Mahāmaudgalyāyana (Pāli, Mahāmoggāllana; Chinese, Mulian), a disciple of Śākyamuni Buddha, attained the enlightened status of an arhat, or saint. He is renowned for the magical powers he developed through meditation. Mahāmaudgalyāyana uses his powers to travel to other realms of the universe where he witnesses the happiness and suffering that living beings experience as a result of their karma (action). He also uses his magical powers to discipline monks, gods, nāgas, and other beings. Mahāmaudgalyāyana converted to Buddhism and entered the monastic order together with his childhood friend ŚĀriputra. They became the Buddha's two chief disciples in accordance with a prediction made to that effect many eons earlier by a previous buddha. Thus Mahāmaudgalyāyana and Śāiputra are sometimes depicted flanking the Buddha in Buddhist art. Mahāmaudgalyāyana predeceased the Buddha after being beaten by heretics. His violent death is attributed to bad karma; in a previous life he had killed his own parents.
Mahāmaudgalyāyana is most famous for liberating his mother from a bad rebirth as a hungry ghost. Beginning in the Tang period in China, this story became the basis for a popular annual Buddhist festival in East Asia called the Ghost Festival. During this festival, Buddhists make offerings to the monastic community, dedicating their merit to deceased ancestors in the hopes that these attain a better rebirth or greater comfort in their current rebirth. Mahāmaudgalyāyana is venerated in East Asia for his filial piety and shamanic powers. Like other arhats, Mahāmaudgalyāyana was also the focus of worship already in ancient and medieval India. In Burma (Myanmar) he is one of a set of eight arhats propitiated in protective rituals and he is also believed to grant his worshippers magical powers.
See also:Disciples of the Buddha
Malalasekera, G. P. "Mahā Moggallāna Thera." In Dictionary of Pāli Proper Names (1937–1938), 2 vols. New Delhi: Munshiram Manoharlal, 1995.
Strong, John S. The Legend and Cult of Upagupta. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1992.
Teiser, Stephen F. The Ghost Festival in Medieval China. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1988.