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As a genre of Buddhist literature, the Sanskrit term avadāna (Pāli, apadāna; Chinese, piyu; Tibetan, rtogs par brjod pa's sde) denotes a narrative of an individual's religiously significant deeds. Often these narratives constitute full-fledged religious biographies, sometimes of eminent monastics, sometimes of ordinary lay disciples. The avadānas portray, frequently with thematic and narrative complexity, concrete human actions that embody the truths propounded in the doctrine (dharma) and the discipline (vinaya).

Avadānas range from formulaic tales that simply dramatize the workings of karma (action) and the efficacy of faith and devotion, to fantastical adventure stories, to the sophisticated art of virtuosi poets. Like modern novels and short stories, avadānas offer something for every taste. The avadāna literature draws on diverse sources: actual lives, the biography of the Buddha and tales of his former births (jĀtaka), biographical accounts in the canonical literature, and the vast, pan-Indian store of secular story-literature. Indian Buddhists composed avadānas from about the second century b.c.e. to the thirteenth century c.e. Thereafter, Buddhists elsewhere in Asia continued the tradition. In India and beyond, avadāna stories also inspired narrative painting.

Structurally, avadānas, like jātakas (which came to be considered a subcategory of avadāna), consist of a story of the present (pratyutpannavastu), a story of the past (atītavastu), and a juncture (samavadhāna) in which the narrator, always the Buddha or another enlightened saint, identifies characters in the past as former births of characters in the present. For the story of the past, some avadānas substitute a prediction (vyākaraṇa) of the protagonist's spiritual destiny.

The earliest avadānas, like the Apadāna and the Sthavīrāvadāna (ca. second century b.c.e.), are autobiographical narratives in verse attributed to the Buddha's immediate disciples. In contrast, biographical anthologies from the first to the fourth centuries c.e., such as the AvadĀnaŚataka (A Hundred Glorious Deeds), Karmaśataka (A Hundred Karma Tales), and DivyĀvadĀna (Heavenly Exploits), are in mixed prose and verse and feature a much wider range of characters. The Avadānaśataka stories are brief and formulaic, those of the Karmaśataka less so, and those of the Divyāvadāna the most complex and diverse. The sixth-to eighth-century Pāli commentaries (aṭṭhakathā) and several collections preserved only in Chinese contain many avadāna and avadāna-type stories.

Just as Hindu poets retold stories of heroes from the epics and Purāṇas, Buddhist poets retold the lives of their own heroes. The second-century Kumāralāta, in his Kalpanāmaṇḍitika Dṛṣṭāntapaṅkti (A Collection of Parables Ornamented by the Imagination), first adapted the prose-and-verse format to the demands of belles lettres. His successors from the fourth to the eighth centuries, ĀryaŚŪra, Haribhaṭṭa, and Gopadatta, composed ornate poetry (kāvya) in the form of bodhisattvāvadānamālās (garlands of avadānas concerning the Buddha's previous births). Similarly, the eleventh-century Hindu poet Kṣemendra drew on the MŪlasarvĀstivĀda Vinaya to compose the Bodhisattvāvadāna-kalpalatā, which became important in Nepal and Tibet.

The mostly unpublished verse avadānamālās (garlands of avadānas), which constitute a later subgenre, are anonymous works, composed in the style of Hindu Purāṇas, that display MahĀyĀna influences. Several of these retell stories from earlier sources, some in a distinctively Nepalese idiom.

As scholars increasingly recognize narrative as a mode of knowing distinct from, but in no way inferior to, philosophical discourse, they can look forward to learning much from a literary genre that has played an essential role in Buddhist self-understanding for more than two thousand years.

See also:Sanskrit, Buddhist Literature in


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Joel Tatelman