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by ratnawalli - September 8, 2014 at 5:23 pm

Published in my  Column in The Nation (print edition here) and Colombo Telegraph on Sunday, 7 September 2014

By Darshanie Ratnawalli

In western as well as oriental cultures, Superheroes conquer rebellious mythical creatures and win their territory for humans. The heroes of more muscular ancient traditions get to kill their creatures, while those of the early Buddhist tradition, the Buddha and his arahat disciples triumph through a different methodology, as killing of any being is simply not done. Even so, some memorable mythical creature overcoming episodes of early Buddhist lore owe their existence to a very muscular and masterful strand in the tradition.

The earliest such episode is contained in the Mahavagga of the Pali Vinaya Pitaka (Vin. I, 24, 25 @ p32-35, Horner IV[i]full text). Here the Buddha, in order to assert His spiritual superiority before a large group of Brahmin ascetics with signature matted hair, gives an extended display of super-human powers (three thousand five hundred miracles). The first of these is the overpowering of the magical Naga in the leading ascetic’s fire hut. This involves leaving intact the skin, hide, flesh, ligaments, bones, and marrow of this Naga while fighting his fire with like fire. “When both were in flames, the fire-room became as though burning, ablaze, in flames. Then the matted hair ascetics, having surrounded the fire-room, spoke thus: “Beautiful indeed is the great recluse, (but) he will be harmed by the serpent.”” He isn’t. Towards the end of that night, the flames of the Naga are extinguished while the multi-colored flames of the Buddha’s psychic power remain on His body. The Naga, though intact in body end up in such a state that the Blessed One is able to throw him into the alms bowl and show him as testimony of His triumph.  In the non-Theravadin Mahavastu, which presents the same episode in a later and more developed form, the matted hair ascetics, on seeing the blazing fire room, try to quench the conflagration and save the Buddha while the Naga after having been released, assumes human form, falls at His feet and craves forgiveness. (P108-109, J. Ph. Vogel: 1926[ii]full text)

Naga Apala of Swat Valley, Gandhara is another destructive Naga king tamed by a masterful Buddha of the muscular tradition. His taming while not known to the Pali Cannon or its commentarial tradition, is featured in the Vinaya of the Mula-Sarvastivadins (the Chinese translation of which only has survived), in the Divyavadana, and in the narration of Hiuen Tsiang, the Chinese pilgrim who toured India in the 7th century AD. According to the latter, this Naga afflicted the country by destroying all the products of the earth. The Buddha moved by compassion for the people arrives supernaturally. (Swat Valley was of course far outside the home territory of His ministry, the Madhyadesa). The Buddha’s companion Vajrapani does the muscular thing by smiting the Naga’s mountainside with his thunderbolt, causing the terrified being to come forth and pay reverence to the Buddha. Hearing the preaching of His law, the Naga’s heart becomes pure and he agrees to do without his sustenance, which comes entirely out of the fields of men. He only begs a harvest every 12 years, which the Buddha in His compassion grants. (Vogel: 1926, p121-122)

‘Vajrapani?’ I can hear you intoning explosively, ‘surely this concept of the Buddha having in tow, a hit-man with a thunderbolt has no place in the Theravadin tradition, which is more Gandhian?’ You’d be wrong on two counts. First, similes are all very well, but must you try to plant an ancient oak in a flower pot? Second, while Vajrapani may have undergone greater development in the non-Theravadin traditions, he is definitely pre-schism and belongs to the common ancient core shared by all Buddhist traditions. In my opinion, Vajrapani is the most potent personification of the muscular strand of the Buddhist tradition. He appears in the Theravadin cannon as the enforcer of a curious cosmic law, which applies when an interlocutor does not answer a reasonable question put by a Tatagatha. The Buddha himself invokes this law in the Ambattha Sutta (Dialogues of the Buddha, Part 1[iii], p108-136, full text) and the Cula-Saccaka Sutta (p322-331, The Middle Length Discourses of the Buddha[iv]full text) in similar contexts. The Ambattha incident is more colorful.

The young Brahmin Ambattha has insulted the Sakya clan (to which the Buddha belonged) three times; “So, Gotama, that is neither fitting, nor is it seemly, that the Sakyas, menials as they are, mere menials, should neither venerate, nor value, nor esteem, nor give gifts to, nor pay honour to the Brahmans.” The Buddha thinks: hmm, why don’t I start talking to him in his own language, and asks; “And what family do you then, Ambattha, belong to?” Ambattha is Kanhayana, a family whose lineage closet harbors a skeleton; “…if one were to follow up your ancient name and lineage, Ambattha, on the father’s and the mother’s side, it would appear that the Sakyas were once your masters, and that you are the offspring of one of their slave girls. But the Sakyas trace their line back to Okkaka the king.” The other Brahmins of Ambattha’s retinue, who are obviously not Kanhayanas are reluctant to believe this story. So the Buddha asks Ambattha to tell what he himself has heard from his own teachers about his lineage. Ambattha remains silent, which is when the Buddha cautions him; “You had better answer, now, Ambattha. This is no time for you to hold your peace. For whosoever, Ambattha, does not, even up to the third time of asking, answer a reasonable question put by a Tathagata (by one who has won the truth), his head splits into pieces on the spot.” At this moment Vajrapani makes his appearance; “Now at that time the spirit who bears the thunderbolt stood over above Ambattha in the sky with a mighty mass of iron, all fiery, dazzling, and aglow, with the intention, if he did not answer, there and then to split his head in pieces. And the Blessed One perceived the spirit bearing the thunderbolt, and so did Ambattha the Brahman. And Ambattha on becoming aware of it, terrified, startled, and agitated, seeking safety and protection and help from the Blessed One, crouched down beside him in awe and said: “What was it the Blessed One said? Say it once again!”“

As you can probably guess, this thunderbolt wielding Yakkha (for that’s the Pali word, translated as ‘spirit’) or Vajrapani is none other than Sakra/Indra, as the commentaries, edited and translated by Buddhaghosa inform us. According to this commentarial tradition, Sakra assumes the fierce persona of Vajrapani as part of a promise made when Brahma Sahampathi persuaded a reluctant Buddha to preach the Dhamma to an imperfect world, that if He would establish the rule of the Dhamma in the world, the Sakra would afford it the necessary protection[v]

There is a way in which one speaking truly of Buddhism could say: ‘Buddhist tradition is pacifist’.  But what is that way? A better question might be ‘What is not that way?’ If masterful and muscular motifs such as the above make you upset, hysterical, cheated (For an overt display of these emotions see “Which Buddha? Whose Buddhism?” an article in Colombo Telegraph by Tisaranee Gunasekara), then yours is clearly not the way.

The Buddha reluctantly corrected (he refused to give an opinion until asked for a third time) wrong beliefs held by various professionals about rebirth potentialities earned by their particular professions, assigning Battle Slain Hell to career soldiers who die in battle (Gamani Samyutta, Yodhajiva @ p1333, 1334, The Connected Discourses of the Buddha, Vol.2[vi] full text) and the Hell of Laughter to professional performers (Gamani Samyutta, Talaputa, ibid). Yet, He legislated to refrain from infringing on the rights of royal armies by banning ordination of serving soldiers seeking to avoid the karmic demerits of engaging in battle (Vin I, 73, 74 @ p91,92, Horner IV – full text). Although he made it an offence for monks to go and see an army fighting, he amended that rule to facilitate monks who had sufficient cause to go there, such as their presence being needed and requested. For example, if one’s uncle was ill in the army and sent a message; “I am indeed ill in the army, let the revered sir come. I want the revered sir to come”, one could go-(Pacittiya 48 @ p374, 375, Horner II[vii]full text). If one’s king should ask on the eve of going to battle; “Give us, that we may treat them with honour, bhikkhus who shall go on with us, since the sight of bhikkhus is blessing and protection for us”, then too presumably one could go. It was in response to such a request from Dutugemunu that 500 Bhikkhus accompanied him to battle-(Mahavamsa[viii], XXV.3, 4 @, p170- full text)

–      @ http://ratnawalli.com /  and rathnawalli@gmail.com


[i] The Book of the Discipline (Vinaya-Pitaka), Volume IV (Mahavagga), translated by I. B. Horner- (full text)


[ii] 1972, 1926, English, Book, Illustrated edition:Indian serpent-lore; or, The nāgas in Hindu legend and art”-(full text) by Vogel, J. Philippe (Jean Philippe), 1871-1951


[iii] Dialogues of the Buddha, translated from the Pali by T. W. Rhys Davids, Sacred Books of the Buddhists, Vol. 2- (Full text)


[iv] The Middle Length Discourses of the Buddha, a new translation of the Majjhima Nikaya: Translated from the Pali- Original Translation Bhikkhu Nanamoli, translation edited and revised by Bhikkhu Bodhi – (full text).



[v] Vajrapani, Buddhist Dictionary of Pali Proper names, where most entries have been taken from ‘Dictionary of Pali Proper Names’ by G. P. Malalasekera


[vi] The Connected Discourses of the Buddha, Vol.2, Samyutta Nikaya; Translated from the Pali by Bhikkhu Bodhi-(full text)


[vii] The Book of the Discipline (VINAYA-PITAKA), Volume 2 (SUTTAVIBHANGA), translated by I. B. Horner – (full text)


[viii] The Mahavamsa translated into English by Wilhelm Geiger, 1912- (Full text)


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