MN81 Discourse on Ghaṭīkāra has a parallel in the Mahavastu (Mvu), a chapter called Ghaṭikāra and Jyotipāla. They are similar in that they both talk about how the Buddha, in a previous existence, was a brahman named Jyotipāla and how his friend, Ghaṭīkāra the potter, convinced him to meet the Buddha Kassapa (the Buddha who appeared immediately before Buddha Sakyamuni). In both versions, Ghaṭīkāra tries hard to convince Jyotipāla to meet Kassapa, each time Jyotipāla refuses with words like:
“…what use is it to see this little shaveling recluse.”
But Ghaṭīkāra won’t give up and eventually grabs Jyotipāla by the hair and asks him again:
“Let us go, dear Jotipāla, we will approach the Lord Kassapa … so as to see him. A sight of this Lord, perfected one, fully Self-Awakened One, would be greatly prized by me.”
Jyotipāla is amazed that his ‘low born’ friend, Ghaṭīkāra, would go to such lengths to grab him, a brahman, roughly by the hair that he concedes, and goes with Ghaṭīkāra to see Kassapa. But here is where the texts start to diverge. I won’t go into too much detail, but will point out a couple of obvious differences.
In the Mvu, there is a passage that is absent from the Pāli version where it says:
“And so, Ānanda, the Exalted One initiated the young brāhman Jyotipāla in the three refuges and in the five precepts. But Jyotipāla said to the exalted Kāśyapa, ‘Lord, I am not yet prepared to be initiated in all the five precepts, for there is a troublesome and ill-tempered man whom I must put to death.’ When this had been said, the Exalted One asked, ‘Who, Jyotipāla, is this troublesome and ill-tempered man whom you must put to death?’ Jyotipāla replied, ‘Lord, it is this Ghaṭikāra the potter here. He seized me by the hair just as I was coming from bathing my head. And then he said, ‘Let us go to the exalted Kāśyapa to see him and do him honour’’.”
To me, it is unclear here whether Jyotipāla is serious or joking. Would Jyotipāla really kill his friend Ghaṭīkāra for touching his hair? It could be possible I suppose. In Thai culture, it can be quite offensive to touch a person on the head. Maybe the same was true in this era; especially for a ‘low born’ potter to touch a brahman on the head (even if they were best mates). The reason why it is unclear whether Jyotipāla is serious or joking is because there is a passage missing directly after this with a footnote by the translator which says:
“There is an evident lacuna here of a passage in which Jyotipāla finishes his account of his friend’s conduct, and the latter, or Kasyapa, by some means or other mollifies him.”
The text continues (after the missing passage) with Jyotipāla taking the five precepts and being taught by Kassapa such that both he and Ghaṭīkāra have an equally good grasp of the Dhamma, sufficent in fact for Jyotipāla to seek ordination not long after.
After Jyotipāla is ordained, the MN makes no further mention of him. We do not know what becomes of Jyotipāla, except where the Buddha says at the end of the discourse:
“It may be, Ānanda, that this will occur to you: ‘Now, at that time the brahman youth Jotipāla was someone else.’ But this, Ānanda, should not be thought of in this way. I, at that time, was Jotipāla the brahman youth.”
In the Mvu however, Jyotipāla goes on to make a vow to become a Buddha. Kassapa is aware of Jyotipāla’s vow and confirms that:
“You, O Jyotipāla, in some future time will become a Tathāgata…”
This is significant, because Ajahn Brahm and others refer to the MN81 as evidence that the Mahayana (and, in certain contexts, the Vajrayana) idea that Bodhisattvas are reborn countless times, accumulating merit and perfecting themselves to become a Buddha is incorrect. Apart from the fact that the Nikayas do not support this idea, Ajahn Brahm et. al. indicate that MN81 demonstrates that Jyotipāla was just an ordinary, mundane person, evidenced by the fact that he had to be physically coerced to visit Kassapa Buddha, but that because he did (visit Kassapa), he ended up ordaining. Ajahm Brahm et. al. speculate that Jyotipāla became a Once-returner so that after he died, he appeared in a heavenly realm before being reborn as Siddhārtha Gautama; and where the rest, of course, is history.
Now this theory goes against not only the Mahayana/Vajrayana Bodhisattva ideal, it also goes against beliefs in Therevada traditions where stories of the Buddha’s previous existences are considered accurate and that, like the Mahayana/Vajrayana Bodhisattva ideal, the Buddha accumulated merit and perfected himself to become a Sammasambuddha.
What is surprising when comparing the MN and Mvu versions is that the Mvu seems to counter any speculation that Jyotipāla was a Once-returner by describing how he made a vow to become a Buddha, hence maintaining the Bodhisattva ideal, upon which Mahayana and Vajrayana traditions cite as a key difference between their tradition and that of ‘lesser vehicle’ traditions such as Theravada.