When Siddhartha Gautama set out from his privileged life as a prince of the Shakya Kingdom to seek answers to the riddle of human suffering, he left alone. But his inescapable charisma and eventual role as a great spiritual teacher drew crowds to him once he became enlightened. Buddha had thousands of followers. The serious disciples of his message enthusiastically adopted his disciplined asceticism and his Middle Way of practice to reach the truth.
The Lotus Sutra, one of the principal sacred scriptures of Buddhism, predicted that 500 of the Buddha's most advanced followers would achieve enlightenment -- and then went on to single out another 700 for the same attainment. Throughout every account of the Buddha's life, the numbers of his followers range from hundreds to thousands, with specific disciples singled out for their devotion and great merit. The first 500, a symbolic and canonical number, were considered arhats, those who have become enlightened. They seem to have been Bodhisattvas, enlightened beings who delay their own blissful existence in eternal Nirvana to remain as compassionate teachers and assistants to others who follow the Buddhist path and are not yet enlightened.
Sariputra and Mahamaudgalyayana
Sariputra is regarded as the Buddha's most important disciple, the wisest of the followers. He is the one Buddha preaches directly to in the Heart Sutra, the distillation of Buddhist wisdom. Sariputra -- Shariputta in Pali -- was the heir of a Brahmin family who spent his life searching for meaning. When he encountered a begging monk who followed Buddha, he realized the monk's teacher was the source of wisdom he had been seeking and immediately joined the Buddha and embraced his teaching. Mahamaudgalyayana -- Mogallanna in Pali -- was a friend and fellow spiritual traveler with Sariputra who was persuaded to join him in following the Buddha. Mahamaudgalyayana was known for his devotion and mastery of siddhis, or supernatural powers, and was Buddha's second most exalted disciple.
Khema and Uppalavanna
Buddha had female followers, as well as males who became monks and ascetics, and several of those women stand out in the spiritual and historical accounts. Two, in particular, occupy the positions of foremost female followers. Khema, whose name means Nirvana, was a member of royalty and the reincarnation of a great being. She was consort to a king who told her about Buddha and she received enlightenment when she sought out the Buddha for instruction. Khema immediately became a saintly nun, renowned for her wise teaching of the Buddha's Middle Way. Uppalavanna was another key disciple who is the female counterpart to Mahamaudgalyayana. She is the second-favorite female follower and was believed to have had extraordinary psychic powers.
Ananda means "bliss" and his great quality as a disciple was bhakti, or the bliss of devotion. He was Siddhartha Gautama's cousin, born on the same day in the same warrior caste, and he served as the personal attendant to Buddha for 25 years, until Buddha's death. Ananda had the exceptional ability of total recall and he memorized the Buddha's teachings word-for-word, preserving them accurately for posterity. He was an important go-between, facilitating communications with Buddha's many disciples, and he worked with Sariputra and Mahamaudgalyayana to smooth disagreements and clarify misunderstandings. Ananda's devotion to the Buddha was legendary -- once he threw himself in the path of a raging elephant that threatened Buddha and he remained at Buddha's side day and night to serve him.
- PBS: Religion& Ethics: Masters of Mercy
- BuddhaNet: The Buddha & His Disciples
- Druk Gawa Khilwa Abbey: Khema of Great Wisdom
- Dhamma Talks: Ten Great Disciples of the Buddha
- Tricycle Magazine: The Life of Ananda, Guardian of the Dhamma
- Soka Gakkai International Library: "Prophecy of Enlightenment for Five Hundred Disciples" chapter
- Georgetown University Berkley Center for Religion, Peace & World Affairs: Siddhartha Gautama
- Comstock/Comstock/Getty Images