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Avadāna (Sanskrit; Pali cognate: Apadāna)[1] is the name given to a type of Buddhist literature correlating past lives' virtuous deeds to subsequent lives' events.

Richard Salomon described them as "stories, usually narrated by the Buddha, that illustrate the workings of karma by revealing the acts of a particular individual in a previous life and the results of those actions in his or her present life."[2]

This literature includes around 600 stories in the Apadāna section of the Pali Canon.

In the Sanskrit tradtion, the avadāna are identified as one of the twelve categories of teachings. There are a large number avadana within various Sanskrit collections, of which the chief are the Mahāsāṃghika's Mahāvastu ("Great Book") and the Sarvāstivāda's Avadānaśataka (Century of Legends) and Divyāvadāna (The Heavenly Legend).[3] These latter collections include accounts relating to Gautama Buddha and the third-century BCE "righteous ruler," Ashoka.[4]

Amongst the most popular avadānas of Northern Hinayāna Buddhism are:

  • the story of Sudhana, preserved in the Mahāvastu under the title Kinnarī jātaka, amongst others, who falls in love with a kinnarī and saves her life.
  • the Vessantara Jātaka, the story of the compassionate prince who gives away everything he owns, including his wife and children, thereby displaying the virtue of perfect charity.
  • the Suvannasankha jātaka[5]

Though of later date than most of the canonical Buddhist books, avadānas are held in veneration by the orthodox, and occupy much the same position with regard to Buddhism that the Puranas do towards Hinduism.[3] They act in a similar way to other texts describing past deeds or past lives held in other traditions in the region, such as the aforementioned Puranas, the Dasam Granth and Janamsakhis of Sikhism, and the Kalpa Sūtra of Jainism.

Distiction from Jataka tales

In their introduction to The Account of the Noble Deeds of Puṇyabala, the Lokākṣi Translator Group (Tenzin Ringpapontsang, Ruth Gamble, John Powers, and Harmony DenRonden) states:

Most past-life stories of the Buddha are found within two genres of Buddhist literature: avadānas and jātakas. The Sanskrit term avadāna, broadly meaning “narrative” or “tale,” denotes a type of exemplary story that is common to most Indian religious traditions. In the Buddhist context, avadāna is traditionally specified as the tenth of a twelvefold categorization of Buddhist scripture (Skt. pravacana), classified according to content, thematic structure, and literary style. Although this class of works is as varied as it is voluminous, the stories typically illustrate the results of good and bad karma, indicating how past deeds have shaped present circumstances. In this vein, many avadānas, the present one included, set out to show how the exemplary lives of the Buddha, or more often of his followers, have resulted from their meritorious deeds in past lives. Avadānas may also, in certain cases, include prophecies (Skt. vyākaraṇa) of future spiritual attainments.
Avadānas recounting past deeds generally follow a three-part narrative structure: a story from the present life of the Buddha or another protagonist, a story of an exemplary past deed, and a connecting conclusion that shows how the past protagonist and his circle were prior incarnations of the present protagonist and his circle. In this regard, avadānas bear a close relationship to jātakas (“birth stories” of the Buddha), which some scholars have justifiably considered to be a subset of the avadāna genre. One notable difference, however, is that the protagonist of an avadāna is often not the Buddha himself, as it is in most jātaka stories, but one of his followers or prospective followers.1 Another difference is that avadānas typically concern realized beings’ past human lives, not those as animals or nonhumans, as is the case in many jātaka tales. Finally, while jātaka stories had wide popular appeal, with plots, characters, and motifs drawn from pan-Indian folklore, the avadānas seem to have been originally intended primarily for monastics, as suggested by their frequent references to attendant monks, their moral tone, and their specific prescriptions for Buddhist practice that are interspersed throughout the narratives. Yet, in the course of their historical diffusion, these edifying tales of spiritual and moral achievement eventually gained wide popularity and came to inspire and educate Buddhist monastics and lay followers alike.[6]

See also


  1. While avadāna (Sanskrit) and apadāna (Pali) are cognates, the former refers to a broad literature, including both canonical and non-canonical material from multiple Buddhist schools, while the latter refers explicitly to a late addition to Theravada Buddhism's Pāli Canon's Khuddaka Nikaya.
  2. Salomon, Richard (2018). The Buddhist Literature of Ancient Gandhara. Wisdom Publications. p. 229. ISBN 978-1-61429-168-8. 
  3. 3.0 3.1 Chisholm 1911.
  4. "Avadāna" (2008).
  5. Padmanabh S. Jaini, "The Story of Sudhana and Manoharā: An Analysis of the Texts and the Borobudur Reliefs", Bulletin of the School of Oriental and African Studies, University of London, Vol. 29, No. 3 (1966), pp. 533-558.
  6. 84000.png The Account of the Noble Deeds of Puṇyabala


External links

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