In many temples of Sri Lanka you will find on either side of the Buddha image, the statues of two monks. Their robes are draped over one shoulder and they stand in the attitude of reverence, with joined palms. Quite often there are a few flowers at their feet, laid there by some pious devotee.
If you ask who they are, you will be told that they are the Enlightened One's two Chief Disciples, the Arahats Sariputta and Maha Moggallana. They stand in the positions they occupied in life. Sariputta on the Buddha's right, Maha Moggallana on his left.
When the great stupa at Sanchi was opened up in the middle of the last century, the relic chamber was found to contain two stone receptacles; the one to the north held the body relics of Maha Moggallana, while that on the south enclosed those of Sariputta. Thus they had lain while the centuries rolled past and the history of two thousand years and more played out the drama of impermanence in human life. The Roman Empire rose and fell, the glories of ancient Greece became a distant memory; new religions wrote their names, often with blood and fire, on the changing face of the earth, only to mingle at last with legends of Thebes and Babylon, and gradually the tides of commerce shifted the great centers of civilization from East to West, while generations that had never heard the Teaching of the Buddha arose and passed away. But all the time that the ashes of the saints lay undisturbed, forgotten in the land that gave them birth, their memory was held dear wherever the Buddha's message spread, and the record of their lives was passed down from one generation to another, first by word of mouth, then in the written pages of the Buddhist Tripitaka, the most voluminous and detailed scripture of any religion. next to the Enlightened One himself, it is these two disciples of his who stand highest in the veneration of Buddhists in the Theravada lands. Their names are as inseparable from the annals of Buddhism as that of the Buddha himself. If it has come about that in the course of time many legends have been woven into the tradition of their lives, this is but the natural outcome of the devotion that has always been felt for them.
And that high esteem was fully justified. Few religious teachers have been so well served by their immediate disciples as was the Buddha. This you will see as you read these pages, for they tell the story of one of the two greatest of them, Sariputta, who was second only to the Buddha in the depth and range of his understanding, and his ability to teach the Doctrine of Deliverance. In the Tripitaka there is no connected account of his life, but it can be pieced together from the various incidents, scattered throughout the canonical texts and commentaries, in which he figures. Some of them are more than incidents, for his life so closely interwoven with the life and ministry of the Buddha that he plays an essential part in it, and on a number of occasions it is the Sariputta himself who takes the leading role — as skilled preceptor and exemplar, as kind and considerate friend, as guardian of the welfare of the bhikkhus under his charge, as faithful repository of his Master's doctrine, the function which earned him the title of Dhamma-senapati, Marshal of the Dhamma, and always as himself, a man unique in his patience and steadfastness, modest and upright in thought, word and deed, a man to whom one act of kindness was a thing to be remembered with gratitude so long as life endured. Even among the Arahats, saints freed from all defilements of passion and delusion, he shone like the full moon in a starry sky.
This then is the man, of profound intellect and sublime nature, a true disciple of the Great Teacher, whose story we have set down, to the best of our ability, in the pages that follow. If you, the reader, can gather from this imperfect record something of the qualities of man perfected, of man fully liberated and raised to the highest level of his being; of how such a man acts and speaks and comports himself towards his fellows; and if the reading of it gives you strength and faith in the assurance of what man may become, then our work has been worthwhile, and is fully rewarded.