Ancient Buddhist Literature and Significance

Buddhist Literature

The Buddhist Literature gives a lot of information regarding the 6th Century BCE period. So, it also mentions about many Great Rulers of 6th Century BCE; Like, Bimbisaar, Chandragupta Maurya, Prasenjit, the Great Ashoka etc. The Buddhist Literature had written in the Pali and Vedic Sanskrit. Most of the literature is written in Pali, so that common people of that period could understand it easily.

The Pali canon of Buddhist Literature consists of three Pitakas or Baskets, which are

  1. Vinaya Pitaka
  2. Sutta Pitaka
  3. Abhidhamma Pitaka
Pali Language

It is a dialect of Ardhamagadhi Language group. So, the earliest evidence of writing we have from the historical period is by Ashoka’s Edicts.

Buddhist Literature: Pitaka

Vinaya Pitaka

Vinaya Pitaka contains disciplinary rules and regulations for leading a monastic life. So, it contains rules for the Buddhist Monks to live in the Buddhist Viharas.

Sutta Pitaka

Sutta Pitaka is a summary of the teaching of Buddha. So, it contains the very words of Buddha in conversation with his disciples. It is the most important of the three of the Pitakas. Includes,

  • Digha Nikaya
  • Majjihma Nikaya
  • Samyutta Nikaya
  • Anguttaira Nikaya
  • Khudduka Nikaya
  • and the most important Jataka Tales are also part of the Sutta Pitaka.

Jataka Tales

It deals with the previous birth of Buddha and stories of Buddha as a teacher. About 549 Jataka stories have published. From the Jatakas, we can draw a picture of political, social,  economic and religious conditions of the people.

There are reliefs of the Jatakas on the stone wall around the stupas of Sanchi and Bharhut. We found 82 inscriptions serves as labels for panels depicting the Jatakas, the life of Buddha.

Abhidhamma Pitaka

It consists of seven texts and deals with the doctrines of the Buddha in a scholastic manner. Buddhavamsha is a collection of legends depicting the 24 lines of Buddha. Dhammapada is a collection of 423 sayings of Buddha. It was completely compiled in the third Buddhist Council in the reign of the Great Mauryan King Ashoka.

Later Buddhist Literature


It is a collection of poems composed by Monks or Bhikkunis. The name Threigatha is derived from the purest form of Buddhism, which is Theravada.

Milindapanha or Questions of King Milinda

This is the work of Buddhist Monk Nagasena. Menander was an Indo-Greek King and Milindapanho is a text named after him. It resembles the dialogues of the plate and is written in a very elegant prose. The text discusses a number of problems and disputed points of Buddhism. So, it is a masterpiece of Pali Language. So, it is basically, a conversation of King Menander with Buddhist Monk Nagasena.


Buddhagosha lived in Ceylon (Sri Lanka) in the 5th Century CE. So, he wrote commentaries on all the Tripitakas i.e. three Pitakas. And he also wrote Visuddhimagga.


The Mahayana works of Ashwaghosha (2nd Century CE), such as Buddhacharita. It is a biography of Buddha. So, this text offers valuable materials on different aspects of ancient Indian History during Kushana period. Kanishka, the Kushana ruler gave patron to the Ashwagosha. And Ashwagosha also headed the Fourth Buddhist Council held in Kashmir. Ashwagosha was also a great monk of Buddhist sect Mahayana.


The Mahayana work Manju-Shree-Mulakalpa (Partially religious and partially secular) throws light on the personal qualities of Samudra Gupta, the Napoleon of India. So, it is a significant text for the study of Gupta Period.

The Pali Chronicles of Ceylon

Dipavamsha and Mahavamsha are the Pali Chronicles of Ceylon. So, these are authentic Buddhist Literature determines the early career and succession of Mauryan King Chandragupta Maurya.


It focuses on the coming of Buddhism to Ceylon (Sri Lanka) and the establishment of the Sangha. So, the History of Sangha is also relating to the political history of Sri Lanka.


It covers the same themes but also highlights the history of the Mahavihara Monastery.

The Buddhist, not only maintained records of this sort. But they also developed a system of chronology, where major events compiled. So, this was a brief description of Buddhist Literature. So, in the next coming post, we will deal with Jainism: Religious Movement.

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