2. The Saints of Vedisa



Our next evidence derives from the relic caskets of the ancient Hemavata teachers, which has recently been clarified by Michael Willis. Here I combine the information Willis gives in his tables 1 and 3.


Hemavata Teachers

Pali texts

Reliquaries at Sonārī stupa 2

Reliquaries at Sāñchī stupa 2

Reliquaries at Andher


Majhima Koṣinīputa

Majhima / Koṣinīputa



Kotīputa Kāsapagota












Gotiputa Dudubhisaradāyāda










Mogaliputa, pupil of Gotiputa



Vāchiya Suvijayita, pupil of Goti[puta]

Vāchiputa, pupil of Gotiputa





(Note: Ālavakadeva and Sahadeva are both referred to simply as ‘Deva’ in the Sudassanavinayavibhāsā.)


The reliquaries have been dated to around the end of the second century bce, that is, a little over a century after Aśoka. These inscriptions are our oldest epigraphic evidence for personal names, locations, and dates of monks. Willis shows that five monks mentioned on the caskets may be identified with five monks who, as recorded in the Samantapāsādikā and other Pali sources, were sent to the Himalayan region as part of the Aśokan missionary effort. Additional names are the students and followers of the original missionaries. Thus the Pali sources find important verification in our two oldest sources of epigraphical information: the Aśokan Edicts confirm the Third Council, and the Vedisa inscriptions confirm the account of the missions.[1]

The reliquaries describe these monks as the ‘teachers of all the Himalaya’. Hence we must also see this group as the fraternity that later sources would describe as the ‘Himalayan School’ (Haimavata Nikāya). I would question, however, to what extent the epigraphic evidence allows us to conclude that a ‘school’ existed at that time.

Clearly, there are many elements that are essential for the creation of a ‘school’. We see a tightly bound group, all of whom would have known each other, with common teachers. We see the arising of a cult of worshipping local saints, as well as the Buddha and the great disciples who were honoured by all Buddhists. We see a well-developed and lavishly supported institutional centre.

But there are also many things we do not see. We don’t, so far as I am aware, see the use of the term nikāya or other terms denoting a school. We have no evidence of a separate textual lineage, or independently developed doctrines. We have no evidence that this group carried out separate saṅghakamma.

I would suggest that, simply reading the evidence in the most literal way as we did with the Aśokan edicts, the Vedisa inscriptions show that a centre was developed around a monastic group that at a later date was known as the Haimavata school. We do not know whether they regarded themselves as a distinct ‘school’ at this stage. Rather than seeing the Vedisa finds as evidence that schools already existed at this date, we would be better to consider this evidence for what it can teach us regarding how schools emerge.

While identification of the Himalayan missionaries is fairly certain, the rest of the names present us with some intriguing questions.



Gotiputa was obviously an important monk, and was probably instrumental in establishing the Hemavata presence at Vedisa. Willis puts his date at roughly mid-second century bce.[2] However, this conclusion rests on several quite flexible assumptions, and really Gotiputa and his disciples may have lived any time between the mission period and the erection of the stupas.[3]

Gotiputa is said to be the ‘heir’ (dāyāda) of one of the original five missionaries, Dundubhissara. The appellation dāyāda is not a regular Vinaya term indicating a direct student-teacher relationship, so Willis takes it to indicate that Gotiputa lived some time after the original mission. However, the meaning of dāyāda would seem to rather imply an intimate living relationship, rather than a distant inheritor of a lineage. In the spiritual sense (dhammadāyāda or sāsanadāyāda) it means one who is truly worthy of the living religion. In a more mundane sense, an inheritor is one who is the most worthy to receive the material possessions of one who has died. Thus for laypeople in the patriarchal society of the time, the son is the inheritor rather than the sister.[4] When a monk dies, his belongings return to the Sangha. However, since a nurse is of great benefit, the Sangha is encouraged to give the dead monk’s requisites to the attendant monk who was looking after the deceased.[5] In the Mahāsaṅghika Vinaya the monk who inherits the requisites is not merely a direct student (saddhivihārika or antevāsin), but must be also trustworthy and agreed upon by the Sangha.[6] The word dāyāda is not used in this context in the Pali Vinaya. Nevertheless, I think these examples show that a dāyāda is more likely to be a special, closely ‘anointed’ heir, rather than a distant descendant from the same lineage. In this sense it may be more intimate than just ‘student’ (antevāsi), for a teacher may have any number of students, and while the teacher and student are ideally supposed to regard each other like father and son, in reality they may not have any specially close relationship. This would also suit our context, for it would exalt Gotiputa’s status more if he was seen as being the one truly worthy of carrying on Dundubhissara’s mission after his death. If the relationship of dāyāda is something like we have proposed, then it would seem likely that Gotiputa was a younger contemporary of the original Hemavata teachers.

We next feel obliged to ask, who then was this Gotiputa? He was clearly an important teacher. But he is mysteriously unknown – or is he? The Vinaya commentary account of the Third Council tells the following story. I translate from the Chinese, which in this case is similar to the Pali:


At that time, king Aśoka had ascended the throne for 9 years. There was one bhikkhu, called Kotaputtatissa[7], who became severely ill.  Walking for alms for medicine, he received but a pinch of ghee. The illness grew until his life-force was ending. He approached the bhikkhus and said: ‘In the three realms, be watchful, not lazy!’ Having said this, he flew into the air. Seated in space, he entered the fire element, burned up his body and entered Nibbana. At that time king Aśoka heard people speak of this, and then made offerings. The king reflected and said: ‘Even in my realm the bhikkhus who need medication cannot get it! ... ’[8]


Here we have a teacher whose name would seem uncannily similar to the Haimavata teacher of the inscriptions. Pali variants of his name include Kontiputta, Kuntaputta, and Kontaputta.[9] The relic inscriptions include the forms Kotīputa and Gotiputa.[10] It seems that these are two different monks, for these two forms appear on two reliquaries discovered as part of the same collection of five.

But we wonder if there might not be some kind of family connection.[11] The language of the inscriptions regularly contracts what are formed as consonant clusters in Pali or Sanskrit; thus, for example, the Pali Dundubhissara becomes Dudubhisara in the inscriptions. We also note several cases on the caskets where the spelling oscillates between i and ī. Jayawickrama suggests the identification of Goti- and Kotī-, pointing out the change of g > k in North-western Prākrits[12] (although we are not in the North-west!). Without concluding one way or the other, we raise the possibility that these are variant forms of the same name. But if there is a family connection, exactly what kind of family are we talking about?

The Mahāvaṁsa elaborates the story. Kontiputtatissa is the son of a kinnarī (wood-nymph) called Kuntī, who was seduced by a man from Pāṭaliputta and ‘it seems’ (kira) gave birth to two sons, Tissa and Sumitta. They both went forth under the elder Mahāvaruṇa.[13] (Evidently having a wood-nymph as mother does not disqualify one from being considered a ‘human being’ for ordination purposes.) Kontiputtatissa was bitten by an insect, but although he told his brother that a handful of ghee was needed as cure, he would not go in search of it after his meal. This version agrees with the others in the manner of Kontiputtatissa’s death. All versions also concur that Aśoka’s remorse in hearing of the story was the direct cause for him to dramatically increase his already generous support of the Sangha, which was in turn the direct motivation for corrupt elements to enter the Sangha, which necessitated the Third Council. We notice that Kontiputtatissa’s brother Sumitta also died within the year. This story of the wood-nymph and her two ill-fated sons adds an intriguing dimension to our story.[14] But for now it is enough to notice that the ‘Kuntī’ clan appear to have been no ordinary family.



Now, Gotiputa had a number of students, prominently a certain ‘Mogaliputa’ and ‘Vāchiputa’. One lineage of scholars, starting with Cunningham and Geiger, makes the obvious connection between this Mogaliputa and the Moggaliputtatissa of the Pali chronicles. Another lineage, including Lamotte and Willis, dismiss this identification out of hand. Both the reasons for making the equation and those for dismissing it are fairly simple. Here we have a certain monk, clearly associated with the same general period and the missionary activities of the same 5 monks, and sharing the same name. The problem is that in the Pali accounts, Moggaliputtatissa lived at the time of Aśoka, whereas the student of Gotiputa, if Willis’ dating is correct, must have lived over a century later. But when we recognize that such datings are based on assumptions that are flexible if not entirely arbitrary, we cannot be so certain about fixing Gotiputa’s date on the archaeological evidence.

A further problem with identifying Moggaliputtatissa of the Pali tradition with Mogaliputa of the relic caskets is that Moggaliputtatissa was supposed to be the leader of the Hemavata teachers. If we equate the two, however, we end up with Moggaliputtatissa being the student of the heir of the Hemavata teachers.

But the placement of Moggaliputtatissa as leader of the missions is to some extent an expression of Mahāvihāravāsin bias. Clearly, there were many Elder monks involved. The missions were, in all likelihood, organized by a loosely associated group of Elders who took advantage of the favourable conditions of Aśoka’s reign to spread the Dhamma. And the organizer need not be the most senior: neither at the First nor the Second Councils was the leading monk the most senior. The missionary activity involved at least three generations of monks: Moggaliputtatissa, Majjhantika, and Mahādeva presided over Mahinda’s ordination, and Mahinda in turn took a number of disciples, including a novice, with him to Sri Lanka. We are perfectly in accord with the texts, therefore, to assume that the Hemavata teachers were roughly equal in rank to Moggaliputtatissa.

One unspoken assumption of Willis’ reasoning is that the information on the relic caskets, since it is concrete, dateable, and placable, is likely to be accurate. Of course, this is a reasonable assumption – but reasonable assumptions are not always true. From the earliest times, we can assume that the communities were jockeying for position, aiming to have their own lineage regarded as supreme. Those who were writing inscriptions on reliquaries are no more or less concerned with creating an accurate historical record than those who compile edifying chronicles.

We know that the positions of prominent elders in the lineage lists are not consistent. A well known example is that of Majjhantika. In the Pali, he is an Aśokan missionary; but in the northern sources he is usually depicted as a direct disciple of Ānanda. This is because he was a contemporary of Śāṇavāsin and Upagupta, who represent the Mathura lineage, and the Kaśmīri lineage had to be incorporated in the well-established Mathuran lineage, not coincidentally with the Kaśmīr patriarch becoming the senior. Similarly, the Samantapāsādikā (and the Sudassanavinayavibhāsā) depict Siggava and Caṇḍavajji as the teachers of Moggaliputtatissa. But later Chinese sources say Caṇḍavajji was Moggaliputtatissa’s student.[15]

We can therefore regard the difference in perspective between the Pali texts and the inscriptions as being, not an irreconcilable gulf, but an entirely normal presentation according to the bias of each school. The Mahāvihāravāsins regarded Moggaliputtatissa as the definer of their doctrinal position, and hence wished to place him at the centre of the missionary activity. The Hemavatas, quite understandably, wished to emphasize the importance of their own lineage, so placed their own teachers at a higher rank than Moggaliputtatissa.

There is one other minor point that might be felt to strengthen the association between the two ‘Moggaliputtas’. In the Dīpavaṁsa, Aśoka, disappointed by the heretics, is said to wonder when he might have the chance to meet a sappurisa, who of course turns out to be Moggaliputtatissa. This is a well known canonical term denoting an ariya, one who has reached the noble path. The relic casket refers to the monks as sappurisa, including sapurisa mogaliputa. This shows at least that the term was in common use in these contexts, and might well have been used of the same person.



Another striking coincidence in the names at Vedisa is that Vāchiputa, student (antevāsī) of Gotiputa, has the same name as the founder of the Puggalavāda (‘Personalist’) schools. [16] The chief doctrine of this group of schools is that there exists a ‘person’ (puggala), which is not a ‘self’ (attā), and is indescribable, being neither identical with or different from the five aggregates. This group of schools is not clearly differentiated, and it may be that the same school is known after its teacher as ‘Vātsīputrīya’, and after its chief doctrine as ‘Puggalavāda’ (just as the Mahāvihāravāsins are known after their doctrine as vibhajjavādins, and after their being followers of the ‘Elders’ as Theriyas).

While the Puggalavādins and their founder Vātsīputra are not explicitly mentioned in the Third Council narrative, their chief doctrine is extensively discussed in the Kathāvatthu attributed to Moggaliputtatissa, so there is clearly a strong connection, even if a negative one. The Puggalavādin’s own tradition, preserved by Bhavya, places the foundation of their school by Vātsīputra in 200 an; he would therefore be approximately contemporary with Moggaliputtatissa. Cousins suggests that if the Vāchiputa of the inscriptions is indeed the founder of the Puggalavādins, then it must be he who is debating with Moggaliputtatissa in the Kathāvatthu.

It might seem strange to find these two monks remembered as students of the same teacher, for Moggaliputtatissa is an avowed anti-personalist, whose main doctrinal legacy according to both the Mahāvihāravāsins and Sarvāstivādins is his attack on the ‘person’ doctrine. But a little reflection would suggest that this is in fact most likely, for it is with our closest family and friends that we have our deepest disagreements. If the schools had just drifted apart with no clear doctrinal disagreements, like the Dharmaguptaka and Mahāvihāravāsins, there would be no cause for disputes. But living close together, sharing students and lay supporters, differences may well harden, leaving a residue of bitterness that lasts through the ages.

Xuan-zang records the tradition that the debate on the ‘person’ emerged from the conflict between the two arahants Devaśarman, author of the Vijñānakāya, and Gopa near Viśoka.[17] Cousins notes the similarity of the names ‘Gopa’ and ‘Gotiputa’ in this connection, both evidently derived from the root √gup, and wonders whether the name of the teacher has replaced that of the pupil.[18]

Willis and Lamotte dismissed the identification of Mogaliputa with Moggaliputtatissa, with Willis arguing that it is simpler to accept that there were two Elders of the same name. But if not one, but three names – Moggaliputta, Vāchiputta, Kontiputta – associated with the Third Council narrative appear in the inscriptions, the balance of probabilities shift, and we may want to reassess our conclusions.

We shall never be able to attempt more than tantalizing speculations about the true identities of these monks. In life they were complex and paradoxical humans, but they appear to us as mere names, an an echo of an idea, and fragments of burnt bone. So desperate is our groping for knowledge that we are delighted to find just this much. How much more should we appreciate the confidence with which the Vedisa inscriptions confirm the missions account. It is quite remarkable that the only two pieces of substantial epigraphical evidence from this period both agree strongly with the account preserved by the Sinhalese Vinaya commentarial tradition.

While we will not take the time to discuss this in detail here, there are further evidences that tend to support the missions account, although they are not as clear-cut. Aśoka claims to have sent out ‘messengers’ (or ‘missionaries’, dūta) to accomplish his ‘Dhamma-victory’. Wynne shows that these need to be distinguished from Aśoka’s ‘Dhamma-ministers’, who are involved in secular social work within the empire.[19] The messengers went outside the empire and were engaged in religious or ethical teaching. Wynne concludes that these were likely to have been the Buddhist monks of the missions. Finally, we should notice that the archaeological record in Sri Lanka conforms with the chronology, events, and places described in the missions account.[20] Writing has been discovered in Sri Lanka dating from the 5th Century bce, earlier than anywhere else in India, and even the pre-Buddhist legends of Sri lankan colonization in this period seem to have some foundation. While there is no definitive reference to the missions yet found, the stones are telling the same kind of story as the missions accounts. In the next chapters we shall see that this evidence just as strongly disagrees with most of the other textual evidence.



[1] One of the missions is supposed to have gone to Suvaṇṇabhūmi, usually identified with Thaton in Burma or Nakorn Pathom in Thailand. But Buddhism is usually said to have arrived there much later. Hence Lamotte asserts that the missions account could not have been compiled before the 5th Century. (Lamotte, History of Indian Buddhism, 298) But the identification of Suvaṇṇabhūmi with this region is uncertain. Thus the later arrival of Buddhism in South-east Asia, even if true, cannot be used as proof that the mention of an Aśokan mission to Suvaṇṇabhūmi is unhistorical. See discussion at http://web.ukonline.co.uk/buddhism/tawsein8.htm

[2] Willis, 228

[3] For detailed examination, see http://sectsandsectarianism.googlepages.com/names%26datesatvedisa.

[4] Pali Vinaya 3.66

[5] Pali Vinaya 1.303

[6] T 1425, 479b23-c23. Translation at Walser, 143-145.

[7] 拘多子。名帝須 (CBETA, T24, no. 1462, p. 682, a15-16) This is, of course, only an approximation of the Indic form.

[8]爾時阿育王登位九年。有比丘拘多子。名帝須。病困劇。持鉢乞藥得酥一撮。其病增長命將欲斷。向諸比丘言。三界中慎勿懈怠。語已飛騰虛空。於虛空中而坐。即化作火自焚燒身。入於涅盤。是時阿育王。聞人宣傳為作供養。王念言。我國中比丘。求藥而不能得 (CBETA, T24, no. 1462, p. 682, a15-21)

[9] Jawawickrama, 1986, 173

[10] Willis, 223

[11] As suggested by Jawawickrama, 105 note 53.1

[12] Jawawickrama, 108

[13] Mahāvaruṇa was also the preceptor of Nigrodha, the novice who inspired Aśoka to become a Buddhist.

[14] See http://sectsandsectarianism.googlepages.com/whoiskunti%3F

[15] 目揵連子帝須欲涅槃付弟子旃陀跋闍 (CBETA, T49, no. 2034, p. 95, b26-27). Also at CBETA, T55, no. 2154, p. 535, c19.

[16] Cf. Cousins, Person and Self, 86.

[17] CBETA, T51, no. 2087, p. 898, c15-17. For Xuan-zang it is apparently not impossible for two arahants to disagree over such a fundamental doctrine, suggesting that a difference in conceptual expression of Dhamma does not imply difference in realization.

[18] Cousins, Person and Self, 86

[19] Wynne, 12-21

[20] Allchin, 156-183