Angulimala Sutta: How a ruthless killer became an Arhat
Angulimala Sutta tells the story of one of Buddha’s great disciples, Venerable Angulimala. His story was a dramatic one where he transitioned from a diligent and righteous student, to a ruthless killer, and finally to a compassionate, enlightened Arhat.
STORY OF ANGULIMALA BEFORE MEETING THE BUDDHA
Angulimala was born Ahimsaka, meaning harmless. He was born to Bhaggava Gagga, a Chaplain in the court of King Pasenadi (Kingdom of Kosala), and Mantani, his mother. Bhaggava looked for an astrologer to chart Ahimsaka’s birth as all the weapons in town shone on the day of his birth. The astrologer explained that Ahimsaka was born under the bandits’ constellation. Bhaggava reported this to King Pasenadi as the king had witnessed the strange sight on that day of Ahimsaka’s birth. The king decided to let Ahimsaka live after knowing that he will be a lone bandit.
Growing up, Ahimsaka was an intelligent, gentle and loving child. He was sent to Taxila to study under a well-known teacher, and became well-liked by his teacher. The other students became jealous and began plotting to poison the teacher’s mind. The teacher’s mind was eventually poisoned, and he demanded a sacrificial offering from Ahimsaka under the Brahminic tradition, where a student is required to gift the teacher. He demanded an offering of a thousand human “angulis” (fingers), each to be taken from a different human being. Ahimsaka was shocked by his teacher’s demand, and tried to plead with his teacher to spare him from hurting or taking lives. His pleas were to no avail as his teacher insisted on the offering he had asked for.
Ahimsaka was caught in a great dilemma between being grateful to his teacher and having to take lives. His teacher persuaded him that once the offering is fulfilled, Ahimsaka would be pardoned of all sins. Thus, he began killing near Jalini Forest, and collected a finger from each victim. He became known as Angulimala as he wore a garland of “angulis” (fingers) around his neck to keep track of the “angulis” he had collected.
MEETING THE BUDDHA
The villagers who lived near Jalini Forest feared for their lives, and went to seek audience from King Pasenadi for protection from Angulimala. King Pasenadi dispatched an army of soldiers to hunt down and capture Angulimala. Angulimala’s mother heard of this, and went to find her son to warn him about it.
On that very day, the Buddha was surveying the world, and through His “divine eye” saw that Angulimala had 999 “angulis”. Agulimala was desperate to seek a thousandth which will cause him to kill his own mother, thereby committing matricide. The Buddha knew that Angulimala was a virtuous person who was misguided by his teacher. Thus, the Buddha decided to find Angulimala before his mother could reach him as He was certain that Angulimala can become a noble and righteous person again through loving-kindness and compassion.
Angulimala saw his mother before the Buddha reached him, and decided he had no choice but to make her his 1000th victim. But the Buddha arrived then, and Angulimala felt relieved that he can make Buddha the victim instead of his mother. Angulimala ran with all his might to try to kill the Buddha who was walking away calmly, but was not able to catch up with Him. He yelled out to the Buddha asking Him to stop, and the Buddha responded that He had stopped and asked Angulimala to stop too. Angulimala was confused hearing that, and asked for further explanation from the Buddha. The Buddha said that He had stopped harming living beings, but Angulimala was still harming and hurting living beings. Hearing this, Angulimala changed his ways, ceased his life as a bandit murderer and joined the Order of the Sangha to become a disciple of the Buddha.
VENERABLE ANGULIMALA AND THE PREGNANT MOTHER
Venerable Angulimala experienced great difficulties when he went to ask for alms. Those who trusted the Buddha’s judgement offered alms to him, but many still feared him and hit him or closed their windows and doors when he turned up asking for alms.
One day while going on his daily alms round, Venerable Angulimala came upon a house where a pregnant mother was going through a difficult labour. Venerable Angulimala felt deep compassion for the pregnant woman, and went back to Jetvana Monastery to ask the Buddha for advice. The Buddha told him to recite this verse to the pregnant mother, “Sister, since I was born I do not recall intentionally killing a living being. Through this truth may there be well-being for you, well-being for your fetus.” After hearing this, Venerable Angulimala pointed out that it will be untrue for him to say this as he had taken lives in the past. The Buddha revised the verse to, “Sister, since I was born with the noble birth (became a monk), I do not recall intentionally killing a living being. Through this truth may there be well-being for you, well-being for your fetus”. Venerable Angulimala delivered this verse, and the woman safely gave birth to her child.
This verse was eventually called the Angulimala Paritta, a protective verse, that to this day is chanted as a blessing to pregnant women close to their time of delivery.
Verse of Angulimala Paritta
Yatohaṁ bhagini ariyāya jātiyā jāto,
Nābhijānāmi sancicca pāṇaṁ jīvitā voropetā,
Tena saccena sotthi te
Hotu sotthi gabbhassa.