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Shariputra

Śāriputra was one of two chief disciples of Śākyamuni Buddha. He is most often renowned for his excellence of wisdom and was known as the General of the Dharma.
Śākyamuni Buddha with his two principal students, Shariputra, standing, holding a monk's staff and a begging bowl (right), and Maudgalyayana, also holding a staff and a bowl (left). Image courtesy of Himalayan Art Resources.

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Śāriputra was one of two chief disciples of Śākyamuni Buddha, along with Maudgalyāyana. Śāriputra is most often renowned for his excellence of wisdom (Skt. prajñā), second only to that of the Buddha. 

Śāriputra’s name means “son of Śārī”, his mother. His mother’s name is further explained in texts as a woman with eyes like those of the bird Śārika, known as a myna or mynah bird. In some texts such as the Saddharmapuṇḍarīka, Śāriputra is also referred to as Upatiṣya (Pali Upatissa) or abbreviated as Tiṣya. Some commentaries associate this name with his birth village Upatissagāma, but other sources say he was born in a village known as Nāladagrāma or Nālada/Nālaka.

According to tradition, in Rājagṛha, Śāriputra gave rise to faith when he first saw the calm behavior and appearance of Aśvajit, one of the Buddha’s first five disciples. Śāriputra, who was studying under the philosopher Sañjaya, asked Aśvajit who his teacher was and what kind of teaching he proclaimed. Aśvajit said that he was merely a disciple of the Buddha. He then gave a brief explanation of the Buddha’s teaching on the conditioned nature of phenomena, beginning with the verse starting with “ye dhammā hetuppabhavā”. Śāriputra is said to have immediately attained the dharma vision (dhammacakkhu), which Pali commentaries identify as the stage of a “stream-winner” (Pali sotāpanna). The story continues that Śāriputra then brought his friend Maudgalyāyana and some of Sañjaya’s other followers to see the Buddha, leading to a number of new followers.

At their first encounter, the Buddha announced that these two men, Śāriputra and Maudgalyāyana would become his two chief disciples. He conferred monastic ordination with the simple ehibhikṣukā (“Come, monks”) formula. Commentaries explain that Śāriputra attained arhatship within two weeks of following the Buddha’s teaching.

Śāriputra’s preeminent role in comprehending and preaching the Dharma is evident in many early Buddhist texts. In a Pali sutta, another monk, the Venerable Vaṅgīsa composed verses praising his skill in teaching:

Deep in wisdom, intelligent,
expert in the variety of paths;
Sāriputta, so greatly wise,
teaches Dhamma to the mendicants.

He teaches in brief,
or he speaks at length.

His call, like a myna bird,
overflows with inspiration.

While he teaches
the mendicants listen to his sweet voice,
sounding attractive,
clear and graceful.

They listen joyfully,
their hearts elated.

Excerpt from SN 8.6 Sāriputtasutta

In a number of sutras, the Buddha asks him to explain topics to the monastic community in detail.1For examples, see the Saṅgīti-sutta [DN iii.207–271] and Saccavibhaṅga-sutta (MN iii.248) For this reason, he became known as the General of the Dharma, the dharmasenāpati. Śāriputra continues to be important in Mahayāna sutras, although in many of these texts, he is depicted as being unable to comprehend profound emptiness. In the Saddharma Puṇḍarīka Sūtra (Lotus Sutra), the Buddha predicts that Śāriputra will become the Buddha Padmaprabha:

Shāriputra, in ages to come, after a countless, boundless, inconceivable number of kalpas have passed, you will make offerings to some thousands, ten thousands, millions of Buddhas, and will honor and uphold the correct Law. You will fulfill every aspect of the way of the bodhisattva and will be able to become a Buddha with the name Flower Glow Thus Come One . . . Your realm will be called Free from Stain, the land will be level and smooth, pure and beautifully adorned, peaceful, bountiful, and happy. . . . And this Flower Glow Thus Come One will employ the three vehicles to teach and convert living beings. Shāriputra, when this Buddha appears, although it will not be an evil age, because of his original vow he will preach the Law through the three vehicles. His kalpa will be called Great Treasure Adornment.

“Simile and Parable” (third) chapter of the Lotus Sutra

Śāriputra in Debate

His vast knowledge also made him famous as the subjugator of heretics. Vinaya texts describe several impressive debates where he defeated famous heterodox masters, including the Jain master Nirgraṇṭha and the Lokāyatika master, Udāyin.

Most famously, according to the Mūlasarvāstivāda vinaya, he is said to have defeated six heretical masters in the building of the Jeta Grove. In the story, the householder Anāthapiṇḍada requested one monk to advise him on the construction. The Buddha ordered Śāriputra to go because he knew that only Śāriputra would be able to tame the people in Śrāvastī. However, the six non-Buddhist masters were jealous of the proposed construction and they demanded a contest with the Buddhists. Śāriputra was able to defeat the six masters through displays of magical powers and mastery of the elements. Not only was he able to defeat the masters, but he also was said to have converted the entire populace of Śrāvastī to the Buddhist path.

According to Buddhist texts, Śāriputra died a few months before the Buddha. Most accounts report that he died peacefully in his hometown and was cremated in the city of Rājagaha (Rajgir). His brother and fellow monk Cunda brought his relics to the Buddha in Savatthi, where the Buddha ordered them to be enshrined in a stupa at the Jetavana monastery.

Relics of Śāriputra 

In 1851, British archaeologists Major Alexander Cunningham and Captain Fredrick Maisey were exploring a site in Sanchi, near Bhopal, Madhya Pradesh in India. During their expedition, Cunningham and Maisey excavated Stupa number 3 of the site. They discovered an undisturbed chamber with two sandstone boxes. Each of the boxes held a steatite casket containing human bone fragments. The lids of the boxes bore inscriptions in Brāhmī script. The southern box bore the inscription Sariputasa, meaning “(relics) of Sariputta”. The lid of the northern casket read Maha Mogalanasa meaning “(relics) of Maha Moggallana”, thus identifying the bone fragments as belonging to the two chief disciples of the Buddha. 

After this discovery in Sanchi, Cunningham and Maisey excavated several nearby sites. At an excavation at Satdhara a few miles west, they found another pair of steatite relic caskets at Satdhara’s Stupa Number 2. Inside the lids of the caskets were inscriptions like those in Sanchi, Sariputasa meaning “(relics) of Sariputta” and Maha Mogalanasa meaning “(relics) of Maha Moggallana”. Cunningham suggested that the relics were enshrined in stupas near Rajagaha until the time of Emperor Asoka, who then redistributed them throughout India.

The relics were taken by the British to the United Kingdom where they were housed in the Victoria and Albert Museum. In 1939 however, the government of India formally requested the return of the relics on behalf of Buddhist organizations. The museum was eventually instructed by the British government to return the relics for diplomatic reasons later that year. Due to World War II, the  transfer was delayed because of fear of the relics being lost. In 1947, after the war ended, the transfer of the relics was arranged, with the first place of the tour being Sri Lanka. The relics were welcomed on a tour in 1950–1952 in Sri Lanka, Burma, and India. Each of those countries eventually received a share of Śāriputra’s relics and has them enshrined in important stupas.

Śākyamuni Buddha with his two principal students, Shariputra, standing, holding a monk's staff and a begging bowl (right), and Maudgalyayana, also holding a staff and a bowl (left). Image courtesy of Himalayan Art Resources.

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