Finding authentic information on the historic Buddha is difficult. The process of mythologizing started early. The Life of the Buddha by Ashvaghosha is one of the earliest biographies of the Buddha yet it is written more than 500 years after Buddha's death.
This book has lots of nice stories but few facts. It is nevertheless an important source for how early Buddhists perceived their founder.
Between 2005 -- 2009, the Clay Sanskrit Library engaged in the ambitious project of publishing titles from the flowering of Sanskrit beginning at about the time of the Common Era. The series, modeled on the Loeb Classical Library, was sponsored by John Clay (1934 -- 2013), who had studied Sanskrit in his youth before going on to a successful career in global investment banking. The series consists of 54 books of poetry, drama, novels, and philosophy. Each pocket-sized book includes the Sanskrit text together with the English translation on facing pages. These works are a valuable resource for learning about a culture still too-little appreciated in the West.
This book in the series, "The Life of the Buddha" was published in 2008 and dates from the first or second century A.D. The author, Ashva-ghosha, had been born a Hindu and had studied Hindu texts before converting to Buddhism and becoming a monk. His "The Life of the Buddha" is a lengthy epic poem, the first of its kind in Sanskrit. The Clay Sanskrit Library translation is by Patrick Olivielle, Professor of Sanskrit and Indian Religions at the University of Texas at Austin. Olivielle also wrote the introduction to this volume together with endnotes and a glossary of the many names that appear in the poem.
Ashva-ghosha's poem draws on Buddhist Scriptures but is a work of literature of its time rather than a canonical text. The poem consists of 24 cantos, but only the first 13 cantos and part of the 14th canto have survived in the original Sanskrit. The remainder of the poem has survived in Chinese or Tibetan translations. Olvielle's translation covers only the Sanskrit original with a brief synopsis of the additional ten cantos at the end of the book.
The book describes the birth of the Buddha. his early life and marriage, and his discovery as a young man of the realities of old age, sickness, and death. It shows him assuming the life of a mendicant and studying with various teachers until he gradually develops his own understanding. The translation ends in this volume with the Buddha rejecting the temptations of Mara and attaining Enlightenment while meditating under the Bodhi tree.
I was interested in reading this poem because I have studied Buddhism for many years. Ashva-ghosha combines Hindu and Buddhist elements in his poem. The book shows the resistance young Siddhartha encountered when he determined to become a mendicant in search of the meaning of old age, sickness, and death. Many scenes of the poem show the young man engaging in lengthy religious discussions with his father, his father's religious advisors, and other kings and other seekers trying to dissuade him from his course. Broadly, they argue that there is a time and place for asceticism, but not for the young. The interlocutors urge young Siddhartha to remain with his father and his wife, to enjoy life and to rule the kingdom and to defer the ascetic quest until old age. Siddhartha resists these arguments and resolutely defends his course of action. The discussions become heated and some readers may remain unconvinced by Siddhartha's chosen course and be more sympathetic to the arguments of his interlocutors.
The poem includes many allusions to Hindu mythology which work both to relate Buddhism to its predecessors and to show how Buddhism differed. The notes and glossary in this book help the reader understand the references in the text. At the time the poem was composed, Buddhism and Hinduism were competing for adherents in India. Olivelle's introduction helps the reader understand how the poem's author and his likely audience saw the relationship between the two religions. Ashva-ghosha probably had the goal of showing Buddhism as an outgrowth of Hinduism and, thus, trying to bring the two religions together.
Probably as a result of this goal, Ashva-ghosha's poem emphasizes the supernatural parts of the story of the Buddha's life and Enlightenment. The Buddha becomes almost a god in this telling. The supernatural elements are far from absent in the Buddhist Scriptures I have read. But these early Scriptures also show a human, if gifted and special Siddhartha, who valiantly works and prevails to reach Enlightenment for the benefit of all beings.
This poem also is blunt and uncompromising in its rejection of pleasure and especially in its rejection of sexuality, even though the life of the senses frequently is described in beautiful terms. Many readers will be struck by the anti-sexual tone of the work. The rejection of sexuality is at its strongest in Canto 11, "Condemnation of Passion". The following Canto, "Meeting with Arada" includes a long, difficult description of the Buddha's meditative attainments through the Jahnas and of how he passed beyond his predecessors by rejecting the doctrine of the soul.
Olivelle's translation is in unrhymed verse in stanzas usually of four to five lines. The translation is accessible and lyrical and captures the beauty of the world of sense and the world of family life that young Siddhartha abandons and leaves behind.
I enjoyed this poem as a work of literature and as a work which showed how Buddhism developed and was viewed at a particular moment. There have been many other literary treatments of the life of the Buddha over the centuries in both verse and prose. I was reminded, for example, of Sir Edwin Arnold's (1832 -- 1904) epic poem "The Life of the Buddha" (1879), a work which for years helped introduce many Westerners to Buddhism. The Clay Sanskrit Library has done a service in making this and many other Sanskrit writings available to a wide audience.
The Clay Sanskrit Library series is, without doubt, a gift from a very benevolent and gracious God (exactly which one of the 330 million is unclear however - but whichever one it is, "thank you"). One of the latest incarnations of this series, Professor Patrick Olivelle's translation of Ashvaghosha's epic poem "Life of the Buddha" is not only a thoughtful and aesthetically pleasing translation but also contains an extremely helpful and fascinating introductory essay. Worth the price of the book nearly on its own the introduction details how Ashvaghosha's work fits into its larger socio-religious milieu - engaging in a dialogue with the Brahmanical tradition over just what "real" dharma truly is. As such, it helps one understand how these traditions of Brahmanism and Buddhism interacted, challenged and developed alongside one another in conversation. I highly recommend this title, not only for the beauty and impact of the poem itself but also for the information Professor Olivelle provides on how to understand the work in its larger context.