Angulimala was the son of the Brahmin Bhaggawa and Mantani. Bhaggawa was a loyal advisor to king Pasenadi of Kosala(an ancient kingdom in India). He was born under thieves' constellation, and on the night of his birth, all the armours and weapons in the town shone brightly. The king was so disturbed by this, and next morning he called upon his advisors and asked them why are the armours shinny. So Bhaggawa answered, “My wife have given birth to a son and according to his birth signs, he would become a lonely bandit”. The king ordered that the child be sacrificed but Bhaggawa advised the king that since he will be alone, they can catch him easily in the future if it turns out to be true. Bhaggawa named the child “Himsaka” which means “harmful” in pali, but later changed it to “Ahimsaka(harmless)”.
When he was old enough, Bhaggawa sent Ahimsaka to University of Taxila, then the Ox-bridge of India. At Taxila, he was the most strongest, brightest and obedient among all students and excelled in his studies. As a result he was liked by both his teacher and his wife so he enjoyed the privilege of living in their own house. This made the other pupils jealous of him. They went to the teacher and falsely accused Ahimsaka of having an immoral relationship with the teacher’s wife. At first, he did not believe them, but after hearing it a number of times, he thought it was true and vowed to have revenge on Ahimsaka. He thought that to kill him would reflect badly on him but some sources say that he dared not challenge Ahimsaka physically(Ahimsaka is said to be as strong as seven elephants). His rage prompted him to suggest the unthinkable to the young and innocent Ahimsaka. He ordered to bring him “1000 human right hand thumb” as his tuition fees(thinking that he will be killed in the process) and expelled Ahimsaka from the university.
When his father heard about the reason why his son was expelled from the university, he became so furious and ordered Ahimsaka to leave the house on that very day when there was heavy rain outside. He went to his mother for advice, but she couldn’t help him as she was afraid of her husband. Than he went to the house of his betrothed, but when the family learned why he was expelled, they too rejected him. Now the shame, anger, fear and despair drove him out of his normal mind and he could only recollect his teachers order: 1000 human right hand thumb.
So he decided to fulfill his teachers wish and resume his studies again. Some sources say that he asked people to give their right hand thumb, but no one was willing to give thus he became a highwayman in the Jalini forest in Kosala. He murdered each and every passerby even when they are in groups of ten or twenty. He took the thumb to make garlands so that he can keep the exact count and hanged the corpses on the trees for vultures and crows. Initially he hanged the garland on a tree but the birds stole the thumbs, so he hanged them around his neck. Thus he came to be known as Angulimala (“anguli“ = fingers, “mala“ = garland or necklace) and he became terror of the countryside and people avoided the path through Jalini forest. Now he attacked the villages and later towns to fulfill his dream. Since he was murdering so many people, the King of Kosala decided to go with his strong army and capture the bandit. When Mantani heard this she went to her husband and asked him to save their son, but he rejected saying that he became a real evil. The mother was so soft hearted that she decided to go to the forest herself and warn her child about the dangers from the king.
On that day, Angulimala has 999 thumbs, just one thumb short of 1,000. Having spent months and months in the forest without any proper food and rest, he was anxious to kill the last person to make up his full quota of 1,000 and so complete his task to pay off his debt and live a decent life. So he made a promise saying, “Today even if my own mother becomes the first person on my way, I will kill her and cut off the thumb to make one thousand thumbs”. The Buddha perceived with his “divine eyes” that Angulimala had killed 999 victims, and was desperately seeking a thousandth. If the Buddha encountered Angulimala that day, he would become a monk and subsequently attain Nirvana. If Angulimala encountered his mother instead, he would kill her as his thousandth victim and fall into hell for thousand years for the act of matricide. So out of compassion, Buddha left for the forest.
As he looked down from his perch, he saw a woman on the road below. He wanted to fulfill his vow to complete the 1,000 thumbs, but as he approached, he saw it was his mother. At the same time, the Buddha was approaching, and Angulimala had just enough presence of mind to decide to kill the wandering monk instead of his mother. So he raised his knife and began chased the monk. Now Buddha powered with “psychic power” walked before Angulimala but he never caught Buddha. At that moment he thought:
“Isn't it amazing! Isn't it astounding! In the past I've chased and seized even a swift-running elephant, a swift-running horse, a swift-running deer. But now, even though I'm running with all my might, I can't catch up with this contemplative walking at normal pace”. So he shouted angrily at Buddha to stop, but the blessed one answered, “I have stopped, Angulimala , now you stop!”. At that moment he thought these monk is the speaker of truth and yet he says he have stopped while still walking. Why don’t I question him now! Thinking thus he questioned the Buddha:
While walking, contemplative,
you say, 'I have stopped.'
But when I have stopped
you say I haven't.
I ask you the meaning of this:
How have you stopped?
How haven't I?
To which Buddha answered him:
I have stopped, Angulimala,
once and for all,
having cast off violence toward all living beings.
You, though, are unrestrained toward beings.
That's how I've stopped and you haven't.
On hearing these words Angulimala was recalled to reality, and thought, these are the words of a wise man. This monk is very wise and very brave that he must be the leader of the monks. Indeed, he must be the Enlightened One himself! He must have come here specially to make me see the light. Thinking so, he threw away his weapons and asked the Blessed One to admit to the Order of the bhikkhus, which the Buddha did. So at the age of twenty he became a monk.
Since he was a brilliant student, he learned everything from the Buddha and dedicated his life to strict meditation. As a result of his former karmic actions, while seeking for alms in the streets he will be beaten up with stones by the people. He used to go to the monastery with wounds and bloodshed to be reminded by the Buddha that it is his former karmic deeds that he is undergoing this hardships in this life itself. One day when he was on his alms, he saw a woman suffering from extreme labor. He went to Buddha and asked what should he do to reduce the pain that the woman is bearing. Buddha asked him to recite:
Sister, since the day I became an arhat
I have not consciously destroyed
The life of any living beings.
By this truth, may you be well
And may your fetus be well.
He went to the woman and recited this verses and she delivered without any pain. Later the verses came to be known as “Angulimala sutta” and is recited even to this day when the ladies are in labor pain. He lived most of his life in solitude and meditation. Later he passed away peacefully in meditation.
After his death, his friend asked Buddha where was Angulimala reborn, but He answered, “my son Angulimala has attained Nirvana”. They could hardly believe it and asked can such a person attain Nirvana. So Buddha said, “Bhikkhus, Angulimala had done much evil because he did not have good friends. But later, he had good friends and with their help and good advice he became steadfast and mindful in practicing the dharma and meditation. Thus, his evil deeds have been overwhelmed by good karma and his mind has been completely rid of all defilements”. The Buddha said of Angulimala as: “Whose evil deed is obscured by good, he illumines this world like the moon freed from a cloud”.
Angulimala , after knowing that his goal in life has been achieved said of himself:
Who once was heedless,
but later is not,
His evil-done deed
is replaced with skillfulness.
he brightens the world
like the moon set free from a cloud.
May even my enemies
hear talk of the Dharma.
May even my enemies
devote themselves to the Buddha's bidding.
May even my enemies
associate with those people who - peaceful,
good -get others to accept the Dharma.
May even my enemies
hear the Dharma time & again
from those who advise endurance, forbearance,
who praise non-opposition,
and may they follow it.
After performing Act of Truth, he is said to have brought safety to people and they in return worshipped him. Atlast his name “Ahimsaka” befitted him.