The Murderer Who Became a Saint
King Pasenadi's chaplain was a learned but superstitious Brahmin
named Bhaggava Gagga. It was his job to cast horoscopes, advise
about the best time to embark on various projects and ward off
evil influences with spells and mantras. He was filled with joy
when his wife gave birth to a boy, but when the baby's horoscope
was drawn up, his joy turned to dread. The horoscope indicated
that the boy would grow up with criminal tendencies. Filled with
superstitious fear, the parents decided to name the boy Ahimsaka,
'Harmless' in the hope that this would counter the influence of
the stars. "The boy grew up into a fine youth who was good
at his studies and obedient to his parents. But to make sure that
the boy would never turn bad, they constantly stressed to him
the importance of obeying them and doing what he was told.
he left home for Taxila to do his higher studies. In those days,
young Brahmins would go to Taxila and live in the house of a learned
Brahmin to learn traditional lore and in return, work in his home.
The relationship would be like that between father and son. Ahimsaka
was a particularly obedient student which earned him special attention
from his teacher but it also created jealousy in the other students.
They decided to try to turn the teacher against Ahimsaka. According
to plan, they went one by one to the teacher and whispered that
his favourite student was trying to usurp his position. At first
the teacher dismissed this as nonsense, but gradually the seeds
of doubt were sown, and they eventually sprouted into suspicion
and the teacher became convinced of Ahimsaka's hostility to him.
"This young man is strong in body and quite capable of doing
me harm. I must get rid of him and make sure he never comes back,"
he thought to himself. One day, the teacher called Ahimsaka and
said: "You have successfully finished your studies, now you
must bring me my fee." "Certainly," said Ahimsaka.
" What do you demand as your fee?" "You must bring
me a thousand first fingers from the human hand." "Surely
you don't require this of me?" responded the horrified Ahimsaka.
"You have taken from me and in return you must now do my
bidding. Go now and bring a thousand fingers." The teacher's
hope was, of course, that in the process of carrying out this
task Ahimsaka would be killed and he would never have to see him
The unhappy student returned to Kosala and went to live in the
Jalani forest and reluctantly at first, but later without compunction,
he began waylaying lone travellers, killing them, cutting off
one of their fingers and living off the possessions he stole.
At first he hung the fingers on a tree where the birds would pick
at the flesh, after which the bones would drop to the ground and
be scattered. So after a while, Ahimsaka would thread the fingers
on a cord and hang them around his neck. This gave him a terrible
appearance, and the by then notorious and feared murderer came
to be known as Angulimala (Finger Necklace). Eventually, through
murder, and perhaps by cutting fingers from corpses that in ancient
India were not buried, but cast away in charnel grounds, Angulimala
had accumulated 999 fingers.
His parents came to hear that the murderer whom everyone was talking
about was their own son. Embarrassed and ashamed, the old Brahmin
disowned his son. His mother could not bring herself to do so
and she planned to go into the forest where her son was known
to operate and try to talk to him. Just when it looked like Angulimala
might even kill his own mother, he came into contact with the
When the Buddha heard about Angulimala, he quietly left the Jetavana
and set out for the Jalani forest, some forty kilometres away.
As the Buddha walked along the road, groups of travellers passed
him and as they did, they warned him not to continue alone because
of the danger. He simply smiled and continued on his way. When
Angulimala saw the Buddha, he was most surprised. "This is
wonderful indeed. Usually only travellers in groups of twenty,
thirty or forty come along this road and here is an ascetic travelling
alone. I will kill him."
his sword and shield, Angulimala emerged from the jungle and began
to chase the Buddha, but although he ran as fast as he could,
he could not catch up with the Buddha, who only walked. He put
on a burst of speed but still could not get near the Buddha. Utterly
bewildered, he shouted out: "Stand still, ascetic!"
The Buddha turned around and looked at him, and replied: "I
am still. Why don't you be still also?" Even more bewildered
Angulimala asked: "What do you mean, ascetic?" "I
am still in that I harm no living being. You kill and therefore
you are not still," replied the Buddha.
The terrible things that he had done and the wretchedness of his
life dawned on Angulimala and he broke down and sobbed. He threw
down his weapons, bowed at the Buddha's feet and asked to become
a monk. The Buddha ordained him and together they set out for
Savatthi. A few days later, as the Buddha and Angulimala were
sitting in the Jetavana, King Pasenadi and a retinue of fully
armed soldiers came to visit.
are you off to, O King?" asked the Buddha. "Has a
border dispute broken out with Magadha?"
"No, Lord," said the king. "There is a terrible
murderer operating in the kingdom. Because of him, people in
outlying areas pack up their belongings, leave their villages
and move to the safety of the city. Now the citizens have petitioned
me to get rid of him and I am setting out to find him."
"If you heard that this murderer had given up his terrible
life and become a monk, what would you do, O King?"
"I suppose I would bow to him and treat him as I would
any other monk. But is such a thing possible, Lord?"
The Buddha stretched out his arm and said: "This, O King,
The king drew back in fear, but the Buddha reassured him: "Do
not be afraid, O King. There is no need for alarm." The
king came closer, looked carefully at the monk and asked: "Is
this really Angulimala, Lord?"
"Yes, O King." Then he addressed Angulimala: "What
is your father's name? What clan does your mother belong to?"
"My father is Gagga and my mother is a Mantani."
"Then may they be of good cheer. If you need any requisites
I will make an effort to provide them for you," said the
"Thank you, sire. But I have enough robes," replied
Then King Pasenadi came and sat near the Buddha and said: "Lord,
it is truly wonderful that without stick or sword you are able
to pacify those whom I cannot pacify with sticks or swords."
The Buddha smiled.
Angulimala led a life of simplicity and solitude, and under the
Buddha's guidance eventually attained enlightenment. But even
then, there were many who remembered his terrible past and people
would shun him. Often, he would return from his alms round with
no food and sometimes people would throw stones at him. Once he
returned from his alms round with blood and cuts all over him
having been attacked by an angry mob. The Buddha comforted him,
saying: "You must endure this, Angulimala. You must silently
endure this. This is a result of the deeds you have done previously."[