Aṅgulimāla (Pāli language; lit. "Necklace of fingers") is an important figure in Buddhism, particularly within the Theravada tradition. Described as a ruthless brigand who is completely transformed after a conversion to Buddhism, he is seen as the quintessential example of the redemptive power of the Buddha's teaching and the Buddha's ability as a teacher.
Aṅgulimāla is seen by Buddhists as the "patron saint" of childbirth and is associated with fertility in South and Southeast Asia.
The history of Aṅgulimāla can be found in numerous sources in Pali, Sanskrit, Tibetan, and Chinese. Aṅgulimāla was born Ahiṃsaka. He grew up as an intelligent young man in Sāvatthī and during his studies became his teacher's favorite pupil.
However, out of jealousy, the other students turn him against his teacher. In an attempt to get rid of Agūlimāla, the teacher sends him on a deadly mission to find a thousand human fingers to complete his studies. In an attempt to complete this mission, Aṅgulimāla becomes a cruel bandit, killing many and causing entire villages to migrate.
Eventually, this causes the king to send an army to capture the murderer. Meanwhile, Agulimāla's mother tries to interfere, nearly causing her son to kill her as well. The Buddha manages to prevent this, however, and uses his power and teachings to bring Agulimala to the right path.
Agulimala becomes a follower of the Buddha and, to the surprise of the king and others, becomes a monk under his guidance. The villagers are still angry with Agulimala, but this is somewhat ameliorated when Aṅgulimāla helps a mother with childbirth through an act of truth.
Scholars have theorized that Aṅgulimāla may have been part of a violent cult before his conversion. Indologist Richard Gombrich suggested that he was a follower of an early form of Tantra, but this claim has been refuted.
Buddhists consider Aṅgulimāla a symbol of spiritual transformation, and his story a lesson that everyone can change their lives for the better, even the least likely people. This inspired the official Buddhist prison chaplaincy in the United Kingdom to name its organization after him.
Aṅgulimāla's story is cited in academic discussions of justice and rehabilitation, and is seen by theologian John Thompson as a good example of how to deal with moral harm and an ethic of care.
Aṅgulimāla has been the subject of film and literature, with a Thai film of the same name choosing to depict him following early sources, and the book "The Buddha and the Terrorist" by Satish Kumar, which adapts the story as a nonviolent response to the global war on terror.