Aśvaghosa Composes Complete Biography of the Buddha Summary

  • Last updated on November 11, 2022

Aśvaghosa composed Buddhacarita, the complete biography of the Buddha, and achieved a reputation as one of the great poets of world literature and as one of the founders of Sanskrit drama.

Summary of Event

The dates of the birth and death of the poet Aśvaghosa are uncertain, but historians generally suggest that he was born c. 80 c.e. in the Indian city of Ajodhya. He was a Brahman, a member of the hereditary priest caste of the Vedantic religious tradition that eventually became known as Hinduism. Members of the Brahman caste were usually hostile to Buddhism, which challenged the caste system and the religious orthodoxy of India. Educated in the Vedas, the holy books of India, Aśvaghosa was a strong opponent of Buddhism. Legend holds that Aśvaghosa defended the Vedantic faith in a debate on Buddhism with the sage Parsva, religious adviser of the ruler Kanishka. After losing the debate, Aśvaghosa converted and became an eloquent spokesperson for his new religion. Aśvaghosa Buddha Kanishka

Aśvaghosa’s probable lifetime was a period of political and religious change in the Indian subcontinent. A people known as the Kushān ruled over what is now Afghanistan, much of the northern Indian subcontinent (now the northern parts of India and Pakistan), and large parts of central Asia. The Kushān Empire reached its greatest power and territorial extension under Kanishka, whose rule dated from c. 127 to c. 152, or a good portion of Aśvaghosa’s career. In addition to greatly extending his inherited kingdom through conquest, Kanishka was known as a great patron of Buddhism. Kanishka reportedly called the Fourth Buddhist Council, a critical event in the emergence of Mahāyāna Buddhism, in Kashmir. The emperor’s contacts with the Chinese empire may have encouraged the movement of Buddhism into China. He also maintained communication with the Roman Empire, and the Gandhara school of art, which produced images of the Buddha that exhibited Greco-Roman influences, flourished during his reign.

There are reports that Aśvaghosa was a councillor at the court of Kanishka at Peshawar. Some historians place Aśvaghosa a generation earlier and argue that attempts to connect the great poet and the great leader are simply reflections of popular desires to put these two prominent figures together. It is also possible that claims of Aśvaghosa’s connections to the Kushān ruler were caused by a confusion of Aśvaghosa with the Buddhist sage Sangharaksa, who was a teacher of Kanishka and who wrote a life of the Buddha with the same title as the biography written by Aśvaghosa.

Aśvaghosa is supposed to have helped organize the Fourth Buddhist Council and to have spoken in defense of Mahāyāna Buddhist doctrine at this council. If so, this would suggest that the poet must have known Kanishka. However, at least one account of the council holds that it was Aśvaghosa, not Kanishka, who called a great council to discuss religious doctrine. In this version of events, the council met for twelve years under Aśvaghosa’s direction to produce the Mahāvibhāsa (compiled c. 100 c.e.; great commentary), an encyclopedia of religious tenets. Because even the dates of Aśvaghosa’s life are uncertain and most of the claims about the events in that life were set down long after it ended, it may not be possible to resolve all of the questions about the poet’s connections to the Kushān king and the Fourth Buddhist Council.

Aśvaghosa’s best known work was his Buddhacarita (first or second century c.e.; Buddhacharitam, 1911; commonly known as Buddhacarita). Consisting of twenty-eight cantos, this epic poem told the story of the Buddha’s life, from his birth until his passing into nirvana. It was the first complete biography of the Buddha and has therefore formed the basis for most of the tales of the Buddha’s life that appeared later.

The work was divided into four parts of seven cantos each. The first told of Gautama Śākyamuni’s birth as a young prince, of his youth, and of his renunciation of a life of privilege. The second told of his journeys, hardships, and his struggles with the representation of death, ending in the awakening that made him the Buddha (the Enlightened One, or the Awakened One). The third recounted his mission to humankind after his enlightenment and how his message spread in the four directions. The fourth section told of the Buddha’s final journey, his passing over into nirvana, and of the establishment of the faith that followed. Scholars of religious literature observe that each part of the Buddhacarita corresponds to one of the main places of Buddhist pilgrimage in India: Kapilavastu, the Buddha’s place of origin; Bodh Gayā, where the Buddha received enlightenment; Varanasi, where he preached his first sermon; and Kuśinagara, where he died.

A shorter epic poem, the Saundarānanda (first or second century c.e.; The Saundarananda of Asvaghosa, 1928), tells the story of the Buddha’s half-brother and disciple Nanda. In this poem, Nanda is a handsome and worldly man, greatly attracted to sensual pleasures, who decides to become a monk and follow the Buddha. Gradually, life in the company of monks enables Nanda to renounce the appeals of the senses and to follow the true path.

Aśvaghosa’s style in both of these epics was the elaborate form known as the kavya, and his work offers the earliest known examples of this style. The kavya is an ornate literary language that relies heavily on metaphor and simile and makes use of complicated meters. Aśvaghosa helped popularize this type of writing, which influenced Indian literature down to the present.

In addition to the epic poems, a number of fragments of plays and two complete plays written by Aśvaghosa have survived. Manuscripts of the two complete plays were discovered at Turfan in Central Asia early in the twentieth century. Aśvaghosa’s plays strictly followed the rules laid down earlier by the Nāṭya-śāstra (between 200 and 300 c.e.; The Nāṭyashāstra, 1950), a text attributed to a sage named Bharata Muni. According to this classical work on drama, plays should be composed by specially educated members of the priest caste with a complete knowledge of dance, music, and ritual. Works should treat sacred matters and be performed for knowledgeable audiences. In composing his works on Buddhist themes, Aśvaghosa created an important place for Buddhism in the Indian tradition of Sanskrit drama and linked Buddhism to Vedantic ideas about drama.

In the traditions of China and other parts of Eastern Asia, Aśvaghosa came to be regarded as a boddhisattva, or enlightened being, and he was the subject of a number of legends. Many of these dwelt on his supposed relationship with Kanishka. According to one story in a Chinese text, in his early career, Aśvaghosa lived at the court of the king of Pataliputra in eastern India. After the king was defeated by the Kushāns under Kanishka, the Indian king had to sue for peace and was required to pay 900,000 pieces of gold. Instead, he gave up the equivalent by handing over the begging bowl of the Buddha, a special rooster, and Aśvaghosa. Another legend holds that on death, Kanishka was condemned to hell for the violence of his conquests but was saved from this fate because he had heard Aśvaghosa preach. The words of the religious poet managed to deliver the powerful king to the apparently lesser punishment of being reborn in the ocean as a fish with a thousand heads that were continually cut off.

Significance

Aśvaghosa’s historical importance was both artistic and religious. His poetry and drama influenced Sanskrit literary style and helped to make the kavya a widely used form. The Buddhacarita and The Saundarananda of Asvaghosa both inspired works of Buddhist sculpture, an art that was making great advances in Aśvaghosa’s era by drawing on models from Greek civilization. Aśvaghosa’s plays became an important part of Sanskrit dramatic tradition.

The Buddhacarita was not only the first complete biography of the Buddha but also one of the most influential in passing down the story of the Buddha’s life and work. Whether Aśvaghosa actually knew Kanishka or took part in the Fourth Buddhist Council, the poet achieved reverence throughout Eastern Asia as a great religious figure.

Further Reading
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Rosenfeld, John M. The Dynastic Arts of the Kushans. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1967. Although chiefly concerned with Kushān art, the book also contains a good deal of information on Aśvaghosa’s legendary association with the Kushān ruler Kanishka. Readers will want to look in particular at chapter 2.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Stryk, Lucien. World of the Buddha: An Introduction to Buddhist Literature New York: Grove Press, 1987. Gives selections of classical Buddhist literature, including part of the Buddhacarita, with introduction and commentary on each selection.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Thakur, Manoj K. India in the Age of Kanishka. Rev. ed. Delhi: Worldview, 1999. A general work on the historical era during which Aśvaghosa lived.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Winternitz, Maurice. History of Indian Literature: Buddhist and Jain Literature. New Delhi: Motilal Banarsidass, 1999. Part of a massive history of Indian literature that will enable readers to place Aśvaghosa’s work in its historical context.
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Aśvaghosa; Buddha; Kanishka. Buddhacarita (Aśvaghosa)

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