Ānanda was the cousin of the Buddha who later served him for twenty-five years as his personal attendant. He was the son of Amṛtodana, the brother of Buddha’s father, king Shuddhodana. According to sources, he was 37 years old when he, his brother Anuruddha and his cousin Devadatta and many other Sakyan nobles followed the Buddha enter into “homelessness” as a monk.
He was renowned for his perfect recall and thereby was able to recite all the sutra teachings of the Buddha at the first council held after the Buddha’s mahāparinirvāṇa. The Buddha also referred to him several times as “the guardian of the Dharma”.
According to traditional sources, after his first twenty years of teaching the Buddha selected Ānanda as his personal attendant. Ānanda requested several conditions upon accepting this role. The first four conditions were that the Buddha should never give him any of the food or the robes that he was offered. He also insisted that he should not be given any special accommodation nor have to accompany the Buddha when he accepted invitations to people’s homes. Ananda requested these four conditions because he did not want people to think that he was serving the Buddha out of a desire for material gain.
The last four conditions reflected his desire to help in the promotion of the Dharma. These conditions were: that if he was personally invited to a meal, he could transfer the invitation to the Buddha; that if people came from outlying areas to see the Buddha, he would have the privilege of introducing them; that if he had any doubts about the Dharma, he should be able to talk to the Buddha about them at any time and that if the Buddha gave a discourse in his absence, he would later repeat it in his presence. This last condition made it possible for Ānanda to recite all the discourses, or sutras flawlessly.
Ānanda played a crucial role in advocating for the establishment of the order of bhikkhunīs/ bhikṣuṇī or nuns. He thrice requested permission on behalf of the Buddha’s foster-mother Mahāpajāpati Gotamī to allow her and a large group of followers to be ordained. After agreeing to some additional strictures, the Buddha acquiesced.
Ānanda also played an important role in developing the cult of the Bodhi tree throughout the Buddhist world. In the Kāliṅgabodhi Jātaka story, Ānanda received permission directly from the Buddha to plant a Bodhi tree in the Jetavana grove to give people the chance to pay their respects to the Buddha. This tree, a sapling miraculously sprouted from the original Bodhi Tree in Bodh Gaya, became known as the “Ānanda Bodhi Tree”. The Ānanda Bodhi Tree is said to still exist at the ruins of Jetavana, Sāvatthi, in India. Bodhi tree shrines quickly multiplied around Asia, and are active as focal points for veneration and offerings in many monastic compounds to this day as a reminder of the Buddha’s enlightenment.
In the Pali Mahaparinibbana Sutta, the Buddha praises Ānanda to all the monks during their final assembly:
Then the Blessed One addressed the bhikkhus, saying: “Bhikkhus, the Blessed Ones, Arahants, Fully Enlightened Ones of times past also had excellent and devoted attendant bhikkhus, such as I have in Ananda. And so also, bhikkhus, will the Blessed Ones, Arahants, Fully Enlightened Ones of times to come.
Capable and judicious is Ananda, bhikkhus, for he knows the proper time for bhikkhus to have audience with the Tathagata, and the time for bhikkhunis, the time for laymen and for laywomen; the time for kings and for ministers of state; the time for teachers of other sects and for their followers.
In Ananda, bhikkhus, are to be found four rare and superlative qualities. What are the four? If, bhikkhus, a company of bhikkhus should go to see Ananda, they become joyful on seeing him; and if he then speaks to them of the Dhamma, they are made joyful by his discourse; and when he becomes silent, they are disappointed. So it is also when bhikkhunis, laymen, or laywomen go to see Ananda: they become joyful on seeing him; and if he then speaks to them of the Dhamma, they are made joyful by his discourse; and when he becomes silent, they are disappointed.
In a universal monarch, bhikkhus, are to be found four rare and superlative qualities. What are those four? If, bhikkhus, a company of nobles should go to see the universal monarch, they become joyful on seeing him; and if he then speaks, they are made joyful by his talk; and when he becomes silent, they are disappointed. So it is also when a company of brahmans, of householders, or of ascetics goes to see a universal monarch. And in just the same way, bhikkhus, in Ananda are to be found these four rare and superlative qualities.Mahaparnibbana Sutta, DN 16, trans. by Sister Vajira and Francis Story, 1998.
The Pali tradition also contains a song of experience in the collection of the Theragatha said to have been composed by Ananda himself:
82,000 Teachings from the Buddha
I have received;
2,000 more from his disciples;
Now, 84,000 are familiar to me.
Who nothing has heard and nothing understood,
He ages only oxen-like:
His stomach only grows and grows,
But his insight deepens not.
Who has much heard and learned,
But does despise him who is poor in learning,
Is like one blind who holds a lamp.
So must I think of such a one.
Thou follow him who has heard much,
Then what is heard shall not decline.
This is the tap-root of the holy life;
Hence a Dhamma-guardian thou should’st be!
Knowing what comes first and last,
Knowing well the meaning, too,
Skillful in grammar and in other items,
The well-grasped meaning he examines.
Keen in his patient application,Thag 17.3 (vv. 1024-29) trans. by Helmut Hecker and Sister Thelma, 2006.
He strives to weigh the meaning well.
At the right time he makes his effort,
And inwardly collects his mind.
Early Buddhist Texts do not provide a date for Ānanda’s death. According to the Chinese pilgrim monk Faxian (337–422 CE), Ānanda went on to live 120 years. Modern Buddhist scholars sometimes place the death twenty years after the Buddha’s but, according to tradition, he lived to a ripe old age. King Ajāsattu was said to have built a stūpa containing Ānanda’s relics, at the river Rohīni, (some sources say, the Ganges). The Licchavi tribe had also built a stūpa on their side of the same river. The Chinese pilgrim Xuan Zang (602–64 CE) confirms visiting Ānanda’ stūpas on both sides of the river Rohīni. Both pilgrims reported that bhikkhunīs made offerings to a stūpa in Ānanda’s honor on auspicious observance days. Likewise, in 5th–6th-century China and in 10th-century Japan, Buddhist texts were composed recommending women to uphold the semi-monastic eight precepts in honor and gratitude of Ānanda.