Buddhist Hybrid Sanskrit Literature

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Item Code: NAC516
Author: Sukumari Bhattacharji
Language: English
Edition: 2011
ISBN: 9788192061559
Pages: 205
Cover: Hardcover
Other Details 8.8 Inch X 5.8 Inch
Weight 340 gm
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Book Description

The urge to study Buddhist Hybrid Sanskrit literature came to me when I tried to judge how far the theory of the Dark Age in Sanskrit literature was tenable. Sifting the material I was confirmed in the view that here was an invaluable source of information for a clearer and deeper understanding of the epics and Puranas as well as a considerable portion of later Sanskrit literature.

I then resolved to write a short volume on this badly neglected phase of ancient Indian life and ideas. G. K. Nariman’s Literary history of Sanskrit Buddhism1 and M. Winternitz’s History of Indian Literature, Vol. 112 have both dated to a large extent, because much work has been done on the grammatical, linguistic, ideological and literary aspects in the seventy-five intervening years. These have come out in English, French and German which I could incorporate in my work. I acknowledge my inability to study and incorporate much useful work done in Chinese, Italian, Russian and some other languages which I do not know.

This work is simple and quite unambitious. Divided in four chapters it studies the (i) text and content, (ii) religion and philosophy, (iii) society and (iv) literature of the Mahayana texts in Buddhist Hybni4 Sanskrit, and also some in pure classical Sanskrit. The very name precludes any detailed study of the vast and rich philosophical texts; it is ‘literature’ per se that is the subject matter of this volume. The introduction gives a general overview of the subject.

In the preparation of the work I was financially helped by Rashtriya Sanskrit Sansthan which granted the Shastricidamani fellowship to me for a little less than three years. The Maison des Sciences de l’homme (Paris) gave me a Visiting fellowship in 1988; I also enjoyed a Spalding stipend for a short stay in Oxford; at both places I used the rich libraries for collecting material for this work.

Many friends, scholars and students have helped in arranging and revising the text and in helping me to prepare the bibliography. I thank Dr. Shyama Prasad De, Dr. Tapodhir Bhattacharya, Dr. Nilanjana Sikdar, and Sri Abhijit Kumar Ghosh for the help they so kindly gave me in revising the ms. These research pupils of mine have given me of their time and energy which expedited the completion of the work. Sri Dibakar Karmoker has kindly typed the manuscript which at places was quite illegible with its numerous additions and alterations I appreciate his patience and help.

The inclusion even though for a short period, of Buddhist Sanskrit literature as an optional paper in the M.Phil syllabus in the Jadavpur University where I taught gave rare an opportunity to renew my acquaintance with the subject. But this subject remains unpopular in India, which I consider a great pity, for, it is a vital link in the history of ancient Indian literature, a storehouse of many themes and motifs which enriched later Indian literature down to the twentieth century: Poet Tagore drew many themes for his poems from this literature. I strongly feel that knowledge of Sanskrit literature remains deplorably incomplete without a thorough acquaintance with this literature. If the book succeeds in getting some scholars interested in the subject then I have not laboured in vain. I am painfully aware of the many deficiencies in knowledge, information and faults in presentation in this book and invite future scholars to improve upon it ; that itself will constitute a reward.



Buddhist literature is found in three distinct languages compoesd in three historical phases. Immediately after Buddha’s death his teachings, norms of life and code of conduct, and religious tenets were collected in Pali because the Master had expressly ordered that his teachings should be codified in the spoken language alone. Whether the Pali in which the earliest Buddhist texts have come down was •ever a living dialect of any real people in any specific region or period has been a matter of dispute among scholars, for a long time and we shall not go into it because it falls outside our scope. But clearly, the language of brahmanical literature had been Sanskrit from around the sixth/fifth centuries B.C., Panini’s grammar in the fourth century proves this, the Mahabharata whose earliest sections go back to the fourth century B.C. also prove this. Pali, then, began to be the vehicle of Buddhist literature at a time when epic Sanskrit did not only already exist, but was fast moving towards classical Sanskrit1. Pall remained the medium for Hinayana Buddhist texts down the ages. Towards the end of the first millennium B.C Sanskrit came to be more popular than Prakrit, as epigraphical evidence bears out. “Originally the epigraphic language of the whole of India was mainly Prakrit, and Sanskrit is first noticed in the inscriptions of North India from about the second half of the 1st century BC, Sanskrit gradually ousted Prakrit from the field of Indian epigraphy in all parts of the country2.” This was by no means accidental, it is vitally linked with the general trend of history. Professor B. N. Mukherji has shown in his book3 that the Kushans who ruled over a tar-flung empire felt the need of a lingua frc4nca within their Indian dominion. Prakrits varied with the regions of their origin, while epic and proto-classical Sanskrit enjoyed uniformity and universality; hence Sanskrit was adopted as the official language. Sanskrit, and not Vedic, was the language of the later Sutra literature which was co-eval with the last section of the Mahabharata. But Buddhist literature suffered from a serious handicap; Buddha himself had laid down that his message be propagated in the language people actually spoke. Since Sanskrit was not a spoken language it could not be the vehicle of his teachings. The Sarvastivadins diffused this new religion among the foreign peoples of North-Western India.

According to Hinuber there was a deliberate effort behind the transformation of Pall into Buddhist Hybrid Sanskrit (BHS). “At an early stage during the formation of Pali, genuine Middle Indic forms began to be converted into artificial words under the growing influence of Sanskrit on Buddhist Middle Indie . . . . Whenever we come across forms not in accordance with the phonetic pattern of Middle Indic, these Pali words belong to the category of artificial formations.

Those who started this process clearly had in mind an approximation of their holy language to Sanskrit. Thus the idea obviously is the same one that leads to the formation of Buddhist Hybrid Sanskrit.”

But a change in the entire outlook was setting in northern India, especially in Buddhism. “The earlier Sarvastivadins evolved into the Lokottaravadins, a Mahasamghika branch of the northern part of Central India around the turn of the millennium. The evidence of this change becomes noticeable around Mathura. The epical dialect (at least in the later inscriptions) represents a somewhat later linguistic stage than the drama dialect . . . the language used in the inscriptions of about the Kusana period represents a linguistic stage between the Old Sauraseni of the dramas and the classical Sauraseni”. Hence Buddhist Hybrid Sanskrit came to be used as the medium of Buddhist texts of the Mahayana persuasion With the Lokottravadin approach to Buddha as a superman, this branch of the Lokottaravadins came one step closer to Brahmanism The implicit deification of Buddha was accompanied by a change of attitude to the language of preaching and esp. of composition “Filliozat thinks that BBS represent the language that was used as a means of communication by Buddhists from all over India. Its Sanskrtization is due to the fact that the MIA dialects became increasingly mutually unintelligible BHS is, therefore, a spoken language. However, hybrid Sanskrit was not limited to the Buddhists as is apparent from epigraphy. . These texts were composed in a Sanskrit which borrowed a large number of vocables from the dialects . . . these vocables were Sanskritizd and not the texts. The process of Sanskritization of Buddhist literature has been influenced by the literary development of Sanskrit which occurred specially in the North and North West in the first centuries A.D”. With the change in attitude to Buddha, i.e. with his deification, his message was communicated in a language which was closer to the real language of the time viz. Sanskrit. Yet it was not Sanskrit proper but a mixture of dialect vocables with the Paninian structure with some traces of prosody and idioms of Pall retained. Since we have inscriptions in this language as Damsteegt has amply illustrated, it is not only a Buddhist language but a transitional language which both the Buddhists and brahmins employed.

Texts like the Mahavastu and Lalitavistara are the best specimens of the hybrid language. Some later texts like sonic of the avadana literature Jatakamala and Saddharmapundarika betray traces of hybridism. Even in Asvoghosa who writes a more chaste language there are some remnants of the epic and hybrid stage. This, then, was the process through which Buddhist literature passed until it arrived at the third stage of pure classical Sanskrit. Most of the literature composed from the Gupta age onwards was in pure Paninian classical Sanskrit. Gradually the literature became popular even in India, I-Tsing reports that Asvaghosa’s Buddhacarita was widely read or sung throughout India, and the countries of the Southern Seas’.

Behind the change in language were the stages of Buddha’s deification. From the wholly human pathfinder in the Sravakayana literature, Buddha slowly moved to divinity. First he, was a super-human, lokottara; then he had the three kayas, Buddha, Dharma and Sambhoga, and simultaneously his existence was extended beyond his historical career on earth — extended first in the past through the jataka tales and then also into the future in the later literature7. As these were happening in mythology and philosophy, the literary vehicle Pali had yielded place to the hybrid language and, with the Gupta age, to Classical Sanskrit proper, when Brahmanism was revived with a zest and the theory of avataras, a corollary of reincarnation on the divine plane — was gaining acceptance. The idea of reincarnation had been incipient for several centuries before then, the epic tales and the Pali jatakas bear testimony to this. But with the beginning of the early Puranas, new religious ideas and practices gained ground; puja came in with idols, temples and different kinds of oblations and libations along with the intermediary role of the priest between the votary and his god, vows, pilgrimages, devotion to a god who would grant not only the mundane from sing solicited by the Vedic priest, but liberation, i.e. snapping of the chain of rebirth.

All this belonged to the numerically superior brahmanical world and was necessarily reflected also in Buddhism. Mahayana which increasingly magnified the divine aspect of Buddha, which transformed the mendicant preacher of Magadha into a universal emperor enjoying such pomp and splendour that the Kapilavastu prince could enjoy. One way of raising Buddha to the altitude of a saviour in the Mahayana phase was to emphasize his solar aspect. Apart from the miraculous birth, common to all solar gods, he shares with them supreme effulgence, omnipotence, omniscience, the power to heal and to enlighten. The mythological symbols of the sun, wheel, disc, umbrella, lotus, gold and horse also figure prominently both in sculpture and in literature.




  Preface ix
  Introduction xi
  Chapter I – Text, Date and Content 1
  Chapter II – A Language 68
  Chapter III – Philosophy and Religion 85
  Chapter IV - Society 111
  Chapter V - Literature 131
  Index 176
  Bibliography 165

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