Of all the principal disciples, Ananda may have had the closest relationship to the historical Buddha. Particularly in the Buddha's later years, Ananda was his attendant and closest companion. Ananda also is remembered as the disciple who recited the Buddha's sermons from memory at the First Buddhist Council, after the Buddha had died.
What do we know about Ananda? It is widely agreed that Buddha and Ananda were first cousins. Ananda's father was a brother to King Suddhodana, many sources say. It is thought that when the Buddha returned home to Kapilavastu for the first time after his enlightenment, cousin Ananda heard him speak and became his disciple.
Beyond that, there are several conflicting stories. According to some traditions, the future Buddha and his disciple Ananda were born on the same day and were exactly the same age. Other traditions say Ananda was still a child, maybe seven years old, when he entered the sangha, which would have made him at least thirty years younger than the Buddha. Ananda survived the Buddha and most of the other principal disciples, which suggests that the latter version of the story is more probable.
Ananda was said to be a modest, quiet man who was completely devoted to the Buddha. He also was said to have a prodigious memory; he could recite every sermon of the Buddha word for word after hearing it only once. Ananda is credited with persuading the Buddha to ordain women into the sangha, according to one famous story. However, he was slower than other disciples to realize enlightenment and did so only after the Buddha died.
The Buddha's Attendant
When the Buddha was 55 years old, he told the sangha he needed a new attendant. The attendant's job was a combination of servant, secretary, and confidant. He took care of "chores" such as washing and mending robes so that the Buddha could focus on teaching. He also relayed messages and sometimes acted as a gatekeeper, so that the Buddha would not be mobbed by too many visitors at once.
Many monks spoke up and nominated themselves for the job. Characteristically, Ananda remained quiet. When the Buddha asked his cousin to accept the job, however, Ananda accepted only with conditions. He asked that the Buddha never giver him food or robes or any special accommodations, so that the position did not come with material gain.
Ananda also requested the privilege of discussing his doubts with the Buddha whenever he had them. And he asked that the Buddha repeat any sermons to him that he might have to miss while carrying out his duties. The Buddha agreed to these conditions, and Ananda served as attendant for the remaining 25 years of the Buddha's life.
Ananda and the Ordination of Pajapati
The story of the ordination of the first Buddhist nuns is one of the most controversial sections of the Pali Canon. This story has Ananda pleading with a reluctant Buddha to ordain his stepmother and aunt, Pajapati, and the women who had walked with her to become the Buddha's disciples.
The Buddha eventually agreed that women can become enlightened as well as men, and could be ordained. But he also predicted that the inclusion of women would be the undoing of the sangha.
Some modern scholars have argued that if Ananda really was more than thirty years younger than the Buddha, he would still have been a child when Pajapati approached the Buddha for ordination. This suggests the story was added, or at least re-written, a long time later, by someone who didn't approve of nuns. Still, Ananda is credited with advocating for the right of women to be ordained.
The Buddha's Parinirvana
One of the most poignant texts of the Pali Canon is the Maha-parinibbana Sutta, which describes the last days, death, and parinirvana of the Buddha. Again and again in this sutta we see the Buddha addressing Ananda, testing him, giving him his final teachings and comfort. And as monks gather around him to witnesses his passing into Nirvana, the Buddha spoke in praise of Ananda -- "Bhikkhus [monks], the Blessed Ones, Arahants, Fully Enlightened Ones of times past also had excellent and devoted attendant bhikkhus, such as I have in Ananda."
Ananda's Enlightenment and the First Buddhist Council
After the Buddha had passed, 500 enlightened monks came together to discuss how their master's teachings might be preserved. None of the Buddha's sermons had been written down. Ananda's memory of the sermons was respected, but he had not yet realized enlightenment. Would he be allowed to attend?
The Buddha's death had relieved Ananda of many duties, and he now dedicated himself to meditation. The evening before the Council was to begin, Ananda realized enlightenment. He attended the Council and was called upon to recite the Buddha's sermons.
Over the next several months he recited, and the assembly agreed to commit the sermons to memory also and preserve the teachings through oral recitation. Ananda came to be called "The Keeper of the Dharma Store."
It is said Ananda lived to be more than 100 years old. In the 5th century CE, a Chinese pilgrim reported finding a stupa holding Ananda's remains, lovingly attended by nun. His life remains a model of the path of devotion and service.