Dr. R.  Banerjee (Chinese and Central Asian Scholar)

Dr. R.  Banerjee


  R. Banerjee


LALITVISTARA (Sanskrit) is a Sanskrit Buddhist text of great importance. Apart from being a biography of Buddha, originally of the Sarvastivada School  of the Hinayana sect, it throws a considerable light also on the social and cultural history of India during the early centuries of the Christian era.

The name 'Lalitavistara' means the detailed narrative of the sports or 'lila' of Gautama the Buddha, indicating his divinity. It describes the events of Gautama Buddha's life from his descent from the Tushita heaven in the form of a white elephant into his mother's womb up to his attainment of knowledge and preaching of the first sermon.

The Lalitavistara is not a unified text nor it is a composition of one author. And it is not known when it was redacted in the final form as we know it now. It is a compilation of old and later traditions placed side by side. In other words, it was originally a Sarvastivada text, which was later on expanded and embellished with Mahayana ideas laying emphasis on Buddha's superhuman character and miraculous deeds. According to P. L. Vaidya, the present Sanskrit text goes back to the 3rd century A.D. By the late fifth century when the poet Wang Jung (468-93( wrote his cycle of twelve songs "Songs of Religious Joy", there were at least five versions of the Lalitavistara in China. The Lalitavistara forms a  part of Nanadharma of Nepalese Mahayana Buddhism and also of the Tibetan canon and it was translated into that language in the 9th century A.D. It may be mentioned here that the Tibetan translation of the Lalitavistara is considered to be very authentic and close to the Sanskrit text.

The Lalitavistara has been translated also into many European languages and it is interesting to note that Edward Arnold's 'Light of Asia' is based mainly upon the Lalitavistara. It may, however, be noted that a version slightly differing from the Lalitavistara was also in vogue, which was followed by the artists of Barabudur from about 850 to 900 A.D. It can also be assumed that the artists of Gandhara who embellished the Buddhist monuments with the scenes from Buddha's life were acquainted with the text of the Lalitavistara

The Lalitavistara in its expanded form came to be known as a Vaipulya sutra. The other Mahayana a texts known as a Vaipulya suytras are: The Ashtasahasrika Prajnaparamita the Saddharma pundarika, the Lankavatara, the Suvarnaprabhasa, the Gandavyuha, the Tathagataguhyaka or Tathagata-guna-jnana, the Samadhiraja and the Dasabhumishvara, Though the Lalitavistara belonged to the transition between the Hinayana and the Mahayana. It has been established that many of the verses and prose passages in the Lalitavistara have come from the Sarvastivada canon, while its Mahayana leanings and elements are apparent from such terms as Dharmatathata, Bhutakoti, etc. as well as Buddha's statement that he has attained the void of the world (Jagachhunya).

In the Lalitavistara, the miraculous acts of the Buddha as noted above have been emphasised. Just  before his last birth, he (Buddha) lived in the Tushita heaven. He was greeted with the sounds of eighty-four thousand drums and requested to come down to the earth for the release of the people from the bondage of birth and death. The Bodhisattva chose to be born in the Shakya family of kapilavastu with Shuddhodana as his father and queen Maya as his mother. He did not stay in the filth of his mothers womb as other children do. Gods provided a jewelled box for him to stay in his mother's womb. From his body amanated light shining far and wide. 'The yet unborn Bodhisattva in his mother's womb delight the celestials by pious sermons and the god Brahma obeyed his every suggestion.' The Buddha's birth also was attended by various miracles and portents. He was born in Lumbini as a 'great being' and just after his birth he took seven steps (comparable to Vishnu's three steps as Trivikrama) announcing his greatness that this was his last birth after which he would not be subjected to the chain of birth and death.

The above description was followed by a dialogue between the Buddha and Ananda in which every one is urged to believe in the miraculous birth of the Buddha. Here the importance of religious faith is emphasised, echoing almost similar sentiments in the Bhagavadgita. The Buddha says: "To all who believe in me I do good Like friends are they to me and many a friend the Tathagata has. And to those  friends, the Tathagata only speaks the truth and not falsehood... To believe Ananda should be thy endeavour. This I commend to you. "Thus, the Lalitavistara lays stress on the devotional aspects of Mahayana Buddhims.

Again, the Lalitavistara tells us that when the newly born Bodhisattva was taken by his foster mother to a temple, all the gods rose from their seats and prostrated before him. He showed extraordinary merit also as a learner. Heavenly damsels scattered flowers on the path the child Bodhisattva followed in coming to his school. The school master, unable to bear his radiance, fell down and fainted on the ground. A god roused him. Bodhisattva needed no instructions as he was omniscient. But he came to school as a matter of worldly routine. It is said in the Lalitavistara that the Buddha came to this world as Lokanuvartana (i.e. to follow the ways of the world). The teacher amazed to find that Bodhisattva knew all the sixty-four alphabets including the Chinese and Huna symbols. The remaining narratives of the Lalitavistara, chapters 14-26, though containing many exaggerations show close similarity with the other sources. The last chapter, in the Mahayana fashion glorifies the text and refers to the merits or advantage one derives from its propagation.

The Lalitavistara is written in both prose and verses. Many of the matrical ballads are beautiful and old. They and some of the prose passages are ascribable  to the first centuries after the Buddha.

In the last chapter of the text he is described as a Dharmakayajna (i.e. one whose body is composed of dhrama), a remarkably Mahayana idea.

The Lalitavistara, apart from its importance for the religious history of Buddhism, throws some welcome light on the social conditions of India during the early centuries of the Christian era. It has already been stated that it contains the names of various alphabets. Further, it mentions various arts numbering eighty-six whereas the lists in other texts speak traditionally of sixty-four arts. It also refers to various subjects of science and humanities in which a person should acquire proficiency. These subjects are ganana (arithmetic), samkhya (use of numbers), the Veda, Itihasa, Purana, Nighantu (lexicon), Nirukta (etymology), Nigama (revealed scriptures), Shiksha (phonetics), Chhandas (metrics), Jyotisha (astronomy), Vyakarana (grammer), Yajnakalpa (rules for conducting sacrifices), Yoga, and Vesika (philosophical systems), Barhaspatya (philosophy of Brihaspati), Hetuvidya (Nyaya philosophy), Arthavidya (Economics), Kavyagrantharachitam (the art of writing), Akhyayana (the art of telling stories), Hasya (the art of humorist), etc.

A number of Buddhist legends appear in the Apocryphal Gospels. In the Gospel of Thomas, longer version, it is mentioned: "Trees bend down before the young Christ and dragons (nagas) adore him; when he goes to school to learn the alphabet he convicts his teacher of ignorance, and the good man faints.' Again, the  Arabic and Syriac Gospels of the infancy glorify the Child Christ... "When he enters a temple in Egypt, the images prostrated themselves before him". These and several other exploits recorded in the case of the young Christ seem to be based on some childhood exploits of the Buddha as mentioned in the Lalitavistara as above.


E. J. Thomas, 'Lalitavistara and Sarvastivada', Indian Historical Quarterly,  Vol. XVI (1940); 

G. K. Nariman, Literary History of Sanskrit Buddhism (Bombay, 1922);

Maurice Winternitz, History of Indian Literature (Vol. II, translated into English by Mrs. S. Ketkar and Miss H. Kohn (2nd Edition, delhi, 1972);

Nalinaksh Dutta, Mahayana Buddhism (Varanasi); 

P. L. Vaidya (ed), Lalitavistara (Mithila Institute, Darbhanga) 

R. Kumari Mookerji, Ancient Indian Education (Motilal Banarsidass, 1951);

Journal of the American Oriental Society (Vol. 107, 1987);

Sir Charles Eilot, Hinduism and Buddhism. Vol. III (London 1962).

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