Ep. 010: Devadatta, the Buddha's Evil Cousin

Enemy of the sangha

There's one in every family - two in mine, actually...
Zazu the Hornbill in The Lion King (1994)

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Who was Devadatta?

It seems to be true that every family has that one person who just isn't with the program. In the Buddha's family, the traditional stories assign this role to Devadatta, his cousin through a paternal aunt.

But more than a cousin, really, because Siddhartha Gautama--the man we've come to call "the Buddha"--married Devadatta's sister Yasodhara. Devadatta was, then, not only a cousin, but that most maligned of relatives: "the brother-in-law."

A relief of Ananda at the feet of the dying Buddha (East Javanese; Wikipedia)

Devadatta had joined the sangha--the body of the Buddha's followers--along with several other members of the Shakya clan (remember that the Buddha is sometimes called "Shakyamuni," the "muni, or sage, of the Shakyas"). One of those cousins was Devadatta's brother, Ananda, who became the Buddha's personal attendant; having been with the Buddha throughout his career, the younger Ananda was a primary source when it came time to codify the Buddha's years of teachings at the First Buddhist Council. He was a paragon.

But Devadatta? Not so much. His name means "god-given," and he took it to heart: he really seemed to believe that he was "God's gift to the world."

Devadatta: A Buddhist Judas?

The scholar Joseph Campbell, whose work I have studied for years, once stated rather authoritatively that

The Buddha follows a path very much like that of Christ; only of course the Buddha lived five hundred years earlier. You can match those two savior figures right down the line, even to the roles and characters of their immediate disciples or apostles. You can parallel, for example, Ananda and St. Peter. (The Power of Myth, Anchor: 1991, p. 166)

Well, you can, but it's something of a round peg in a square hole. (Or is it vice versa?) I was thrilled when I read that years ago, but now that I know the traditions better, I think old Uncle Joe was stretching things a bit.

Judas betrays Jesus with a kiss (detail) (15th century; Wikipedia)

Take, for example, the idea that both Jesus and the Buddha had betrayers. To place Judas and Devadatta in one basket requires being pretty vague. Judas's motivation is somewhat murky: some say it was mere greed (the thirty pieces of silver); the gospels say he was possessed by Satan; it may have been that he was simply a cog in the fulfillment of "God's plan"; he may have been disillusioned when Jesus failed to become a political leader. And on it goes.

But Devadatta's motives are crystal clear. As "God's Gift," he simply felt he could do a better job of leading the sangha!

By all accounts, in the early days he was an exemplary monk. But he never seems to have attained the stages of progress toward enlightenment that were expected of the monastics, instead settling for displaying "psychic powers"--essentially, cheap parlor tricks like mind-reading, hearing and seeing from afar, determining your past life, and so on. (That would have made a good 900-number gig.)

So it must have griped his non-soul to see his cousin getting all the adulation and honors, and being so peaceful and serene and all.

Showing the gall of a true narcissist (and prince!), he one day approached the Buddha in front of a large assembly of followers, including royals, and had the effrontery to ask the Buddha to make him leader of the sangha!

Seeing through Devadatta's bravado, the Buddha took a hard pass. This really ticked Devadatta off, and he vowed revenge. (Of course, it may have upset him that the Buddha is reported as saying that he wouldn't even give charge of the sangha to his senior-most disciples, so why would he give it to "a wretched one to be vomited like spittle?" Harsh.)

What was Your First Clue, Lord Buddha?

A couple of brief incidents from Siddhartha's and Devadatta's boyhoods cause us to wonder why the Buddha ever let Davie into the sangha in the first place.

Devadatta and the Swan; note the halo (at Hongfa Temple, Shenzhen)

The first such story is told as an example of the Buddha-to-be's kindness, despite an upbringing that would have made spoiled brats out of most boys. One day he and Devadatta were walking in the woods, when Devadatta raised his bow and shot down a swan (some sources say goose). Both boys raced toward the downed bird, and Siddhartha--the best at everything, including running--reached the bird first. It was still alive, and Siddhartha set about healing it. Devadatta claimed the bird as rightfully his, but Siddhartha refused to turn it over.

"If you had succeeded in killing it, I wouldn't argue with you," he said, "but since it's alive, it's mine."

Regardless of the quality of his logic, the impulse was a good one. The boys went to court and pleaded their cases. The "Sage" of the court said, "A life belongs to the one who tries to save it, not to the one who is is trying to destroy it. The wounded bird is rightly Siddhartha's." Now that's some logic I can get behind.

Devadatta kills Siddhartha's prize, a white elephant (Wikipedia)

The second story is even more damning, and more indicative of Devadatta's vindictiveness.

It seems that as young men, the Buddha-to-be and Devadatta had competed in an exhibition of skills in the martial arts--shooting, riding, etc. Devadatta is said to have had "the strength of five elephants," but Siddhartha was quicker and more disciplined, and beat Devadatta handily. Naturally, "God's Gift" was not one to take this lying down. When the victor's prize--a white elephant--was being brought for presentation, Devadatta intercepted and killed it--some stories say by a single blow with his fist! The carcass blocked the gate of their city, Kapilavastu, until Siddhartha had it removed, some say by picking it up and heaving it outside. (In another version, Devadatta only wounded the elephant, and the ever-compassionate Siddhartha nursed it back to health.)

Other scurrilous stories about Devadatta include that he had competed for Yasodhara's hand, but lost; and that he had attempted --unsuccessfully--to seduce her after Siddhartha had left home seeking enlightenment. Given that in the traditions she was his sister, I think we can discount these as rumor-mongering (or perhaps he really was that slimy?) It's possible that the woman he was macking on was another wife of the Buddha, but that would still be pretty rank.

Phase One: The Assassins

Back to our story: having vowed revenge, Devadatta's first move was to hire an assassin to kill the Buddha. (This was in conjunction with a larger plot to place on the throne a king sympathetic to his cause.) To cover his tracks, he hired two assassins to kill the first, four to kill those two, and eight more to kill them. ("And so on, and so on, and so on!") But when he approached the Buddha, the first assassin was overcome by his saintly demeanor, dropped his knife, and took refuge (which means "became a Buddhist"). In time, the entire coterie of wannabe assassins followed suit and joined the sangha.

Phase Two: The Rocks

Devadatta tries to kill the Buddha with a rolling stone (video screenshot)

Foiled, Devadatta made his own attempt on the Buddha's life ("If you want something done right..."). As the Blessed One was walking on Vulture Peak (one of his favorite preaching places), Devadatta pushed a boulder from above, attempting to smash him like a bug. He missed, but a splinter of the rock hit the Buddha's foot and drew blood. (Other versions claim that, on a separate occasion, Devadatta deliberately threw a sharp stone.)

The Buddha taught that there are five offenses which bring down immediate retribution (i.e., the ultimate bad karma, rebirth in hell): killing of one's father, or one's mother, or an arhat (an enlightened Buddhist disciple) (1-3); shedding a Buddha's blood (4); and creating a schism within the sangha (5). Devadatta has now committed Number Four, and will soon move on to Number Five.

The Buddha's response to this particular offense was simply... pity.

Phase Three: The Elephant

The Buddha with the tame Nalagiri (Spanish Wikipedia)

Again with the elephant, but this time, instead of killing an elephant, Devadatta got one drunk. Nalagiri was a well-known man killer, and Devadatta sauced him up and aimed him at the Buddha. Like the assassin before him, the elephant was charmed by the Buddha's loving-kindness and, kneeling at his feet, dusted the Buddha's robes with his trunk. I imagine Devadatta in the wings, twirling his mustaches and crying out, "Curses! Foiled again!" as the Buddha strokes Nalagiri's trunk and murmurs kind words in his giant ear.

A Last-Ditch Effort

Down but not out, Devadatta had one more trick up his sleeve. Trying to prove that he was a superior leader--and, not incidentally, appealing to the vanity of young monks--he proposed to the Buddha that the sangha should adopt more stringent rules, specifically:

  1. Monks were to live only in the forest, not in donated parks or what would become temples.

  2. They were to eat only food obtained by begging, and not accept invitations to dinner.

  3. They should wear robes that were made from rags collected from trash heaps and cemeteries, not ones that were donated.

  4. They should live only at the foot of trees, not in shelters.

  5. They should never eat fish or meat.

That this last one is considered "extreme" might surprise those who think all Buddhists are vegetarians. It's a big topic, but for now let's just say that a monk's diet, then and sometimes now, might indeed include flesh.

Thai figure of the Buddha with his trusted lieutenants, Shariputra and Maudgalyayana (Wikipedia)

Now, Devadatta knew the Buddha would say NYET!, and that this would cause a schism, violating Rule Number 5 for going straight to hell (figuratively). And it did. Eventually, he drew off some 500 monks (mostly relatives) into a counter-sangha, as it were. Not until the Buddha sent in two of his wisest followers, Venerables Shariputra and Maudgalyayana, were those renegade monks gently persuaded to return to the fold.

Devadatta gets sucked into the earth for his karma (Thai; Wikipedia)

Distraught at all these failures ("So much losing!"), Devadatta fell ill and at last decided to repent. But as he was on his way to see the Buddha--insult to injury--the earth opened up and swallowed him whole.

In a weird coda, it is said that Devadatta's early rigor was enough to get him reborn in the distant future as a Pratyeka Buddha, a person who attains enlightenment in solitary practice.


We know quite a lot about the Buddha's parents, his wife, his son, and some of his cousins. In most cases the stories are positive, but in some ways, we can learn more from this one negative relationship than from all the others combined.

Nevertheless, I hope all of your relationships are satisfying. And I also wish that you and your loved ones and all sentient beings may be well and happy.

Adios, Amigos!

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In the next episode: I'm not a Buddhist--but I have official paperwork that says I am! Find out how that happened, and gain some insight into what a monk colleague of mine called "the Chinese way of doing business," next time. See ya!