Gavāṃpati (Pāli, Gavāṃpati) is a disciple of the Buddha, one of the first ten to be ordained and to have known the state of arhat. His name means "guardian of the cows" or "bull." Gavāṃpati is mentioned first of all in the Vinaya or monastic codes of the various schools. These sources report on Gavāṃpati's appearance after the ordination of Yaśa, an early convert, whose example Gavāṃpati seeks to emulate. Gavāṃpati is introduced as a friend of Yaśa's; like Yaśa, Gavāṃpati comes from a rich Vārāṇasī family. The episode, described precisely in the Pāli Vinaya, is also evoked, with few differences, in Sanskrit texts (Saṇghabhedavastu [Section on the Schism in the Community], Catuṣparisat-sūtra [sūtra on the (Establishment of the) Fourfold Assembly]) and in their Chinese translations.
The Theragāthā (v. 38) mentions Gavāṃpati's supranormal powers and calls him a man of great wisdom "who has surpassed all attachments and reached the far shore of existence" (Norman, p. 5). His mythical nature is explained in the text's commentary (Theragāthā-aṭṭhakathā): During three prior lives, Gavāṃpati accumulated merits that allowed him, in a fourth life, to live in a heavenly realm, where he resides in a sumptuous house, the Serīssakavimāna (Palace of Acacias). In his fifth life, in Gautama's time, Gavāṃpati saved a group of monks by stopping a river's flood waters so that the waters remained standing in the air, like a mountain. Echoing this theme, the Vinaya of both the Mahīśāsakas and the Dharmaguptakas shows how Gavāṃpati helped the Buddha and his retinue cross the Ganges on their way to Kuśinagara. Finally, both the Pāyāsi-sūtra and the Dhammapada-aṭṭhakathā (Commentary on the Word of the Doctrine) emphasize that Gavāmpati resides, in a timeless fashion, in the Palace of Acacias.
Gavāṃpati's unusual personality is even more obvious in the texts of north Asian schools. Jean Przyluski showed how Tibetan and Chinese texts glorify Gavāṃpati at the moment of his parinirvāṇa. Gavāṃpati was summoned to the Rājagṛha Council after the Buddha's death. A young monk came to his celestial palace to invite him, but Gavāṃpati immediately understood that the Buddha had passed away, and decided that he, too, would accomplish his parinirvāṇa. Then, he performed a series of wonders: He sprang into space; his body started to radiate water and fire; his hands touched the sun and the moon; and, finally, his body wasted away while the river of his waters reached the land of men, and Rājagṛha, putting an end to the dry season.
Przyluski considered this story to be the expression of a pre-Buddhist myth that belongs more to the Asia of monsoons than to Indo-European stock. He proposed the hypothesis that Gavāṃpati was the incarnation of dry winds chasing the waters away, and that his parinirvāṇa could be interpreted as a bull-sacrifice that brought the drought to an end. Some scholars have criticized this thesis. Nevertheless, there remain textual facts that are disconnected from any known cult in Indian Buddhism or in the MahĀyĀna tradition and that feature Gavāṃpati's strange powers over water.
Within the context of Southeastern Asian Buddhism, Gavāṃpati has become a preeminent character because his textual dimension is enhanced by his ritual dimension. The Sanskrit text of the Mahākarma-vibhaṇga states that "The saint, Gavāṃpati, converted people in…the Golden Land [Suvarṇabhūmi]," a region identified with Lower Burma (Myanmar) or with the central plain of Thailand. The Sāsanavaṃsa, a late historical chronicle, tells more specifically that Gavāṃpati was the first to preach the Buddha's doctrine in the Mon kingdom of Thaton. Ancient Mon inscriptions confirm this legend, and one of them points out that Gavāṃpati founded Śrī Ksetra, the ancient capital city of the Pyus. Some Pagan inscriptions add that a cult, which probably disappeared around the fourteenth century, developed around his images. According to Gordon H. Luce, the limited number of statuettes of the "Fat Monk" found at Pagan are indeed those of Gavāṃpati. Such images are today innumerable in Thailand, where they are called Kachai, Mahākachai, or Sangkachai when they represent the fat monk seated in meditative fashion, and Phagawam when they show him covering his eyes or other bodily orifices. These images are venerated for their protective virtues and for the symbol of renunciation of the senses they express.
Therefore, it is mostly in Thailand, but also in Laos, Cambodia, and in the Shan states, that the Mon cult of Gavāṃpati has survived. Several local texts in Pāli, Thai, and Lao (such as Gavāṃpati-sutta, Gavāṃpatinibbāna, or Kaccāyananibbāna) tell the story of a monk who resembled too closely the Buddha and so was often confused with him. He therefore decided to transform himself into a shapeless being and to take on another name, Gavāṃpati. This tradition was then extended to another disciple, Mahākaccāyana.
Lagirarde, François. "Gavampati et la tradition des quatrevingts disciples du Bouddha: textes et iconographie du Laos et de Thaïlande." Bulletin de l'Ecole Française d'Extrême-Orient 87, no. 1 (2000): 57–78.
Luce, Gordon H. Old Burma-Early Pagan. Locust Valley, NY: J. J. Augustin, 1969.
Norman, K. R., ed. and trans. The Elders' Verses, Vol. 1. London: Pāli Text Society, 1969.
Przyluski, Jean. Le concile de Rājagṛha: Introduction à l'histoire des canons et des sectes bouddhiques. Paris: Paul Geuthner, 1928.
Shorto, H. L. "The Gavampati Tradition in Burma." In R.C. Majumdar Felicitation Volume, ed. Himansu Bhusan Sarkar. Calcutta: K. L. Mukhopadhyay, 1970.