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The fourth-century c.e. Sanskrit Divyāvadāna (Heavenly Exploits) contains thirty-eight biographical narratives that celebrate the lives of paradigmatic figures in Buddhist history, authenticate local dharma traditions, and dramatize the importance of moral discipline, karma (action), dĀna (giving), and the power of faith and devotion. Many of the narratives also demonstrate the central role of storytelling, a dimension of Buddhist tradition that has only recently attracted the careful scholarly attention long accorded doctrine, history, and philosophy.

These narratives derive largely from the MŪlasar-vĀstivĀda Vinaya (twenty-one stories) and the vinayas of other Buddhist monastic schools (nine stories), but also adapt canonical sūtras (chapters 3, 17,34). Two chapters (36, 38) reproduce the work of classical Sanskrit poets.

Among other subjects, the Divyāvadāna portrays the adventures of wealthy merchants who become Buddhist monks (chapters 1, 2, 8, 35), recounts the family and religious lives of Indian kings (chapters 3, 26–29, 37), and describes the origins of the "Wheel of Life," well known in the West from Tibetan paintings (chapter 21). Readers also find the conversion of MĀra, the Buddhist "Satan" (chapter 26), and the love story of Sudhana and Manoharā (chapters 30, 31), and learn both what happens when a man offers his daughter to the Buddha (chapter 36) and when an outcaste woman falls in love with an eminent monk (chapter 33). The Divyāvadāna also includes stories about women who studied Buddhist scripture in their own homes and others who, out of love or jealousy, cast spells, blinded their own sons, or committed mass murder.

In the Divyāvadāna, as in other avadānas, scholars find a meeting of scriptural, literary, doctrinal, and social themes that informed Indian Buddhism—in short, an indispensable window on the ancient tradition.

See also:Avadāna; Avadānaśataka


Strong, John S., trans. The Legend of King Aśoka. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1983.

Tatelman, Joel, trans. The Glorious Deeds of Pūrṅa. Richmond, UK: Curzon, 2000.

Winternitz, Maurice. A History of Indian Literature, 2 vols., tr. S. Ketkar and H. Kohn. Calcutta: University of Calcutta Press, 1927; New Delhi: Oriental Books Reprint Corporation, 1977.

Joel Tatelman