Buddhist Mahayana Texts

Buddhist Mahayana Texts

by E. B. Cowell

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Basic documents in Mahayana Buddhism, highly important in history of religions. The Buddha-karita of Asvaghosha, Larger Sukhavativyuha, more.


Basic documents in Mahayana Buddhism, highly important in history of religions. The Buddha-karita of Asvaghosha, Larger Sukhavativyuha, more.

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Buddhist Mahâyâna Texts


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ISBN: 978-0-486-14488-7



THE Sanskrit text of the Buddha-karita was published at the beginning of last year in the 'Anecdote Oxoniensia,' and the following English translation is now included in the series of 'Sacred Books of the East.' It is an early Sanskrit poem written in India on the legendary history of Buddha, and therefore contains much that is of interest for the history of Buddhism, beside its special importance as illustrating the early history of classical Sanskrit literature.

It is ascribed to Asvaghosha; and, although there were several writers who bore that name, it seems most probable that our author was the contemporary and spiritual adviser of Kanishka in the first century of our era. Hiouen Thsang, who left India in A.D. 645, mentions him with Deva, Nâgârguna, and Kumâralabdha, 'as the four suns which illumine the world;' but our fullest account is given by I-tsing, who visited India in 673. He states that Asvaghosha was an ancient author who composed the Alamkâra-sâstra and the Buddha-karita-kâvya,—the latter work being of course the present poem. Beside these two works he also composed the hymns in honour of Buddha and the three holy beings Amitâbha, Avalokitesvara, and Mahâsthâma, which were chanted at the evening service of the monasteries. 'In the five countries of India and in the countries of the Southern ocean they recite these poems, because they express a store of ideas and meaning in a few words.' A solitary stanza (VIII, 13) is quoted from the Buddha-karita in Râyamukuta's commentary on the Amarakosha I, 1. 1, 2, and also by Uggvaladatta in his commentary on the Unâdi-sûtras I, 156; and five stanzas are quoted as from Asvaghosha in Vallabha-deva's Subhâshitâvali, which bear a great resemblance to his style, though they are not found in the extant portion of this poem.

The Buddha-karita was translated into Chinese by Dharmaraksha in the fifth century, and a translation of this was published by the Rev. S. Beal in the present series; it was also translated into Tiberan in the seventh or eighth century. The Tibetan as well as the Chinese version consists of twenty-eight chapters, and carries down the life of Buddha to his entrance into Nirvâna and the subsequent division of the sacred relics. The Tibetan version appears to be much closer to the original Sanskrit than the Chinese; in fact from its verbal accuracy we can often reproduce the exact words of the original, since certain Sanskrit words are always represented by the same Tibetan equivalents, as for instance the prepositions prefixed to verbal roots. I may here express an earnest hope that we may still ere long have an edition and translation of the Tibetan version, if some scholar can be found to complete Dr.Wenzel's unfinished labour. He had devoted much time and thought to the work; I consulted him in several of my difficulties, and it is from him that I derived all my information about the Tibetan renderings. This Tibetan version promises to be of great help in restoring the many corrupt readings which still remain in our faulty Nepalese MSS.

Only thirteen books of the Sanskrit poem claim to be Asvaghosha's composition; the last four books are an attempt by a modern Nepalese author to supply the loss of the original. He tells us this honestly in the colophon, —'having searched for them everywhere and not found them, four cantos have been made by me, Amritânanda,—the fourteenth, fifteenth, sixteenth, and seventeenth.' He adds the date 950 of the Nepalese era, corresponding to 1830 A.D.; and we have no difficulty in identifying the author. Râgendralâl Mitra in his 'Nepalese Buddhist Literature' mentions Amritânanda as the author of two Sanskrit treatises and one in Newârî; he was probably the father of the old pandit of the Residency at Kâtmându, Gunânanda, whose son Indrânanda holds the office at present. Dr. D. Wright informs me that the family seem to have been the recognised historians of the country, and keepers of the MS. treasures of sundry temples. The four books are included in this translation as an interesting literary curiosity. The first portion of the fourteenth book agrees partly with the Tibetan and Chinese, and Amritânanda may have had access to some imperfect copy of this portion of the original; but after that his account is quite independent, and has no relation to the two versions.

In my preface to the edition of the Sanskrit text I have tried to show that Asvaghosha's poem appears to have exercised an important influence on the succeeding poets of the classical period in India. When we compare the description in the seventh book of the Raghuvamsa of the ladies of the city crowding to see prince Aga as he passes by from the Svayamvara where the princess Bhogyâ has chosen him as her husband, with the episode in the third book of the Buddha-karita (slokas 13—24); or the description of Kâma's assault on Siva in the Kumârasambhava with that of Mâra's temptation of Buddha in the thirteenth book, we can hardly fail to trace some connection. There is a similar resemblance between the description in the fifth book of the Râmâyana, where the monkey Hanumat enters Râvana's palace by night, and sees his wives asleep in the seraglio and their various unconscious attitudes, and the description in the fifth book of the present poem where Buddha on the night of his leaving his home for ever sees the same unconscious sight in his own palace. Nor may we forget that in the Râmâyana the description is merely introduced as an ornamental episode; in the Buddhist poem it is an essential element in the story, as it supplies the final impulse which stirs the Bodhisattva to make his escape from the world. These different descriptions became afterwards commonplaces in Sanskrit poetry, like the catalogue of the ships in Greek or Roman epics; but they may very well have originated in connection with definite incidents in the Buddhist sacred legend.

The Sanskrit MSS. of Nepal are always negligently transcribed and abound with corrupt passages, which it is often very difficult to detect and restore. My printed text leaves many obscure lines which will have to be cleared up hereafter by more skilful emendations. I have given in the notes to the translation some further emendations of my own, and I have also added several happy conjectures which continental scholars have kindly suggested to me by letter; and I gladly take this opportunity of adding in a foot-note some which I received too late to insert in their proper places.

I have endeavoured to make my translation intelligible to the English reader, but many of the verses in the original are very obscure. Asvaghosha employs all the resources of Hindu rhetoric (as we might well expect if I-tsing is right in ascribing to him an 'alamkâra-sâstra'), and it is often difficult to follow his subtil turns of thought and remote allusions; but many passages no doubt owe their present obscurity to undetected mistakes in the text of our MSS. In the absence of any commentary (except so far as the diffuse Chinese translation and occasional reference to the Tibetan have supplied the want) I have been necessarily left to my own resources, and I cannot fail to have sometimes missed my author's meaning,

Prâmsulabhye phale mohâd udbâhur iva vâmanah; but I have tried to do my best, and no one will welcome more cordially any light which others may throw on the passages which I have misunderstood.

The edition of the original text was dedicated to my old friend Professor F. Max Müller, and it is a sincere gratification to me that this translation will appear in the same volume with similar translations from his pen.

E. B. C.

CAMBRIDGE: Feb. 1, 1894.



1. That Arhat is here saluted, who has no counterpart,—who, as bestowing the supreme happiness, surpasses (Brahman) the Creator,—who, as driving away darkness, vanquishes the sun,—and, as dispelling all burning heat, surpasses the beautiful moon.

2. There was a city, the dwelling-place of the great saint Kapila, having its sides surrounded by the beauty of a lofty broad table-land as by a line of clouds, and itself, with its high-soaring palaces, immersed in the sky.

3. By its pure and lofty system of government it, as it were, stole the splendour of the clouds of Mount Kailâsa, and while it bore the clouds which came to it through a mistake, it fulfilled the imagine-tion which had led them thither.

4. In that city, shining with the splendour of gems, darkness like poverty could find no place; prosperity shone resplendently, as with a smile, from the joy of dwelling with such surpassingly excellent citizens.

5. With its festive arbours, its arched gateways and pinnacles, it was radiant with jewels in every dwelling; and unable to find any other rival in the world, it could only feel emulation with its own houses.

6. There the sun, even although he had retired, was unable to scorn the moonlike faces of its women which put the lotuses to shame, and as if from the access of passion, hurried towards the western ocean to enter the (cooling) water.

7. 'Yonder Indra has been utterly annihilated by the people when they saw the glories acquired by the Sâkyas,'—uttering this scoff, the city strove by its banners with gay-fluttering streamers to wipe away every mark of his existence.

8. After mocking the water-lilies even at night by the moonbeams which rest on its silver pavilions, —by day it assumed the brightness of the lotuses through the sunbeams falling on its golden palaces.

9. A king, by name Suddhodana, of the kindred of the sun, anointed to stand at the head of earth's monarchs,—ruling over the city, adorned it, as a bee-inmate a full-blown lotus.

10. The very best of kings with his train ever near him,—intent on liberality yet devoid of pride; a sovereign, yet with an ever equal eye thrown on all,—of gentle nature and yet with wide-reaching majesty.

11. Falling smitten by his arm in the arena of battle, the lordly elephants of his enemies bowed prostrate with their heads pouring forth quantities of pearls as if they were offering handfuls of flowers in homage.

12. Having dispersed his enemies by his pre-eminent majesty as the sun disperses the gloom of an eclipse, he illuminated his people on every side, showing them the paths which they were to follow.

13. Duty, wealth, and pleasure under his guidance assumed mutually each other's object, but not the outward dress; yet as if they still vied together they shone all the brighter in the glorious career of their triumphant success.

14. He, the monarch of the Sâkyas, of native pre-eminence, but whose actual preeminence was brought about by his numberless councillors of exalted wisdom, shone forth all the more gloriously, like the moon amidst the stars shining with a light like its own.

15. To him there was a queen, named Mâyâ, as if free from all deceit (mâyâ)—an effulgence proceeding from his effulgence, like the splendour of the sun when it is free from all the influence of darkness,—a chief queen in the united assembly of all queens.

16. Like a mother to her subjects, intent on their welfare,—devoted to all worthy of reverence like devotion itself,—shining on her lord's family like the goddess of prosperity,—she was the most eminent of goddesses to the whole world.

17. Verily the life of women is always darkness, yet when it encountered her, it shone brilliantly; thus the night does not retain its gloom, when it meets with the radiant crescent of the moon.

18. 'This people, being hard to be roused to wonder in their souls, cannot be influenced by me if I come to them as beyond their senses,'—so saying, Duty abandoned her own subtile nature and made her form visible.

19. Then falling from the host of beings in the Tushita heaven, and illumining the three worlds, the most excellent of Bodhisattvas suddenly entered at a thought into her womb, like the Nâga-king entering the cave of Nandâ.

20. Assuming the form of a huge elephant white like Himâlaya, armed with six tusks, with his face perfumed with flowing ichor, he entered the womb of the queen of king Suddhodana, to destroy the evils of the world.

21. The guardians of the world hastened from heaven to mount watch over the world's one true ruler; thus the moonbeams, though they shine everywhere, are especially bright on Mount Kailâsa.

22. Mâyâ also, holding him in her womb, like a line of clouds holding a lightning-flash, relieved the people around her from the sufferings of poverty by raining showers of gifts.

23. Then one day by the king's permission the queen, having a great longing in her mind, went with the inmates of the gynaeceum into the garden Lumbint.

24. As the queen supported herself by a bough which hung laden with a weight of flowers, the Bodhisattva suddenly came forth, cleaving open her womb.

25. At that time the constellation Pushya was auspicious, and from the side of the queen, who was purified by her vow, her son was born for the welfare of the world, without pain and without illness.

26. Like the sun bursting from a cloud in the morning,—so he too, when he was born from his mother's womb, made the world bright like gold, bursting forth with his rays which dispelled the darkness.

27. As soon as he was born the thousand-eyed (Indra) well-pleased took him gently, bright like a golden pillar; and two pure streams of water fell down from heaven upon his head with piles of Mandâra flowers.

28. Carried about by the chief suras, and delighting them with the rays that streamed from his body, he surpassed in beauty the new moon as it rests on a mass of evening clouds.

29. As was Aurva's birth from the thigh, and Prithu's from the hand, and Mândhâtri's, who was like Indra himself, from the forehead, and Kakshi-vat's from the upper end of the arm,—thus too was his birth (miraculous).

30. Having thus in due time issued from the womb, he shone as if he had come down from heaven, he who had not been born in the natural way,—he who was born full of wisdom, not foolish,—as if his mind had been purified by countless aeons of contemplation.

31. With glory, fortitude, and beauty he shone like the young sun descended upon the earth; when he was gazed at, though of such surpassing brightness, he attracted all eyes like the moon.

32. With the radiant splendour of his limbs he extinguished like the sun the splendour of the lamps; with his beautiful hue as of precious gold he illuminated all the quarters of space.

33. Unflurried, with the lotus-sign in high relief, far-striding, set down with a stamp,—seven such firm footsteps did he then take,—he who was like the constellation of the seven rishis.

34. 'I am born for supreme knowledge, for the welfare of the world,—thus this is my last birth,'— thus did he of lion gait, gazing at the four quarters, utter a voice full of auspicious meaning.

35. Two streams of water bursting from heaven, bright as the moon's rays, having the power of heat and cold, fell down upon that peerless one's benign head to give refreshment to his body.

36. His body lay on a bed with a royal canopy and a frame shining with gold, and supported by feet of lapis lazuli, and in his honour the yaksha-lords stood round guarding him with golden lotuses in their hands.

37. The gods in homage to the son of Mâyâ, with their heads bowed at his majesty, held up a white umbrella in the sky and muttered the highest blessings on his supreme wisdom.

38. The great dragons in their great thirst for the Law,—they who had had the privilege of waiting on the past Buddhas,—gazing with eyes of intent devotion, fanned him and strewed Mandâra flowers over him.

39. Gladdened through the influence of the birth of the Tathâgata, the gods of pure natures and inhabiting pure abodes were filled with joy, though all passion was extinguished, for the sake of the world drowned in sorrow.

40. When he was born, the earth, though fastened down by (Himâlaya) the monarch of mountains, shook like a ship tossed by the wind; and from a cloudless sky there fell a shower full of lotuses and water-lilies, and perfumed with sandalwood.

41. Pleasant breezes blew soft to the touch, dropping down heavenly garments; the very sun, though still the same, shone with augmented light, and fire gleamed, unstirred, with a gentle lustre.

42. In the north-eastern part of the dwelling a well of pure water appeared of its own accord, wherein the inhabitants of the gynaeceum, filled with wonder, performed their rites as in a sacred bathing-place.


Excerpted from Buddhist Mahâyâna Texts by E. B. COWELL. Copyright © 2014 Dover Publications, Inc.. Excerpted by permission of Dover Publications, Inc..
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