Sanskrit Buddhist literature

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Sanskrit Buddhist literature refers to Buddhist texts composed either in classical Sanskrit, or in a register that has been called "Buddhist Hybrid Sanskrit", or a mixture of the two. Several non-Mahāyāna Nikāyas appear to have kept their canons in Sanskrit, most prominent among which was the Sarvāstivāda. The Mahāyāna Sūtras are also in Sanskrit, with less classical registers prevalent in the gāthā portions. Buddhist Tantras too are written in Sanskrit, sometimes interspersed with Apabhramśa, and often containing notable irregularities in grammar and meter (traditionally ascribed to the esoteric nature of the texts).

Besides texts considered "Word of the Buddha" (Buddhavacana) by the traditions that transmitted them, Buddhist authors have composed treatises and literary works in Sanskrit dealing with Buddhist philosophy, logic, etc., but also with more worldly topics such as gemology, erotics, literary aesthetics, etc.

Sanskrit Buddhist literature is therefore vast and varied, despite the loss of a significant amount of texts. A large number of works survive only in Tibetan or Chinese translations.

Sanskrit in the Buddhist Traditions[edit]

Traditional accounts vastly vary in identifying the language in which the Buddha taught, as well as in respect to the history of the non-Mahāyāna Nikāyas. While the Theravāda tradition usually upholds that the Buddha taught exclusively in the language of Magadha, other accounts offer a very different perspective on the languages of the early non-Mahāyāna schools, and in these accounts Sanskrit plays a central role. As for the Mahāyāna tradition, Sanskrit is a key language invested with esoteric and symbolic significance in both Sūtras and Tantras. Sanskrit grammarians and commentators justify some irregular usages in the Buddhavacana either as "Buddhist usage" (bauddhaprayoga) or by resorting to the concept of ārṣa, i.e. not unlike their non-Buddhist contemporaries. It should be understood that different types of Sanskrit texts employ different registers, with different degrees of conformity to standardized rules of grammar: in this, Buddhist texts are in no way unique, and thus terms like "Buddhist Hybrid Sanskrit" should perhaps be used with some caution and contextual care.

According to some contemporary hypotheses, while the earliest Buddhist texts were orally composed and transmitted in Middle Indo-Aryan languages called Prakrits; Sanskrit gradually became the main language of Buddhist scriptures and scholasticism in India mirroring its rise as political and literary lingua franca of the Indian subcontinent, perhaps reflecting an increased need for elite patronage.[1] This process, it is proposed, began with the north-western Indian Buddhists of the Kushan empire (CE 30-375). The Sarvāstivādin Piṭakas were mostly transmitted in Sanskrit and many Mahāyāna sūtras such as the Prajñāpāramitā sūtra were composed in different registers of Sanskrit. The Buddhist use of classical Sanskrit for literary purposes possibly began with Asvaghoṣa (c. 100 CE), author of the Buddhacarita[2] and one of the earliest Sanskrit dramatists. Buddhist thinkers like Nāgārjuna, Āryadeva, Asaṅga, Vasubandhu, Dignāga, Sthiramati, Dharmakīrti, Bhāviveka, Candrakīrti, etc., and also wrote in Sanskrit.

Readers should be aware that contemporary reconstructions are hypotheses, which differ from traditional accounts due to significantly divergent presuppositions about the nature of a Buddha, the nature of language, and the nature of history itself. Furthermore, both contemporary reconstructions and traditional accounts contain a plurality of voices and perspectives on history, relying on different and usually very fragmentary data - especially when it comes to such factual details as which language or languages the Buddha may have taught in. While we have here offered a tentative and small sample of views and hypotheses, this is by no means comprehensive, nor conclusive, and should be taken as a starting point for further reflection rather than as a definitive account of the distant Buddhist past.

The decline of Buddhism in India saw the loss of a large number of Sanskrit Buddhist texts. The use of Sanskrit as a sacred language survives in the Newar Buddhism of Nepal and arguably the vast majority of Sanskrit Buddhist manuscripts have been preserved by this tradition.[3]

Most Buddhist traditions have a relation to Sanskrit, and it could be argued that Sanskrit is in some sense the only pan-Buddhist language. The Theravāda tradition has relied heavily on Sanskrit grammar and lexicography; Pali commentaries and treatises often quote from Sanskrit grammars, and occasionally reproduce Sanskrit verses, while the influence of Sanskrit on South-East Asian languages and literature is omnipresent and easily perceptible. Within East-Asian Buddhism, mantras and dhāra.nīs are still recited in Sanskrit, and the same is of course true of Himālayan Buddhism, where the Tibetan tradition retained Sanskrit scholarship well into the 20th and 21st century (with a further revival thanks to the Tibetan community in exile). The Newar tradition most prominently employs Sanskrit for all ritual purposes, and has produced a number of respected Sanskritists.

Partial list Buddhist texts extant in Sanskrit[4][edit]

Early sūtra and Agamas
There is no complete Sanskrit copy of any of the Agamas, many fragments have been found, especially in the Tarim Basin and the city of Turfan.[5]

Prajñāpāramitā (perfection of wisdom) sutras

  • Śatasāhasrikā - 100000 lines
  • Pañcaviṃśatisāhasrikā - 25000 lines
  • Aṣṭadaśasāhasrikā - 18000 lines (fragments)
  • Daśasāhasrikā - 10,000 (fragments)
  • Aṣtasahasrika - 8000 lines
  • Adhyardhasāhasrikā - 2500 lines
  • Ratnagunasañcayagāthā
  • Advayaśatikā
  • Suvikrāntivikrāmiparipr̥cchā
  • Pañcaśatikā - 500 lines
  • Vajracchedikā Prajñāpāramitā Sūtra-300 lines
  • Prajñāpāramitā Hṛdaya Sūtra

Avatamsaka (flower ornament) sutras

Ratnakuta sutras (Heap of Jewels)

Other Mahayana sutras

Vinaya (discipline, monastic regulations)


  • Arthaviniscaya Sutra
  • Abhidharma-kosa-bhasya of Vasubandhu
  • Abhidharma-samuccaya of Asanga
  • Abhidharma-samuccaya-bhasya
  • Jnanaprasthan shastra - Arya Katyayaniputra (fragmentary)
  • Abhidharmamrita-Ghosaka
  • Satyasiddhisastra of Haribhadra
  • Prajnaptipada - Maudgalyayana / Maha Katyayana
  • Sputarthabhidharmakosavyakhya of Yasomitra

Dharani - several collections from Nepal

  • Aparimitayur Dharani


  • Avadanasataka (100 stories)
  • Kalpadrumavadanamala (26 stories)
  • Asokavadanamala
  • Vicitrakarnika Avadanamala (32 stories)
  • Divyavadana (38 stories)
  • Vrata Avadana (3 stories)
  • Bhadrakalpa Avadana (34 stories)
  • Mahavastu Avadana
  • Dvavimsatya Avadana (22 stories)
  • Sugata Avadana
  • Ratnamala Avadana (12 stories)
  • Avadanakalpalata (108 stories)
  • Bodhisattvavadana
  • Uposadhavadana
  • Suchandravadana
  • Lalitavistara Sūtra
  • Kumaralata's Kalpanamanditika (fragmentary, prose and verse)


  • Jātakamālā of Āryaśura
  • Jātakamālā of Haribhatta


  • Prajñāpāramitā-stotra attributed to Rāhulabhadra
  • Dharmadhatu-stava (praise to the sphere of reality) and other works attributed to Nagarjuna
  • The Satapañcasatka and the Catusataka of Matṛceta
  • Catusataka of Aryadeva

Shastra (treatise or commentary)


Other (practice manuals, philosophical treatises, etc.)

Mahakavya - Epic Poetry

Sanskrit Drama

See also[edit]


  1. ^ Johannes Bronkhorst, Buddhism in the Shadow of Brahmanism Handbook of Oriental Studies (Leiden: Brill, 2011), 46-47, 129.
  2. ^ Burrow, Thomas; The Sanskrit Language, page 62.
  3. ^ Min Bahadur Shakya, A Short History of Sanskrit Buddhist Manuscripts, "Archived copy". Archived from the original on 2013-04-14. Retrieved 2013-11-24. 
  4. ^ Towards a Comprehensive Digital Sanskrit Buddhist Canon PNC 2008 Annual Conference and Joint Meetings with ECAI and JVGC Hanoi, Vietnam December 4–6, 2008
  5. ^ Nariman, J.K.; Introduction to the Early Buddhist Texts in Sanskritised Prākit from Literary History of Sanskrit Buddhism, Ch 1-6.

External links[edit]