Devadatta is the paradigmatically wicked and evil personality in Buddhist tradition and literature.
There are various major and minor legends about Devadatta’s actions against the Buddha and the Buddhist community:
He seems to fill the role of the scapegoat in Buddhist literature; all bad action condemned by Buddhist moral and monastic rules is heaped upon him.
The 3 most serious acts leading to Devadatta’s fall into hell, described by the Buddhist commentary Mahā-prajñā-pāramitā-śāstra (The Great Perfection of Wisdom Treatise) attributed to Nāgārjuna (ca. 2nd century C.E.), are:
1. Causing the First Schism of the Buddhist order,
2. Wounding the Buddha, and
3. Killing a Buddhist nun named Utpalavarṇā.
Devadatta is the cousin of the Buddha and is said to have been his rival before the Buddha’s Enlightenment:
Devadatta kills an elephant presented to the Buddha-to-be and is beaten by the Buddha in an archery contest.
Devadatta is also reported to have entered the Buddhist order with other members of the Śākya clan, where he soon achieved magical power
- that he used to gain the support of Ajātaśatru, the crown prince of Māgadha, who finally, as a parallel crime to Devadatta’s attacks on the Buddha, killed his father, Bimbisāra, and put himself on the throne of Māgadha.
Devadatta tried several times to assassinate the Buddha:
- by releasing a drunken elephant to attack him,
- by throwing a rock at him from atop Vultures’ Peak (Gṛdhrakūṭa), and
- by trying to scratch him with his poisoned fingernails.
The historical core of the legends surrounding Devadatta is his attempt to split the Buddhist order (saṅghabheda):
He first tried to persuade the Buddha to transfer the leadership of the order to him under the pretext of introducing 5 stricter, more ascetic, rules for monks (dhūta-guṇa; ascetic practices), but the Buddha refused.
Devadatta succeeded in attracting a group of followers, but they were eventually led back to the Buddha’s order by the Buddha’s main disciples, Maudgalyāyana and Śāriputra.
In Mahāyāna texts such as the Lotus Sūtra (Saddharma-Puṇḍarīka-Sūtra), however, Devadatta is rehabilitated insofar
as the Buddha prophesies that Devadatta will become a Buddha in the far future, despite his misdeeds, because he has accumulated good Karma (action) in a past existence.
In their descriptions of Buddhist India, the Chinese pilgrims Faxian (ca. 337-418), Xuanzang (ca. 600-664), and Yijing (635-713) refer to a monastic order of Devadatta’s that may have existed from the lifetime of the Buddha to the early 7th century.
A careful comparison of the traditions and their contradictions, however, seems to indicate that this Saṅgha of Devadatta was a recent religious group in India during the first centuries C.E.:
As such it refers to the earlier schismatic order ascribed to Devadatta that attempted to gain legitimation as a religious group connected to, but still separated from, the Buddhist tradition.