Rahula is the only son of Gautama Buddha and Yashodhara, and is said to have become his father's disciple. He is also called Rahula Thera (Dean Rahula). His name, which is identical in Paleo and Sanskrit, can be interpreted in two ways. According to some it evokes Rahu, the deity responsible for lunar eclipses.
A legend in the Jātakas (accounts of the Buddha's past lives) relates that a soothsayer predicted to Yashodhara that his son would be born with the image of a crescent moon on his hand.
Another interpretation sees in it the meaning of "hindrance", Siddhartha Gautama having declared on learning of the birth of his son that he was for him an attachment to be broken.
The two hypotheses are perhaps related, as the eclipse can be considered as an obstacle to light. Information about Rahula is sometimes contradictory and questionable, especially that from the clearly legendary Jātakas.
Chronologies are extremely diverse, but many historians hold for, BC: born in 534, novice in 527 when his father first returned to Kapilavastu, monk in 515 (at age 20), died before his father.
The story of the Buddha as it is most often related has him giving up his life as a prince on the very night of Rahula's birth, but there are versions in the Jātakas that claim that he had only just been conceived, and that his mother having decided to become an ascetic herself, her pregnancy lasted six years.
When it became evident, Yashodhara was suspected of infidelity and had to resort to miracles to prove her innocence. Sometimes, magicians are required and identify the marks on the unborn child that prove her parentage. Sometimes the Buddha himself confirms it on his return to Kapilavastu.
A theme often treated is that of the first return of the Buddha to Kapilavastu. Rahula was then seven or eight years old. First, seeing Gautama outside the palace, Yashodhara points him out to her son by improvising a poem in which she calls him "the lion among men". Then she urges him to go and claim his inheritance (dāyajja).
The Buddha refuses to speak and returns to the monastery of Nigrodharama. Rahula followed him there. Gautama then explains to him that material goods are nothing and that he wishes to give him the dharma as an inheritance. He asked Sariputra, his main disciple, to ordain him as a monk.
According to some versions, Shuddhodana, worried that Rahula, his first heir, would not want to become a monk like Gautama, ordered Yashodhara, under penalty of death, to hide from him that the prestigious personage who returned with a large escort of disciples was his father. This one nevertheless ends up confessing everything in front of the pressing curiosity of his son.
In any case, the taking of the habit of Rahula causes a great disarray in the palace. The Buddha would then have asked that in the future young people no longer be ordained without the permission of their parents.
Sariputra taught Rahula the dharma and Moggallana the conduct (vinaya). In the Buddhist tradition, Rahula represents the ideal novice, studious and respectful of the rules. He is said to have begun his days by throwing a handful of sand in the air every morning, saying that he would receive as many teachings as grains of sand that day.
When he became an arahant while still a young monk, he twice slept outside so as not to break the rule forbidding a novice to sleep under the same roof as a senior monk. In one case he had to brave the threats of Māra transformed into a black elephant.
Later, his father proclaimed him to the assembly as the first of those who study hard (sikkhākāmānam). The Buddha is said to have narrated the Tipallatthamiga Jātaka and the Tittira Jātaka to attest that in his previous lives already, Rahula was a model of obedience.
Gautama preached many sutras for the education of his son. For example, he recited the Rahulovada Sutta to teach him the importance of never lying, the Rahula Samyutta and the Rahula sutta(s) to make him aware of the non-existence of the self and the impermanence of things, having noticed that the eighteen year old became proud of his physical appearance.
It was after hearing the Cula Rahulavada Sutta preached by his father in Andhavana in the company of a hundred thousand devas that he became an arahant.
These devas had vowed to become arahants at the same time as him in the era of Padumuttara Buddha. The ninth chapter of the Lotus Sutra predicts that he will attain Buddhahood (anuttara-samyak-sambodhi) as Saptaratnapadmavikrāntagāmin.
Rahula was nicknamed Rahulabhadda (Rahula the fortunate). He passed away before his father and his two instructors. It is said that at the time of his death he had not slept for twelve years. Ashoka is said to have erected a stupa in his memory to serve as a place of devotion for novices.
The Buddhist tradition considers that exceptional religious destinies require several lifetimes of practice and accumulation of perfections (paramita), and also having expressed the vow to become an arahant, whose future realization is guaranteed by the Buddha of the current era.
At the time of Padumuttara Buddha, Rahula and Ratthapala (one of the leading nuns of Gautama's time) were two wealthy men in Hamsavati doing charity. One day, Rahula received an ascetic who knew the king Naga Pathavindhara who lived in magnificence.
He thanked his host by expressing the wish that he would one day be like him. This sentence marked Rahula, who was reborn as the Naga king in his next existence. Nevertheless, despite the luxury he felt dissatisfied. Rattapala was also his friend in this life, under the name of Sakka.
He advised him to invite Padumuttara Buddha to his house, who came with his son Uparevata. On seeing him, Rahula felt strongly the desire to be a son of Buddha one day and expressed his wish.
At the time of Kassapa Buddha, Rahula was Pathavindhara, eldest son of the Benares king Kiki. His seven sisters having each built a dwelling for the monks persuaded him to build five hundred.
In many Jātakas he is the son of Gautama in various forms, including a turtle. Once he is son of Sariputra. Uppalavanna, a leading nun of the Buddha's time, often appears as his brother.
Four verses are attributed to him in the Theragāthā and several in the Milindapañha. Eighteen sections of the Samyutta Nikāya constitute the Rāhula Samyutta, lessons given by the Buddha to his son on the impermanence of things. Five texts are called Rāhula Sutta.
Their main themes are the absence of one's own self, impermanence and skandas, the importance of not lying and choosing one's company well. An encounter also takes place with Vimalakīrti in the eponymous sutra.