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Religion Buddhism
School all
Dharma names (Mahā) Moggallāna Thera, Maudgalyāyana Sthavira
Born c. 568 BCE
Kolita village, Magadha (today in the Indian State of Bihar)
Died c. 486 BCE (aged 84)[1]
Kālasilā Cave, Magadha
Parents Mother: Moggalī, father: name unknown
Senior posting
Title Foremost disciple, left hand side chief disciple of Sakyamuni Buddha; second chief disciple of Sakyamuni Buddha
Religious career
Teacher Sakyamuni Buddha
Students many, including Rāhula Thera or Rāhula Sthavira
Translations of
Pali Moggallāna Thera
Sanskrit Maudgalyāyana Sthavira
Chinese 目連/摩诃目犍乾连
Japanese 目犍連
(rōmaji: Mokuren/Mokkenren)
Korean 摩訶目犍連/目連
(RR: Mongryŏn/Mokkŏllyŏn)
Mongolian Molun Toyin
Sinhala මහා මොග්ගල්ලාන මහ රහතන් වහන්සේ
Tibetan Mo'u 'gal gy i bu chen po
Thai พระโมคคัลลานะ
Glossary of Buddhism

Maudgalyāyana (Pali: Moggallāna), also known as Mahāmaudgalyāyana, was one of the Sakyamuni Buddha's closest disciples. A contemporary of disciples such as Subhuti, Śāriputra (Pali: Sāriputta), and Mahākasyapa, he is considered the second of the Buddha's two foremost male disciples (foremost in psychic powers), together with Śāriputra. Maudgalyāyana and Śāriputra became spiritual wanderers in their youth. After heaving searched for spiritual truth for a while, they came into contact with the Buddhist teaching and eventually the Buddha himself. Maudgalyāyana attained enlightenment shortly after that. As a teacher, he became known for his psychic powers, which he used extensively in his teaching methods. He died at the age of eighty-four, killed through the efforts of a rivaling sect. This violent death has been described in Buddhist scriptures as a result of Maudgalyāyana's karma of having killed his own parents in a previous life.

In post-canonical texts, Maudgalyāyana became known for his filial piety through a popular account of him transferring his merits to his mother. This led to a tradition in many Buddhist countries known as the ghost festival, during which people dedicate their merits to their ancestors. Maudgalyāyana has also traditionally been associated with meditation and sometimes Abhidharma texts, as well as the Dharmaguptaka school. In the nineteenth century, relics were found attributed to him, which have been widely venerated.


In the Pali Canon, it is described that Maudgalyāyana had a skin color like a blue lotus or a rain cloud. Oral tradition in Sri Lanka says that this was because he was born in hell in many lifetimes.[2][3] (See § Death, below.) Sri Lankan scholar Karaluvinna believes that originally a dark skin was meant, not blue.[3] In the Mahāsāṃghika Canon, it is stated that he was "beautiful to look at, pleasant, wise, intelligent, full of merits ...", as translated by Migot.[4]

In some Chinese accounts, the clan name Maudgalyāyana is explained as referring to a legume, which was eaten by an ancestor of the clan.[5] However, the Indologist Ernst Windisch linked the life of Maudgalyayana to the figure of Maudgalya (Mugdala) who appears in the Sankrit epic Mahabharata, which would explain the name. Windisch believed the account of the diviner Maudgalya had influenced that of Maudgalyayana, since both relate about a journey to heaven. Windisch did consider Maudgalyāyana a historical person.[6]


Meeting the Buddha[edit]

According to Buddhist texts, Maudgalyāyana was born in a Brahmin family of the village Kolita (perhaps modern day Kul[7]), after which he was named. His mother was a female Brahmin called Mogallāni, and his father was the village chief of the kshatriya (warrior) caste.[2][7] Kolita was born on the same day as Upatiṣya (Pali: Upatissa; later to be known as Śāriputra), and the two were friends since childhood.[2][8][9] Kolita and Upatiṣya developed an interest in the spiritual life when they were young. One day they were watching a festival and sitting there, a sense of disenchantment and spiritual urgency overcame them: they wished to leave the worldly life behind and started their spiritual life under the mendicant wanderer Sañjaya Vairatiputra (Pali: Sañjaya Belatthiputta).[note 1] In the Theravāda and Mahāsāṃghika canons, Sañjaya is described as a teacher in the Indian Sceptic tradition, as he did not believe in knowledge or logic, nor did he answer speculative questions. Since he could not satisfy Kolita and Upatiṣya spiritual needs, they left.[11][12][13] In the Mūlasarvāstivāda Canon, the Chinese Buddhist Canon and in Tibetan accounts, however, he is depicted as a teacher with admirable qualities like meditative vision and religious zeal. He fell ill though, and died, causing the two disciples to look further. In some accounts, he even went so far to predict the coming of the Buddha through his visions.[14][15]

Whatever the case may be, Kolita and Upatiṣya left and continued their spiritual search, splitting up in separate directions. They made an agreement that the first who would find the "ambrosia" of the spiritual life would tell the other. Next, what follows is the account leading to Kolita and Upatiṣya taking refuge under the Buddha, which is considered an ancient element.[16] Upatiṣya met a Buddhist monk named Aśvajit (Pali: Assaji), one of the first five disciples of the Buddha, who was walking to receive alms.[2][7] In the Mūlasarvāstivāda version, the Buddha had sent him there to teach Upatiṣya.[17] Aśvajit's serene deportment inspired Upatiṣya to approach him and learn more.[2][18] Aśvajit told him he was still newly ordained and could only teach a little. He then expressed the essence of the Buddha's teaching in these words:[19][20][note 2]

These words helped Upatiṣya to attain the first stage on the Buddhist spiritual path. After this, Upatiṣya told Kolita about his discovery and Kolita also attained the first stage. The two disciples, together with Sañjaya's five hundred students, went to ordain as monks under the Buddha in Veṇuvana (Pali: Veḷuvana).[18][23] From the time of their ordination, Upatiṣya and Kolita became known as Śāriputra and Maudgalyāyana, respectively, Maudgalyāyana being the name of Kolita's clan.[24] After having ordained, all except Upatiṣya and Kolita attained arhat (Pali: arahant; last stage of enlightenment).[19][23] Maudgalyāyana and Śāriputra attained enlightenment one to two weeks later, Maudgalyāyana in Magadha, in a village called Kallavala.[23][25] At that time, drowsiness was obstructing him from attaining. After he had a vision of the Buddha advising him how to overcome it, he had a breakthrough and attained enlightenment.[19][23] In some accounts, it is said that he meditated on the elements in the process.[26] In the Commentary to the Pali Dhammapada, the question is asked why the two disciples attained enlightenment slower than the other former students of Sañjaya. The answer given is that Śāriputra and Maudgalyāyana were like kings, who require a longer time to prepare for a journey than commoners. In other words, their attainment was of greater depth than the other students and therefore required more time.[25]

Aśvajit's brief statement, known as the Ye Dharma Hetu stanza, has traditionally been described as the essence of the Buddhist teaching, and is the most inscribed verse throughout the Buddhist world.[18][19][20] It can be found in all Buddhist schools,[7] is engraved in many materials, can be found on many Buddha statues and stūpas (structures with relics), and is used in their consecration rituals.[18][27] According to Indologist Oldenberg and translator Thanissaro Bhikkhu, the verses were recommended in one of Emperor Asoka's edicts as subject of study and reflection.[28][29][note 3] The role of the stanza is not completely understood by scholars. Apart from the complex nature of the statement, it has also been noted it has not anywhere been attributed to the Buddha in this form, which indicates it was Aśvajit's own summary or paraphrasing.[32][18] Indologist T.W. Rhys Davids believed the brief poem may have made a special impression on Maudgalyāyana and Sariputta, because of the emphasis on causation typical for Buddhism.[19] Philosopher Paul Carus explained that the stanza was a bold and iconoclastic response to Brahmanic traditions, as it "repudiates miracles of supernatural interference by unreservedly recognising the law of cause and effect as irrefragable", [27] whereas Japanese Zen teacher Suzuki was reminded of the experience that is beyond the intellect, "in which one idea follows another in sequence finally to terminate in conclusion or judgment".[33][34]

Although in the Pali tradition, Maudgalyāyana is described as an arhat who will no longer be reborn again, in the Mahayāna traditions this is sometimes interpreted differently. In the Lotus Sutra, Chapter 6 (Bestowal of Prophecy), the Buddha is said to predict that the disciples Mahākasyapa, Subhuti, Mahakatyayana, and Maudgalyāyana will become Buddhas in the future.[35][23]

Śāriputra and Maudgalyāyana[edit]

Śāriputra and Maudgalyāyana, together with Sañjaya's five hundred students, went to ordain as monks under the Buddha in Veṇuvana (Pali: Veḷuvana).[23]

On the day of Maudgalyāyana's ordination, the Buddha allowed him and Śāriputra take the seats of the chief male disciples.[2] According to the Pali Buddhavaṃsa text, each Buddha has had such a pair of chief disciples.[36] As they were just ordained, some other monks felt offended that the Buddha gave such honor to them. The Buddha responded by pointing out that seniority in the monkhood was not the only criterion in such as an appointment, and explained his decision further by relating a story from the past.[2][37] He said that both disciples had aspired many lifetimes ago to become chief disciples under him. They had made such a resolution since the age of the previous Buddha Aṇomadassī, when Maudgalyāyana was a layman called Sirivadha. Sirivaddha felt inspired to become a chief disciple under a future Buddha after his friend, Śāriputra in a previous life, recommended him so. He then invited Buddha Aṇomadassī and the monastic community (Saṃgha) to have food at his house for seven days, during which he made his resolution to become a chief disciple for the first time. Afterwards, he and Śāriputra continued to do good deeds for many lifetimes, until the time of Sakyamuni Buddha.[2] After the Buddha appointed Maudgalyāyana as chief disciple, he became known as "Mahā-Maudgalyāyana", mahā meaning 'great'.[38] This epithet was given to him as an honor, and to distinguish him for others of the same name.[39]

Post-canonical texts describe Maudgalyāyana as the second chief male disciple, next to Śāriputra. The early canons agree that Śāriputra was spiritually superior to Maudgalyāyana, and their specializations are described as psychic powers (Sanskrit: ṛddhi, Pali: iddhi) for Maudgalyāyana and wisdom for Śāriputra.[40][note 4] In Buddhist art en literature, Buddhas are commonly depicted with two main disciples (Japanese: niky ōji, Classical Tibetan: mchog zung) at their side—in the case of Sakyamuni Buddha, the two disciples depicted are most often Maudgalyāyana and Śāriputra. Although there are different perspectives among different Buddhist canons as to the merits of each disciple, in all Buddhist canons, Maudgalyāyana and Śāriputra are recognized as the two main virtuous disciples. This fact is also confirmed by archaeological findings.[42] Moreover, Maudgalyāyana is often included in traditional lists of 'four great disciples' (pinyin: sida shengwen)[43] and eight arhats.[44] Despite these widespread patterns in both scripture and archaeological research, it has been noted that that in later iconography, Ānanda and Mahākasyapa are depicted much more, and Maudgalyāyana and Śāriputra are depicted much less.[45]

The lives of Maudgalyāyana and Śāriputra were closely connected. Maudgalyāyana and Śāriputra were born on the same day, and died in the same period. Their families had long been friends. In their student years, Maudgalyāyana and Śāriputra were co-pupils under the same teacher.[46][47] After having helped each other to find the essence of the spiritual life, their friendship remained. In many sutras they show high appreciation and kindness to one another.[2] For example, when Śāriputra falls ill, it is described that Maudgalyāyana used his psychic powers to obtain medicine for Śāriputra .[48] Śāriputra was considered the wisest disciple of the Buddha, but Maudgalyāyana was second to him in wisdom.[2][49] The one thing that gave them a strong bond as spiritual friends was the love for the Buddha, which both expressed often.[50]

Role in the community[edit]

Prince Rahula asks the Buddha for his royal heritage.
The Buddha gave Maudgalyāyana the responsibility to train Rahula, the Buddha's son.[2][51]

Several teachings in the Pali Canon are traditionally ascribed to Maudgalyāyana, including several verses in the Theragatha and many sutras in the Samyutta Nikaya. Besides these, there are many passages that describe events in his life. He was seen as learned and wise in ethics, philosophy and meditation. When comparing Śāriputra with Maudgalyāyana, the Buddha used the metaphor of a woman giving birth to a child for Śāriputra, in that he established new students in the first attainment on the spiritual path (Pali: sotāpanna). Maudgalyāyana, however, was compared with the master who trains the child up, in that he developed his students further along the path to enlightenment.[2][52]

The Buddha is described in the texts as placing great faith in Maudgalyāyana as a teacher.[2] He often praised Maudgalyāyana for his teachings, and sometimes would have Maudgalyāyana teach in his place.[53][54] Maudgalyāyana was also given the responsibility to train Rahula, the Buddha's son. At another occasion, the Buddha had Maudgalyāyana announce a ban on a group of monks living in Kitigara, whose problematic behavior was becoming widely known in the area.[55] Furthermore, Maudgalyāyana played a crucial role during the schism caused by the disciple Devadatta. Through his ability to communicate with devas (god-like beings), he learnt that Devadatta was acting inappropriately. He obtained information that Devadatta was enjoining Prince Ajatasatru (Pali: Ajatasattu) for help, and the two formed a dangerous combination. Maudgalyāyana therefore informed the Buddha of this.[56][57] Later, when Devadatta had successfully created a split in the community, the Buddha asked Maudgalyāyana and Śāriputra to convince Devadatta's following to reunite with the Buddha, which in the Pali account they were able to accomplish.[2][51][note 5] Because Devadatta believed they came to join his following, he let his guard down. They then persuaded the other monks to return while Devadatta was asleep. After the split off party had successfully been returned to the Buddha, Maudgalyāyana expressed astonishment because of Devadatta's actions. The Buddha explained that Devadatta had acted like this habitually, throughout many lifetimes. In the Vinaya texts of some canons, the effort at persuading the split off monks is met with obstinacy and fails. French Buddhologist André Bareau believes this latter version of the account to be historically authentic, which he further supports by the report of the Chinese pilgrim Xuan Zang, twelve centuries later, that Devadatta's sect had still continued to exist.[59]

Teaching through psychic powers[edit]

In the Anguttara Nikaya, Maudgalyāyana is called foremost in psychic powers.[60][61] In teaching, Maudgalyāyana relies much on such powers. Varying accounts in the Pali Canon show Maudgalyāyana travelling to and speaking with pretas (spirits in unhappy destinations) in order to explain to them their horrific conditions. He helped them understand their own suffering, so they could be released from it or come to terms with it. He then reported about this to the Buddha, who used these examples in his teachings.[2][51] Similarly, Maudgalyāyana is also depicted as conversing with devas and brahmas (heavenly beings), and asking devas what deeds they did to be reborn in heaven.[51][62] In summary, Maudgalyāyana's meditative insights and psychic powers were not only to his own benefit, but benefited the public at large. In the words of historian Julie Gifford, he guided others "by providing a cosmological and karmic map of samsara".[63]

Maudgalyāyana was able to use his powers of mind-reading in order to give good and fitting advice to his students, so they could attain results quickly.[64] He is described as using his psychic powers to discipline not only monks, but also devas and other beings. Once some monks were making noise as they were sitting in the same building as the Buddha. Maudgalyāyana then shook the building, to teach the monks to be more restrained.[51][65] But the most-quoted example of Maudgalyāyana's demonstration of psychic powers is his victory over the dragon (naga) Nandopananda, which required mastery of the jhānas (states in meditation).[23][49] Many of his demonstrations of psychic powers were an indirect means of establishing the Buddha as a great teacher. People would ask themselves, if the disciple had these powers, then how spiritually powerful would his teacher be?[66]

Rescuing his mother[edit]

The account of Maudgalyāyana looking for his mother after her death is widespread. Apart from being used to illustrate the principles of karmic retribution and rebirth,[67][68] in China, the story developed a new emphasis. There Maudgalyāyana was known as "Mulian", and his story was taught in a mixture of religious instruction and entertainment, to remind people of their duties to deceased relatives.[68][69] Its earliest version being the Sanskrit Ullambana Sutra,[68] the story has been made popular in China, Japan, and Korea through edifying folktales such as the Chinese bianwen (for example, The Transformation Text on Mu-lien Saving His Mother from the Dark Regions).[68][70] In most versions of the story, Maudgalyāyana uses his psychic powers to look for his deceased parents and see in what world they have been reborn. Although he can find his father in a heaven, he cannot find his mother and asks the Buddha for help. The Buddha brings him to his mother, who is located in a hell realm, but Maudgalyāyana cannot help her. The Buddha then advises him to make merits on his mother's behalf, which helps her to be reborn in a better place.[70][71][72] In the Laotian version of the story, he travels to the world of Yama, the ruler of the underworld, only to find the world abandoned. Yama then tells Maudgalyāyana that he allows the denizens of the hell to go out of the gates of hell to be free for one day, that is, on the full moon day of the ninth lunar month. On this day, the hell beings can receive merit transferred and be liberated from hell, if such merit is transferred to them.[73] In some other Chinese accounts, Maudgalyāyana finds his mother, reborn as a hungry ghost. When Maudgalyāyana tries to offer her food through an ancestral shrine, the food bursts into flames each time. Maudgalyāyana therefore asks the Buddha for advice, who recommends him to make merit to the Saṃgha and transfer it to his mother. The transfer not only helps his mother to be reborn in heaven, but can also be used to help seven generations of parents and ancestors.[74][75] The offering was believed to be most effective when collectively done, which led to the arising of the ghost festival.[76](See § Heritage, below.)

Several scholars have pointed out the similarities between the accounts of Maudgalyāyana helping his mother and the account of Phra Malai, an influential legend in Thailand and Laos.[77][78] Indeed, in some traditional accounts Phra Malai is compared to Maudgalyāyana.[78] On a similar note, Maudgalyāyana's account is also thought to have influenced the Central Asian Epic of King Gesar, Maudgalyāyana being a model for the king.[79]

Making the Udāyana image[edit]

Another account involving Maudgalyayana, related in the Chinese translation of the Ekottara Agāma, in the Thai Jinakālamālī and the post-canonical Paññāsajātakā, was the production of what was described as the first Buddha image, the Udāyana Buddha. The account relates that the Buddha's paid a visit to the Trāyastriṃśa Heaven (Pali: Tāvatiṃsa) to teach his mother. King Udāyana missed the Buddha that much he asked Maudgalyāyana to use his psychic powers to transport thirty-two craftsmen to the heaven, and make an image of the Buddha there.[80][81] The image that was eventually made was from sandalwood, and many accounts have attempted to relate it to later Buddha images in other areas and countries.[82][83] Although the traditional accounts mentioned state that the Udāyana Buddha was the first image, there have probably been several Buddha images preceding the Udāyana Buddha, made by both kings and commoners.[84] It could also be they originate from a common narrative.[85]


Maudgalyāyana's death in Kālasilā.

According to the Pali tradition, Maudgalyāyana 's death came in November of the same year as the Buddha's passing, when Maudgalyāyana was traveling in Magadha. He died at the age of eighty-four.[86] Some accounts put forth that rivaling traditions stoned him to death, others say that those traditions hired robbers. The Pali tradition states that Jain monks persuaded a group of robbers led by a Samaṇa-guttaka to kill Maudgalyāyana, out of jealousy for his success. Maudgalyāyana would often teach about the visits he had made to heaven and hell, the fruits of leading a moral life, and the dangers of leading an immoral life. These teachings made the number of followers from rivaling traditions decrease.[3][52] Whoever killed Maudgalyāyana, the general consensus is that he was killed in a violent fashion at the Kālasilā Cave, on the Isigili Hill near Rājagaha,[2][52] which might be equated with modern Udaya Hill.[1]

At that time, Maudgalyāyana dwelled alone in a forest hut. Nevertheless, when he saw the bandits approaching, he made himself vanish with psychic powers. The bandits found an empty hut, and although they searched everywhere, found nobody. They left and returned on the following day, for six consecutive days, with Maudgalyāyana escaping from them in the same way.[87][88] On the seventh day, Maudgalyāyana suddenly lost the psychic powers he had long wielded. Maudgalyāyana realized that he was now unable to escape. The bandits entered, beat him repeatedly and left him lying in his blood. Being keen on quickly getting their payment, they left at once.[2][89] Maudgalyāyana's great physical and mental strength was such that he was able to regain consciousness and was able to journey to the Buddha.[2][66] In some accounts, he then returned to Kalasila and died there, teaching his family before dying. In other accounts, he died in the Buddha's presence.[23][90]

In a previous life, Maudgalyāyana was the only son born to his family. He was dutiful, and took care of all the household duties. As his parents aged, this increased his workload. His parents urged him to find a wife to help him, but he persistently refused, insisting on doing the work himself. After persistent urging from his mother, he eventually married.[91] His wife looked after his elderly parents, but after a short period became hostile to them. She complained to her husband, but he paid no attention to this. One day, when he was outside the house, she scattered rubbish around and when he returned, blamed it on his blind parents. After continual complaints, he capitulated and agreed to deal with his parents. Telling his parents that their relatives in another region wished to see them, he led his parents onto a carriage and began driving the oxen cart through the forest. While in the depths of the forest, he dismounted and walked along with the carriage, telling his parents that he had to watch out for robbers, who were common in the area. He then impersonated the sounds and cries of thieves, pretending to attack the carriage. His parents told him to fend for himself, as they were old and blind, and implored the "thieves" to leave their son. While they were crying out, he beat and killed his parents, and threw their bodies into the forest before returning home.[91][92] In another version recorded in the commentary to the Pali Jātaka, Maudgalyāyana did not carry the murder through though, touched by the words of his parents.[2][93]

After Maudgalyāyana's death, people asked why Maudgalyāyana had not protected himself, and why a great enlightened monk would suffer such a death. The Buddha said that because Maudgalyāyana had contracted such karma in a previous life (the murder of one's own parents is one of the five heinous acts that reap the worst karma), so he could not avoid reaping the consequences. He therefore accepted the results. Further, the Buddha stated that even psychic powers will be of no use in avoiding karma, especially when it is serious karma.[86][23] Shortly after having left Maudgalyāyana for dead, the bandits were all executed. Professor of Religion James McDermott therefore concludes that there must have been "a confluence" of karma between Maudgalyāyana and the bandits, and cites the killing as evidence that in Buddhism the karma of different individuals can interact.[89] Professor Gombrich raises the example of the murder to prove another point: he points out that Maudgalyāyana was able to attain enlightenment, despite his heavy karma from a past life. This, he says, shows that the Buddha taught everyone can attain enlightenment in the here and now, rather than enlightenment necessarily being a gradual process built up through many lifetimes.[94]

Gifford speculates that Maudgalyāyana was aware of his heavy karma from a past life. This awareness led him to want to prevent others from making the same mistakes and leading an unethical life. This may be the reason why he was so intent on teaching about the law of karmic retribution.[95]

After Maudgalyāyana's and Śāriputra's death, the Buddha stated the monastic community had now become less, just like a healthy tree had some branches that died off. Then he added to that all impermanent things must perish.[1] In some accounts of Maudgalyāyana's death, many of his students fell ill after his death, and died as well.[96]


Floating lanterns made from lotus leaves: people make merits and transfer merit through several ceremonies, so the spirits may be reborn in a better rebirth.[97]

In Buddhist history, Maudgalyāyana has been honored for several reasons. In some canons such as the Pali Tipiṭaka, Maudgalyāyana is held up by the Buddha as an example who monks should follow.[2][60] The Pali name Moggallāna was used as a monastic name by Buddhist monks, up until the twelfth century C.E.[52]

In South-East and East Asia, Maudgalyāyana is honored as a symbol of filial piety and psychic powers.[98][99] Maudgalyāyana has had an important role in many Mahāyāna traditions. The Ullambana Sutra is the main Mahāyāna sūtra in which Maudgalyāyana's rescue of his mother is described.[51][100] (See § Helping mother in hell, above.) The sutra was highly influential, judging from the more than sixty commentaries that were written about it.[68] Although the original Sankrit sutra already encouraged filial piety, later Chinese accounts inspired by the sutra emphasized this even more. Furthermore, Chinese accounts described merit-making practices and filial piety as two inseparable sides of the same coin.[101] It became popular in China, Japan, and Korea, and led to the Yulanhui (China) and Obon (Japan) festivals.[102][68][103] This festival probably spread from China to Japan in the seventh century,[104] and similar festivals have been observed in India (Avalamba), Laos and Vietnam.[102][105] The festival is celebrated on the seventh lunar month (China; originally only on the full moon, on the Pravāraṇa Day[106]), or from 13 to 15 July (Japan). It is believed that in this period ancestors reborn as pretas or hungry ghosts wander around.[102][97][107] In China, this was the time when the yearly varṣa for monastics came to an end (normally translated as rains retreat, but in China this was a Summer Retreat).[108] It was a time that the monastics completed their studies and meditation, which was celebrated.[109] Up until the present day, people make merits and transfer merit through several ceremonies during the festival, so the spirits may be reborn in a better rebirth.[97][107] The festival is also popular among non-Buddhists,[97] and has led Taoists to integrate it in their own funeral services.[110][111]

The festival has striking similarities to Confucian and Neo-Confucian ideals, in that it deals with filial piety.[112] It has been pointed out that the account of rescuing the mother in hell has helped Buddhism to integrate into Chinese society. At the time, due to the Buddhist emphasis on the renunciant life, Buddhism was criticized by Confucianists. They felt Buddhism went against the principle of filial piety, because Buddhist monks did not have offspring to make offerings for ancestor worship.[68][76] Maudgalyāyana's account helped greatly to improve this problem, and has therefore been raised as a textbook example of the adaptive qualities of Buddhism.[113] Other scholars have shown, however, that the position of Buddhism in India versus China was not all that different, as Buddhism had to deal with the problem of filial piety and renunciation in India as well.[114] Another impact the story of Maudgalyāyana's had was that, in East Asia, the account helped to shift the emphasis of filial piety towards the mother, and helped redefine motherhood and femininity.[68]

Apart from the Ghost Festival, Maudgalyāyana also has an important role in the celebration of Māgha Pūjā in Sri Lanka. On Māgha Pūjā, in Sri Lanka called Navam Full Moon Poya, Maudgalyāyana's appointment as a chief disciple of the Buddha is celebrated by various merit-making activities, and a pageant.[115][116]

There are several canonical and post-canonical texts that are traditionally connected to the person of Maudgalyāyana. In the Theravāda tradition, the Vimānavatthu is understood to be a collection of accounts related by Maudgalyayana to the Buddha, dealing with his visits to heavens.[117] In the Sarvāstivāda tradition, Maudgalyāyana is said to have composed the Abhidharma texts called the Dharmaskandha and the Prajñāptibhāsya,[118][119] although in some Sankrit and Tibetan scriptures the former is attributed to Śāriputra.[120] Scholars have their doubts on whether Maudgalyāyana was really the author of these works.[120] They do believe, however, that Maudgalyāyana and some other main disciples compiled lists (Sanskrit: mātṛikā, Pali: mātikā) of teachings as mnemonic devices. These lists formed the basis for what later became the Abhidharma.[121] Despite these associations with Abhidharma texts, pilgrim Xuan Zang reports that during his visits in India, Śāriputra was honored by monks for his Abhidharma teachings, whereas Maudgalyāyana was honored for his meditation, the basis for psychic powers.[122][123] French scholar André Migot has shown that in most text traditions, Maudgalyāyana was associated with meditation and psychic powers, as opposed to Śāriputra's specialization in wisdom and Abhidharma.[123][124]

Traditions have also connected Maudgalyāyana with the symbol of the Wheel of Becoming (Sanskrit: bhavacakra, Pali: bhavacakka). Accounts in the Mūlasarvāstivāda Vinaya and the Divyāvadāna relate that Ānanda once told the Buddha about Maudgalyāyana's good qualities as a teacher. Maudgalyayana was a very popular teacher, and his sermons with regard to afterlife destinations were very popular. The Buddha said that in the future, a person like him would be hard to find. The Buddha then had an image painted on the gate of the Veluvaḷa monastery to honor Maudgalyāyana, depicting the Wheel of Becoming. This wheel showed the different realms of the cycle of existence, the three poisons in the mind (greed, hatred and delusion), and the teaching of dependent origination. The wheel was depicted as being in the clutches of Māra, but at the same time included the symbol of a white circle for Nirvana. The Buddha further decreed that a monk be stationed at the painting to explain the law of karma to visitors.[125][126][127] Images of the Wheel of Becoming are widespread in Buddhist Asia, some of which confirm and depict the original connection with Maudgalyāyana.[128]

Finally, there is also an entire tradition that traces its origins to Maudgalyayana, or to a follower of him, called Dharmagupta: this is the Dharmaguptaka school, one of the early Buddhist schools.[129][130]


A shaft was sunk in the centre of this Tope, and after a few hours' labour we came to a large slab upwards of 5 feet in length, lying in a direction from north to south. On raising this slab we saw two large stone boxes each bearing a short inscription on its lid. That to the south bore Sariputasa, "[relics] of SARIPUTRA"; that to the north bore Maha Mogalanasa, "[relics] of MAHA MOGALANA".

Sir Alexander Cunningham, The Bhilsa topes[131]

In a Pali Jātaka account, the Buddha is said to have had the ashes of Maudgalyāyana collected and kept in a stūpa in the gateway of the Veluvaḷa.[2][132] In two other accounts, however, one from the Dharmaguptaka and the other from the Mūlasarvāstivāda tradition, Anāthapiṇḍika and other laypeople requested the Buddha to build a stūpa in honor of Maudgalyāyana.[133] According to the Divyāvadāna, emperor Ashoka visited the stūpa and made an offering, on the advice of Upagupta Thera.[3] During the succeeding centuries, Xuan Zang and other Chinese pilgrims reported that a stūpa with Maudgalyāyana's relics could be found under the Indian city Mathura, and in several other places in Northeast India. However, as of 1999, none of these had been confirmed by archaeological findings.[134][135]

An important archaeological finding was done somewhere else, however. In the nineteenth century, archaeologist Alexander Cunningham and Lieutenant Fred. C. Maisey discovered bone fragments in caskets, with Maudgalyāyana's and Śāriputra's names inscribed on it, both in the Sanchi Stūpa and at the stūpas at Satdhāra, India.[52][136] The caskets contained pieces of bone and objects of reference, including sandalwood which Cunningham believed had once been used on the funeral pyre of Śāriputra.[137] The finding was important in several ways, and was dated from the context to the second century BCE.[138] After the discovery, the relics were transferred to the Victoria and Albert Museum in London, which resulted in controversy and a struggle for power.[139][140]

In the 19th century, archaeologist Alexander Cunningham discovered bone fragments attributed to Maudgalyāyana and Śāriputra.[52][136]

Initially, Cunningham and Maisey divided the shares of the discovered relics and had them shipped to Britain. Since some of Cunningham's discovered items were lost when one ship sank, some scholars have understood that the Sanchi relics were lost.[141] However, in a 2007 study, the historian Torkel Brekke used extensive historical documents to show that it was Maisey who took all the relics with him, not Cunningam. This would imply that the relics reached Britain in its entirety.[142][note 6] After the relics were given to the V&A Museum, pressure from Buddhists to return the relics to their country of origin grew stronger. Although at first the museum dismissed the complaints as coming from a marginal community of English Buddhists, when several Buddhist societies of India took notice, as well as societies in other Asian countries, it became a serious matter. Eventually, the museum was pressurized by the British government to return the relics and their original caskets, for diplomatic reasons. After many requests and much correspondence, the museum had the relics brought back to the Sri Lankan Maha Bodhi Society in 1947.[144][145] They were formally re-installed into a shrine at Sanchi, India, in 1952, after it had been agreed on that Buddhists would continue to be their caretaker, and a long series of ceremonies had been held to pay due respect. The relics were paraded through many countries in South and Southeast Asia, in both Theravāda and Mahāyāna countries.[146][145] At the same time, Indian Prime Minister Nehru used the opportunity to propagate a message of unity and religious tolerance, and from a political perspective, legitimate state power.[147] Indeed, even for other countries, such as Burma, in which the relics were shown, it helped to legitimate the government, create unity, and revive religious practice: "those tiny pieces of bone moved not only millions of devotees worldwide, but national governments as well", as stated by art historian Jack Daulton. Because of these reasons, Burma asked for a portion of the relics to keep there. In ceremonies attended by hundred of thousands people, the relics were installed in the Kaba Aye Pagoda, in the same year as India.[148]

Sri Lanka also obtained a portion, kept at the Maha Bodhi Society, which is annually exhibited during a celebration in May.[149] In 2015, the Catholic world was surprised to witness that the Maha Bodhi Society broke with tradition by showing the relics to Pope Francis on a day outside of the yearly festival. Responding to critics, the head of the society pointed out that no pope had set foot inside a Buddhist temple since 1984, and stated that "religious leaders have to play a positive role to unite [their] communities instead of dividing".[150] As for the original Sanchi site in India, the relics are shown every year on the annual international Buddhist festival in November. As of 2016, the exhibition was visited by hundred thousands visitors from over the world, including Thai princess Sirindhorn.[151][152]

See also[edit]


  1. ^ According to some Chinese accounts, Maudgalyāyana waited until after his mother died, and only after having mourned her for three years. But this may be a Confucian addition to the story.[10]
  2. ^ Some schools, such as the Mahīśāsaka school, relate this verse differently, with one line about the emptiness of the Dharma.[21]
  3. ^ Most scholars lean towards the interpretation that Emperor Asoka referred to the text Sariputta Sutta instead. However, this consensus is still considered tentative.[30][31]
  4. ^ Contradicting the fact that the canons state Śāriputra was spiritually the superior of Maudgalyāyana, in the popular traditions of China, Maudgalyāyana was actually more popular than Śāriputra, Maudgalyāyana often being depicted as a sorcerer.[41]
  5. ^ In the Dharmaguptaka, Sarvāstivāda and Mūlasarvāstivāda canons, it was their own proposal to go, for which they asked the Buddha his permission.[58]
  6. ^ Already in 1917, archeologist Louis Finot stated that Cunningham had no interest in the relics, only in the caskets.[143]


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External links[edit]