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Buddhist Literature

Buddhist Literature: Authentic List for all exams 2BC to 1 BC

Before studying the list of Buddhist literature it is important for every student to view this graphic prepared by Dhristi IAS so that you can revise and sum up the content of Buddhism. The next step is to study an article from BBC in a series.

Buddhist Literature: An Overview of Important Texts for UPSC and other Exam Aspirants

Buddhism is one of the world’s oldest religions, founded by Siddhartha Gautama, commonly known as Buddha. It originated in ancient India and has spread throughout Asia and beyond. One of the most essential aspects of Buddhism is its rich literary tradition, which spans over two millennia. In this article, we will provide an overview of the most important Buddhist texts that UPSC aspirants should be familiar with.

The Tripitaka (Pali Canon)

The Tripitaka, also known as the Pali Canon, is the most important collection of Buddhist texts. It consists of three parts, or “baskets” (Tripitaka): the Vinaya Pitaka, the Sutta Pitaka, and the Abhidhamma Pitaka.

Buddhist Literature: Vinayak Pitaka

The Vinaya Pitaka contains rules and regulations for monastic life, including the Patimokkha (a set of 227 rules for monks) and the Khandhaka (a collection of procedures and ceremonies).

Buddhist Literature: Sutta Pitaka

The Sutta Pitaka contains the Buddha’s discourses, or suttas, which cover a wide range of topics, including ethics, meditation, and philosophy. The most famous suttas include the Dhammapada (a collection of sayings attributed to the Buddha), the Diamond Sutra (a Mahayana text on emptiness), and the Lotus Sutra (another Mahayana text that emphasizes Buddha-nature). Sutta Pitaka consists of more than 10 thousand sutras related to Buddha and all his close associates. Sutta Pitaka is divided into the following sections:

  1. Samyutta Nikaya which comprises the connected discourses of Buddha
  2. Digha Nikaya, which comprises the long discourses
  3. Anguttara Nikaya which comprises the numerical
  4. Majjhima Nikaya, which comprises the middle length
  5. Khuddaka Nikaya which comprises the minor collection

Therigatha (a collection of short poems by Bhikkhunis) and Theragatha (verses attributed to senior monks) the Therigatha is classified as part of the Khuddaka Nikaya, the collection of short books in the Sutta Pitaka

Buddhist Literature - A cave painting depicting Therigatha
Buddhist Literature – A cave painting depicting Therigatha

Buddhist Literature: Abhidhamma Pitaka

The Abhidhamma Pitaka contains more detailed analyses and classifications of the Buddha’s teachings, including the Dhammasangani (a list of mental and physical phenomena), the Vibhanga (an analysis of the 18 elements of existence), and the Kathavatthu (a dialogue between different schools of Buddhist thought).

Buddhist Literature: Mahayana Sutras

Mahayana Sutras: The Mahayana Sutras are a collection of texts that emerged in the early centuries of the Common Era. These texts are considered to be the core scriptures of Mahayana Buddhism, which emphasizes the importance of compassion and wisdom. Some of the major Mahayana Sutras are:

  1. The Lotus Sutra: Also known as the Saddharma-pundarika Sutra, this text is one of the most important Mahayana Sutras. It emphasizes the concept of skillful means (upaya) and the importance of compassion in the pursuit of enlightenment.
  2. The Heart Sutra: Also known as the Prajnaparamita Hridaya Sutra, this text is a short but profound teaching on the nature of reality. It emphasizes the concept of emptiness (shunyata) and the importance of wisdom in pursuing enlightenment.
  3. The Diamond Sutra: Also known as the Vajracchedika Sutra, this text is another important Mahayana Sutra. It emphasizes the concept of non-duality (advaya) and the importance of transcending all concepts and notions in the pursuit of enlightenment.

Buddhist Literature: Tantras

Tantras: The Tantras are a collection of texts that emerged in the early centuries of the Common Era. They are considered the core scriptures of Vajrayana Buddhism, which emphasizes the use of esoteric practices and techniques to achieve enlightenment. Some of the major Tantras are:

  • The Guhyasamaja Tantra: This text is one of the most important Tantras in Vajrayana Buddhism. It emphasizes the concept of emptiness and the importance of transforming negative emotions into positive qualities.
  • The Kalachakra Tantra: This text is another important Tantra in Vajrayana Buddhism. It emphasizes the concept of time and the importance of understanding the cycles of existence in pursuing enlightenment.

Other Buddhist Literature

If you are a student trying to learn about Buddhism, there are several ancient texts you should know about:

  • Milinda Panha: This book was composed around 100 BC and contains a conversation between King Milinda of Bactria and the sage Nagasena. Milinda asks Nagasena about Buddhism, and the book provides a literal translation of their dialogue.
  • Nettigandha or Nettipakarana: This book, also from the same period, provides a comprehensive account of the Buddha’s teachings.
  • Commentaries on the Tripitaka: These include a 5th-century work by Buddhaghosha.
  • Nidanakatha: This book, written in the 1st century, contains the Buddha’s first connected life story.
  • Dipavamsa and Mahavamsa: These are historical-mythical accounts of the Buddha’s life, Buddhist councils, Maurya emperor Ashoka, Sri Lankan kings, and the advent of Buddhism on the island. The Dipavamsa was written in the 4th-5th centuries, while the Mahavamsa was written in the 5th century.

Table of some other Buddhist Literature

AshwaghoshBuddha Charita, Saundarananda, Sutralankara, Sariputra Prakarana and Vajra Suchi.
NagarjunaMadhyamika Siddhanta, Madhyamika Sutralankara, Saddharma Pundarika, Subhalekha and Rasaratnakara.
AmarasimhaAmarakosa, the first dictionary in Sanskrit.
VasubandhuAbhidharmakosa, the first dictionary of Buddhist philosophy.
BuddhaghosaVisuddhimagga, Sumangalvasini, and Atthakathayen.
DignagaIntroduced the Theory of Logic, Pramanasmuchaya.
Dharma KeertiNyaya Bindu
Buddhist Literature

Previous Year’s Question on Buddhism and Buddhist Literature

Q1. With reference to Indian history, who among the following is a future Buddha, yet to come to save the world? UPSC (2018) (a) Avalokiteshvara (b) Lokesvara (c) Maitreya (d) Padmapani

(c) Maitreya

Q2. With reference to the religious history of India, consider the following statements: UPSC (2016)
The concept of Bodhisattva is central to the Hinayana sect of Buddhism. Bodhisattva is a compassionate one on his way to enlightenment. Bodhisattva delays achieving his own salvation to help all sentient beings on their path to it. Which of the statements given above is/are correct? (a) 1 only (b) 2 and 3 only (c) 2 only (d) 1, 2 and 3.

(b) 2 and 3 only

Q3. Which one of the following describes best the concept of Nirvana in Buddhism? UPSC (2013)
(a) The extinction of the flame of desire
(b) The complete annihilation of self
(c) A state of bliss and rest
(d) A mental stage beyond all comprehension

(a) The extinction of the flame of desire

Q4. Lord Buddha’s image is sometimes shown with the hand gesture called ‘Bhumisparsha Mudra’. It symbolizes UPSC (2012)
(a) Buddha’s calling of the Earth to watch over Mara and to prevent Mara from disturbing his meditation
(b) Buddha’s calling of the Earth to witness his purity and chastity despite the temptations of Mara
(c) Buddha’s reminder to his followers that they all arise from the Earth and finally dissolve into the Earth, and thus this life is transitory
(d) Both the statements (a) and (b) are correct in this context

(b) Buddha’s calling of the Earth to witness his purity and chastity despite the temptations of Mara

Kanishka Singh Rathore

Engineer Financial Planner Editor

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