Home Ancient History Buddhist Literatures : Learn A to Z in one post.

Buddhist Literatures : Learn A to Z in one post.

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Buddhist Literatures : Learn A to Z in one post.

Buddhist Literature is one of the favourites topic for any competitive examinations. Hence it is very difficult to get the complete basics at one place.

Here we have compiled notes in simple languages form different famous sources. Also they are provided in PDF form at the end of the post you can download and print for yourself for studying.

Buddhist Literatures


Early Buddhist literature is generally divided into canonical and non-canonical texts.

What are Canonical Texts?

Canonical texts are the books that lay down the basic tenets and principles of a religion or sect. The various Buddhist schools classify their canonical literature in different ways, some into 9 or 12 Angas, others into 3 Pitakas.

There are Pali, Chinese, and Tibetan versions of the Tipitaka (The Three Baskets/ Collections).

The Pali Tipitaka of the Theravada school is the oldest of them all. Pali was a literary language that developed out of a mixture of dialects, particularly those spoken in the Magadha area of eastern India.

The Tipitaka consists of three books—the Sutta, Vinaya, and Abhidhamma. In the Buddhist context, sutta (from the Sanskrit sutra) refers to texts that are supposed to contain what the Buddha himself said.

The three Pitakas are divided into books known as the Nikayas (analogous but not identical to the Agamas of the Buddhist Sanskrit tradition). For instance, the Sutta Pitaka consists of five Nikayas—the Digha, Majjhima, Samyutta, Anguttara, and Khuddaka Nikayas.

Tipitaka consists of three books

The Sutta Pitaka

The Sutta Pitaka contains the Buddha’s discourses on various doctrinal issues in dialogue form. Except for a few suttas, the authority of this work was accepted by all Buddhist schools.

Five Nikaya or collections. Of aphorisms, precepts, and discourse for the laity.

  1. Digh-Nikaya-origin of the universe, rebirth, asceticism, miracles m nirvana, nheresy, condemnation of caste and an account of Buddha’s last speeches and his death and the funeral ceremonies.
  2. Majjhima-Nikaya: relation of Buddha to the Jainas and other sections. Various forms of asceticism, punishment in case of offenses
  3. Samyutta-Nikaya-riddles, ballads, last saying of budda
  4. Anguttara-nikaya-Collection of sermons, also 16 Mahajanapadas.
  5. Khuddaka-Nikaya-comprising fifteen books, the essence of Buddhism.
  • Khuddakapath-for young people joining sangha.
  • Dhammapada (the Law path): Saying of Budda
  • Udana story of a blind person touching an elephant.
  • Itivuttaka: highlights problems of human existence.
  • Suttanipata: origion of Buddhism and socio religion conditions.
  • The Buddhavamsa: 24 buddhas who preceded Buddha.
  • The Theragatha: Songs of Elders
  • The Therigaha: Songs of lady Elders.

The Vinaya Pitaka:

The Vinaya Pitaka (403 BCE) has rules for monks and nuns of the sangha (monastic order). It includes the Patimokkha—a list of transgressions against monastic discipline and atonements for these.

Its 1st Part contains: Rules for admission to the monastic order, the mode of life during the rainy season, regulations on a dress, and personal hygiene.

2nd part: Edifying Buddhist stories, duties for monks and nuns methods of settling disputes among monks, expiation, and penances.

The Abhidhamma Pitaka

The Abhidhamma Pitaka is a later work and contains a thorough study and systemization of the teachings of the Sutta Pitaka through lists, summaries, and questions and answers.

This contains a supplementary philosophical dissertation and exposition of the finer points of Mind training. psychology.

It contains a total of seven books: and two famous books among them are:

  1. Dhammasangani (350 BE) provides a good exposition of Buddhist philosophy, psychology, and ethics.
  2. Kathavattu (or Vinnanapada), ascribed to moggaliputta.

The Jatakas—stories of the previous births of the Buddha—are one of the 15 books of the Khuddaka Nikaya, and their composition can be placed between the 3rd century BCE and the 2nd century CE.

The Khuddaka Nikaya also contains the Dhammapada (a collection of verses dealing mainly with ethical sayings), and the Theragatha and Therigatha (songs of Buddhist monks and nuns).

The Therigatha, which describes women’s experience of renunciation, is especially important because it is one of the very few surviving ancient Indian texts composed by or attributed to women.

Do you know?
According to Buddhist tradition, the Sutta and Vinaya Pitakas were recited at the first council of monks at Rajagriha immediately after the Buddha’s death, and 100 years later at the second council at Vaishali.

But their composition must have extended over several centuries, up to the time of the third council convened in the 3rd century BCE during the reign of Ashoka.

The composition of the basic core of the Pali Tipitaka can therefore be placed between the 5th and 3rd centuries BCE. The canon is supposed to have been written down in the first century BCE in Sri Lanka under the patronage of a king named Vattagamani, by which time it must have undergone further modifications.

Non-canonical Buddhist literature in Pali includes: the Milindapanha (1st century BCE–1st century CE) which consists of a dialogue on various philosophical issues between king Milinda—no doubt the Indo-Greek Menander —and the monk Nagasena.

The Nettigandha or Nettipakarana (The Book of Guidance) belongs to the same period and gives a connected account of the teaching of the Buddha.

Commentaries on the Tipitaka include a 5th-century work by Buddhaghosha.

The first connected life story of the Buddha occurs in the Nidanakatha (1st century).

The Pali or Sri Lankan chronicles—the Dipavamsa (4th–5th centuries) and the Mahavamsa (5th century)—contain a historical-cum-mythical account of the Buddha’s life, the Buddhist councils, the Maurya emperor Ashoka, the kings of Sri Lanka, and the arrival of Buddhism on that island.

Apart from texts in Pali, there are several Buddhist works in Sanskrit and is a mixture of Prakrit and Sanskrit that is often referred to as Buddhist Sanskrit or Buddhist Hybrid Sanskrit.

The trend towards the use of Sanskrit intensified in the Mahayana schools, but some non-Mahayana texts were also composed in Sanskrit or mixed Prakrit-Sanskrit. For instance, the canon of the Sarvastivada school is in Sanskrit.

The Mahavastu, which has some Mahayana elements, gives a hagiography (sacred biography) of the Buddha and describes the emergence of the monastic order in mixed Sanskrit–Prakrit.

The Lalitavistara (1st–2nd centuries), a hagiography of the Buddha associated with the Sarvastivada school but strongly tinged with Mahayana elements, is in Sanskrit and mixed Prakrit-Sanskrit.

Sanskrit Buddhist texts: It include Ashvaghosha’s Buddhacharita (1st/2nd century) and the Avadana texts. The latter contains stories of noteworthy deeds with a moral; they include the Avadanashataka (2nd century) and the Divyavadana (4th century) which have stories connected with the Buddha and the Maurya emperor Ashoka.

The 1st-century Ashtasahasrika-prajnaparamita and Saddharma-pundarika offer accounts of the various Buddhas, bodhisattvas (future Buddhas), and Mahayana doctrines.

Later works of Mahayana thinkers such as Nagarjuna, Vasubandhu, Asanga, Aryadeva, Buddhapalita, and Dignaga are all in Sanskrit.

Buddhist texts are important sources for the history of Buddhism, its doctrines, monastic order, and royal patrons such as Ashoka, revealing many other facets of the polity, society, and economy of their times as well. They offer a non-Brahmanical window into ancient India; however, the Brahmanical perspective is replaced by a Buddhist one.

Sanskrit literature: Sutras

a) Sukhavatiyouha: Dealing with the subject of salvation through faith in Amitabha

b) The Vajrachhedika or the Diamond Sutra, the doctrine of Sunyata and clarifies several other concepts central to Mahayana.

c) The MahapariNirvana, delivered by Buddha just as he was about to enter nirvana.

d) The Landkavataara (400AD), supposedly written by Vasubandhu, teaches the ultimate reality of the Mind alone

e) The Surangama outlines the means of attaining enlightenment by concentration and meditation and superconscious intuition in the form of a dialogue between Buddha and the errant Ananda who had been lured by the larlor Chitta. Many of them were translated into Chinese and Japanese languages.

More Topics on Ancient History:

Sources of HistoryBuddhism
JainismVedic Age
Indus Valley CivilizationLater Vedic Age
Persian and Greek InvasionMauryan Age
Post Mauryan IndiaGupta Age
Post Gupta AgeEarly Medieval India

Credit Sources/References

01History of Ancient and Early medieval India by Rupinder Singh.
02https://www.gktoday.in/topic/buddhist-literature/
03https://www.britannica.com/topic/Buddhism/The-major-systems-and-their-literature
04https://www.encyclopedia.com/religion/encyclopedias-almanacs-transcripts-and-maps/pali-buddhist-literature
05https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Buddhist_texts
06Pratik Nayak Youtube videos and ppt.

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