Buddha-carita Home PageBook I
The Buddha-carita of Aśvaghoṣa
Translated by E. B. Cowell
The Sanskrit text of The Buddha-carita was published at the beginning of last year [i.e 1893] in the ‘Anecdota Oxoniensia,’ and the following English translation is now included in the series ‘Sacred Books of the East.’ It is an early Sanskrit poem written in India on the legendary history of Buddha, and therefore contains much that is of interest for the history of Buddhism, besides its special importance as illustrating the early history of classical Sanskrit literature.
It is ascribed to Aśvaghoṣa; and although there were several writers who bore that name, it seems most probable that our author was the contemparary and spiritual advisor of Kaniṣka in the first century of our era. Hiouen Thsang, who left India in A. D. 645, mentions him with Deva, Nāgārjuna, and Kumāralabdha, ‘as the four suns which illumine the world;’ but our fullest account is given by I-tsing, who visited India in 673. He states that Aśvaghoṣa was an ancient author who composed the Alaṅkāra-śāstra and the Buddha-carita-kāvya, — the latter work being of course the present poem. Besides these two works he also composed the hymns in honour of Buddha and the three holy beings Amitābha, Avalokiteśvara, and Mahāsthāma, which were chanted at the evening service of the monasteries. ‘In the five countries of India and in the countries of the Southern ocean they recite these poems, because they express a store of ideas and meaning in a few words.’ A solitary stanza (VIII, 13) is quoted from The Buddha-carita in Rāyamukuṭa's commentary on the Amarakoṣa I, i. 1, 2, and also by Ujjvaladatta in his commentary on the Uṇādi-sūtras I, 156; and five stanzas are quoted as from Aśvaghoṣa in Vallabhadeva's Subhāṣitāvali, which bear a great resemblance to his style, though they are not found in the extant portion of this poem.
The Buddha-carita was translated into Chinese by Dharmarakṣa in the fifth century, and a translation of this was published by the Rev. S. Beal in the present series [of the Sacred Books of the East]; it was also translated into Tibetan in the seventh or eighth century. The Tibetan as well as the Chinese version consists of twenty-eighth chapters, and carries down the life of Buddha to his entrance into Nirvāṇa and the subsequent division of the sacred relics. The Tibetan version appears to be much closer to the original Sanskrit than the Chinese; in fact from its verbal accuracy we can often reproduce the exact words of the original, since certain Sanskrit words are always represented by the same Tibetan equivalents, as for instance, the prepositions prefixed to verbal roots. I may here express an earnest hope that we may ere long have an edition and translation of the Tibetan version, if some scholar can be found to complete Dr. Wendzel's unfinished labour. He had devoted much time and thought to the work; I consulted him in several of my difficulties, and it is from him that I derived all my information about the Tibetan renderings. This Tibetan version promises to be of great help in restoring the many corrupt readings which still remain in our faulty Nepalese MSS.
Only thriteen books of the Sanskrit poem claim to be Aśvaghoṣa's composition; the last four books are an attempt by a modern Nepalese author to supply the loss of the original. He tells us this honestly in the colophon, — ‘having searched for them everywhere and not found them, four cantos have been made by me, Amṛtānanda, — the fourteenth, fifteenth, sixteenth, and seventeenth.’ He adds the date 950 of the Nepalese era, corresponding to 1830 a. d.; and we have no difficulty in idendifying the author. Rājendralāl Mitra in his ‘Nepalese Buddhist Literature’ mentions Amṛtānanda as the author of two Sanskrit treatises and one in Newārī he was probably the father of the old paṇḍit of the Residency at Kāṭmāṇḍu, Guṇananda, whose son Indrānanda holds the office at present. Dr. D. Wright informs me that the family seem to have been the recognised historians of the country, and keepers of the MS. treasures of sundray temples. The four books are included in this translation as an interesting literary curiosity. The first portion of the fourteenth book agrees partly with the Tibetan and Chinese, and Amṛtānanda may have had access to some imperfect copy of this portion of the original; but after that his account is quite independent, and has no relation to the two versions.
In my preface to the edition of the Sanskrit text I have tried to show that Aśvaghoṣa's poem appears to have exercised an important influence on the succeeding poets of the classical period in India. When we compare the descriptions in the seventh book of the Raghuvaṁsa of the ladies of the city crowding to see prince Aja as he passes by from the Svayaṁvara where the princess Bhojyā has chosen him as her husband, with the episode in the third book of The Buddha-carita (ślokas 13-24); or the description's of Kāma's assault on Śiva in the Kumārasambhava with that of Māra's temptation of Buddha in the thirteenth book, we can hardly fail to trace some connection. There is a similar resemblance between the description in the fifth book of the Rāmāyaṇa, where the monkey Hanumat enters Rāvaṇa's palace by night, and sees his wives asleep in the seraglio and their various unconscious attitudes, and in the description in the fifth book of the present poem where Buddha on the night of his leaving his home for ever sees the same unconscious sight in his own palace. Nor may we forget that in the Rāmāyaṇa the description is introduced as an ornamental episode; in the Buddhist poem it an essential elelment in the story, as it supplies the final impulse which stirs the Bodhisattva to make his escape from the world. These different descriptions became afterwards commonplaces in Sanskrit poetry, like the catalogue of the ships in Greek or Roman epics; but they may very well have originated in connection with definite incidents in the Buddhist sacred legend.
The Sanskrit MSS. of Nepal are always negligently transcribed and abound with corrupt passages, which it is often very difficult to detect and restore. My printed text leaves many obscure lines which will have to be cleared up hereafter by more skilful emendations. I have given in the notes to the translation some further emendations of my own, and I have also added several happy conjectures which continental scholars have kindly suggested to me by letter; and I gladly take this opportunity of adding in a foot-note some of which I received too late to insert in their proper places.
I have endeavoured to make my translation intelligible to the English reader, but many of the verses in the original are very obscure. Aśvaghoṣa employs all the resources of Hindu rhetoric (as we might well expect if I-tsing is right in ascribing to him an ‘alaṅkāra-śāstra’), and it is often difficult to follow his subtil turns of thought and remote allusions; but many passages no doubt owe their present obscurity to undetected mistakes in the text of our MSS. In the absence of any commentary (except so far as the diffuse Chinese translation and occasional reference to the Tibetan have supplied the want) I have necessarily been left to my own resources, and I cannot fail to have sometimes missed my author's meaning.
Prāṁśulabhye phale mohād udbāhur iva vāmanaḥ
but I have tried to do my best, and no one will welcome more cordially any light which others may throw on the passages I have misunderstood.
The edition of the original text was dedicated to my old friend Professor F. Max Müller, and it is sincere gratification to me that this translation will appear in the same volume with similar translations from his pen.
E. B. C.
Feb 1, 1894.
Buddha-carita Home PageBook I
last updated: January 2007