The Sanskrit Buddhist Literature of Nepal


Rajendralala Mitra, The Sanskrit Buddhist Literature of Nepal, [Calcutta: The Asiatic Society of Bengal, 1882]

Gautam Buddha, also known as the Shakyamuni, was born in the Western foothill of Nepal 563 before the beginning of the Christian era. Even though there is some dispute as to the exact year on which Gautam Buddha was born, his birth place, Lumbini, is already an established fact. Buddha founded Buddhism – which is one of the great indigenous religions of the South Asian sub-continent.

The accounts of Buddha’s life, discourses, and monastic rules are available in different languages. They are believed to have been written after his death and memorized by his followers. Various collections of teachings attributed to Buddha were passed down by oral tradition, and first committed to writing about 400 years later. They were written in Sanskrit as well.

There are enormous amount of Buddhist literature in Nepal. Some of them were composed in Sanskrit at different points of time. There must have been many such literatures in India as well. But they disappeared after the Muslim conquests in the twelfth century. Right after the Buddha’s Mahayana Mahaparinirvana Maha-sutra (also called the Nirvana Sutra), which mentions some of the well-known episodes of the final months of the Buddha’s life, different such literatures came to be written or compiled in Nepal and India continuing up to the 12th century AD.

Out of this vast literature, comprising several thousand texts, only a portion was translated into Tibetan between the 7th and 15th centuries and into Chinese between the 2nd and 11th centuries. Of later composition in Nepal are various Parajika texts, demonstrating what is known as a Hindu-Buddhist syncretism in the country. Some large compositions such as the Avadanasataka and Mahavastu also repeat materials familiar from Indic sources. Svayambhu-puranaBhadrakalpavadanaVicitrakarn ikkvadana, and the Gunakaran avyuha are just a few examples. The Svayambhu-purana in particular describes the Buddhist mythology of Nepal.

Rajendralala Mitra’s The Sanskrit Buddhist Literature of Nepal (Calcutta: The Asiatic Society of Bengal, 1882) is one of the major works on Nepalese Buddhism. Mitra was the first modern Indian Indologist, who also served as librarian of the Calcutta based Asiatic Society for many years. His work was based on the Sanskrit Buddhist manuscripts that were discovered and collected in Nepal by Brian Hodgson [1800-1894], the British resident in Kathmandu, making the literature known to the modern world for the first time. The Europeans of that time had no knowledge of these Nepalese literatures. It is thus natural that his discovery of these literatures “entirely revolutionized the history of Buddhism.” Mitra is not sure how many such documents were discovered by Brian Hodgson. They may go up to two hundred if carefully arranged and indexed. However, he reveals that “copies of these works to the total number of 381 bundles [were] distributed so as to render them accessible to European scholars.”

The book starts with extracts of Buddhist literature named Abhidhanottara and ends with Vratavadanamala. It also shows the manuscript (MSS) number, according to which they are arranged in the Asiatic Society’s Library. Asoka Avadana gives the account of the early life of King Asoka Maurya (304–232 BCE) who is said to have visited Lumbini. It also talks about his conversion to Buddhism, and tales and anecdotes related to him by a Yati named Upa Gupta, with a view to illustrate the morality of the Buddhism. Similarly, the Dvavinsha Avadana is a collection of twenty-two stories illustrating the merits of devotion to Buddhism and to the duties enjoined by it.

In one of the stories given, “a troop of Brahmans, having made their obeisance to Buddha, expressed their desire to enter Pra-vrajya or itinerancy. Instantly all were, by miracle, shaved and their clothes transformed into rags, except one who remained as he was. The Lord said, the cause of this exception was, that the person was full of Brahmanic pride. On his solicitations, the Lord changed his clothes into rags, but these rags were all dirty. Being asked the cause of this, the Lord said, ‘that Brahman, in one of his former existence, did not make his obeisance to Buddha Padmottara, disdaining to bow to a Sramana.” In Ganapati Hridaya, another piece, there are mantras in praise of Ganapati, “the proof it affords of the Buddhists having adopted the adoration of Ganesha, a purely Hindu deity.” In Divyavadana-Mala, there is a story of Rupavati or Rupavatyavadana. “Once when the Lord was at the Jetavana monastery his disciples remarked, how wonderful it was that beggars should be the most favoured of all persons to the Lord. The Lord replied, it was even so in his former existences.”

Nobody can underscore the importance of these literatures. Hodgson not only discovered them, but also explained about their importance. Mitra notes: “To reproduce them in their entirety would require not one, but many, volumes, and I had therefore to satisfy myself with their bare outlines- their skeletons- omitting all flesh and blood which give them their vividness and interest for the faithful. But reduced and attenuated as they are in the following pages, they will, I believe, prove useful in elucidating Buddhist traditions and sculpture, and in conveying a fair idea of the nature and contents of the newly discovered literature.”

In the preface of his book, Mitra explains the objective behind producing this work: “The total number of MSS, presented by Mr Hodgson to the Asiatic Society of Bengal was 86 bundles, including 170 separate works on various subjects. They vary in extent from a few slokas to a hundred and twenty thousand stanzas. The great bulk of the works refers to the history, philosophy, morality, and rituals of the religion of Buddha; a few are devoted to miscellaneous subjects. To classify them according to the scheme of the Nepalese Buddhists as described by Mr Hodgson in his essays, I find, is impracticable.”

As to the Sanskrit manuscripts, their age and authority, some are new and some are very old. Nevertheless, each of the literature which has been described is of historical importance. In principle, Buddha's teachings deny the authority of the Vedas. Buddhism is generally viewed as a nastika (“it is not so”) school of Hinduism. However, Hindus view Buddha as an incarnation of Vishnu. This view is based on many Hindu texts including Bhagavata PuranaBhavishya Purana and Narasimha Purana. The Buddhist Dasharatha Jataka (Jataka Atthakatha) represents Lord Rama as a previous incarnation of the Buddha and as a Bodhisattva and supreme Dharma King of great wisdom. The Buddhist stories included in the book of Mitra resemble the Hindu Puranas in both their content and style. They eulogize the Buddha the way Hindu Puranas eulogize various deities, primarily the divine Trimurti God through divine stories