Buddha-charitam of As'vaghosha is the most celebrated Buddhist epic in the Sanskrit literature. It is the biography of Lord Buddha, written in the chaste language with unparalleled excellence.In addition, it treasures the priceless sermons of Buddha in abundance. As'vaghosh is a striking personality of sterling qualities. In the colophons of his three works; e.g. the Buddha-charitam, the Saundaranandam and the Sãriputra-prakaranam As'vaghosha has been depicted as आर्यसुवर्णाक्षीपुत्रस्य साकेतकस्य भिक्षोराचार्यभदन्ताश्वघोषस्य महाकवेर्वादिनः कृतिरियम्। i.e. It is the work of the venerable mendicant and teacher, As'vaghosha a resident of Sãketa, the son of Suvarnãkshi, the great poet and an eloquent debator and of universal renown. Buddha-charitam was so popular in the country that the Chinese pilgrim I-tsing, who visited India and the Malay Archipelago between 671 and 695 A.D., wrote that the Buddha-charitam was widely read or sung throughout India and South-east countries. I-tsing is quoted here:-
Its universal appeal is further confirmed by the fact that the Buddha-charitam was translated into the Chinese language by Dharmaraksha in the beginning of the fifth century A.D. and its Tibetan translation was available in the seventh century A.D.
As'vaghosha has been mentioned with utmost reverence by Yuan Chwang in his book “Si-yu-ki: Buddhist Records of the Western World”. The Chinese Buddhist pilgrim calls him Aœvaghosha Bodhisattva. He writes:
About the unparallel arguing capacity of As'vaghosa Yuan chwang writes,
Yuan Chwang further informs,
In the Chinese and Tibetan literature this great Buddhist scholar is credited with the composition of a number of works on various subjects. However, he may not be the author of some of them.
But the following works certainly appear to be his creation:-
||(1) The Buddha-charitam, an epic
||(2) The Saundaranandam, an epic
||(3) The Sãriputra-prakaranam, a fragmentary drama discovered from Turfan in the central Asia.
||(4) Vajra-sûchì, a treatise on the annihilation of the varna system
(5) Sûtrãlankãra, a collection of ancient stories in the Jãtaka style, subsequently imitated by Kumãralãta in his Kalpanã-mandìtikã.
In addition, many scholars include Gandistrota-gatha, a lyrical poem of 29 Sragdharã hymns in which Buddha and the Sangha have been worshipped.
As'vaghosha’s date is not difficult to be determined. In the Buddha-charitam he has mentioned As'oka in the 28th canto (verse 63-66 ) and his Buddhacharitam was translated into the Chinese language by Dharmaraksha during 414-21 A.D. Tradition associates him with King Kanishka who is said to have taken him to Peshawar from Pataliputra as a war-indemnity. Aœvaghosha was a native of Saketa but after Pãrœva vanquished him in a debate, he embraced Buddhism and was a friend-philosopher to the ruler of Pãtaliputra, who had to surrender the Buddha’s bowel and As'vaghosha to the Kushan king after his defeat. Thereafter, he got the highest veneration from Kanishka and was present in the fourth Buddhist Council at Peshawar held under the guidance of Kanishka. Pãrs'va was the presiding officer of this Sangìti (Council) and As'vaghosha was his deputy.
The Buddha-charitam is for the Buddhists what the Rãmãyana is for the Hindus. Its biography of the Buddha is so lucidly composed that it competes with the Raghuvamsa of Kãlidãsa. As'vaghosha is so inspired by Vãlmìki that in the Buddha-charitam he calls him the ãdikavi (i.43) i.e. the primiveal poet and dhiman i.e. wise.
As'vaghosha was certainly familiar with many references of the Vãlmìki Rãmãyana. There is a striking similarity between the Buddha quitting his home and Rãma leaving for the forest. In the following verse Rãma has been referred to by the Chandaka, the charioteer, of the Buddha:-
नास्मि यातुं पुरं शक्तो दह्यमानेन चेतसा।
त्वामरण्ये परित्यज्य सुमन्त्र इव राघवम्।।
i.e. I cannot leave you in the forestand go to the city with burning heart, as Sumantra did to Raghava, .
Similarly, As'vaghosha remembers Rãma with reverence in the following verse:-
निशाम्य च स्रस्तशरीरगामिनौ
विनागतौ शाक्यकुलर्षभेण तौ।
मुमोच बाष्पं पथि नागरो जनः
पुरा रथे दाषरथेरिवागते।। 8
i.e.The people of the town shed tears on the road, as when in old days the chariot of Rãma returned(without him) ”
It has been the tragedy of Sanskrit literature that the second part of such a celebrated epic is not available in the original Sanskrit. The original composition in Sanskrit is available up to the 14th canto only and the entire Sanskrit poem from the 15th to 28th canto is lost. Even in the first canto of the epic the first seven verses and again 25th to 40th verses are not available probably because of the damage to the manuscripts. From the 14th canto the tragedy occures. 80 Sanskrit verses from 32 to 112 of the 14th canto and all verses from the 15th to 28th canto are lost probably for ever.
However, the Chinese and Tibetan translations of the entire work are fortunately available. The Chinese version is a translation as well as explanation of the Sanskrit text; whereas the Tibetan translation is very faithful; and an exact translation of each word. Therefore, it is very close to the original. From these two versions many scholars have translated the text into English. Samual Beal is the first scholar who translated the Buddha-charitam into the English language from the available Chinese version.
However, it was E.H. Johnston who translated it into English from the Tibetan version. While translating it into English he took help from the Chinese version and his translation is considered as the most correct translation in English. On the basis of Johnston’s outstanding translation in the English language Surya Narayan Chaudhari of Purnia in Bihar made a very prolific Hindi translation in prose in Hindi. Thereafter Mahant Ramchandradas Shastri of Jabalpur in Madhya Pradesh translated it into Sanskrit verses. But this translation is not very impressive because he has composed all verses in mediocre Anushtup metre which is very common in the Sanskrit literature. Moreover, it is not a very faithful translation, although it carries the sense carried in the Hindi version. Although Surya Narayan Chaudhari’s translation was appreciated by many scholars, it carried some words at variance with the English version.
Here it is important to know that in order to complete the epic Amritanand of Nepal had added four cantos to the Buddha-charitam, according to his own study, tradition and imagination. He had no Chinese or Tibetan translation at his disposal; so he completed the work in accordance with knowledge of Buddhism and his poetic capability. He has made it clear in the colophon that this portion was added by him to complete the great story. Thus Amritanand’s text carried 17 cantos and so did the Cowell’s edition in 1894 A.D..
I was hankering after a beautiful and faithful Sanskrit translation in verses for long. After a lot of research I came to know that Mahant Ramchandra Das has made such translation; I obtained a copy. But when I went through, it did not satisfy my aesthetic sense. I was in search of a Sanskrit scholar who was proficient both in Sanskrit grammar and composing charming verses. I talked to many scholars when I was the Vice-chancellor of K.S.D. Sanskrit University, Darbhanga. But no one came forward.
Pt. Bhavanath Jha, who is a great scholar of Sanskrit language and proficient in composing Sanskrit ultimately volunteered. I saw his another composition ‘Bhruna-panchãœikã’ and was quite impressed with his poetical skill. Then I earnestly requested him to carry on this work of Sanskrit translation, so that the negligence of our forefathers in preserving such a master piece of As'vaghosh is rectified and atoned.
Now the lost portion of the Buddha-Charitam has been restored and restored lucidly. His selection of metres in consonance with the Tibetan translation is very apt and gives an impression of the original. Mahant Ramachandra Sastri’s adoption of only one Anushtup metre lacks the charm and at times lacks even the core content. Pt. Bhavanath Jha’s deep dive into the literature of As'vaghosha has enabled him to invoke the same pathos which instilled the original composition. His command over Sanskrit grammar and prosody further helped him in producing almost a perfect replica.
No work in Sanskrit Buddhist literature can excel the devotion to the Lion of the œãkya clan as the Buddha-charitam has manifested. The sage Asita, who came to see the newly born Prince, made certain prophecy about Siddhartha. The following verses are testimony to this emphatic declaration:-
दुःखार्णवाद् व्याधिविकीर्णफेनाज्जरातरङ्गान्मरणोग्रवेगात् ।
With the mighty boat of knowledge he will bring the world, which is being carried away in afflication, up from the ocean of suffering, which is overspred with the foam of disease and which has old age for its waves and death for its fearsome flood.
अस्योत्तमां धर्मनदीं प्रवृत्तां
तृष्णार्दितः पास्यति जीवलोकः।।71।।
The world of the living, oppressed with the thirst of desires, will drink the flowing stream of his most excellent Law, which is colled by concentration of thought and has mystic wisdom for the current of its water, firm discipline for its banks and vows for its Brahminy ducks.
आख्यास्यति ह्येष विमोक्षमार्गं
For to those who, finding themselves on the deserttracks of the cycle of existence, are harassed by suffering and obstructed by the objects of sense, he will proclaim the way of salvation, as to travellers who have lost their road.
विदह्यमानाय जनाय लोके
वृष्ट्या महामेघ इवातपान्ते।।73।।
Like a mighty cloud with its rain at the close of the summer heat, he will give relief with the rain of the Law to men burnt up in the world with the fire of the passions, whose fuel is the objects of sense.
i.e. With the most excellent irresistible key of the good Law he will throw open for the escape of living beings the door whose bolt is the thirst of desire and whose leaves are delusion and the darkness of ignorance. (Johnston’s translation)
The poet’s description of the old age is superb, matchless in any literature:-
रूपस्य हन्त्री व्यसनं बलस्य
शोकस्य योनिर्निधनं रतीनाम्।
नाशः स्मृतीनां रिपुरिन्द्रियाणामेषा जरा नाम ययैष भग्नः।।३०।।
i.e. “Old age it is called, that which has broken him down,- the murderer of beauty, the ruin of vigour, the birth-place of sorrow, the grave of pleasure, the destroyer of memory, the enemy of the senses. (Johnston’s translation)
Again the description of a deceased person is no less impressive:-
अम्बेति वाचं करुणं ब्रुवाणः
परं समाश्रित्य नरः क एषः।।४१।।
i.e. “Who is this man with swollen belly and body that heaves with his panting? His shoulders and arms are fallen in, his limbs emaciated and pale. He calls out piteously, “mother”, as he leans on another for support.” (Johnston’s translation)
Now such a superb epic lying in fragmentation for centuries has been restored by Pt. Bhavanath Jha in almost the same style of As'vaghosha.
Here I cite one S'loka to illustrate beauty in his translation. The first verse of the first canto of the epic is translated by Johnston in the folowing words:-
प्रियः शरच्चन्द्र इव प्रजानां
शुद्धोदनो नाम बभूव राजा।।1।।।
It may be apt but is not so smooth in sound. It is not befitting the skill of Aœvaghosh. Therefore I requested Bhavanath Jha to translate the first and all the remaining lost verses of the first canto also. His translation of the 1st verse is as follows:
इक्ष्वाकुकुल्यो धृततुल्यतेजाः शाक्येष्वशक्येषु बभूव भूपः।
शुद्धोदनः शुद्धकलः प्रजानां प्रियः शरच्चन्द्र इवातिरम्यः।।1।।
It is full of alliteration and it will be difficult for readers, if not told in advance, to differentiat between the two. There are such verses galore in this new composition.
Bhavanath Jha has made some improvement even in the Johnston’s translation, e.g. in the 20th œloka of the 21st canto Johnston’s translation is not clear. He writes only:
"At Gaya the seer instructed the Tamkita(?) Sages and the two Yakshas, Khara and Suchiloma.”
Here Johnston imagines a sage named Tamkita. But in the Suchiloma Sutta of Tripitak Bhavanath Jha found it to be a stage made of chiselled stone beside Gaya. It is an example of his consciousness and deep dive in the Buddhist literature.
Again the 18th verse of the 18th canto has been translated by Johnston as follows:-
"Which the correct view born in him, he shed the wrong views like an autumnal cloud sheding a shower of stones, and he did not hold that the world proceeded from wrong cause, such as a Creator (ìs'vara) and the like, or that it was uncaused."
It does not carry much sense of autumnal cloud’s property of shedding anything as stated here in comparison with the shedding of wrong views. Therefore Pt. Jha consulted the Chinese translation by Samual Beal which is quoted below:-
“Thus he attained true sight, erroneous views for ever dissipated; even as the furious winds of autumn sway to and fro and scatter all the heaped-up clouds."1454
"He argued not that Is'vara was cause, nor did he advocate some cause heretical, nor yet again did he affirm there was no cause for the beginning of the world." 1455
Then it becomes clear that as in the autumn season the wind tears clouds, so a person enlightened with correct view, shatters iniquitous vision. Here Bhavanath Jha’s restoration is:
संप्राप्तदृष्टिः स कुदृष्टिमुज्जहौ यथा शरद्वातहताभ्रसङ्घः।
मिथ्यानिमित्तादिभवोपपत्तिमहैतुकीं वेश्वरकान्न मेने।। 18.18।।
Now the expression becomes clear.
As'vaghosh competes with Kãlidãsa in the realm of simile. One may see the beauty of simile in the following verses of Aœvaghosh which have been lucidly restored by Bhavanath Jha:-
प्रक्षीणभो रात्रिकरश्च मम्लौ प्रभाविहीनैःकिरणैः स्वकीयैः।
पङ्कानुलिप्तो मलिनाम्भसीव वेत्राकुलो कश्चन राजहंसः।। 26.96।।
"The moon's light waned, and it shone with feeble colourless beems of a royal goose, when it is coverd with muddy water and its body is surrounded by young reeds. (Johnston's translation)
विद्येव निर्धीर्वितथाविवेका यथा परीक्षा नृपतिश्च निष्प्रभः।
क्षमाविहीनो वितथश्च धर्मो विना नरश्रेष्ठमियं तथा भूः।।27.48।।
"The deprived of the Best of men, exists and yet is not, like learning(vidyã) without intelligence, like investigation without descrimination, like king without majesty, like the Law without forbearance." (Johnston's translation)
लोके विलीने सुगते विसारथी रथे विना नौरिव कर्णधारम्।
सार्थो विना वाहमनीकिनी व नाथं विना वैद्यविहीन रोगी।।27.49।।
"The world, on losing the Blessed One, is like a chariot abandoned by the chrioteer, or a boat by the steersman, or an army by the general, or a caravan by the leader, or a sick man by the physician." (Johnston's translation)
Bhatti is reputed for the use of grammar in his epic- "Ravana-vadha" popularly known as Bhatti-kavya. As'vaghosh does not lag behind in this sphere also. The use of लुङ् लकार four times in a single verse is the testimony to his authority over Sanskrit grammar and only a genius of Bhavanath Jha could restore it with such competence as required in the original text:-
काश्यामनौत्सीन्निजधर्मचक्रं ज्ञानेन तुष्टिं जगतेsप्ययच्छत्।
अतिष्ठिपद्धर्मपथे च दीक्ष्यानस्मानतार्प्सीच्च हिताय सम्यक्।। 27.30।।
"In Kas'ì He turned the Wheel of Law and by His wisdom brought content to the world; He caused those who were to be converted to practise the way of Law, and brought bliss to us for our good." (Johnston's translation)
Again, the frequent use of सन्नन्त in the sense of desired subject can be seen in the present restoration:-
ततस्त्रिदण्डी सगुणः सुभद्रोsक्लेष्टा प्रसूनां गृहमुज्जिहीर्षुः।
बब्रे मुमुक्षुः सुगतं दिदृक्षुः प्रानन्दमानन्दमिदं जनानाम्।।26.11।।
"Then Subhadra, a holder of the triple staff, who was properly endowed with good virtue and did not hurt to any being, desired to see the Blesses One in order to obtain salvation as a mendicant. So he said to Anand, the causer of universal delight." (Johnston's translation)
I think, in the history of the Sanskrit literature in the post-Independent India this is the most creative work which has skilfully filled the void in the diamond neckless of the Goddess of learning. Therefore, Bhavanath Jha deserves all the kudos for this outstanding work as well as any apex award instituted in the realm of Sanskrit in the country and abroad. When the Buddha-charitam is now available in the whole in the lucid style of the the great poet Aœvaghosh, I hope that it will be recited in India and all Buddhist countries with all the enthusiasm which was once noticed by I-tsing in the seventh century.