Maudgalyāyana (known also by his birth name, Kolita) and his long-time friend Śāriputra came to be revered as the Buddha’s two chief disciples. He was known to be the foremost in transcendental powers. Born as a Brahman near Rājagriha in the kingdom of Magadha, India, he and Śāriputra became spiritual seekers. They were previously disciples of Sanjaya Belatthiputta, an Indian Ajñana (non-knowledge) skeptic philosopher described in texts as one of the so-called six preeminent non-Buddhist teachers. When Maudgalyāyana and Śāriputra left him to follow the Buddha, they brought 250 followers with them into the new Buddhist sangha.
As one of the two chief disciples of the Buddha, Maudgalyāyana appears in many early Buddhist texts. The Buddha often praises him, advising the other monks to turn to him and Shāriputra for guidance.
Seek and cultivate, O monks, (the company of) Sariputta and Moggallana! They are wise and are helpful to their fellows in the Holy Life. Sariputta is like a mother, and Moggallana is like a nurse. Sariputta trains (the monks) for the Fruit of stream-entry, and Moggallana for the supreme goal.Majjhima Nikaya, No. 141
In both Pali sources and Mahayana scriptures, Maudgalyāyana is depicted as a master of siddhis, or supernatural powers. In the Vinayavastu Pravrajyāvastu, the monks question the Buddha as to how this came about. The Buddha explains how this is due to his powerful aspirations in a past life.
“Reverend, what is it that the venerable, the great Maudgalyāyana has done, that the ripened fruit of his action has led the Blessed One to declare him as the greatest and most powerful miracle worker?”
The Blessed One replied, “It is the prayers he made. What did he pray for? Monks, long ago during this fortunate eon, when the lifespan of beings was twenty thousand years, the blessed Buddha Kāśyapa appeared in the world, a teacher, a tathāgata, an arhat, a perfectly awakened buddha, a knowledgeable and venerable one, a sugata, one who knew the world, an unsurpassed guide who tamed beings, a teacher to gods and men, who lived and dwelt in the Ṛṣipatana Deer Park near Vārāṇasī.
“A monk, he who would later become Maudgalyāyana, went forth into Buddha Kāśyapa’s teachings and was singled out by the tathāgata, the arhat, the perfectly awakened Buddha Kāśyapa as the greatest and most powerful miracle worker.
“He lived the holy life for the rest of his days, but he did not attain any store of qualities. Later, as he was dying, he made this prayer: ‘I have spent my entire life living the holy life under Kāśyapa, the blessed tathāgata, the arhat, and perfectly awakened Buddha and unsurpassed object of veneration, but I have not attained any store of qualities. May the roots of virtue accumulated through living the holy life for my entire lifetime ensure that I may go forth into the teachings of Buddha Śākyamuni, about whom the blessed tathāgata and perfectly awakened Buddha Kāśyapa has prophesied to the young brahmin Uttara, saying ‘Young brahmin, in the future, when the lifespan of beings is one hundred years, you will become the tathāgata, the arhat, the perfectly awakened buddha, the knowledgeable and venerable one, the sugata, the one who knows the world, the unsurpassed guide who tames beings, the teacher to gods and men known as the Blessed Buddha Śākyamuni,’ and that I may go on to abandon all disturbing emotions and actualize arhatship. And just as I, this preceptor, was singled out by the tathāgata, the arhat, and perfectly awakened Buddha Kāśyapa as the most powerful of the powerful and the greatest of miracle workers, may I too be singled out by the blessed sage of the Śākyas, lion of the Śākyas, king of the Śākyas, as the greatest and most powerful of miracle workers.’
“Because of that prayer, Maudgalyāyana has now been singled out by the Tathāgata as the greatest and most powerful of miracle workers.”Vinayavastu Pravrajyāvastu, 1.413-415.
Traditions have also connected Maudgalyāyana with the Buddhist Wheel of Life. Stories in the Mūlasarvāstivāda Vinaya and the Divyāvadāna explain that Ānanda, the Buddha’s chief attendant praised Maudgalyāyana’s good qualities as a teacher. Maudgalyayana was a very popular teacher and was particularly known for his teachings regarding the afterlife. Because the Buddha said that such a teacher would be difficult to encounter in the future, he ordered that an image be painted on the gate of the Veluvaḷa monastery to honor Maudgalyāyana.1Irons, Edward (2007), Encyclopedia of Buddhism (PDF), New York: Facts on File, ISBN 978-0-8160-5459-6 This painting was said to depict the Wheel of Life, or Becoming. The Buddha further decreed that a monk be stationed at the painting to explain the law of karma to visitors. Images of the Wheel are widespread on monastery porches in Buddhist Asia. Some depict the original connection with Maudgalyāyana.
Maudgalyāyana and Filial Piety
There are a number of accounts of Maudgalyāyana searching for his mother after her death. These stories, based on the Sanskrit Mahayana Ullambana Sutra (Yulapen Sutra) are popular illustrations of the principles of karmic retribution and rebirth. In China, Maudgalyāyana was known as “Mulian”, and his story was popularized in various folktales and used to remind people of their duties to deceased relatives. In most versions of the story, Maudgalyāyana makes use of his great psychic powers to look for his deceased parents and see where they have been reborn. He sees his father in a heaven, but he cannot find his mother and asks the Buddha for help. The Buddha shows him that his mother has taken rebirth in hell. The Buddha then advises him to make merit on his mother’s behalf, which will lead to a better rebirth. In other Chinese accounts, Maudgalyāyana finds his mother, reborn as a preta, or hungry ghost. But when Maudgalyāyana offers her food through an ancestral shrine, the food bursts into flames each time. The Buddha instructs him to make merit by giving to the sangha and transferring the merit to his mother. This transfer causes his mother to be reborn in heaven and also is said to be effective in helping seven generations of ancestors. This became the origin of the “ghost festival” celebrated during the seventh lunar month.
Maudgalyāyana and the Image of the Buddha
According to multiple textual traditions, Maudgalyāyana was responsible for the first Buddha image, the Udāyana Buddha.2Chinese Ekottara Agāma, the Thai Jinakālamālī and the post-canonical Paññāsajātakā. It is said that when the Buddha went to the Trāyastriṃśa Heaven to teach his mother, Maya, King Udāyana missed the Buddha greatly. He begged Maudgalyāyana to use his psychic powers to transport thirty-two craftsmen to the heaven, and make an image of the Buddha there. The image was made from sandalwood. The image was said to depict all the thirty-two marks of a Buddha. This image gained renown and copies were made and sent throughout the Buddhist world.
According to the Pali tradition, Maudgalyāyana’s death at the age of eighty-four occurred in the same year as the Buddha’s parinirvāṇa, in Magadha. There are several different accounts but all mention a violent death at Kālasilā Cave, on the Isigili Hill near Rājagaha, the modern Udaya Hill. Some sources say that rival ascetics stoned him to death while others say that those people hired robbers. The Pali tradition claim that Jain monks jealous of his success in teaching the Dharma, persuaded a group of robbers to kill Maudgalyāyana. After Maudgalyāyana’s death, the Buddha explained that Maudgalyāyana’s powers could not protect him from the negative karma accumulated in a previous life when he was responsible for the death of his parents.
According to the Pali Jātakas, the Buddha had the ashes of Maudgalyāyana collected and kept in a stūpa in the gateway of the Veluvaḷa.3Brekke, Torkel (1 September 2007), “Bones of Contention: Buddhist Relics, Nationalism and the Politics of Archaeology”, Numen, 54 (3): 270–303, doi:10.1163/156852707X211564 According to the Dharmaguptaka and the Mūlasarvāstivāda tradition, Anāthapiṇḍika and other laypeople asked the Buddha for permission to build a stupa in honor of Maudgalyāyana. And according to the Divyāvadāna, emperor Ashoka visited this stūpa with the elder Upagupta and made an offering. Xuan Zang and other Chinese pilgrims agreed that a stupa containing Maudgalyāyana’s relics was found in the city of Mathura and that there were several other stupas in Northeast India.