The Mahavastu (great story)

by J. J. Jones | 1949 | 502,133 words | ISBN-10: 086013041X

The English translation of the Mahavastu (“great story”): one of the important and monumental canonical works of the Mahasanghika school of early Buddhism, a precursor of the Mahayana tradition. The Mahavastu contains three sections narrating the former lives of the Buddha, full of instructive stories, Jatakas and Avadanas. The core of the text ca...

Chapter I - Prologue

Om! Homage to the glorious mighty Buddha, and to all Buddhas, past, future and present.

Here begins the Mahāvastu.

There are these four stages in the careers[1] of Bodhisattvas. What are the four? They are the “natural” career, the “resolving” career, the “conforming” career, and the “persevering” career.[2]

Homage to Aparājitadhvaja, a Tathāgata,[3] an Arhan,[4] and perfect Buddha, in whose presence the root of goodness was planted by this very Śākyamuni, the Exalted One, when as a universal king[5] he lived in the “natural” stage of his career.

Homage to the Śākyamuni of long ago, a Tathāgata, an Arhan, a perfect Buddha, in whose presence this very Śākyamuni, the Exalted One, when he lived in the “resolving” stage of his career as head of a guild of merchants, first vowed to acquire the root of goodness, saying, “May I in some future time become a Buddha, a Tathāgata, an Arhan, a perfect Buddha, like this exalted Śākyamuni; and may I, too, be called Śākyamuni” and so on to the words “and may Kapilavastu[6] be my city too.”

Homage to Samitāvin, a Tathāgata, an Arhan, a perfect Buddha, in whose presence this very Śākyamuni, the Exalted One, made a vow to conform when, as a universal king, he lived in the “conforming” stage of his career.

Homage to Dīpaṃkara, a Tathāgata, an Arhan, a perfect Buddha, who first proclaimed of this Exalted One that now is, “Thou wilt become, O young man, in some future time, after immeasurable, incalculable, infinite kalpas,[7] a Tathāgata, an Arhan, a perfect Buddha, called Śākyamuni.” (I shall relate at length (2) this proclamation concerning the youth Megha in the chapter on Dīpaṃkara.[8]).

After that time, when the Tathāgata Dīpaṃkara was in the “persevering” stage of his career, the words “thou wilt become a Buddha” were proclaimed by countless Tathāgatas subsequent to him.

Afterwards the following proclamation was made by the exalted Sarvābhibhū: “Thou, monk Abhijit, wilt in the future, in a hundred-thousand kalpas, become a Tathāgata, an Arhan, a perfect Buddha called Śākyamuni. (I shall later on recount all this and the rest concerning the monk Abhijit.).[9]

Homage to Vipaśyin, a Tathāgata, an Arhan, a perfect Buddha. Homage to Krakutsanda, a Tathāgata, an Arhan, a perfect Buddha. Homage to Kāśyapa, a Tathāgata, an Arhan, a perfect Buddha, by whom this present exalted Śākyamuni was proclaimed and anointed heir to the throne. “Thou, Jyotiṣpāla, wilt in some future time immediately after me become a Tathāgata, an Arhan, a perfect Buddha, and thou also wilt be called Śākyamuni.” (I shall relate at length the prediction made of the monk Jyotiṣpāla.).[10]

And so, homage to all Buddhas, past, future and present.

Here ends the prologue of “homages

Here begins[11] the Mahāvastu, which is based on the redaction of the Vinaya Piṭaka made by the noble Mahāsāṅghikās,[12] the Lokottaravādins of the Middle Country.[13]

Ordinations are of four kinds, namely, self-ordination, ordination by the formula, “Come, monk,” ordination by a chapter of ten monks, and ordination by a chapter of five. The ordination called self-ordination (3) was that of the Exalted One near the bodhi[14] tree.

All those who live in the practice of the ten right ways of behaviour[15] thereby get nearer to enlightenment, but Śākyamuni in this respect won especial distinction. After living in the practice of those good deeds which fitted him to receive the Buddha’s teaching, he in due course came to Dīpaṃkara. And when he saw him, conspicuous for beauty among koṭis[16] of beings, altogether lovely and inspiring confidence, with his company of disciples around him, Śākyamuni conceived the thought of emulating him. “Well would it be,” said he, “if I, rising superior to the world, living for the good of the world, should be reborn for the sake of this world.”

Dīpaṃkara, aware of the effort Śākyamuni had made to win enlightenment, and of the vow he had made, proclaimed that he would win an equality[17] with himself, in short an equality with a Self-becoming One.[18] “An immeasurable future hence,” said he, “thou wilt become a Buddha, of the house of the Śākyans, a scion of the Śākyans, for the welfare of devas and men.”

He, to whom it was thus foretold by the Exalted One, the lord of men,[19] that he would win pre-eminence among men, lived the life of a pre-eminent man, a foremost man,[20] a consummate man. During his career as a Bodhisattva, he lived through many lives, seeking the good and happiness of men, a Bodhisattva for the world’s sake and his own. In all he did he ensued charity, morality, justice,[21] and self-denial, seeking the welfare of the world, and aloof from self-interest.

The Conqueror[22] won men by appealing to them on four grounds,[23] namely, his generosity, his affability, his beneficence, and his equanimity in prosperity and adversity. There was nothing he possessed which he was not ready to give up. Time and again, when he saw a beggar the sight gladdened his heart.[24] Repeatedly he gave up his eyes, his flesh, his son and his wife, his wealth and his grain, his self and his very life.

In this manner he passed through a nayuta[25] of hundred-thousand births, (4) a Bodhisattva intent on the welfare of beings, having true discernment of the right occasion and befitting conduct,[26] and skilled in the knowledge of the diversity of man’s individuality.[27] Yearning for the due time[28] he passed into the world of the Tuṣita[29] devas. There the Sugata[30] destroyed liability to existence by reflecting on its impermanence, and thence entered on what was to be his last existence.

In order to secure release from existence, the Exalted One, extremely emaciated by his mortifications and austerities, passed his life subsisting on only one sesamum seed and one jujube fruit. But after extreme mortification of his body, he realised that that was not the way of release.

When he had duly bathed in the river Nairañjanā,[31] fearless like a lion he settled in the city called Gayā.[32]

In the first watch of the night, the Exalted One thoroughly cleared his “deva-eye”[33] from all defect, and comprehended the different comings and goings of men. In the middle watch he called to mind previous existences of others and of himself, and came to know the various occasions of former existences. In the last watch he woke in an instant and spontaneously to what is to be known by the Driver of tameable men,[34] to the equanimity of a Self-becoming One.

Here end the verses on the subject-matter of the Mahāvastu.

The Exalted One, the perfect Buddha, having fully achieved the end he had set himself, stayed in Śrāvastī,[35] at the Jeta Grove in Anāthapiṇḍika’s park,[36] teaching devas and men. (This occasion is to be described in detail.)[37]

Footnotes and references:


Literally, “There are these four careers.”


I.e., the prakṛticaryā, the career of a bodhisattva when he lives an ordinary “natural” life at home; the praṇidhānacaryā, that in which he “vows” to win enlightenment; the anulomacaryā, that in which he lives in “conformity” with that vow; and the anivartanacaryā, the career in which he is permanently set on the attainment of enlightenment, without possibility of failing or “turning back.”


An appellation of the Buddha, literally either “one who has thus gone” tathā-gata, or “one who has thus come,” tathā-āgata. The ancient commentators give many fanciful explanations of this term. It has been suggested, e.g. by Mrs. Rhys Davids, that it means “one who has reached the truth,” tatha = “true,” being an adjective from tathā = “thus.” For recent discussions of the meaning of this term see E. J. Thomas, Bull. School Oriental Studies, 8. 781-8; Schayer, Rocznik Orientalistyczny II (1935), and A. Coomaraswamy, B.S.O.S., 9. 331. (The translator owes these last references to Prof. H. W. Bailey.)


Vedic arhant, Pali arahant, literally “worthy,” “deserving,” etc. (arh). Used in Buddhism to denote one who has qualified for nirvana. As an appellation of the Buddha it is here written with a capital initial.


Cakravartin, literally a “wheel-turner,” generally the title of a king ruling over the four continents (see p. 7).


A city in the Himalayas, the capital of the Śākyans, and the birthplace of Śākyamuni. In the Mahāvastu it is often (e.g. 1. 43) called Kapilāhvaya, i.e. (the city) “called after Kapila,” the sage who was its reputed founder.


Kalpa, Pali kappa, an age or cycle of the world. When used alone it connotes the period of both the integration and the disintegration of the world. See p. 43.


See p. 152.


See Vol. 3.


See p. 265, where his name is spelt Jyotipāla.


Evidently, another prologue or fragment of introduction taken from a different recension. Both the first and second are obviously incomplete and form an ill-fitting introduction to the text.


The Mahāsāṅghikas were a Buddhist sect formed at the time of the Second Council, at Vesāli, 338 b.c. They subsequently split up into several schools, among which the Lokottaravādins seem to approximate closest to the original sect. These latter believed in the supramundane nature of the Buddha; his human traits while on earth were only apparently so. Compare the Docetae of early Christianity.


That part, variously delimited, of central India, which was the birthplace of Buddhism.


Popularly called the Bo tree, or the tree under which a Buddha sat when he achieved enlightenment. The particular tree under which Gotama Buddha sat was the fig tree (Assattha or Ficus Religiosa). The Bo trees of other Buddhas are also specified. See e.g. pp. 99, 124, 204.


Daśa kuśalā karmapathā, the equivalent of the ten śīlāni or precepts of Buddhist ethics. See note p. 168.


A koṭi strictly denotes one hundred thousand, or, according to others, ten million, but is here and elsewhere used to denote “innumerable.”


Samatā. This word, as Senart shows, could also be rendered “equability,” “impassibility,” he equability of self and of a Self-becoming One respectively. Cf. Miln. 351, dhātusamatā, “ease to the limbs.” In Mhvu. 1. 96, samatā means simply “equality.” Cf. Mānava Dharmaśāstra xii. 90, devānāmeti sāmyatām “he becomes the equal of the gods.”


Svayaṃbhū, an appellation of the Buddha.


Puruṣasiṃha, literally “a lion of a man


Agrapuruṣa. Elsewhere in the text this appellation is used as a synonym for Buddha and is then written with capital letters in translation.


Samaya, or “(conduct befitting) the occasion.”


Jina, an appellation of the Buddha.


Or “four bases of sympathy,” saṃgrahavastu. See A. 2. 32, where the last term of the series is samānattā. This is translated (Grad. Sayings, 2. 36) as “treating all alike.” The Commentary, however, explains the term by samānadukkhabhavo, i.e. “ imperturbable,” which is analogous to the samānasukhaduḥkhatā of the text.


I.e., it gave him an opportunity for charity.


Pali nahuta, “a hundred-thousand millions,” denoting a number beyond comprehension.


Kālajña and samayajña. For the former, cf. A. 2. 101, kālaññutā, “discrimination of proper occasions.”


Pudgalaparāparajñatā. Senart compares Lotus, fol. 69a, Vīryaparāpara, which Burnouf translates “les divers degrés d’énergie.”




I.e. “The Happy Devas.” Their world or heaven, also called Tuṣita, was the fourth of the six deva worlds.


Literally “Well-gone,” an appellation of the Buddha.


Identified with the modem Nīlājanā, rising in Hazaribagh.


Between Benares and the Bodhi-tree.


See p. 125.


Puruṣadamyasārathin. The corresponding Pali term has been variously-translated: “Guide to mortals willing to be led” (Prof. Rhys Davids); “The Bridler of men’s wayward hearts,” “Driver of men willing to be tamed” (Prof, and Mrs. Rhys Davids); “Tamer of the human heart” (Lord Chalmers)


Identified with Sāhet-Māhet on the banks of the Rapti.


A rich citizen of Śrāvastī who bought the Jeta Grove as a retreat for the Buddha.


See page 34 of text.

Help me keep this site Ad-Free

For over a decade, this site has never bothered you with ads. I want to keep it that way. But I humbly request your help to keep doing what I do best: provide the world with unbiased truth, wisdom and knowledge.

Let's make the world a better place together!

Like what you read? Consider supporting this website: