A Summary of the Mahāvastu
by B C Law
A synopsis of one of the most important early Buddhist texts outside the Pāḷi canon.
with a note by
Dr. A. Berriedale Keith
originally published as
A Study of the Mahāvastu by
Thacker, Spink, & Co, Calcutta and Simla: 1930
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Note to the Digital Edition
This book was originally titled A Study of the Mahāvastu by its author Bimala Churn Law. However, it does not so much study the text, as summarise it, and I have therefore renamed the digital edition to reflect the actual contents of the book.
The work was largely prepared by Donny Hacker from a text that had been OCRed from a pdf, and most of the credit for this being published online now must go to him.
In going through it while preparing the final edition I found there were many wrong transliterations that had been printed by Law in his original edition, which I have quietly corrected according to the text of Mahāvastu.
Law’s English was occasionally wanting, not in any major way, but in numerous small ways, which I have also corrected; and I have also converted some references that Law chose to print in the text itself into footnotes, which is where they more properly belong.
Law printed his Part II as one long collection of Stories, but upon examination it turned out these were two groups, one of Jātaka Stories, the other, Stories of the Disciples. I have redivided and retitled the text to reflect this.
Because of these changes, although they make no difference to the substance of the text, anyone wishing to quote the book would be better to check it against the original printed edition, or a pdf copy of such.
Introduction (by B C Law)
The Mahāvastu or an encyclopaedia of Buddhist legends and doctrines is one of the important books of Mahāyāna Buddhist literature. Thanks to the untiring zeal and indefatigable labour of the French savant, Mon. E. Senart, who first undertook to edit the book in three big volumes with useful introductions to them written in French. The book is now out of print and is very difficult to be had.
Mahāvastu literally means a great thing. The prose portions of the text are written in mixed Sanskrit while the poems are written more in Prākrit than in mixed Sanskrit. No doubt the language is “an arbitrary and unstable mixture of Sanskrit, Pāli and Prākrits.” In many places it is difficult to arrive at the correct interpretation. The arrangement of the topics discussed in the book is most disorderly and the text is full of repetitions.
It contains an account of Buddha’s life and teachings together with the stories of his previous births. Besides, several knotty points of Buddhism and Buddhist philosophy are treated in it.
It claims to be a book of the Vinaya Piṭaka according to the Lokottaravādins, a branch of the Mahāsaṅghikas. It contains very little of the rules of the Vinaya. It undoubtedly requires care and patience to go through the entire text and give a substance of it – a task which I have attempted in this book.
Dr. A. Berriedale Keith has laid me under a debt of obligation by specially writing a valuable note containing many points of importance connected with a study of the Mahāvastu. For illustrations and for kind permission to reproduce them, I am grateful to the Director-General of Archaeology, India. Editor’s note: necessarily omitted in the digital edition.
Bimala Churn Law
43, Kailas Bose Street,
Calcutta, 17th March, 1930
last updated: October 2016