(Last Updated on : 19/08/2009)
The Buddhist literature was in the primary stage, oral literature. As per history, spiritual influence and personal example apart, the teaching of Buddha was communicated entirely by oral means. Though in which language he spoke is not known, it would appear that he rejected the more classical Sanskrit in favour of the vernacular, especially the dialects of Kosala and Magadha.
As per the history of Buddhism
, the Dharma
having been orally taught, there intervened between the Parinirvana of Lord Buddha
and the committing of his teaching to writing a period of oral transmission lasting two or three centuries in the case of some scriptures, and much longer in the case of others. Then the fact that the monks had been authorized to learn and teach Lord Buddhas message in their own dialects meant that the Dharma
was from the beginning extant in a number of linguistic forms, so that, when finally it did come to be written down, this was done not in one language only but in many. Thus, it is said, the Canon of the Mahasanghikas was in Prakrit, that of the Sthaviravadins in Paisaci, that of the Pudgalavadins in Apabhramsa, and that of the Sarvastivadins in Sanskrit.
Therefore, when Buddhism spread outside India it came about that the Scriptures were translated into the several languages, such as, Chinese, Tibetan, Uighur, and so on. When the oral tradition was reduced to writing, the mnemonic devices employed by the Buddha and his disciples for the transmission of the Dharma were responsible for giving the Scriptures as literary documents certain distinctive characteristics. With the exception of the Pali Canon, the actual writing down of which took place in Ceylon, and certain Mahayana
sutras that may have been composed in Central Asia or even in China, the canonical literature of Buddhism is of exclusively Indian origin. Where, when, and in what circumstances the thousands of individual texts of which it consists were first committed to writing is in most cases unknown. All that can be affirmed with certainty is that the canonical literature came into existence over a period of roughly a thousand years, from the first to the tenth century of the Christian era. During the period of oral tradition the complete words of the Buddha were referred to as the Tripitaka
, the three baskets or collections of the Buddhas words. These three are the Vinaya Pitaka
, the Sutra Pitaka
, and the Abhidhamma Pitaka
. Together with the Tantras they make up the four chief divisions of the canonical writings. Shortly after the death of Lord Buddha, a Council was set up around 477 BC at Rajagriha. A second Council was held at Vaishali in 377 BC to canonize the Buddhist sacred books. In the third Council about 241 BC held at Pataliputra the books were canonized. The early-canonized books, the Tripitakas, form the canonized books of Hinayana or Theravadi schools.
Each of the pitakas of Buddhist scripture contain valuable words that opens the door to understand the main streams and the entirety of Lord Buddha and Buddhism. The word vinaya, meaning that which leads away from evil, stands for the practical or disciplinary aspect of Buddhism and the Vinaya Pitaka comprises the Collection of Monastic Discipline. In the form in which it is now extant it consists essentially of two parts, the Vinaya-vibhanga and the Vinaya-vastu, together with historical and catechetical supplements. The Vinaya-vibhanga or Exposition of the Vinaya contains the Pratimoksha-sutra in 150 articles and its commentary the Sutra-vibhanga, one work being embedded in the other. While the former embodies the various categories of rules binding upon members of the anchoritic Sangha
, the latter gives a word-for-word explanation of each rule and narrates the circumstances in which it came to be propagated. The Vinaya-vastu contains the Skandhakas or The Chapters, of which there are seventeen or more according to the individual recension. These comprise the complete institutes of coenobitical monasticism, and deal with such topics as ordination, the Poshadha or fortnightly meeting, the rains residence, medicine and food, robes, dwellings, and schism. Among other things, the Vinaya Pitaka records not only the regulations of the monastic life but the manners, customs, opinions, knowledge, ignorance, superstition, hopes, and fears of a great part of Asia especially of India in former ages.
Together with the Sutra Pitaka, Vinaya Pitaka is one of the richest sources of information on the civilization and culture, the history, geography, sociology, and religion of India at about the time of the Buddha. In the Buddhist world there are now extant seven complete recensions of this collection, one in Pali and six from Sanskrit. These are essentially alternative arrangements of the same basic material and differ mainly in the extent to which non-monastic matter has been incorporated. The existence of the Mahavastu Avadana, a bulky Vinaya work of the Lokottaravadins (a sub-sect of the Mahasanghikas) suggests that the original nucleus of the Vinaya was a primitive biography of the Buddha in which the monastic elements were inserted vividly.
The Vinaya Pitaka contains the teaching of the Buddha regarding the rules of conduct of monks. Sutta pitaka contains the doctrine of Buddha and a number of his dialogues. It is divided into nikayas (collection) that include Dirghanikaya (Long Discourses), Majjhimanikaya (Medium sized discourses), Samyutta-nikaya (Mixed Discourses), Anguttara-nikaya (Graduated Discourses), Khuddaka-nikaya (Miscellaneous Discourses). Including these, Abhidharma-nikaya contains philosophical matter and creed. For the Mahayanist, Vaipulya Sutras and Prajnaparmita Sutras are very important. Visuddha-Magga of Buddhaghosa and Milindapanha are another set of important works done.
The Buddhist literature comprises of the sutra, literally a thread, and hence by extension of meaning the thread of discourse connecting a number of topics. This is perhaps the most important and characteristic of all Buddhist literary genres. It is essentially a religious discourse delivered by the Buddha as it was ex cathedra to one or more disciples, whether members of the Sangha, Bodhisattvas
, lay devotees, ordinary people, or gods. The Sutra Pitaka is thus the Collection of Discourses, and constitutes the principal source of the knowledge of the Dharma
. Some discourses are either partly or wholly in dialogue form. Others are delivered not by the Buddha but by disciples speaking either with his approval or under his inspiration. Broadly speaking the sutras belongs to two groups, Hinayana and Mahayana. The Mahayana consists of those discourses which were not recognized as authentic by the followers of the Hinayana schools, though the converse was not the case. The Hinayana sutras comprise four great collections known as Agamas in Sanskrit and Nikayas in Pali.
In the Buddhist literature, the Dirghagama (Digha Nikaya) or Long collection contains, as its name suggests, the lengthy discourses, thirty in number. On the other hand, the Madhyamagama (Majjhima Nikaya) or Middle collection contains those of medium length, of which there are about five times as many. These collections are the most important. The Samyuktagama (Samyutta Nikaya) or Grouped collection contains some thousands of very short sutras arranged according to subject, and the Ekottaragama (Anguttara Nikaya) or Numerical collection a similar number of texts arranged according to the progressive numerical value of the terms and topics dealt with. Both collections draw partly on the first two Agamas and partly from original, sometimes extremely ancient, sources. The Pali Canon
also contains KJmddaka Nikdya or some Minor collection, consisting of works such as the Dhammapada, the Thera and Theri-gatha, and the Jatakas
, which are found in Sanskrit, either elsewhere in the Canon, mostly in the Vinaya Pitaka, or outside it as independent quasi-canonical works. Most of the works in the collection of KJmddaka Nikdya contain fables, aphorisms, poems and songs are created with subtle artistic and literary touch that gives the pieces a distinct character. As these pieces are of great importance in the history of Buddhist literature, they are of immense significance in the literary history of India.
Moreover, the Mahayana sutras are distributed into six great collections, the first five of which represent natural divisions, while the last consists of miscellaneous independent works. The first to mention is the group of Prajnaparamita or Perfection of Wisdom sutras, of which there are more than thirty, ranging in length from some thousands of pages to a few lines. Their principal subject-matter is Sunyata or Voidness, and the Bodhisattva as the practitioner of Voidness, and they are among the profoundest spiritual documents known to mankind. The Vajracchedika, popularly known as the Diamond Sutra, forms one of the shorter texts in this class. The Avatamsaka or Flower-Ornament group consists principally of three enormous and complex discourses of that name. One of them also known as the Gandavyuha or World-Array Sutra describes the spiritual pilgrimage of the youth Sudhana, who in his search for Enlightenment visits more than fifty teachers. In a boldly imaginative manner it expounds the mutual interpenetration of all phenomena.
The Dasabhumika Sutra, dealing with the ten stages of the Bodhisattvas career, also belongs to this group. The Ratnakuta and Mahasannipata groups are both made up of much shorter sutras, the former including such valuable and historically important works as the Vimalakirti-nirdesa or Exposition of Vimalakirti and the longer Sukhavati-vyuha or Array of the Happy Land. Furthermore, the Nirvana or Parinirvana group deals with the Buddhas last days and his final admonitions to his disciples. The sixth and last group which is of the miscellaneous independent works includes some of the most important and influential of all Mahayana sutras. Among them is the grandiose Saddharma-pundarika or White Lotus of the Good Law. This presents in dramatic and parabolic form the main truths of the Mahayana, the Lankavatara, an unsystematic exposition of the doctrine of Mind-Only, and the shorter Sukhavativyuha, in which is taught salvation by faith in Amitabha
, the Buddha of Infinite Light.
The pitakas are the most important parts of Buddhism and they have occupied a major position in the Buddhist literary scenario. Such a pitaka is Abhidharma, meaning about Dharma. Traditionally the term was often interpreted as higher Dharma in the sense of a philosophically more exact exposition of the Teaching. The Abhidhamma Pitaka
is a collection of highly scholastic treatises which comment and explain the texts of the Sutra Pitaka, define technical terms, arrange numerically-classified doctrines in order, give a systematic philosophical exposition of the teaching, and establish a consistent method of spiritual practice. Above all, they interpret the Dharma in terms of strict pluralistic realism and work out an elaborate philosophy of relations. Two different Abhidharma Pitakas are available, one compiled by the Theravadins and one by the Sarvastivadins. Each contains seven treatises which, though covering similar ground in a similar manner, are really two independent sets of works.
Among the Theravada treatise the most important are the Dhamma-sangani or Enumeration of (Ultimate) Elements and the gigantic Patthana or (Book of) Origination. The most important Sarvastivada work is the encyclopedic Jnana-prasthana or Establishment of Knowledge, which is known as the kaya-testra or trunk treatise, the others being the pada-sastras or limbs. According to Theravada tradition the Abhidharma Pitaka is canonical in as much as, though the details are the work of disciples, the matrikas or matrices of discourse were laid down in advance by the Buddha. Sarvastivada tradition ascribes the treatises to individual authors. The philosophical writings of the great Mahayana sages, such as Nagarjuna
and Asanga, which stand in the same relation to the Mahayana sutras as the Abhidhamma treatises do to their Hinayana counterparts, are sometimes referred to as the Mahayana Abhidhamma. But, although immensely authoritative, they were never collected into a Pitaka.
Apart from the pitakas, Buddhist literature is abundant with some other philosophical and spiritual texts and some of them contain details of rituals and yogas. Among them which worth mentioning is the Tantras which are the most esoteric of the canonical texts. The word itself, derived from a root meaning to spread, is applied to a variety of treatises, and affords no clue to the contents of these works. While resembling the sutras in literary form, they differ from them in dealing with ritual and yoga rather than with ethics and philosophy and in being unintelligible without the traditional commentary. Moreover, the techniques they prescribe can be practiced only when, through the rite of abhiseka or aspersion, the requisite spiritual power has been transmitted to the disciple by a spiritual master in the succession. It is difficult to state that how many Tantras were originally published. Standard editions of the Tibetan Kanjur contain twenty-two huge xylograph volumes of these works, to which must be added twenty-five volumes of so-called Nyingmapa Tantras. Some Tantras exist in various degrees of expansion and contraction, each set of such recensions making up a complete Tantric Cycle, the publication of which is associated with the name of a particular Siddha or Perfect One. While the value of the Buddhist canonical literature will always be primarily spiritual, much of it provides, at the same time, a useful corrective to any view of the social, cultural, and religious history of India derived exclusively from brahmanical sources.
Classical poetry, in so far as it is preserved, is rather late, beginning with Kalidasa
, who is probably to be placed in the fifth century A.D. The earlier cultivation of it is attested in inscriptions, in Buddhist literature (Asvaghosha), and by occasional references in Patanjali Yoga Sutra
. The drama also was probably established in the period immediately preceding the Christian era, and it continued to flourish in the early centuries A.D, but here again the examples that are preserved are much later.
Moreover, prose story-telling in the Buddhist Canon is full of repetitions and rarely ornamented except by the occasional insertion of a verse to emphasize a point. Humour and satire, however, abound. Asvaghosas epics are the representations of the fully fledged kavya technique: concentration of the matter in about twenty cantos only in many metres; perception of discrete moments through the separate quatrains instead of a continuity of flowing narrative; numerous figures of speech. Each moment may suggest the theme of the whole story. Asvaghosa was an earnest Buddhist, so that the ultimate significance he wishes to convey, through the delights of poetry, is the shallow-ness of the world and the true happiness of renunciation and peace of mind. Yet he appears far from indifferent to the pleasures of the world, describing most realistically just what he holds to be most ephemeral. This ambiguity and tension, which seems to reflect personal experience, inspires all the elaborate art, or ornament of language and meaning, carrying Asvaghosas philosophy. The epics of Asvaghosa include the Life of the Buddha Buddhacharita and the Handsome Nanda Saundarananda. The series of dramas by Asvaghosa depict his powers of characterization and the Sariputra and Rastrapala are again well-known stories of renunciation.
Buddhism in due course of time had established universities at Nalanda, Vikramashila and Taxila. Many monks and chiefs studied in these universities. A large number of Buddhist literatures have cropped up as a result of these Universities. Many of these Buddhist writings are found in Tibetan texts, Chinese translations, and even in distant North West countries.