The Mahavastu (great story)

by J. J. Jones | 1949 | 305,330 words | ISBN-10: 086013041X

This page describes foreword to the second volume which is of the English translation of the Mahavastu (“great story”), dating to the 2nd-century BC. This work belongs to the Mahasanghika school of early Buddhism and contains narrative stories of the Buddha’s former lives, such as Apadanas, Jatakas and more..

Foreword to the second volume

The second volume of the Mahāvastu corresponds to the second of the three sections into which, on the analogy of the Nidāna-kathā, the whole of the work may be divided. In effect, we have in this volume what corresponds to the Avidūre-nidāna, or the more recent history of Gotama the Buddha, as compared on the one hand with his history in the far-distant past when he was proclaimed as future Buddha by Dīpaṃkara, and on the other hand with the still more recent establishment of the Buddhist Order as recounted in the latter part of the third volume.

The first volume will already have shown us, however, that we must not expect in this section to find a connected and straight-running account of Gotama’s career. We have seen in that volume abundant examples of the proclivity of the compilers of the Mahāvastu to include in this canonical work of their sect every possible piece of tradition which bore on their subject. In so far as this proclivity is evident, we may say that the whole work has a certain pattern, in spite of the chaotic accumulation of all sorts of Buddhistic lore, Jātakas, Avadānas, and Sūtras. Every possible incident, for example, in Gotama’s career is made the occasion for relating an edifying Jātaka or Avadāna, which is often repeated in varying versions. Whatever length of time may have separated the latest from the earliest compilers, this aim of comprehensiveness was consistently pursued, so much so that in the process the Mahāvastu lost almost all the features of a Vinaya, which it claimed to be.

This characteristic of the Mahāvastu gives it not the least of its many attractions to the student of Buddhism and its literature. For it thereby affords instructive material for the study of the growth of the legend of the Buddha. Careful analysis of the various repetitive versions, coupled with a critical comparison with the versions in other texts will often prove useful for determining the original form of the tradition.

More than one reviewer of the first volume of this translation remarked on the preponderance of references to Pali texts in the footnotes. This reliance on Pali texts is admitted, but it was due not to any preconceived notion of the uniformly greater age or importance of Pali texts as compared with Sanskrit, but solely to the fact that these latter texts were not available to the translator. He was able on one occasion to borrow a copy of Lalita Vistara, but only for a limited period. For the rest he was forced to rely on Pali texts, all of those published by the Pali Text Society being permanently on hand.

The translator is of opinion that the comparative study of the Mahāvastu, as of other Buddhist texts, must proceed from the assumption that both Pali and Sanskrit texts preserve as a fixed core a very primitive tradition. This tradition, whether written or spoken, was originally preserved in a language closely related to, but not wholly identical with, either Pali or Buddhist Sanskrit. In all texts moreover, irrespective of language, earlier and later strata may be distinguished. It is just an accident of history that some of the Pali texts were fixed and codified first, and so became less exposed to modernisation and corruption. But the late writers of the Commentaries on Pali texts were under no such restriction, and it is often in their works that we are most likely to find parallels to much of the varied contents of the Mahāvastu, but by no means to all of them.

This, however, is not the place to institute a detailed comparison. As was said in the Foreword to the first volume, that must await the completion of the third volume of the translation. But a few hints as to the nature of the critical problems of the Mahāvastu may be given here.

Not the least important part of the comparative study of the Mahāvastu will have to do with the numerous Jātakas, many, but not all, of which are found in Pali also. Here it can only be suggested that, when that comparative study is achieved, it will have been found impossible to frame a general statement, and say of the whole ensemble of the Pali Jātakas that they are earlier and more original than the Mahāvastu versions. On the contrary, there is sufficient evidence in this present volume that some of its Jātakas are more original, because more coherent, than the corresponding Pali ones. Similarly, some of the latter in their turn have better preserved texts.

The long Kuśa Jātaka is interesting in this respect. The second volume of the Mahāvastu has a version which is mostly in prose, and shows many differences from the Pali version. The third volume, however, has another version largely in verse, and this approximates more closely to the Pali. Now the first version is obviously an elaboration of a more primitive form of the story, and this elaboration is quite in the peculiar style of the Mahāvastu. Not only is a folk-tale prefixed to explain the name of Ikṣvāku as he who was born of a sugar-cane (ikṣu) but every opportunity is taken to multiply details. When Kuśa, for example, is trying to gain access to his lost wife Sudarśanā by displaying his skill at various crafts, the narrator of the Mahāvastu is not content with the four crafts mentioned in the Pali Jātaka, but prolongs the tale by making Kuśa try his hand at as many as a dozen different crafts. And more than that, every possible ware that could be produced by each craft must be mentioned—so detailed in fact, does the story become here that some of the wares have names unknown to the dictionaries.

Coming to an incident in Gotama’s life which may have a nucleus of historical fact, we find in the Asita story another example of the Mahāvastu’s compilers’ eagerness to include every version of the story that was known to them. There is a prose version of it followed by a metrical version. E. J. Thomas in his Life of the Buddha as legend and history has already made a suggestive study of the various versions of this tale. He concludes that the version in the Nālaka-sutta of the Sutta-nipāta is the oldest one. The affinities of the Mahāvastu versions are with this rather than with that in the Nidāna-kathā.

As in both Pali texts, Asita’s nephew is called Nālaka, while in the Lalita Vistara his name is Nāradatta. But the Mahāvastu must needs finish off the relation by tacking on to the metrical version a fragment of another version in which the nephew is named Nārada, and, moreover, as in a Tibetan version, is identified with Kātyāyana. (See Rockhill The Life of the Buddha, p. 18, quoted by E. J. Thomas, p. 43.)

Of other instances of repetitive versions of the same episode, it will be found that some have obvious affinities with Lalita Vistara and other Sanskrit texts, and others with Pali texts. Such is the case, for example, with the different versions of the Sujātā story.

These instances have been adduced more or less at random to give some indication of the problems implicit in these varied versions, and of the importance of their solution for an understanding of the composition of the Mahāvastu. Minute analysis, careful examination of language and metre, and detailed comparison with versions in other texts will be necessary before these problems can be solved. In some cases they will have to be left unsolved. For not all the varieties of the tradition from which the compilers culled have been preserved elsewhere. Some will be found to have no parallel. Others, however, were so fixed at the time they were incorporated in our text that they had already been given a name. The Dhammapada, for instance, is quoted by name, though not always from the version of it known to us in Pali. But the outstanding example of the incorporation of a named work is that of the Avalokita-sūtra. There are really two sūtras of this name expressly so called in their respective colophons. The second bears a certain degree of resemblance to the Avalokana-sūtra quoted as an independent work by Śāntideva in the Śikṣā-samuccaya. The first has equal claims to be regarded as an independent work. The subject of both sūtras is practically identical, namely, the events immediately preceding the enlightenment, and the defeat of Māra. There are variations in the treatment of the subject, of course, sufficient in fact to make of each an entirely independent work. Besides, the occasions on which each was purported to have been delivered by the Buddha are not identical. The second is also characterised by a long metrical passage proclaiming the merits which accrue from making various offerings or performing acts of adoration at the stupas of the Buddha. In this passage the religious worship of the Buddha seems to reach the acme of its development.

Interesting and important though these literary problems may be, it must not be assumed that they exhaust the value of the Mahāvastu. Primarily, this work must be regarded as the religious scriptures of a branch of the oldest of the Buddhist sects. From this point of view it contains much that is of value for the student of religion and morals. There may not be much in the work that reminds us that originally Buddhism was a code of morals, although its moral teaching is often set forth in verse of singular beauty. But as an example of how admiration for a great man and his teaching developed into the worship of that man as a divinity of infinite power and goodness, the Mahāvastu is worthy of careful study. If some of the language in it savours of the extravagant, that is always more or less the case when the attempt is made to express the infinite in terms of the finite.

The pleasant task remains of most gratefully acknowledging once again the generous help given to the translator by Miss I. B. Horner. The frequent references to her in the footnotes are but a small measure of her contribution to the work. She read the whole work in manuscript and proof and made numerous suggestions for its correction and improvement. She helped also with encouragement to carry on when the difficulties seemed insurmountable.

The translator is glad also to acknowledge the kindness of Dr. W. Stede in giving him his interpretation of the difficult word ovāha (p. 278)—one of the many words in this volume which must for the present remain enigmatical.

J. J. Jones.

October, 1951.