Ashvaghosha was born a Brahman. Legend obscures the man, but it is known that he was an outspoken opponent of Buddhism until, after a heated debate with a noted Buddhist scholar on the relative merits of Hinduism and Buddhism, he accepted the value of Buddhism and became a disciple of his erstwhile opponent. While in Varanasi Benares , where the Buddha had preached his first sermon, Ashvaghosha saw the city conquered by the Kushan Kushana emperor Kanishka , a devout Buddhist. A huge war indemnity was demanded, and the ruler of Varanasi handed over instead a symbolic tribute, a begging bowl said to have been used by both the Buddha and Ashvaghosha.
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So I was under no illusion that I was going to be reading a masterwork of poetry here. My interest in Asvaghosa was threefold: 1 as someone who was raised a Hindu, Sanskrit is for me as it is for most people absolutely tied up with the philosophy and culture of that faith.
Buddhism is, even now, largely gone from India; but by the end of this text the Emperor Ashoka has declared it the new state faith. The gap terrifies. This is intriguing.
A text attempting to preserve in some way the Brahminical tradition becoming a source text for the most radical interpretation of The Dhamma to be crafted, one distinctly anti-Brahminical in aim, method, and goal; wild.
So, keeping in mind my interests, this is what I got from this. Kalidasa has read his Asvaghosa. I think A. The other strange thing is, of course, how largely the early world of Buddhism is shared with what he now call Hinduism; not just the Brahminical references that Asvaghosa includes, but the general themes, settings, and mythology. As a result we get pulled out of the narrative right as The Buddha is having his awakening, which is, you know, a massive historico-religio cockblock.
I have to find one of the Chinese or Tibetan recensions of this to actually read it, but there are some intriguing things I can glimpse about the story through that.
The story opens with a prince arguing that one must be an ascetic to practice Dhamma, giving up the world because the royal life will by necessity ensnare him; it ends with a literal conqueror adapting the Dhamma in his royal life and succeeding. The gap between those two is not something that Olivelle really explains in any of his notes. The series, modeled on the Loeb Classical Library, was sponsored by John Clay -- , who had studied Sanskrit in his youth before going on to a successful career in global investment banking.
The series consists of 54 books of poetry, drama, novels, and philosophy. Each pocket-sized book includes the Sanskrit text together with the English translation on facing pages. These works are a valuable resource for learning about a culture still too-little appreciated in the West. This book in the series, "The Life of the Buddha" was published in and dates from the first or second century A.
The author, Ashva-ghosha, had been born a Hindu and had studied Hindu texts before converting to Buddhism and becoming a monk.
His "The Life of the Buddha" is a lengthy epic poem, the first of its kind in Sanskrit. Olivielle also wrote the introduction to this volume together with endnotes and a glossary of the many names that appear in the poem.
The poem consists of 24 cantos, but only the first 13 cantos and part of the 14th canto have survived in the original Sanskrit. The remainder of the poem has survived in Chinese or Tibetan translations. The book describes the birth of the Buddha.
It shows him assuming the life of a mendicant and studying with various teachers until he gradually develops his own understanding. The translation ends in this volume with the Buddha rejecting the temptations of Mara and attaining Enlightenment while meditating under the Bodhi tree. I was interested in reading this poem because I have studied Buddhism for many years. Ashva-ghosha combines Hindu and Buddhist elements in his poem. The book shows the resistance young Siddhartha encountered when he determined to become a mendicant in search of the meaning of old age, sickness, and death.
Broadly, they argue that there is a time and place for asceticism, but not for the young. The interlocutors urge young Siddhartha to remain with his father and his wife, to enjoy life and to rule the kingdom and to defer the ascetic quest until old age. Siddhartha resists these arguments and resolutely defends his course of action. The poem includes many allusions to Hindu mythology which work both to relate Buddhism to its predecessors and to show how Buddhism differed.
The notes and glossary in this book help the reader understand the references in the text. At the time the poem was composed, Buddhism and Hinduism were competing for adherents in India.
Ashva-ghosha probably had the goal of showing Buddhism as an outgrowth of Hinduism and, thus, trying to bring the two religions together. The Buddha becomes almost a god in this telling. The supernatural elements are far from absent in the Buddhist Scriptures I have read.
But these early Scriptures also show a human, if gifted and special Siddhartha, who valiantly works and prevails to reach Enlightenment for the benefit of all beings.
This poem also is blunt and uncompromising in its rejection of pleasure and especially in its rejection of sexuality, even though the life of the senses frequently is described in beautiful terms. Many readers will be struck by the anti-sexual tone of the work. The rejection of sexuality is at its strongest in Canto 11, "Condemnation of Passion". The translation is accessible and lyrical and captures the beauty of the world of sense and the world of family life that young Siddhartha abandons and leaves behind.
I enjoyed this poem as a work of literature and as a work which showed how Buddhism developed and was viewed at a particular moment. There have been many other literary treatments of the life of the Buddha over the centuries in both verse and prose. The Clay Sanskrit Library has done a service in making this and many other Sanskrit writings available to a wide audience.
He set a challenge to the Buddhist monks that if none could meet with him in debate then they should stop beating the wood-block which signalled to the people to bring offerings to them. There was no one there to meet the challenge so they stopped beating the wood-block. The ascetic came to ask why it had been sounded. Though thinking the old monk would be unable to debate with him, he accepted the challenge. After seven days, the debate was held in front of the King, his Ministers, and many ascetics and brahmans.