Angulimala or Ahimsaka

The story of the transformation of a bandit and murderer Angulimala to that of a saint is one of the most dramatic stories in Buddhist history and is popular in the annals of spiritualism as it symbolizes the power of transformation and the reality that no one is beyond redemption and Buddha’s grace descends on saint and sinner alike without any prejudgement or criticism.

Birth and Early living

In the court of King Pasenadi of Kosala there lived a learned Brahmin named Bhargava Gagga and his wife Mantani. One day his wife gave birth to a son at midnight and the weapons of the night guards in the King’s palace began to glitter with a brilliant light. This unusual happening troubled him greatly as he felt that it was somehow connected to the birth of his son. He cast his horoscope and found that it predicted that the child was born under a ‘bandit constellation’ which meant that he would possess an innate disposition to a life of crime and violence. He heard that all the weapons in the kingdom had glittered and everyone in the kingdom were expressing fears that it was a bad omen and some evil was going to strike the people of Kosala. Hearing this, his heart grew heavy with grief and anguish. Next morning he disclosed his fears to the King who had also observed the strange phenomena. He asked the King whether it would be better to get rid of the child when young to avoid further harm. The King recalled the Buddha’s teachings about the innate goodness of every being. He then told Bhaggava to give him good education and to personally guide and train him to live a virtuous life. Reassured by the King’s words Bhaggava heaved a sigh of relief. After a great deal of thought he named the child Ahimsaka or harmless. The couple brought him up with love and affection. They tirelessly strived to bring him up as a person of sound mind and character. Ahimsaka grew up to be a loving and affectionate child. He was kind and caring even to animals and insects and was an intelligent and well mannered student. As he grew up he was an outstanding student and was selected to study at Takshashila the renowned centre of learning in Ancient India. Though his parents were overjoyed at his scholastic achievements, they felt sad that they would have to part with him till he completed his education.

Ahimsaka’s education

At Takshashila Ahimsaka was very happy to come into contact with students from all over the Indian sub continent. He mastered everything that he was taught in a relatively short period of time. His Guru was very happy with his service and as they had no children of their own, he and his wife treated him as their own son. Soon his friends began to get very jealous of him and plotted to get rid of him. They began to spread rumours about his character. At first the Guru did not believe them but slowly the seeds of doubt began to take firm root in his mind. On the completion of his studies he asked him to give a Guru Dakshina of a necklace of one thousand fingers taken from different people.

Ahimsaka’s dilemma

Ahimsaka was shocked and being a boy of noble character and strong values he refused to give his Guru this gift. But the Guru insisted that by not giving the gift Ahimsaka would totally nullify the value of all he had learned. Ahimsaka was disheartened. He felt that inspite of being virtuous he was being made to suffer without any fault of his own. Suddenly anger at the injustice of events in his life engulfed him. He made up his mind to take revenge on the society that had led him to his present state.

His Revenge

He chose as his location a caravan route which merchants used to carry their goods and armed with weapons he began attacking everyone. Hiding securely in the forests he began to ruthlessly kill people including women and children. He cut their fingers and to prevent crows and vultures eating them he strung the angulis with twine and wore them as a garland round his neck. He was now known as the dreaded Angulimala. When travellers stopped using this route he became crazed and began entering villages. Unfortunately before he could collect the required number of fingers the old ones began rotting and hence his killings went on mercilessly. All the villagers went to the King Pasenadi with their woes and the King decided to take action. He decided to send his soldiers to capture or kill Angulimala. Bhaggava too was apprehensive as he was reminded of the divine prophecy. He confided his fears to his wife. Filled with grief she decided to go and meet him in the forest. In the meantime Angulimala had obtained 999 fingers and was on the lookout for the thousandth victim.

Buddha’s compassion

    

Through his inner eye Buddha knew that Angulimala would be committing the most grievous sin of killing his mother. He knew that he had sufficient potential to be liberated due to his past spiritual stature and it was his Guru Bhakti which led him to commit such heinous crimes. He decided to seek him out before his mother reached him. Calmly and confidently he began walking towards Angulimala. People who came into contact with him dissuaded him fearing for his safety but the Buddha continued on his journey of compassion and tolerance. When he neared Angulimala, he raised his sword to kill him but surprisingly he could not catch up with him even though the Buddha was only a few steps away from him. No matter how fast he ran he could not catch Buddha. Finally in exhaustion he shouted at the ascetic to stop. Buddha then turned and benevolently told him that he had stopped but it was Angulimala who was ever moving and had to stop. Suddenly knowledge dawned on him that this was no ordinary ascetic and the weapons dropped from his hands. He rushed and fell at the feet of Buddha and resolving to give up evil he prayed for deliverance from his sins and entry into Buddha’s order of Monks.

Angulimala’s transformation

His mother witnessed his transformation with tears of joy. Hugging him she blessed him in his endeavour. He then accompanied Buddha to the Jetavana Monastery. He began to practice the Dhamma diligently. Meanwhile the King with his army proceeded to capture Angulimala and came to Buddha for blessings. Buddha then advised him to return as Angulimala had now become a monk and there was no cause for worry. When the King saw Angulimala in his transformed state as a monk he was amazed and humbly bowed to the Power of Buddha’s compassion and glory. Unfortunately when Angulimala set out for alms people shunned him, insulted him and heaped insults on him. But Angulimala bore it all patiently and with equanimity. He began to walk further into the city where people were not aware of him and was satisfied and thankful for whatever little he got. Once on his rounds he saw an expectant mother in the throes of labour. Her family members rushed to implore him to relieve her of her pain. But Angulimala did not feel he was worthy of it and with his heart full of compassion and grief he went back to Buddha. Buddha recognised his anguish and recited to him a Sutra to go back and repeat as from the time he had become a monk he had never committed a sin. Angulimala went back and delivered his benediction and the woman gave birth safely to a child. This verse is known as Angulimala Paritta and is recited by all pregnant women for a safe delivery. Angulimala had been torn with grief by his past misdeeds and felt he would never get solace but this incident reinforced his inner convictions and he began to perfect his meditations. He practiced his meditations in solitude with diligence and patience and achieved arahantship.

Angulimala’s passing away

People began to approach him as a true saint but there were still many who hated him and once when he walked for alms they attacked him. Bleeding and torn he managed to return to the monastery. Buddha encouraged him to bear his torment with equanimity as he was experiencing the fruits of his karma. Being an Arahant he endured his sufferings and finally he attained final Nirvana at the feet of the Buddha bearing no ill will towards anyone with peace and happiness filling his heart.

Conclusion

Angulimala illustrates the belief that any person can be redeemed provided his repentance is sincere. The story of Angulimala has become an integral part of Buddhist education. It highlights two fundamental principles of Buddhism, the reality of the Law of Karma and the important role of the mind in human thinking and behaviour. The mind can be turned either towards liberation or bondage. With proper practice of the Buddhist doctrines one can transform oneself and transcend suffering and the infinite cycles of birth and death and attain liberation.