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Upagupta was a Buddhist saint and dharma master from Northwest India. He is unknown in the Pāli canon, but Sanskrit legends portray him as the fifth patriarch of the Buddhist tradition, in a line that stretches back through the disciples Ānanda and MahĀkĀŚyapa to the Buddha. He is associated with King AŚoka (ca. 300–232 b.c.e.), whom he is said to have accompanied on a pilgrimage, but he is most famous for having tamed (some say converted) MĀra. He is also said to have been cremated in Mathura with the wooden tally-sticks (śalākā) of his many disciples.

In Myanmar (Burma), Upagupta is thought not to have died but to live on, in a meditative trance, in a pavilion in the midst of the southern ocean. From there, devotees invite him to come to their village to protect Buddhist festivals and rituals from disruptions caused by Māra, and to give people an opportunity to make merit. When his services are completed, devotees return Upagupta to his watery abode by floating his image downstream on a raft. His association with water and nāgas is also found in northern Thailand and Laos, where he is thought to reside in swamps or river bottoms.

Images of Upagupta commonly depict him as a seated monk looking up at the sun while eating from his alms bowl. He is said to have the power to stop the sun in its course, thus allowing him to eat after noon. In parts of Southeast Asia, it is thought that, on occasion, he may appear in person as a rough-looking monk. At such times, it is particularly beneficial to give him alms.

See also:Arhat; Disciples of the Buddha


Strong, John S. The Legend and Cult of Upagupta. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1992.

John S. Strong

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