The astonishing story of Atavaka the demon

The following translation is from the BDK series, a version of the Dhammapada published as The Scriptural Text: Verses of the Doctrine, with Parables by Charles Willemen. It is the background story for two Dhammapada verses in one of the Chinese Dhammapadas. I don’t think we find this story in the Pali. It tells of how the barren lands to the south (the Deccan) were settled, following the introduction of agriculture by a northerner.

Once the Buddha was on Mount Grdhrakuta in Rajagrha.

King Bimbisara then had a high official who had committed an offense. He discharged him and moved him to the mountains in the south, a thousand li from his country. Moreover, nobody lived there and the five cereals did not grow. But when the high official arrived there, the spring water flowed in excess and the five cereals grew in abundance.

Those who were suffering from hunger or cold in the countries in the four quarters all came to this mountain. Within a few years there were three or four thousand families.

To those who came he gave arable land, so that they might provide for their livelihood.

The three elders among them and the senior members deliberated among themselves: “A country without a ruler is like a body without a head.” They went to where the high official was, and installed him as their king.

The high official replied to the elders: “If you take me as your king, it should be in conformity with the rules of a king! High officials, left and right, and both civilian and military leaders, high and low, should visit my court! One should present women to fill my palace! The taxes, grain, and silk should be in accordance with the civil laws! ”

The elders of the land said: “Indeed! We accept your commands. They should be in conformity with the rules of a king!”

So they established him as their king. They placed in offices ministers as well as civilian and military leaders, high and low. They incited the people to construct the city walls and build houses, a palace, and pavilions.

But [in the process] the people were subjected to suffering, and they could not take it any more. They started to think, and began to plot against the king.

[One day] villainous ministers and associates took the king out hunting. They led the king into a marshy wilderness thirty or forty li from the city with the intention of killing him.

The king asked those around him: “Why would you want to kill m e?”

They replied: “The people were fond of you when they were prosperous and happy. They served you, O king, with reverence. But now the people are in distress and their thoughts are running rampant. Families are in ruin; they plot against the state.”

The king informed them: “Sirs, it is of your own making. It is not my doing. If you unjustly kill me, the spirits will know about this. Let me have one wish so that I shall have no animosity in dying!”

So he made the wish: “When I first opened up the wasteland, I produced cereals and nourished the people. Those who came all made a living. Their prosperity and happiness were without limit. They themselves promoted me and established me as their king. They did this in accordance with the policies of other countries. If you nevertheless kill me now, I go without any real crime against the people. Should I die, I wish to become a flesh-eating devil (raksasa) and enter my old body again. I shall avenge this grievance.”

Thereupon they strangled him, abandoned his corpse, and left. After three days the king’s spirit became a flesh-eating devil and was in his old body again. He was called Atavaka.

He then rose, entered the palace, and sucked up the new king, the ladies of his harem, and the villainous ministers around him. He killed them all. The devil left the palace in anger, and wanted to kill everyone.

The three elders in the land tied themselves with a straw rope and went to the flesh-eating devil to surrender voluntarily. “This was done by villainous ministers. The populace could not have known this. We implore your leniency. We hope you will return to govern the land! ”

The [former] king said: “I am a devil. How could I devote myself to the people! I have to obtain human flesh as nourishment. A devil is irritable by nature. He is wrathful and does not consider what may be grievous.”

The three elders said: “The land is yours, O king. Therefore it should be as before, but the nourishment you need will be a different matter.”

The elders of the land issued an order that the people should all draw lots to determine the sequence in which the families should provide an infant to serve as live food for the devil king.

Among the three or four thousand families there was just one household whose members were the Buddha’s disciples. They were zealous in their home, and did not violate the five precepts. They drew the lots with the rest of the people and [unluckily] obtained the first lot. They happened to have an infant who would be the first to be fed to the devil king. The intelligent ones, young and old, were sorrowful and lamented.

They went far away to Mount Grdhrakuta and did obeisance to the Buddha. They repented their wrongdoings and rebuked themselves. The Buddha saw their suffering with his eye of the Path, and he spontaneously declared: “Because of this infant, I shall save countless people.”

He then flew alone to the devil’s gate. He manifested his bright form which illuminated the palace.

When the devil saw the light, he suspected it might be some special person. He immediately went out and saw the Buddha. He became malicious, and wanted to spring forward and suck up the Buddha, but the light pierced his eyes. Shouldering a mountain and spitting fire, he changed everything to dust.

Only when he became weary after a long while did he surrender. He invited the Buddha in to sit down, and he kowtowed to the ground. The Buddha expounded the scriptural texts to him, and after carefully listening to the Doctrine he accepted the five precepts and became an upasaka.

He sent an officer to expedite his meal, to take the child and bring it to him. The whole family loudly cried, and followed the child. Those who looked on were countless, grieving for them as the officer carried the child in his arms, lifted this food, and placed it in front of the devil.

The devil then took this child, lifted the food, and went in front of the Buddha. He knelt deeply and said to the Buddha: “I am different from the people of the land if I take the child as my food. I have now accepted your five precepts, O Buddha, and I do not have to eat this child any more. Please let me offer this child to you, O Buddha. I present him to you, O Buddha.”

So the Buddha accepted him, expounded the Doctrine, and made an incantation. The devil was glad and attained the path of the stream-enterer.

The Buddha placed the child in his bowl and took him out through the palace gates. He returned him to his parents and informed them: “Raise the infant in good health! Do not be sad any longer! ”

Of all the people who saw the Buddha there was none who was not startled. They wondered what spirit it was. “What merit does this child have that he was rescued, him alone? The devil’s food was taken away and returned to the parents.” Thereupon the World-honored One spoke the stanzas among the great multitude:

The quality of the precepts can be depended on.
Its meritorious reward will always follow.
He who sees the Doctrine is most respected among men.
He finally keeps himself far from the three evil predestinations.

When the precepts are heeded, one removes any fear.
Meritorious reward is most revered in the three worlds.
Demons, dragons, or a snake’s poison cannot harm
a person who maintains the precepts.

When the Buddha had spoken the stanzas, countless people saw the Buddha’s radiant appearance; and they knew that he was the most honorable one, beyond compare in the three worlds. They were all converted and became the Buddha’s disciples. They were glad on hearing the stanzas and all attained the Path.

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Āṭavaka is Āḷavaka in Pali. Some details of the story are paralleled in the Sn-a’s commentary to the Āḷavakasutta (translated by Bhikkhu Bodhi) and some in a Sinhalese source translated by Rev. Spence Hardy. Unfortunately in the latter case, though he lists all his sources in an appendix, he annoyingly doesn’t state which passage comes from which source.

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I had assumed so, but surely Āḷavaka is the titular deity of Āḷavī? Which isn’t mentioned in the Chinese? Perhaps the connection had simply been forgotten by then.

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Possibly. I can’t find him anywhere at all in the 4-volume BDK translation of the Fayuan Zhulin, a 7th century Chinese Buddhist encyclopedia that covers just about everything and everybody. Perhaps he’s listed under a Chinese name.

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曠野手 supposed to be his name or 曠野長者 .

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I found his name is 阿羅婆迦 in Chinese from Max Muller’s Digital Buddhist Dictionary:

http://www.buddhism-dict.net/cgi-bin/xpr-ddb.pl?q=阿羅婆迦

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