Upagupta, the Fourth Buddhist Patriarch, and High priest of Acoka
Journal, Asiatic Society of Bengal
Vol.1151. Part 1.
The name of Upagupta occurs incidentally in
the scriptures and commentaries of the so-called
Northern of Mahaayaana Buddhists, as the patronymic
of the fourth member of the series of patriarchs of
the Buddhist Church, in direct succession from the
epoch of Caakya Muni`s death. (1) He is also
referred to therein,as being the converter and
spiritual adviser of the great emperor Aeí╝oka; (2)
and it is in this respect, as the alleged inspirer
of A.cooka's great missionary movement, which led to
Buddhism becoming a power in the world, that
Upagupta claims our special notice. Of such
importance is he considered, that his coming is
alleged to have been predicted by both Buddha
himself (3) and by his favourite disciple
Aananda.(4) And of him Taaranaatha. The Tibetan
historian, writes: 'since the death of the Guide
(Buddha) no man has been born who has done so much
good to living beings as this man. (5)
In the scanty references to Upagupta by European
writers it is generally stated that " he is not
known to the southern school of Buddhism. " (6) This
statement, however, is probably not strictly true.
For, I find that a great Buddhist arahat of the same
name, and apparently this identical person, is well
known to the Burmese. The circumstances, however,
under which he is known to them are peculiar.
Although he is one of the most popular of the
Buddhist Saints in Burma, and a special festival is
held in his honor every year, as will
1 Rockhill's Life of the Buddha, and the early
history of his Order, 170, and the Chinese lists by
Edkins, Chinese Buddhism, pp. 6-7, etc; Lassen's
Ind. Alterth. II, 1201; also Beal and Eitcl and my
Buddhism of Tibet, p.8.
2 Beal's Si-yu-ki,II,88. Burnonf's Introduction
du Buddhisme Indien, pp. 118, 197, 336, 379.
3 Burnouf's Intro., 336. Taaranaatha's Hist. Of
Indian Buddhism, fol. 12.
4 Rockhill's Life, xxxxx 164.
5 Beal's Si-yu-ki, I, 182. N. 48.
6 Taaranaatha's op. cit., fol,12.
presently be described, and his name is familiar to
all the monks as well as the laity; still the former
could not point out to me any reference to him in
their scriptures, either ancient or modern. The fact
seems to be that Upagupta is not now an orthodox
character in Burma, and his traditional worship or
veneration is probably a survival of the Mahaayaana
form of Buddhism, which prevailed in medí╝vial times
in both Burma and Ceylon. But why he should be
regarded as unorthodox by the puritan modern
Sthaviras or the so-called southern Buddhists, is
remarkable, seeing that Upagupta was himself a
Sthavira and the leader of the Sthavira sect of
primitive Buddhists, who followed the simple ethics
of the original Vinaya code. Perhaps it may have
been owing to his having been credited with
disreputable magic powers, while he had not like his
great wizard prototype, Maaudgalyaayana, ('Mogalli')
the saving fortune of being a personal follower of
In this connection it is noteworthy that Upagupta
holds in most of the Northern chronicles, the
identical position in regard to Acoka which the
relatively vague and less trustworthy Ceylonese
traditions ascribe to 'Mogalliputta Tissa'
(Mandgalyiputra Ti.sya), a name which is unknown to
the Northern authorities. So it is perhaps worth
considering whether this latter name may not be
merely a title of Upagupta, and formed possibly by
fusing the names of the two chief disciples of the
Buddha Maudgalyi-putra, (1) and Upatis (or
Caariputra), to bring him, as the great patrou monk
of Ceylon, as near as possible to Caakya Muni
However this may be, as Upagupta seems a person-
age of considerable historical importance, I propose
here to string together the notices of his life
which I have gleaned from various sources.
Legendary versions of his life are to be found
in the Tibetan in the 3rd and 4th chapter of
Taaranaatha's History of Buddhism in India,(2)and in
the 47th chapter of the Mongolian Dsaí╝y-Blubn. (3)
Thranaahta, a Tibetan who never visited India and
who wrote less than three conturies ago, makes
Upagupta precede Acooka by about one generation, but
the much more turstworthy Chinese traveller Hiuen
Tsiang in common with the Nepalese accounts(4) state
that Upagupta was the chief monk and adviser of
Acoka at Paa.taliputra. In the
1 He is often so-called, e.g. Beal's si-yu-ki,
I, 39, 40, 59, 61, 108, 180, 183, 187, 235; II, 6,
7, 9, 175 et seq. Also in colloqnial Tibetan where
his name is shortened into 'Mongal-pu and
Mohugal-pu'; while Caariputra is called 'Shaari-pu.'
Conf. Also Csoma's Analysis of the Kah-gyur, & c.,
in Vol. XX of Asiatic Researches, pp. 49, 52.
2 Translated into German by Schiefner.
3 Translated into German by I. Schmidt as 'Der
weise und der Thor.; 4 See preceding footnote No. 2.
following biographical account the details where not
otherwise stated are taken form the original Tibetan
text of Taaranaatha.
Upagupta is said to have been the son of one
Gupta, a perfume-seller(1) of Benares, (2) (or
'Chali'(3) of Mathuraa;(4) ) and he entered the
Buddhist order at the age of seventeen,(5): one
hundred years after the Nirvaa.na of the Blessed one
(Caakya Muni). "(6) This date is given according to
the same generally consistent chronology of the
Northern Buddhists which also places the great Acoka
at one hundred years after the Nirvaa.na, (7) and
which knows of no second Acoka or the Kaalaacoka of
Ceylonese tradi tion.
He was converted by the arahat Yacas or Yasheka,
who seems to be the same as the president of the
council of Vaieaali, which as both northern and
southern accounts agree was held one hundred and ten
years after the Nirvaa.na.
Three years after entering the order he attained
Arahatship of an exceptionally high order, becoming
'a Buddha without the marks, ' (Alak.sa.nakoo
Buddha.h); (8) and he converted many to the faith.
Succeeding to the patriarchate of the Buddhist
Church on the death of Caa.navaasika, the third
patriarch, in Campaa (Bhagalpur) " he crossed the
sunken Ganges (or 'the Bargal river') to Videha
(Bettiah) in western Tirahuti (Tirhut) and went to
the monastery erected by the householder Vasusaara."
After a short stay there he proceeded to Mt.
Gandha(9) where he made many converts. Thence he
went to "Mathuraa in the north-west of the Middle
Country" and resided at the monastery on the top of
Mount 'Shira' (C ra or Ucira or Urumu.n.da (10) or
Muru.n.dha (11) founded during the time of the
patriarch Caa.nnvaasika, by the two chief merchants
of the place Na.ta and Bha.t.ta (12) While here, he
converted crowds of people who had been beguiled
1 Rockhill's Life, Sec. p.164. Burnouf's Intro.,
p.336. Schiefner, his translation of Taaranaatha has
omitted the word Gupta which occurs in the Tibetan
2 Der Weise und der Thor., 47 chap.
3 So a Chinese gentleman reads for me the
Chinese word in Eitel's Dictionary, p.87, and which
Mr.Eitel renders 'Paa.taliputra.'
4 Burnouf's Intro., 336.
5 Beal's Si-yu-ki, I, p.182 n.
6 Rockhill's life, Sec., p.164. Baniyo Nanjio;s
History of Japanese Buddhist Sects, 24.
7 Beal's Si-yu-ki, II, 85, and Burnouf's Intro.,
8 Cf. Also Burnouf's Intro.,337 and n. 1: Rock-
hill's Life, sec., 164.
9 Or Gandhara, or Gandamaadana.
10 Conf. Also Burnouf's Intro. 337.
11 Rockhill's Life, Sec. 164.
12 Conf. Also Rockhill and Burnouf as above.
by Maara in the shape of a dancer with attendants
male and female. Upagupta overcomes these by magical
means bestowing on them garlands which he turns into
clinging corpses, from which he sets them free only
on condition that they cease their wicked ways. In
this regard it is curious to find that dancing girls
are the subject of some very fine sculptures which
were found at an ancient Buddhist site at
Mathuraa.(1) A slightly different and more dramatic
version of this personal contest with Maara is given
by Aevagho.sa as an Avadaana(2) According to this
version "Maara found Upagupta lost in meditation and
placed a wreath of flowers on his head. On returning
to consciousness and finding himself thus crowned,
he entered again into Samaadhi to see who had done
the deed. Finding it was Maara, he caused a dead
body to fasten itself round Maara's neck. No power
in heaven or earth could disentangle it. Finally
Maara returned to Upagupta, confessed his fault and
prayed him to free him from the corpse. Upagupta
consen ted on the condition that he (Maara) would
exhibit himself under the form of Buddha 'with all
his marks.' Maara does so and Upagupta overpowered
by the magnificence of the supposed Buddha falls
down before him in worship. The tableau then closed
amid a terrific storm."
At Mathuraa, both Hiuen Tsiang and Taaranaatha
mention a large cave into which Upagupta was in the
habit of throwing a chip of wood to register the
number of individuals who attained Arahatship
through him, until the cave ultimately became filled
with the chips.
From Mathuraa he proceeded to Aparaanta (3)
(Sií╝dh), during the reign of a king called Mahendra
and his son 'Chamasha, ' and there the inhabitants
of Bagal erected for him a retreat in 'the grove of
the duck-herd,' which was called' the Saí╝ghaaraama
of the duck'íVthis certainly does not seem to be the
Kukku.taaraama or monastery of the Cock, as
Sehiefner translates.(4) Hiuen Tsiang also states
that "Upagupta the great Arahat frequently sojourned
in this kingdom (Sindh), "(5) a country which, he
notes, w s famous for its salt. And as
1 Archeal. Survey of India Repts. Vol. XVII,
Plate XXXI. The sculptures represent dancing girls
dancing on dwarfs, which have been supposed to
symbolize energy acting on Matter.
2 Beal's Fo-sho-hing-tsano-king, p.XII ( Sacred
Bks. Of East ), and in Si-yu-ki, I,p.182
3 Taaranaatha op. Cit.
4 This place was in Aparaanta in the extreme
west of India, while the Kukku.t-aaraama was in
Paataliputra. Conf. Schiefner's translation of
Taaranaatha's History, p.18. The Tibetan word is
'bya-gag' which according to Jaeschke's Dictionary
is the name of a species of water-bird or duck. And
my Ms. Tibeto-Sanskrit Dictionary gives the Sanskrit
equivalent as Bukuh, and the feminine as Naakuli.
5 Beal's Bi-yu-ki, II, 273.
the word Sindh means in Sanskrit 'Sea-salt' it is
possible that the Burmese legend which makes
Upagupta reside in the salt sea, may have its origin
in a too literal translation of this word. Hituen
Tsiang records that " the places where he (Upagupta)
stopped (in his explaining the Law and convincing
and guiding men) and the traces he left are all
commemorated by the building of Sagghaaraamas or the
erection of stuupas. These buildings are seen
He visited 'Kha-chhe' (Kashmir), in a miraculous
manner, says a Tibetan account, (2) and there he
erected " the long stone." This seems a reference to
his planting of an Acoka-pillar. During his three
months stay in that country, he preached the law,
worked many miracles, and amid lightning and
earthquakes he descended to the watery palace of the
Naaga dragon-king of the lake of Kha-chhe, and
afterwards "disappeared into the sky."
At Paa.taliputra,his hermitage was,as in Mathuraa,
on a hill which is described by Hiuen Tsiang as " a
little mountain. In the crags and surrounding
valleys there are several tens of stone dwellings
which Acoka Raaja made for Upagupta and other
arahats by the intervention of the genii. " (3) The
ruins of this artificial hill now form the Choti
pahaa.rii or 'small hill' to the south of Patna, as
was identified by me some years ago; (4) and this
identification has been confirmed by the excavation
of the r ined tower by its side, as described by the
great Chinese pilgrim. Acoka's conversion to
Buddhism according to the Chinese account was
effected by Upagupta, who also, it is stated,
advised the erection of monasteries and stuupas all
over India. Amongst the first of these monasteries
was the Kukku.taaraama or ' Garden of the Cock,'
erected to the south-east of the city and capable of
holding a thousand monks.(5) This building was the
scene of the dialogues reported in the
Divyaavadaana, in the Mahaayaana Suu tra entitled
the Gu.na Kara.n.da Vyuuha, purporting to have been
held between Acoka and Upagupta, and translated in
part by Burnouf. (6) A Tibetan version also is said
Upagupta's first visit to Acoka, is made in the
Indian Divyaaradaana to come some time after Acoka's
conversion, and his erection of relicstuupas. But it
is Upagupta who is associated with Acoka in the
latter's pilgrimages to the sacred Buddhist spots,
and his marking of them by the
2 A Ms. extract from the Tibetan translation of
the Kaalacakra (Tib. 'Dns-'khor.)
3 Beal's Si-yu-ki, II....
4 Preliminary Report on the Ruin s of Paa.ta-
liputra. Calcutta, 1892, p.15.
5 Beal's Si-yu-ki, II, 88.
6 Burnonf's Intro., pp. 338, et seq.
magnificent monuments which later tradition ascribes
to the agency of the genii. Interesting details are
also given of the manner in which Acoka made these
pilgrimages. It is related, (1) how Acoka at the
instance of Yacas, the elder, invites Upagupta who
was at Mathuraa to come to his assistance at
Paa.taliputra, and the king provides the boats for
this long river journey. On his arrival, Acoka
receives him with the highest honours and exclaims:
" You who resemble the Master!" You who are the sole
eye of the universe, and the chief interpreter (of
the Law) be my refuge Sir, and give me your commands
! I shall eagerly hasten, accomplished sage, to obey
thy voice!' The sage replied ' O great king,
Bhagavat, the Venerable Tathaagata, the perfect and
complete Buddha has entrusted to me as well as to
you the depository of the Law. Let us make every
effort to preserve that which the Guide of beings
has transmitted to us, when he was in the midst of
his disciples.' íEíEíEíE Then (the king ) falling at
the feet of th e Sthavira Upagupta cried out, 'This
O Sthavira, is my wish: I wish to visit, honour, and
mark by a sign for the benefit of remote posterity
all the spots where the Blessed Buddha has
sojourned.' ' Very good, O great king,' replied the
Sthavira, 'this thought of thine is good. I will go
this day to show you the spots where the blessed
Buddha sojourned' (2) íEíEíEíE " Then the king
equipped with an army of the four bodies of troops,
took perfumes, flowers and garlands, and set out in
the company of the Sthavira Upagupta. The latter
began by conducting the king to the garden of
Lumbini. Then extending his right hand he said to
him: 'Lere O great king, was the Bhagavat born.' And
he added 'Here (at this site), excellent to see,
should be the first monument consecrated in honour
of the Buddha' íEíEíEíE The king after giving a
hundred thousand (golden coins) to the people of the
country raised a stuupa and retired."(3)
Now it is remarkable that the words here used
are almost the identical words which Acoka himself
uttered at this place, as inscribed on his
edict-pillar which has just been found by Dr.Fuuhrer
in the place which was first indicated by me, (4)
and by me also were made the arrangements for the
recovery of this lost site. This inscription on the
acoka-edict-pillar at the actual birth-place of the
Buddha is translated by Dr. Bí╝hler in the Times of
the 25th ultimo (January), as recording
1 Burnouf's Intro., p. 337.
2 Burnouf's Intro., p.340.
3 Idem., p.342.
4 See my article sent to this Society on the
11th May, 1896, entitled a Tibetan Guide-book to the
site of Buddha's birth and death, and afterwards
published in more detail in the Englishman of 1st
that " king Piyadasi (Acoka), twenty years after his
accession (literally 'anointing') himself came to
this very spot and there worshipped saying. 'Here
was the Buddha, the Caakya ascetic born,' and that
he erected this stone pillar which records that
'Here the Venerable One was born.'"
Thus it would almost appear as if Acoka had
merely repeated the words put into his mouth by
Upagupta. However this may be, this remarkable
coincidence seems to strengthen materially the
historical value of this part of the somewhat
legendary divyaacadaana, which in spite of the
internal evidence of its having been composed much
later than the epoch of Acoka, still Burnouf had
already considered it to be semi-historical. (1)
This Acoka-legend goes on the relate how Upagupta
conducted the king to most of the chief sites
hallowed by Buddha and his chief disciples. Amongst
these latter, especial prominence is given to
Maudgalyaayana with whom as has been mentioned
Upagupta seems possibly to have had his name
associated. Certainly the following reference to
Maudgalyaayana invests him with much the same
attributes as those ascribed to Upagupta at Mathuraa
and Kashmir; and these are also mentioned by Hiuen
Tsiang (2) and others. (3) The Avadaana says:-
" The Sthavira Upagupta showing afterwards the
stuupa of the Sthavira Mahaa Maudgalyaayana thus
spoke, 'Here, O great king, is the stuupa of (the
remains of ) the great Maudgalyaayana; you ought to
honour it.' 'What are the merits of this sage,
queried the king. The Sthavira replied 'He has been
designated by Bhagavat as the chief of those who
possessed supernatural power, because with the great
toe of his right foot he shook Vaijayanta, the
palace of Cakra, the Indra of the gods. He converted
the two Na ga kings Nanda and Upananda.' And he
uttered this verse: 'It is necessary to honour, all
that one can, Kolita (ie, Maudgalyaayan.a) the
foremost of Braahmans. íEíEíEíE Who in this world
could surpass the ocean of power of this sage in the
perfect Intelligence-he who has conquered the
serpents, those famous beings, so difficult to
subdue?' The king having given a hundred thousand
(golden pieces) for the stuupa of the great
Maudgaalyaayana (4) exclaimed with hands joined in
respect, 'I honour with bended head the celebrated
Mudgalyaayana, the foremost of sages, gifted with
supernatural power, who has freed himself from
birth, old age, sorrow and pain.' " (5)
1 Burnouf's Intro., 378 n.
2 Beal's si-yu-ki, II, 176.
3 Conf. My Buddhism of Tibet, pp. 98-99.
4 This Acoka Stuupa was visited by Hiuen Tsiang
(Beal's Si-yu-ki, II, 175.)
5 Burnouf's Intro., p.348.
As to Upagupta's death, accounts differ. Some
state that he died (1) and that this event occurred
at Mathuraa; (2) but I find no reference to his
relic-stuupas. The Japanese legend related, (3) that
" there was an earthquake and he transcended (or
crossed over;)" or it may read, " he went to
'Shin-tam.' " The Burmese tradition seems to make
him yet alive like Mabaakasyapa and a few other
Arahats by getting outside the circle of re-births.
His personal entity or Sattra while it still
retained a body has by mystical means become
liberated from the influence of Avidyaa and the
operation of the Causal Nexus, and in this way by
his supernatural power or Rddhi, he has secured
The residence in the sea,allotted to this immor-
talized Upagupta, as a sort of king of the Naaga or
dragon-spirits, could be explained by his reputation
for supernatural power and his special association
with Sindha or 'sea-salt,' his coming to Acoka by
boat, and the connexion of his name with the
conquest of Naaga-kings.(5) And Acoka himself is
also credited with having become reborn as a Naaga.
A slightly different and more humourous version of
the legend of the popular Burmese saint, is given by
Mr.Sc tt in his charming book on the Burmese. He
relates(6) that ' Oopagoh' is condemned to existence
as a water-god through having in his previous
existence " carried off the clothes of a bather, and
for this mischievous pleasantry is condemned to
remain in his present quarters till Areemadehya
(Maitreya) the next Buddha shall come. Then he will
be set free and entering the Thenga (Saggha) will
become a Rahan and attain Neh'ban(Nirvaa.na). He is
a favourite subject for pictures, which represent
him sitting under his brazen roof or on the stamp of
a tree, eating out of an alms-bowl which he carries
in his arms. Sometimes he is depicted gazing
sideways up to the skies, where he seeks a place
that is not polluted by corpses." (7) This version,
however, does not indicate why 'Oopagoh' should be
worshipped with such zeal by Burmese Buddhists;
while the version given me by a learned Burman, as
above noted, relates that the hero is a great Arahat
who by his magical power has secured long life or
immortality, and can conf er luck.
The Burmese festival in honour of this ' Upagu,'
1 Eitel's Dict, p.187.
2 Taaranaatha, fol. 11.
3 Butsu dso dsui, p.151.
4 Conf. my Buddhism of Tibet, p.120.
5 Burnouf's Intro., p.336. And his doings at
Kashmir as above related.
6 The Burman,his Life and Notions, by Sway Yoe,
7 This reference to corpses may be compared
with the Mathuraa incidents in his biography.
what the feast in honour of the great Indian Naaga
king, mahaakaala, the 'Dai Koko' of the japanese
Buddhists who also celebrated this festival in a
somewhat similar manner, a leading feature of which
is the treasure-boat of the Naaga dragou-spirits.(1)
It is held on the last day of the Buddhist Lent
or Var.sa (Waas), at the end of the rainy season,
about October. All the houses are ablaze with lamps
and nearly every Burman builds a tiny boat,
decorates it with flowers, illuminates it and then
launches it on the river, with music, and the prayer
that it may be carried on to 'Upagu,' and bring back
to them the luck-giving saint-a procedure which
recalls the incident of Acoka sending boats to bring
Upagupta, the saintly interpreter of the Law, which
confe s religious fortune. The effect of this
miniature flotilla is often very fine. A thousand
tiny specks of light dancing on the dark bosom of
the waters. During the night all eagerly expect to
have the good fortune of a visit from the 'Upagu'
somewhat like the visit of Santa Claus (St.
Nicholas) on Christmas eve; for those who are thus
favoured are endowed with long life and good luck.
On such occasions many clandestinely sprinkle water
on their door steps for good luck in pretence that
the water-god has paid them a visit. Such seems to
be the popular hero-worship in Burma, now-a-days,
accorded to the great High Priest of Aclka.
1 W.Anderson's Catalogue of Chinese and Japanese
paintings in the British Museum, p. 38.