Re-Discovering Treasure: Aśvaghoṣa’s Buddhacarita Chapter 15

It is a scholar’s dream – to re-discover some fascinating old manuscript or long-lost great work. In 1946, Bedouin shepherds discovered what would become famous as the Dead Sea Scrolls. Before that, in 1907, the archaeologist Aurel Stein negotiated with Wang Luanlu, the guardian of a cave on the Silk Road in China, to look at some 1500 year-old manuscripts that Wang had found hidden behind a wall. So the Dunhuang manuscripts were re-discovered, including the earliest printed book, the Diamond Sutra, from 868. In the last twenty or thirty years, fragments of ancient Buddhist manuscripts have been re-discovered in Afghanistan, ancient Gandhāra, and have given scholars decades of work, which gives them access to the oldest Buddhist manuscripts in existence, revealing much about early Buddhist literature.[1]

The second-century Buddhist poet, Aśvaghoṣa, wrote several poetic epics, or kāvya, including the Buddhacarita, or ‘Life of the Buddha’. Aśvaghoṣa was a Brahman convert to Buddhism, who came from Sāketa (modern day Ayodhya) in north-west India. Having been brought up as a brahman, then having converted to Buddhism, Aśvaghoṣa portrayed the Buddha as the epitome and completion of brahmanic culture. So the poem is a celebration of Indian religious culture, which places the Buddha’s discovery and teaching of Awakening at its very summit. He is also a marvellous poet, with a natural and vigorous style and a particular way of using imagery, which had an influence on later poets writing in Sanskrit, including the sixth-century Kalidāsa, author of the well-known play Śākuntala

But only the first fourteen cantos of the Buddhacarita were thought to have survived in the original Sanskrit, amounting to half of the complete work, taking the reader up to the Buddha’s Awakening, but not beyond. These fourteen cantos were preserved in some Nepalese manuscripts, written on palm-leaves. E.H Johnston (1936) published an edition of those first fourteen cantos of the Buddhacarita that remains the standard today.[2] Johnston also made the first good English translation, followed by a second by Patrick Olivelle (in 2008).[3] The second half of the poem was not entirely lost, however, as it was translated into both Chinese and Tibetan. Unfortunately, neither of these translations is particularly good, the Chinese being a very free paraphrase and the Tibetan often corrupt and ambiguous. Johnston has made a translation of chapters 15 to 18 into English, based on these translations, but much of the poetry is lost.

How amazing, then, that Canto 15 of the Buddhacarita has recently been re-discovered. The Japanese scholar Kazunobu Matsuda (2020), working with Jens-Üwe Hartmann, has recently identified the whole canto embedded in a Sanskrit manuscript of the Tridaṇḍamālā, attributed to Aśvaghoṣa. This manuscript was preserved in sPos khang monastery in Tibet (200 kms southwest of Lhasa), copied from an original which was brought there from India by Atīśa, who had re-introduced Buddhism into Tibet in the eleventh century. The manuscript was photographed by Giuseppe Tucci and Rāhula Sāṅkṛtyāyana in the 1930s, and, despite parts of the photographs being out of focus, Matsuda has managed to identify almost all of the Sanskrit characters with more or less certainty.[4] Matsuda has also made a translation into Japanese.

Back in 2009, I made a translation of Buddhacarita Canto 3, as part of my Sanskrit studies at the University of Cambridge. It was enjoyable to try to find ways to reproduce Aśvaghoṣa’s turns of phrase and imagery in the very different medium of English. So last year I leapt at an unrivalled opportunity – to make a first English translation of the newly re-discovered Sanskrit original of Canto 15. It has now come out in Asian Literature in Translation, an open-access, online academic journal published from the University of Cardiff.[5] Canto 15 describes the newly-awakened Buddha’s journey from Bodh Gaya to Vārāṇasī, where he meets up with his former companions and teaches them what he has discovered, which is the way to Awakening. 

I tried out something new in my translation, which was to offer two parallel versions, the first in prose and the second in verse, corresponding to two different translation strategies. The prose is a literal word-by-word translation which intends to convey the syntactic texture and wide-ranging vocabulary of Aśvaghoṣa’s Sanskrit in a readable English version. But the verse translation renders Aśvaghoṣa’s stanzas a line at a time, trying to convey some sense of rhythm and sound in English. I used blank verse (unrhymed iambic pentameter) for the first 51 stanzas of the Sanskrit, which are in an eleven-syllable per line metre called triṣṭubh. The final stanzas are in a more elaborate metre called praharṣiṇī, which I put into an unrhymed ballad metre. 

A highlight of Canto 15, which gives a good sense of the whole Canto, is the Buddha’s teaching to his former companions about the ‘eightfold path’. He has managed to get their attention, after they had been highly distrustful of him, and he has taught them about his discovery of the ‘middle way’ between the painful austerities which they have been practising, and the ordinary life of indulgence in sensual pleasures. Aśvaghoṣa finds a way of making the eightfold path something more than a list, with each aspect of the path given some image or felt sense:

I turned away from both of these extremes
and found a different path, the middle way,
a safe, secure, benign and healthy way,
which brings the relaxation of endless stress. || 34 ||

It shines with the sun of perfect vision, and
is drawn by the chariot of pure intention.
Dwelling in the utterance of perfect speech,
it delights in the garden of lovely acts. || 35 ||

Abundant alms are its blameless livelihood,
perfect application its powerful chaperone.
Its wall and guard are perfect mindfulness,
its land, house, seat and bed are meditation. || 36 ||

If you look hard at stanzas 35 and 36, you can spot how each line describes a limb of the path. My favourite image here is the ‘garden of lovely acts’ (śubhakriyārāmasabhā), more literally, ‘the garden lodgings of beautiful action’, as an image for right or perfect action. With this image, Aśvaghoṣa manages to convey the feeling of of pleasure and ease that comes from actions of body, speech and mind that arise from wholesome and positive intentions. Of course, doing the right thing isn’t always easy, but this image helps convey that it is worth it.

Professor Matsuda tells me that he and Jens-Üwe Hartmann have found some more of Aśvaghoṣa’s lost stanzas, this time from Buddhacarita Cantos 16 and 17, which they will be publishing at some point soon. Yet more re-discovered treasure. It really is a scholar’s dream.


[1] Full details in Richard Salomon, The Buddhist Literature of Ancient Gandhāra, Wisom Publications, Somerville, MA, 2018; and my review at https://dhivanthomasjones.wordpress.com/2018/09/23/welcome-to-gandhara/.

[2] Johnston, E.H. 1932. The Saundarananda, or Nanda the Fair, by Aśvaghoṣa. London: Oxford University Press.

[3] Olivelle, Patrick, trans. 2008. Life of the Buddha by Aśvaghoṣa. Clay Sanskrit Library. New York: New York University Press/JJC Foundation.

[4] Matsuda, Kazunobu. 2020. ‘Sanskrit Text and Japanese Translation of the Buddhacarita Canto 15’. The Bulletin of the Association of Buddhist Studies 25: 27–46.

[5] https://alt.cardiffuniversitypress.org/articles/abstract/50/.


3 thoughts on “Re-Discovering Treasure: Aśvaghoṣa’s Buddhacarita Chapter 15

  1. For continuity of perfect speech, I very much hope that you get first dibs at the English translation of Buddhacarita Cantos 16 and 17. I wonderfully considered article.

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