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The Mahāvastu (Sanskrit for "Great Event" or "Great Story") is an early biography of Gautama Buddha that is attributed to the Lokottaravāda school of Early Buddhism. This text identifies itself as belonging to the Lokottavadan Vinaya, but very little of the text deals with Vinaya topics.

The text is divided into three parts:[1][2]

  • The first part describes the previous lives of the Gautama Buddha (Jataka tales) as well as the lives of other Buddhas of the past (Avadāna tales).
  • The second part begins with the previous life of the Buddha when he is residing in Tushita heaven, and describes up until the Buddha's defeat of Mara (resulting in his enlightenment).
  • The third part describes the first conversations and the beginning of the formation of the Sangha.

The Mahāvastu contains prose and verse written in mixed Sanskrit, Pali and Prakrit.[3] It is believed to have been compiled between the 2nd century BCE and 4th century CE.[2][4]

Encyclopedia Britannica states: "The Mahāvastu reflects a growth of ideas about bodhisattvas (“buddhas-to-be”) that was to continue in Mahāyāna circles, but at the same time, it preserves many ancient stories, traditions, and textual passages. The core of the work may go back to the 2nd century BC, but much material was added about the 4th century AD."[2]

Pali Canon parallels

The Mahāvastu's Jātaka tales are similar to those of the Pali Canon although significant differences exist in terms of the tales' details. Other parts of the Mahāvastu have more direct parallels in the Pali Canon including from the Digha Nikaya (DN 19, Mahāgovinda Sutta), the Majjhima Nikaya (MN 26, Ariyapariyesana Sutta; and, MN 36, Mahasaccaka Sutta), the Khuddakapātha, the Dhammapada (ch. 8, Sahassa Vagga; and, ch. 25, Bhikkhu Vagga), the Sutta Nipata (Sn 1.3, Khaggavisāa Sutta; Sn 3.1, Pabbajjā Sutta; and, Sn 3.2, Padhāna Sutta), the Vimanavatthu and the Buddhavaṃsa.[5]

Mahayana themes

The Mahāvastu is considered a primary source for the notion of a transcendent (lokottara) Buddha, common to all Mahāsāṃghika schools. According to the Mahāvastu, over the course of many lives, the once-human-born Buddha developed supramundane abilities including: a painless birth conceived without intercourse; no need for sleep, food, medicine or bathing although engaging in such "in conformity with the world"; omniscience; and, the ability to "suppress karma."[6]

Translation history

According to Vincent Tournier, the first Westerner to discover this text was Brian H. Hodgson, circa 1837. At the time of this discovery, the text "was only known to Newar communities in the Kathmandu valley".[7]

At the time of this discovery, there were no known translations of the text into Tibetan or Chinese. Western scholars considered the text to be significant because it validated the existance of the Mahāsāṃghika school of Early Buddhism.[7]

A complete English translation of the text was published by J. J. Jones in 1949.

English translations

  • Jones, J.J. (trans.) (1949–56). The Mahāvastu (3 vols.) in Sacred Books of the Buddhists. London: Luzac & Co. vol. 1, vol. 2, vol. 3


  1. Princeton Dict icon 166px.png Buswell & Lopez 2014, s.v. Mahāvastu
  2. 2.0 2.1 2.2 "Mahāvastu" (2008).
  3. Jones (1949), pp. x–xi.
  4. Jones (1949), p. xi, writes: ""... the Mahāvastu is not the composition of a single author written in a well-defined period of time. Rather, it is a compilation which may have been begun in the second century B.C., but which was not completed until the third or fourth century A.D."
  5. Regarding the Dhammapada parallels, see Ānandajoti (2007), "Introduction," where Ānandajoti writes:
    Of the incomplete parallels, two chapters from yet another Dharmapada have been preserved in the Mahāvastu, one of the earliest of the Sanskritised Prakrit texts; one of the chapters is named as the Sahasravarga, and appears to be the whole of the chapter; the other is a selection that comes from an unnamed Bhikṣuvarga.
    From "Ancient Buddhist Texts". See also; ch. 8, "Sahassavagga", and ch. 25, "Bhikkhuvagga"
  6. Williams (1989/2007), pp. 18–19.
  7. 7.0 7.1 Tournier Vincent (2012). The Mahāvastu and the Vinayapiṭaka of the Mahāsāṃghika-Lokottaravādins


Further reading

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