Appendix II. Sūtrālaṅkāra, A Romance of Literature

Prefatory

Truth is often stranger than fiction. The following romantic story is entirely based on facts. It is common knowledge that some time about the fourth Christian century Buddhism was introduced from India into China. A number of sacred Hindu books, mostly Buddhistic but some of them containing most interesting fragments of Brahmanic literature by way of refutation, were translated into Chinese. One of these books is the Sūtralaṅkāra. It comprises a series of Buddhistic sermons in the guise of anecdotes and stories terminating with a moral inculcated by Buddhism. The original was in Sanskrit. Along with a vast number of Sanskrit books that perished in India this book also was considered lost. To the credit of French philological science the Chinese translation of it, which is extant, was identified by the late lamented scholar, Édouard Huber, who died a premature death in French Cochin China, about a couple of years ago. The author of the Sanskrit book of sermons was Aśvaghoṣa. [Editor's note: it appears these days that the Sūtrālaṅkāra is normally attributed to Asaṅga, not Aśvaghoṣa] Being a Buddhist he was more or less completely ignored by Brahmanic writers, except a few who mentioned him only to combat his compositions. Thanks to the late professor Cowell of Cambridge, it is now established that Aśvaghoṣa was not only a great poet and a master of style, whose brilliant diction popularised Buddhism, but was also a model and a pattern, which the better known Kālidāsa was not loth to imitate.

From Sylvain Lévi in Journal Asiatique. July-August, 1908. [178]

The outraged Pandit

Only twenty years ago Aśvaghoṣa figured as no more than a memory in the history of Sanskrit literature. The progress of our studies has suddenly brought him to the front in the premier rank among the masters of Hindu style and thought. Hodgson, who discovered in Nepal the remnants of a Sanskrit Buddhist literature, was acquainted since 1829 with the work of Aśvaghoṣa called the Vajrasūcī or the Diamond Needle. He prepared an English translation of it with the help of an educated Indian, which he published in 1831. It appeared in the Transactions of the Royal Asiatic Society under the title of Disputation respecting Caste, by a Buddhist. Hodgson had vainly searched for information on the age and the country of the author. All that people knew about him in Nepal was that he was a Mahāpandit and that he wrote, besides this little tract, two Buddhist works of greater compass, the Buddhacarita Kāvya and the Nandi-Mukhasughoṣa Avadāna, both highly reputed, and other works. In 1839, Lancelot Wilkinson, the British Agent at Bhopal, printed the Sanskrit text of the Vajrasūcī enriched at the same time with an amusing addition. It was called the Wujra Soochi or Refutation of the Argument upon which the Brahmanic institution of caste is founded by the learned Boodhist! Ashwa Ghosha; also the Tunku, by Soobaji Bapoo, being a reply to the Wujra Soochi, in 1839. Indignant at the attacks by Aśvaghoṣa against the system of castes, the Brahman Soobaji Bapoo in the service of Wilkinson could not bring himself to consent to attend to the Buddhist text except on condition of adding a refutation of it. Aśvaghoṣa might well be proud of it. The point of the Diamond Needle which he flattered himself he had prepared was by no means dulled by the attack of the offended Brahman. Thus the violent Buddhist polemist who [179] had so frequently and so cruelly humiliated the pride of the Brahman once more enters the scene after centuries of silence in the shock of religious controversy.

Buddhist and Brahmanic controversy

Burnouf, to whom Hodgson had generously handed over along with other manuscripts the copy of Vajrasūcī and the Buddhacarita indicated in his Introduction to the History of Indian Buddhism the interest of these two works. He proposed himself to revert to the question of the identity of the author “later on.” The Chinese Buddhistic documents analysed by Rémusat had meanwhile taught that one of the patriarchs of the Buddhist Church, the twelfth since the death of Śākyamuni, had borne the name of Aśvaghoṣa. With his strong common sense Burnouf declined to see in one single personage the patriarch and the author on the faith of a resemblance of names. He was inclined rather to consider the two productions as the work of an ascetic or religious writer of more modern times. Next to Burnouf, the Vajrasūcī had the good fortune to interest another Indianist of equal erudition, Albrecht Weber. In a memoir submitted to the Berlin Academy in 1859, Weber pointed to a Brahmanic recension of the Vajrasūcī. It was classed in the respectable category of Upaniṣads and attributed to the most fortunate and most fierce adversary of the moribund Buddhism of those days, the great Śaṅkara Ācārya. Weber believed himself justified in affirming the priority of the Brahmanic recension; Aśvaghoṣa had carried the war into the territory chosen by the advocates of the Brahmanic institution of castes. In an appendix to his memoir Weber grouped together valuable information on the patriarch Aśvaghoṣa, extracted from Tibetan and Chinese sources which had been communicated to him by the learned Schiefner. The figure of Aśvaghoṣa began to appear in more precise lineaments. [180]

He now emerges as a doctor, musician, stylist and an ingenious controversialist. Above all Aśvaghoṣa seemed to range himself among the entourage of another no less enigmatical celebrity, the great king Kaniṣka, the barbarous ruler who subjugated India about the beginning of the Christian era and who so profoundly affected the historic destinies of the country.

Chinese aid

In 1860 an anonymous German translation, which was in reality made by Benfey, rendered accessible to Indianists the admirable work of the Russian scholar Wassilieff on Buddhism. As familiar with the doctrines, as with the languages of China and Tibet, Wassilieff was able to write vigorously on the influence of Aśvaghoṣa on Buddhist philosophy. In 1869 the History of Buddhism in India by the Tibetan Pandit Tāranātha, translated from the Tibetan by Schiefner, enriched the biography of Aśvaghoṣa with details which were however, of a legendary character. But it confirmed the literary importance of the celebrated doctor. The Tibetan tradition, faithful heir to the Hindu tradition, recognised in Aśvaghoṣa an exceptional personage endowed with such varied gifts that the European critic preferred to divide him into several persons bearing the same name. It is to the English scholar Beal that belongs the honour of resuscitating the literary glory of Aśvaghoṣa. Beal himself has suffered real injustice. Pioneer in bringing to light the immense collection which is incorrectly called the Chinese Dīghanikāya, he succeeded in extracting from it a mass of facts, documents, abstracts, and legends, by which have profited the science of archæology, history and Indian literature and the whole of which has not been to this day arranged sufficiently systematically to attract the attention it deserves. The Chinese experts have ignored the labours of Beal because he [181] laboured with reference to Indian antiquities. The Indianists on the other band, have looked upon him with suspicion because he looked for authentication at the bands of Sinologists alone. People have pointed out his mistakes and blunders. But those only who have tackled Buddhist Chinese know the difficulties which the best of scholars have to encounter. They were rather amazed, let it be said, to Beal’s honour, to see, that, without the knowledge of Sanskrit and without the help of another Indianist, he had committed so few faults. Above all they admire the surety of his grasp which directed his choice in the Chinese chaos. He was only officially called upon to classify the collection of Chinese Buddhism in the India Office and he was struck by the interest of the book Sūtralaṅkāra and its author Aśvaghoṣa. He singled out its merits and even translated several of its stories in a brief series of lectures delivered at the London University in 1882. A little later he published in the Sacred Books of the East (volume XIX) a translation from the Chinese version of the Sanskrit Buddhacarita. Burnouf at the very beginning of the studies which he founded was mistaken, as regards the value of the Sanskrit original. But as soon as new theories on the development of Sanskrit literature and the formation of the Buddhist legends were elaborated, the epic of Aśvaghoṣa on the life of the Buddha did not take long in attracting attention. Fresh indexes came in a little later, to corroborate the attribution of the work to the great Aśvaghoṣa which had remained so doubtful in Burnouf’s judgment.

Japanese co-operation

A Japanese scholar whom Sylvain Lévi considers it an honour to count among his pupils, Rayauon Fujishima, translated in the Journal Asiatique 1888 two chapters, dealing with hymns and the state of Buddhism in India from the memoir of I-tsing. The Chinese pilgrim I-tsing [182] had passed twenty-five years in western countries from 671 to 695, passionately occupied in study, especially the religious discipline of the school of Buddhism to which he belonged, viz., the Mūla-Sarvāstivādis. His testimony deserves our confidence. I-tsing knows only one Aśvaghoṣa, whom he classes, as does also Hiuen-tsiang, another renowned Chinese traveller, among the Suns of the World alone with Nāgārjuna and Deva. This Aśvaghoṣa is the author of “numerous hymns, the Sūtralaṅkāra, and of the poem on the life of the Buddha.” ... I-tsing even gives a summarised analysis of this poem and records that it is studied everywhere in the Five Indias as well as in the Southern Seas (Indo-Asia), because to read Aśvaghoṣa is to be at once educated, instructed and delighted. Now how was a Western scholar to resist such a tempting promise? Here was a unique opportunity for research, Sylvain Lévi knew it was the eve of a momentous literary discovery.

The National Library of Paris possesses a manuscript of the Buddhacarita. Sylvain Lévi copied it and prepared an able edition and translation of it, publishing as a specimen the first canto in the Journal Asiatique. Subsequently he learned that an English scholar of repute, Cowell, professor at the University of Cambridge, had recommended to print in the Anecdota Oxoniensia a complete edition of the same text. With rare chivalry Sylvain Lévi effaced himself before the English scholar. The entire text appeared in England in 1893, soon followed by an English translation. Cowell familiar alike with the classics of India had no hesitation in recognising in Aśvaghoṣa a precursor and even a model of Kālidāsa. He suggested striking similarities to prove that the Ennius of India as he called him had more than [183] once lent his treasures to Virgil. He further established that the authentic work of Aśvaghoṣa stopped with the fourteenth canto and that a later compilator has clumsily fabricated the last three songs with a view to giving a kind of integrity to the mutilated poem. Like the Vajrasūcī, the Buddhacarita became soon the object of close study on the part of the most eminent Indianists, Bühler, Kielhorn, Böhtlingk, Leumann, Lüders, who exercised their ingenuity on the restoration of the corrupted text.

In search of the treasure

The fundamental problem of Hindu chronology led the great French scholar, Sylvain Lévi, a little later, to the Sūtralaṅkāra. In his quest of documents on the Indo-Scythian king Kaniṣka he came upon in the Chinese version two stories which extolled the orthodoxy and the piety of this great king. (Journal Asiatique, 1896-97.) Mastered by the beauty of the work in the Chinese rendering, Lévi did not despair to recover the original Sanskrit in Nepal and he set out on a long and costly voyage from Paris in search of this lost treasure of India. His great efforts, however, ended only in the discovery, in the Himalayan Valley, of another work bearing the same name, of a much later date and of an altogether different nature. Next the indefatigable scholar proceeded to Japan. Here he found no Sūtralaṅkāra in Sanskrit, but was surprised to see a fresh work of Aśvaghoṣa, which was till then unknown in Europe, namely, the Mahāyāna Śraddhotpada, widely read in the schools and monasteries of Japan where it passed for the historic basis of the doctrine of the Great Vehicle. Under the guidance of eminent Buddhist priests of Japan, Sylvain Lévi studied it, comparing with the two Chinese versions and he prepared a French translation of the whole which he brought to Europe. There he had no opportunity of printing it yet. Meanwhile a Japanese scholar, Teitara Suzuki of the Seminary of Kyoto, [184] drawn to America by the movement of neo-Buddhism, published in 1900 at Chicago, under the patronage of Dr. Paul Carus, a faithful translation of this Japanese rendering of the Śraddhotpada. In this tract the polemist of the Vajrasūcī, the story-teller of the Sūtralaṅkāra, and the poet of the Buddhacarita, reveals himself to us in a fresh capacity. Aśvaghoṣa here is a profound metaphysician, the bold originator of a doctrine called into being for the regeneration of Buddhism.

Such a great man could not possibly traverse the stage of this world without leaving in the memory of man unforgettable traces. Shorn of fantastic ornamentation and reduced to its essential lineaments the traditional biography of Aśvaghoṣa may be summed up thus.

Life of Aśvaghoṣa

Aśvaghoṣa appeared a hundred years after the Nirvāṇa of the Buddha according to one Chinese authority; three hundred years after it, according to another; and five or six hundred years after it, according to two other Chinese sources. One source makes it as late as eight hundred even. His birthplace seems to have been Gangetic India, the ancient district of Sāketa or Ayodhya in the Kingdom of Śrāvasti. According to the colophon to the Tibetan version of the Buddhacarita, his birthplace was Pāṭaliputra or Benares. As regards his lineage he was born in a Brahman family, acquiring all the specific education of his caste as well as instruction in general literary arts. According to Hiuen-tsiang his knowledge comprised all that was known. As a musician he invented melodies which were so moving, that they had to be proscribed by the government of the day. As a dialectician he triumphed over all his adversaries. A zealous devotee of the Brahmanic gods, especially Maheśvara, he was converted to Buddhism by Parśva who especially came down from Northern India to win him over to the Buddhist faith. According to others it was Pūrṇa, otherwise [185] known as Puṇyāyaśas. A third source ascribes the honour of his conversion to Āryadeva. Now his fame extended to the limits of India. The King Kaniṣka pushed his arms as far as Sāketa to carry away with him the matchless doctor. Aśvaghoṣa thus became his spiritual adviser and the physician of his soul. If we follow the later version, he refused to repair to the court of the Indo-Scythian himself sending him one of his disciples instead.

The literary remains of Aśvaghoṣa are preserved partly in original Sanskrit, partly in Chinese and partly in Tibetan translation. In Sanskrit we have Buddhacarita which was translated into Chinese between 414 and 421 by Dharmarakṣa. We have also the Vajrasūcī which was translated into Chinese between 973 and 981 by Fa-hien. In passing the Chinese translation describes the Vajrasūcī as a work of Dharmakīrti. The ascription is not improbable, Dharmakīrti, like Aśvaghoṣa, had received first his Brahmanic education. The Tibetan translation has a special interest for Indians in that it has preserved the memory of the important religious controversy against Śaṅkarācārya. The Upaniṣad placed under the name of Śaṅkara marks a phase in this religious struggle. It is possible that Dharmakīrti published a new edition, revised and completed, of the treatise originally composed by Aśvaghoṣa. The problem is highly important for the literary history of India, because Vajrasūcī cites passages from Manu and the Mahābhārata. We can imagine the important consequences of discovering, if we can, the authentic text of Aśvaghoṣa in the original Sanskrit.

Chinese reverence for Sanskrit texts

The works of Aśvaghoṣa, which remain to us both in Chinese and Tibetan translations, are the Gurupañcaśatika, the Daśakuśalakarmapaṭanirdeśa and lastly the exceedingly curious Ghantistotra, which owing most probably to its secret character was not translated but phonetically transcribed in Chinese charac ters. [186] The complete Tibetan title of the Gurupañcaśatika indicates the Tantric character of this work which is evident from its introductory stanzas. Besides, the whole work is replete with reference to the mystical symbols and doctrines of Tantra, the Vajra Maṇḍala, and Abhiśeka. The Chinese version is presented to us as a simple small compilation by the Bodhisattva Aśvaghoṣa. In fact, in the age of Hiuen-tsiang the reputation of Aśvaghoṣa as a magician was established. The Tibetan Tanjur in addition to this contains two tracts which obviously form two halves of a single work, the Sanskrit title of which must have been Saṁvtibodhicittabhāvanārṇopadeśasaṁgraha and the Śokavinodana-aṣṭakṣanakata. The Chinese have preserved several other works of Aśvaghoṣa translated by Paramārtha. Among these the Mahāyānaśraddhortadaśāstra, translated first by Paramārtha in 553 and then again by Śikṣananda between 695 and 700, deserves mention. Finally we have in Chinese the celebrated Sūtralaṅkāraśāstra translated from Sanskrit by Kumārajīva about 405. Besides these we have other productions of Aśvaghoṣa of minor import and doubtful authenticity. Such are the hymns in 150 verses called Śatapaṇcaśatika-Nāmastotra, which is attributed by the Tibetan collection of Tanjur to Aśvaghoṣa, but which Yi-tsing, the author of the Chinese translation, expressly ascribes to Mātceta. In his memoirs Yi-tsing mentions Aśvaghoṣa and Mātceta as two entirely different personages. The celebrated hymn was translated by him from Sanskrit into Chinese at Nālandā, the centre of Buddhistic learning. The Nandimukhaśvaghoṣa Avadāna, imputed by Hodgson to the poet Aśvaghoṣa, has nothing in common with him, except the name of one of the personages, a devotee of the goddess Vasundharā. [187]

Was he a king?

The variety of the classes of literature cultivated by Aśvaghoṣa is perfectly in keeping with the tradition, which makes of this author a contemporary of the king Kaniṣka. As regards the question of the relation between the times of Aśvaghoṣa and Kaniṣka it is not without interest to show, that the excavations at Sarnath have brought to light two documents, issued by a king Aśvaghoṣa. One of these is engraved just on the pillar which bears the edict of Aśoka and is placed immediately after the edict. The other is a simple fragment of a stele. Vogel, who has published the two inscriptions, infers from the paleographic and linguistic characters that this Aśvaghoṣa Rāja is a contemporary of Huviṣka, who succeeded Kaniṣka. We cannot think of an identity, but the name was current in the Indo-Scythian period and the form of the name furnishes a chronological index too often neglected in India. Cunningham found at Kosam, the site of the ancient Kauśambi, a coin of Aśvaghoṣa, and Vincent Smith has described another in the collection of the Asiatic Society of Bengal, on the reverse of which the name of the king is inscribed in the ancient Brahmi characters and on the obverse occurs the bull.

Aśvaghoṣa, therefore, must have appeared at one of those critical periods when there occur political, economical, and social transformation and upheaval in the ideas currently received, and men receive new aspirations, new formalities and new tests. The invasion of Alexander, confined to the basin of the Indus, sufficed to create by a counter-stroke an imperial India under the sceptre of Mauryas on the ruins of the ancient principalities. The invasion of the Scythian hordes, the intrusion of Chinese, Greek and Parthian adventurers carried to the heart of Brahmanic India unknown cults, rites and usages. Buddhism operated upon by contrary forces must have been cleaved into two halves. One section, [188] faithful to the ideal, common to Hindu asceticism, took refuge in the pursuit of personal salvation. The other attracted by the promise of an apostolate, which might extend to the limits of the world, desired an open, active, instructed, and so to say, secular church. The title itself of the Sūtralaṅkāra of Aśvaghoṣa sounds as a programme, and the programme of a revolution. Would not the old patriarchs of the past have shuddered at the idea of embellishing a Sūtra, of re­modelling the work of the Master who “has well said all that he has said”? Aśoka proclaims and perpetuates this belief in the perfection of the Buddha’s speech in the Bhabra edict. Centuries after Aśvaghoṣa, Asaṅga had still more an excuse to adopt the bold expression in his Mahāyāna Sūtralaṅkāra and in his Yogācāryabhūmi-śāstra. There is no question here of equivocation. Alaṅkāra denotes the flowers of rhetoric which India has cultivated with scientific thoroughness and which it has catalogued with the passion of an amateur devoted to the tulips. The Sūtralaṅkāra is the sūtras or Buddhist doctrinal discourses placed in a literary form. It is, as we should say, the Bible for the ordinary people. In this attempt, which was bound to have scandalized the simple souls of the monks, Aśvaghoṣa acquired such reputation that the church ended by soliciting his assistance. The biography of Vasubandhu reports that the president of the council convoked by Kaniṣka sent envoys to find out Aśvaghoṣa, so that he might embellish the Vibhāṣa or commentary on the Buddhist Gospel submitted to the deliberations of the Holy Synod. At that time Aśvaghoṣa was living in Kashmir and when the import of the principles of the commentary was fixed he turned it section by section into literary shape. The composition was completed at the end of twelve years. The literary merits of the Sūtralaṅkāra justify the flattering encomium. They suffice to guarantee the authenticity of the work. Through two successive translations into two such diverse languages as Chinese and [189] French, so far removed from the Hindu genius, the Sūtralaṅkāra preserves its imperishable qualities, the narrative art, the vigorous imagination, the lyrical power and the suppleness of style. To describe Aśvaghoṣa in worthy terms we have only to borrow the beautiful words which he lends to a bhikṣu in the presence of the emperor Aśoka:

“When I speak of the good acts of the Buddha the crowd listen to me with joy. Their faces beam with happiness. Exalting the virtues of the Buddha I have destroyed the heretics. In the front of all men I have expounded the true path, the joy universal. As in the full autumnal moon, all delight in me. To exalt the virtues of the Buddha all the centuries are not sufficient. But I will not stop doing it till my tongue turns dry. For the art of speaking well is my father and I regard eloquence as my mother.”

His method and themes

It was a dangerous undertaking. The literature of instruction borders on the nauseating, and Aśvaghoṣa wanted to instruct at all costs. He did not attempt either to surprise the conscience or to disguise the lesson. This is his process. At first he proposes a moral theme. He illustrates it by a story. If necessary he adds another moral and finally the conclusion. The truths which he inculcates run in a narrow circle. They relate to the power of previous acts or karma, the importance of charity, the respect for observances, the vanity of the world, the errors of heresies, the perfection of the Buddha and the sanctity of the Law. But Aśvaghoṣa was not afraid of rehearsing the same themes. Sure of his art and sustained by an ardent faith be renewed himself without effort. Take only the stanzas on death which are strewn about in profusion over the book. It is doubtful whether a Tertullian or a Bossuet [190] could have spoken with greater grandeur or with a more noble realism. If it is the moral which above all counts for Aśvaghoṣa, he is too much of an artist to sacrifice the narrative, he chooses his subjects in every direction. He treats of all the strata of tradition and every class of society. Sometimes the Buddha himself is a hero of his story. Sometimes it is one of his disciples, or a simple monk, or an outcast caṇḍāla, or a courtesan, or a servant, or a robber, or an emperor.

How can one read without emotion the conversion of Niti, the scavenger, in the 43rd story? He sees the Buddha coming into a street in the town of Śrāvastī, and seized with shame at the sight of his superhuman majesty, flies from street to street and everywhere the Buddha appears before him collected and serene! At last he is caught in a blind alley. Here the Buddha calls him by his name. Could the Buddha call by his name a vile creature like himself? Could it not be that there was another person of the same name with himself? Perhaps the Buddha called the other one. His doubts are set at rest by the Master himself calling upon him to enter religious life, which he does, and the scene ends with the powerful king Praśenajit prostrating himself at the feet of the Buddha and the lowly sweeper, the new convert to Buddhism.

Equally powerful dramatic effect is produced by the 20th story. Frightened and menaced by the success of a Buddhist preacher who captivated crowds and who preached against the joys of the world, “a daughter of Joy” goes with a sumptuous retinue to exercise her charms upon an assembly that had gathered together to hear an exposition of the Law. At her sight the attention of the listeners relaxes. They waver. The preacher, the master of the law, espies the courtesan. No sooner does his glance fall on her, than the skin and the flesh of the woman drop from her. There remain only white bones and discovered intestines. Disgust seizes hold of the spectators. The skeleton joins its [191] ghastly bands to implore pardon. The lesson goes home to the heart of the audience, and the fallen woman is converted.

On another occasion, in the 40th story a robber finishes by blessing the Law. He was passing by the door of a bhikṣu. He knocks at the door. The bhikṣu does not open it. “Pass thy hand,” he shouts to him, “through this small hole and I will give you something.” The robber puts his unsuspecting hand through. The bhikṣu catches hold of it and ties it to a post, takes a stick and starts vigorously belabouring the thief. With the first blow he repeats the first Buddhist formula, “refuge in the Buddha.” The robber hastens to repeat the formula; similarly “refuge in the Law” and “refuge in the community.” Then the thief thinks within himself: “How many formulas of refuge are there with this holy man? If there are many I shall not be able to see any more this India. Assuredly it will mean the end of my life.” When the bhikṣu is satisfied that the transgressor has repented, he initiates him. “The perfect One, the sublime One is really omniscient. If he had taught four formulas of Refuge to his disciples that would have done for me. But the Buddha probably foresaw my case and it was to prevent my death that he has taught his disciples three refuges and not four.” We see that the ardour of faith did not exclude humour from the monastery of the Buddhist.

Authorship established

We have up to now spoken only of the merits of the contents of the translated work of Aśvaghoṣa. A fortunate accident enables us to appreciate at least to some extent the shape of the Sanskrit original. Now we have a large collection of Buddhist tales preserved in Sanskrit. It was discovered in Nepal. It is called the Divyāvadāna. Huber has been able to trace the origins of three of the [192] stories in our Chinese translation of the Sūtralaṅkāra to this Sanskrit Divyāvadāna. All the three stories have for their hero either Aśoka or his spiritual adviser Upagupta. They have found admittance into the Divyāvadāna through the Aśokāvadāna which embodied all the stories of the Aśoka cycle. These fragments in the original Sanskrit sufficiently establish that “the style and the versification of the Sūtralaṅkāra are not unworthy of the author who was the first to compose a Mahākāvya.” Our investigations might proceed further in this direction, if it was necessary to confirm the authorship of the Sūtralaṅkāra. But Aśvaghoṣa has taken the care to put his signature, so to say, to his handiwork after the Hindu fashion. The Sūtralaṅkāra twice cites the Buddhacarita. In the 43rd story Aśvaghoṣa represents the Buddha in one of his begging rounds in Śrāvastī. Here Aśvaghoṣa cannot resist the temptation of recalling a similar scene touching the entrance of the Buddha into Rājagha, “as has been related in the Buddhacarita.” The descriptions in the story and in the Buddhacarita correspond in detail.

In the forty-seventh story the subject of which is the conversion of Upāli, Aśvaghoṣa begins by recalling without apparent reason, the conversion of the three Kāśyapas and their companions, about a thousand people, who followed the Buddha to Kapilavastu “as has been related at length in the Buddhacarita.” The reference has no justification execept as a pretext to bring in the quotation. For the Buddhacarita relates in fact at length the conversion of the Kāśyapas and the arrival of the Master with a following of one thousand men at his natal city. A third time the author follows his own Life of the Buddha, which we know in the original Sanskrit as the Buddhacarita and which in the Chinese is called Fo-pen-hing. The occasion was the lamentation of Sudatta when the Buddha is about to leave [193] Śrāvastī. The Chinese version of the Buddhacarita is the only one which could be used with reference to this part of the Buddha’s career. But it has nothing in connection with this episode. It is to be noted here, that the translator of the Chinese rendering, Kumārajīva, in referring to the Life of the Buddha here does not use the title Fo-pen-hing which he had employed in the two other references we mentioned above. Evidently he has probably in mind another Sanskrit work dealing with the life of the Buddha which also was translated into Chinese.

With Aśvaghoṣa begins the list of the literary writers of India. The only names of authors which to our knowledge preceded him are connected with technical works. And none of them permits of being assigned even an approximately correct date. Hence we can measure the importance of his work, the Sūtralaṅkāra, as the first chronological landmark along with the sister compilation of the Buddhacarita in the nebulous chaos of the literary history of India. The least reliable data which we can extract from them are of inestimable value. Some of the events and facts which we can thus establish with certainty are the following:

The geographical horizon of the Sūtralaṅkāra embraces the whole of India since it stretches as far as Ceylon, but it is the north-western India which alone is placed in full light. In the Gangetic province the author mentions Pāṭaliputra and Mathurā. But in the basin of the Indus be mentions Śakala, Takṣaśilā, Avanti, Aṣmaka, Gandhāra and Puṣkalavati. Two other names are hard to restore to their original shapes from the Chinese translation. The country of Ki-pin, which has so often embarrassed Indologists because it answers at once to Kashmir and to the country of Kapiṣa, permits of being localised in our book with some chance of certainty. For in the seventy-sixth story, the vihāra or the monastery of Revata is situated in this territory. Now the [194] Sanskrit text of the Mahaprajñāpāramitā Śāstra which passes for a compilation of the patriarch Nāgārjuna, and which was translated from Sanskrit into Chinese between 402 and 405 by Kumārajīva, gives the following description of this monastery: –

“The Buddha Śākyamuni resided in Jambudvīpa. He was born in the country Kippi-lo. He travelled much about the six great cities of eastern India. Once upon a time, he started from here for southern India. He lived in the house of the house-holder Koṭikarṇa who received his homage. Once he proceeded for a short time to northern India to the country of the Yuetche to subjugate the Dragon King Apalala and finally he went to the west of the Yuetche to conquer the Rākṣāsī. The Buddha here passed the night in a cave, and to the day the shadow of the Buddha is preserved here. If you enter into it to have a look you see nothing. When you come out of the hole and are at a distance from it you see brilliant signs, as if the Buddha himself were there. He proceeded wishing to visit the King of Ki-pin on the mount of the ṣi Revata. He lived there for a time. He mastered the ṣi. Said the ṣi: ‘I am happy at your arrival. I wish that the Buddha may give me a hair and nail of his in order to raise a stūpa over it for worshipping.’ These have been preserved to this day.”

The Chinese author here adds a note to the effect that at the foot of the mountain is situated the monastery and reproduces what he calls the exact pronunciation.

From the accounts of the Chinese pilgrims who visited India we learn of the miracles performed by the Buddha in the countries beyond the Indus. These are recorded in the Vinaya or the disciplinary code of the Mūla Sarvāstivādis [195] in the section devoted to medicinal herbs. The Divyāvadāna, one of the important Sanskrit Buddhist texts, twice refers to them in the episodes belonging to the cycle of Aśoka, first in the classic story of Paṁśupradāna, and secondly, in the still more celebrated account which has much more of history than legend of Prince Kunāla. In Chinese we have several versions and they reproduce faithfully the catalogue of the miraculous conversions. One of these, which dates from 281-306, fixes also the locality of the occurrence:

“The Bhagavat subjugated and converted the Nāga Apalala in Udyana; the head of the Brahmacāris in Kipin; Caṇḍāla in Kien-to-wei (which we are unable to trace to the Sanskrit original); and Gopāla in Gandhāra.”

In fact, we know from the accounts of the Chinese Voyagers that the Dragon Apalala lived near the source of the Svat and that the cavern of the shadow of the Buddha, which was a witness to the victory of the Buddha over Gopāla, was in the neighbourhood of Nagarahāra near modern Jalalabad, to the west of the confluence of the Svat and the Kabul-rud. The third stage, therefore, has to be looked for in the continuation of the same direction, that is in the country of Kapiṣa. According to Hiuen-tsiang by the side of the shadow cavern there was a stūpa enclosing the hair and nails of the Tathāgata, a frequent appellation of the Buddha. The Kunālāvadāna mentions mount Revataka alongside of Mahāvana which is skirted by the Indus on its right bank below Attok.

The unidentified kingdom of Siu-ho-to, the scene of Story 39, takes us to the same region. It was there that, according to the narrative of the traveller Fa-hien, King Śibi purchased a dove at the price of his own flesh. The touching occurrence is recounted at length in the 64th Story and we know by the researches of Sir Aurel Stein that this is the country which corresponds to the modern Bunner. A [196] further addition to our knowledge of ancient geography is furnished by Story 45. The Chinese Han is undoubtedly the Sanskrit China which takes us to the north of the Himālayas, the tracts subject to Chinese influences. Similarly the Ta-tsin of Story 90 continues the geographical horizon of ancient India towards Hellenic Asia, Ta-tsin being the translation of the Sanskrit Yavana of the Indians. If Aśvaghoṣa was a native of Central India there is no doubt that at the time when he composed his Sūtralaṅkāra he was living on the confines of North Western India.

The personæ of the Story Book

The personages of the Sūtralaṅkāra are most frequently anonymous. They are Brahmans, ascetics, monks, merchants, painters, jewellers, washerman, iron-smiths and so on, giving a clue to the inner life of the great Indian public, as it lived and died in those days, about whom we hear so little in the voluminous religious books of the Brahmans. Sometimes in our collection of sermons the Buddha and his disciples are brought on the scene. Some of the heroes are easily identifiable as historical personages. Aśoka, the great Maurya emperor, is the hero of three tales. He is referred to in a fourth. His spiritual adviser Upagupta, one of the patriarchs of Buddhism, is the hero of another story. Both the ruler and his guide are placed definitely a hundred years after the Buddha. Upagupta became a monk “a hundred years after the disappearance of the Buddha.” Elsewhere we are told that a master of the Law, who had lived in the time of Buddha Kāśyapa, reappeared “a hundred years after the Parinirvāṇa of the Buddha Śākyamuni under the reign of King Aśoka.” This interval of one century we find to be also fixed by a prophecy occurring in the Vinaya or the disciplinary code of the Mūla Sarvāstivāda in which we are told that Aśoka must take birth a hundred years after the Parinirvāṇa. [197] Kaniṣka himself is the hero of two of the stories (14 and 31). In these he plays an instructive and honourable part. In the first he addresses a lofty lesson of charity to his minister Devadharma. In the second, deceived by his piety, he salutes what he considers to be a stūpa of the Buddha, but in reality pays homage to a Jain one, which immediately breaks to pieces “because it did not deserve the homage of a king.” The first episode takes place when Kaniṣka proceeds to the city which bears his name, the city of Kaniṣkapura founded by the Indo-Scythian king in Kashmir. To this day it bears the name in a scarcely altered form Kanispore. It is situated to the south-west of Lake Woollar in the Baramula defile (Stein, Rāja-Taraṇginī, vol. II, p.22). The presence of Kaniṣka in the Sūtralaṅkāra does not seem to contradict the unanimous tradition which attaches Aśvaghoṣa to the court of Kaniṣka. It is permissible to recognise in these two stories a delicate homage, which is by no means flattery addressed by the Buddhist doctor to the protector of his church. Story 15 is founded on the traditional avarice of King Nanda, who ruled over Gangetic India at the time of the invasion of Alexander and who preceded the Maurya dynasty. He had for his minister Vararuci whom we find in the introduction to the Bhatkathā. It is not without interest for literary history to see the tradition fixing the epoch of Aśvaghoṣa. Vararuci is in fact one of the great names of the literary tradition of India. He is the reputed author of a number of books of diverse classes, but especially of a grammar of the Prakrit languages called Prakta-Prakāśa. The Bhatkathā identifies him with Katyāyana and mixes up in his adventures two other personages connected with ancient Hindu grammar, Vyadi and Pāniṇī. The Tibetan Tanjur preserves a collection of a hundred stanzas called the Śatagāthā under the name of Vararuci.

Finally, Sylvain Lévi has found in the Mahāyānavataraśāstra, which [198] was translated into Chinese between 397 and 439, several stanzas of a Buddhacarita as composed by the bhikṣu Vararuci. By the way, these stanzas refer to a transcendent Mahāyāna. One of them tells us that all the Śākyas, including not only disciples like Ānanda and Aniruddha, but the inveterate enemy of the Buddha, Devadatta, are everyone of them Bodhisattvas. Another stanza speaks of the two kinds of avidya or ignorance, the one mundane and the other super­mundane. Our anthologies quote a dozen of the stanzas as the work of Vararuci, and the Mahābhaṣya mentions a poem by Vararuci, Vararuci Kāvya (Pāniṇī 4, 3, 101). It is most significant to find in this story of the Sūtralaṅkāra, that Vararuci addresses these stanzas to the King Nanda, which have a great resemblance to the style of Aśvaghoṣa, with his favourite regular refrain. The princes mentioned in our story-book which remain unidentified are Induvarma and Suryavarma of Avanti, with their ministers Baudhāyana­mitra, Sudravarma of Śakala, Vallabha of Mathurā, and a prince whose name cannot be successfully retraced from the Chinese to the original Sanskrit, a prince who belonged to Takṣaśilā, which the Greeks called Taxila, the spot marked by today’s village of Sarai-kala, one hour’s journey from Rawalpindi, which has yielded to the archæological excavators magnificent specimens of Græco-Buddhistic art.

The grade of civilisation

The social condition of India, as represented in the Sūtralaṅkāra, had attained a high standard of civilisation. There was intense intellectual activity throughout the country. The great Brahmanic epics were already known. Aśvaghoṣa’s other work the Buddhacarita, is also familiar with both the Rāmāyana and the Mahābhārata. There are references to the Kings Nahuṣa, Yāyati, Sāgara, Dilipa. The edifying importance of this Brahmanic [199]

poem seems to be taken as admitted. A simple headman of an Indian village in what are Central Provinces listens to the recital of the Mahābhārata and the Rāmāyana delivered by the Brahmans. Attracted by their promise, which guarantees the heaven to the brave, who die in the battle, as well as to the pious men who burn themselves, he prepares at once to mount a burning pile of wood. Fortunately for him a Buddhist bhikṣu turns up and demonstrates to him the futility of the promise of the Brahmans and eventually succeeds in converting him to Buddhism. The philosophical doctrine of the Saṁkhyā and the Vaiśeṣika schools have already been constituted in their manuals. Aśvaghoṣa combats these Brahmanical dogmas with incisive vigour. He attacks the gods of the Brahmans and exposes their weaknesses with remorseless vigour. He shows them up as violent and cruel. Their power is only due to their good karma. The tradition, that Aśvaghoṣa himself was a worshipper of Maheśa and latterly turned a Buddhist, is derived probably from the first story in the collection, in which an adherent of the sect of Maheśa renounces it for Buddhism. Among the religious sects of non-Buddhistic persuasion are the Nirgranthas or Jainas, the adversaries whom Aśvaghoṣa detests with greater virulence than Brahmans. In one story the King Kaniṣka is made to be enraged against the Jaina rivals of the Buddhists. From the inscriptions at Mathurā we learn, that the Jainas were flourishing under the Indo-Scythian kings. The number of the sects, which were considered heretic, attests the religious activities of the times. Aśvaghoṣa enumerates quite a number of them. The ornate diction, which Aśvaghoṣa was the first to venture to apply to the otherwise insipid sūtras of the Buddhists, no doubt flourished amongst the non-Buddhistic creeds. In one place the king Aśoka is made to say: “The heretics are able exponents of literary adornment and rhetoric.” The Brahmans still love to [200] preserve the monopoly of grammar and writing, but already “the other castes also possess the science.” Literature seems to have entered into daily life. “The teaching of the Buddha has spread through writing over the world”. It is most remarkable, that the civilisation of India could boast of the use of Palimpsests. One of the most charming stories mentions them. Up to now we had no other indication from any source whatever, that the Hindus, like the Greeks, used this material for writing. This is an indication, which will have to be reckoned with in our study of ancient manuscripts of India.

The Arts

The arts were fully flourishing at the period. Comedians are frequently mentioned.

In one story a pathetic instance of a painter’s piety is afforded. He belonged to Puṣkalavati and had gone on business to the country of Aṣmaka, where he was decorating a monastery.

In one story we meet with an inebriated artist who, on coming to his senses, destroys the lamentable production of his hour of drunkenness and proceeds to produce some excellent work.

In one place the king Śibi, who had disfigured and mutilated himself with his own hands to offer the members of his own body in charity, is compared to a beautiful statue disfigured by rain.

In another place we have an exhaustive catalogue of the number of sciences, which an accomplished heir to the throne was expected to possess. The list differs from the sixty-four classical arts mentioned in another place. It is of particular interest and may be reproduced in full.

“The Veda, archery, medicine, sacrifices, astronomy, grammar, the origin of writing, the performance of sacrifices, eloquence, rhetoric, the art of love, interest, purity of families, the ten names, computation, chess, dice, the study of origins, music and song, the art of playing on the conch, [201] dancing and laughter, the art of the prestidigitarian, education, the making of garlands of flowers, massage, the science of precious stones and valuable materials for clothing, silk, sealing, weaving, wax work, strategy, sewing, sculpture, painting, literature, arrangement of garlands, interpretation of dreams, interpretation of the flight of birds, horoscopes of boys and girls, the training of elephants, the art of playing on the tambourine, the rules of battle array, the domesticating of horses, the carrying of lance, jumping, running and fording a river.”

Vindication of a neglected School

Whatever the interest of the Sūtralaṅkāra in connection with its title, it is as a Buddhistic document that it is of capital importance. The study of Buddhism is even to this day unconsciously vitiated by the rivalry of two traditions, that of the north and of the south; the one founded on Sanskrit, quasi-Sanskrit, Chinese and Tibetan texts, the other based on the Pāḷi texts. The genius of Burnouf knew how to maintain an equilibrium between the two competitors. Since his days all manner of factors have conspired to disturb the equipoise. In spite of worthy resistance, Pāḷi orthodoxy has usurped the science of Buddhism. Ceylon, the cradle of Pāḷi, has been regarded as the authentic heir to the Master’s doctrine disfigured by the rival tradition. The work of Aśvaghoṣa brings forward fresh information for a process of revision of our judgment. Expressly inspired by the original sūtras, nourished by the words of the Buddha, which he quotes on every page, he places before us in full light the condition of the Buddhist canon at the court of the barbarian prince, under whose auspices the text of the northern canon is alleged to have been settled about the beginning of the Christian era. It is therefore proper that we should analyse one by one the stories in this collection of sermons for the purposes of our enquiry. [202]

Preserved in China though lost in India

With the invocation, with which according to the Buddhistic usage he opens his Sūtralaṅkāra, Aśvaghoṣa makes his profession of faith. Like all the Buddhists, in the first place he adores the Three Jewels, viz., the Buddha, the Law and the Community. Next he addresses his homage to the assembly of the Sa-po-che-po, which is the transcription in Chinese symbols of the Hindu term Sarvāstivādi, which means “those who believe in the existence of everything.” This transcription differs somewhat from the more usual and more correct one. But we have to remember that the monk who translated the original Sanskrit into the Chinese, Kumārajīva, was an inhabitant of Karashar, in Chinese Turkestan, and that he had never been to India so that his Sanskrit pronunciation was naturally not of the best. Sylvain Lévi carefully explains the process by which the Indian, Central Asian and Chinese Buddhists evolved a system of transliteration of Hindu names in the terms of the Chinese symbols. The Sarvāstivādi school was one of the most prosperous in the world of Buddhism. It was a powerful throughout India, but the Chinese pilgrims found it equally flourishing in Central Asia and in the Indian Archipelago. The Vinaya, or the disciplinary code of this school, which is generally known as the Vinaya of the Ten Recitations, was translated into Chinese as early as 404. The translator was just our Kumārajīva who had a collaborator in Puṇyatara. We may note in passing, that another branch of the same school, which was called the primæval Sarvāstivādis, Arya-mūla-Sarvāstivādis, possessed an enormous Vinaya in Sanskrit, which was translated into Chinese under the direction of the famous I-tsing between 703 and 710 and a century later into Tibetan. It is a noteworthy coincidence in the history of Buddhistic researchers, that Edouard Huber and Sylvan Lévi, both French scholars, at one [203] and the same time, working independently, discovered fragments of this Vinaya in their original form in the Sanskrit Divyāvadāna.

His renowned predecessors

Aśvaghoṣa mentions some of his illustrious predecessors and pays homage to them along with the Sarvāstivādi saṁgha. He invokes “the bhikṣus Fou-na and Parśava, the masters of the śāstras Mi-tche.” Sylvain Lévi corrects this translation of Huber’s and brings to light some of the renowned among Aśvaghoṣa ‘s predecessors. The Chinese symbols Fou-na might represent the Sanskrit Pūrṇa, the fuller transcription of which in Chinese is Fou­louna. It frequently occurs in the name of Pūrṇa Maitrāyaniputra. Further the same symbols in the same Sūtralaṅkāra serve to transcribe the name, in an authentic and incontestable manner, of the disciple Pūrṇa (p. 325). Now Pūrṇa is not an unknown personage. Both the Sanskrit and the Tibetan tradition regard Pūrṇa as the author of the Dhātukāyapada, one of the seven classics of the Abhidharma of the Sarvāstivādis. The work was translated into Chinese by Hiuen-tsiang who attributes it to Vasumitra, the president of the Council convoked by Kaniṣka (Takakusu, p. 75, 108). This substitution is significant. For thus Pūrṇa enters into the group of the doctors patronised by the Indo-Scythian school. On the other hand, the learned Tibetan Bu-ston mentions Pūrṇika assisted by Vasumitra and five hundred arhats, at the head of the redactors of the canon fixed by the Council of Kaniṣka (Schiefner, p. 298). Pūrṇika is another form of the name Pūrṇa. The two doctors, therefore, again come in contact. But Wassilieff who translated this passage from Bu-ston added in parenthesis next after the name of Pūrṇika: (Parśvika). Sylvain Lévi not having the text of Bu-ston is unable to state whether Bu-ston or Wassilieff is responsible for this. However, this time again we [204] we meet Pūrṇa and Parśva associated as in the Sūtralaṅkāra. Hiuen-tsiang mentions in Kashmir a convent where Pūrṇa, the master of the śāstras, composed a commentary on the Vibhāṣaśāstra. The Vibhāṣaśāstra was the principal work of the Council of Kaniṣka. It was for the editing of it that Aśvaghoṣa was officially requisitioned. We are still in the same circle of authors and their works; but we might go further and take a more decisive step. A learned Chinese in a compilation of about 520 drew up two lists slightly divergent representing the filiation of the Sarvāstivādi doctrine. Aśvaghoṣa figures in both. In one list he occurs twice. List No. 1 has Katyāyana, Vasumitra, Kṣṇa, Parśva, Aśvaghoṣa, Kumārata, Vīra, Ghoṣa, Pūrṇa, Aśvaghoṣa. List No. 2 comprises Katyāyana, Vasumitra, Kṣṇa, Parśva, Aśvaghoṣa, Ghoṣa, Pūrṇa.

Thus we meet with Pūrṇa in the authentic tradition of the Sarvāstivādis alongside of Aśvaghoṣa, either as the second successor of the first Aśvaghoṣa or as the predecessor of the second. And he occurs again in a similar disguise, which has thrown sinologists off the scent. Since the beginning of Chinese and Buddhist studies Rémusat drew up a list of thirty-three primæval patriarchs which he had abstracted from a Japanese cyclopædia (Melanges asiatiques 1,113).

This list having become classical has been reproduced by Lassen in his Indian Antiquity (vol. 2, supplement 2). Since then the Sanskrit transcriptions of Chinese names communicated by Stanislaus Julien to Lassen have been regarded as authoritative. The best of the Sanskrit-Chinese scholars Eitel, Edkins, Nanjio have tamely copied them. This list has: Parśvika, Puṇyāyaśas, Aśvaghoṣa. [205]

The original Chinese from which Julien restored Puṇyāyaśas is Fou-na-yache. This is in fact the name of the eleventh patriarch mentioned in a history of Buddhism written in 1345. But we have a list of patriarchs of a much more ancient date in a Sanskrit work translated into Chinese in 472. Here the person placed between Parśva and Aśvaghoṣa is Fou-na-che. In this Fou-na is quite positive. The transcription proposed by Julien is inadmissible. Puṇyāyaśas will not do. The correct restoration is Pūrṇa which is a customary abbreviation of a type known in grammar as bhimavat, of either Pūrṇaṣa or Puṇyāyaśas. Now both the Chinese works just mentioned attribute the conversion of Aśvaghoṣa to Puma, while the biography of Aśvaghoṣa ascribes it to Parśva. Once more we find Pūrṇa and Parśva in close association just as in the invocation in the Sūtralaṅkāra. They are so closely allied in fact, that one of them is substituted for the other.

Parśva or Parśvika is better known. There is no equivocation regarding his personality. Both the Chinese Hiuen-tsiang and the Tibetan Tāranātha attest the preponderating influence which he exercised on Kaniṣka and the part which he took in the convocation of the Council as well as in the compilation of the works. He was a native of Gandhāra. The convent built for him by Kaniṣka where he resided in Kashmir was shown to the pilgrim. It had a commemoration tablet. He frequently bears the title of bhikṣu which is also attached to his name in the Sūtralaṅkāra. Further he is also styled the Elder as in the biography of Aśvaghoṣa.

As regards Mi-tche, Sylvain Lévi again differs from Huber. According to the former it is derived from the Sanskrit Mecha. He is designated as the sixth patriarch. Lassen on the authority of Julien establishes the hypothetical Sanskrit name Micchaka, but this word is not known in Sanskrit. Wassilieff has corrected the transcription in Mechaka. Mechaka [206] is the predecessor of Vasumitra, the president of the Council of Kaniṣka, and Vasumitra is separated from Parśva by two patriarchs, namely, Buddha Nandi and Buddha Mitra. In the lists of the Sarvāstivādi filiation Mechaka occupies quite a different rank. In both the lists Mechaka floats in the neighbourhood of Aśvaghoṣa. Thus the name is proved to be Mechaka and the invocation may be established to be addressed to Pūrṇa, Parśva, and Mechaka, the masters of the Śāstras. These three predecessors of Aśvaghoṣa are all of them glorious adepts of the Sarvāstivādi school. Reverence to them shown by Aśvaghoṣa further evinces, that the author of the Sūtralaṅkāra was an adherent of the same school.