Buddhist Fables

Buddhist Classics

Life and Legends of Buddha

The Illustrated Jataka & Other Stories of the Buddha by C. B. Varma Introduction | Glossary | Bibliography

079 – Nalgiri Elephant

D evadatta, the son of Suppabuddha, the maternal uncle of the Buddha, was jealous of him since his early days.

When the Buddha visited Kapilavatthu (Kapilavastu) and preached among the Sakyan nobilities, many noblemen joined the Sangha (the Buddhist Order). That was the time when Devadatta, too, joined the Sangha; and in course of time he, too, developed some moderate supernatural powers. Nonetheless, his rivalry and jealousy against the Buddha never diminished.

One day, he went to Ajatasattu (Ajatashatru), the future monarch of the Magadha janapada and amazed him by a miraculous appearance. There, he appeared in his lap as a tot having snake girdles. Charmed and impressed by the miracle Ajatasattu became his devotee and patron.

Back to the order, Devadatta, one day claimed his superiority over the Buddha to assume the leadership of the Order by arguing that the latter was old and senile. His claim, however, did not evoke much response in the order. So, he bore grudge against both – the Buddha and the Order.

Disgruntled, he then went to Magadha and instigated prince Ajatasattu to resort to fratricide by killing Bimbisara and usurp the throne, chiefly because Bimbisara was the chief patron of the Buddhist order, and his elimination would mean the loss of royal patronage to the order. The scheme, however, did not work out initially. So, he employed sixteen archers to kill the Budddha. But the archers in turn became the devotees of the Buddha.

Frustrated, Devadatta himself then tried to kill the Buddha by hurling down a great rock from a peak of the mount Gijjhakuta when the latter was walking down the slopes. The Buddha, however, escaped because two peaks appeared from the ground and arrested the advancement of the rolling rock.

Further frustrated, Devadatta then persuaded the royal elephant-keepers to let loose a fierce elephant Nalagiri, also called Dhanapala, on the path of the Buddha by making him drunk with toddy. Thus Nalagiri was let loose. The ferocious and dangerous looking intoxicated elephant when walked on the streets the people fled at his sight. Yet, the Buddha kept on walking in his usual dignity and composure, though, Ananda tried to prevent and protect him. In the meanwhile, a frightened woman running helter-skelter dropped her baby on the feet of the Buddha. When the advancing animal was just about to trample the baby the Buddha in his usual equipoise touched the animal’s forehead and stroked it gently. Calmed by the Buddha’s patting the elephant bowed down before him on his knees. The people, further, noticed that the Buddha delivered a sermon on dhamma to the elephant.

Subjugation of Nalagiri, Ajanta cave 17.7 People shocked at the Nalgiri’s appearance, Ajanta

The tradition believes that had the elephant not been a beast he would certainly have become a Sotapanna (the first step to the Arahatahood) after having listened to the sermon.

The Nalagiri elephant-episode, however, made Devadatta very unpopular and he had to flee from the city. Further, the royal favour , which he had enjoyed so far, was also withdrawn to honour the public opinion.

Note: The tradition says that the Buddha had to encounter the elephant wrath as a result of one of his evil karmas, perpetrated in one of his previous births when he was as a reckless haughty nobleman and had charged a Paccheka Buddha by an elephant. As the force of the fruitions of the karma is powerful and ever-operative, he, too, was charged by an elephant. (See Udana Atthakatha 265; Apadana 1.300).