Devadatta ("God given" in Sanskrit), a cousin and member of the Buddha's monastic community (sangha), is best known for being the Buddha's bitter enemy and the sangha's evil disciple. He is said to have attempted to kill Gautama at least three times and to have initiated an attempted schism.
He is said to have made at least three attempts to kill Gautama and to have initiated an attempted schism. As a rival or opponent of the Buddha, his image has certainly been blackened, and it is difficult to know who he really was.
Some historians, at present, propose dates for the essential stages of his life: 527 BC for his ordination; 493 BC for his misdeeds against the Buddha; 490 BC for his death.
Cousin and rival
According to some sources [Which ones?], he was the son of Bandaka Suppabuddha, the Buddha's maternal uncle, and his wife Amitā. Gautama is said to have married his sister Bhaddakaccānā.
According to others, he is the son of Amitodana, Gautama's paternal uncle, and the half-brother of Ananda. He is also mentioned as Godhiputta, so Godhi could be his mother's surname or clan name.
He is said to have had the strength of five elephants and to have shown an early relentlessness against his cousin. When Siddhartha had to prove his warrior skills, a white elephant was brought to him, but Devadatta killed it and its carcass blocked the entrance to the city until Siddhartha himself had it removed.
In the version that makes him the half-brother of Ananda, he would have proposed marriage to the wife of the Buddha after his departure from the palace.
He was one of the young Shakyas and Koliyas who entered the orders when Gautama returned to Kapilavastu after his enlightenment. He practiced seriously and quickly obtained the four powers of iddhi, which allow him to split, transform, make objects appear and never be seriously injured.
He is among the eleven confirmed monks praised by the Buddha; Sariputra, one of Gautama's main disciples, praises him.
Things seem to go wrong some eight years before the Buddha's death. He circumvented Ajatasattu, son of the king of Magadha, who had a monastery built for him at Gayasisa. He would have had food served there regularly in such abundance that he would even lead astray the Buddha's followers who came to eat there in secret.
Devadatta conceived the desire to take his cousin's place. According to tradition, this impure thought immediately made his iddhi powers disappear.
He went to propose to Gautama that he relinquish the leadership of the sangha and retire, but Gautama, who had heard of his plans to usurp him, disdainfully refused and publicly declared that henceforth Devadatta was to be regarded as speaking for himself and no longer for the Buddha.
Murderer and schismatic
After the parricide of Bimbisâra, king of Maghada, by his son Ajatasattu - a crime instigated by Devadatta - he is said to have instigated the assassination of the Buddha by archers.
The incident is explained in certain sources by the remains of bad karma from which Gautama had not yet been rid. Nevertheless, the archers could not bring themselves to shoot and converted.
Devadatta then decided to act alone. As his cousin climbed the Gijjhakūta, he rolled a rock towards him, which injured his foot. Gautama had to be taken to Maddakucchi and then to Ambavana, where the physician Jīvaka took care of him. Nevertheless, he refused the bodyguards.
Then came the well-known incident of the elephant Nalāgiri (or Dhanapāla), which Devadatta had intoxicated and thrown towards the Buddha, but the latter calmed him down with a gesture.
Supported by some monks including his main assistant Kokālika, as well as Katamoraka-tissa, Khandadeviyāputta and Samuddadatta, he decided to push for schism by imposing five additional rules (which correspond to what saddhus, Hindus or Jains may practice):
always live in the forest; never to accept meals, to use only the alms received to feed oneself; never accept gifts of clothing and dress only in rags; never sleep under a roof but only under the branches of trees; never eat meat or fish.
He went to submit them to the Buddha. The latter judged the third unacceptable and left it to the free will of the monks to apply the other rules, without making any of them obligatory. Devadatta then accused him of seeking ease and separated from him.
He performed an uposatha (ritual recitation) independently, and then retired to his monastery at Gayāsīsa, taking with him five hundred monks from the city of Vaisali, as well as nuns, such as Hullanandā, who seems to have been one of his most enthusiastic supporters.
Another faithful nun of Devadatta had followed him with the consent of her husband while she was unknowingly pregnant. When her pregnancy became evident, Devadatta rejected her, and she took refuge with the Buddha. Her son, Kumarakassapa, was ordained a monk at the age of seven.
In any case, it is safe to assume that the historical Devadatta was able to attract devotees. Three sutras are said to have been preached at the time of the schism: the two Devadatta sutta and the Mahāsāropama sutta.
The Buddha is said to have deputed Sariputra and Moggallana to Gayāsīsa to preach reason to the rebellious monks. Devadatta, who thought they were coming to pay allegiance, let them enter the monastery despite Kokālika's opposition.
The two assistants of the Buddha are said to have left with the lost sheep and Devadatta is said to have spat out their blood for nine months. Some sources even claim that he was asleep when they left and that Kokalika kicked him awake to tell him the news.
Devadatta then reluctantly decided to go and talk with the Buddha. The sources state that he set off in a litter, and not on foot as he should have done.
When he set foot on the ground near a river to perform his ablutions, he was swallowed by the ground and landed in the Avīci hell where he must have stayed between one and one hundred thousand kalpas, according to the sources (four other people would have experienced the same misfortune during Gautama's lifetime).
The inhabitants of the place where he disappeared are said to have celebrated the event with great rejoicings. The commentary of the Dhammapada describes his torment in hell.
Fortunately for him, the memory of his former qualities is not erased, especially since he would have taken refuge in the Buddha at the ultimate moment. So much so that after his stay in Avici, he will return to earth as a pacceka buddha under the name of Atthissara, or even in the form of an authentic buddha named Devarāja.
According to the Jataka, a collection of accounts of the Buddha's life, Devadatta would, in many previous existences, rage against his cousin's incarnation, sometimes gaining the upper hand, sometimes being defeated himself. The beginning of this rivalry is narrated in the Serivānija Jātaka. He is a negative character whose wickedness is repeatedly brought out.
He is said to be the only one of the Buddha's known contemporaries to have committed three of the five "deadly sins" (anantarika-karma); the Dhamma Jātaka even makes him a kind of anti-Buddha by the name of Adhamma, the embodiment of all that is opposed to the right doctrine.
Nevertheless, the memory of a Devadatta from before the schism has not totally disappeared: to king Milinda who asks about the origin of the strength that allows his cousin to sometimes defeat Gautama, Nagasena answers that Devadatta was not always bad and that he had accumulated a certain amount of good karma.