The Pabbajjāsutta recounts an episode evidentally from shortly after Siddhattha had gone forth, when he met Bimbisāra, the king of Magadha, for the first time. The king was deeply impressed by Siddhattha’s bearing and made an extravagent offer to him. Unusually, we have two other complete Indic versions of the Pabbajjāsutta, one in the Mahāsanghika Lokuttaravādin Mahāvastu in Hybrid Sanskrit, one in the Saṅghabhedavastu, a chapter of the Mūlasarvāstāda Vinaya, in Sanskrit.
I feel that these Suttas represent a lost potential, a way that was not chosen. Their style is direct, charming, and effective. They have a dramatic flair that accentuates the personal, which makes them affecting in a way that the more elaborate legends have lost sight of. In piling up miracles and smoothing out the rough, later legends buried the Buddha’s humanity, like a movie smothered with too many effects. They aim to impress and overwhelm, but end up oppressive and tacky.
The bulk of the text is taken up with a narrative introduction in verse, the speaker of which is not specified in the text. Unusually, it is voiced in the first person (“I shall extol …”). The commentary identifies the speaker as Venerable Ānanda, and it is certainly the case that, in addition to his role in reciting all the Discourses, Ānanda was instrumental in creating the biography of the Buddha. It’s a striking and unique opening for a Sutta.
The first three verses, including this opening, are missing from the parallel in the Mahāvastu, which otherwise appears quite early. However they are found in the Saṅghabhedavastu, which stems from a school (Mūlasarvāstivāda) that spilt from the Theravāda later than the split with the Mahāsaṅghika Lokuttaravādins who compiled the Mahāvastu. Perhaps these verses were added subsequent to the first schism, which would place them after the time of Ashoka. This is very tentative, though, as the Mahāvastu presents the verses as part of a narrative flow, and might have left the opening verses out to avoid introducing a new narrative voice.
The Pali commentary sets this encounter shortly after the Buddha’s renunciation, before his practice under the Brahmanical teachers Āḷāra Kālāma and Uddaka Rāmaputta. In this, the Saṅghabhedavastu agrees, but the Mahāvastu places the event between these two apprenticeships.
There are a number of details that speak to the relative earliness of this text compared to the bulk of biographical legends.
- In the Pali, the Buddha is referred to as buddha, not bodhisatta, even though he is still not enlightened, suggesting that the doctrinal distinction between buddha and bodhisatta was not yet established. However, note that this is found only in the Pali, and the two Sanskrit versions do not say buddha.
- The Buddha is called bhikkhu.
- The Buddha feels the need to explain to Bimbisāra where the land of the Sakyans is.
- The Buddha acknowledged that his land was subject to Kosala and was not an independent kingdom.
- Bimbisāra goes to see him in a single chariot, apparently alone; compare the elaborate visit by his son Ajātasattu in [dn2]. The expected retinue is added in the Mahāvastu.
- The style is plain and draws on idioms found in the early texts.
- The text ends abruptly and is not concerned with Bimbisāra’s response.
A possible exception to the naturalism of the narrative is the mention that Bimbisāra saw the Buddha’s “marks” (lakkhaṇa), which may refer to the putative Brahmanical legend of the 32 marks of the great man. But this is not specified, and most of the marks, if they were genuine physical characteristics, would not really be visible on the street from a rooftop. More likely Bimbisāra simply saw that he bore himself well, with a mindful and dignified carriage. This impression is reinforced in the Sanskrit versions, both of which depict Bimbisāra himself as speaking of the marks, rather than saying that he saw them. The 32 marks of the great man are an obscure element of Brahmanical lore, and there is no reason why Bimbisāra should know or care about them.
On the other hand, there are a number of indications that suggest a degree of artifice in the account. Bimbisāra himself, while firmly esconsed in Buddhist lore, is an enigmatic figure in the early texts. He is mentioned fairly often, but usually in his absence. He is more like an idealized Buddhist king than a human personality like his counterpart Pasenadi of Kosala, or even his son, Ajātasattu. Given that Bimbisāra’s kingdom of Magadha ultimately triumphed and, within a century, dominated the entire region, it would make sense for the Buddhists to treat him as their own. We know that the Buddhist King Ashoka, the most magnificent heir to the Magadhan throne, was ecumenical in his own words and deeds, yet came to be depicted in Buddhist texts as highly partisan. It’s possible that with Bimbisāra, too, his Buddhist sympathies were exaggerated in later legend. It should come as no surprise that the Jains, also, claim Bimbisāra as one of their own. Most likely he supported all the religions in his realm, as was the custom.
Regardless of his own personal faith, however, there is nothing unusual in the idea of a king seeking out a dignified ascetic or wandering sage. The final verses of Bimbisāra, however, seem quite extraordinary, depending how they are read ([snp3.1:16]–17).
If we keep the sense of each verse contained within the verse, it seems Bimbisāra first praised the Bodhisatta’s dignified appearance, then offered him wealth and glory at the head of an army. This is how the verses are interpreted by the commentary, followed by Bhikkhu Bodhi. But no king in his right mind would promise an army to a stranger, let alone to a dedicated renunciant.
If we ignore the verse boundaries, however, the description of the aristocrat naturally agrees with him riding in an army. Then, having praised the Bodhisatta’s appearance, Bimbisāra offers him “pleasures” (bhoga). This reading is adopted by K.R. Norman. It is still an inappropriate gift for a renunciant, but not nearly as outrageous. It is exactly the kind of thing a then-young king might do; on the one hand, out of a genuine desire to serve, and on the other, as a test. It is, in fact, the same test that Devadatta failed when he became corrupted by the riches offered by Bimbisāra’s troubled son Ajātasattu.
The Sanskrit versions are quite different at this point, which is usually a sign that the lines were difficult even for the ancients. The Saṅghabhedavastu says that the mendicant life is no good for one such as the Bodhisatta, and he offers pleasures such as dwellings and women. The Mahāvastu compresses the passage, and has a reading that the translator Jones describes as “untranslateable”.
This is a good example of what I call “the principle of least meaning”. Texts, and especially sacred scriptures, tend to become overburdened with meaning and interpretation. When translating, always choose the thinnest reading possible, the one that adds the least meaning to the passage. In this case, to offer food and enjoyments to a renunciant is an everyday thing, but to offer an army is astonishing and unprecedented. Unless the text requires it, prefer the lesser meaning.
The outcome was never in doubt. If the Bodhisatta had succumbed to temptation, he would never have become the Buddha and we would not hear his story. But this was not the final temptation he was to face. He politely rejects Bimbisāra’s offer and commits to “striving”.