The story of Angulimala underscores that justice need not include writing off criminals as human beings
- The murderous plot the guru devised to finish off Ahinsaka was ingenious
- In verse, the Blessed One told Angulimala how having laid down arms He stood still with boundless compassion towards all beings
No incident in the ancient Indian society of Kosala created a greater upheaval than the sudden appearance of the serial killer Angulimala in its midst. Neither did anything bring about as much a sensation as his dramatic rise from utter ignominy to a beauteous reformation. The name Angulimala has remained a household word for well nigh two thousand five hundred years in Asian history.
It is said that on the night he was born all the kingdom’s weapons including the royal sword glistened. King Kosala questioned his chaplain (purohitha) the cause for the mysterious occurrence. The king was told that his wife had given birth to a son on ‘hora nekatha’ and in order to win the monarchs confidence suggested that he be put down. “What can a single robber do, nurture him”, replied the latter. However, since he brought much anguish to the king, he was named ‘Hinsaka’ (violence), later twisted to ‘Ahinsaka’ (innocence) as if the word was misheard.
He became a brilliant and obedient student at Thaksila, the premier seat of learning in ancient India. His peers who were envious of his intellect and magnetic qualities, concocted the ultimate of venomous plots ever conceivable when all other attempts at driving a wedge between him and his guru failed. They confided in the teacher of a scandalous affair that existed between his wife and Ahinsaka. Though they were driven away as pariahs first, he finally succumbed when they insisted that he verify for himself if he disbelieves them. The murderous plot the guru devised to finish off Ahinsaka was ingenious. He was to make an honororium by way of a thousand lives to the science he had mastered. When the youth protested that he descended from a harmless ancestry, the teacher insisted that an unhonoured science bears no results.
The devoted student worshipped the master, entered Jalina forest of the Kosala kingdom armed with the ‘panchayuda’ to commence his macabre orgy of blood-letting. He did not take the headgear or a dress, but kept the numbers in mind as one..two..until he lost count. A killer’s mind is not stable and he began the count all over again. He hung the severed fingers on a branch and vultures devour them. Ones left on the ground rotted away. At times he slayed groups of twenty or thirty together. To complete the figure he thought he should tie the fingers on a line and hang them at his side. Thus he came to be called Angulimala, ‘necklace of fingers’.
When the path through the jungle became deserted, he appeared at the villages, kicked down the bolted doors counting one.. one.. until he lost count again. Eventually the citizens in desperation set up camp on the palace grounds pleading an end to the holocaust. The king sent out several armies into the jungle.
The chaplain informed his wife Manthani of the grave situation that had arisen, whereupon she begged of him to bring her son back to her. “Beloved, l shall not attempt it” he said. “There is a foursome in the world that cannot be trusted. A bandit though he is your former colleague, a bundle of leaves that was your seat before, the king although he reveres you, and the woman who come under your spell”. But a mother’s heart melts. She went in search of her son.
Early morning that day when the Blessed One surveyed the whole wide world with limitless compassion, Angulimala fell into His web of vision. He saw, if He went, Angulimala who stood on his last existence would enter the noble order in His presence and gain the six higher powers on hearing a four lined stanza. If He didn’t, he would commit an act against his mother that could never be dislodged. The Blessed One left for Jalina Forest.
He left alone, not in the form of Samma Sambuddha, but in the guise of a wandering ascetic. The bandit too, after many sleepless nights on thoroughly disagreeable food and also eager to meet his parents after a proper shave and in his former clothes, arrived at the edge of the forest to scan for what he thought was to be his last victim to reach the required target. This is when his eyes caught sight of the intruder in yellow garb. Angulimala sprang to his feet to commence his chase when Buddha created an illusion of mounds, moats and wide open spaces between Him and the robber. Run as he did, he got nowhere near his prey. Exhausted, he ran three yojuns before giving up to wonder whether it was some miracle. One who gets hold of running elephants and horses couldn’t get anywhere near this ambling man, he thought.
Regaining his breath he screamed “Stop, recluse, stop”. The Blessed One then uttered the immortal words that contained in their spectacular brevity all the wonder of the world, “l have stopped, Angulimala, you stop, too”
“Recluse, you say while moving that you have stopped and that l am moving when l am not.”
In verse, the Blessed One told Angulimala how having laid down arms He stood still with boundless compassion towards all beings, whereas he with a wicked mind and bloodied hands ran rounds in the nether world, animal, peta and Asura realms.
The robber with past merit who had heard of Buddha before, knew instantly that it was Him and cried out aloud “This indeed is the lion’s roar, the thunder-like resonance. Its none others, but that of Mahamaya’s son, the revered recluse King Sri Siddhartha’s. He has seen me with the sharp eye. The Maha Rishi worshipped by the world of men and gods arrived in the great jungle in a long while for my sake. After listening to your homily l shall discard this orb of evil l have spun my whole life through “.
Upon uttering those words Angulimala worshipped Buddha’s feet to seek His refuge. There was no search by the Blessed One for robe, bowl or blade, He merely looked into his past and saw, in the timeless journey Angulimala had donated ‘atapirikara’ to the pious ones, so He raised His right hand to say “Come hither bhikkhu, Dhamma is self-evident, live the celibate life to end all suffering”. With those words there descended the miraculous bowl and robes, lay appearance disappeared and he assumed the form of a sixty year monk. He left the forest behind the Blessed One heading for Jetawanarama.
(Now, why didn’t Buddha save the multitude of ‘innocents’ that perished before? Buddhas never engaged in exercises in futility. For instance, not once did Gautama Buddha visit His immediate neighbour at Jetawanarama, Chunda Sukara the miserable pig-killer for a spoonful of rice. No force on earth could have mended his self-made destiny. It is also Angulimala’s destiny that made Buddda arrive in the forest that day. Again, is it untenable that a single individual could terrorize an entire kingdom the way he did ? But then, wasn’t it as late as the 21st century when Veerappan the lone dacoit brought the entire state of Karnataka to a virtual standstill?)
In the meantime the bhikkhu’s mother Manthani, not seeing her son anywhere in the forest, returned the way she came, wailing ‘ Child Ahinsaka, where are you,...’
A few days later King Kosala himself left to hunt down the bandit with not too large an army, easy for quick retreat in the event of defeat. As an added measure he went to meet Buddha first, ‘so if l am bound to win Buddha will remain silent, but if its defeat, he would likely ask me why l am wasting my time over a single man ‘ On his arrival at the temple with his army Buddha only asked him how he would react if Angulimala is seen in the robes of a bhikkhu. The king had replied that he would go down on his knees to worship him. But when Buddha made visible the monk who had been concealed by His irdi power all that while, the king began to tremble. “Great King, fear him not, he wouldn’t harm so much as the an ant, now”, Buddha exclaimed. The king didn’t address the bhikkhu by his moniker, it is not fair to call someone by a name acquired through a vicious kamma, he mentioned the bhikkhu’s clan name which he found out from the bhikkhu himself.The venerable monk politely declined the monarch’s offer of the four bhikkhu requisites since he had embraced all thirteen norms of ascetic life.
Shunned by people
(Question: A bhikkhu is barred from killing an ant. Is a laymen justified in upholding the death penalty? The ugly scar is an indelible one.)
However, the monk had a pitiable problem. When householders heared that he was on his alms rounds they would quickly escape into the jungle or close shut their doors and windows, in the least they turned their backs on him. On one occasion Buddha pacified him, “Brahmin be patient, terminate in this life itself all agony you would have undergone for countless thousands of years in hell”. An Arahant isn’t exempted from ‘ditthadhammavedaniya kamma’ visited in his own lifetime, whereas the other two types, ‘uppajjavedaniya’ and ‘aparapariya’ kamma can not ripen since he has extinguished a second birth.
It is on one such rounds of alms-begging that he happened to hear the horrific screams of a woman in labour and Buddha called upon the bhikkhu to accomplish the ‘performance of truth’ - sathyakriya. He went up to the woman surrounded by a cloth screen to utter the famous epithet “ Sister, ever since l was born in the noble birth l do not recall having deprived a living being of its life. By the power of this truth may you and your infant be well.” It is on record that the child was delivered like water flowing from a vessel. It is not to be said that the Blessed One had His disciple practice medicine on a patient.
Venerating his name
The aforesaid words of the monk are called ‘Mahaparittha’, a blessing not only to expectant mothers, but to all beings at all times in whatever form of distress. Later, people built a platform where the bhikkhu stood, where women in great pain were made to lie down and deliver their children with ease. Water with which the stage was washed was poured on those too delicate to be brought, with equal effect. The said phenomenon is one of four such that would last until the end of this kalpa. Mortal fear the people had of him vanished and they began to venerate his very name.
Yet, when the venerable monk sat down to meditate on loving kindness as told by the Blessed One, his mind invariably ran to the then familiar killing fields where images of his helpless victims flailing arms in the air, begging to spare the poor beings for the sake of their young children kept rushing back and he got up from his seat to move away in confusion. However, before long the venerable bhikkhu dwelling alone, withdrew, with steadfast resolution, gathered for himself the final reward of the great teaching, for the sake of which young clansmen wisely before going forth from home to homelessness.
Paens of joy voiced by the Arahant experiencing the bliss of deliverence, occupy a unique place in Buddhist literature. Here are a selected few.
One who lived in negligence in the past and is now free of negligence, lights up the world as the moon escapes from the clouds.
He who overwhelms his past evil deeds with wholesome ones, lights up the world as the moon escapes from the clouds.
Though dangerous, l once bore the name Ahinsaka, The name today, is true.
Some tame others with goads, whips and spears. Buddha tamed me unarmed.
Welcome to the choice of mine, not ill-made, may it stand, Of all the teachings in the world I arrived at the very best.
Behold the escape from the perennial cycle, of the dreaded robber Angulimala
The name Angulimala signifies an unparalleled phenomenon in the world, the enormous power of the human mind to thrust oneself from the abysmal depths of depravity to the supreme bliss of perfection. Doomsday theories have no place in the doctrine. Finally, it need necessarily be said that the masterly presentation of Majjimanikayatta Katha by the great Pali scholar, late Daya Gunasekara stands out as a shining star in the luminous firmament of Buddhist literature.