According to Buddhist tradition, every Buddha in the past and to come will have two chief disciples and one attendant during his ministry. In the case of Gautama Buddha, the pair of disciples were Sariputta and Maudgalyayana and the attendant was Ānanda.
The word 'Ānanda' means 'bliss' in Pali, Sanskrit as well as other Indian languages. It is a popular name in India and south-east Asia, especially Indonesia.
In the Kannakatthala Sutta (MN 90), Ananda is identified with the meaning of his name:
Then King Pasenadi Kosala said to the Blessed One, "Lord, what is the name of this monk?"
"His name is Ananda, great king."
"What a joy he is! What a true joy!..."
Ānanda was the first cousin of the Buddha by their fathers, and was devoted to him. In the twentieth year of the Buddha's ministry, he became the Buddha's personal attendant, accompanying him on most of his wanderings and taking the part of interlocutor in many of the recorded dialogues. He is the subject of a special panegyric delivered by the Buddha just before the Buddha's parinibbana (the Mahaparinibbana Sutta (DN 16)); it is a panegyric for a man who is kindly, unselfish, popular, and thoughtful toward others.
In the long list of the disciples given in the Anguttara Nikaya (i. xiv.), where each of them is declared to be Prime in some quality, Ānanda is mentioned five times (more often than any other). He was named Prime in conduct, in service to others, and in power of memory. The Buddha sometimes asked Ānanda to substitute for him as teacher and then later stated that he himself would not have presented the teachings in any other way.
The Buddhist canon attributes the inclusion of women in the early Sangha (monastic order) to Ānanda. The Buddha conceded and permitted his step-mother Mahapajapati to be ordained as a bhikkhuni only after Ananda prevailed upon the Buddha to publicly recognize women as being equal to men in possessing the potential for awakening. Following the death of the Buddha, Ananda was criticized by the members of the Sangha for having enabled women to join the monastic order.
Because he attended the Buddha personally and often traveled with him, Ānanda overheard and memorized many of the discourses the Buddha delivered to various audiences. Therefore, he is often referred to as the disciple of the Buddha who "heard much". At the First Buddhist Council, convened shortly after the Buddha died, Ananda was called upon to recite many of the discourses that later became the Sutta Pitaka of the Pāli Canon.
Despite his long association with and close proximity to the Buddha, Ananda was only a stream-winner prior to the Buddha’s death. However, Buddha said that the purity of his heart was so great that, "Should Ananda die without being fully liberated, he would be king of the Gods seven times because of the purity of his heart, or be king of the Indian subcontinent seven times. But....Ananda will experience final liberation in this very life." (AN 3.80)
Prior to the First Buddhist Council, it was proposed that Ananda not be permitted to attend on the grounds that he was not yet an arahant. According to legend, this prompted Ananda to focus his efforts on the attainment of nibbana and he was able to reach the specified level of attainment before the convening of the conclave.
In contrast to most of the figures depicted in the Pāli Canon, Ananda is presented as an imperfect, if sympathetic, figure. He mourns the deaths of both Sariputta, with whom he enjoyed a close friendship, and the Buddha. A verse of the Theragatha reveals his loneliness and isolation following the parinirvana (salvation/demise) of the Buddha.
In the Zen tradition, Ananda is considered to be the second Indian patriarch. He is often depicted with the Buddha alongside Mahakashyapa, the first Indian patriarch.
Ananda attains parinirvana (salvation) in midair over the river Ganga. His body gets auto-cremated and his relics divide into four portions for the people of Rajargrha, the people of Vaisali, the Nagas and the Gods.