Acts Intro.

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What follows is a draft for a new version of Ashvaghosha's (1st century CE) Buddha-charitra, based on the translation edited by E. B. Cowell (1894) for the Anecdota Oxoniensia series. 

The English language text is usually referred to elsewhere as the Buddhacarita or -karita. The Sanskrit title can be interpreted as Deeds of - , Conduct of -  or even, Virtue of the Buddha.  The first draft was done as an offering for the winter solstice 2001 prayer festival, but it will be some time before a final or finished version is achieved.  

The original contains 28 parts arranged in 4 sections. (There are only 17 in Cowell partly  because he did not have access to the Tibetan version of the text.)  The number 28 is significant in that it can permit the recitation of the poem to take place over one lunar month,  if one chapter is read or recited every day. 

The Sanskrit poem was composed in a courtly, epic style known as kavya which facilitates memorization and recitation through the use of four-line stanzas composed of a pair of couplets.  This form also requires the use of a certain consistent rhythm.  These restrictions impose a certain economy of language  and that, along with the extensive use of allusion and metaphor, were it not for the fact that the Sanskrit language uses cases would sometimes make it quite difficult for us to get the meaning.  

The writer of the version appearing here has not taken liberties with the text intentionally, although explanatory phrases have been inserted beside some of the allusions to Indian culture, geography and mythology.  Where further explanation might be useful, there are links to notes at the foot of the page.

There has been no alteration in the order of the content,  although phrases within a stanza have sometimes been re-arranged where that renders a clearer meaning.  In fact, the intention is primarily to make Ashvaghosa's masterfully vivid epic more accessible, and to a wider range of readers of English, than E. B. Cowell's now old-fashioned and often obscure reading.  Cowell, the 19th-century English translator, was Secretary of the Bengal Asiatic Society, and his version has been the focus for various scholarly articles for over a century but it is outdated in many different ways. 

The work first appeared to the Western and primarily non-Buddhist public as part of The Sacred Books of the East. The editor of that massive project was American scholar, Friedrich Maximilian Müller (1823-1900) who worked in German and English.  

Helpful comments from those familiar with the original Sanskrit text or with the Tibetan translation are certainly welcome.

About Ashvaghosha              [About spelling this name]  

The Acts of Buddha (Buddhacharitra) is attributed to Ashvaghosha, although we cannot really be certain of the author.  For his inspiring contributions which also include another long poem, Saundarananda (The Awakening of Faith, about the conversion of the Buddha’s half-brother, Ananda,) three plays and several hymns, as well as important discourses such as Fifty Verses on Guru Devotion and The Bodhisattva Aspiration, Ashvaghosha is himself included among the Noble Bodhisattvas.

Usually considered a native of Ayodhya in Central India, though he may have been from Shravasti where Shakyamuni often preached, Asvaghosa was a  convert to Buddhism.   Many Tibetans believe he is actually Matricheta, who converted after debating Aryadeva.  Others say he was Parshva, the ninth of twenty-four of the Teacher's direct successors (ie, the 10th Patriarch according to the Ch'an, or Zen tradition) and others, his disciple.

  • Chinese legend of how he earned the name, Ashva-ghosha or "Horsey-voice."

Even in this edited English version of the Acts, we can see that the composer was a gifted poet.  He is believed to have once been a traveling performer -- he is usually called a preacher-musician.   He is considered to be among the teachers from the various sects invited by King Kanishka the First (120 - end of 2nd century C. E.) to instruct him in Buddhism.  

About his Patron

A gold Scythian deer emblem.King Kanishka, perhaps a Scythian, was the most famous of the Kushan rulers with an empire consisting of  Afghanistan (Bactria,) Sind, Punjab and, having beaten even the Parthians (Persians) in battle, portions of that great empire.  His rule extended from the Northwest Frontier and Kashmir over most of the valley of the Ganges, and even included three Chinese provinces:  Tashkand, Khotan and Yarkhand.  He had two capitals, one at Purushpura (Peshawar, now in Pakistan) and another at Mathura in western Uttar Pradesh.  It was under his rule that the famous Gandharan style of art was developed.

Tradition has it that because of disputes among the various Buddhist groups, the king founded a monastery to house 500 monks, and sponsored the 4th Buddhist council which was held at Jalandhar, in Punjab (though some say it was in Kashmir.)  One consequence of the meeting was an agreement on an inclusive biography of the Buddha.  Acts of the Buddha was the result.  

The Sanskrit text by Ashvaghosha is considered the most reliable tale of the life of Buddha, and even early on it was  translated into many languages. As often happens in history, many libraries and temples were destroyed during the various  invasions of India, and sections of the text were thought to have been lost.  Fortunately, some of the missing material was recovered from where it had been safely preserved in Nepal, and in China -- in the monasteries of Tibet. 

It is generally agreed that Valmiki's fourth century BCE Sanskrit version of The Ramayana may have had some influence on the style of The Buddhacharitra, but Ashvaghosha's work certainly had an impact on the popular version of Ramayana -- the one by Tulsidas that appeared a thousand years later.  

  • Valmiki's Ramayana. New Goldman transl. (Vol. 1 of 7.)

A renewed influence was felt on Indian literature in general when the most outstanding Bengali playwright, Girish Chandra Ghose, published a play based upon Buddhadeva-Charita, in 1887. 

"Asvaghosa apparently wrote in quite good Sanskrit, although his standard is not that of Panini. It is nevertheless an authoritative form of Sanskrit which is also found in the epics and the Puranas and is based largely on the spoken usage of the centuries immediately preceding the birth of Christ."

References (other than General References.)

The Buddha-Karita, (translated) in Lucien Stryk, ed., The World of the Buddha: A Reader. Garden City:  Doubleday & Co., 1968.

The Buddha-Karita, trans. Edward Conze, Buddhist Scriptures. Harmondsworth:  Penguin Books, 1959.

de Barry, William Theodore. The Buddhist Tradition in India, China and Japan. NY: Vintage (Random House,) 1969/1972.

de Nicholas, Antonio T.  Meditations Through the Rig Veda. (insight into references to religion of  the Buddha's ancestors.)

Intra-text of Cowell's translation.

Kalupahana, David J. Buddhist Philosophy: A Historical Analysis. (Jaina and pre-Samkhya Hindu thought.) 

Thomas, Edward J. The Life of Buddha as Legend and History. (Ashvaghosha's retelling within the context of Theravada scripture, various commentaries and other works such as the Lalitavistara.)

Prabhupada, Swami. The Bhagavad Gita. without "Purports." Online. (example of translation of classical Sanskrit into English.)


Ashvaghosha The name can be spelled, using various diacritical marks, as:  Asvaghosa, Aswaghosa, or AcvaghosaDr. Ranajit Pal says " the real name of Calanus, Alexander's Guru, was Sphines which is the same as Aspines or Asvaghosa, the great Buddhist scholar."

NB This work is not yet in its final form, but according to international conventions, it is copyrighted.  Please do not circulate it in its rough form.

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