Why did Sakka steal the Visuddhimagga three times according to the legend -- was it because Visuddhimagga erroneously stated that it couldn't be done by a sotapanna??

Quoting from the Introduction to the English translation:

The reply was: 'I have come to translate the Buddha's Dispensation into Magadhan'. The senior elder told him, 'If so, then construe the Three Pitakas upon the text beginning "When a wise man, established well in virtue ..."'. He began the work that day, the stars being favourable, and wrote very quickly. When finished, he put it aside and went to sleep. Meanwhile Sakka Ruler of Gods abstracted the book. The elder awoke, and missing it, he wrote another copy very fast by lamplight; then he put it aside and slept. Sakka abstracted that too. The elder awoke, and not seeing his book, he wrote a third copy very fast by lamplight and wrapped it in his robe. Then he slept again. While he was asleep Sakka put the other two books beside him, and when he awoke he found all three copies. He took them to the senior elder and told him what had happened. When they were read over there was no difference even in a single letter. Thereupon the senior elder gave permission for the translating of the Buddha's Dispensation. From then on the elder was known to the people of Ceylon by the name of Buddhaghosa.

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    the reference is probably in the intro of vism. somewhere. The obvious reason is the fabricated legendary origin is to show how supposedly awesome Buddhaghosa was.
    – frankk
    Sep 1 at 11:12

To be sure of something, we often double-check. And to be extra sure we triple-check. For example, consider solving a math problem. If we only solve the problem once, we are not quite sure we did it correctly. There are many steps in a math problem and they ALL have to be correct. What should we do?

Well, if we start with a clean slate and solve the problem again in its entirety and arrive at the same answer, then our confidence increases. Double checking improves confidence. And triple-checking from a clean slate provides us even more assurance of correctness, especially if all three answers agree exactly.

Note that for thorough checking we don't merely glance at our first answer. Instead, we start from a clean slate and do the entire problem once again. Such care and caution is commonly exercised when we, for example, build rockets that should not blow up. When a single O-ring fails, a rocket can destroy lives. We have to be mindful of every single part of our answer.

So it can be understood that Sakka here is simply helping out by "stealing" the thrice-written book to give Buddhaghosa a "clean slate". And by writing the exactly same thing three times over from a blank slate, Sakka has helped prove Buddhaghosa's deep and clear knowledge. In fact, the books are returned for that very same verification. By "stealing" the books, Sakka proved that Buddhaghosa was relying on mindful memory instead of simply copying what he had already written.


FYI it's not clear to me that the objects were stolen (i.e. that the act was "stealing"):

  • It might be arguable that the items didn't "belong to" Buddhaghosa -- not that I want to argue that, but there have been previous discussions on this site about whether the Buddha-Dhamma "belongs to" anyone in particular.

  • According to the Vinaya (quoting from here),

    The act of taking what is not given, even when one perceives it as not given, counts as theft only if one’s intention is to steal it. Thus, as the non-offense clauses say, a bhikkhu incurs no offense if he takes an object temporarily or on trust.

According to the quote in the OP this wasn't exactly "on trust" but it was, clearly, only "temporarily".

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