Sanskrit, Buddhist Literature in

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Buddhist literature in Sanskrit is a large and diverse category. It consists of both canonical and noncanonical materials, the latter ranging from anonymous narrative collections and ritual manuals through technical treatises, poetry, and plays written by known individuals. Two distinct languages are used in this category: Sanskrit and so-called Buddhist Hybrid Sanskrit. Sanskrit is the ancient prestige language of Indian culture, first known through collections of hymns called Vedas dating from the second millennium b.c.e., and later systematized in a generative grammar by Pāṇini (fourth century b.c.e.). In brahmanical Hindu religion, Sanskrit is seen as the natural language, that which would be spoken by any person if not trained in a vernacular as a child, and as such represents reality more closely than external phenomena perceived through the senses. The ability to compose in Sanskrit—requiring precise control of its complex inflectional system, and in verse the capacity to reproduce artfully a variety of metrical patterns—was seen as the epitome of educated civilization. Buddhist Hybrid Sanskrit (hereafter BHS) is the language of a text called the MahĀvastu and of most MahĀyĀna sūtras, that is, discourses attributed to the Buddha. It has been denoted by this name since the publication of a dictionary and grammar of the language by Franklin Edgerton, but has also been called "Buddhist Sanskrit," "mixed Sanskrit," and "the gāthā dialect" (reflecting the fact that it is most commonly found in the verses, gāthā, of Mahāyāna discourses). The origin and nature of BHS is disputed, Edgerton preferring to view it as the result of an incomplete process of translation into Sanskrit of materials originally composed in a vernacular, prakrit. This was not a formal attempt at translation but a gradual process of influence reflecting the prestige of Sanskrit proper in the broader community (Edgerton, sect. 1.34). BHS texts vary in character, particularly in the degree to which they employ vernacular grammatical forms. Later BHS texts are identified as such largely through their vocabulary, their grammar being that of standard, if simple, Sanskrit. In the eyes of traditionally trained paṇḍits and even some Western scholars, BHS has appeared to be a highly incorrect, even barbaric, language requiring correction. The work of defining BHS continues, as texts are edited anew with greater sensitivity.

Canonical literature

Whereas for the mainstream Buddhist schools, the canon was defined in terms of an exclusive tripiṭaka, both the Mahāyāna and VajrayĀna traditions utilized a more flexible, inclusive concept of canon that allowed, alongside the tripiṭaka, the incorporation of a large number of texts claiming to be buddhavacana, (word of the Buddha). This is indicated by their opening with the phrase evaṃ mayā śrutaṃ ("Thus have I heard"), indicating that each text is understood to have been recited by the Buddha's disciple Ānanda at the First Council. Modern scholarship situates these texts as new if anonymous compositions, the chronology of which tracks the evolution of Mahāyāna and Vajrayāna, respectively. The inclusiveness of later Indian Buddhism regarding canonicity also means that it is difficult to know the precise total extent of the literature. The Pāli canon by tradition has been fixed since the first century b.c.e. and the exact content is well known, as revealed in the fifth-century c.e. commentaries attributed to Buddhaghosa and others. There is no comparable clarity for the Mahāyāna or Vajrayāna, and even now there exists no comprehensive catalogue of works for either tradition. The nearest we have are the ancient catalogues of scriptures of the Chinese and Tibetan translated canons, none of which are exhaustive. This situation makes it difficult to write with conclusive authority on many aspects of this literature as a whole.

This situation is further complicated in that the major portion of canonical Buddhist literature in Sanskrit has been lost since the time of Muslim depredations in northern India (eleventh through twelfth centuries c.e.) and is now known only through ancient translations made into Tibetan, Chinese, and other languages. The exceptions to this have come from two sources: archaeological or antiquarian recovery of ancient manuscripts or their active preservation through copying in Nepal. Notable among the former are numerous manuscripts recovered from the oases of Central Asia, the small library of about fifty texts found in Gilgit in the 1930s, Rāhula Sāṅkṛtyāyana's photographs made in the 1930s in Tibet of very early Sanskrit manuscripts originally transported there in the medieval period to assist translation work, and the recovery in the 1990s of very early manuscripts from Afghanistan, such as those in the collection of Martin Schøyen in Oslo (Braarvig). Typical of the latter category from Nepal are numerous manuscripts of nine canonical texts called the navadharma (the nine teachings), along with a wide range of tantric ritual texts. The bulk of Buddhist Sanskrit literature known today has been preserved in Nepal (Mitra).

Āgama collections. The āgama collections are the functional equivalents of the nikayas of the Pāli canon—thus there were long (dīrgha), middling (madhyama), thematic (saṃyukta), incremental (ekottara), and miscellaneous (kṣudraka) collections in Sanskrit. The āgama collections contain Sanskrit versions of many of the texts found in the Pāli collections, and are understood to have been the śrāvaka canon as utilized on the Indian subcontinent by śrāvaka lineages other than that of the TheravĀda school. Overall the āgamas contained a larger number of texts than the nikāyas and arranged them in a different sequence. Unlike other Buddhist literature in Sanskrit that has no śrāvaka parallels, this category offers enormous potential for comparative study to differentiate the ideas and concerns of the śrāvaka schools. Regrettably, the āgamas do not survive in their entirety and are largely known through translations of them made into Chinese (Lamotte, pp. 153 f.). Until recently the only exceptions to this were individual sūtras—for example, the MahĀparinirvĀṆasŪtra (Waldschmidt) and fragments recovered from long abandoned Buddhist sites in Central Asia—but this has changed with the discovery in Afghanistan in the late 1990s of an almost complete manuscript of the Dīrghāgama, probably belonging to the Mūlasarvāstivāda school (Hartmann).

Vinaya and abhidharma. Although there were seven canonical abhidharma texts in Sanskrit belonging to the Sarvāstivāda school, these are now lost in their original language. The Sanskrit vinaya collections have fared better, and two works in particular warrant mention. The first of these is the MŪlasarvĀstivĀdavinaya, which has mostly survived in a single manuscript discovered at Gilgit. This massive text is a compilation of narratives and case law offering numerous insights into the preoccupations and realia of monastic life in medieval India (Panglung). With this we can compare the Mahāvastu, a wonderful collection of narratives and lore built around a biography of the Buddha that describes itself as belonging to the vinaya of the Lokottaravāda branch of the MĀhĀsĀṂghika school (Jones). This too contains interesting and important parallels to material found in the Pāli canon.

Mahāyāna. Mahāyāna sūtras form a diverse body of literature produced between the first century b.c.e. and the fifth century c.e. The earliest examples are thought to be the perfection of wisdom texts, Aṣṭasāhasrikā-prajñāpāramitā and Ratnaguṇasaṃcaya-gāthā, in prose and verse, respectively. These expound a critique of the abhidharma and the teaching of the real existence of dharmas and promote the bodhisattva as the ideal Buddhist. While many Mahāyāna sūtras are now only known in Tibetan and Chinese translations, we are well endowed with manuscripts of the navadharma, which includes the following sītras: Saddharmapuṇḍarīka (Lotus Sūtra), Aṣṭasāhasrikā-prajñāparamitā, LaṄkĀvatĀrasŪtra, Daśabhūmiśvara, Gaṇḍavyūha, Samādhirāja, and SuvarṆaprabhĀsottamasŪtra; plus the Lalitavistara, a śrāvakayāna biography of the Buddha that is built around guides to the main pilgrimage sites of the Buddha's life (Foucher), and the Guhyasamāja-tantra, a Vajrayāna work. These texts and others express a range of doctrinal views and a number of them were among those considered authoritative and thus expounded by Mahāyāna doctrinal traditions, such as the Madhyamaka school and the YogĀcĀra school.

Vajrayāna. From the middle of the first millennium c.e. until the demise of institutional Buddhism in India in the twelfth century, there began to appear Buddhist tantric works, written in Sanskrit, employing instrumental magic and ritual to achieve specific goals. Retrospectively these have been assigned to four classes: kriyā or "action" tantras; caryā or "conduct" tantras, dominated by the Mahāvairocanābhisaṃbodhi Tantra (Tantra on the Perfect Awakening of Mahā-Vairocana); yoga or "meditation" tantras, dominated by the Sarvatathāgatatattvasamgraha (Compendium on the Essence of all the Tathāgatas); and the anuttarayoga or "supreme meditation" tantras, among which is included the Guhyasamaja Tantra (Tantra on the Secret Assembly). The last tantra composed in India before the final demise of institutional Buddhism there was the eleventh-century Kālacakra Tantra, a major work seeking not just soteriological goals but also offering a defense against contemporary Muslim domination. Texts in the higher classes of tantra tend toward asserting feminine representations of the ideal, employing antinomian practices (e.g., consumption of forbidden substances, sexual transgression of monastic rules and caste boundaries), and, although written in relatively normal Sanskrit, employ a secret or allusive vocabulary called sandhyabhāṣā, in which actual referents are disguised by euphemisms and elaborate symbolism. A minor example of this appears in the opening phrase of the Guhyasamāja Tantra, which forgoes the familiar formula and asserts instead that the Buddha delivered the tantra while residing in the "vagina of the Vajra Lady," which is understood to mean "while residing in the wisdom of enlightenment."

Commentaries. This entire body of canonical material inspired commentarial literature usually composed by known historical individuals, although this too has fared badly and relatively little survives in its original language. There is no definitive catalogue of Sanskrit commentaries, but it has been estimated in relation to the Tibetan canon that, of 120 commentaries translated into Tibetan, only ninety remain current; allowing for duplications, these offer comment on only thirty-four, or 10 percent, of the sūtras extant in the same canon (Schoening). Commentaries vary widely in length, from single folios to several volumes, and some sūtras have attracted much more attention than others—the Heart SŪtra, a short Perfection of Wisdom text, having seven commentaries. There are also subcommentaries on primary commentaries, the Abhisamayālaṃkāra apparently inspiring something in excess of twenty.

Noncanonical literature

Canonical materials alone do not exhaust Buddhist literature in Sanskrit. In fact, the larger part of the field is made up of noncanonical materials, which are even more diverse than their canonical counterparts. In the following survey, the subcategories employed are by no means exclusive, merging in some cases with each other and with canonical materials.

Narrative. Narrative is a, if not the, dominant genre of Buddhist literature, and happily many examples have survived into the present day. The canonical literature already reviewed is replete with narrative materials that were redacted to form new compilations of pure narrative, such as the AvadĀnaŚataka (One Hundred Stories of Edifying Deeds) and the DivyĀvadĀna (Divine Stories of Edifying Deeds), the latter probably redacted from the Mūlasarvāstivāda-vinaya. The Avadānaśataka subsequently inspired further cycles of verse renderings of sets of its stories, which were composed probably in the second half of the first millennium c.e. These texts, clearly the result of a concerted attempt to revise the entire Avadānaśataka by what was probably a tradition of specialists in this kind of narrative literature, were termed mālā (garlands), and typically employ a frame story involving a dialogue between the emperor AŚoka and a monk named Upagupta (Strong).

Ritual texts. The Nepalese community has preserved a host of ritual texts of a variety of kinds. Many of these are transmitted from Indian originals and include compendia of meditation texts giving guidance on the visualization and worship of buddhas, bodhisattvas, and various tantric figures, such as the Sādhanamālā and Niṣpannayogāvalī. There are also more miscellaneous collections covering a range of activities, such as building monasteries (e.g., the Kriyāsaṃgraha).

Treatises. Often attracting attention before the more extensive narrative and ritual materials, there are important treatises, śāstras, compiled by known historical individuals in order to expound specific doctrinal positions, sometimes doctrines voiced in sūtra sources. Among these we should note the encyclopedic AbhidharmakoŚabhĀṢya (Treasury of Higher Teaching) of Vasubandhu, which sets out a survey of Sarvāstivāda doctrine, which it then critiques from a SautrĀntika viewpoint in an autocommentary. Some treatises offer exegeses of the work of earlier scholiasts; thus CandrakĪrti's Prasannapadā is effectively a commentary on NĀgĀrjuna's Mūlamadhyamakākarikā (Foundational Verses on the Middle Way), both being core textual authorities in the exegesis of Madhyamaka doctrine. By contrast, Vasubandhu's Viṃśatikā and Triṃśikā (Twenty Verses and Thirty Verses) expound doctrine de novo. ŚĀntideva's BodhicaryĀvatĀra (Introduction to the Conduct of a Bodhisattva) systematically outlines in evocative poetry the nature of a bodhisattva's practice and exemplifies the crossover into material that we might otherwise classify as purely poetic (Crosby and Skilton).

Poetry and drama. Sometimes undeservedly attracting less attention are splendid works of self-consciously high literary merit. These include AŚvaghoṢa's second-century c.e.Buddhacarita, a verse biography of the Buddha, and Saundarananda, the earliest examples of Sanskrit kāvya (high poetry) that have survived. Regrettably we have lost Aśvaghoṣa's dramas, which included an account of the conversions of ŚĀriputra and MahĀmaudgalyĀyana, and they are known now only through manuscript fragments from Central Asia. Similar to these are the prose and verse kāvya JĀtakamĀlĀ of ĀryaŚŪra (fourth century c.e.), a retelling of thirty-four jātaka stories in elegant court style. His Pāramitāsamāsa (Compendium of the Perfections) is an important parallel to Śāntideva's Bodhicaryāvatāra (Meadows). Another important work is the Nāgananda of Harṣa, a seventh-century king, a complete drama that retells the story of the bodhisattva as Jīmutavāhana. This last is notable in that its author was not a Buddhist, a distinction shared with the Avadā-nakalpalatā, a cycle of 108 Buddhist stories retold in verse by the eleventh-century Kashmiri poet Kṣemendra. All these examples are characterized by the reworking of existing narratives from canonical sources, but this crossover can also be seen in the elegant kāvya meters sometimes employed in the composition of some canonical literature. Numerous original compositions in verse survive mainly in translation. Often concerned with praise, they are called stotra (hymns), chief among which must be the works of Mātṛceta (second century c.e.), two of which were memorized by all monks in India, according to the Chinese pilgrim Yijing (635–713).

Nepalese Buddhist literature in Sanskrit. While the composition of Buddhist literature died out in India after the Muslim conquests of the twelfth century c.e., it continued in Nepal, where cultural continuity was retained and in fact heavily augmented by refugees from the Buddhist homelands in northeastern India. Of later composition in Nepal are various pārājika texts, describing ritual means whereby one might avoid the negative consequences of various kinds of killing, and demonstrating a Hindu-Buddhist syncretism. Of greater literary merit are seven large verse compositions that retell materials familiar from Indic sources, such as the Avadānaśataka and Mahāvastu, but which also borrow heavily from śāstra-type material, such as the Bodhicaryāvatāra. These include the Svayambhū-purāṇa, Bhadrakalpāvadana, Vicitrakarṇikāvadāna, and the Guṇakāraṇḍavyūha. These all reuse the frame story of Upagupta and Aśoka, familiar from the Indian avadānamālās, but supplement it with a further framing device involving two monks, Jināśrī and Jayaśrī. These texts also incorporate values of Nepalese Buddhism, while the Svayambhūpurāṇa goes so far as to localize the Buddhist sacred landscape and mythology in Nepal.

See also:Āgama/Nikāya; Languages; Pāli, Buddhist Literature in


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Andrew Skilton