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Upāli, a disciple of Śākyamuni Buddha, attained the enlightened status of an arhat, or saint. Renowned for his knowledge of monastic discipline, he recited the vinaya at the first Buddhist council in Rājagṛha.

Originally, Upāli had been a low-caste barber in the service of the Śākyan princes. When the princes leave in order to become monks, Upāli also decides to seek ordination. Upāli attains a higher status in the monastic community than the princes because he is ordained before them. There are different accounts of Upāli's ordination in Buddhist literature. According to the Pāli vinaya, the high-caste Śākyan princes request that Upāli be ordained first so that they can learn to abandon their attachment to social status. In some Tibetan accounts, the arhat and disciple ŚĀriputra encourages Upāli to seek ordination when Upāli hesitates to do so because of his caste status.

Upāli's mother is credited in the Sanskrit MĀhavastu (Great Story) with arranging her son's first meeting with the Buddha. All accounts emphasize that caste has no bearing on a person's status in the monastic community. Upāli appears in the literature of different Buddhist schools as an expert on monastic and bodhisattva discipline. Like other arhats, he was the focus of worship already in ancient and medieval India. He figures in different Buddhist schools as the patron saint of specialists in vinaya. In Burma (Myanmar), Upāli is one of a set of eight arhats propitiated in protective rituals.

See also:Councils, Buddhist; Disciples of the Buddha


Malalasekera, G. P. "Upāli 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.

Susanne Mrozik

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