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The Mahāvastu ("Great Story") is a Sanskrit text that is considered that earliest Sanskrit biography of the Buddha. The text was discovered by Western scholars in Nepal in the early 1800s.

The 84000 glossary states:

The Mahāvastu or “Great Chapter” is a lengthy work of the Lokottaravāda (Proponents of the Supramundane) subsect of the Mahāsāṃghika (Great Saṅgha) tradition, which some scholars have regarded as a precursor of Mahāyāna Buddhism. It is written in mixed Sanskrit, Pāli, and Prakrit and is regarded as the earliest Sanskrit biography of the Buddha. The work belongs to the Vinayapiṭaka and in fact describes itself as a historical preface to the Buddhist monastic codes (Skt. vinaya). In this regard, it does correspond loosely to the Mahāvagga section of the Khandhaka in the Pāli Vinayapiṭaka. Over half the text comprises avadānas and jatakas (some having no Pāli antecedent), which tell of past lives of the Buddha when he was a bodhisattva on the path to awakening.[1]

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]


The text is divided into three parts:[2][3]

Part 1. Describes the previous lives of the Gautama Buddha (Jataka tales) as well as the lives of other Buddhas of the past (Avadāna tales).
Part 2. 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).
Part 3. Describes the Buddha's first conversations and the beginning of the formation of the Sangha.

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.[4]

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".[5]

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.[5]

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. 84000.png "Mahāvastu" (glossary entry)
  2. 2.0 2.1 Britannica, The Editors of Encyclopaedia. "Mahāvastu". Encyclopedia Britannica, Accessed 4 October 2023.
  3. Buswell & Lopez 2014, s.v. Mahāvastu.
  4. 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"
  5. 5.0 5.1 Tournier Vincent (2012). The Mahāvastu and the Vinayapiṭaka of the Mahāsāṃghika-Lokottaravādins


Further reading

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