Divine Stories: Divyavadana
Vol 1: Classics of Indian Buddhism
The Divyavadana is an enormous compendium of Indian Buddhist narratives written in Sanskrit from the early centuries of the Common Era, whose stories have since spread throughout Asia. Representations of these stories can be found across Asia, from Kizil in China to Sanchi in India to Borobudor in Indonesia. The 36 avadanas, or "karmic biographies" translated here are some of the most influential in the history of Buddhism. Though they originate in the texts of rules for monks, it appears that there may have been a conscious effort to adapt these traditional stories for lay practitioners and in order to take the Dharma to the masses. They exerted a powerful influence as moral examples and legal precedent, and they were considered by many to be the word of the Buddha himself. These stories were likewise canonical in their influence on Buddhist art.
"The Divyavadana is a major anthology of popular Indian Buddhist narratives, providing a rich store of information about Buddhism as it was in ancient India…I applaud this impressive translation (from Sanskrit). It is really quite a remarkable achievement. " Prof. John Strong.
"Here are popular tales about ordinary people as well as monks, stories about women, princes, merchants, and slaves, not to mention a wrethched pig and a bull about to be slaughtered (both of whom find their own salvation). These stories are to the Buddhist tradition what the Arabian Nights is to the Arabic, an ocean of stories from which Buddhist storytellers and artists throughout Asia drew their inspiration." Wendy Doniger.
"Sprung forth from the creative soil of the Indian Buddhist imagination, these stories concretely represent the impact of the Dharma on the lives of those who turned to it for guidance. Despite the title, these are essentailly human stories that record the trials and struggles of the Buddha's personal disciples as they meander through the corridors of samsara, seeking light, purity, and final freedom." Bhikkhu Bodhi.
Read an extract of this title
1. The Story of Kotikarna
The caravan leader Srona Kotikarna encounters people from his hometown who have been reborn as hungry ghosts and sees them experiencing the results of their karma. Asked to intercede on behalf of their family members who aren’t following the true dharma, Srona Kotikarna returns home, does as he has been instructed, and eventually becomes a monk. Srona Kotikarna later meets the Buddha and, following the directions of his instructor, the venerable Mahakatyãyana, asks him questions about monastic regulations.
2. The Story of Pürna
A wealthy merchant with three sons suffers a serious illness before being cured by a slave girl. As per her request, she bears him a child, who is named Puma. This son of a slave girl is mistreated by some of his half-brothers, and the household soon splits apart. Though Pürna is now destitute, he is diligent and clever, and in time becomes a wealthy merchant and friend to the king. Püriia eventually becomes a monk, receives teachings from the Buddha, and travels to Sronäparãn-taka. The rest of the monastic community later meets him in Sürpãraka, where they have been invited for a meal.
3. The Story of Maitreya
The Buddha has the sacrificial post of King Mahãpranãda unearthed so that it can be glimpsed by the monastic community, but the monk Bhaddalin barely notices it. In response to questions about Bhaddälin’s behavior, the Buddha tells the story of how and why in the past King Mahãpranãda disposed of the sacrificial post. The Buddha then tells a story about the future concerning the Buddha Maitreya and the disappearance of the post, and then another story about previous events that will culminate in Maitreya becoming a buddha.
4. The Story of a Brahman’s Daughter Brãhmanadàrikã-avadãna
A brahman’s daughter sees the Buddha and, filled with faith, offers him some barley meal as alms. The Buddha then explains that as a result of her offering she will eventually become a solitary buddha. The woman’s husband hears of this prediction and approaches the Buddha in angry disbelief. The Buddha, however, proves to him the truth of his words, and the brahman becomes a stream-enterer.
5. The Story of a Brahman’s Panegyric
A brahman sees the Buddha and, filled with faith, praises him with a
verse. The Buddha then explains that as a result of his offering he will
eventually become a solitary buddha. In response to questions about
this course of events, the Buddha tells the story of how this brahman in
a previous life had likewise offered a verse of praise.
6. The Story of a Brahman Named Indra
A brahman named Indra is told by the Buddha where he can find a post
of sandalwood the height of the Buddha. The brahman retrieves it and,
with the permission of the Buddha, uses itto celebrate a festival that comes to be known as the Indramaha. In what follows, the Buddha travels to Toyika and there sits down upon the spot where the Buddha Kasyapa lies buried, hence creating a site that is doubly venerable. Pilgrims come to venerate the shrine, and the Buddha explains the value of their offerings. A festival is established there that comes to be known as the Toyikamaha.
7. The Story of a Woman Dependent on a City for Alms
The venerable Mahakasyapa accepts the offering of a leprous beggar woman, allowing her to earn great merit. Sakra tries to do likewise, but is thwarted by Mahakãsyapa. Hearing of the results of the leprous beggar’s actions, King Prasenajit tries to replicate her success, but is thwarted by a bowl-carrying beggar, leading to a peculiar assignation of merit by the Buddha. The Buddha then tells of King Prasenajit’s deeds in a past life that resulted in his becoming king.
8. The Story of Supriya
After paying off a thousand robbers who repeatedly rob the monastic community, the Buddha converts those robbers, and they become monks. The Buddha then tells the story of when he trained those robbers once before in a previous life. He was the great caravan leader Supriya, and after being robbed by those same one thousand robbers, he undertook the arduous journey to find riches that could satisfy everyone’s needs.
9. The Chapter on the Great Fortune of the Householder
The householder Mendhaka and his family possess great merit, and so the Buddha sets off to their home in the city of Bhadrañkara to teach them the dharma. Hearing of this, some heretics enact a plan to ruin Bhadrañkara and make sure that no one meets the Buddha when he arrives there. Nevertheless, the Buddha circumvents their plans and offers teachings to the community that has amassed there.
10. The Story of Mendhaka
The Buddha explains the deeds performed by Mendhaka and his family in a past life that led them to their present condition. The Buddha tells of a famine in the past when Mendhaka and his family offered the little food they had to a solitary buddha and, as a result, came to possess magical powers.
11. The Story of Ashokavarna
A bull about be butchered breaks free and comes to the Buddha for protection, and the Buddha purchases his freedom. The Buddha explains that since the bull cultivated faith in him, he will eventually become a solitary buddha. The Buddha then tells of deeds done by the bull in his previous life as a robber that led him to be reborn as an animal.
12. The Miracle Sütra
Prompted by the evil Mära, six heretics challenge the Buddha to a competition of miracles in the city of Srãvasti. The Buddha accepts the challenge and agrees to meet after seven days. Meanwhile, King Prasenajit’s brother Käla is falsely accused of consorting with one of the king’s wives, and his hands and feet are cut off. Ananda restores them by the power of his words. On the seventh day, the Buddha displays a miracle at Srävasti that defeats the heretics. After the heretics flee, the Buddha offers teachings to those who have assembled before him.
13. The Story of Svagata
In the city of Susumäragiri, the householder Bodha has a son named Svagata who turns out to be ill fated, causing death and destruction for his family. Svagata goes to Srävasti and is forced to join the ranks of beggars, suffering greatly because of his bad karma. Svagata meets the Buddha, who arranges for him to overcome some of his bad karma and become a monk. The Buddha, Svagata, and the monastic community then travel to Susumaragiri, where Svägata defeats an evil nãga and then returns back to Srãvasti, where he unknowingly consumes liquor and gets drunk. The Buddha observes this and explains to the other monks what Svägata did in a past life that has resulted in the difficulties he has faced in this lifetime.
14. The Story of a Wretched Pig
A divine being about to fall from heaven and be reborn as a pig laments his fate, and Sakra, out of compassion, convinces him to take refuge in the Buddha. As a result of his taking refuge, the divine being is reborn among the gods of Tusita heaven, a realm even higher than the one Sakra inhabits.
15. The Story of One Foretold to Be a Wheel-Turning King
The Buddha observes a monk performing rituals at a stupa and explains to the other monks that, as a result of this deed, this monk will become a wheel-turning king in a future life. The other monks, not wanting such a fate, refrain from such practices, and then the Buddha offers them instructions.
16. The Story of Two Parrot Chicks
Two parrot chicks who frequently receive Buddhist teachings are killed by a cat, but not before taking refuge in the Buddha, the dharma, and the community. In response to a question about their fate, the Buddha explains that they have been reborn among the gods and will one day be reborn as solitary buddhas.
17. The Story of Mãndhãtä
After making the decision to enter final nirvãna, the Buddha tells the story of King Mãndhãtã. The king, full of hubris, conquered the earth and then the heavens, but then his magical powers were destroyed. The Buddha goes on to explain some of the deeds that Mändhãtã did in past lives that resulted in his successes in this one.