The adversaries of the Buddha: Intrigue, ignorance, nothing can shake wisdom

- through Sophie Solere

Published on

We might think that the Buddha, the very incarnation of wisdom and goodness, only attracted admiration and devotion during his lifetime. However, he had his adversaries. The friendship and support accorded him by powerful rulers, the ever-increasing number of loyal followers and the disdain he showed towards certain conventions of the society of his time did not fail to arouse hatred and jealousy.

Tricks as old as the world

They first tried to discredit him, by appealing to a courtesan.

The beautiful Cincâ takes advantage of the prolonged stay of the Buddha and his monks in the city of Crâvastî to feign mysterious rendezvous. Then she simulates a pregnancy and then comes to confront the Buddha publicly, summoning him to assume his paternity. Alas… the piece of wood she was hiding under her clothing comes off and falls, revealing the deception. Cincâ flees, but the ground gives way under her feet and she is engulfed in the underworld.

Others push the ignominy further and have the one whose services they had hired assassinated in order to claim, she too, to enjoy the favors of the Blessed One. The corpse was discovered near the cabin housing the Buddha in Jetavana Park. The rumor then spreads like lightning: the unfortunate woman was killed by the monks, on the orders of the Buddha, to avoid scandal. The excitement is great. But, under the influence of drink, the performers of the base works who had strangled her talk too much in a gambling den. Their words are reported and we go back to the sponsors who are arrested and punished.

The Evil Devadatta

But one of the Buddha's adversaries occupies a special place. A figure that everyone agrees to describe with the blackest features: the evil Devadatta, who, after multiple crimes, was to be guilty of the most abominable of crimes by causing a schism in the community.

Sources agree that Devadatta was a monk, but differ on his origins. Some texts remain silent on the point, others make him a young aristocrat of the Shâkya clan, even a first cousin of the Buddha who for a time cherished the hope of taking his place as crown prince after the Great Departure. The frustration born of this disappointed hope would have led him to conceive an irrational hatred for the Buddha.

Having become a religious, Devadatta nevertheless retains a marked taste for power and material goods. During a visit to the city of Rajariha, he performed some spectacular wonders and thus attracted the attention of Ajâtacâtru, son and heir of King Bimbisara, who had a deep friendship with the Buddha. His attitude was eminently open to criticism: the ostentatious use of supernatural powers with the aim of satisfying personal material desires and the pride which was its driving force – a “poison” in the Buddhist perspective – were strongly condemned by the Buddha.

Favorite of the new king, Devadatta obtains the assassination of the Buddha. The attempt fizzled, because the killers convert at the mere sight of their intended victim...

A little later, Devadatta, relying on the great age and fatigue of the Buddha, invites the latter, in front of the assembled Community, to retire and entrust him with the direction of the Sangha. The firmness with which he is put back in place only increases his resentment and he then decides to indirectly harm the Buddha by attacking his most loyal protector, King Bimbisara. He uses his influence on the crown prince Ajâtacâtru, a young man devoured by ambition and very impatient to replace his father on the throne, and pushes him to crime. An attack is organized, but Bimbisara narrowly escapes it. As a pious Buddhist, he forgives and abdicates to leave the reins of power to his heir. This is not enough for Ajâtacâttru – and for Devadatta who maneuvers in the shadows – who has his father thrown into a dungeon where the unfortunate sovereign commits suicide, in despair at the unworthy behavior of this son he loved so much. His wife, the virtuous Queen Vaidehi is also imprisoned for having tried to ease the fate of her husband by feeding him in secret while they were trying to starve him to death. Now the favorite of the new king, Devadatta obtains the assassination of the Buddha. The attempt fizzled, because the killers converted at the mere sight of their designated victim... Devadatta then did not hesitate to perform the infamous gesture himself, by pushing a rock from the top of the Peak of the Vulture under which the Buddha stood. is installed to meditate. But two mountain spurs miraculously approach to stop the projectile in its fall.

Obviously very upset by this new failure, Devadatta then bribes a mahout and instructs him to get his elephant drunk before letting it loose in the streets of the city at a time when the Buddha and his monks are looking for their food there. The damage is enormous and the victims number in the dozens. But benevolent kindness overcomes the most brutal force. In front of the pachyderm charging at him, the Blessed One raises his right hand as a sign of appeasement and the animal stops in its tracks before prostrating itself.

Devadatta then commits the irreparable

India has always been a country of extremes. Knowing the penchant of some for the most rigorous austerities, Devadatta publicly asks the Buddha to introduce five rules of discipline of great severity. Always concerned with maintaining the moderation and balance that characterizes the middle way, the Blessed One refuses. His adversary was only waiting for this to accuse him of culpable laxity and manages to drag behind him some 500 recently ordained monks who are still easily influenced. He set up this dissident community not far from Bodh Gaya, the place ofAwakening. Worried, the Buddha instructs two of his most faithful disciples, Câriputra and Maudgalyâyana to bring back the lost sheep. Devadatta is blinded with pride: how? The two prestigious monks therefore abandoned the Buddha to join him? He immediately entrusts his group to them with the mission of making them benefit from their teaching and retires to take some rest. With their customary skill, Câriputra and Maudgalyâyana quickly convinced most of the monks that they were on the wrong track. Awakened by one of his last followers, Devadatta can only see his failure, begins to spit blood and the earth opens under his feet to rush him into hell.

If it is advisable to remain circumspect, because it is a real "gesture" of Devadatta which has been formed over time, the fact remains that his story seems to rest on real bases. We have long kept traces of a small dissident community respecting rules of discipline very close to those proposed by Devadatta and claiming to be his.

More generally, this episode could be the first echo of a deaf struggle which opposes, in Buddhism as in many other religions, the ancients and the moderns, conservatives and innovators.

photo of author

Sophie Solere

Sophie Solère is an economic and social journalist who has been interested for years in the environment and interdependence. She works for Buddhist News, a media platform dedicated to Buddhist spirituality and wisdom. By practicing yoga and meditative dance, Sophie discovered the power of spiritual journeys, which offer so many paths to (re)find yourself. She is dedicated to sharing inspiring stories and valuable advice on spiritual practice and the environment with Buddhist News readers.

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