Sanskrit name, literally meaning 'given by (or gift of) God'

In the lore of Buddhism, Devadatta is the cousin of the Buddha- as is the Buddha's attendant, Ananda. But while Ananda is a much-beloved (if occasionally a bit inept) figure, Devadatta is one of the most notorious villains of the Pali Canon, ranking alongside Mara.

Devadatta began as a well respected, if slightly pushy, loyal disciple of Shakyamuni. He was known for his mastery of psychic supra-normal powers- reading thoughts, clairaudience, clairvoyance, and the like. Devadatta often asked for the Buddha to increase the severity of certain rules of the Vinaya, but the Buddha always resisted, explaining why the rules must be what they were and not more or less severe. One that is often mentioned is that Devadatta requested that monks be required to follow a vegetarian diet, which the Buddha rejected.

Eventually, Devadatta became jealous of the Buddha and his leadership of the early Sangha. Eight years before the death of the Buddha, Devadatta conspired with the patricide king of Magadha, Ajatasattu in three attempts on the life of the Buddha. First, the pair sent assassins to attack the Buddha- but they were so impressed by the Buddha's demeanor and teachings that they instead became converts to his teachings1. Next, Devadatta sent boulders crashing down towards the Buddha, but the boulders were supernaturally stopped before they struck the Buddha. Finally, a wild and enraged elephant was set loose on the Buddha, but was calmed by his peaceful and compassionate nature.

At last Devadatta grew frustrated with attempting to kill the Buddha outright, and instead sought to cause a schism within the Sangha. In the city of Vaishali, Devadatta began to preach a teaching of strict asceticism, and accused the Buddha and his followers of living a pampered life. The Buddha left the choice of who to follow up to the individual monks and nuns; out of a body of several thousands, only 500 monks, all newly ordained, chose to follow the teachings of Devadatta. Finally, Devadatta's many evil deeds became overwhelming; like Lucifer, the very earth recoiled from his presence, and he was swallowed into Hell. In his last moments, he declared that the Buddha had been his only refuge, and renounced his attempts to cause schism in the Sangha.

Devadatta's story is instructive in several senses:

  1. The vagaries of Karma. The Buddha recalled that prior to their previous births, he and Devadatta had been friends and family many times in past lives. At one point, Devadatta was the Buddha's teacher and the Buddha his devoted disciple. Devadatta's history with the Buddha shows that even our worst enemies may at one time have been beloved friends, or even children or lovers.
  2. The irrelevance of supernatural power. The Buddha always maintained the supernatural powers and the ability to perform miracles was no indication of the moral character of a teacher. In traditional Indian thought, great power could be obtained by anyone with sufficient discipline and dedication- regardless of their moral character. The case of Devadatta, a terrible villain despite his psychic powers, drives this point home.
  3. The danger of schism. Traditionally, causing schism within the Sangha has been regarded as one of the most serious sins that can be committed by a Buddhist. In the Vinaya, causing such a schism, particularly for selfish, is ranked alongside murder and rape as transgressions calling for expulsion from the monastic order. There were many reasons that schism was so greatly feared in the early Sangha; it lead to distractions from teaching and practice, causes mistrust among lay followers, and gives rise to hatred and ill-will among the monks and nuns. So while Buddhism has never had the intensive prosecution of heresy found in the Christian church (what with the elimination of schismatics following the Nicene Creed, and the later actions of the Inquisition), there has always been an intense dislike for disagreement within the Sangha. This did not, of course, present the dissents and fracturing that came following the Buddhist Councils and other events, but has resulted in a great respect for attempting to accurately and faithfully preserve the teachings provided by previous teachers. Devadatta's fate demonstrates the seriousness with which schism was regarded by the Sangha from a very early date.

References (from the Tipitaka and otherwise)

There are numerous other references to the story of Devadatta, particularly in the Vinaya Pitaka.


Notes

1. Interestingly, this story is repeated about a number of teachers in South Asia and East Asia, including a number of innovaters in the martial arts in Japan. I heard an almost identical story, told about himself, repeated to me by A.T Ariyatne, founder of the Sri Lankan relief organization Sarvodaya Srimadana.

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