On “Life of the Buddha” Patrick Olivelle

Translating Aśvaghoṣa’s Buddhacarita was for me a nostalgic return to a first love after an absence of over thirty years. I came to Oxford in 1969 to do Buddhism, but the curriculum was cast in stone and I had to do Sanskrit—Pāṇini, Alaṃkāra, Kāvya, Śāstra—with the consolation prize of Pāli as a subsidiary. The same happened when I went to the University of Pennsylvania for my doctoral studies. I went to do Buddhism and ended up working on the Dharmaśāstric tradition. Accidents of which professors were where, who exercised most influence, determined the course of research. With Aśvaghoṣa I returned to work seriously on a Buddhist text, although it is more than simply a Buddhist text; it is also a Sanskrit kāvya, indeed, the very first extant kāvya.

In my incarnation as a historian of religion, I have been especially interested in how experts within one tradition represented itself to others and represented the others to its own adherents. Especially when “new religions” arise, they have to set them within a historical space that may be claimed by other and older religions. Such was the case with Christianity vis-à-vis Judaism, Islam vis-à-vis both Judaism and Christianity, and Buddhism vis-à-vis the mainstream tradition represented by Brahmanism. What is most interesting and impressive about Aśvaghoṣa is that he manages to do this twin task with a light touch and the elegant beauty of the language. Rarely is there a frontal attack on the Brahmanical tradition and its system of values, although there are instances of this now and again. But for the most part Aśvaghoṣa pre-empts the Brahmanical argument by subsuming it within a Buddhist theology.

In the past several years I have been increasingly interested in what I have called the period “Between the Empires,” between the Maurya and the Gupta, when much of what we call Indian culture and civilization came into being. This was also a period of foreign invasion and immigration, as well as the rise of antagonistic ideologies and institutions within India, such as the value systems embodied in the ascetic religions of Buddhism and Jainism. This was also the period when systems of knowledge articulated by expert traditions and recorded in treatises (śāstra) came into existence in widely different disciplines, from astronomy and medicine to philosophy and ritual. Aśvaghoṣa falls squarely within this period. One issue that has taken center stage in recent scholarship of this period is inter-textuality, how authors of texts produced during this period are talking to, arguing with, and responding to others. This has been a central issue in recent scholarship on the epics, the Mahābhārata and the Rāmāyaṇa, by such scholars as Biardeau, Hiltebeitel, and Fitzgerald. I have studied this issue in relationship to the production of Dharmaśāstric texts, especially the Mānava-Dharmaśāstra.

Interesting light is shed on the Buddhacarita when we read it as an engagement by Aśvaghoṣa with his contemporaries and predecessors within the Brahmanical tradition. Reading the Buddhacarita as a Buddhist response to Brahmanical challenges, we can detect two major thrusts in Aśvaghoṣa’s argument. First, he presents the Buddha’s doctrine, the dharma discovered through his Awakening, as the consummation of the Brahmanical religion. He reads the history of the Brahmanical tradition as a preparation for the arrival of the Buddha; Brahmanism anticipates the Buddha, and Buddhism is the fulfillment of Brahmanism. It is wrong, therefore, to place them in opposition to each other, to see them as adversaries. This is not a new argument of Aśvaghoṣa; the canonical literature already presents the Buddha as the crowning of the Brahmanical tradition. This is not something new also in the history of religions, especially when a new religious movement seeks to define itself against an older inherited tradition. Thus, the “new testament” of the Jesus movement presented itself as the fulfillment of the prophesies embedded in the older Jewish tradition, branding its texts as the “old testament.” Coming as he does from within the Brahmanical tradition, Aśvaghoṣa’s stance is quite understandable; he wants to remain both a Brahmin and a Buddhist, just as the early Christians wanted to be both Jews and Christians. That Aśvaghoṣa was imbued with the Brahmanical scholastic mentality and tradition is evident in his use of the expression iti smṛtah (“such is the authoritative tradition,” or “so states an authoritative text of tradition”) so common in Brahmanical texts.

Aśvaghoṣa, however, is careful to observe that the Buddha’s dharma, although opposed to the current practices of Brahmanism, is not something entirely new and novel. It is a dharma that was discovered by past Buddhas; Siddhārtha’s discovery is only the most recent in a long line. His dharma, therefore, is both new and ancient. As he tells his groom Chanda (6.19):

This was the firm decision,
as you know, of our ancestors;
do not grieve for me as I walk
on this path that is my patrimony.

Working with the Buddhacarita also gave me an opportunity to discover new aspects in an ongoing project of mine: the history of the concept and the term dharma. Aśvaghoṣa is a master at exploring the many facets of this complex concept, moving imperceptly from one to another, as he attempts to undermine the Brahmanical understandings of it and to present the Buddhist dharma as the absolute and the perennial.

With Aśvaghoṣa’s dialogue and debate with the Brahmanical tradition, in a sense I have come a full circle with this translation. The knowledge of the latter acquired though over three decades of work with Brahmanical texts helped me to appreciate the subtle points of Aśvaghoṣa’s argument, as also sometime its weaknesses. In an apologetical work it is always easy to build up straw men to knock them down!

This work is now over and I am back to my work on ancient Indian law. But I am now more cognizant, however, of the unexpected sources for the history of ancient Indian culture. In the case of the history of ancient Indian law, there is an entirely understudied area of ancient Buddhist law, not so much the Pāli Vinaya, but the much less explored and much more interesting Vinayas of northern Buddhist traditions, such as the Mūlasarvāstivādins.