Challenging the Buddha’s Authority: A Narrative Perspective of Power Dynamics between the Buddha and His Disciples

Challenging the Buddha’s Authority: A Narrative Perspective of Power Dynamics between the Buddha and His Disciples
Channa Li


The power relation between the primary figure and his disciples is always an essential dimension of a religion’s self-representation. For Buddhism, a religion generally lacking a clear-cut, fixed power pyramid from the time of the early Indian Buddhism, this is always a topic generating divergent ideas, sparking not only exciting stories but also serious polemics. This dissertation intends to retrieve an “Indian Buddhist discourse world” around different aspects of the power relation between the Buddha and his disciples through narratives. It selects multiple narrative traditions revolving around legendary figures from the early monastic community as represented by Śāriputra, Devadatta, Ānanda, and Kāśyapa, who attempt to compete with, challenge, or succeed the Buddha. Through philologically close readings of Buddhist sources in Sanskrit, Pāli, Buddhist Chinese and Classical Tibetan, it illustrates how different viewpoints concerning the central authority of monastic Buddhism are conveyed and individualized as vibrant narrative traditions surrounding the Buddha and his significant disciples. It sheds light on how such a political question is, at the same time, a fundamental theological question lingering in the mind of Buddhists, transcending temporal, geographical, and linguistic borders.

The dissertation starts from challenging the dichotomy between buddhahood and arhatship, the two religious paths prescribed to the Buddha and his disciples respectively, by unveiling the relics of the ambiguity between buddhahood and arhatship preserved in early records. The second chapter examines how the authority of the Buddha is negotiated and readdressed by presenting different narrative models of interaction between the Buddha and his foremost disciple Śāriputra. The narratives of how to pass down the Buddha’s authority discussed in chapter 5 are designed to constructively serve different political agendas to prove the legitimacy of specific Buddhist lineages. These narratives also concern the practical issue of how to maintain the authority of a monastic community and how to accommodate the updated needs of monastic communities in an age without a Buddha.

Chapters 3 and 4 offer a fresh discussion of the construction and destruction of the image of Devadatta as the challenger to the Buddha in its ongoing historical development and ideological complexities. By treating the Devadatta narrative as a body of multilayered, ever-changing, and self-reflective rhetoric, this study retrieves the history of how the Devadatta narrative was transformed and extended from initially being a schismatic narrative in the legal context into a story of an evil person. It then demonstrates how the ongoing degradation of Devadatta resulted in severe theological conflicts and even increasingly impaired the Buddha’s authority. It also reconstructs how some groups of Buddhists, under the theological crisis posed by Devadatta’s ever-increasing evilness, embraced new theories of the Buddha-nature and proposed an alternative approach to treat Devadatta: in the new light, Devadatta was not viewed as a challenger but as an aid who pretended to be evil to facilitate the awakening of the Buddha.

All of the vibrant stories I analyze here, which are wide-ranging in terms of geography and chronology, are open windows into the Buddhist self-understanding of the fundamental questions concerning the nature of the Buddha and the identity of being a Buddhist. Seeking its methodological basis in philology, history, and linguistics, and drawing on a variety of theoretical approaches from religious and literary studies, this dissertation provides new insights not only on the formation of the legends of religious figures but also on the mutual stimulation between the formation of narratives and that of ideologies in religion.


Channa Li

Defended in


PhD defended at

Leiden University




East Asia
South Asia