Anathapindika was one of the wealthiest merchants in Savatthi in the time of Gautama Buddha. His actual name was Sudatta but later he was popularly known as Anathapindika, literally, "One who gives alms to the poor". He was the chief lay disciple of the Buddha who was foremost in generosity. In ancient India, a wealthy person or millionaire is mostly referred to setthi, therefore Anathapindika is also regarded as Anathapindika-setthi. In Buddhist scriptures, he is also regarded as Maha Anathapindika to distinguish him from Cula Anathapindika, another disciple of the Buddha.
Life of Anathapindika
As mentioned in the Pali Canon, Anathapindika's first meeting with the Buddha was during his visit to his brother-in-law. His brother-in-law was the follower of the Buddha. When Anathapindika reached his brother-in-law's house, he observed that the family was preparing for a huge feast. He thought the feast was for some auspicious ceremonies but to his surprise, he learned that the feast is for the Buddha and his disciples. He was overjoyed and excited to meet the Buddha.
The following day, Anathapindika arose anxiously early in the morning to meet the Buddha but realized it was still dark. Seeing the dark environment, he thought to go to bed again but a friendly yakka whispered in his ear, urged him to wake up, and met the Buddha. Therefore, he went ahead and at a far distant he saw a figure which called him, Sudatta and then asked him to come forward. Listening to the words, he was surprised because his birth name was unknown to the public. Therefore, he concluded that it must be the Buddha and then went forward to meet him.
After meeting the Buddha, he gave the discourse about the Four Noble Truths. It is recorded that after he achieved the state of Sotapanna, a stage of enlightenment. Following the teachings of Buddha, he requested to offered a meal to the Buddha and asked to build a temple for him and his monks in his hometown of Savatthi. The Buddha agreed to the request.
Anathapindika returned back to Savatthi and try to search for a place that was both accessible to followers and peacefully secluded. With continuous search, he came across to a park that belonged to Prince Jeta, the son of King Pasenadi of Kosala. It was hard to get the park from the Prince Jeta but with the determination of Anathapindika Prince Jeta had to sell the land to him. The Prince also offered to build a wall and gate for the monastery. Finally, Anathapindika completed the construction of the monastery and then named Jetavana Monastery. This monastery is also referred as Anathapindika's Monastery in Buddhist Scriptures.
Legends of Anathapindika
In one story mentioned in the Buddhist scripture, Anathapindika also had to experience misfortune. At one time, Anathapindika lost a significant amount of fortune in flood and was reduced to poverty. Despite being poor, Anathapindika continued to support Buddhism. When a deva who appeared before Anathapindika, he suggested him to stop his support to Buddhism since he was no longer wealthy. In reply, Anathapindika explained that the only treasures he knew were the Three Jewels: the Buddha, the Dhamma, and the Sangha and he would continue to support Buddhism as long as he has something. Then he forced the deva to leave his house. Later with instruction from the king of the devas In Trayastrimsa, the deva helped to recover the Anathapindika's position that was lost.
The generosity of Anathapindika doesn't only includes offering the donations. He also helped his childhood friend Kalakanni by providing him a job at his house. Due to the Kalakanni's low status and the superstition that the name bears at that time, Kalakanni had a very difficult time. Despite his low status and the superstitious belief, Anathapindika offered him a job and a place to live.