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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 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.
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."
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, Khaggavisāṇa Sutta; Sn 3.1, Pabbajjā Sutta; and, Sn 3.2, Padhāna Sutta), the Vimanavatthu and the Buddhavaṃsa.
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."
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".
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.
A complete English translation of the text was published by J. J. Jones in 1949.
- 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
- Buswell & Lopez 2014, s.v. Mahāvastu
- "Mahāvastu" (2008).
- Jones (1949), pp. x–xi.
- 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."
- 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.
- Williams (1989/2007), pp. 18–19.
- Tournier Vincent (2012). The Mahāvastu and the Vinayapiṭaka of the Mahāsāṃghika-Lokottaravādins
- Buswell, Robert E.; Lopez, Donald S. (2014), The Princeton Dictionary of Buddhism, Princeton University
- Jones, J.J. (trans.) (1949–56). The Mahāvastu (3 vols.) in Sacred Books of the Buddhists. London: Luzac & Co. volume1 volume 2 volume 3
- "Mahāvastu" (2008). In Encyclopædia Britannica. Retrieved 26 Nov 2008, from "Encyclopædia Britannica Online"
- Ānandajoti Bhikkhu (2007). A Comparative Edition of the Dhammapada. U. of Peradeniya. Retrieved 25 Nov 2008 from "Ancient Buddhist Texts"
- J.K. Nariman (1923), Literary History of Sanskrit Buddhism, Bombay: Indian Book Depot; pp. 11–18
- Williams, Paul (1989/2007). Mahāyāna Buddhism: The Doctrinal Foundations. London: Routledge. ISBN 978-0-415-02537-9.
- Tournier Vincent (2012). The Mahāvastu and the Vinayapiṭaka of the Mahāsāṃghika-Lokottaravādins, Annual Report of The International Research Institute for Advanced Buddhology at Soka University (ARIRIAB) 15, 87-104
- Mahāvastu (Ancient Buddhist Texts)
- A Note on the Mahāvastu (A. B. Keith, Ancient Buddhist Texts)
- Williams, Paul (2002), Buddhist Thought (Kindle ed.), Taylor & Francis, pp. 128–130
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