Certainly the most notorious and interesting arhant in the Pali Canon is Angulimala, whose name literally means “finger garland,” in allusion to his reputed habit of killing passersby in the Jalini Forest and wearing a garland or necklace of their finger bones before entering the Buddhist sangha and attaining nirvana. This story, startling and even macabre, is highly paradoxical and serves as an invaluable indication of original Buddhist beliefs concerning the nature of enlightenment, karma, and the Act of Truth. The story is so distasteful and unconventional that its historicity seems as certain as it can be, and the confusion that resists any conventional explanation suggests a deeper meaning, as has been proposed by Buddhist scholar Richard Gombrich.
First, let’s summarize the conventional story as it appears in the Pali Canon and its commentaries. Angulimala, whose birth name was changed from Himsaka (“harmful”) to Ahimsaka (“the harmless one”), was the son of the brahmin Bhaggava Gagga and his wife Mantani. Bhaggava was a spiritual adviser (sometimes rendered “chaplain”) to King Pasenadi of Kosala, one of the sixteen great regions of ancient India from which the Buddha himself came. Pasenadi himself was a disciple of the Buddha who was subsequently dethroned by another of his advisers and died of exposure while trying to regain his throne. Kosala was later annexed by the Magadha kingdom after a series of wars.
In accordance with the custom of the time, Ahimsaka’s horoscope was cast when he was born and it was discovered that he was born under the nakshatra (“lunar mansion”) Aslesha, the so-called “robber constellation,” corresponding to the second and third decanates of Leo in Western astrology, which predestined him (according to the sutta) to a life of violence and criminality. Aslesha is, however, not only associated with robbery. It is also associated with sorcery, a fact the significance of which will become clear. The name Ahimsaka was chosen by his parents in order to attempt to circumvent this. He was sent to the great university of Takkasila, where he became the best student of his teacher. Generally, a student entered Takshashila at the age of sixteen. The Vedas and the Eighteen Silpas or Arts, which included skills such as archery, hunting, and elephant lore, were taught, in addition to its law school, medical school, and school of military science. The institution is very significant in Buddhist tradition since it is believed that Mahayana Buddhism took shape there.
So far the story is quite unexceptional and believable. However, according to the commentaries Ahimsaka, who appears to have been charismatic and attractive to women, became embroiled in a scandal in which he was accused of having an affair with his teacher’s wife. Whether this was true or not, his teacher, who is presented in the sutta as a fool, believed it and demanded that Ahimsaka complete his instruction by giving him the bizarre gift of one thousand human fingers. Bound by the ancient rule of fealty to the guru, Ahimsaka was obliged to comply with his teacher’s maliciously motivated demand, which in turn activated Ahimsaka’s innate predisposition to violence. Ahimsaka then went to the Jalini Forest where he became a serial killer, described as a bandit in the Angulimala Sutta. He was one finger short of fulfilling this project by murdering his own mother when he met the Buddha.
The absurdity of the foregoing story is palpable, and Richard Gombrich has suggested as an alternative that in fact Ahimsaka was an early Tantric practitioner, the left-hand form of which included ritual sex and even murder in an attempt to free oneself from all human limitations and to awaken the innate divine shakti. In this context, the fact that Takkasila subsequently became the original source of the Mahayana teachings, considered heretical by the more conservative Sri Lankan redactors of the Pali Canon, is suggestive. The earliest evidence for human sacrifice in the Indian subcontinent dates back to the Bronze Age Indus Valley civilization. If this interpretation is correct, it puts the significance of the Buddha’s encounter with Angulimala and the Buddha’s subsequent acceptance of him in a completely different light.
The Angulimala Sutta tells the story of how the Buddha, in the twentieth year of his ministry, i.e., about 420 BCE, after the alms round, left Savatthi on the road that led directly to Ahimsaka, now called Angulimala, described as a bloody-handed, violent, merciless mass murderer, despite warnings from the local people not to go. This was not a casual outing.
It seems clear the Buddha’s intention was to confront Angulimala directly. However, the Buddha’s interaction with Angulimala is peculiar. Angulimala comes running up behind the Buddha, calling on him to stop – a rather peculiar thing for a bandit to do. The Buddha is said to have replied to Angulimala, and said, “I have stopped, Angulimala. You too stop!” Startled and intrigued by the Buddha’s reply, and perhaps recognizing the Buddha as a holy man, instead of killing him Angulimala asks the Buddha what he is talking about, whereupon the Buddha delivers a sermon to Angulimala on the nature and significance of “stopping,” i.e., the transcendence of karma and samsara and the attainment of nirvana, whereupon Angulimala declares, “at long last this recluse, a venerated sage, has come to this great forest for my sake.” Angulimala then converts to the dharma and becomes the Buddha’s personal attendant. According to the Theragatha (879) it seems that Angulimala’s ordination name was the same as his birth name, Ahimsaka, the Harmless One.
If Angulimala were an ordinary murderer, the foregoing story makes no sense at all. To all appearances, the Buddha is rewarding a psychopathic serial killer with the gift of ordination in the sangha and allowing him to become his personal attendant, even giving him the name Angulimala as his monastic name! In fact, this is how the Buddha’s actions were perceived by the local people, at whose insistence the Buddha agreed to amend the Vinaya to prohibit criminals from being allowed to be ordained in the Buddhist sangha, which begs the question even more forcefully why the Buddha did it in the first place. However, the Buddha did not stop there. After returning to Jetavana Monastery with Angulimala as his personal attendant, the Buddha defended Angulimala to King Pasenadi, followed by another bizarre story that also seems to have a deeper implication.
While begging for alms in Savatthi, Angulimala sees a woman giving birth to a deformed child (some translators interpret this as referring to a painful or difficult labour). Once again, the macabre seems to follow Angulimala wherever he goes. After telling the Buddha about this, the Buddha tells Angulimala to work an Act of Truth. The Act of Truth, also described in the Jatakas, is a pan-Indian notion based on the belief that truth (dharma) has an intrinsic power that can be called upon to produce apparently miraculous effects based ultimately on the law of karma. It may also be described as the law of righteousness and was the basis of Mahatma Gandhi’s political strategy that he called satyagraha. The Buddha instructed Angulimala to return to the woman, and utter these words with the intention of healing the child: “Sister, since I was born I do not recall that I have ever intentionally deprived a living being of life. By this truth, may you be well and may your infant be well!”
What is most bizarre about this is that, based on the story, the Buddha was instructing Angulimala to lie, something that a Buddha is supposed to be incapable of doing. The obvious contradiction is immediately resolved in the sutta by having Angulimala point out to the Buddha (!) that this was a lie, whereupon the Buddha amended the words to “since I was born with the noble birth,” thus turning the Act of Truth into a pun based on the significance of Angulimala’s dramatic transformation. However, a more plausible explanation is that Angulimala was in fact not a mass murderer at all, and that the whole sutta is an elaborate confabulation based on an original story that was so unacceptable to the redactors of the Pali Canon that it had to be suppressed. Subsequently, Angulimala is represented as attaining nirvana after a relatively short time, thus completing the transformation from a notorious bandit to an arhant. According to the Dhammapadatthakatha, Angulimala died soon after.
The Angulimala Sutta also provides a fascinating insight into the inner workings of karma, for even after achieving nirvana no one, not even an arhant or a Buddha, is exempt from the inexorable operation of the law of karma. Thus, one morning during the alms round a crowd gathered around Angulimala and started throwing objects at him, including a clod of earth, a stone or a stick, and a potsherd, cutting his head, breaking his bowl, and tearing his outer robe. When he returned to the Buddha in this state the Buddha told him, “Bear it, brahmin! Bear it, brahmin! You are experiencing here and now the result of deeds because of which you might have been tortured in hell for many years, for many hundreds of years, for many thousands of years.” The commentaries explain that not even an arhant or a Buddha is exempt from karma, even the Buddha himself having been injured after an attack by his cousin Devadatta, who blamed the Buddha for not enforcing a more rigorous Vinaya on the sangha, including strict vegetarianism, which the Buddha rejected. However, a deeper implication appears as well, for, if past karmas must work themselves out even in the case of an arhant, and arhantship represents the final rebirth of an emancipated being, and if even a murderer can become an arhant, all of which follow logically from the story, then it also follows that it may be that an arhant may be severely afflicted by all of the unresolved karmas of his past births, thus having the appearance of being the very opposite of an arhant, an anti-arhant in fact. It appears that Angulimala was an arhant of just this type.
Such considerations lead us directly to considerations of Tantra, which would subsequently develop into the Vajrayana tradition and, in Tibet, the mahasiddhas, including adept practitioners of the type represented by Padmasambhava and others, whose appearance and behaviour were directly contradictory to conventional ideas of enlightenment. Was this the underlying motivation for the redactors of the Pali Canon to conceal the person of Angulimala beneath the absurd self-contradictions and bizarre self-justifications of the sutta commentaries? They could not deny the historicity of Angulimala. The Vinaya itself attests to his existence, but they desperately tried to whitewash the real story with the story of a murderer whose evil life was transformed by the miraculous beneficence of the Buddha, which bizarrely has become one of the most famous children’s stories of Theravada Buddhism.
So what are we to make of the story of Angulimala in the light of the foregoing? I suggest that Angulimala was in fact born under the nakshatra of Aslesha, and subsequently studied some sort of proto-Tantric spirituality under a guru at Takshashila, where he was initiated into sexual tantra and acquired a reputation as a brilliant student and a highly realized practitioner. This is more than hinted at when his guru instructs him to make a necklace of human fingers in order to make the science that he has learned efficacious. Tantrics, including Padmasambhava, typically spent years meditating in charnel grounds where the construction of such a necklace would have been easy. Perhaps this was the token by which his final meditations were completed. Interestingly, one of the austere practices (dhutanga) to which Angulimala was committed after becoming a Buddhist monk included meditating in cemeteries.
After the completion of his studies he became a solitary forest dweller in Jalini, inspiring the veneration and fear of the local people. So great was his reputation that he came to the attention of the Buddha in Savatthi, who made the trek into the wilderness to visit him. This is in itself extremely unusual, the Pali Canon usually representing officials and people as visiting the Buddha, not the reverse. When the Buddha met Angulimala, he recognized him as an advanced spiritual practitioner and instructed him in the Buddhadharma, and Angulimala in turn was so impressed that he became a Buddhist monk and the personal attendant of the Buddha, and they returned to Savatthi together. Subsequently Angulimala attained nirvana and became an arhant, but also incited the violent enmity of the crowd due to his reputation as a Tantric sorcerer. The Buddha, however, recognized him as a powerful Tantric healer and explicitly declared by means of the Act of Truth that in fact Angulimala was innocent of any crimes. To placate the crowd the Buddha also agreed to prohibit criminals from entering the sangha. All of this was subsequently covered up by the redactors of the Pali Canon, who could not accept that the Buddha would thus honour a Tantric practitioner, even if he did convert to the Buddhadharma. This is not the only place in the Pali Canon where the Buddha speaks positively about Tantra. In the Ambattha Sutta, he refers positively to Kanha, a negro and the son of a slave girl who became a powerful shaman. The Khandhasamyutta refers to the skull-bowl, a ritual implement broadly associated with Tantra.
- Nyanaponika Thera and Hellmuth Hecker, Great Disciples of the Buddha (Boston: Wisdom, 1997), p. 323 say that this was 30 “miles,” but other sources refer to 30 yojanas, the traditional Indian measure of distance, probably somewhat less than 7 km (referring to yojanas as miles is common in popular English translations). Thus, the Buddha may have walked as far as about 210 km (130 miles), which at normal walking speed might have taken roughly 42 hours. According to G.K. Ananda Kumarasiri, Jalini Forest was located on the western border of Kosala, corresponding to modern Awadh, in Uttar Pradesh. Jetavana Monastery was less than a kilometre north-east of Savatthi, approximately 70 km (43 miles) east of the Serayu (modern Ghaghara) River, beyond the farther bank of which the western boundary of Kosala extended.
- This passage also attests to the power of mantra within the Pali Canon, and is perhaps the root of the doctrine of the transfer of merit (pariṇāmanā).
- Note the equation of being beaten up by a small mob, in which one’s head is cut, one’s bowl broken, and one’s robe torn, with hundreds or even thousands of years in hell. Clearly this conception of hell differs significantly from the Semitic or even the later Buddhist conception.
- Some scholars have criticized Gombrich’s references to proto-Tantra in the 5th cent. BCE, but D.D. Kosambi asserts that human sacrifice and orgiastic rites were both practised at this time and explicitly associates them with proto-Tantra.
The following award-winning movie is a powerful and beautiful, but highly speculative and somewhat controversial interpretation of the Angulimala Sutta.
List of Works Consulted
G.K. Ananda Kumarasiri. Angulimala. https://ia800109.us.archive.org/28/items/angulimala6/angulimala6.pdf.
Nyanaponika Thera and Hellmuth Hecker (1997). Great Disciples of the Buddha: Their Lives, Their Works, Their Legacy. Chapter 8. “Angulimala: A Murderer’s Road to Sainthood.” Boston: Wisdom, pp.317-333.
Image of Buddha’s hut – Own work, CC BY-SA 2.5, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=1793824