Buddha-Carita | Aśvaghoṣa

The Buddha-Carita, or The Life of Buddha
by Aśvaghoṣa

The Buddha-carita (Buddha’s Life) is a complete biography of Buddha Śākyamuni, from his birth until after his death, when his relics were distributed.

The text was composed by Aśvaghoṣa (early 2nd century C.E.), the main author of Kāvya literature (poetic prose or ornate poetry) before Kālidāsa (late 4th –early 5th century C.E.).

The text of Buddha-carita consists of twenty-eight chapters in both the Tibetan and Chinese translations, but of the original Sanskrit text only fourteen chapters are preserved. Hence, in the following translated text the first 14 chapters are translation from the original Sanskrit and chapters 15-28 are translations from Chinese translation.

The author, Aśvaghoṣa, was a Brāhman from Sāketa in Central India who converted to Sarvāstivāda Buddhism. His mother’s name was Suvarṇākṣī but we know little of his life. He was deeply influenced by the ideas of the Mahāsanghikas.

Aśvaghoṣa (ca. 100 C.E.) was a Sanskrit poet and dramatist:

As is the case with nearly all the writers of ancient India, legend and fictional story take the place of biographical fact, but the association of Aśvaghoṣa with the Kushan king Kaniṣka is at least chronologically possible.

Aśvaghoṣa is the author of 2 long poems, among the earliest extant in Sanskrit:

1. Buddha-Carita (Acts of the Buddha) and
2. Saundarananda, about the conversion of the Buddha’s half-brother Nanda.

Fewer than half of the 28 cantos of the Buddha-Carita survive complete in the original Sanskrit, bringing the story only as far as the Buddha’s Enlightenment, but Tibetan and Chinese translations preserve the entire work.

Only fragments survive of Aśvaghoṣa’s 9-act play, Śāriputra-prakaraṇa (The Matter [or Drama] of Śāriputra), about the conversion of Śāriputra and Mahā Maudgalyāyana, later to become 2 of the Buddha’s main disciples.

Of the other works attributed to Aśvaghoṣa, only the fragments of another drama are likely to be his.

The profound knowledge of Brāhmaṇa lore displayed in his writing supports the Chinese tradition that he was born a Brahman and only later converted to Buddhism.

Conversion is the main theme of 2 of his works and also figures prominently in the third:

His avowed purpose in writing was to win converts to the Buddha’s teaching by the charm of his art and the intensity of his conviction.

Aśvaghoṣa’s fame as a writer and the legend of his life contributed to his renown in East Asia and resulted in a number of works, even with some works falsely ascribed to him.