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Their Previous History—T.W. Rhys Davids

The Questions of King Milinda

Book 1: The Secular Narrative

Chapter 2

2. Their Previous History

Previous births of Milinda and Nāgasena

By pubba-yoga is meant their past Karma (their doings in this or previous lives). Long ago, they say, when Kassapa the Buddha was promulgating the faith, there dwelt in one community near the Ganges a great company of members of the Order. There the brethren, true to established rules and duties, rose early in the morning, and taking the long-handled brooms, would sweep out the courtyard and collect the rubbish into a heap, meditating the while on the virtues of the Buddha.

One day a brother told a novice to remove the heap of dust. But he, as if he heard not, went about his business; and on being called a second time, and a third, still went his way as if he had not heard. Then the brother, angry with so intractable a novice, dealt him a blow with the broom stick. This time, not daring to refuse, he set about the task crying; and as he did so he muttered to himself this first aspiration: ‘May I, by reason of this meritorious act of throwing out the rubbish, in each successive condition in which I may be born up to the time when I attain Nirvāṇa, be powerful and glorious as the midday sun!’

When he had finished his work he went to the river side to bathe, and on beholding the mighty billows of the Ganges seething and surging, he uttered this second aspiration: ‘May I, in each successive condition in which I may be born till I attain Nirvāṇa, possess the power of saying the right thing, and saying it instantly, under any circumstance that may arise, carrying all before me like this mighty surge!’

Now that brother, after he had put the broom away in the broom closet, had likewise wandered down to the river side to bathe, and as he walked he happened to overhear what the novice had said. Then thinking: ‘If this fellow, on the ground of such an act of merit, which after all was instigated by me, can harbour hopes like this, what may not I attain to?’ he too made his wish, and it was thus: ‘In each successive condition in which I may be born till I attain Nirvāṇa, may I too be ready in saying the right thing at once, and more especially may 1 have the power of unravelling and of solving each problem and each puzzling question this young man may put-carrying all before me like this mighty surge!’

Then for the whole period between one Buddha and the next these two people wandered from existence to existence among gods and men. And these two also were forseen by our Buddha, just as he foresaw Tissa the Elder, the son of the Moggalī, so to them also did he foretell their future fate, saying: ‘Five hundred years after I have passed away will these two reappear, and the subtle Law and Doctrine taught by me will they two explain, unravelling and disentangling its difficulties by questions put and metaphors adduced.’

Milinda’s greatness and wisdom and love of disputation

Of the two the novice became the king of the city of Sāgala in India, Milinda by name, learned, eloquent, wise, and able; and a faithful observer, and that at the right time, of all the various acts of devotion and ceremony enjoined by his own sacred hymns concerning things past, present, and to come. Many were the arts and sciences he knew—holy tradition and secular law; the Sāṅkhya, Yoga, Nyāya, and Vaiśeshika systems of philosophy; arithmetic; music; medicine; the four Vedas, the Purāṇas, and the Itihāsas; astronomy, magic, causation, and spells; the art of war; poetry; conveyancing —in a word, the whole nineteen.

As a disputant he was hard to equal, harder still to overcome; the acknowledged superior of all the founders of the various schools of thought. And as in wisdom so in strength of body, swiftness, and valour there was found none equal to Milinda in all India. He was rich too, mighty in wealth and prosperity, and the number of his armed hosts knew no end.

Now one day Milinda the king proceeded forth out of the city to pass in review the innumerable host of his mighty army in its fourfold array (of elephants, cavalry, bowmen, and soldiers on foot). And when the numbering of the forces was over, the king, who was fond of wordy disputation, and eager for discussion with casuists, sophists, and gentry of that sort, looked at the sun (to ascertain the time), and then said to his ministers: ‘The day is yet young. What would be the use of getting back to town so early? Is there no learned person, whether wandering teacher or Brahman, the head of some school or order, or the master of some band of pupils (even though he profess faith in the Arahat, the Supreme Buddha), who would be able to talk with me, and resolve my doubts?’

Thereupon the five hundred Yonakas said to Milinda the king: ‘There are the six Masters, O king!—Pūraṇa Kassapa, Makkhali of the cowshed, the Nigaṇṭha of the Nāta clan, Sañjaya the son of the Belaṭṭha woman, Ajita of the garment of hair, and Pakudha Kaccāyana. These are well known as famous founders of schools, followed by bands of disciples and hearers, and highly honoured by the people. Go, great king! put to them your problems, and have your doubts resolved.’

So king Milinda, attended by the five hundred Yonakas, mounted the royal car with its splendid equipage, and went out to the dwelling-place of Pūraṇa Kassapa, exchanged with him the compliments of friendly greeting, and took his seat courteously apart. And thus sitting he said to him: ‘Who is it, venerable Kassapa, who rules the world?’

‘The Earth, great king, rules the world!’

‘But, venerable Kassapa, if it be the Earth that rules the world, how comes it that some men go to the Avīci hell, thus getting outside the sphere of the Earth?’

When he had thus spoken, neither could Pūraṇa Kassapa swallow the puzzle, nor could he bring it up; crestfallen, driven to silence, and moody, there he sat.

Then Milinda the king said to Makkhali of the cowshed: ‘Are there, venerable Gosāla, good and evil acts? Is there such a thing as fruit, ultimate result, of good and evil acts?’

‘There are no such acts, O king; and no such fruit, or ultimate result. Those who here in the world are nobles, they, O king, when they go to the other world, will become nobles once more. And those who are Brahmans, or of the middle class, or workpeople, or outcasts here, will in the next world become the same. What then is the use of good or evil acts ? ’

‘If, venerable Gosāla, it be as you say then, by parity of reasoning, those who, here in this world, have a hand cut off, must in the next world become persons with a hand cut off, and in like manner those who have had a foot cut off or an ear or their nose!’

And at this saying Makkhali was silenced.

Then thought Milinda the king within himself: ‘All India is an empty thing, it is verily like chaff! There is no one, either recluse or Brahman, capable of discussing things with me, and dispelling my doubts.’ And he said to his ministers: ‘Beautiful is the night and pleasant! Who is the recluse or Brahman we can visit to-night to question him, who will be able to converse with us and dispel our doubts ?’ And at that saying the counsellors remained silent, and stood there gazing upon the face of the king.

Birth story of Nāgasena

Now at that time the city of Sāgala had for twelve years been devoid of learned men, whether Brahmans, Samanas, or laymen. But wherever the king heard that such persons dwelt, thither he would go and put his questions to them. But they all alike, being unable to satisfy the king by their solution of his problems, departed hither and thither, or if they did not leave for some other place, were at all events reduced to silence. And the brethren of the Order went, for the most part, to the Himālaya mountains.

Now at that time there dwelt, in the mountain region of the Himālayas, on the Guarded Slope, an innumerable company of Arahats (brethren who, while yet alive, had attained Nirvāṇa). And the venerable Assagutta, by means of his divine power of hearing, heard those words of king Milinda. And he convened an assembly of the Order on the summit of the Yugandhara mountain, and asked the brethren: ‘Is there any member of the Order able to hold converse with Milinda the king, and resolve his doubts?’

Then were they all silent. And a second and a third time he put the same question to them, and still none of all the number spake. Then he said to the assembled Order: ‘There is, reverend Sirs, in the heaven of the Thirty-three, and east of the Vejayanta palace, a mansion called Ketumatī, wherein dwells the god Mahāsena. He is able to hold converse with Milinda the king, and to resolve his doubts.’ And the innumerable company of Arahats vanished from the summit of the Yugandhara mountain, and appeared in the heaven of the Thirty-three.

And Sakka, the king of the gods, beheld those brethren of the Order as they were coming from afar. And at the sight of them he went up to the venerable Assagutta, and bowed down before him, and stood reverently aside. And so standing he said to him: ‘Great, reverend Sir, is the company of the brethren that has come. What is it that they want? I am at the service of the Order. What can I do for you?’

And the venerable Assagutta replied: ‘There is, O king, in India, in the city of Sāgala, a king named Milinda. As a disputant he is hard to equal, harder still to overcome, he is the acknowledged superior of all the founders of the various schools of thought. He is in the habit of visiting the members of the Order and harassing them by questions of speculative import.’

Then said Sakka, the king of the gods, to him: ‘That same king Milinda, venerable one, left this condition to be born as a man. And there dwells in the mansion Ketumatī a god, Mahāsena by name, who is able to hold converse with him and to resolve his doubts. That god we will beseech to suffer himself to be reborn into the world of men.’

So Sakka, the king of the gods, preceded by the Order, entered the Ketumatī mansion; and when he had embraced Mahāsena the god, he said to him: ‘The Order of the brethren, Lord, makes this request of you-to be reborn into the world of men.’

‘I have no desire, Sir, for the world of men, so overladen with action (Karma). Hard is life as a man. It is here, Sir, in the world of the gods that, being reborn in ever higher and higher spheres, I hope to pass away!’

And a second and a third time did Sakka, the king of the gods, make the same request, and the reply was still the same. Then the venerable Assagutta addressed Mahāsena the god, and said: ‘On passing in review, Lord, the worlds of gods and men, there is none but thee that we find able to succour the faith by refuting the heretical views of Milinda the king. The whole Order beseeches thee, Lord, saying: “Condescend, O worthy one, to be reborn among men, in order to lend to the religion of the Blessed One thy powerful aid.”’

Then was Mahāsena the god overjoyed and delighted in heart at the thought that he would be able to help the faith by refuting the heresy of Milinda; and he gave them his word, and said: ‘Very well then, venerable ones, I consent to be reborn in the world of men,’

Then the brethren, having thus accomplished the task they had taken in hand, vanished from the heaven of the Thirty-three, and reappeared on the Guarded Slope in the Himālaya mountains. And the venerable Assagutta addressed the Order, and said: ‘Is there, venerable ones, any brother belonging to this company of the Order, who has not appeared in the assembly?’

Thereupon a certain brother said there was, that Rohaṇa had a week previously gone into the mountains, and become buried in meditation, and suggested that a messenger should be sent to him. And at that very moment the venerable Rohaṇa aroused himself from his meditation, and was aware that the Order was expecting him. And vanishing from the mountain top, he appeared in the presence of the innumerable company of the brethren.

And the venerable Assagutta said to him: ‘How now, venerable Rohaṇa! When the religion of the Buddha is in danger of crumbling away, have you no eyes for the work of the Order?’

‘It was through inadvertence, Sir,’ said he.

‘Then, venerable Rohaṇa, atone for it.’

‘What, Sir, should I do?’

‘There is a Brahman village, venerable Rohaṇa, called Kajangala, at the foot of the Himālaya mountains, and there dwells there a Brahman called Sonuttara. He will have a son called Nāgasena. Go to that house for alms during seven years and ten months. After the lapse of that time thou shalt draw away the boy from a worldly life, and cause him to enter the Order. When he shall have abandoned the world, then shalt thou be free of the atonement for thy fault.’

‘Let it be even as thou sayest,’ said the venerable Rohaṇa in assent.

Now Mahāsena the god passed away from the world of the gods, and was reborn in the womb of the wife of the Brahman Sonuttara. And at the moment of his conception three strange, wonderful things took place:—arms and weapons became all ablaze, the tender grain became ripe in a moment, and there was a great rain (in the time of drought). And the venerable Rohaṇa went to that house for alms for seven years and ten months from the day of Mahāsena’s re-incarnation, but never once did he receive so much as a spoonful of boiled rice, or a ladleful of sour gruel, or a greeting, or a stretching forth of the joined hands, or any sort of salutation. Nay rather it was insults and taunts that fell to his share: and there was no one who so much as said, Be so good, ‘Sir, as to go on to the next house.’

But when all that period had gone by he one day happened to have those very words addressed to him. And on that day the Brahman, on his way back from his work in the fields, saw the Elder as he met him on his return, and said: ‘Well, hermit, have you been to our place

‘Yes, Brahman, I have.’

‘But did you get anything there?’

‘Yes, Brahman, I did.’

And he was displeased at this, and went on home, and asked them: ‘Did you give anything to that hermit?’

‘We gave him nothing,’ was the reply.

Thereupon the Brahman, the next day, seated himself right in the doorway, thinking to himself: ‘To-day I’ll put that hermit to shame for having told a lie.’ And the moment that the Elder in due course came up to the house again, he said: ‘Yesterday you said you had got something at my house, having all the while got nothing! Is lying allowed to you fellows?’

And the Elder replied: ‘Brahman, for seven years and ten months no one even went so far as to suggest politely that I should pass on. Yesterday this courtesy was extended to me. It was to that that I referred.’

The Brahman thought to himself: ‘If these men, at the mere experience of a little courtesy, acknowledge in a public place, and with thanks, that they have received an alms, what will they not do if they really receive a gift!’ And he was much struck by this, and had an alms bestowed upon the Elder from the rice and curry prepared for his own use, and added furthermore: ‘Every day you shall receive here food of the same kind.’ And having watched the Elder as he visited the place from that day onwards, and noticed how subdued was his demeanour, he became more and more pleased with him, and invited him to take there regularly his midday meal. And the Elder gave, by silence, his consent; and daily from that time forth, when he had finished his meal, and was about to depart, he would pronounce some short passage or other from the words of the Buddha.

Now the Brahman’s wife had, after her ten months, brought forth her son; and they called his name Nāgasena. He grew up in due course till he became seven years old, and his father said to the child: ‘Do you want, dear Nāgasena, to study the learning traditional in this Brahmanical house of ours?’

‘What is it called, father?’ said he.

‘The three Vedas are called learning (Sikkhā), other kinds of knowledge are only arts, my dear.’

‘Yes, I should like to learn them, father,’ said the boy.

Then Sonuttara the Brahman gave to a Brahman teacher a thousand pieces as his teaching fee, and had a divan spread for him aside in an inner chamber, and said to him: ‘Do thou, Brahman, teach this boy the sacred hymns by heart.’

So the teacher made the boy repeat the hymns, urging him to get them by heart. And young Nāgasena, after one repetition of them, had learnt the three Vedas by heart, could intone them correctly, had understood their meaning, could fix the right place of each particular verse, and had grasped the mysteries they contained. All at once there arose in him an intuitive insight into the Vedas, with a knowledge of their lexicography, of their prosody, of their grammar, and of the legends attaching to the characters in them. He became a philologist and grammarian, and skilled alike in casuistry and in the knowledge of the bodily marks that foreshadow the greatness of a man.

Then young Nāgasena said to his father: ‘Is There anything more to be learned in this Brahmanical family of ours, or is this all?’

‘There is no more, Nāgasena, my dear. This is all,’ was the reply.

And young Nāgasena repeated his lesson to his teacher for the last time, and went out of the house, and in obedience to an impulse arising in his heart as the result of previous Karma, sought a place of solitude, where he gave himself up to meditation. And he reviewed what he had learnt throughout from beginning to end, and found no value in it anywhere at all. And he exclaimed in bitterness of soul: ‘Empty forsooth are these Vedas, and as chaff. There is in them neither reality, nor worth, nor essential truth!’

Nāgasena’a admission as a novice into the Order

That moment the venerable Rohaṇa, seated at his hermitage at Vattaniya, felt in his mind what was passing in the heart of Nāgasena. And he robed himself, and taking his alms-bowl in his hand, he vanished from Vattaniya and appeared near the Brahman village Kajaṅgala. And young Nāgasena, as he stood again in the doorway, saw him coming in the distance. At the sight of him he became happy and glad, and a sweet hope sprang up in his heart that from him he might learn the essential truth. And he went to him, and said: ‘Who art thou, Sir, that thou art thus bald-headed, and wearest yellow robes?’

‘They call me a recluse, my child’ (Pabbajita: literally, ‘one who has abandoned;’ that is, the worldly life).

‘And why do they call thee “one who has abandoned?”’

‘Because a recluse is one who has receded from The world in order to make the stain of sinful things recede. It is for that reason, my child, that they call me a recluse.’

‘Why, Sir, dost thou not wear hair as others do?’

‘A recluse shaves off his hair and beard on the recognition of the sixteen impediments therein to the higher life. And what are those sixteen ? the impediments of ornamenting it, and decking it out, of putting oil upon it, of shampooing it, of placing garlands round it, of using scents and unguents, and myrobalan seeds, and dyes, and ribbons, and combs, of calling in the barber, of unravelling curls, and of the possibility of vermin. When their hair falls off they are grieved and harassed; yea, they lament sometimes, and cry, and beat their breasts, or fall headlong in a swoon—and entangled by these and such impediments men may forget those parts of wisdom or learning which are delicate and subtle.’

‘And why, Sir, are not thy garments, too, as those of other men?’

‘Beautiful clothes, my boy, such as are worn by worldly men, are inseparable from the five cravings. But whatsoever dangers lurk in dress he who wears the yellow robes knows nothing of. It is for that reason that my dress is not as other men’s.’

‘Dost thou know, Lord, what is real knowledge?’

‘Yes, lad, the real knowledge I know; and what is the best hymn (mantra) in the world, that too I know.’

‘Couldst thou teach it, Lord, to me too?’

‘Yes, I could.’

‘Teach me, then.’

‘Just now is not the right time for that; we, have come down to the village for alms.’

Then young Nāgasena took the alms-bowl the venerable Rohaṇa was carrying, and led him into the house, and with his own hand supplied him with food, hard and soft, as much as he required. And when he saw that he had finished his meal, and withdrawn his hand from the bowl, he said to him: ‘Now, Sir, will you teach me that hymn?’

‘When thou hast become free from impediments, my lad, by taking upon thee, and with thy parents’ consent, the hermit’s dress I wear, then I can teach it thee.’

So young Nāgasena went to his father and mother, and said: ‘This recluse says he knows the best hymn in the world, but that he cannot teach it to any one who has not entered the Order as his pupil. I should like to enter the Order and learn that hymn.’

And his parents gave their consent; for they wished him to learn the hymn, even at the cost of retiring from the world; and they thought that when he had learned it he would come back again.

Then the venerable Rohaṇa took Nāgasena to the Vattaniya hermitage, to the Vijamba Vatthu, and having spent the night there, took him on to the Guarded Slope, and there, in the midst of the innumerable company of the Arahats, young Nāgasena was admitted, as a novice, into the Order.

And then, when he had been admitted to the Order, the venerable Nāgasena said to the venerable Rohaṇa: ‘I have adopted your dress; now teach me that hymn.’

Then the venerable Rohaṇa thought thus to himself: ‘In what ought I first to instruct him, in the Discourses (Suttanta) or in the deeper things of the faith (Abhidhamma)?’ and inasmuch as he saw that Nāgasena was intelligent, and could master the Abhidhamma with ease, he gave him his first lesson in that.

And the venerable Nāgasena, after hearing it repeated but once, knew by heart the whole of the Abhidhamma—that is to say, the Dhamma Saṅgaṇi, with its great divisions into good, bad, and indifferent qualities, and its subdivisions into couples and triplets —the Vibhaṅga, with its eighteen chapters, beginning with the book on the constituent elements of beings—the Dhātu Kathā, with its fourteen books, beginning with that on compensation and non-compensation—the Puggala Paññatti, with its six divisions into discrimination of the various constituent elements, discrimination of the various senses and of the properties they apprehend, and so on —the Kathā Vatthu, with its thousand sections, five hundred on as many points of our own views, and five hundred on as many points of our opponents’ views—the Yamaka, with its ten divisions into complementary propositions as to origins, as to constituent elements, and so on—and the Paṭṭhāna, with its twenty-four chapters on the reason of causes, the reason of ideas, and the rest. And he said : ‘That will do, Sir. You need not propound it again. That will suffice for my being able to rehearse it.’

Then Nāgasena went to the innumerable company of the Arahats, and said: ‘I should like to propound the whole of the Abhidhamma Piṭaka, without abridgement, arranging it under the three heads of good, bad, and indifferent qualities.’ And they gave him leave. And in seven months the venerable Nāgasena recited the seven books of the Abhidhamma in full. And the earth thundered, the gods shouted their applause, the Brahma gods clapped their hands, and there came down a shower from heaven of sweet-scented sandal-wood dust, and of Mandārava flowers! And the innumerable company of the Arahats, then and there at the Guarded Slope, admitted the venerable Nāgasena, then twenty years of age, to full membership in the higher grade of the Order.

Now the next day after he had thus been admitted into full membership in the Order, the venerable Nāgasena robed himself at dawn, and taking his bowl, accompanied his teacher on his round for alms to the village below. And as he went this thought arose within him: ‘It was, after all, empty-headed and foolish of my teacher to leave the rest of the Buddha’s word aside, and teach me the Abhidhamma first!’ And the venerable Rohaṇa became aware in his own mind of what was passing in the mind of Nāgasena, and he said to him: ‘That is an unworthy reflection that thou art making, Nāgasena; it is not worthy of thee so to think.’

‘How strange and wonderful,’ thought Nāgasena, ‘that my teacher should be able to tell in his own mind what I am thinking of! I must ask his pardon.’ And he said: ‘Forgive me, Sir; I will never make such a reflection again.’

‘I cannot forgive you, Nāgasena, simply on that promise,’ was the reply. ‘But there is a city called Sāgala, where a king rules whose name is Milinda, and he harasses the brethren by putting puzzles to them of heretical tendency. You will have earned your pardon, Nāgasena, when you shall have gone there, and overcome that king in argument, and brought him to take delight in the truth.’

‘Not only let king Milinda, holy one, but let all the kings of India come and propound questions to me, and I will break all those puzzles up and solve them, if only you will pardon me!’ exclaimed Nāgasena. But when he found it was of no avail, he said: ‘Where, Sir, do you advise me to spend the three months of the rains now coming on ?’

‘There is a brother named Assagutta dwelling at the Vattaniya hermitage. Go, Nāgasena, to him; and in my name bow down to his feet, and say: “My teacher, holy one, salutes you reverently, and asks whether you are in health and ease, in full vigour and comfort. He has sent me here to pass The three months of the rains under your charge.” When he asks you your teacher’s name, tell it him. But when he asks you his own name, say: “My teacher, Sir, knows your name.”’

And Nāgasena bowed down before the venerable Rohaṇa, and passing him on his right hand as he left him, took his bowl and robe, and went on from place to place till he came to the Vattaniya hermitage, begging for his food on the way. And on his arrival he saluted the venerable Assagutta, and said exactly what he had been told to say, and to the last reply Assagutta said: ‘Very well then, Nāgasena, put by your bowl and robe.’ And the next day Nāgasena swept out the teacher’s cell, and put the drinking water and tooth-cleansers ready for him to use. The Elder swept out the cell again, threw away the water and the tooth-cleansers, and fetched others, and said not a word of any kind. So it went on for seven days. On the seventh the Elder again asked him the same questions as before. And on Nāgasena again making the same replies, he gave him leave to pass the rainy season there.

Nāgasena’s attainment of stream-entry

Now a certain woman, a distinguished follower of the faith, had for thirty years and more administered to the wants of the venerable Assagutta. And at the end of that rainy season she came one day to him, and asked whether there was any other brother staying with him. And when she was told that there was one, named Nāgasena, she invited the Elder, and Nāgasena, with him, to take their midday meal the next day at her house. And the Elder signified, by silence, his consent. The next forenoon the Elder robed himself, and taking his bowl in his hand, went down, accompanied by Nāgasena as his attendant, to the dwelling-place of that disciple, and there they sat down on the seats prepared for them. And she gave to both of them food, hard and soft, as much as they required, waiting upon them with her own hands. When Assagutta had finished his meal, and the hand was withdrawn from the bowl, he said to Nāgasena: ‘Do thou, Nāgasena, give the thanks to this distinguished lady.’ And, so saying, he rose from his seat, and went away.

And the lady said to Nāgasena: ‘I am old, friend Nāgasena. Let the thanksgiving be from the deeper things of the faith.’

And Nāgasena, in pronouncing the thanksgiving discourse, dwelt on the profounder side of the Abhidhamma, not on matters of mere ordinary morality, but on those relating to Arahatship. And as the lady sat there listening, there arose in her heart the Insight into the Truth, clear and stainless, which perceives that whatsoever has beginning, that has the inherent quality of passing away. And Nāgasena also, when he had concluded that thanksgiving discourse, felt the force of the truths he himself had preached, and he too arrived at insight —he too entered, as he sat there, upon the stream (that is to say, upon the first stage of the Excellent Way to Arahatship).

Then the venerable Assagutta, as he was sitting in his arbour, was aware that they both had attained to insight, and he exclaimed: ‘Well done! well done, Nāgasena! by one arrow shot you have hit two noble quarries!’ And at the same time thousands of the gods shouted their approval.

Now the venerable Nāgasena arose and returned to Assagutta, and saluting him, took a seat reverently apart. And Assagutta said to him: ‘Do thou now go, Nāgasena, to Pāṭaliputta. There, in the Asoka Park, dwells the venerable Dhamma-rakkhita. Under him you should learn the words of the Buddha.’

‘How far is it, Sir, from here to Pāṭaliputta.’

‘A hundred leagues, Nāgasena.’

‘Great, Sir, is the distance. It will be difficult to get food on the way. How shall I get there?’

‘Only go straight on, Nāgasena. You shall get food on the way, rice from which the black grains have been picked out, with curries and gravies of various sorts.’

‘Very well, Sir!’ said Nāgasena, and bowing down before his teacher, and passing him on the right side as he went, he took his bowl and his robe and departed for Pāṭaliputta.

At that time a merchant of Pāṭaliputta, was on his way back to that city with five hundred waggons. And when he saw the venerable Nāgasena coming in the distance, he stopped the waggons, and saluted Nāgasena, and asked him: ‘Whither art thou going, father?’

‘To Pāṭaliputta, householder.’

‘That is well, father. We too are going thither. It will be more convenient for thee to go with us.’

And the merchant, pleased with Nāgasena’s manners, provided him with food, hard and soft, as much as he required, waiting upon him with his own hands. And when the meal was over, he took a low seat, and sat down reverently apart. So seated, he said to the venerable Nāgasena: ‘What, father, is your name?’

‘I am called Nāgasena, householder.’

‘Dost thou know, father, what are the words of Buddha?’

‘I know the Abhidhamma.’

‘We are most fortunate, father; this is indeed an advantage. I am a student of the Abhidhamma, and so art thou. Repeat to me, father, some passages from it.’

Then the venerable Nāgasena preached to him from the Abhidhamma, and by degrees as he did so there arose in Nāgasena’s heart the Insight into the Truth, clear and stainless, which perceives that whatsoever has in itself the necessity of beginning, that too has also the inherent quality of passing away.

And the Pāṭaliputta merchant sent on his waggons in advance, and followed himself after them. And at a place where the road divided, not far from Pāṭaliputta, he stopped, and said to Nāgasena: ‘This is the turning to the Asoka Park. Now I have here a rare piece of woollen stuff, sixteen cubits by eight. Do me the favour of accepting it.’ And Nāgasena did so. And the merchant, pleased and glad, with joyful heart, and full of content and happiness, saluted the venerable Nāgasena, and keeping him on his right hand as he passed round him, went on his way.

Nāgasena’s attainment of Arahatship

But Nāgasena went on to the Asoka Park to Dhamma-rakkhita. And after saluting him, and telling him on what errand he had come, he learnt by heart, from the mouth of the venerable Dhamma-rakkhita, the whole of the three baskets of the Buddha’s word in three months, and after a single recital, so far as the letter (that is, knowing the words by heart) was concerned.. And in three months more he mastered the spirit (that is, the deeper meaning of the sense of the words).

But at the end of that time the venerable Dhamma-rakkhita addressed him, and said: ‘Nāgasena, as a herdsman tends the cows, but others enjoy their produce, so thou too carriest in thy head the whole three baskets of the Buddha’s word, and still art not yet a partaker of the fruit of Samaṇaship.’

‘Though that be so, holy one, say no more,’ was the reply. And on that very day, at night, he attained to Arahatship and with it to the fourfold power of that Wisdom possessed by all Arahats (that is to say: the realisation of the sense, and the appreciation of the deep religious teaching contained in the word, the power of intuitive judgment, and the power of correct and ready exposition). And at the moment of his penetrating the truth all the gods shouted their approval, and the earth thundered, and the Brahma gods clapped their hands, and there fell from heaven a shower of sweet-scented sandal dust and of Mandārava flowers.

Now at that time the innumerable company of the Arahats at the Guarded Slope in the Himālaya mountains sent a message to him to come, for they were anxious to see him. And when he heard the message the venerable Nāgasena vanished from the Asoka Park and appeared before them. And they said: ‘Nāgasena, that king Milinda is in the habit of harassing the brethren by knotty questions and by argumentations this way and that. Do thou, Nāgasena, go and master him.’

‘Not only let king Milinda, holy ones, but let all the kings of India, come and propound questions to me. I will break all those puzzles up and solve them. You may go fearlessly to Sāgala.’

Then all the Elders went to the city of Sāgala, lighting it up with their yellow robes like lamps, and bringing down upon it the breezes from the heights where the sages dwell.

Milinda confutes Āyupāla

At that time the venerable Āyupāla was living at the Saṅkheyya hermitage. And king Milinda said to his counsellors: ‘Beautiful is the night and pleasant! Who is the wandering teacher or Brahman we can visit to night to question him who will be able to converse with us and to resolve our doubts?’

And the five hundred Yonakas replied: ‘There is the Elder, Lord, named Āyupāla, versed in the three baskets, and in all the traditional lore. He is living now at the Saṅkheyya hermitage. To him you might go, O king, and put your questions to him.’

‘Very well, then. Let the venerable one be informed that we are coming.’ Then the royal astrologer sent a message to Āyupāla to the effect that king Milinda desired to call upon him. And the venerable one said: ‘Let him come.’

So Milinda the king, attended by the five hundred Yonakas, mounted his royal chariot and proceeded to the Sankheyya hermitage, to the place where Āyupāla dwelt, and exchanged with him the greetings and compliments of friendship and courtesy, and took his seat respectfully apart. And then he said to him:

‘Of what use, venerable āyupāla, is the renunciation of the world carried out by the members of your Order, and in what do you place the summum bonum?’

‘Our renunciation, O king,’ replied the Elder, ‘is for the sake of being able to live in righteousness, and in spiritual calm.’

‘Is there, Sir, any layman who lives so?’

‘Yes, great king, there are such laymen. At the time when the Blessed One set rolling the royal chariot wheel of the kingdom of righteousness at Benares, at the Deer Park, eighteen koṭis of the Brahma gods, and an innumerable company of other gods, attained to comprehension of the truth. And not one of those beings, all of whom were laymen, had renounced the world. And again when the Blessed One delivered the Mahā Samaya discourse, and the discourse on the ‘Greatest Blessing,’ and the Exposition of Quietism, and the discourse on losses (Parābhava Suttanta), and the Exhortation to Rāhula, the multitude of gods who attained to comprehension of the truth cannot be numbered. And not one of those beings, all of whom were laymen, had renounced the world.’

‘Then, most venerable Āyupāla, your renunciation is of no use. It must be in consequence of sins committed in some former birth, that the Buddhist Samanas renounce the world, and even subject themselves to the restraints of one or other of the thirteen aids to purity! Those who remain on one seat till they have finished their repast were, forsooth, in some former birth, thieves who robbed other men of their food. It is in consequence of the Karma of having so deprived others of food that they have now only such food as they can get at one sitting; and are not allowed to eat from time to time as they want. It is no virtue on their part, no meritorious abstinence, no righteousness of life. And they who live in the open air were, forsooth, in some former birth, dacoits who plundered whole villages. It is in consequence of the Karma of having destroyed other people’s homes, that they live now without a home, and are not allowed the use of huts. It is no virtue on their part, no meritorious abstinence, no righteousness of life. And those who never lie down, they, forsooth, in some former birth, were highwaymen who seized travellers, and bound them, and left them sitting there. It is in consequence of the Karma of that habit that they have become Nesajjikā in this life (men who always sit) and get no beds to lie on. It is no virtue on their part, no meritorious abstinence, no righteousness of life!’

And when he had thus spoken the venerable Āyupāla was silenced, and had not a word to say in reply. Then the five hundred Yonakas said to the king: ‘The Elder, O king, is learned, but is also diffident. It is for that reason that he makes no rejoinder. But the king on seeing how silent Āyupāla had become, clapped his hands and cried out: ‘All India is an empty thing, it is verily like chaff! There is no one, either Samana or Brahman, capable of discussing things with me and dispelling my doubts!’

As he looked, however, at the assembly and saw how fearless and self-possessed the Yonakas appeared, he thought within himself: ‘For a certainty there must be, methinks, some other learned brother capable of disputing with me, or those Yonakas would not be thus confident.’ And he said to them: ‘Is there, my good men, any other learned brother to discuss things with me and dispel my doubts?’

Nāgasena arrives; his character

Now at that time the venerable Nāgasena, after making his alms-tour through the villages, towns, and cities, had in due course arrived at Sāgala, attended by a band of Samaṇas, as the leader of a company of the Order; the head of a body of disciples; the teacher of a school; famous and renowned, and highly esteemed by the people. And he was learned, clever, wise, sagacious, and able; a skilful expounder, of subdued manners, but full of courage; well versed in tradition, master of the three Baskets (Piṭakas), and erudite in Vedic lore. He was in possession of the highest (Buddhist) insight, a master of all that had been handed down in the schools, and of the various discriminations by which the most abstruse points can be explained. He knew by heart the ninefold divisions of the doctrine of the Buddha to perfection, and was equally skilled in discerning both the spirit and the letter of the Word. Endowed with instantaneous and varied power of repartee, and wealth of language, and beauty of eloquence, he was difficult to equal, and still more difficult to excel, difficult to answer, to repel, or to refute. He was imperturbable as the depths of the sea, immovable as the king of mountains; victorious in the struggle with evil, a dispeller of darkness and diffuser of light; mighty in eloquence, a confounder of the followers of other masters, and a crusher-out of the adherents of rival doctrines (malleus hereticorum). Honoured and revered by the brethren and sisters of the Order, and its lay adherents of either sex, and by kings and their high officials, he was in the abundant receipt of all the requisites of a member of the Order—robes and bowl and lodging, and whatever is needful for the sick—receiving the highest veneration no less than material gifts. To the wise and discerning who came to him with listening ear he displayed the ninefold jewel of the Conqueror’s word, he pointed out to them the path of righteousness, bore aloft for them the torch of truth, set up for them the sacred pillar of the truth, and celebrated for their benefit the sacrifice of the truth. For them he waved the banner, raised the standard, blew the trumpet, and beat the drum of truth. And with his mighty lion’s voice, like Indra’s thunder but sweet the while, he poured out upon them a plenteous shower, heavy with drops of mercy, and brilliant with the coruscations of the lightning flashes of his knowledge, of the nectar waters of the teaching of the Nirvāṇa of the truth—thus satisfying to the full a thirsty world.

There then, at the Sankheyya hermitage, did the venerable Nāgasena, with a numerous company of the brethren, dwell. Therefore is it said:

‘Learned, with varied eloquence, sagacious, bold,
Master of views, in exposition sound,
The brethren—wise themselves in holy writ,
Repeaters of the fivefold sacred word—
Put Nāgasena as their leader and their chief.
Him, Nāgasena of clear mind and wisdom deep,
Who knew which was the right Path, which the false,
And had himself attained Nirvāṇa’s placid heights!
Attended by the wise, by holders to the Truth,
He had gone from town to town, and come to Sāgala;
And now he dwelt there in Saṅkheyya’s grove,
Appearing, among men, like the lion of the hills.’

Milinda goes to him

And Devamantiya said to king Milinda: ‘Wait a little, great king, wait a little! There is an Elder named Nāgasena, learned, able, and wise, of subdued manners, yet full of courage, versed in the traditions, a master of language, and ready in reply, one who understands alike the spirit and the letter of the law, and can expound its difficulties and refute objections to perfection. He is staying at present at the Saṅkheyya hermitage. You should go, great king, and put your questions to him. He is able to discuss things with you, and dispel your doubts.’

Then when Milinda the king heard the name Nāgasena, thus suddenly introduced, he was seized with fear, and with anxiety, and the hairs of his body stood on end. But he asked Devamantiya: ‘Is that really so?’ And Devamantiya replied: ‘He is capable, Sire, of discussing things with the guardians of the world—with Indra, Yama, Varuṇa, Kuvera, Prajāpati, Suyāma, and Santushita—and even with the great Brahma himself, the progenitor of mankind, how much more then with a mere human being!’

‘Do you then, Devamantiya,’ said the king, ‘send a messenger to say I am coming.’

And he did so. And Nāgasena sent word back that he might come. And the king, attended by the five hundred Yonakas, mounted his royal chariot, and proceeded with a great retinue to the Saṅkheyya hermitage, and to the place where Nāgasena dwelt.

At that time the venerable Nāgasena was seated with the innumerable company of the brethren of the Order, in the open hall in front of the hermitage. So king Milinda saw the assembly from afar, and he said to Devamantiya: ‘Whose, Devamantiya, is this so mighty retinue?’

‘These are they who follow the venerable Nāgasena,’ was the reply.

Then at the sight there came over king Milinda a feeling of fear and of anxiety, and the hairs of his body stood on end. But nevertheless, though he felt like an elephant hemmed in by rhinoceroses, like a serpent surrounded by the Garudas (the snake-eating mythical birds), like a jackal surrounded by boa-constrictors, or a bear by buffaloes, like a frog pursued by a serpent, or a deer by a panther, like a snake in the hands of a snake charmer, or a rat played with by a cat, or a devil charmed by an exorcist, like the moon when it is seized by Rāhu, like a snake caught in a basket, or a bird in a cage, or a fish in a net, like a man who has lost his way in a dense forest haunted by wild beasts, like a Yakkha (ogre) who has sinned against Vessavana (the king of ogres and fairies), or like a god whose term of life as a god has reached its end—though confused and terrified, anxious, and beside himself in an agony of fear like that—yet at the thought that he must at least avoid humiliation in the sight of the people, he took courage, and said to Devamantiya: ‘You need not trouble to point out to me which is Nāgasena. I shall pick him out unaided.’

‘Certainly, Sire, recognise him yourself,’ said he.

Now Nāgasena was junior in seniority (reckoned from the date of his full membership in the Order) to the half of that great company seated in front of him, and senior to the half seated behind him. And as he looked over the whole of the assembly, in front, and down the centre, and behind, king Milinda detected Nāgasena seated in the middle, and, like a shaggy lion who knows no fear or frenzy, entirely devoid of nervous agitation, and free from shyness and trepidation. And as soon as he saw him, he knew by his mien that that was Nāgasena, and he pointed him out to Devamantiya.

‘Yes, great king,’ said he, ‘that is Nāgasena. Well hast thou, Sire, recognised the sage.’

‘Whereupon the king rejoiced that he had recognised Nāgasena without having had him pointed out to him. But nevertheless, at the sight of him, the king was seized with nervous excitement and trepidation and fear. Therefore is it said:

‘At the sight of Nāgasena, wise and pure,
Subdued in all that is the best subjection,
Milinda uttered this foreboding word—
"Many the talkers I have visited,
Many the conversations I have had,
But never yet, till now, to-day, has fear,
So strange, so terrible, o’erpowered my heart.
Verily now defeat must be my lot,
And victory his, so troubled is my mind.”’

Here ends the introductory secular narrative (Bāhira-kathā).