A History of Indian Philosophy Volume 1

by Surendranath Dasgupta | 1922 | 212,082 words | ISBN-13: 9788120804081

This page describes the philosophy of early buddhist literature: a concept having historical value dating from ancient India. This is the third part in the series called the “buddhist philosophy”, originally composed by Surendranath Dasgupta in the early 20th century.

Part 3 - Early Buddhist Literature

The Buddhist Pāli Scriptures contain three different collections: the Sutta (relating to the doctrines), the Vinaya (relating to the discipline of the monks) and the Abhidhamma (relating generally to the same subjects as the suttas but dealing with them in a scholastic and technical manner). Scholars of Buddhistic religious history of modern times have failed as yet to fix any definite dates for the collection or composition of the different parts of the aforesaid canonical literature of the Buddhists. The suttas were however composed before the Abhidhamma and it is very probable that almost the whole of the canonical works were completed before 241 B.C., the date of the third council during the reign of King Asoka.

The suttas mainly deal with the doctrine (Dhamma) of the Buddhistic faith whereas the Vinaya deals only with the regulations concerning the discipline of the monks. The subject of the Abhidhamma is mostly the same as that of the suttas, namely, the interpretation of the Dhamma. Buddhaghoṣa in his introduction to Atthasālini, the commentary on the Dhammasaṅgaṇi, says that the Abhidhamma is so called (abhi and dhamma) because it describes the same Dhammas as are related in the suttas in a more intensified (dhammātireka) and specialized (dhammavisesatthena) manner. The Abhidhammas do not give any new doctrines that are not in the suttas, but they deal somewhat elaborately with those that are already found in the suttas.

Buddhaghoṣa in distinguishing the special features of the suttas from the Abhidhammas says that the acquirement of the former leads one to attain meditation (samādhi) whereas the latter leads one to attain wisdom (paññāsampadani). The force of this statement probably lies in this, that the dialogues of the suttas leave a chastening effect on the mind, the like of which is not to be found in the Abhidhammas, which busy themselves in enumerating the Buddhistic doctrines and defining them in a technical manner, which is more fitted to produce a reasoned insight into the doctrines than directly to generate a craving for following the path of meditation for the extinction of sorrow. The Abhidhamma known as the Kathāvatthu differs from the other Abhidhammas in this, that it attempts to reduce the views of the heterodox schools to absurdity. The discussions proceed in the form of questions and answers, and the answers of the opponents are often shown to be based on contradictory assumptions.

The suttas contain five groups of collections called the Nikāyas.

These are

  1. Dīgha Nikāya , called so on account of the length of the suttas contained in it;
  2. Majjhima Nikāya (middling Nikāya), called so on account of the middling extent of the suttas contained in it;
  3. Saṃyutta Nikāya (Nikāyas relating to special meetings), called Saṃyutta on account of their being delivered owing to the meetings (saṃyoga) of special persons which were the occasions for them;
  4. Aṅguttara Nikāya, so called because in each succeeding book of this work the topics of discussion increase by one[1];
  5. Khuddaka Nikāya containing
    Khuddaka pātha,
    Sutta Nipāta

The Abhidhammas are

  1. Paṭṭhāna,
  2. Dhammasaṅgaṇi,
  3. Dhātukathā,
  4. Puggalapaññatti,
  5. Vibhaṅga,
  6. Yamaka
  7. and Kathāvatthu.

There exists also a large commentary literature on diverse parts of the above works known as atthakathā. The work known as Milinda Paṅha (questions of King Milinda), of uncertain date, is of considerable philosophical value.

The doctrines and views incorporated in the above literature is generally now known as Sthaviravāda or Theravāda. On the origin of the name Theravāda (the doctrine of the elders) Dīpavaṃsa says that since the Theras (elders) met (at the first council) and collected the doctrines it was known as the Thera Vāda[2]. It does not appear that Buddhism as it appears in this Pāli literature developed much since the time of Buddhaghoṣa (400 A.D.), the writer of Visuddhimagga (a compendium of theravāda doctrines) and the commentator of Dīghanikāya , Dhammasaṅgaṇi , etc.

Hindu philosophy in later times seems to have been influenced by the later offshoots of the different schools of Buddhism, but it does not appear that Pāli Buddhism had any share in it. I have not been able to discover any old Hindu writer who could be considered as being acquainted with Pāli.

Footnotes and references:


See Buddhagoṣa’s Atthasālini, p. 25.


Oldenberg’s Dīpavaṃsa, p. 31.

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