhikṣavo, nom. pi.


Sc. of desire.


Sc. of the world. But for gamiṣyasi Sn. 719 has bhāsihi, “light up” or “shine through”.


Text has saṃyato, “restrained”, only. But the meaning is obvious. Sn. 716 is more explicit with udare saññato “restrained in regard to your belly”.


Nirāmagandha, “free from foul odours”. So B.H.S.D. But P.E.D. gives a different etymology.


Asita, BSk., Pali id., = aśrita, “not leaning on” or “clinging to”.


Ṛjuraham, which Senart doubtfully takes to be for ṛjvarham. Instead of ṛjurahaṃ dhyānam, Sn. 719 has dhīrānaṃ nigghosam “the voice of the wise.”


Māmaka, so in Sn. 719. Fausboll: “my adherent”. Hare: “my man”.


This seems to be the only possible rendering, obscure though it is, of the line as it stands. Guṇāyati has been taken as divisible into guṇa -āyati, which is, however, a strange, if not an impossible compound. If, on the other hand, guṇāyati be taken as a causal of guṇayati, we could, perhaps, still reach the same sense. The Recluse (i.e., the Buddha) does not multiply the Beyond twice nor indeed once. This might conceivably be a way of saying that once nirvana is attained, there is no recurrence, either twice or once, of the process that led to it. Senart says of this line that he cannot make better sense of it than Fausboll (l.c.) did of the corresponding Pali (Sn. 714), which runs na pāraṃ diguṇaṃ yanti na idam ekaguṇaṃ mutam. Fausboll translates “they do not go twice to the other shore, (this) is not once thought.” The Mhvu. version is na pārarṇ dviguṇāyati nāpi caivaṃ guṇāyati, which would become nearer the Pali and a little more intelligible by the change of caivam into caikam (ca-ekam). Hare (l.c.) renders the Pali, “They fare not yon by twain/Yet single deem it not,” the sense of which is by no means obvious. On the whole we may assume that the allusion is to the finality of nirvana, or to one of the groups of the four pratipādas, “courses of conduct”, which are actually alluded to in the next line.

Miss I. B. Horner, in a letter, gives a most interesting, and probably the correct, interpretation of this obscure passage. The Beyond (pāram), she suggests, is not here another world, but the state of happiness or delight, in a word the nirvana, which can be gained in meditation here and now in the present life. Once this meditational bliss has been experienced, the adept can regain it at will any number of times. Hence this Beyond is not a once-repeated future. Nor is it a twice-repeated future, because each recurring experience is completely identical with the first.


Ūnakumbha. The Pali, Sn. 721, has aḍḍhakumbha “a half-filled pot”.

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