Who were Sariputra and Maudgalyayana?

statues of sariputra and maudgalyayana flanking the buddha

Large statues of Sariputra and Maudgalyayana flank the Buddha at Wat Chedi Luang temple in Chiang Mai, Thailand. | travelbild-asia / Flickr

Sariputra (Sanskrit; Pali, Sariputta) and Maudgalyayana (Sanskrit; Pali, Mogallana) were among the Buddha’s most important disciples and are often depicted at his side—Sariputra on the Buddha’s right and Maudgalyayana on his left. 

Sariputra was first among the Buddha’s disciples in wisdom and understanding. He is featured in many sutras in discussion with the Buddha or teaching on his own and was known by the title Dharma General for his leadership role in the sangha. Sariputra is said to have played an important role in the creation of the Vinaya, the monastic rules, and the Abhidharma, scholastic commentaries on the dharma.

Maudgalyayana was foremost among the Buddha’s disciples in the use of supernatural powers. It was said that he could shape-shift, see ghosts, and fly. He is the subject of many tales describing his magical abilities, which he used only in service of other beings. He once flew to a distant mountain to obtain medicine when Sariputra was ill and offered to roll up the crust of the earth like a mat in order to uncover food to alleviate a famine. Like Sariputra, Maudgalyayana is credited with a role in creating the Abhidharma texts.

The two disciples were childhood friends who together decided to renounce the world and pursue the holy life. They traveled separately, each vowing that if he discovered the truth, he would inform the other. One day Sariputra met Asvajit, one of the Buddha’s first followers, and asked what his teacher taught. Asvajit answered:

Of those things that arise from a cause,
The Tathagata has told the cause,
And also what their cessation is:
This is the doctrine of the Great Recluse.
Great Disciples of the Buddha, Nyanaponika Thera & Hellmuth Hecker

Upon hearing this, Sariputra immediately sought out Maudgalyayana and together they joined the sangha. Based on their devotion in previous lives, the Buddha declared them his chief disciples the day they ordained. Maudgalyayana attained enlightenment a week later, while Sariputra took an additional week.

Sariputra and Maudgalyayana are highly venerated in Theravada Buddhism and are prominent figures in Mahayana texts. In the Heart Sutra, for instance, Sariputra converses with the bodhisattva Avalokiteshvara. In the Vimalakirti Sutra, Sariputra and Maudgalyayana become foils for the enlightened layman Vimalakirti, with the two wise monks appearing foolish next to the titular figure.

Together for much of their life, the two friends were apart at the time of their deaths. Sariputra passed away on a visit to his childhood home, during which he managed to convert his mother, while Maudgalyayana was killed by brigands hired by a rival sect. Both monks died shortly before the Buddha, because, it is said, they could not bear to witness their master die.


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