(Last Updated on : 03/01/2014)
"Buddha's teachings like his heart was all-expanding and all-embracing, so it has survived his body and swept across the face of the earth". - Mahatma Gandhi
Buddhist influence on Indian literature
is interestingly not the only facet that needs a critical describing in the pan Indian context; curiously enough, though not much noticeable to the naked common eye, Buddhism has had its origination and roots established in India since even unrecorded and pre-recorded times. It becomes thus quite a foregone conclusion and that too a prestigious one at that Buddhism is sure to impress upon and influence every Indian life since precisely that period and perhaps, still running to great guns. Gautama Buddha, prior to becoming a man that one acknowledges now, was 'Siddhartha', the prince to King Suddhodana - chief of the Shakya nation. Just as Rome, it is known was not built in a day, likewise, Siddhartha did take his time to become Gautama Buddha, universally acknowledged as the founding spiritual preacher of Buddhism. Quite evidently, Buddhism being accomplished under such a man who had shunned riches to stay contented in rugs demands and does indeed own umpteen legends and lore associated with the birth of Buddhist influence upon the then Indian quintessential life. And Buddha's time period, though not quite certain (20th century historians are of the view that Buddha had resided from c. 563 BCE to 483 BCE), does hold sufficient proof that written literature in India had arrived by his times, hence answering for his disciples' passionate attempts to record Gautama Buddha's sayings and talks and his later thoughts in a perfect textual format. And needless to mention, every Indian life was touched forever by such written Buddhist literature in India, influencing every individual in his path to redemption. Such lofty and towering precepts does indeed call for a more intense peep into the authoritarian Buddhist influence upon Indian literature at large - a topic of fervent research still under literary historians and researchers. Buddhist influence on Indian literature did indeed begin during Gautama's life-time and a little later itself, and not as supposed, much later during the proper flowering of Indian literature from the Vedic Age.
Buddhism has made unforgettable contribution and influence upon Indian life, its spiritualism and opinion and sentiment. That Buddha's word of mouth has had exercised its potential influence on the essence and quintessential culture of India over the centuries, is indeed undeniable and it is also attested that the literatures in the major languages of India have received inspiration in some way or the other from Buddha and his teachings in their literary and philosophical treatment. The interrelationship of 'Buddhism' with a particular literature and how it has reacted towards Buddhism and Buddhist principles in the different periods of Indian history is what makes every sort of literary work interesting and captivating. Buddha's words were picked up and lapped in the society by every commoner as reflected in the literary words, thus once more stressing upon the fact that Buddhist influence on Indian literature has been too much prized to ever let it go by the drain. So much so was this Buddhist influence that Indian literature gave rise to a particular 'band' of writers, composers and thought-leaders in the umpteen regional languages inspired for a lifetime.
It has always been an acknowledged criterion that religion has long had exerted a tough and potent influence on Indian literary writings. The major religions under this header have been Hinduism
and of course, Buddhism. Throughout the history of Indian literature, particular religious creeds and teachings have had been successful to form common threads. The emergence of the popular religions Buddhism and Jainism during the 6th century B.C. had given rise to literature in Pali language
and in the several dialects of Sanskrit acknowledged as Prakrit (standing for "natural language"). Meanwhile, Tamil - a Dravidian language
, had emerged as the most authoritative language in the south. Productive and copious literary traditions had later emerged in Tamil, Telugu, Kannada and Malayalam - which are all modern languages that had germinated from Old Tamil and its dialects. And the master and key guiding factor here is the presence of all these languages in the most initial Buddhist influence upon Indian literature. It is today a much known aspect that Buddha had always rejected Sanskrit to lay emphasis upon Pali as his language of propagation and preaching. Hence, Buddhist influence and Buddhism in Indian literature very much begins and ends in Pali during its primary stage, which later had developed into the other south Indian languages just described above.
A much profounder understanding of Buddhist influence upon Indian literature can be visible once one is enlightened about the very basis of Buddhism - the Buddhist scriptures. Buddhist scriptures and other texts truly have existed in an immense variety. Different schools of Buddhism
presently stress motleying levels of value on learning these various texts. Some schools are known to revere particular texts as religious objects in themselves, whereas, others take a more 'scholastic' approach. Unlike various other religions, Buddhism does not possess any single central text that is ubiquitously pertained to by all traditions. However, some scholars and historians do refer to the Vinaya Pitaka
and the first four Nikayas of the Sutta Pitaka as the 'common core' of all Buddhist customs. The followers of Theravada Buddhism take the scriptures acknowledged as the Pali Canon as most determinate and authoritative, whereas, the followers of Mahayana
Buddhism, establish their faith and philosophy primarily upon the Mahayana Sutras and their very own vinaya. These delineated scriptures and doctrinal philosophies do itself come under the immeasurable canopy of Indian literature, without which the present solid scenario would never have been feasible.
Thus, the major religious texts of Buddhism were amassed in three collections known as the Tipitaka (standing for "three baskets"). The Tipitaka, penned in the Pali language, incorporates the teachings of Gautama Buddha, the founder of Buddhism. And herein can be mentioned the most significant context of Buddhist influence on Indian literature, which has forever been a magnificent book of admiration for all ages, especially children as bed-time stories. The most important of the Tipitaka texts comprises the Jatakas (stories and legends of the births of Buddha
), which immortalises 547 stories of Buddha's former births. In the Jataka tales, Buddha recounts exactly how he was reborn in the form of animals, human beings and nature deities, as he had endeavoured towards enlightenment and, eventually, towards emancipation from the cycle of rebirths. This emancipation is recognised as the aspiration and ultimate goal for all Buddhists. The Jataka
s and the principal narratives and philosophical texts of early Buddhism in due course had circularised together with Buddhism to Sri Lanka, China, Japan and the countries of Southeast Asia, including Thailand and Vietnam. Thus, even if leaving behind the other solemn and religious doctrines, the Jatakas have truly had exerted its Buddhist influence on Indian literature, which perhaps needs no introduction for the contemporary generation.
The immense literature of Buddhism in India (much like Hindu or Jain literature) was not a literature however of revelation and authority. The essays based upon social ethics and moral responsibilities, its treatises on philosophy and science, its art and poetry were but 'pointers' to a path of wisdom. Such a unique governance of Buddhist influence on Indian literature had lent the religion both its flexibility and adaptability. Owning to its non-hegemonic character and humanist appeal, Buddhism in Indian literature was adopted without coercion and force by the vast populace. And the most stellar instance of a social adaptation and acceptance of Buddhist literature in the Indian context was Tamil literature
, since its inception during the 1st century A.D. under Mauryan Emperor Ashoka
the Great. It is acknowledged by historians that there had existed several Buddhist centres in Tamil Nadu back then. The most popular amongst them were situated in Kanchipuram, Pattinam, Madurai, Nagapattinam, Buddhakudi, Uraiyoor, Thanjavoor, Vanchi and Potikai. It is undoubtedly comprehended that there indeed did exist a lot of Buddhist settlements in Tamil Nadu
, which would suggest a firm existence and popularity of the religion.
Tamil language in its most ancient inception of Buddhism was a prestigious and esteemed harbinger of a fine Buddhist influence on Indian literature. The earliest literary works in Tamil like Silappadikaram
, Manimekalai and Kundalakesi bear ample information about the place and position of Buddhism in Tamil Nadu, besides explaining in clear terms the teachings of Gautama Buddha. Bimbisara Gathi is a Buddhist work, which was however complete lost; Siddhartattohai and Tiruppatikam are both based on Buddhist doctrines. Virasoliyam is a Tamil grammatical treatise by an anonymous Buddhist. The invocation poems of all these works provide materials to know something about Buddhist religion. Next to Tamil language invoking Buddhist influence to forever immortalize Indian literature, Telugu
comes as the secondary Dravidian option to have been charmed by this specific religion in spiritual terms. Andhra Pradesh has had patronised Buddhism extensively and there exists ample evidence in their land to testify this point beyond doubt. There can be witnessed a rich crop of Buddhist literature during modern period in Andhra Pradesh
in the form of Kavyas, Khand Kavyas (short poems), plays and novels. The legendary twin poets Tirupati Venkata Kavulu, who are acclaimed as the forerunners of modern poetry in Telugu, have compiled the life of Buddha as Buddha Charita in verse form. They have demonstrated superb skill in the narration of the story, in the portrayal of the characters in the picturesque delineations and in picturing variegated feelings, moods and sentiments in the composition of this Kavya. Tirupati Venkata Kavulu's pupils, Pingali and Katuri Kavulu, following the footsteps of their illustrious teachers had penned Saundaranandam, a short and sweet kavyam, portraying the story of Bodhisatva. A more detailed account of the life of Buddha was vividly portrayed in Pindiprolu Vasanta Kumari Devi's work Samagamam. The story was narrated in the form of memoirs recalled by Yasodhara Devi in this work. Prasadaroya Kulpati and Panduranga have jointly produced the work Karuna Sindhuvu. Then again, Dasaradhi had given life to a Kavya named Mahabodhi. This poem interestingly incorporates a few Jataka tales of Buddha. Giddaluri Venkateswarlu had authored the life of Buddha under the caption Dharma Gita, reminiscent of Bhagavad Gita. Viplava Jyoti is a master work of Kurra Venkala Subha Rao. Buddhist influence on Indian literature truly has been immemorial and in much modern times, has indeed beguiled Bengali writers too!
Bengali literature and its Buddhist influence in the Indian literary context, was begun well during the ancient to early medieval age, when the rulers of Pala or the Chandra dynasties had served as staunch Buddhists, propagating Buddhism in a most sensational manner. Bengali language had originated in the hands of Buddhist monks and Siddhacharyas from the crust of Prakrit. The first ever songs and lyrics in Bengali language were composed by these Siddhacharyas during the reign of Pala kings in ancient Bangladesh from 8th to 12-13th centuries. Bengali language writers and thinkers of the modern times, owe a great deal to Buddhist philosophy. The greatest thinker and reformer of early 19th century in India, Raja Ram Mohan Roy (1772-1833) had founded the Brahmo Samaj in 1828, to reclaim orthodox traditional religion of the Hindus. A great student of Vedanta philosophical system, Ram Mohan Roy was a true idealist in every sense. Quite naturally, he was significantly influenced by Buddhistic teachings and differed from traditional Hinduism and had criticised the 'dogmatic' caste system of the Hindu community.
Among the most notable Hindu writers to have ushered in a brilliant Buddhist influence on Indian literature through Bengali, are Rajendra Lal Mitra (1822-91), Ramda Sen (1845-81), Satyendranath Tagore (1842-1923), Krishna Kumar Mitra (1851-1935), Rajanikanta Gupta (1849-1900), Bijoychadra Majumdar (1861-1942), Sharat Chandra Das (1849-1971), Haraprasad Shastri (1853-1921), Chandra Ghose (1844-1922) and Girish Ghosh
Rajendra Lal Mitra's outstanding books on Buddhism include - An Introduction to the Lalitavistara (1877), Buddha Gaya the Hermitage of Sakyamuni (1878) and the Sanskrit Buddhist Literature of Nepal (1882). Akshay Kumar Datta
(1820-86), a great prose-writer and thinker and editor of the legendary monthly "Tattabodhini", had dedicated a chapter in his brilliant book Bharatbarshio Upashak Sampraday (The Worshipers of Indian sub-continent) to Buddhist philosophy. Haraprashat Shastri
, the celebrated figure in the field of ancient Bengali language and Buddhist culture, had discovered some oldest mystic songs of Buddhist monks from Nepal, recognised as Charyacharjabinishchaya. The most spectacular playwright of Bengali literature
, Girish Chandra Ghose had published his Buddhadeva-Charita (1887), depicting the life of Gautama Buddha. One of the greatest Bengali novelists and thinkers, Bankim Chandra Chattapadhay
(1838-94) is known to have paid glorious tributes to Buddha in his treatise Samya (Equality), (1879). Bankim Chandra had accounted the Buddha as the 'greatest liberal humanist and democrat who liberated the oppressed common man from the curse of caste-system of the Vedic period'.
Keshab Chandra Sen
(1838-84), a leader of Bharatbarshio Brahmo Samaj
, was profoundly inspired by the liberal humanism of the Buddhistic thoughts. Quite significantly, the rational and humanistic facets of the teachings of the Buddha and Buddhist culture had attracted Nobel-laureate and legend Rabindranath Tagore (1861-1941). Contributions of Buddhist rulers and Buddhism to Indian civilisation and the function of Buddhist philosophy and culture in art, literature and intellectual life of India were quite poignantly retrieved by Rabindranath Tagore
in his poems, plays, essays, travelogues, treatises and lectures. Buddhism did indeed accentuate a great impact in the thoughts and reflections of the poet. Hence, a fact time and time exerts upon the domain of 'Indianised' literature, that Gautama Buddha and his Buddhism could never have been ignored or shoveled away from literary pursuits or master works by noted authors. It is an absolute thought of wonder and appreciation that Buddhist influence on Indian literature was and has been tremendous, never to be erased under the room of veneration and respect.