Chapter 4: Lalitavistara

The Mahāvastu describes itself as a work belonging to Hīnayāna, although it has assimilated some of the Mahāyāna features. The Lalitavistara on the contrary is regarded as one of the most sacred Mahāyāna texts, as a Vaipulya Sūtra. It is a text-book of voluminous contents and gives the usual designation of a Mahāyāna Sūtra and yet originally the work embodied a descriptive life of the Buddha for the Sārvāstivādi school attached to the Hīnayāna.

The Lalitavistara is edited by S. Lefmann who also brought out a translation of the first chapters in Berlin in 1875. The great Bengali scholar Rajendralal Mitra prepared an English translation for the Bibliotheca Indica of which 3 fasciculi have appeared. (Calcutta, 1881 to 1886). He has also brought out an incomplete text. A complete French translation by Foucaux appeared in Paris in the Annals du Musee Guimet, vol. vi, xix, (Paris, 1887-1892.) The Chinese tradition as to the Lalitavistara makes it a life of the Buddha representing the Sārvāstivādi school (Beal, the Romantic Legend of Śākya Buddha from the Chinese Sanskrit, London, 1875, Introduction. Also Foucaux's French translation of Lalitavistara introduction, vol. 11.) Beal's Romantic Legend is an abbridged translation from the Chinese version of the Abhiniṣkramaṇa Sūtra which has not been preserved in the original Sanskrit, but was translated into Chinese so early as 587 A.D. It appears to have been a biography of the Buddha representing the sect of the Dharmaguptas.

The Mahāyāna idea however corresponds already to the very title of the Lalitavistara which means the “exhaustive narrative of the sport of the Buddha.” Thus the lifework of the Buddha on the earth is characterised as the diversion (lalita) of a supernatural being.

In the introductory chapter the Buddha appears as an exalted divine being, although the chapter starts after the mode of the ancient Pāḷi Suttas with the words: “So have I heard. Once upon a time the Master was sojourning at Śrāvastī in the Jeta Park in the garden of Anāthapiṇḍada.” [20]

Extravagant Imagery

But while in the Pāḷi texts the Master is introduced with these or similar stereotyped initial phrases and is surrounded by a few disciples or at the most his suite of “500 monks,” and then immediately the Sutta proper begins, in the Lalitavistara, as in all the Vaipulya Sūtras of the Mahāyāna, the picture that is outlined of the Buddha is a grandiose one encircled by divine radiance. He is surrounded by twelve thousand monks and by no less than thirty-two thousand Bodhisattvas, “all still in the trammels of only one re-birth, all born with the perfections of a Bodhisattva, all enjoying the knowledge of a Bodhisattva, all in the possession of an insight in magical charms” and so forth.

While in the middle watch of the night the Buddha sits sunk in meditation, from his head issues forth a stream of light which penetrates into the heavens and sets all the gods in commotion. These latter forthwith chant a hymn of praise to the exalted Buddha and soon after appear Iśvara and the other divinities before the Master, [who] throw themselves at his feet and implore him to reveal the excellent Vaipulya Sūtra called the Lalitavistara for the salvation and blessing of the world. While they panegyrize in extravagant terms the excellences of the text revealed by this and even earlier Buddhas, the Buddha expresses his assent by silence. Only after these circumstantial introductions, which fill a large chapter commences the biography proper of the Buddha which forms the contents of the work. And it starts indeed just from where in the Pāḷi Nidānakathā the second section (avidūrenidāna) begins.

Conception and Birth of Buddha

The Bodhisattva abides in the heaven of the Gratified (Tuṣita) gods in a glorious celestial palace. The Bodhisattva is the recipient of over a hundred honorific epithets and the celestial palace in which he resides of over a dozen. Under the sound of eighty-four thousand drums he is called upon to descend to the [21] earth to commence his work of salvation. After long consultations in which the excellences and the deficiencies of a large number of princely families are weighed the Bodhisattva finally decides to be re-born in the house of King Śuddhodana in the womb of Queen Māyā. She alone possesses all the qualities of a Buddha's mother. Perfect like her beauty, which is described to minutest detail, are her virtue and chastity. Besides, of all the women of India she is the only one in a position to bear the future Buddha since in her is united the strength of ten thousand elephants. The conception proceeds with the assistance of the gods after the Bodhisattva had determined to enter the womb of his mother in the form of an elephant. The gods prepare not only a celestial residence for Māyā during her lying in, but construct a palace of jewels in her womb so that the Bodhisattva may not remain soiled there for ten months. In this palace of jewels he sits in his marvellous tenderness. But his body shines in glorious sheen and a light expands itself for miles from the womb of his mother. The sick come to Māyā Devī and are cured of their diseases as soon as the latter places her hand upon their head. And whenever she looks towards her right she sees the Bodhisattva in her womb “just as a man beholds his own face in a clear mirror.” The yet unborn Bodhisattva in his mother's womb delights the celestials by pious sermons and the god Brahmā obeys his every suggestion.

This part is comprised in chapters 2 to 6. The beginning of the sixth chapter has been translated by Windisch in his Buddha's Geburt, p. 162 ff.

As the conception so also the Bodhisattva's birth. It is accompanied by miracles and portents. In the Lumbini Park he is born in the manner well known to us through numerous sculptures though not like an ordinary human but as an omniscient Exalted Being, as a Mahāpuruṣa, “The Great Spirit.” Lotus flowers are strewn under every [22] step of his and the newborn child announcing his greatness takes seven steps towards each of the six cardinal points.

The creator Prajāpati is characterized as Puruṣa and Mahāpuruṣa in the Brāhmaṇas and Upaniṣads and subsequently also Brahmā and Viṣṇu. The seven steps of the new born child Buddha are also to be explained from the myth of the march of Viṣṇu.

Sin of Unbelief

Here the narrative [is] interrupted by a dialogue between Ānanda and the Buddha in which vehemence is shown towards every unbeliever who does not credit the miraculous birth of the Buddha (chapter vii, p. 87 to 91). Faith in the Buddha is taught as an essential component of religion. And we are reminded of Kṣṇa in the Bhagavadgīta when the Buddha says:

“To all who believe in me I do good. Like friends are they to me who seek refuge in me. And many a friend the Tathāgata has. And to those friends the Tathāgata only speaks the truth, not falsehood.... To believe Ānanda should be thy endeavour. This I commend unto you.”

Why this dialogue should appear just here is certainly not due to accident, but is based on the fact that it is with reference to the legends relating to the conception and the birth of the Buddha that the Lalitavistara diverges very strikingly from other Buddhist schools in its extravagance as to the miraculous. It is no longer so in the future course of the narrative. Indeed there is here very often an extraordinary harmony with the most ancient Pāḷi account, e.g., that of the Mahāvagga of the Vinayapiṭaka, although it may be noted incidentally that the Gāthās of the Lalitavistara appear more ancient than those in the corresponding Pāḷi texts.

The relation of the Pāḷi tradition to the Lalitavistara is treated of by Oldenberg in Orientalistenkongresse, V 1882, vol. 2, [23] p. 1017 to 1022 and Windisch in Māra and Buddha and Buddha's Birth as well as by Kern in Sacred Books of the East, vol. 21, p. xi ff and last but not least by Burnouf Lotus de la Bonne Loi, p. 864 f.

Pāḷi and Sanskrit go back to an Older Source

The two texts in such cases are not dependent upon each other, but both go back to a common older tradition. But even here the Lalitavistara has much that is wanting in the older accounts. Two episodes in particular are noteworthy. One of these recounts (chapter 8) how the Bodhisattva as a boy is brought by his foster mother to the temple and how all the images of the gods rise up on their pedestals to prostrate themselves at his feet. The other episode (chapter 10) relates the first experience of the Bodhisattva at school.

The Buddha at School

With a suite of ten thousand boys with immense pomp in which the gods participate - eight thousand heavenly damsels for instance scatter flowers before him - the small Bodhisattva celebrates his admission into the writing school. The poor schoolmaster cannot bear the glory of the divine incarnation and falls to the ground. A god raises him up and tranquillizes him with the explanation that the Bodhisattvas are omniscient and need no learning, but that they come to school only following the course of the world. Then the Bodhisattva amazes the schoolmaster with the question as to which of the 64 scripts he was going to instruct him in. And he enumerates all the sixty-four in which are included the Chinese symbols and the script of the Huns - alphabets of which the teacher did not know even the names. Finally with the ten thousand boys he commences his study of the alphabet. With every letter of the alphabet the Bodhisattva pronounces a wise maxim. [24]

According to E. Kuhn, Gurupūjā Kaumudi (p. 116 f.) these two legends of the child Buddha may have served as models for the Gospels Apocrypha which relate similar stories of the child Jesus. The chapter 12 and 13 also contain episodes which are wanting in the other biographies of the Buddha (Winternitz WZKM 1912, p. 237 f.)

Acts of the Buddha

On the other hand in its further course the Lalitavistara narrative (chapters 14-26) deviates only a little from the legend known to us from other sources; the principal events in the life of the Buddha being the four meetings from which the Bodhisattva learns of old age, disease, death and renunciation; the flight from the palace; the encounter with King Bimbisāra; Gautama's years of instruction and his futile ascetic practices; the struggle with Māra; the final illumination and the enunciation of the doctrine to the world at large at the request of god Brahmā. But even here the Lalitavistara is remarkable for its exaggerations. While Gautama, for instance, passes the four weeks after his illumination, in our most ancient account, in meditation under various trees (Mahavagga 1, 1-4, Dutoit Life of the Buddha, p. 66), in the Lalitavistara (p. 377), in the second week, he goes out for a long promenade through thousands of worlds and in the fourth week takes a small walk, which stretches only from the eastern to the western ocean. The last chapter (27) however is once again after the fashion of the Mahāyāna sūtras, a glorification of the book of Lalitavistara itself, and is devoted to the enumeration of the virtues and the advantages which a man acquires by its propagation and reverence.

Component Elements of Lalitavistara

From all these it is quite probable that our Lalitavistara is a redaction of an older Hīnayāna text expanded and embellished in the sense of the Mahāyāna - a biography of the Buddha representing the Sārvāstivāda school. This assumption also explains the nature of the text which is by no means the single work of [25] one author, but is an anonymous compilation in which very old and very young fragments stand in juxtaposition. The book moreover consists, according to its form, of unequal sections, a continuous narrative in Sanskrit prose and numerous, often extensive, metrical pieces in “Mixed Sanskrit.” Only rarely these verses constitute a portion of the narrative. As a rule they are recapitulations of prose narration in an abbreviated and simpler and sometimes also more or less divergent form. Many of these metrical pieces are beautiful old ballads which go back to the same ancient sources as the poems of the Pāḷi Suttanipāta mentioned above. The examples are the birth legend and the Asita episode in chapter VII, the Bimbisāra history in chapter XVI and the dialogue with Māra in chapter XVIII. They, belong to the ancient religious ballad poesy of the first centuries after the Buddha. But several prose passages also, like the sermon at Benares in the XXVIth chapter, are assignable to the most ancient stratum of Buddhistic tradition. On the other hand the younger components are to be found not only in the prose but also in the Gāthās, many of which are composed in highly artistic metres. Such are the Vasantatilaka and Śārdūlavikrīḍita which are tolerably frequent (see the index to metres in Lefmann's edition VII, p. 227 f, and Introduction, p. 19 ff).

Translation into Chinese and Tibetan

We do not know when the final redaction of the Lalitavistara took place. It was formerly erroneously asserted that the work had already been translated into Chinese in the first Christian century. As a matter of fact we do not at all know whether the Chinese biography of the Buddha called the Phuyau-king which was published in about 300 A.D., the alleged “second translation of the Lalitavistara,” is really a translation of our text (Winternitz, WZKM 1912, p. 241 f.) A precise rendering of the Sanskrit text is in the Tibetan, which was only [26] produced in the 5th century. It has been edited and translated into French by Foucaux. It may be taken for certain that a version little different from our Lalitavistara was known to the artists who about 850-900 decorated with images the celebrated temple of Borobudur in Java. For these magnificent scriptures represent scenes in the legend of the Buddha in a manner as if the artists were working with the text of the Lalitavistara in the hand. And Pleyte has simply recapitulated the entire contents of the Lalitavistara as an explanation of the sculptures (The Buddha legend in the sculpture in the temple of Borobudur, Amsterdam, 1901. See also Speyer La Museon 1903, p. 124 ff).

Relation to Buddhist Art

But the artists who embellished the Greco-Buddhistic monuments of Northern India with scenes from the life of the Buddha are also already familiar with the Buddha legend as related in the Lalitavistara. They worked no doubt not after the text, but in accordance with living oral tradition. The harmony, nevertheless, between the sculptures and the Sanskrit text is not rarely of such a character that we must assume that the literary tradition was at times influenced by the artist. Upon art and literature there was mutual influence.

The authorities to be consulted here are L'art Greco-bouddhique du Gandhāra, part I, 324 f. 666 ff; Grunwendel Buddhist Art in lndia, p.94, 04 f, 134; Senart Orientalistenkongresse XIV, 1905, 1,121 ff; and Bloch Zeitschift der Deutschen Morgenlandischen Gesellschaft 62, p. 370 ff.

No Image in Primitive Buddhism

While the ancient Buddhistic art in the time of Aśoka, in the reliefs of Bharhut, Sanchi, etc., knows of no image of the Buddha but only a symbol (e.g., the wheel) for the person of the Founder of the religion, a representation of the Buddha is the principal object of the Gandhāra art. Can it not be connected with this that in the intervening centuries the Buddha became an object of Bhakti and the adoration of the Buddha was pushed into the central point of his religion? Thus there is [27] concurrent testimony that the age of the Gandhāra art, the floruit of which falls in the second century after Christ, was also the period of Mahāyāna texts which treat of the Buddha legend.

“On the grounds of style derived in the first instance from Greco-Roman art the period of the development can only be the period from the birth of Christ to the fourth century.” Grunwendel Buddhist Art in India, p. 81. According to Foucher L'art Greco-bouddhique du Gandhāra, part 1. p.40 ff. the flourishing period of the Gandhāra art coincides with the second half of the second century A.D.

General Estimate of Lalitavistara

It is, therefore, but natural that we should have preserved in the Lalitavistara both the very old tradition, and accounts younger by centuries, of the legend of the Buddha. An important source of old Buddhism it is only there, where it coincides with the Pāḷi texts and other Sanskrit texts like the Mahāvastu. But it is erroneous to regard the Lalitavistara in its entirety as a good old source for our knowledge of Buddhism as does Senart in his ingenious and unsuccessful Essai sur la legende du Buddha, (p. 31 f., 456 f.). Nor does the Lalitavistara give us a clue “to popular Buddhism” of older times as is claimed by Vallee Poussin. It is rather a key to the development of the Buddha legend in its earliest beginnings, in which only the principal events of the life of the great founder of the religion have been adorned with miracles, down to the final apotheosis of the Master in which from start to finish his career appears more like that of a god, above all the other gods. But from the standpoint of literary history the Lalitavistara is one of the most important works in Buddhist literature. It is not indeed a Buddha epic proper, but it embodies all the germs of one. It was from the ballads and episodes which have been preserved in the oldest elements of the Lalitavistara, if probably not from the Lalitavistara itself, that the greatest poet of Buddhism, Aśvaghoṣa, created his magnificent epic called Buddhacarita or Life of the Buddha. [28]