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The problem of leadership in Early Buddhism
Prof. Sanghasen Singh

The general belief is that the Buddha was the founder and the supreme leader of the Order which is known to us as the Sa"ngha. While it may be true that he was the founder, but as regards his leadership in the Sa"ngha, there are evidences to prove that he was not at all supreme. The Sa"ngha was a faction-ridden organisation. The Tipi.taka is full of instances to show that, many a time, the Buddha bad to-bow before the majority opinion and had to take pains to unite the warring factions. He was compelled, at least once, to stop all efforts at reconciliation in the Order when, while staying at Kosambi, he tried to bring about concord between two groups of monks. One of the monks actually asked him to leave them to settle their differences without his interference. The Buddha left Kosambi out of disgust and frustration, and retired alone to keep retreat in the Paarileyyaka forest [1]. In fact, the Buddhist Order had also to undergo the same dialectical process, which does not leave untouched any phenomenon in this universe. The study of the origin and growth of the Buddhist Order provides us with an example to show that though basically a religious organization, it could never be immune of the process.

The last moments of the Buddha before his passing away at Kusiinaaraa at the age of eighty, which is euphemistically called Mahaaparinibbaana or the Great Demise, reveal to us that the Buddha was faced with a very serious problem of succession. Some of his chief disciples like Saariputta, Moggallaana had already passed away, and the Order was not having leaders of their calibre. Even after the exit of Devadatta, the monks loyal to his line of thinking were still there in the Order. This was probably the reason which forestalled the imposition of Mahaakassapa or any other person who was closer to Saariputta, Moggallaana, etc. as the leader of the Order, although, probably, he was the only senior monk who was alive. Aananda was too junior in the Order, and had not even achieved Arahathood. Upaali, a past master of Vinaya was not likely to be picked up by the Buddha for obvious reasons. He happened to be a low-born (son of a barber of Kapilavatthu) and the Buddha was quite aware of the consequences which were likely to follow, if he had been installed as successor to the Buddha. Although it is true that the Buddha was sympathetic to the cause of upliftment of the lower castes, but he was equally handicapped in the matter, because the sons of the Khattiyas Braahma.nas and Gahapatis were in majority in the Order. He was conscious of the fact that the installation of a low-born to his exalted position might lead to widespread repulsion in the minds of devotees scattered all over the Majjhima Desa. Hence his predicament. But as an able tactician, he immediately found out the solution. He summoned Aananda and made a proclamation that, henceforth, the Dhamma or the Doctrine, would be their Saastaa or the teacher-leader. The significance of this event is very clear. The Buddha had no option but to make this arrangement for the sake of unity and cohesion in the Order. The students of Tipi.taka find many occasions where the Buddha had left no opportunity in exhorting his followers to remain united and to avoid disputes and dissension. The reason is not for to seek. The danger of split in the Order was always there, and he had to exert himself time and again to keep his disciples within his control.

During, his life time, the Buddha was made the target of many wild attacks. There were powerful plotters within the ranks of the Order, who were not alone but were in sizeable groups. The 'misdeeds' of Chabbaggiyaa Bhikkhus (a set of six monks taken as exemplification cif trespassing the rules of Vinaya), Sattarasa-vaggiyaa Bhikkhu & (a group of seventeen monks), etc. are quite known to the students, of Tipki.taka. They used to create problems for the Buddha. Sometimes, even the smaller events of misdeeds used to rock the whole organization. Above all was Devadatta, Buddha's own cousin, who plotted against him many times, but could not succeed in dislodging him. He (Devadatta) had the patronage of a powerful king, Ajaatasattu, the ruler or Magadha with his capital at Rijagaha. The early Paali texts depict him to be a villain in the Order, but a close study of those texts makes it clear that he was not an individual who was against the Buddha or his leadership, but represented a powerful section in the Order, who had a distinct ideology and policy of their own. They wanted to push through their line of thinking, which the Buddha did not totally approve of. The texts suggest that love of gain, favours and flattery were responsible for Davadatta's undoing. But this might be a partisan view. It is likely that the drift between Devadatta and the Buddha would have widened through the passage of time, and a moment came when they were face to face with each other. The confrontation turned into enmity, and hence, Davadatta's efforts, first, to dislodge the Buddha from his position, and. then to do away with him, and ultimately, a schism. The texts suggest that for a pretty long time, Devadatta enjoyed prestige and, honour in the Order. Some Suttas (discourses) are even ascribed to, to him. This was really a great honour to him and a proof of his intellectual capacity. Devadatta and the like might have felt the necessity of the change in leadership of the Order, when they found that their line of thinking could gain ascendancy only when the Buddha was removed from leadership. The Vinaya Pi.taka says that he went to the Buddha and suggested that the leadership of the Order should be handed over to him in view of the Buddha's approaching old age. The Buddha scorned the suggestion, saying, "Not even to Saariputta or Moggallaana would I hand over the Order, and would I then thee, vile one, to be vomited like spittle?"[2] Devadatta showed resentment and probably vowed vengeance. This might have created bitterness in the Order. Thereupon, at the Buddha's suggestion, a proclamation was issued to the Sa"ngha that in anything done by Devadatta in the name of the Buddha, the Dhamma and the Sa"ngha, none but Devadatta was to be recognised. In simple words, this means Devadatta's expulsion, if not formal at least informal. This might have infuriated Devadatta and he would have sought the help of his friend Ajaatasattu. Vinaya-Pi.taka says that Ajaatasattu agreed, and provided Devadatta with royal archers to shoot at the Buddha. The plan failed. He is said to have further tried himself to kill the Buddha by hurling on him a great rock, while the Buddha was walking on the slopes of Gijjhakuuta. Devadatta's next attempt on the Buddha's life was to persuade elephant-keepers to let loose a fierce elephant, Naalaagiri (or Dhanapaala), drunk with toddy, on the road by which the Buddha would pass. This plan too failed. Thereupon, Devadatta decided with the help of Kokaalika and several others to bring about a schism in the Order. They went, accordingly, to the Buddha and asked for the imposition of a set of five rules on all members of the Sa"ngha, (1) that monks should dwell all their lives in the forest, (2) that they should accept no invitations to meals, but live entirely on alms obtained by begging, (3) that they should wear only robes made of discarded rags and accept no robes from the laity, (4) that they should dwell at the foot of a tree and not under a roof, (5) that they should abstain completely from fish and flesh. The Buddha's reply was that those who felt so inclined could follow these rules-except that of sleeping under a tree during the rainy season-but he refused to make the rules obligatory. This refusal delighted Devadatta, who went about with his party declaring that the Buddha was prone to luxury and abundance. He held an Uposatha meeting without the Buddha, and was successful in persuading five hundred newly ordained monks from Vesaalii to join him and accompany him to Gayaasiisa. The Buddha sent Saariputta and Moggallaana to bring back the deluded ones. Devadatta believing that they had come to join him, rejoiced, and, in spite of Kokaalika's warning, welcomed them. That night he preached very late to the monks, and wishing for rest, asked Saariputta to address the assembly. Saariputta and Moggallaana preached to such effect that they persuaded the five hundred monks to return with them. Shorn of distortion, which is quite possible under such circumstances, the above description of the Vinaya Pi.taka suggests that Devadatta tried his best to establish a rival Order. Probably he succeeded in doing so. The Vinaya Pi.taka description mentions the round figure of five hundred monks who joined and then deserted Devadatta. But what about others who had soft corner for Devadatta and who had joined him. Among them were many nuns and some 'Sakyans as well. It might be possible that the story of desertion was concocted for the use as a propaganda measure against Devadatta faction in the Order. This fact is corroborated by the travel accounts of Yuan Chwang [3]. According to him, a sect bearing the name of Devadatta, was quite flourishing in Bengal at that time. It may be just possible that the followers of Devadatta might have migrated from Magadha to Gauda, finding that place to be more congenial for their survival than other places. But the fact remains that a rival Order did exist and develop so as to survive till the time of Yuan Chwang and after.

One event in Majjhima Nikaaya suggests to us the attitude of some of the chief disciples of the Buddha towards him. The Buddha was no doubt their leader, but some of them had reservations about him and his method of functioning. Once, while the Buddha was staying in the village Caatumaa with some of his disciples, some new members of the Order went there at the instance of Saariputta and Moggallaana. These persons, dwelling near the Buddha, made so much noise that they were summoned and asked to leave the place at once. But the 'Sakyans of the village and Brahmaa Sahampati interceded on their behalf, and they were allowed to return. This event clearly shows the difference in attitudes of Saariputta and Moggallaana towards the Buddha and the Buddhist Order. It seems, Moggallaana would have rebelled, if the villagers had not intervened and restored normalcy.

The history of early Buddhism makes it clear that many a powerful personalities had joined hands with the Buddha for the speedy expansion of the Order and the doctrines it stood for. Saariputta, Moggallaana, Devadatta, Mahaakassapa, Aananda, etc. were very much equal to the Buddha in intellectual and the so-called spiritual attainments. In certain respects, it is said, they even excelled him. The early Buddhist tradition has admitted this fact. Milindapa~nha, for instance, provides a very sound evidence to this effect. One of the Milinda dilemmas is as follows: "Why should Devadatta who was so wicked, have been, time after time, superior in power to the Bodhisattva ?" The Jaataka commentary contains numerous stories which show that, though, sometimes Devadatta was foild in his attempts to harm the Bodhisatta, in many cases, he succeeded in working his will. When such powerful personalities were at the helm of affairs of the Sa"ngha, could the question of leadership be settled in the most docile and hackneyed manner, as the early Buddhist texts suggest ? In fact, the attempts of the compilers of these texts had been to show the Buddha as the most superior, standing head and shoulders above them, whereas to belittle the personalities of the rest. The pre-eminence which the Buddha had attained was due to the fact that he continued to be the leader of the Organization. He was conscious of this truth, even when Devadatta had formally requested him to step down. The Buddha enjoyed the confidence of the majority at the times of crisis, because he happened to be the centrist in the Sa"ngha. The fear of split always haunted the elders, and, hence, there was a forced unity. Whatever differences, dissension, rifts and schisms which occurred in the Order are depicted to have been engineered by certain individuals for purely personal considerations. All the Buddhist texts do so invariably. But for a student of history, these were the signs of internal struggles which were the reflections of socio-economic forces working in the given society. The social phenomena had got a direct bearing upon the events as mentioned above. Devadatta was not an individual, but rep-resented a powerful faction in the Order, which was under the direct influence of the people. The history of the eastern U.P. and Bihar of the sixth and fifth centuries B. C. shows that many religious leaders were contending for supremacy. The pace of Aaryanization was being challenged stoutly. The Brahma.nas who happened to be intellectually more superior were busy at work to push through the Vedic influence, particularly the belief in Vedic rituals. As a result, the performance of grand yaj~nas (sacrificial ceremonies) by feudal chiefs and their associates became the order of the day. It entailed huge expenses. Besides, the pastoral and village economy of the day was getting jeopardized due to the loss of cattle who were the main source of production. As usual, this was not to the liking of the peasantry, artisans, labourers, etc. attached to the fields and cattle-breeding farms. Under these circumstances many Khattiyas and their castemen mobilised public opinion against the sacrificial ceremonies, and, in course of time became their spokesmen. The leaders among them went about declaring themselves to be the saviour of the people against the tyranny of the protagonists of the sacrificial culture. But the motivation seems to have been the ouster of the Braahma.nas from their exalted position as the administrators and religious leaders. That was, in fact, the root cause of the rivalry between the Braahma.na priests and Khattiya leaders. The seers of the major Upani ads, the Buddha, Mahaaviira, etc. were all the product of this process. They all put up strong resistance to the supremacy of Braahma.nas. Their attack was two-pronged. They established their own orders and worked day and night to corrode the religious base of the Braahmana priests, and, on the other hand, they moved about in the society to teach the people that everybody was born equal. The former task was performed by them openly, whereas the latter in a subtle manner. The Buddha's advocacy for Caatuva.n.na-paarisuddhi (the emancipation of the persons belonging to all the four var.nas), the establishment of the Order which served as an example of commune life, his disregard for riches of any sort, his help for the liberation of the woman folk, etc. are some of the factors which made him very popular with the people in general.

The Buddha's efforts were directed, to some extent, towards arousing a sense of self-confidence among the Khattiyas. Although they too belonged to the ruling class of those days, but they could not assert successfully in the face of Braahma.na superiority which was established due to their being the real administrators and intellectually more sound. The Khattiyas, on the other hand, were less equipped with above-mentioned two pre-requisites for supremacy in the society. In course of debates with Braahmana priests on the question of birth superiority, the Buddha always deprecated the idea and talked of equality of human beings. He left the doors of the Sa"ngha open to all, irrespective of caste, community or region. But at times, while discussing the relative superiority of Braahma.nas and Khattiyas he always asserted that the Khattiyas were superior to the Braahma.nas (Khattiyo se.t.tho jane tasmi"m yo gotta-pa.tisaari.no). While talking of the var.nas in the society, the early Buddhist texts mention the list as followes, Khattiya, Braahma.na, Vessa and Sudda. In order to explain the evil aspect of the society, the instances had invariably been picked up from amongst the Braahma.na families. As a master tactician, the Buddha made several gestures and alliances with non-Braahma.na caste leaders and created an atmosphere where they could join hands with him and work for putting up a powerful challenge to the Braama.nical hierarchy. The declaration of the establishment of the Order at Vaaraa.nasii (Isipatana Migadaava, now Sarnath) which was one of the chief centres of trade and commerce in those days, with the dhammacakkapavattana sutta as its manifesto, was probably with the purpose of seeking alliance with the powerful trading community. The quick admission of Yasa and his fifty-four associates of Vaaraa.nasii to the Order [4], speaks volumes about this fact. In fact, many traders and bankers of those days loosened the strings of their money bags in order to help the Buddha for the expansion of his Order. How could it happen ? There seem to have been a calculated move from both sides. The Jaina texts too are full of references of rich traders patronizing the Jaina Order as well. (But it does not mean that all the rich traders were inclined towards these religious movements. They patronized the Braahma.na priests as well). There can be two explanations for this phenomenon. The burden of sacrificial expenses was too heavy and unbearable for this section of the people, and, hence, they too started disapproving the performance of the sacrifices. Secondly, they were denied political and administrative share in the state machinery to the extent they were economically powerful and helpful to it. There was bound to be resentment among them. The Khattiyas might have made some allowances, and, hence, an alliance with them.

As mentioned earlier, Devadatta represented a powerful faction in the Order, which stood for Pan-Khattiyism[5]. This section of the monks wanted rigorous asceticism to be compulsorily practised by all the members of the Order. Almost all the religious Orders in those days, which emphasized upon the practice of asceticism of this or that sort, were under the leadership of the non-Braahma.nas. The Braahma.nas were normally known to be prone to comfortable life, the basic concept of Vedic teaching being their guide in their day-to-day affairs. On the other hand, the practice of asceticism, which originated from non-Aaryan beliefs and practices, was the prerogative of the non-Braahma.nas. As the Aaryan settlers were much less in number than the non-Aaryans, the advocacy of such a cause was more popular with the people in general. Devadatta was planning in two ways. The emphasis on the practice of asceticism was bound to create repulsion in the minds of the Braahma.nas. Under the circumstances, the insiders would desert the Order, and the probable new entrants would not be attracted. Secondly, through the espousal of such a cause, the non-Braahma.na majority would flock towards him, and, hence, the actual control of the order. Thus, it seems, Devadatta was more faithful and consistent to the cause he was assigned, when he was encouraged to join the Order. Being a practical man the Buddha could not subscribe to Devadatta's way of thinking lest he might lose his popularity among the Braahma.nas who were very helpful for the expansion of his Order and the fulfilment of his mission. He needed powerful debaters who could face the challenges from the Braahma.na priests. These practical considerations prevailed upon him to be so guarded in his attitude and behaviour that hundreds of learned Braahma.nas were attracted towards him and his Order. On the other hand, this advocacy for rigorous ascetic practices had made Devadatta a friend of even non-Buddhist religious leaders. Niggantha Naataputta (Lord Mahaaviira) and his disciples had probably developed some link or understanding with him. In this respect, it is significant to note that those who played an active role, when he created the grand schism, were the monks from Vesaalii, the birth-place of Lord Mahaaviira himself.

Devadatta was not favourably disposed to Saariputta, Moggallaana, etc. who represented the rival faction in the Order. The leadership of this faction was in the hands of those monks who had come from the Braahma.na stock. Aananda, though a Khattiya by birth, belonged to this faction. The Buddha's success was probably due to his capacity to provide a balance between these two factions of the Order.

After the schism created by Devadatta, the position of Saariputta-Moggallaana faction became comparatively stronger. That is why after the death of the Buddha, when the First Council met at Raajagaha, it was this faction which provided the forum for the recitation and compilation of the Buddha's words. But it does not mean that other factions ceased to exist. The episode of Subhadda is very significant. He expressed delight over the passing away of the Buddha [6]. The Cullavagga account of the First Council depicts him to be a representative of those monks who were slack in religious practices. But there is every likelihood that the predominant section of the Order might have distorted Subhadda's role for their partisan considerations. There might have been yet another faction in the Order, which did not see eye to eye with this predominant faction, and expressed its reservations about the recited and compiled version of the words of the Master. The Cullavagga records that Puraa.na Thera and his disciples expressed their disapproval in clear-cut words. Thus the position in the Order was such that nobody could command the respect of all the factions in the Order. Hence, the Buddha's reluctance to name anybody as his successor. But on the other hand, the leadership which emerged after his death was capable enough to silence and liquidate all the rest. But the problem remained, and, in course of time, it appeared in much graver form. The Second Council was the culmination of the same. Confusion prevailed. The so-called faithful and orthodox monks of the Order were standing face to face with those who wanted to revise the principles and practices according to convenience. The socio-economic and political conditions had changed. These gave rise to new interpretations of the words of the Master, and new Vinayic practices in the Order, and thereby new methods of checks and balances. This led to a split and the monolith was completely shattered.


1. Vinaya Pi.taka (PTS edition), 1, 337-57.
2. Ibid, 11, 188.
3. On Yuan Chwang's Travels in India (Tr.) Watters.
4. Mahaavagga, Vinaya Pi.taka.
5. A parallel can be drawn with the Pan-Jatism movement of Haryana, Punjab, Rajasthan, Delhi and Western U.P.
6. Mahaaparinibbaana Sutta.

Buddhism Today Edition 2000
This electronic edition is offered for free distribution
via Buddhism Today by arrangement with the author.
Transcribed for Buddhism Today by Bhikkhuni Lien Hoa


Updated: 1-9-2000

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