The Buddhist literature comprises of the sutra, literally a ‘thread’ of discourse connecting a number of topics. This is perhaps the most important characteristic of all Buddhist literary genres. It is essentially a religious discourse delivered by the Buddha.
Scripting of Buddhist Literature
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 have been composed in Central Asia or even in China, the canonical literature of Buddhism is of exclusively Indian origin. The canonical literature came into existence over a period of roughly a thousand years, from the first to the 10th century of the Christian era.
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.
Tripitaka in Buddhist Literature
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 Buddha’s 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. The early-canonized books, the Tripitakas, form the canonized books of Hinayana or Theravada 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 Pitakas are the most important parts of Buddhism and they have occupied a major position in the Buddhist literary scenario.
Vinaya Pitaka: The ‘Vinaya Pitaka’ contains the teaching of the Buddha regarding the rules of conduct of monks. The ‘Vinaya Pitaka’ comprises the Collection of Monastic Discipline. 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.
Sutra Pitaka: The Sutra Pitaka is a Collection of Discourses, and constitutes the principal source of the knowledge of the Dharma. Sutra Pitaka contains the doctrine of Buddha and a number of his dialogues. It is divided into ‘nikayas’ (collection) that include Dirgha Nikaya (Long Discourses), Majjhima Nikaya (Medium sized discourses), Samyutta Nikaya (Mixed Discourses), Anguttara Nikaya (Graduated Discourses), Khuddaka Nikaya (Miscellaneous Discourses). Most of the works in the collection contain fables, aphorisms, poems and songs with subtle artistic and literary touch that gives the pieces a distinct character.
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.
Abhidhamma Pitaka: 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.
Tantras in Buddhist Literature
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 Abhisheka or ‘aspersion’, the requisite spiritual power has been transmitted to the disciple by a spiritual master in the succession.
Epics of Asvaghosa in Buddhist Literature
Classical poetry and 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. Asvaghosa’s epics are the representations of the fully fledged kavya technique. Asvaghosa was an earnest Buddhist, so that the ultimate significance he wishes to convey, through the delights of poetry, is the shallowness of the world and the true happiness of renunciation and peace of mind. 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.