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Chapter 24: Enemy of the Buddha

When the Buddha’s cousin Ananda had left the family and joined him, another cousin, Devadatta, had done the same. But in all the ways in which Ananda was a help and a support to the Buddha, Devadatta was a hindrance.

Devadatta was a proud man, and he thought that because he was of the royal Shakya clan he ought to be regarded as standing above such low-caste commoners as Shariputra and Mùlián, whom the Buddha respected so highly. But the Buddha, who had no interest in distinctions of caste, paid no special respect to him.

Finally, in frustration at the Buddha’s failure to respect his special status as a prince of the royal line, Devadatta left the company of followers and set out on his own to the town of Rajagaha, where he discussed the problem with his friend, prince Ajata-shatru (Ajāta-śatru) Ajata-shatru, the son of King Bimbisara, the wise ruler who had become a follower of the Buddha after the Buddha had stopped the sacrifices of sheep and goats at his palace years before. (V. chapter 14.)

An omen when he was still unborn had predicted that Prince Ajata-shatru would kill his father to usurp the throne, but his father had refused to follow advice to have the baby killed. Prince Ajata-shatru was quite sympathetic to Devadatta’s views, and he believed that Devadatta had the same ability to relieve suffering that the Buddha had. And further, he was Devadatta’s friend. So he built him a small monastery and made provision for him there.

Many years passed, and Devadatta’s dwelt in his little monastery, but with few followers, and Devadatta desperately wished that he could have his cousin the Buddha’s approval.

One day in his travels the Buddha came to the town of Rajagaha. Devadatta came to see him and asked that he charter a new separate order of priests, to be headed by Devadatta himself. The Buddha declined, and told him that no good could come of creating such a separate order. Since he already had a monastery and already had followers, Devadatta was very disappointed.

But Devadatta was determined to create his own order with or without the Buddha’s approval, and he persuaded Prince Ajata-shatru to help. Ajata-shatru went to his father, King Bimbisara and asked for help in founding Devadatta’s new order of Buddhism. But King Bimbisara realized that Devadatta was merely ambitious, and he absolutely refused to cooperate in establishing a new order of priests. Instead, he resolutely supported the Buddha, and Ajata-shatru suffered the embarrassment of having to tell Devadatta that he was powerless to help.

Devadatta was very disappointed, but he was still determined to find a way to establish his new order. Obviously, the resources of the realm of Magadha would be very helpful, perhaps even necessary, if he was to attract followers, and especially if he was to attract as many followers as his cousin the Buddha had.

Seeking the wealth of Magadha, Devadatta persuaded prince Ajata-shatru to overthrow his father and take the throne himself. The prince, stung by his father’s unwillingness to listen to him succeeded in doing so. Taking the throne himself, he put King Bimbisara in jail and resolved to deprive him of food until he would agree to the plans that Devadatta and Ajata-shatru had for the new order. The old man starved to death in jail. This was in the 37th year after the Buddha’s Great Awakening.

Devadatta now had a great deal of power, for his friend Ajata-shatru as the new king seemed more anxious than ever to please him. He persuaded king Ajata-shatru to send skilled archers to kill the Buddha.

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