Part 18 Ajatasatru’s Treachery

Devadatta was musing: “Siddhartha thought to humiliate me by making light of my intelligence. I shall show him he is mistaken. My glory will overshadow his: the night-lamp will become the sun. But King Bimbisara is his faithful friend; he protects him. As long as the king is living, I can do nothing. Prince Ajatasatru, on the other hand, honors me and holds me in high esteem; he reposes implicit confidence in me. If he were to reign, I would get everything I desire.”

He went to Ajatasatru’s palace. “Oh, prince,” said he, “we are living in an unfortunate age! They that are best fitted to govern are likely to die without ever having reigned. Human life is so brief a thing! Your father’s longevity causes me no little concern for you.” He kept on talking, and he was presently giving the prince most evil advice. The prince was weak; he listened. Before long, he had decided to kill his father.” Night and day, now, Ajatasatru wandered through the palace, watching for an opportunity to slip into his father’s apartments and make away with him. But he could not escape the vigilance of the guards. His restlessness puzzled them, and they said to King Bimbisara: “O king, your son Ajatasatru has been behaving strangely of late. Could he be planning an evil deed?”

“Be silent,” replied the king. “My son is a man of noble character. It would not occur to him to do anything base.” “You ought to send for him, O king, and question him.” “Be silent, guards. Do not accuse my son lightly.” The guards continued to keep a close watch, and at the end of a few days, they again spoke to the king. To convince them that they were mistaken, the king summoned Ajatasatru. The prince appeared before his father. He was trembling. “My lord,” said he, “why did you send for me?” “Son,” said Bimbisara, “my guards say that you have been behaving strangely of late. They tell me you wander through the palace, acting mysteriously, and that you shun the gaze of those you meet. Son, are they not lying?”

“They are not lying, father,” said Ajatasatru. Remorse suddenly overwhelmed him. He fell at the king’s feet, and out of the depths of his shame, he cried: “Father, I wanted to kill you.” Bimbisara shuddered. In a voice full of anguish, he asked: “Why did you want to kill me?” “In order to reign.” “Then reign,” cried the king. “Royalty is not worth a son’s enmity.” Ajatasatru was proclaimed king the next day. The first thing he did was to have great honors paid to his father. But Devadatta still feared the old king’s authority; he decided to use his influence against him. “As long as your father is allowed his freedom,” he said to Ajatasatru, “you are in danger of losing your power. He still retains many followers; you must take measures to intimidate them.”

Devadatta again was able to impose his will on Ajatasatru, and poor Bimbisara was thrown into prison. Ajatasatru presently decided to starve him to death, and he allowed no one to take him any food. But Queen Vaidehi was sometimes permitted to visit Bimbisara in his prison, and she would take rice to him which he ate ravenously. Ajatasatru, however, soon put a stop to this; he ordered the guards to search her each time she went to see the prisoner. She then tried to hide the food in her hair, and when this, too, was discovered, she had to use great ingenuity to save the king from dying of hunger. But she was repeatedly found out, and Ajatasatru, finally, denied her access to the prison.

In the meanwhile, he was persecuting the Buddha’s faithful followers. They were forbidden to look after the temple where Bimbisara, formerly, had placed a lock of the Master’s hair and the parings of his finger-nails. No longer were flowers or perfume left there as pious offerings, and the temple was not even cleaned or swept. In Ajatasatru’s palace there dwelt a woman named Srimati. She was very devout. It grieved her to be unable to perform works of holiness, and she wondered how, in these sad times, she could prove to the Master that she had kept her faith. Passing in front of the temple, she complained bitterly to see it so deserted, and when she noticed how unclean it was, she wept.

“The Master shall know that there is still one woman in this house who would honor him,” thought Srimati, and at the risk of her life, she swept out the temple and decorated it with a bright garland. Ajatasatru saw the garland. He was greatly incensed and wanted to know who had dared to disobey him. Srimati did not try to hide; of her own accord, she appeared before the king. “Why did you defy my orders?” asked Ajatasatru. “If I defied your orders,” she replied, “I respected those of your father, King Bimbisara.”

Ajatasatru did not wait to hear further. Pale with fury, he rushed at Srimati and stabbed her with his dagger. She fell, mortally wounded; but her eyes were shining with joy, and in a happy voice, she sang: “My eyes have seen the protector of the worlds; my eyes have seen the light of the worlds, and for him, in the night, I have lighted the lamps. For him who dissipates the darkness, I have dissipated the darkness. His brilliance is greater than the brilliance of the sun; his rays are purer than the rays of the sun, and my rapt gaze is dazzled by the splendor. For him who dissipates the darkness, I have dissipated the darkness.” And, dead, she seemed to glow with the light of sanctity.

Devadatta was eager to succeed the Buddha as head of the community. One day, he said to King Ajatasatru: “My lord, the Buddha holds you in contempt. He hates you. You must put him to death, for your glory is at stake. Send some men to the Bamboo Grove with orders to kill him; I shall lead the way.” Ajatasatru was easily persuaded. The assassins came to the Bamboo Grove, but when they saw the Master, they fell at his feet and worshipped him. This added fuel to Devadatta’s rage. He went to the royal stables where a savage elephant was kept, and he bribed the guards to release him when the Master passed by, so that the animal could gore him with his tusks or trample him underfoot. But at the sight of the Master, the elephant became quite gentle, and going up to him, with his trunk he brushed the dust from the sacred robes. And the Master smiled and said: “This is the second time, thanks to Devadatta, that an elephant has paid homage to me.”

Then Devadatta himself tried to do harm to the Master. He saw him meditating in the shade of a tree; and he had the audacity to throw a sharp stone at him. It struck him in the foot; the wound began to bleed. The Master said: “You have committed a serious offense, Devadatta; the punishment will be terrible. Vain are your criminal attempts upon the life of the Blessed One; he will not meet with an untimely death. The Blessed One will pass away of his own accord, and at the hour he chooses.” Devadatta fled. He decided he would no longer obey the rules of the community, and, wherever he could, he would seek followers of his own. In the meanwhile, Bimbisara was starving. But he did not die. A mysterious force sustained him. His son finally decided to have him put to death, and he gave orders to burn the soles of his feet, to slash his limbs and to pour boiling oil and salt on the open wounds. The executioner obeyed, and even he wept to see an old man tortured.

A son was born to Ajatasatru on the day he issued the order for his father’s death. When he saw the child, a great joy came to him; he relented, and he hurriedly sent guards to the prison to stop the execution. But they arrived too late; King Bimbisara had died amid frightful suffering. Then Ajatasatru began to repent. One day, he heard Queen Vaidehi saying to the infant prince, as she carried him in her arms: “May your father be as kind to you as his father was to him. Once, when he was a child, he had a sore on his finger; it hurt him, and he cried; no ointment would heal it; so Bimbisara put the finger to his lips and drew out the pus, and Ajatasatru was able to laugh again and play. Oh, love your father, little child; do not punish him with your cruelty for having been cruel to Bimbisara.”

Ajatasatru shed bitter tears. He was overwhelmed with remorse. At night, in his dreams, he saw his father, bleeding from his wounds, and he heard him moan. He was seized with a burning fever, and the physician Jivaka was summoned to attend him. “I can do nothing for you,” said Jivaka. “Your body is not sick. Go to the Perfect Master, the Blessed One, the Buddha; he alone knows the words of consolation that will restore you to health.” Ajatasatru took Jivaka’s advice. He went to the Blessed One; he confessed his misdeeds and his crimes, and he found peace. “Your father,” the Buddha said to him, “has been reborn among the most powerful Gods; he knows of your repentance, and he forgives you. Heed me, King Ajatasatru; know the law, and cease to suffer.”

Ajatasatru issued a proclamation, banishing Devadatta from the kingdom, and ordering the inhabitants to close their doors to him if he were to seek refuge in their homes. Devadatta was then near Shravasti where he hoped to be received by King Prasenajit, but he was scornfully denied an audience and was told to leave the kingdom. Thwarted in his attempts to enlist followers, he finally set out for Kapilavastu. He entered the city as night was falling. The streets were dark, almost deserted; no one recognized him as he passed, for how could this lean, wretched monk, slinking in the shadow of the walls, be identified with the proud Devadatta? He went straight to the palace where princess Gopa dwelt in solitude.

He was admitted to her presence. “Monk,” said Gopa, “why do you wish to see me? Do you bring me a message of happiness? Do you come with orders from a husband I deeply reverence?” “Your husband! Little he cares about you! Think of the time he wickedly deserted you!” “He deserted me for the world’s salvation.” “Do you still love him?” “My love would defile the purity of his life.” “Then hate him with all your heart.” “With all my heart I respect him.” “Woman, he spurned you; take your revenge.” “Be quiet, monk. Your words are evil.” “Do you not recognize me? I am Devadatta, who loves you.”

“Devadatta, Devadatta, I knew you were false and evil; I knew you would be a faithless monk, but I never suspected the depths of your villainy.” “Gopa, Gopa, I love you! Your husband scorned you, he was cruel. Take your revenge. Love me!” Gopa blushed. From her gentle eyes fell tears of shame. “It is you who scorn me! Your love would be an insult if it were sincere, but you lie when you say you love me. You seldom noticed me in the days when I was young, in the days when I was beautiful! And now that you see me, an old woman, worn out by my austere duties, you tell me of your love, of your guilty love! You are the most contemptible of men, Devadatta! Go away! Go away!”

In his rage he sprang at her. She put out her hand to protect herself, and he fell to the ground. As he rolled over, blood gushed from his mouth. He fled. The Sakyas heard that he was in Kapilavastu; they made him leave the city under an escort of guards, and he was taken to the Buddha who was to decide his fate. He pretended to be repentant, but he had dipped his nails in a deadly poison, and as he lay prostrate before the Maser, he tried to scratch his ankle. The Master pushed him away with his toe; then the ground opened; fierce flames burst forth, and they swallowed up the infamous Devadatta.


Nalagiri: An elephant of the royal stalls at Rajagriha. Devadatta, after several vain attempts to kill the Buddha, obtained Ajatasattu’s consent to use Nalagiri as a means of ensuring the Buddha’s death. Nalagiri was a fierce animal, and in order to increase his fierceness, Devadatta instructed his keeper to give him twice his usual amount of toddy. Proclamation was made, by the beating of drums, that the streets of the city should be cleared as Nalagiri would be let loose upon them. When the Buddha was informed of this and warned against going into the city for alms, he ignored the warning. At the sight of Nalagiri all the people fled in terror. Ananda, seeing the elephant advancing towards the Buddha, went, in spite of the Buddha’s orders to the contrary, and stood in front of the Buddha, who had to make use of his supernatural power to remove him from his place. Just then, a woman, carrying a child, saw the elephant coming and fled, in her terror dropping the child at the Buddha’s feet. As the elephant was about to attack the child, the Buddha spoke to him, suffusing him with all the love at his command, and, stretching out his right hand, he stroked the animal’s forehead. Thrilling with joy at the touch, Nalagiri sank on his knees before the Buddha.

Image Attribution: The image above, sourced from the Buddhist Relief Mission, shows the Buddha subduing Nalagiri, an elephant let loose by the jealous Devadatta.