The Angulimala case: a different reading


Who was Angulimala?-

How Buddhism Began,

by Richard Gombrich, 1996.

I asked myself whom a man wearing a necklace of fingers might have been honouring for a long time.

Textually it is easy to change mahesi into maheso. This change seems to resolve almost all our problems at one blow. Angulimala is revealed as a proto-Saiva/Sakta, for Sanskrit mahesa (Pali maheso) is a title of Siva. There is no other evidence nearly as early as the Buddhist Canon for the sanguinary vows which led devotees of the Goddess to decorate themselves with parts of the human body often culled from living victims.

But the Buddhist evidence for such other extreme practices as the dog vow is similarly isolated. We simply possess very little evidence earlier than the Christian era (or indeed several centuries later) for any religious practices except those of Buddhists, Jains and orthoprax brahmins.

The mere change of the final vowel of the pada is not enough to resolve the line’s metrical problems; but we can now see in what direction a solution might lie. Angulimala is describing himself as a long-standing worshipper of ‘the Great Lord’, i.e., Shiva. His practice of collecting fingers for a necklace is thus sure to be the result of a vow, in which the worshipper tries to attain the iconic form of his god. The Pali word for a religious practice undertaken to fulfil a vow is vata. I cannot restore the pada with absolute confidence, but for it to begin ciram vata would restore both metre and sense. I take vata as a dative of purpose: ‘for my votive practice’, i.e., to fulfil a vow.8 I presume that at a very early stage in the transmission of the text the ‘vow’ was lost by those who had no idea about such practices; they turned it into the otiose particle vata, ‘indeed’.

To sum up, I read and translate as follows:

Cirassaṃ vata me mahito maheso

Mahāvanaṃ samaṇoyaṃ paccupādi,

Sohaṃ cirassāpi pahassaṃ pāpaṃ

Sutvāna gāthaṃ tava dhammayuttaṃ.


‘For a long time to fulfil a vow I have been honouring Siva.

You have arrived in the forest, speaking truth.

So I shall give up my thousand crimes,

for I have heard your verse, which teaches what is right.’

Read the full text at:


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