Ever since he was young, Devadatta had been jealous of the Buddha,
and even though he had become a monk, his jealousy persisted.
He resented constantly being in the Buddha's shadow but he said
nothing, hoping that if the Buddha died, or got too old to continue
to lead the Sangha, he had a good chance of taking over, being
as he was closely related to the Buddha. Devadatta was not without
talent, despite his unpleasant nature; he had developed psychic
powers, which had of course attracted to him many admirers.
Unfortunately, his powers and the attention he received only
served to make him more proud and ambitious.
At about this time it so happened that Prince Ajatasattu was
becoming increasingly impatient to ascend to the throne. His
father, King Bimbasara, had ruled for many years and it looked
likely that he would continue to rule for many more, which meant
that Ajatasattu himself would be old before he himself became
king. Devadatta knew of Prince Ajatasattu's predicament and,
seeing that he had something in common with him, decided that
they should work together. He used his psychic powers to impress
the prince. One day as Ajatasattu sat alone, suddenly a young
boy draped in snakes appeared sitting in his lap. Utterly terrified,
Ajatasattu pushed the child away and with trembling voice asked:
"Who are you?" "I, Prince, am Devadatta."
The prince replied with trembling voice: "If you are really
Devadatta, then please assume your true form." Devadatta
complied and stood smiling in front of the astonished prince
who said: "I am impressed, reverend sir. Truly you are
a monk of high attainment."
From that time, Devadatta had free access to the royal palace
and Prince Ajatasattu often waited upon him with lavish food
and expensive gifts. Having a powerful ally, Devadatta's next
step was to convince the Buddha to step down in his favour.
One day, as the Buddha sat with a large company of monks, Devadatta
came forward, bowed and said: "Lord, leading the Sangha
at your age must be a great burden. Step down and I will lead
the Sangha for you. I will take over this responsibility so
that you can live in comfort." He obviously thought that
the other monks, concerned for the Buddha's welfare would be
delighted with this idea and urge the Buddha to retire. But
the Buddha was well aware of Devadatta's intentions and he was
not to be influenced by the opinion of the majority. He firmly
and harshly turned down the idea. "I would not even hand
over the Sangha to Sariputta or Moggallana, let alone to you,
you who should be coughed out like spittle." Devadatta
was humiliated by this rebuke and within his heart he vowed
day, after Prince Ajatasattu had complained to him about his
role as a prince, Devadatta said to him: "In the past,
people lived to a great age, now they do not and it is possible
that you may die while still a prince. Kill your father and
make yourself king. I will kill the Buddha and make myself leader
of the Sangha." At first Ajatasattu was shocked by this
suggestion but so strong was his ambition and desire for power
that it didn't take much to get him to see the advantages of
Soon, Devadatta hatched a plan to kill the Buddha with the help
of Ajatasattu. They sent a man to assassinate the Buddha and
arranged to have him murdered afterwards so that there would
be no witness. However, the man had scruples and was not anxious
to make evil kamma for himself by killing such a holy person.
When he actually stood in front of the Buddha, he found it impossible
to kill him. The man broke down and confessed to the Buddha
what he had planned to do. The Buddha forgave him and he asked
to become a lay disciple. When Devadatta heard this, he was
furious and decided if the Buddha was going to be killed, he
would have to do it himself. When the Buddha was at Rajagaha
he usually stayed at the Gijjakuta, a small rocky hill a little
beyond the east gate of Rajagaha. Devadatta climbed the Gijjakuta,
and when he saw the Buddha walking up and down at the foot of
the hill, he sent a large rock tumbling down towards him. Just
before it reached the Buddha, it hit another rock which diverted
it, although a splinter hit the Buddha injuring his foot. Some
time later, Devadatta went to the royal stables, where a huge
and fierce elephant named Nalagiri was kept. He approached the
mahouts and said to them: "I am close to the king. On my
word, someone in a low position can be put in a high position
and someone in a high position can be put in a low position.
I want you to release this elephant into the Buddha's path when
he is walking down the road." The mahouts readily agreed.
The next day, the Buddha and a small group of monks walked through
Rajagaha to collect alms. As they turned a corner into a narrow
street, they found themselves confronted by an angry elephant.
The monks called the Buddha to turn back but he continued to
calmly walk on. People looked out of their windows and climbed
onto the roofs of the houses to see what would happen. Nalagiri
charged down the street. People ran to get out of the way, while
others gasped with horror. The Buddha suffused Nalagiri with
thoughts of loving kindness (metta) so that he quietened
down, allowing the Buddha to approach him and stroke his head.
This confrontation caused a sensation in Rajagaha and for weeks
people went around the city singing a song about it. One of
the verses said:
are tamed by goad and whips
But the elephant by the great sage was tamed
By loving kindness, without sword or stick.
Meanwhile, one evening, Ajatasattu strapped a dagger to his
thigh and full of fear, tried to enter the king's bed chamber.
But the guards challenged him and the plot failed. King Bimbasara
came to hear of his son's attempts to kill him and deeply saddened,
he decided to step down in his favour. Although no longer king,
Bimbasara still supported the Buddha, which worried Devadatta.
So he egged on Ajatasattu to kill his father. "For as long
as your father is alive, you are still in danger. You are like
a man who puts a new skin on a drum with a rat in it."
Bimbasara was imprisoned and deprived of food. Queen Kosaladevi,
who was the only person allowed to visit the prisoner, smuggled
food in, concealed in her clothes. When this was discovered,
she was searched each time she came. So then she rubbed catumadhura,
a nutritious cream, on her body and the old man would lick it
off, which kept Bimbasara alive. When, after two weeks, he was
still not dead, King Ajatasattu sent men into the prison cell
to kill him. So ended the life of a just and popular king who
was also one of the Buddha's most enthusiastic supporters.
After several attempts to kill the Buddha had failed, Devadatta
decided that if he could not lead the Sangha, he would at least
try to lead some monks.
Buddha strived to transform the society in which he lived, questioning,
and where necessary, even criticising many of the assumptions
his contemporaries lived by. One thing he had little time for
was the extreme and ostentatious austerities that many ascetics
practised. Because he refused to indulge in any of these practices,
his opponents often accused him of being lax and of loving luxury.
Even some Buddhist monks believed that the Sangha was losing
its original austere character and that Buddhist monks should
live as other ascetics lived. Devadatta took advantage of this
dissatisfaction and started demanding stricter rules, a demand
that won the support of some monks. Eventually, he and his followers
went to the Buddha and demanded that he make five practices
obligatory for all monks: that monks should only live in the
forest, that they only eat food that they had begged for, that
they only wear robes made out of rags, that they should not
live in monasteries and that they should be vegetarian. The
Buddha refused, because he knew that outward practices like
these did not necessarily bring about a change in the heart.
He also understood that such practices would cut the monks off
from the lay community and that if this happened the Dharma
would remain the domain of a small exclusive group only. However,
he also recognised that some monks were more comfortable with
an austere lifestyle, so although he refused to make these practices
compulsory, he said that individual monks could practise them
if they wished.
While the Buddha was prepared to be flexible, Devadatta was
not. He declared that he and his followers were going to set
up a separate Sangha. The five hundred monks he led left Rajagaha
for Gaya, where King Ajatasattu built them a monastery on Gavasisa,
a rocky hill just south of the town. It was the greatest crisis
in the Buddha's life; the Sangha was split, accusations of lax
discipline were being made and the lay people did not know which
group to support. However, throughout the crisis, the Buddha
remained calm and made no public condemnations of Devadatta.
But something had to be done, so eventually the Buddha sent
Sariputta and Moggallana to Gaya to try to win back the wayward
monks. When Devadatta saw them coming he was exultant, thinking
that they too had abandoned the Buddha. When they arrived he
enthusiastically welcomed them and asked them to sit with him.
They politely declined but sat down near him. Devadatta then
gave a long talk, no doubt defending his stand on asceticism
and criticising the Buddha, and then asked Sariputta and Moggallana
to give a talk while he retired to sleep. After he had gone,
Sariputta and Moggallana both gave calm and well-reasoned talks,
explaining that no ascetic practices or, for that matter, any
outward rites or acts in themselves could change the heart.
They also appealed for loyalty to their compassionate teacher,
the Buddha, and for unity and harmony in the Sangha. Their long-standing
authority in the Sangha, their obvious freedom from rancour
and the reasonableness of their point of view gradually convinced
the five hundred monks.[
When Sariputta and Moggallana had finished, they said: "That
is all we have to say. We will now return to Rajagaha."
As they got up and left almost all the five hundred monks got
up and followed them. When Devadatta awoke in the morning, he
found he only had a few followers left. It is said that he was
so angry that blood came out from his mouth. Alone and disgraced,
in the following years Devadatta continued to complain about
and criticise the Buddha to anyone who would listen. Some people
did, but most ignored him or treated him with contempt. Towards
the end of his life he began to regret his past actions and
decided to apologise to the Buddha. But before the two men could
meet again, Devadatta died. It is interesting to note that when
Fa Hien, the Chinese pilgrim, was in India in the 5th century
CE, there were still small groups who looked to Devadatta rather
than the Buddha as their founder.