Saturday Magazine
Buddhist poems in Sanskrit Literature

by D. Amarasiri Weeraratne
The ancient Sanskrit poets made use of popular legendary stories as the themes of their poetical works. The best examples are the Ramayana and the Mahabharata. This was the method adopted by the ancient Greeks. They wrote similar works called the Illaid and the Odessy, extolling their heroes and their brave deeds. The earliest Sanskrit poems were written on themes such as the doings of their gods, or some hero-king and his doings. The ancient Greeks and Romans seem to have adopted this procedure.

Even the ancient Sanskrit poets followed this line of thinking. The Buddhists among them made use of the Jataka stories where the hero was the Bodhisatva. The Sanskrit poets of India during the heyday of Buddhists resorted to this practice on a marginal scale.

Asvaghosha was a great Sanskrit Buddhist poet in Buddhist India. He chose the life of Buddha (Buddha Charita) as the theme of his classical work. In another work (Saundara Nanda Kavya), he selected the story of Nanda Thera as the motif of his poem. Asvaghosha lived during the time of the Buddhist emperor — Kanishka — the Graeco-Bactrian ruler. Some other poems and philosophical works were authored by Asvaghosha, Chinese Buddhist works refer to Asvaghosha as Ma-ming — (horse-neigh) making a literal translation of his name.

His ‘Buddha-Charita’ deals with the life story of the Buddha. As available now it comprises 13 chapters. The original is said to have contained 28 chapters. In it he displays his profound respect and honour to the Buddha.

He adopted the nine rhetorical features considered necessary for a Maha-Kavya in Sanskrit poetry. In portraying the seasons, he describes the beauties of nature. Descriptions of cities, seasons etc. considered necessary to a Maha-Kavya are found in this work.

Aryasura’s Jatakamala (Garland of Jataka Tales) is another Sanskrit poetical work written round 100 AD. It belongs to the class of literary works known as "champu". They are works of mixed verse and prose in Sanskrit. Jatakamala deals with some selected Jataka tales. The literary style resembles that of the Panchatantra and Hithopadesa. Aryasura’s poetic style is facinating and full of charm.

There are some works called "Avadana". They deal with the Bodhisatwa’s previous lives taken from Mahayana literature. The author remains anonymous. Avadana Sataka (A century of life stories) and Divyawadana are two of these well known works. Divyawadana is the more popular work among Sanskrit scholars. The Jataka stories are taken from Sarvastivada literature.

Lalita Vistara, is a wellknown biography of the Buddha compiled by the Mahayanists. It contains a mixture of verse and prose writings. The miraculous and supernatural elements loom large in these pages. In Sri Lanka we have the "Janadiharana" written by King Kumaradasa to commemorate the Rama-Sita story of the Ramayana. There were Sanskrit works written in verse and prose by the monks of the Abhayagiri Vihara. But they were are burnt and destroyed due to the jealousy of the Mahavihara monks and their anti-Mahayana obsessions. King Kumaradasa is said to have written a work called "Gnanananda Kavya". It is now lost. We have only a quotations from it in other works.

In Sanskrit literature there is a class of poetry called Sataka — poetics. These usually contain a century of Buddha hymns, panegutics and Buddha eulogies. They are calculated to evoke adoration and faith among the devotees. Anuradha Sataka contains a hundred Buddha-hymns written by one Anuruddha Thero. It is written in scholarly style in elegant Sanskrit verse. Anuruddha Thera lived in the 12th Century at Uttaramula Monastery.

Then we have the Namashta Sataka. This was a text in our ancient system of Pirivena education. 108 names for Buddha are mentioned in offering him praise and worship. The author remains anonymous. He is said to have lived during the Polonnaruwa period.

The Bhakti Sataka was written by Sri Ramachandra, a Bengali Brahmin who came to Sri Lanka to study at Totagamuwa Vijayabahu Pirivena under Sri Rahula Maha Thero. This work was text book in our ancient system of pirivena education. Even now it is a text for the Pracheena examination in oriental studies. King Parakramabahu VI of Kotte honoured the author with the honorary title "Agama Chakrawarthy".

Santideva’s Bodhicharyavatara is the immortal classic in Sanskrit Buddhist verse. It was written by Santideva who was a teacher at Nalanda University — India’s Oxford during the heyday of Buddhism. It has been called the "finest poem in Buddhism" by European scholars — reorganised as masters of Buddhist literature. It has been translated to the leading languages of the world. To us Buddhist the crest-jewel in English poetry is Sir Edwin Arnold’s "Light of Asia". He was inspired to write this after reading the Sanskrit poet viz. Khemendra’s Jinacharita.

Let me conclude with an English rendering from a verse by Ramachandra Bharati’s Bhakti-Sataka.

"From birth to birth may I have steadfast faiths

In the Buddha, dispeller of Nescience — gloom,

From birth to birth may I have steadfast faith

In the Dharma, my unfailing guide,

From birth to birth may I have steadfast faith

In the Sangha — the supreme merit field.

("Bhagavati bhava bheetih dvansa-kannya moghe

Bhavata Bhavata Bhaktir janma janmantarepi

Bhavata Bhavata Dharmo Sanata me nu sasta

Bhavata Bhavata Sangho — Nuttaro Punya bhumi")