1. King Pasenadi’s chaplain was a learned but superstitious Brahmin named Bhaggava Gagga. It was his job to cast horoscopes, advise about the best time to embark on various projects and ward off evil influences with spells and mantras. He was filled with joy when his wife gave birth to a boy, but when the baby’s horoscope was drawn up, his joy turned to dread. The horoscope indicated that the boy would grow up with criminal tendencies. Filled with superstitious fear, the parents decided to name the boy Ahimsaka, ‘Harmless’ in the hope that this would counter the influence of the stars. “The boy grew up into a fine youth who was good at his studies and obedient to his parents. But to make sure that the boy would never turn bad, they constantly stressed to him the importance of obeying them and doing what he was told.
Eventually, he left home for Taxila to do his higher studies. In those days, young Brahmins would go to Taxila and live in the house of a learned Brahmin to learn traditional lore and in return, work in his home. The relationship would be like that between father and son. Ahimsaka was a particularly obedient student which earned him special attention from his teacher but it also created jealousy in the other students. They decided to try to turn the teacher against Ahimsaka. According to plan, they went one by one to the teacher and whispered that his favourite student was trying to usurp his position. At first the teacher dismissed this as nonsense, but gradually the seeds of doubt were sown, and they eventually sprouted into suspicion and the teacher became convinced of Ahimsaka’s hostility to him.
“This young man is strong in body and quite capable of doing me harm. I must get rid of him and make sure he never comes back,” he thought to himself.
One day, the teacher called Ahimsaka and said:
“You have successfully finished your studies, now you must bring me my fee.”
“Certainly,” said Ahimsaka. “What do you demand as your fee?”
“You must bring me a thousand first fingers from the human hand.”
“Surely you don’t require this of me?” responded the horrified Ahimsaka.
“You have taken from me and in return you must now do my bidding. Go now and bring a thousand fingers.”
The teacher’s hope was, of course, that in the process of carrying out this task Ahimsaka would be killed and he would never have to see him again.
2. The unhappy student returned to Kosala and went to live in the Jalani forest and reluctantly at first, but later without compunction, he began waylaying lone travellers, killing them, cutting off one of their fingers and living off the possessions he stole. At first he hung the fingers on a tree where the birds would pick at the flesh, after which the bones would drop to the ground and be scattered. So after a while, Ahimsaka would thread the fingers on a cord and hang them around his neck. This gave him a terrible appearance, and the by then notorious and feared murderer came to be known as Angulimala (Finger Necklace). Eventually, through murder, and perhaps by cutting fingers from corpses that in ancient India were not buried, but cast away in charnel grounds, Angulimala had accumulated 999 fingers.
3. His parents came to hear that the murderer whom everyone was talking about was their own son. Embarrassed and ashamed, the old Brahmin disowned his son. His mother could not bring herself to do so and she planned to go into the forest where her son was known to operate and try to talk to him. Just when it looked like Angulimala might even kill his own mother, he came into contact with the Buddha.
4. When the Buddha heard about Angulimala, he quietly left the Jetavana and set out for the Jalani forest, some forty kilometres away. As the Buddha walked along the road, groups of travellers passed him and as they did, they warned him not to continue alone because of the danger. He simply smiled and continued on his way. When Angulimala saw the Buddha, he was most surprised.
“This is wonderful indeed. Usually only travellers in groups of twenty, thirty or forty come along this road and here is an ascetic travelling alone. I will kill him.”
Seizing his sword and shield, Angulimala emerged from the jungle and began to chase the Buddha, but although he ran as fast as he could, he could not catch up with the Buddha, who only walked. He put on a burst of speed but still could not get near the Buddha. Utterly bewildered, he shouted out:
“Stand still, ascetic!”
The Buddha turned around and looked at him, and replied:
“I am still. Why don’t you be still also?”
Even more bewildered Angulimala asked: “What do you mean, ascetic?”
“I am still in that I harm no living being. You kill and therefore you are not still,” replied the Buddha.
5. The terrible things that he had done and the wretchedness of his life dawned on Angulimala and he broke down and sobbed. He threw down his weapons, bowed at the Buddha’s feet and asked to become a monk. The Buddha ordained him and together they set out for Savatthi. A few days later, as the Buddha and Angulimala were sitting in the Jetavana, King Pasenadi and a retinue of fully armed soldiers came to visit.
“Where are you off to, O King?” asked the Buddha. “Has a border dispute broken out with Magadha?”
“No, Lord,” said the king. “There is a terrible murderer operating in the kingdom. Because of him, people in outlying areas pack up their belongings, leave their villages and move to the safety of the city. Now the citizens have petitioned me to get rid of him and I am setting out to find him.”
“If you heard that this murderer had given up his terrible life and become a monk, what would you do, O King?”
“I suppose I would bow to him and treat him as I would any other monk. But is such a thing possible, Lord?”
The Buddha stretched out his arm and said: “This, O King, is Angulimala.”
The king drew back in fear, but the Buddha reassured him:
“Do not be afraid, O King. There is no need for alarm.” The king came closer, looked carefully at the monk and asked: “Is this really Angulimala, Lord?”
“Yes, O King.”
Then he addressed Angulimala:
“What is your father’s name? What clan does your mother belong to?”
“My father is Gagga and my mother is a Mantani.”
“Then may they be of good cheer. If you need any requisites I will make an effort to provide them for you,” said the king nervously.
“Thank you, sire. But I have enough robes,” replied Angulimala.
Then King Pasenadi came and sat near the Buddha and said:
“Lord, it is truly wonderful that without stick or sword you are able to pacify those whom I cannot pacify with sticks or swords.”
The Buddha smiled.
6. Angulimala led a life of simplicity and solitude, and under the Buddha’s guidance eventually attained enlightenment. But even then, there were many who remembered his terrible past and people would shun him. Often, he would return from his alms round with no food and sometimes people would throw stones at him. Once he returned from his alms round with blood and cuts all over him having been attacked by an angry mob. The Buddha comforted him, saying:
“You must endure this, Angulimala. You must silently endure this. This is a result of the deeds you have done previously.”1