I'm confused by Ajātasattu’s family

Ajātasattu is the son of Bimbisāra and father of Udāyibhadda. So far so good!

He is also called Vedehiputta. This name is confirmed not only in the Pali but in inscription and other languages as well.

Now, this would seem to mean “son of the Queen of Videha”, as per Bodhi in his translation of DN 2. Videha is the nation of which Mithilā is the capital, and hence was a central location of the “Kosalan brahmanism”, being the location where, a few generations earlier, King Janaka had debated Vajnavalkya.

But Ajātasattu is also said to be the son of the Queen (or “princess”, kosaladevī) of Kosala, who in turn was the daughter of Mahākosala and sister to Pasenadi. Now, Mahākosala was the king who put Kosala on the map by subjugating rival territories, including, it would seem, the Buddha’s own nation of Sakya.

One reading of this is that his daughter was given the title “Princess of Videha” in the same way as today we might have “Prince of Wales”, to honor the newly conquered territory. The problem with this is that, at the time, Videha was allied with the Licchavīs to form the fiercely independent Vajjian confederacy. They were later conquered by Magadha, but I don’t think they were ever part of Kosala.

The other possibility is that the history linking his mother with Mahākosala’s daughter is false. According to Wikipedia—and I have not been able to chase down the sources—Bimbisara had three wives, each securing a critical alliance.

  • Kosaladevī, the “princess of Kosala” and Pasenadi’s sister.
  • Cellaṇā, daughter of Chetaka, a Licchavī king from Vesali.
  • Khemā, daughter of a Madra king from the Punjab.

Cellaṇā was Ajātasattu’s mother according to (admittedly partisan) Jain sources. This aligns better with the epithet Vedehiputta, although technically both the Videhans and Licchavis were part of Vajji. It does make sense, because we know that a few years after the King’s accession and the events of DN 2, he set his sights on conquering Vajji. If he had a serious claim to royal status there it would provide a justification.

The commentarial solution to this is to deny that the word here has any real connection with Videha, but rather is a word meaning “wise”, connected with veda. Thus he would be Ajātasattu, son of the wise woman. But this seems forced. To support this, they note that Ānanda is referred to by the nuns Thullatissā and Thullanandā (SN 16.10, SN 16.11) as vedehamuni, which they explain as “wise sage”.

Mahavastu 83 suggests a different explanation.

ānando pi icchati pravrajituṁ mātāye mṛgīye śākyakanyāye nānujānīyati || so vaidehaṁ janapadaṁ gatvāna maunavratena āsati
Ānanda also wished to go forth, but his mother Mṛgīya the Sakyan maiden did not allow it. So he went to the country of Videha and undertook a vow of sagacity (silence?).

Elsewhere Mavahavstu 72 confirms the epithet vaidehakamuni.

The Mulasarvastivadins seem to suggest yet another reading. There was evidently a mountain of Rajagaha called Vaidehaka. One time, it would seem, the Buddha asked Ananda to hold on to his robe, whereupon he vanished and reappeared on that mountain. He showed Ananda the farmers of Magadha working the fields, and asked that he pattern the robes after them. In the Pali this is told more simply, as they were wandering in the Southern Hills at the time.

The text does not associate this event with the epithet “sage of Videha”, but it is significant in that the lineage of the robe plays a large part in the authority of Mahakassapa. Famously, the Buddha swapped his robes with Mahakassapa, being the only time this happened. This is one of the claims Mahakassapa makes in SN 16.11 to assert his authority over Ananda. Perhaps it is significant that this event took place after one of the very rare visits to the Southern Hills. Thus it could be understood that there are two competing claims to authority based on the lineage of the robes.

Another point that seems significant is that the epithet vedehamuni is only used when contrasted with Mahakassapa:

ayyo mahākassapo aññatitthiyapubbo samāno ayyaṁ ānandaṁ vedehamuniṁ
Master Mahākassapa, who formerly followed another path, Master Ānanda the Videhan sage

Mahakassapa rebukes the nun and denies that he had ever followed another path, so the nun was confused (perhaps mixing him up with Sariputta and Moggallana who had indeed followed another teacher). But the context very much makes it about who is the real follower of the Buddha. So whatever vedehamuni means, it must have something to do with Ananda’s supposed authenticity as the genuine heir of the Buddha.

This would be satisfied by both the Mahasanghika’s explanation (he missed the Buddha so much even as a youth that he undertook a vow of silence), as well as the Mulasarvastivadin (he was the one entrusted by the Buddha with designing the robe, the emblem of the Sangha). But if so, why would this tradition only be remembered by two (bad) nuns? Unless maybe they too came from Videha and remembered his time there? But I can’t find anything on their place of origin.

I’m wondering whether the memory of Mithilā as the center of the great brahmanical debates influenced the idea that being “of Videha” was a sign of wisdom?

As a result of this confusion, translators vary in their renderings for Vedehiputta. Bodhi in DN 2 has “son of the Queen of Videha”, but later, in AN, he used the Pali, as have I. @Brahmali has “Ajātasattu of Videha”, for which I’d be interested to hear the reasoning.

Given the evident meaning of vedehiputta, and the support of the Jain sources, I’m inclined to translate it as “son of the Videhan princess”.


Now, if the commentary is correct, it creates a rather, umm, tight-knit family tree for Ajātasattu. His mother was Pasenadi’s sister. His wife was Vajirā, Pasenadi’s daughter, and hence his own first cousin. :grimacing: Obviously it was not uncommon in royal families, but still.

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Looking up the parallels for sn16.10 and sn16.11, and at SA-2 118 I find the line:

云何迦 葉在阿難比提醯子牟尼之前而說法要?

SA 1143 also seems to render vedehamuni or something similar. I wonder if one of our Chinese experts could help me out here? @cdpatton @Suvira

The reasoning is simple. This sort of compound, with the name of a tribe or country followed by the suffix putta, is quite common. The most obvious example is the Buddha himself who is called sakyaputta. Now, does this relate to the Buddha’s parents or to the Sakyans as a tribe? I would say the latter. The Buddha’s father’s name was presumably Suddhodana Gotama. Calling the Buddha Sakyaputta would not seem to link him directly to his parents. Moreover, the standard passage Gotamo sakyaputto sakyakulā pabbajito, with sakyakulā closely following sakyaputto, is suggestive. I think it is likely that sakyaputto, “son of the Sakyan(s)” is closely related in meaning to sakyakulā, “the Sakyan clan”. Pali is rife with this sort of structure, where synonyms are used in place of single words. I would therefore render Gotamo sakyaputto as “Gotama the Sakyan”, that is, Gotama from the Sakyan country or clan.

A similar argument can be made for a number of names having the same structure. For instance, in the Vinaya we have Upanando sakyaputto, who is presumably also simply from the Sakyan clan. I am not sure how it could make sense for both the Buddha and Upananda to be called Sakyans if it referred to immediate family rather than clan. There is no evidence, as far as I know, that the two were closely related.

Similarly, the suttas and Vinaya mention three different koliyaputtas - Puṇṇa, Kakudha, and Dīghajāṇu - two different mallaputtas - Dabba and Pukkusa - two different lichavīputtas - Sunakkhatta and Dummukha. We also have the king Mādhura Avantiputta. It seems to me that the straightforward and obvious meaning in all these cases is “so-and-so the Koliyan”, “so-and-so the Mallian”, etc. In other words, it concerns the tribe or nationality of the person, not his parents.

Why would such a tribal name be added to some names, but not to others? My guess is that this was done when there were many monks of the same name. This is much like the naming conventions of monks in modern Sri Lanka, where the village name is given first and then the Pali name.

To me the above must be given precedence over any commentarial material that suggests otherwise. Still, the two are not necessarily in conflict. If Ajātasattu’s mother really was from Videha, it is just conceivable that he was considered as being from that country, especially if he was born there. (It was apparently the custom for pregnant women to return to their native land to give birth.) Just conceivable, but still unlikely, given the patriarchal structure of Indian society. So what about his father Bimbisāra? Well, the reality is that he is mostly a mythological figure. In the suttas he exists as someone who is spoken about, but hardly appears at all in person. Could he have been from Videha? I don’t think we can discount such a possibility, in which case Ajātasattu may have been born there, and thus considered a Videhan. It will have to remain highly speculative, yet I believe it is well within the scope of the possible.

In the end we are left with the structure of tribal name + putta. To me the most obvious explanation for this construction is that it describes a person belonging to that same tribe.

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Ahh … Bhante @sujato, did you not recently change the translation “son of Bhoja” for Rohitassa’s epithet bhojaputta to “Rohitassa of the Bhoja people”? (You changed it in SN 2.26, but didn’t change it in AN 4.45.) That would follow the same line of reasoning.

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SA-2 118
比提醯子牟尼= Videhi/e *putta muni, following Karashima Seishi

SA 1143
鞞提訶牟尼
Videha muni

Of course, this is not as fun as letting @cdpatton have a crack with the Gakken dictionary.

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Yeah, that’s my reading, too.

I’d just add that the epithet occurs twice in the next SA-2 sutra, which is parallel to another story about a nun upset with Mahakasyapa (in that case because she heard him belittling Ananda). In that case, it doesn’t include “putra.” And a Ming edition editor must have noticed this inconsistency and deleted the 子 from the passage in SA-2 118. So, it may be spurious.

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Hey thanks everyone!

Just researching this point I came across this in vv63:31.1:

“Sujāto nāmahaṁ bhante,
rājaputto pure ahuṁ;

Which explains a lot, don’t you think?

But moving on!

Of course I’m aware that putta often indicates a clan name. But it’s used widely in different senses, sometimes as the son of a mother, eg. Sāriputta or a father, eg. Moggaliputta.

The problem is that it isn’t videhaputta, but vedehiputta. Vedeha has a taddhita suffix so the word has the sense “of Videha”. It seems that in EBT Pali this occurs in precisely three cases, each of which has a different taddhita suffix:

  • vedehamuni (-a)
  • vedehiputta (-i or -in)
  • vedehikā (ika)

But in each case the strengthened initial vowel makes the derivation clear. Thus all of the dictionaries (so far as I know) explain vedeha as “of Videha”, as do the Sanskrit dictionaries for vaideha.

I’m not aware of any practice of duplicating the sense of “belonging” by using both -putta and a taddhita suffix.

Lacking any such examples, Vedehiputta must mean “son of the person from Videha”, not “of Videha”. Given that both the Pali and Jaina traditions agree that the “person from Videha” was a princess of that land; that multiple kings of Videha are called vedeha; and that a rather well known princess also carried the name vaidehi, this seems the most likely to me.


Let me add to the confusion! Apparently vaideha in Sanskrit is also the name of a caste, and vaidehika therefore can indicate someone who is born of a Śūdra father and Brāhman mother. This wouldn’t fit either Ajatasattu or Ananda, but it might fit the dubious character of Vedehikā, the lady from Savatthi who mistreated her servant (mn21:9.1).

According to Wikipedia, the name vaideha was given to Sita’s father because of his ability to transcend the physical form (vi-deha), which seems even less plausible.

All the more reason to preserve what little we do know.

Thanks, that’s what I thought it said.

Yes, that seems likely. Probably copied by accident from the well-known epithet of Ajatasattu. I notice that this form doesn’t seem to appear in Charles Muller’s DDB, perhaps one of you would like to submit it to him?


It still leaves unexplained the epithet “Videhan sage” for Ananda. The three completely different explanations by three schools tells us that the traditions didn’t really know.

Given that it is only used by the bad nuns; that it parallels the incorrect assertion of Mahakassapa as a former follower of another sect; and that it is a claim of authority for Ananda, I would suggest that it was originally another indication of how clueless Thullananda and Thullatissa really were. Everyone knows Ananda was a Sakyan, yet even when they are trying to defend him they mistakenly think he was from Videha. Probably they knew of the vague association of Videha with wise sages, so thought he was from there.

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Yeah, I was wondering why you were asking about this.

This makes sense. I will adopt it.

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Just reading Kd1, I think you really should specify that it is King Bimbisara there rather than just “the King”. At least at the beginning of the section. It’s confusing, I really wanted to know which king it was.

King Bimbisāra appears in a number of places. Most of the time it seems clear who “the king” refers to. In a few sections, however, I can see that there is a problem, especially the following:

30. The wanted criminal 

33. The one in debt 

34. The slave

Anything else?

No, that’s what I was looking at. If you read from the top you’ll get the context, but it’s a long passage.

It is interesting, though, in light of the aforementioned ghostly status of Bimbisara how it is here, in what is clearly a late passage, that he is invoked so often.

I think DN 2 is in contradiction, is it not? The Buddha speaks of a slave getting ordained, which there seems to be no problem. But if the Kd 1 rule against it was really laid down in the time of Bimbisara, then it couldn’t still be happening under Ajatasattu.

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That’s an interesting point. It makes you wonder how much of the ordination procedure was laid down after the time of the Buddha. If we can trust that the meeting with Ajātasattu was late in the Buddha’s career - and I think there is fair amount of evidence pointing in that direction - then there isn’t much scope for the Buddha to have laid down the prohibition against ordaining slaves. And if this part of the ordination procedure is late, then what about all the other parts that have Bimbisāra playing a role in the laying down of the rule? This of course also has implications for the bhikkhunīs, for whom many of the extra ordination regulations seem to be even later. You know, it seems quite reasonable to me not to overemphasise some of these marginal rules, and even, at times, to disregard them.

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I agree, that part of the conversation is so unique and targeted to Ajatasattu specifically.

It’s worth remembering that in Thailand and Myanmar, a large part of the economy is still driven by slave labor.

So it is absolutely still the case that escaped slaves might turn up at monasteries seeking refuge. In fact I have heard just such a story of a laborer escaped from a mine who showed up at Ajahn Gunha’s. He wasn’t looking for ordination, just shelter. The cops showed up looking for him and Ajahn Gunha sent them on their way, and ensured the poor worker was fed.

Remembering that the Vinaya makes a clear distinction between rules like this one, which if broken incur a dukkata for the participating monks, and, say, the rule against ordaining under twenty, which invalidates the ordination.

Ahh, I remember the days! The very first internet discussion I entered was the old Pali Yahoo group. I pointed out that even an ordination with no upajjhaya, or with an animal as upajjhaya, merely incurred a dukkata. One delightful fellow was so outraged at this simple observation of a textual detail that he accused me of performing ordinations with a kangaroo as upajjhaya. I learned a lot about conversation on the internet that day.

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Wait, what?? To… take him… back to the mine??!

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Unfortunately yes. I guess they were in the pockets of the mine-owners.